Latour and Voegelin’s Political Religion, part 2

See the previous post here.

For Voegelin, all human experience, including the ‘sacred symbols’ through which that experience is mediated for any given generation, is structured as an ‘ordering-towards’. For most political collectives in history, this has taken the form of ordering-towards a transcendent being. The profile of such societies has thus been hierarchical, with their internal relations of power—whether social, cultural, racial or economic—being taken as emanating from a transcendent source and cascading downwards. Human societies have thus functioned according to the principle of ‘the divinization of the worldly order of dominion’ (The Political Religions, p.44). For Voegelin, the nature of the supreme being is less significant than the basic fact of the orientation towards transcendence; hence, the mystery cults of the Greek world and the corpus mysticum of Christianity are equivalent symbols in this regard.

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Voegelin’s argument, however, is that in the modern period this ordering-towards transcendence has found itself re-conditioned as an ‘inner-worldly’ phenomenon, with the consequence that internal relations of power, aping what they have replaced, now take the form of a hierarchy emanating from a non-transcendent being—one whose surrogate authority can easily be usurped by a human individual, party or credo. ‘There is no longer any sacral permeation from the highest source’, Voegelin writes, and in its place the immanent political order ‘[…] has itself become an original sacral substance’ (The Political Religions, p.59). This transposition is the essence of what he calls ‘political religion’. It is instantiated above all in the form of the modern state, which imports from religion ‘the world-transcendent God as the ultimate condition and origin of its own existence’(The Political Religions, p.28). For Voegelin, then, contemporary political collectives derive their authority from ‘a realm of religious order’: their existence and persistence can only be understood by ‘taking into account the religious forces inherent in its society and the symbols through which these are expressed’ (The Political Religions, p.31).

In his 1938 work, Voegelin employs his concept of political religion primarily for a diagnosis of the fascist mass movements that were contemporary to that time, the common feature of which consists in the ability of their political leaderships to leverage religio-ecstatic obligations over the people in the guise of a ‘unio mystica’ between the two. Elsewhere he extends his diagnosis to ideological regimes of different kinds, including Marxist ones. However, the concept is highly consonant with Latour’s description of the ‘crossed-out God’ as an instrument of political sovereignty, for at least two reasons.

The first reason derives from an analysis of the genealogy of political religions. For Voegelin, these regimes emerge following shifts in the definition of what constitutes the rational, shifts that are associated in turn with the development of the modern scientific method. Wherever science promises an understanding of the world in positivistic terms, that is, ‘as an inventory of existential facts about all stages and as knowledge of its essential and causal contexts’ (The Political Religions, pp.59–60), then the ordering principle of human existence is shifted away from symbols of transcendent religiosity and towards an inner-worldly, immanent definition: ‘the methods of science as the sole forms to study the contents of the world’ become ‘the sole generally obligatory basis of man’s attitude towards the world’(The Political Religions, p.60). It is no surprise, then, that Voegelin identifies the seventeenth-century – and Hobbes in particular – as a turning point in this regard, since this was the period in which the modern scientific method become the ruling paradigm for man’s understanding of the world and his relation to it. Voegelin understands this moment as representing a lapse and a misdirection in the trajectory of human existence: from this point onwards, politics becomes vulnerable to annexation by those declaring themselves to be gate-keepers of the scientific method and thus guardians of the (putative) apodictic certainty that method promises to supply to those who wield it. Through its appropriation of ‘scientism’, then, political religion declares itself to be sole mediator of access to the ‘realissimum’. For Voegelin, the genealogy of political religions thus turns on a shift in the definition of what constitutes the rational: first, political religion forecloses the space of the polis in which rational meaning might be defined through collective human experience, and then, second, it establishes itself as demiurgic fashioner of an order that alone constitutes the real and that, as a consequence, is sacrosanct. As Voegelin puts it:

It [political religion] disregards the rules for examining experiences reasonably, it refuses rational discourse; and the spirit that adopts this assertion will change from being a discussion partner to being an adherent of another order. (The Political Religions, p.29)

In short, for Voegelin, political religion maintains its hegemony over the polis to the extent that it is able to appropriate a discourse of rationality for its own ends. This is precisely what Latour understands is taking place in Religion according to Modernity (not, religion as a mode of existence). In both cases this is a quasi-religious gesture, since it consists of the instrumentalization of transcendent authority claims and their subsequent imposition over the collective space of the polis.

