Religion as a structural component of Latour’s system

What are we to do with Bruno Latour’s religion?

It seems to me that the issue is confused at the moment. In fact, perhaps I might express myself in even stronger terms: it seems to me that that the issue is so confused at the moment that it has generated a blind-spot for our appreciation of Latour’s philosophical system as a whole. It is this blind-spot I’d like to attempt to clarify in what follows.

The confusion arises when we approach the issue by way of Latour’s personal religion. Unfortunately, this is precisely what the critical literature has a mind to do. As a consequence, it diagnoses a contradiction. The argument might proceed as follows: (A) what do we most celebrate about Latour’s philosophical system if not its steadfast refusal of non-local explanations of the world?; (B) but, alas, what is this we find in chapter 11 of the Inquiry?—suddenly the transcendent God, that most non-local of actors, is making a re-appearance and demanding inclusion in a world that was doing perfectly well without him! It seems there can only be one explanation (so the argument goes). Very late in the day Latour’s residual Catholic piety has resurfaced, like an old habit that he can’t quite break. And so religion is shoehorned back into his system. In doing so, perhaps Latour’s religious conscience is assuaged. But he pays a heavy price. For its inclusion damages the cohesion of the whole: if [REL] is premised on an a priori axiological commitment, then it cannot be justified by the empirical methodology that is applied to all the other modes of existence. Far from being earthbound, then, it is as if [REL] is airdropped from the sky. It is pre-orientated, regressive and reactionary. It is the odd-man-out amongst the modes of existence. And it threatens to poison the whole project.

So goes the criticism. But it can be addressed. We must bracket for a moment the question of Latour’s personal religion (we can revisit it right at the end). Instead, we must first consider religion as a structural component of Latour’s philosophical system taken as a whole. In my opinion this is the correct order of approach.

What do I mean? Let’s begin by considering the phrase Latour has increasingly adopted to describe his work, namely, ‘political theology’. We must break this phrase into its constituent components: first, ‘political’; second, ‘theology’

First, the ‘political’. Let’s be clear what is in view here: not the mode of existence of [POL], but a broader definition. It refers to the universal logistical procedure by which manifold agents, both human and nonhuman, interpolate upon each other in networks so as to generate rational meaning in the world. ‘Politics’ is quite simply another name for the operation of agency that Latour identified right at the beginning of his career, from his earliest work in Guillemin’s laboratory. To use the language of the Inquiry, what is in view here is [NET:PRE]. It is how everything has meaning in the world. And the crucial point about Latour’s understanding of ‘politics’ is that it is entirely immanent, that is, it must not defer to a metaphysical principle that is located outside the sphere of its own operation.

So what then about the other constituent term in the phrase: ‘theology’?

Here, we have two options. On the one hand, this role might be filled by ‘Religion’ (note the capital letter!). This is the ‘bad’ form of religion, as Latour calls it. The Religion of the Moderns. It is religion that has divorced itself from [NET:PRE] and that makes no attempt to verify its rationality in and through the common world. It is therefore undergirded by transcendence. And, as Latour shows for every domain, transcendence is always a function of power. Religion, like anything else, is wielded by the Moderns in service of their own cultural and ideological hegemony over other people (hence, the concept of le Dieu barré, hors-jeu as we find it in Nous n’avons jamais été modernes).

But there is another way in which the phrase ‘political theology’ can be constituted. For, on the other hand, the ‘theology’ part of ‘political theology’ might be supplied not by ‘Religion’, but by ‘religion as a mode of existence’. What is this? It’s a form of religion that is in harmony with immanence. It’s a form of religion that never divorces itself from [NET:PRE], that never has recourse to a principle of transcendence that cannot be justified in the common world, and that always functions by means of local procedures.

Let’s bring all this together. We can now see that within Latour’s system the composite phrase ‘political theology’ functions as a contested site according to how it is constituted.

On the one hand, ‘politics’ could be matched with ‘Religion’ (in the first sense). We could call this ‘political theology A’. What this gives us is an operation of immanence (‘politics’) coupled with a principle of transcendence (‘Religion’). This is contradictory. But it is precisely how Modernity functions.

