Latour and the Secular

The argument I have been advancing on this blog has centred on the claim that religious categories are essential to Latour’s philosophical project. Modernity, notwithstanding its claims, is ‘religious’ because it leverages categories of transcendence to secure its political hegemony over minority collectives in the world. Modernity is always making a move upwards to the transcendent, and then using what it finds there to secure its own epistemology as unified, de-animated, indisputable, and so on. This is where it gets its understanding of ‘Nature’, ‘Society’, ‘the Economy’, and so on. The movement up and down is associated with the being of ‘the crossed-out God of Modernity’.

Latour’s analysis of Modernity as ‘religious’ can be applied to our contemporary situation, and in particular to our cherished ideology of secularism. This is the ideology that Latour claims has become ubiquitous in what he loosely describes as ‘Europe’ or ‘the West’.  Latour considers the phenomenon of ‘Western’ secularism as failing according to its own definition.

Evidently, a full consideration of how the term ‘secularism’ is understood and appropriated, let alone how it has come to determine the self-identity of those inhabiting ‘the West’, is beyond the scope of this blog post. To begin with, I am going to borrow a definition provided by Graham Ward in his 2014 article ‘The Myth of Secularism’. Ward understands secularism as a post-Enlightenment ideology and social ‘habitus’. Its distinctive feature is to propose itself as a neutral scenography that is able to guarantee the emancipation and flourishing of all human ideologies precisely because it is neutral with regard to those ideologies itself. Thus, Ward proposes the following definition:

Secularism as a norm, as the natural default position prior to individual life choices, as the eternal condition upon which constructive choices can be made

For Latour, this neutrality is precisely what cannot be predicated of secularism. This is because he understands secularism to be an expression of Modernity and therefore an inheritor of the structure of religion that Modernity encodes.

This enables Latour to make the apparently paradoxical claim that Western society is characterised above all by ‘religious fundamentalism’. With this term, he is not referring to some kind of regressive or recursive adherence to a particular religious creed or tradition. Nor is he referring to the so-called ‘return of religion’ in contemporary French philosophy as has been exhaustively documented in recent studies by McCaffery and Lambert, whose programme can be better understood as an attempt to reform secularism by means of a secular critique of religion, and as such representing ‘a more profound post-secular phenomenon’. Rather, Latour is referring to the way in which the political, cultural and economic existence of Western society is characterised by its immanentisation of the category of transcendence, such that the decisions and choices its subjects make do not arise from processes of progressive composition that take place within this framework of this world. In other words, Latour is criticising Western society for possessing an irreducible belief system. Whatever its claims to secular neutrality, then, Latour’s analysis arraigns the West for being guilty of re-inscribing a discourse that its own adherents would suppose had passed away with the most hegemonic and dogmatic forms of fundamentalist religion of the past.

By means of this insight, in a series of recent articles Latour has proposed a controversial connection between the contemporary (European) secular state and non-state actors engaged in violent religious extremism and even Jihad-inspired terrorism. For example, in a newspaper opinion piece written in response to the Charlie Hebdo massacres that took place in Paris in January 2015, published in Le Monde, he argues that the fundamental ideology of those criminals was ultimately the same, albeit in perniciously mutated form, as the one espoused and promoted by the secular ideology they were seeking to destroy:

It comes from those who believe they possess a knowledge that is so absolute that they have the right to impose it without having to take into account the necessary brakes of law, of politics, of morality, of culture or of simple good sense. It comes when certain people in the name of the utopia of a paradise on earth assume to themselves the right to impose hell on those who hesitate or don’t obey fast enough.

The hegemony over interpretation of truth claimed by the Jihadists is a function of political religion. But Latour’s startling claim is that an identical movement is enacted within the secular West as well. Both claim access to transcendence as warrant of their actions, in one case citing ‘fi sabilillah’ (‘the cause of Allah’), in the other case citing the being of ‘the crossed-out God’, or its theistic reduction in the form of the laws of ‘Nature’, ‘Society’ or ‘the Economy’. And both wield this as an instrument of political sovereignty, demanding the total obedience of citizens to diktat of this metaphysical paymaster. Thus, with regard to the Jihadists, Latour can propose that ‘behind their archaic appearance they must be understood above all as fanatical modernizers’. And correspondingly, with regard to Western secular society, he can propose that ‘like the most extremist zealots of Jerusalem and Ramallah’ its adherents are in fact nothing but ‘political fundamentalists’ (Latour, 2015, Thou Shallt Not Freeze-Frame, p.35). There is an uncomfortable synergy between the structures that lie behind both dogmatic ideologies, even if this issues in radically different forms of world-view and behavior.

Latour’s diagnosis of secularism as ‘fundamentalism’ can be fruitfully applied to recent debates in France concerning the function of ‘laïcité’ and the ‘mode of management’ that the French state is entitled to pursue in its guise as neutral arbitrator of the boundaries of religion in public life, with the vexed issue of the display of religious symbols being one prominent case-study. These debates were accelerated by the publication of the report of the Stasi Commission of 2003 and the controversy that ensued from it. Latour’s analysis would suggest that the secular French state, or indeed any state apparatus, cannot function as neutral arbitrator of religion, since secularism is itself inflected as a religious ideology. Indeed, as Ward points out in the article mentioned above, in the case of the policy of ‘laïcité’ being pursued by the French state this contradiction is apparent even in a narrowly-defined legal sense, since to enshrine ‘laïcité’ in legislation and to enforce it as law upon the population is simultaneously to enact a gesture of political sovereignty that is characteristic of political religion. Latour has been prominently involved in debates about ‘laïcité’ that have taken place in France over the last two years. However, this involvement is not knee-jerk: as I have shown, it originates in core philosophical principles that he established from the very earliest part of his career.

In summary, my claim is that Latour offers a radical critique of what constitutes the secular. His work demonstrates that secularism as an ideology does not represent a neutral scenography upon whose canvas an authentically political society can be constructed. Secularism as an ideology, and indeed the so-called secular state as it is promoted and celebrated within Western liberal democracy, is better understood as an expression of political religion and hence as a vehicle of religious ‘fundamentalism’. Failure to appreciate this results in a flawed deployment of Latour’s ideas. This error can be seen in a recent attempt to apply Latour’s work for the analysis of contemporary politics, which makes the assumption that it is aiming to shore up or re-institute the authority of the existing secular state, rather than to provide a radical critique of the concept of ‘secularism’ to which it is bound: Tsouvalis (2016), ‘Latour’s Object-Orientated Politics for a Post-Political Age’.

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2 thoughts on “Latour and the Secular

  1. what the early ethnographies of lab-science (Pickering, Hacking, etc) found is that the doing of science isn’t (and can’t be) Idea-driven but is a more contingent and localized/contextualized affair/assemblages of humans and their manglings of their environs/materials, this anthro-logoi holds true as well for politics which is likewise alltoohuman an affair, to borrow a phrase we have never been Modern, never been of One Mind/Logos and aren’t capable of such god-like feats even if we desired to be so…
    http://interstices.aut.ac.nz/ijara/index.php/ijara/article/viewFile/211/312

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