But Voegelin’s work is useful for a second reason also: its description of the effect of political religion upon its subjects. For Voegelin, the potential for the individualization and personalization of the human subject, including one’s ability to act freely, is progressively lost under regimes of political religion. The argument is easy to trace: if, as we have seen, the claim of political religion is to represent ‘the only true reality, from which a stream of reality is allowed to flow back to the people’, then it follows that its subjects will be invited to do nothing more than ‘blend into a suprapersonal realissimum’ (The Political Religions, p.15) As Voegelin puts it, faced with the reality of the modern state, the requirement leveraged upon individuals is ‘to sink down into the impersonal nothingness of their instrumentality’. His focus in the 1938 text is on the ‘technical’ means by which this integration takes place: this of course was indicative of the highly technologized propaganda machine that was being developed at that time under the aegis of National Socialism. But Voegelin’s analysis is consonant with Latour’s depiction of the human subject under the regime of Modernity. For in the same way, the ‘crossed-out God’ enables the Modern regime to instrumentalize its human subjects, not as free actors able to engage in trials with other actors, but in the guise of ‘poor wretches’ who are ‘dominated’ from above (An Inquiry into Modes of Existence, p.421) – a hegemonic politics.

In his most recent work, Latour has explicitly taken up some of the concepts and terminology of Voegelin’s political theory in order to describe the quasi-religious procedure by which the transcendent is immanentized within the Modern regime as an instrument of political sovereignty. His point is to draw attention to this procedure as the imposition of a transcendent meta-logic, resulting in a form of religion that has lost touch with its own rational definition, which he thinks instead must always be a function of an immanent, processual, contingent and dynamic logistics.

Tout le paradoxe de la modernisation, c’est qu’elle a perdu de vue, chaque fois davantage, tout contact avec le mondain, la matérialité: elle ne voit plus dans ce bas monde que l’autre monde simplement immanentisé’ (Latour, Face a Gaia, 2015).

My translation, ‘the whole paradox of modernization is that it has lost sight, more and more every time, of contact with the mundane, with the material: it no longer sees in the here-below anything other than another world that has been merely immanentized’.

The Religion that is promoted by the Moderns thus lends itself to be wielded as a tool of instrumentalization and hegemony. For Latour, this is precisely what is instantiated in the form of the ‘crossed-out God’.

Voegelin’s concept of ‘political religion’ is thus much more useful for an analysis of religion within Modernity than, for example, Carl Schmitt’s concept of ‘political theology’. From the later, Latour would do better to focus on ‘political romanticism’.

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Latour and Voegelin’s Political Religion, Part 1

Latour’s concept of the ‘crossed-out God’, ‘le Dieu barré, hors jeu’, describes the way in which religion has become illegitimately instrumentalized within the Modern polis. This immediately differentiates his work from attempts at political theory recently developed elsewhere in Continental philosophy, since these are predicated on the attempt to develop a politics based on a very pure form of atheism. This point has been well-developed by Christopher Watkin in his excellent study of the work of Badiou, Nancy and Meillassoux, Difficult Atheism.

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Instead, it is more appropriate to propose kinship between Latour’s work and an alternative formulation of the relationship of contemporary politics with religion, namely, Eric Voegelin’s ‘political religion’.

Although it supplies the title of his 1938 book, Die politischen Religionen, published in Vienna in the immediate aftermath of the Nazi annexation of Austria, this concept has often been relegated to the status of footnote in studies of Voegelin’s political theory, first on the basis of its supposed contextual specificity vis-à-vis the totalitarian regimes of the 1930s, and second on the basis of the author’s subsequent tendency to question its explanatory value in later writing and to prefer alternative formulations for his analysis of the contemporary political situation. For a survey of its use by Voegelin and its reception history in later Voegelin scholarship, a useful article is Gontier (2011), ‘Totalitarisme, religions politiques et modernité chez Eric Voegelin’. For a history of its use before Voegelin, there is another useful article by the same author, that is, Gontier (2013), ‘From Political Theology to Political Religion: Eric Voegelin and Carl Schmitt’, p.25, fn.2.

However, recent critical re-evaluation of the place and function of this concept within Voegelin’s thought as a whole enables us to reconsider it now in relation to Latour. This re-evaluation is well represented by the essays in Hughes, McKnight & Price (eds.) (2001), Politics, Order and History: Essays on the Work of Eric Voegelin. Of particular interest is the contribution by Peter Optiz in this volume, which argues that the structural outline of Voegelin’s entire political theory is found in this early book, which is thus of greater importance than has often been acknowledged in Voegelin scholarship up to now.

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