Religion as a Regime of Truth (part 2 of 2)

What is it that ensures the objective existence of a reality that you believe in, whether it be God, the Virgin Mary, a Saint, or whatever? Does it not follow a trajectory, does it not perform a movement? Is this not the basis of its rationality?

So religion as a mode of existence is a mediated phenomenon.

But there is also a second aspect to consider. This is Latour’s claim that mediation ‘ensures the objective existence of a reality that you believe in’. In other words, for Latour, the idea of religion as a materially and historically embedded phenomenon, with its own specific felicity conditions, in no way implies the compromise of its status as objective and real. Hence, his repeated insistence that religion as a mode of existence constitutes a ‘regime of truth’. This countermands the charge of relativism that has been occasionally leveled against him. Martin Holbraad, for example, interprets Latour as seeking to ‘lift the lid on the false dominion of religion as representational discourse’:

Latour’s game is to show that, if you look closely and carefully enough, all that seems like rupture is in fact continuous, so that even terms that seem like digital negations of each other (either man or God, word or world) are really ontological transformations of one another, related on a monistic plane by what French philosophers sometimes call ‘difference’. (Holbraad, 2004, ‘Response to Bruno Latour’s Thou Shall not Freeze-Frame’, p.4).

Holbraad’s critique is mistaken. Latour does not collapse religion into relativism. His claim is quite the opposite. For him, it is precisely because it is grounded in the immanent procedures of ontological pluralism that religion is able to claim for itself the status of rationality. Latour makes this clear in his spiritual autobiography Rejoicing—a book of which he claims without irony that ‘c’est pour moi le livre le plus scientifique que j’ai écrit’ (my trans. ‘for me, it is the most scientific book that I have written’, in Latour, 2008, ‘Pour une Ethnographie des Modernes’, p.7)—where he asserts that ‘the things I’m talking about are not irrational but require all our reason, the sole and only reason we have to survive with’. (Latour, 2012, Rejoicing, p.68). Comparable statements are found elsewhere. Of course, Latour is not absent-mindedly re-inscribing into religious discourse the version of apodictic certainty that is sacred to Modernity. That would be to replicate an epistemology that Latour has already deconstructed as artificial and hegemonic. Rather, what is in view here is a definition of religion as that which is characterised by a universal value, a value that is nevertheless secured by the movements of actors within the space and time of this world. ‘Value’ is a technical term within the Inquiry. It refers to that which is generic, regulative and stable about a mode of existence, that is, everything that qualifies it as a ‘regime of truth’. Latour’s objective is to identify the value that is specific to religion as a mode of existence. It is on this basis that he will ultimately argue for the re-instatement of religion as a public institution, as something ‘capable of producing unity and agreement’ in the world (Rejoicing, p.61).

I began with an apparently incidental statement uttered by Latour in our personal interview. ‘What is it that ensures the objective existence of a reality that you believe in, whether it be God, the Virgin Mary, a Saint, or whatever? Does it not follow a trajectory, does it not perform a movement? Is this not the basis of its rationality?’ I propose that the originality and provocation of Latour’s work is found right there. Latour describes religion as arising via a local and contingent agency configuration, such that it is dependent on specific felicity conditions. And yet what arises nevertheless constitutes general and universal truth. The combination of these two requires no clever dialectic. Latour’s claim is simply that the value of religion arises through the mechanism of the actors who produce it in the space and time of this world. To put it in his own words, ‘religion is a full-blown mediation, a form of life, with its own form of judgment, its own canon, its own empirical world, its own taste and skills; and yet also where truth and falsity, faithfulness and infidelity are carefully detected, measured, proved, demonstrated, elicited’ (Latour, 1996, ‘How to be Iconophilic about Art, Science and Religion’, p.429).

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Religion as Mediated (Part 1 of 2)

What is it that ensures the objective existence of a reality that you believe in, whether it be God, the Virgin Mary, a Saint, or whatever? Does it not follow a trajectory, does it not perform a movement? Is this not the basis of its rationality?

The first aspect to consider is Latour’s claim that religion is mediated. To be more precise, religion is a materially and historically embedded phenomenon. What does this mean?

Latour is not making a soft claim here about the praxiological forms in which religion is manifest in the world, of the sort that might be amenable to analysis by sociology or anthropology of religion, or of the sort that might be categorisable within a ‘world religions’ paradigm. Rather, what is in view here is the highly idiosyncratic claim that there is no essence of religion that is prior to or detachable from its mediation by material and historical actors in the space and time of this world. As he puts it: ‘religion—again in the tradition which is mine—does not speak of things, but from things’ (Latour, 2005, ‘Thou Shallt Not Freeze-Frame’, p.28). Hence, for Latour, religion is not a ‘substance’, that is, it does not consist of a content that can be brought to bear upon the world, ‘as if there existed some universal domain, topic, or problem called religion that could allow one to compare divinities, rituals, and beliefs from Papua New Guinea to Mecca, from Easter Island to Vatican City’ (ibid, p.28). To think in these terms would be to posit religion as a Durkheimian ‘social fact’ that exists independently of the ‘social’ performances of actors in the world. It would contravene his definition of rationality as given by ontological pluralism. And it would render religion vulnerable to annexation by Modernity.

Instead of religion as a ‘substance’, Latour proposes a definition of religion as ‘subsistence’. He advances this word as a means of describing how religion is instituted and sustained by the movements of actors within the space and time of this world, in such a way that it makes no movement of deferral to transcendence: ‘there is nothing beneath, nothing behind or above; no transcendence’, as he puts it (Latour, 2013, