Soren Kierkegaard, Peter Sloterdijk and the History of [REL]

The Reset Modernity catalogue looks wonderful. I actually submitted a piece myself, which didn’t get accepted. I was very disappointed of course – but the contributors are so elevated that I can’t claim to be in such company. Anyway, here is my piece in case you are interested. It’s a little study of [REL] in a historical context. For me, one of the key questions about [REL] as Latour defines it is how and when it arises in history (was it a punctuated moment, pace Assmann’s Mosaic Division, or does it ebb and flow?). It is by dint of understanding its history that we will understand what it is now. Here, I take one synchronic cut in nineteenth-century Denmark. Many others could have been chosen. Anyway, I’ll leave you to read the rest.


What History are we Supposed to Inherit?
A False Start in the Reset of Modernity

Part One: What history are we supposed to inherit?

If we have never been modern, then what history are we supposed to inherit?[1]

The time seems ripe for us to enquire into the history we are supposed to inherit. After all, as Latour has shown us, the ‘official history’[2] given to us by the moderns, that narrative of emancipation that is pumped out every day and from every media outlet, is bunk. It has the status of one of those telegenic news broadcasts delivered by Comical Ali during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, sponsored, authorised and endorsed by Ba’ath Party HQ, and communicated with faultless bravado, but ludicrously oblivious to what was taking place in the real world and moments away from being disbanded and taken off air. How absurd all that was! How we laughed at such ostrich-like behaviour!

But our laughter was hard-won. For the only reason we could laugh was that we watched it from the comfort of our armchair with remote control in hand, knowing that at any moment we could switch channels and gain a different perspective on the story unfolding before us. In just a moment, and with the tap of a button, we could be watching aerial shots of precision GBU-27 bombing or footage provided by the head-cam of an US infantry soldier as he moved through the streets of Baghdad. To see beyond official history requires an alternative camera-angle, an alternative historiography, we might say. Do we have one for our own situation? Do we have an alternative historiography that will help us see beyond the narrative of modernity and towards what is approaching in the middle-distance? Except for us, of course, what’s approaching is not an invading military force, but an insurrectionist anthropocenic politics that will change the very face of the earth upon which we live.

Since the need is so urgent, it’s worth considering every available candidate. Which is why the work of Peter Sloterdijk is so interesting.[3] Sloterdijk’s historical project is to fracture or decentre the singular, unified story that is told by the moderns, their official history, we might say, in favour of a broadcast that opens out to the middle-, or even to the far-, distance. His heroes are those who are ‘temperamentally’ inclined in one way or another to provide this alternative footage; his villains are those who are frantically and neurotically engaged in the attempt to close it down, to shut off the broadcast, to ensure the transmission only of what has been officially approved.

Let’s consider one particular moment in this Sloterdijkian historiography. Actually, it’s more of an encounter, an encounter between a hero and a villain, or between two different news reporters. For Sloterdijk, this encounter (and others like it) represents precisely that ‘change of the channel’ described above, an alternative transmission, revealing the banality and redundancy of what we were watching before and opening up a means for us to inherit history in a new way. So enter, stage left, the villain: Hegel.[4] Here we have history as ‘idyll’, narrated from the point of view of the end, of ‘consummation’, elevated above the flux of time, and therefore with no take on reality.[5] With Hegel, the camera-angle is too removed from the scene to report on the story as it unfolds. For Sloterdijk, then, Hegel is the broadcaster of modernity par excellence: he represents the attempt to narrate history by removing oneself from historical situatedness. So enter instead, stage right, the hero: Kierkegaard.[6] Proclaiming the idea of an existential time that is always open to the future and an awareness of the self as being always located in ‘contemporaneity’, Kierkegaard opens out the camera-angle and provides us with history in media res. Thus, for Sloterdijk, Kierkegaard represents the first wave in a nonmodern counter-current, or, to be more precise, he becomes the heroic thinker of something called ‘a radical modernity floating in experiments’ (which is, in fact, the same thing).[7] With Kierkegaard (and others like him), then, we finally begin to inherit a nonmodern history.

