Religion and New Materialisms: Anna Strhan

Here is a very useful paper that begins (and I think the emphasis has to be on ‘begins’) the process of wielding Latour’s modal thought as a way of analysing secular modernity:

Anna Strhan, ‘Bruno Latour, Prepositions and the Instauration of Secularism’ in Political Theology (2012), Vol. 13, No. 2.

There’s a version of it available on academia here.

Strhan points out that studies of ‘the secular’ and ‘secularism’ (Taylor, Asad) have tended to focus on the conceptual dimensions of these words (normally focused on issues of ‘belief’) and have not been integrated with examination of the material practices and embodiments of ‘secularisms’, that is, with the ‘lived religion’ approach. Since the 1990s, ‘lived religion’ scholarship has reacted against how many established sociological methods of research frame religion according to a particular ‘Protestant’ construction, privileging statements of belief and affiliation to institutions as the measure of religiosity over embodied practices. Scholars within this movement have therefore explored how it is through embodied practices that the sacred can become real. A great example of this is the wonderful recent volume, ‘A Philosophy of Christian Materialism‘.

This turn towards materiality in empirical research on religion can be seen as parallel with, and in some cases influenced by, renewed philosophical interest in materialism and realism. Here Strhan takes up Latour. I do have some reservations about her handling and description of his systematic thought, which has the hallmark (as seems to be so often the case now) of a Harman-Miller inspired inflection towards this thing called ‘object-oriented theology’ (whatever that is). But if we say that Strhan takes up a Latour-directed trajectory for an empirical study of religion, that might be enough.

I will demonstrate how this recent work by Latour provides us with a new way of drawing together the insights of the poststructuralist approach to the histories of concepts that has so far been prominent in the study of secularism and the focus on embodiment and materiality opened up by the ‘lived religion’ approach. (202)

Strhan begins with a summary of Latour’s ‘realism’ (again this is not organic nomenclature, but it will do I suppose). She celebrates his so-called rehabilitation of ‘objects’, not just those that had previously been accepted as significant (by the Moderns), that is ‘facts’, but also those that were previously dismissed (by the Moderns) as ‘fetishes’ or ‘fairy’ objects.

Thus, for Strhan, in examining any object at all, Latour will be encouraging us to find a ‘third way’ (203) in which our study of that object must resist both ‘fact’ and ‘fetish’ explanation. This is all good stuff.

She helpfully introduces the term ‘instauration’, but defines it too narrowly (if only we all read Souriau?) as that which ‘allows for the agency of the thing as well as the work of the human in the gathering’ (204). She also correctly introduces the notion of ‘prepositions’, assuming that these are the means Latour will avail himself of for communicating ‘different forms of relations’ (204).

Strhan therefore sees Latour, through his modes of existence project, as taking to proper completion a materialist and realist study of ‘lived religion’ in whose tradition she wishes to position herself: ‘while the turn to materiality in the study of religion has shown sensitivity towards how what has been termed ‘religion’ in higher education is the effect of a particular history that often effaced the agency of objects, Latour here brings into yet clearer focus the challenges of finding ways to describe the dynamically relational nature of all forms of existence’ (205).

In addition, Strhan likes the resource AIME  provides for a religious understanding of the secular and, crucially, a secular understanding of the religious. This is bang on the money: this is exactly what REL should enable us to do. Thus she says: ‘Latour’s realism invites us to consider the modes of existence in which both religion and secularism are relationally formed. This extends the turn towards materiality in the ‘lived religion’ approach through the particular attention Latour gives to not just people, but things, facts, gods, and other nonhuman entities, material and nonmaterial in these relations’ (206).

As a result, she suggests the following:

Latour’s irreductionism has significant potential for advancing empirical study of both secularism and religion. Latour’s object-oriented ontology has already helped refocus the empirical study of religion on what its Modern constitution has effaced: the material practices and mediations by which religious lifeworlds and subjectivities are formed. But Latour’s irreductionism also asks us to attend to how incorporeal entities, such as concepts, doctrines and sacred others, are mediated and become real through embodied, material practices.

As the discursive focus on secularism has explored its place within the history of words and ideas, we need an approach that allows us to attend both to this and to the concept’s agency as it is instaured through specific practices. Latour states that work is ‘rare in ethnography, no less than in theology […] that respects the exact ontological contours of religious beings’.

Extending this, we can question how we might consider the ontological contours of ‘the secular’, ‘secularism’ and ‘secularity’ as these exist within and move between religious, non-religious, political and academic lifeworlds. This Latourian approach to secularism could include the insights of Asad’s genealogical method, while extending this through paying closer attention to how its material and relational mediations affect the exercise of its agency. (206)

The meat of Strhan’s empirical project is to sketch out the instauration of a particular form of ‘secularism’ through specific practices in British conservative evangelicalism. Although I haven’t read it, I think this is the project that culminates in this recent book.

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Strhan’s paper is well worth a read, and can be helpfully considered alongside Latour’s own cited field-workers (Piette, Claverie), as well as for example Webb Keane’s 2007 book Christian Moderns (Berkeley: University of California Press).

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