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.

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