Sloterdijk’s historiography, I believe, is sound. But are the historical details correct? Does Kierkegaard really deserve the place Sloterdijk affords him in his pantheon of nonmodern heroes? And if so, what does he actually do to fracture or decentre the official history that is provided by modernity? For it is my contention that something did indeed happen at this time (in this sense, Sloterdijk’s intuition is surely on the money), but that the transition may not have been as clean as Sloterdijk supposes. And so by tracing more accurately the somewhat ragged lines of this transition, in recalibrating the story that Sloterdijk proposes, we might find ourselves better equipped to understand the complex inheritance of our own history¾and so also to face the history that is to come.

To do so, let’s focus in on another encounter. This time, not between Hegel and Kierkegaard (those two, of course, never did meet in person), but between Kierkegaard and a man whose own story is obscure, mundane, almost undocumented, and whose name (were it not for this encounter) would be more or less lost to the historical record. 

Part Two: The Strange Case of Adolph Peter Adler

It was in 1843 that Magister Adler published his Sermons, in the preface to which he in the most solemn manner announced that a revelation had been bestowed upon him and that by this revelation a new doctrine had been communicated to him.[8]

The only known image of Adolph Peter Adler, taken c. 1843.

Some time in June 1843 (the precise date is not known) Kierkegaard received into his house a man named Adolph Peter Adler, a contemporary Danish pastor, writer and theologian.[9] The meeting had in fact been arranged at Kierkegaard’s bequest. Why? Because Kierkegaard’s curiosity had been piqued by a great deal of negative publicity Adler had recently been receiving in the press on account of his claim, published in the preface to a collection of his sermons entitled Nogle Prœdikener, that he had experienced a revelation given to him directly by Jesus Christ.

The case had become something of a cause célèbre in Copenhagen society (insofar as an ecclesiastical scandal ever holds the front pages for long¾history is full of them, is it not?)[10] But it had also drawn the attention of the Danish State Church. It wasn’t long, then, before Adler was summoned to a formal deposition conducted by his employers. At this deposition Adler was asked a series of questions concerning his revelation and the state of mind in which he had received it. The process was long, but its outcome was decisive: on 13th September 1845 Adler was defrocked and dismissed from his holdings, from whence, although continuing his writing, he lived out the rest of his days in obscurity on an island in the north of the country.

So much for the centralized ecclesiastical machinery of control. It was ever thus. We might be more surprised, however, to learn that Kierkegaard, that heroic gadfly in the side of the Statskirke, in fact upheld the Church’s decision on this matter. His reasoning was as follows. Christianity was itself grounded on claims of authoritative revelation. To discover a foot-soldier in its ranks claiming another revelation, a different one no less, was therefore a serious matter. Kierkegaard took Adler to represent not just a source of potential reputational embarrassment to the Church, to be referred to the bishop’s PR department and issued with a warning in regards to his future conduct, but an insidious threat to the life of the institution itself. Here was a potential renegade to the faith once received by the saints¾and operating from the inside no less! The stakes couldn’t have been higher.

Moreover, Kierkegaard had taken the trouble (indeed, he had taken a great deal of trouble) to take on the role of Private Investigator and to examine the case for himself. His invitation to Adler to join him for coffee and scones in his living-room in June 1843 was certainly a function of his undercover detective work. Did he get what he wanted? Well, one thing we do know is that the encounter gave him a lot to think about. Pages and pages of musings on the Adler-case have been left to posterity: notebooks, leaves of manuscript, journal entries. A veritable logorrhoea seems to have ensued. But throughout all this writing Kierkegaard’s verdict remained consistent: Adler’s claim simply did not stand up to scrutiny.

Three lines of evidence are presented against the accused. First, Kierkegaard notes that the content of Adler’s putative revelation-event was almost identical to ideas Adler had committed to print before, in books purporting to be Hegelian philosophy, no less! The God of revelation, it seems, lagged somewhat behind the authority of the philosopher of Geist. Second, Kierkegaard notes that, when challenged regarding the detail of what happened, Adler seemed to have prevaricated: rather than defending to the death the Word that had been given to him from above, he seems to have felt it quite reasonable to reconfigure it, to restate it, even to correct it. Where, then, were the boundaries of its authority to be located? Why was Adler so ready to modify his claim to apodictic truth? Third and finally, Kierkegaard combs through Adler’s own writings about his experience, particularly from the period 1844-1846. Kierkegaard notes that, in what he wrote subsequent to the original event, Adler seems to be moving more and more to downgrade its status, finally referring to it merely as a ‘reference point’ [Holdningspunkt][11] in his own life, one that he reserved the right to develop or abandon later on as his own ideas became clearer, or whenever he found himself in need of a different vehicle by which to communicate them. With this, Kierkegaard decides that the case for the defence had finally collapsed. Adler did not seem to be overtly malicious: no doubt he was in earnest in regard to his putative revelation-experience. But by his own actions he had revealed himself to be mistaken. Adler was acting like a child who, whilst boasting to friends of his undoubted courage, was refusing to jump in the river unless everyone else did so too. It was not the behaviour of one who was convinced of a Word given to him from above.

