First of all, please remember that I am using ‘politics’ not in the narrow sense, as referring to the human organisation of society, which is embodied in the mode of existence [POL], but in a broader sense, to describe what Latour calls ‘the progressive composition of the common world’. Thus, the politics we are talking about here refers to the axiomatic ontological thesis that undergirds Latour’s entire work. The distinction is one that Latour himself makes:
We should not confuse […] the idea of multiplicity of beings and the consequent abandonment of the human-nonhuman distinction with any position about how to organise the polity. This is an entirely different question [….] it relies on the specification of what is original in the political mode of existence, as different from laws as it is from reference, and so on. (The Prince and the Wolf, p.97).
This is the type of politics that contributes to the concept of ‘political theology’ – and this is the concept that I think is going to be most heuristically valuable in the future as we apply Latour’s work to the problems of the contemporary world.
To state it briefly, I think Latour provides us with two diagnostic tools for a politics of non-Modernity. Both are empirical: but one is empirical in a ‘quotidian’ sense, and the other is empirical in an ‘analytic’ sense, if you like.
On the one hand the diagnosis can take place at the level of quotidian experience. To open and read a newspaper is immediately to recognize that contemporary debates in the domains of public policy, education, economics, society, health, sport and culture resist specification and demarcation according to the purified categories of Modernity. Politics cannot proceed as if controversies in such areas might be resolved by proxy with the apodictic certainty of ‘Nature’. Rather, politics proceeds via complex negotiations between competing centres of value. In making this argument, Latour is building on the work of his former doctoral student, Noortje Marres, that it is precisely via the negotiation of values that the constitution of a body politic is made possible at all.
But on the other hand, Latour also suggests that the non-politics of Modernity can be diagnosed at the level of philosophical anthropology. Of course, his own anthropological work in Guillemin’s laboratory and then on every other ‘site’ since (eg. the Conseil d’Etat) is one example of this. But he also interacts with a wide range of authors in the field, including Boltanski and Thévenot, Viveiros de Castro, Kohn and, most crucially of all, Descola. In Beyond Nature and Culture, Descola proposes an anthropological matrix in which four ontologies are distinguished. Of particular interest to Latour is the one called ‘naturalism’: Descola argues that although this is assumed to be the normative ontology within Western political society, it actually represents ‘a highly localised and historical production that is not shared, or so it seems, by any other collective’. Latour directly appropriates Descola’s philosophical anthropology to argue that the categories of the Modern Constitution have no explanatory or heuristic value in themselves and, as a consequence, that any politics that is formatted onto them will be truncated and hegemonic. The Moderns live under ‘une Constitution bancale’ (trans. ‘a delicate/ precarious Constitution’), as he puts it in Face à Gaïa. This constitution provides an unreliable representative assembly for the housing of ontological pluralism, as well as for the associated regimes of truth that ontological pluralism allows us to consider—including morality, politics and theology:
Cette ‘nature’ dont nous savons maintenant qu’elle n’est que la moitié d’une définition symétrique de la culture, de la subjectivité et de l’humanité, et qu’elle véhicule depuis plusieurs siècles tout un barda de morale, de politique et de théologie dont elle n’a jamais pu se défaire. (Latour, Face à Gaïa)
We understand now that this ‘nature’ is only half of a symmetrical definition of culture, subjectivity and humanity, and that for many centuries it has transported a great deal of moral, political and theological baggage of which it has never known how to rid itself. (my trans)
When the ‘non-politics’ of Modernity is associated with ‘the Religion of the Moderns’, we get the disastrous phenomenon of political theology A. When the true, representative politics of immanence is associated with true religion, that is [REL], we get political theology B. This latter is a situation in which rationality can flourish and justice can be done to the real experience of the Moderns. This is what I tried to explain in this post.