On the other hand, ‘politics’ could be matched with ‘religion’ in the second sense, that is [REL]. We could designate this ‘political theology B’. What this gives us is an operation of immanence (‘politics’) coupled with a corresponding principle of immanence (‘REL’). This is nonmodernity. This is where Latour wants to take us. It is his positive prescription for the world.

We can represent these combinations in the following diagrammatic form:

What kind of existence do we want for ourselves ?

Option 1 Option 2
Politics
(immanent)
Politics
(immanent)
+ +
Religion
(transcendent)
[REL]
(immanent)
= =
Political Theology A Political Theology B

‘If we have never been modern’, Latour asks, ‘then what history are we supposed to inherit?’ The answer he provides is ‘political theology B’.

I’d like to draw three brief conclusions from this structural analysis of Latour’s religion, all of which might serve as ‘thought-provokers’ for further discussion.

First, we’ve seen that, as far as Latour is concerned, there is no escaping religion as a structuring force in existence. We either inhabit political theology A (we are Modern) or we inhabit political theology B (we are nonmodern). Either way, religion must be reckoned with. The only question is—what kind of religion will we reckon with? Or, to put it another way, political theology is Latour’s way of saying that there is no ‘secular’. The resonances with the contemporary French situation of laïcité are obvious. Latour has got much to contribute to that debate. But I’d also like to suggest that in making this argument Latour finds himself at the forefront of some of the most cutting-edge theological work in the English-speaking world at the moment, particularly that which is associated with the ‘Radical Orthodoxy’ project of John Milbank and Graham Ward, and also the work of Charles Taylor. From personal discussions I’ve had with him, I don’t think Latour even realises this relevance himself! One of my own aims, then, is to bring Latour into greater connection with theological discourse per se. It will be a fruitful connection.

The second conclusion can be stated more briefly. In understanding religion as a structuring principle of Latour’s entire philosophical system, we can avoid supposing that religion is a late-comer to his work. Religion has been a controlling motif from the earliest states of his intellectual journey, including his 1975 thèse de troisième cycle which is entitled Exégèse et ontologie: une analyse des textes de resurrection. This is a work that prefigures in astonishing detail what we are grappling with now in 2016.

Third and finally, what does this mean for Latour’s personal religion itself, its orthodoxy or heterodoxy, and so on? Clearly, [REL] is going to be recalibrating numerous Christian theological topoi (‘revelation’, ‘divine sovereignty’, ‘incarnation’, ‘eschatology’, and so on). I’ll post more on that! But let it wait for now. At this point, I hope I’ve shown that at least as a preliminary this is not the right question to be probing. For if we start with the assumption that religion is retrofitted by Latour into his system of modes of existence on account of a personal faith commitment on his own part, then we are in danger of misunderstanding it. And to misunderstand it is to risk losing its great potential for describing, and critiquing, the situation of secular modernity that so many of assume we inhabit and flourish in. This is precisely the blind-spot that Latour can help us overcome.

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5 thoughts on “Religion as a structural component of Latour’s system

  1. [POL] ” refers to the universal logistical procedure by which manifold agents, both human and nonhuman, interpolate upon each other in networks so as to generate rational meaning in the world.” And also when speaking about the actors and the different modes, there is a sense that a common world is composed through their joint efforts. Yet each one of us (me, you, another participant of this blog) as members of a community of discourse get just a glimpse of this composition work that by far exceeds us, exceed our personal logistic powers. And moreover we find ourselves again and again in time and in working communication with others.

    To the best of my sensibility this is a transendance. Even more intensified because by not putting it “above us” we have even less sense of controling it (where is “heavens”? Heavens is in our hearts. Where are our hearts?). It is not a transcendance that we can model in the form of the Big Guy whom we can represent to others by usurping divine power and raise ourselves in a pedestral by this way (yet the traditional me does not see a conflict with Christ’s call the be servants and friends of God). It is a transcendance that is not modellable, that is sensed (this is my impression) in the workings of all of the modes of existence, that undercuts the King-subject with such strength that allows a connection with what my tradition (to speak of what I know) gives me as image of humility.

    So I cannot see why you or Latour speak about not having transcendance here. On the other hand I see in [REL] a possible connection between the moderns (if it has a meaning for them) and so many (not all but quite many ) of the others. If [REL] did not exist I wander how could negotiation work with so many monotheists around the world. Modes of Existence would be like a modernist jihad. Anyway, this is my opinion.

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