Kierkegaard’s verdict was in fact that Adler had surreptitiously switched the mode of veridiction of his revelation-event from that of ‘apostle’ to that of ‘genius’. For Kierkegaard, the category of revelation most certainly should belong to the mode of the apostle. The apostle is one who understands himself in receipt of a fixed truth, a Word given to him from above, for which he is merely the repository and custodian. His calling is to safeguard that Word, even unto death, should it be necessary. Certainly the apostle might find himself, Ezekiel-like, called into the midst of the agora (after all, the Word of God must be brought to the people). But he would never allow that Word to be handled by them, like a rabbit brought out at the petting farm for the children to stroke. The Word entrusted to the apostle was not subject to verification. It would not admit to categories of improvement, change, development, re-orientation, clarification, perfectibility, or mediation.

Moreover, as Sloterdijk himself has shown elsewhere, the mode of the ‘apostle’ has in fact defined the entire history of modernity.[12] Modernity, or the ecclesio-imperial magisterium, as he would describe it, has sought to ensure the domination of its own narrative, the faithful delivery of its official history, by means of sending-out millions upon millions of mini ‘apostles’: these representatives of the centre are mandated to scurry out to the periphery in every direction, to the very ends of the earth, each of them carrying the same message, each of them broadcasting the same report, and tracing out by their movement a spherical world in which we who follow are to ‘live and move and have our being’.[13] The communication of an apostle, then, can admit of no disturbance, no interference, no parasite:[14] it comes to us with the full force of an official history, with the authority of a meta-dispatcher behind it.

So what about Adler? Certainly he claimed to have received a Word from above. And so, as far as Kierkegaard was concerned, he should have conducted himself in the mode of the apostle.

But he didn’t. Adler announced his revelation-event… but then hesitated. He ventured into the agora with his Gift from above… but then allowed it to be passed around and manipulated. Having initially ‘thundered in the most terribly loud tones’, as if he did indeed have the authority of an apostle, Adler then paused and ‘asked the surrounding world to come to his aid with an explanation as to whether he had actually had a revelation or not’.[15] Whether he realised it or not, Adler had shifted his own veridiction to the mode of the ‘genius’. Here was an entirely different category, diametrically opposed to that of the ‘apostle’. The word of the genius is not sent out by a meta-dispatcher, nor it is required to report the official history mandated by the centre. And so the genius seeks, even requires, the approval of the general public. Of course, it may be the case that the message of a genius will appear strange and difficult to receive by the public at first (‘it is surely ahead of its time’, we say, as we pace through a gallery of modern art, not quite sure how to process the material presented to us and reluctant to appear ignorant in front of our companions). But the genius must produce something that can be handled in the agora if it is to persist. The work of the genius is ingenium, born-in-time, and subject to its veridiction. And thus it constitutes a completely different historical broadcast to that of the apostle. ‘The genius has only an immanent teleology’, Kierkegaard concludes, ‘whereas the apostle, teleologically-speaking, is absolutely, paradoxically positioned’.[16]

As far as Kierkegaard was concerned, then, the Adler-case smacked of a category mistake. A revelation-event (of the type Adler claimed) must not be justified by its engagement in the world. Adler should have declaimed his message in the mode of the ‘apostle’, confident that he had the authority of the meta-dispatcher behind him. But he didn’t. He engaged it in the mode of the ‘genius’. And so Kierkegaard’s conclusion? As soon as Adler did so, he volatilised his revelation and revealed himself mistaken about its origin. The game was up. Case closed.

Part Three: What historical inheritance does Kierkegaard provide?

So much for Adler. But where does this tell us about Kierkegaard himself? Kierkegaard the Sloterdijkian hero, Kierkegaard the thinker of a modernity ‘floating in experiments’, Kierkegaard the initiator of a nonmodern history which we are called to inherit.

            The picture now seems more blurred than chiaroscuro. In his condemnation of Adler as a ‘genius’, Kierkegaard has revealed himself to be a child of modernity and a believer in its official history. For faced with the Adler-case, Kierkegaard’s temperamental response was to examine it brutally in relation to the monolithic rationality of the original Christian utterance and for evidence of ‘an emotion that is controlled by Christian conceptual definitions’.[17] Or, to put it another way, if Kierkegaard was to admit of the possibility of a revelation-event at all, it must be within the purview of the centre, and not by any means opened out to be handled by those residing in the agora.

            As Latour has shown, to justify a religious utterance according to the mode of the ‘apostle’ is to fail to understand its rationality as reprise. For the apostle, the logic of religion moves from past to present without passing over any hiatus, such that it can be transported from centre to periphery without alteration: ‘guaranteed as fresh as the day it was picked’, as the supermarkets promise for their packaged strawberries and bananas. Religion as a mode of existence, by contrast, risks its own repetition in new and creative ways, such that it reinvigorates, or repristinates, to use the old theological term, those who partake of it. Every attempted religious communication can be handled in one of two ways: it can be subjected to the ‘poison of the chain of logic’ or, alternatively, it can profit from ‘the counter-poison of its revival’.[18] The problem with Kierkegaard is that, in his handling of Adler, he reveals himself to be committed to the former and not the latter. And in doing so, he reveals himself to be a representative of modernity. Is this really the history we want to inherit?

            So then, it seems that Kierkegaard cannot be claimed for the pantheon quite as Sloterdijk desires. His camera-angle on history is not much different from Hegel’s after all. But is there another turn of the screw? Is there yet more to be gleaned this encounter? I suggested at the beginning that what we have here is evidence of the ragged transition to a nonmodern history. And surely we can see the outlines of those ragged edges coming into view right here. For Kierkegaard’s encounter with Adler seems to signify something more than merely brutal apostolic anathema. And we see it in the way that Kierkegaard himself… hesitates. What is this hesitation? A moment of aporia, perhaps? An emerging crack? A fault-line? Or perhaps even the ragged beginnings of a reset? To see why, let’s return one last time to the strange encounter that took place in June 1843.

What went on in Kierkegaard’s living room? We don’t know for sure. A witness statement of sorts exists in the form of an account written by the philosopher Hans Brøchner, Kierkegaard’s nephew, who claimed to be reporting what he’d heard from his uncle’s own mouth. In Brøchner’s account, Kierkegaard is presented as maintaining an ironical distance from his house-guest: for example, in response to Adler’s enthusiastic attempts to persuade him of the veracity of his revelation-event, Brøchner reports Kierkegaard as replying, with a wry smile, that he would of course be happy to ‘serve as John the Baptist to Adler as Messiah’.[19] Here is Kierkegaard the paradigmatic modern once again, condemning his guest merely as a ‘genius’. And yet, a degree of historiographical caution is advisable regarding the reliability of that source.[20]

And so instead, we might turn detective ourselves, and flick through Kierkegaard’s private journals to catch a break on the case. As we consider that material, a strange tension comes to light. For it turns out that almost as soon as Kierkegaard pronounces his apostolic judgment upon Adler… he hesitates. The verdict he issued on the case, the dogmatic criterion by which he judged Adler, he now admits, was passed ‘not without distress and not without sadness’ on his own part.[21] We discover strange motifs of identification with Adler’s plight, an identification that perhaps Kierkegaard himself does not fully understand. ‘Indeed’, he writes, ‘I am in truth all too inclined to keep Adler afloat’,[22] for ‘it is cruel to slay a man in that way’.[23] And so, notwithstanding the great stakes, for Adler himself, for the institutional situation of the Statskirke, hell, even for the authority of Christianity itself, Kierkegaard never got round to circulating his writing on Adler during his own lifetime (a quite extraordinary situation for that most self-conscious of authors). The reason? ‘I simply cannot get myself into it in such a way that I really have a desire to publish it’.[24]

Perhaps, then, Sloterdijk was onto something after all: Kierkegaard does indeed represent a ‘break’ with modernity.[25] But it is a ragged break, to be glimpsed mainly in the equivocation to which Kierkegaard is ultimately reduced when confronted by the Adler-case. Kierkegaard sought to condemn Adler for falling short of apostolic authority. Indeed, he tried his hardest to close the case once and for all on precisely those terms. And yet, for all his efforts, the encounter caused him to pause and consider how ‘the sudden appearance of a man who appeals to a revelation might provide at least a desirable stimulus’.[26] A ‘stimulus’ to what? A stimulus to Protestantism to open itself out to ‘fecundity’ of its own transmission in the world.[27] A stimulus to us to open ourselves out to forms of religious utterance that are not subject to the framing of modernity, but which, instead, must be presented to the agora for consideration and testing. The revelation-event of Adolph Peter Adler had just as much right to exist as the mundane liturgical worship of a parishioner at Sunday Mass[28] or the ecstatic visions of a pilgrim in the crowds at Medjugorje.[29] Its veridiction would come not from the apostolic centre (Kierkegaard the anathematizer), where it could be censored by the authorities and presented as official history, but from its distribution in the common world (Kierkegaard the hesitator).

What happened to Adler, and his revelation-event, is pretty much lost to history. But perhaps he did exert a historical footprint of sorts. For in that encounter of June 1843 we see the ragged beginnings of a new way of broadcasting, one which we ourselves would be advised to make use of if we are to face the history that is to come.


[1]  Latour, Bruno, (2011), ‘Reflections on Étienne Souriau’s Les différents modes d’existence’ in Harman, G., Bryant, L., & Srnicek, N., (eds.), The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism and Realism (, pp.304-333, at p.304.

[2]  For a definition and analysis of the category of ‘official history’, cf. Penuel, William R., & Wertsch, James V., (1998), ‘Historical Representation as Mediated Action: Official History as Tool’ in The International Review of History Education, Volume 2, pp.23-38.

[3]  Cf. Sloterdijk, Peter, (2013), Philosophical Temperaments (trans. Thomas Dunlap, New York: Columbia University Press).

[4] Ibid, pp.67-69.

[5] Ibid, p.67.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Kierkegaard, Søren, (2009), The Book on Adler (trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong, Princeton, MA: Princeton University Press), p.28. All page references in this text are to this edition.

[9] For further biographical detail on the life and thought of Adolph Peter Adler, cf. Koch, Carl Henrik, (2009), ‘Adolph Peter Adler: A Stumbling-Block and an Inspiration for Kierkegaard’ in Kierkegaard Research: Sources, Reception and Resources (Volume 7, Tome II: Theology, Farnham: Ashgate), pp.1-22.

[10] In a letter dated 16 December 1843, addressed to the Danish Chancellery, Bishop Mynster, head of the Statskirke and initiator of Adler’s deposition, mentioned that of the 1,000 copies of Nogle Prœdikener that were printed only 50 had been sold.

[11]   Kierkegaard, The Book on Adler, p.10.

[12]   Sloterdijk, Peter, (2014), Globes: The Spheres Trilogy Volume II, Macrospherology (1999, trans. Wieland Hoban, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press), cf. chapter VII, pp.638-755.

[13]   Ibid, p.656.

[14]   Serres, Michel, (1982), The Parasite (trans. Lawrence R. Schehr, Baltimore, ML: Johns Hopkins University Press).

[15] Kierkegaard, The Book on Adler, p.23.

[16] Ibid, p.87.

[17] Ibid, p.113.

[18] Latour, Bruno, (2013), Rejoicing, or the Torments of Religious Speech (2002, trans. Julie Rose, Cambridge: Polity Press), p.112.

[19]   Relevant extracts are translated in Kirmmse, Bruce H. (ed.) (1996), Encounters with Kierkegaard (Princeton, MA: Princeton University Press), pp.234-235.

[20]   For example, the report was written nearly three decades after the original June 1843 encounter (to be precise, between December 1871 and January 1872) and incorporates somewhat vague temporal markers (‘one day’, ‘I once heard a remark’, etc) indicating its status as a non-recorded reminiscence.

[21]   Søren Kierkegaards Papirer (ed. Heiberg, P. A., Kuhr, V. and Torsting, E., Copenhagen: Gyldendal), VIII 2 B 9:1.

[22] Papirer VIII 1 A 252.

[23] Papirer VIII 1 A 264.

[24]   Papirer X1 A 117.

[25]   Sloterdijk, Philosophical Temperaments, p.68.

[26] Kierkegaard, The Book on Adler, p.43.

[27] Cf. Latour, Bruno, and Lowe, Adam, (2008), ‘The Migration of the Aura or How to Explore the Original through its Facsimiles’ in Bartscherer, Thomas, and Coover, Roderick, (eds.), (2011), Switching Codes: Thinking Through Digital Technology in the Humanities and the Arts (Chicago: Chicago University Press), pp.275-297.

[28] Piette, Albert, (1999), La religion de près: l’activité religieuse en train de se faire (Paris: Métailié).

[29] Claverie, Elisabeth, (2003), Les guerres de la vierge: une anthropologie des apparitions (Paris: Éditions Gallimard).

More thoughts on the spatio-temporal shifts of Modernity

Last week we looked at some of the spatio-temporal shifts that Latour understands as having occurred in Modernity, and the new form of space-time that Latour’s philosophy encourages us to embrace as an alternative. I’ve said before that a useful summary of Latour’s whole system would be something like: what kind of space and what kind of time do you inhabit?

We had a look at one of his diagrams:

Voegelin 3

Do go back to the original post for full explanation. But remember the basic point: in Modernity, the flow of time (represented by the blue arrow) is always understood as having been disrupted by an event of rupture that has already taken place (represented by first yellow vertical cut on the left). This is the moment that is familiar to all readers of Latour’s work: the moment of bifurcation, the ‘original sin’ that colours everything that follows.

This vertical cut can be ‘religious’ in nature or ‘secular’ in nature, it doesn’t matter. Both are equally artificial and equally pernicious. In the case of the former, the spatio-temporal cut may have taken place in an event called ‘the Incarnation’; in the case of the latter,the spatio-temporal cut may have taken place in an event called ‘the Scientific Revolution’, the ‘Enlightenment’, or whatever. The point is that in each case the vertical cut smuggles in an artificial ‘deity’ that does not arrive as a function of ‘progressive composition of the common world’. Such a ‘deity’ is ‘not of this world’ and therefore irrational (non-veridicted, to use the nomenclature of AIME). This is precisely the deity that Latour is critiquing. The deity of [REL], whatever that might be, will certainly not have to do with this spatio-temporal cut. He/ she/ it will be something completely different, something arising from within the logistics of a nonmodern, pluralist configuration of space-time.

Those criticising [REL] for ‘smuggling in’ religion to an otherwise impeccably pluralist system must be careful not to criticise it for handling a deity that, in fact, it wants nothing to do with.

Re-reading Face à Gaïa over the weekend, I came across this quotation which might help. It draws a comparison between those who are convoked by the deity ‘Science’ and those who are convoked by the deity ‘God’, when both these deities are irrational (these are the phenomena of Nature One and Religion One for those familiar with Latour’s 2013 Gifford Lectures):

[…] ces deux peuples partagent cette idée qu’une rupture radicale a eu lieu dans un passé plus ou moins proche. Rupture qui les a propulsé dans une histoire totalement nouvelle que les uns l’appellent celle de la Lumière, les autres, au pluriel, celle des Lumières. L’important, c’est qu’ils se situent tous les deux dans le temps qui succède à une rupture radicale—Révélation ou Révolution.

[…] these two people have in common the idea that a radical rupture has taken place in the more or less recent past. A rupture that has propelled them into an entirely different history, called by one of them ‘the Light’, by another ‘the Enlightenment’. The important point is that both of them find themselves in a time after a radical rupture – Revelation or Revolution. (Latour, Face à Gaïa, Chapter 6).

The idea of ‘rupture’ goes back to one of the earlier stages of Latour’s career, that is, his polemic against the tradition of épistémologie historique as represented by Pierre Duhem, Alexandre Koyré, Jean Cavaillès, Gaston Bachelard and Georges Canguilhem.[1]  It was in this tradition that Latour first identified the epistemological move of a ‘rupture’, emblematic of which is the Bachelardian rupture épistémologique.[2] That all comes in Latour’s early work in STS. His intellectual journey really does have the most remarkable consistency.


[1]   For a useful historical overview of épistémologie historique, including analysis of how the movement spread beyond French intellectual life, cf. Bontems, Vincent, (2006), ‘L’actualité de l’épistémologie historique’ in Revue d’histoire des sciences Vol. 59, No. 2, pp.137-147.

[2]   For additional context, cf. Lecourt, Dominique, (2002), L’épistémologie historique de Gaston Bachelard (Paris: Vrin), esp. pp.78-82.

Response to Graham Harman

In response to Graham Harman’s thorough and very helpful response (thank you, Professor Harman, for taking the time). Just two points here, amongst so much that can be said of course.

Point 1: our agreement on what makes Latour great

Harman opines that I may be ‘diluting’ the value of Latour, even rendering him ‘mediocre’ as a thinker, by circumscribing the full extension of his philosophical system. I do this, so he claims, in the way one might blow up a balloon to its maximum extent, before loosening ones’ lips and allowing the air to escape all of a sudden, leaving behind a limp piece of rubber dangling in one’s mouth. I inflate Latour’s intellectual system by celebrating its insights into networks of mediation and access. But I deflate it by then withdrawing the reach of such networks of mediation to the thing itself. We are left with some insights into epistemology. But no ontology. What is left is limp – ‘wishy-washy, diluted, safe, prudent’, he says.

Well, I couldn’t agree more. Such an approach to Latour would indeed be limp. But never at any point have I tried to do it. ‘Access’, if you want to use that word for [NET:PRE], is indeed the whole point! It’s the beauty and the novelty of Latour’s contribution. And nowhere is this more so than in religion.

So let’s be clear about what Harman and I agree about in our reading of Latour:

  • There is no religion apart from the ‘rituals and processions’ that determine its rationality: if we ‘get rid of all that’, then ‘we lose the mode itself’ (How to be Iconophilic in Art, Science and Religion, 1996, p.437).
  • To claim otherwise is to lapse into either [DC:REL], in which religious veridiction is deprived of mediation altogether, or [REF:REL], in which religious veridiction is confused with a mediation that is not its own, resulting in belief in that rather naff ‘God of beyond’ that Harman mentions (he need have no fear, then, that I am appropriating Latour as ballast for teleological or cosmological arguments for the existence of God, as he suggests towards the end of his post).
  • Therefore, the value of [REL], which as we know is ‘person-production’, is given as a function of subsistence, not as a function of substance. The latter, which Latour calls something that is ‘preserved intact over time, like a gold coin forgotten under a mattress that you might come across happily years later’ (Rejoicing, 2013, p.126), is not a foundation for anything.

I have shown all this in countless posts on this blog.

So we are in agreement as to what makes Latour great.

But what I’m trying to do is to take things further. To tease out the full implications. To keep blowing and see how far the balloon will go.

Point 2: given that, why try to shut down in advance the types of agency that Latour’s system can handle?

My question is simply this: is there anything in what we both celebrate above that precludes the existence of an actor like that of ‘God’?

Let’s be clear again. I’m not assuming the God of Christian theism here: to start from that point would immediately be to work with a substance metaphysic, that is, to assume the nature of the actor before he/ she/ it had entered into the logistics of [NET:PRE]. Harman and I both appreciate that is anathema to Latour: ‘the analyst […] should not try to be reasonable and impose some predetermined sociology on the sometimes bizarre inter-definition offered by [the actors] studied. The only task of the analyst is to follow the transformations that the actors convened in the stories are undergoing’ (The Pasteurisation of France, 1984, p.10). This is why Latour addresses this entity as merely ‘G’ in the opening pages of Rejoicing, in an attempt to neutralise some of the dogmatic categories that have inevitably become encrusted upon it by centuries of theistic (and deistic, pantheistic, etc) tradition. We have to address religion by ‘taking it the right way round, starting from the attributes and going back (or not) to the substance, it becomes accurate again, since it retrieves all its truth values’ (Rejoicing, 2013, p.138).

So we’re not handling a pre-orientated entity of that sort, nor are we lapsing into discussion of a ‘substance’. This isn’t a retrospective justification of Christian (or Catholic) dogmatics. But still the question remains: what is there in Latour’s system that precludes the existence of an actor like that of God—if that actor reveals itself by means of mediation, that is to say, as subsistence, or to be as precise as possible, by means of [NET:PRE]? Adam S. Miller might call this the work of ‘grace’.

And, moreover, if we answer this question with a ‘no’, as Harman does,  then are we not ourselves perpetuating a ‘premature unification of the common world’, that most heinous of crimes within the terms of Latour’s own intellectual system… That is, to say that this could not be so is to act as a Modern, to impose categories of meaning that have been determined before the work of mediation, that filter in advance what can count as an agent, what might be out there, what might be acting.

This isn’t yet to say that ‘G’ is acting. All I’m saying at this stage is that Latour’s system requires us to be open to that possibility. To be open to this possibility is the great innovation that comes from understanding religion as a mode of existence. Religious experience is opened up to a scenography of production that was foreclosed by the premature unification enacted by the Modern constitution. There is no limit whatsoever to type or proliferation of being that might enter into the logistics of [REL]: they might range, for instance, from the actors acting at a regular experience of liturgical worship at a Sunday Mass in a small French village (this is what Albert Piette analyses in a book that Latour has nodded to frequently in terms of [REL], which is entitled La religion de près: l’activité religieuse en train de se faire), all the way to the ecstatic visions of the Virgin claimed by crowds of pilgrims at the shrine of Medjugorje in Croatia (this is what Elisabeth Claverie analyses in a book that Latour has referenced in the same way, which is entitled Les guerres de la vierge: une anthropologie des apparitions). The entities associated with these experiences might be very different (in the first case, the entities involved are material, habituated and mundane; in the second case, they are immaterial, extraordinary and ‘out of this world’). But both are allowed to exert their agency in the common world first in order to ascertain whether or not their agency mediates the value that is specific to [REL].

I would also suggest, although I haven’t got time to argue it here, that the logistics of [REL] itself (which Harman and I both know is ‘reprise’) displays a powerful thrust towards (what I call) an ‘originary unit’, something that once happened as an intrusion or incarnation into the world (and then needs to be faithfully taken up by reprise by we who follow). I’d support this with reference to Latour’s handling of concepts such as ‘deictics’ and ‘anaphora’ in relation to [REL], both of which require anchoring in a reference point called an ‘origo’: this shows us that what is in view here is not endless deferral, but the clarification of an originary revelation by means of repetition. Consider this quotation: ‘the word ‘God’ cannot designate a substance; it designates, rather, the renewal of a subsistence that is constantly at risk, and even, as it were, the pathway of this reprise, at once word and being, logos’ (Inquiry into Modes of Existence, 2013, p.310). Logos as word and being. But please note, this is not to posit a God that lies at the other end of a chain of reference.

What Latour gives us, then, is the apparent paradox of (A) an empirical methodology (“it is all mediation”) that (B) liberates the phenomenon of religion for extraordinary metaphysical adventures involving the possibility of actors that may surprise us (“don’t reduce what mediation can do!”)

That Latour’s system is open to such metaphysical adventures appeals to me, a theologian. For me, it equates to the possibility of greatness squared. And it opens up rich avenues for cross-disciplinary exploraiton. Some of the most excellent interpreters of Latour’s work see this implication too, but defer from it (Terence Blake being the best example): that’s fine, but the point is they do see it is there.

In conclusion, I would respectfully respond by suggesting that it is Harman, not me, that is in danger of limiting the greatness of Latour. And my challenge to him, then, is as follows (and it is a friendly one, offered with the greatest of admiration for his ground-breaking work on Latour): to see the potential in Latour’s system to be even greater than he thinks it already is.

Defining Modernity: Stephen Gaukroger

I really can’t recommend this book highly enough as a contrast, perhaps even a chiaruscuro, to the Latourian (= Whitehead/ Stengers) narrative of Modernity. In Gaukroger, we have an account of the ‘naturalization of the human’ and the ‘humanization of the natural’ that seems to evade the hegemonic categories of ‘Nature’ and ‘Society’ that Latour has so carefully constructed. It’s an alternative account. And it will need to be calibrated with Latour’s. That’s all I can say at the moment.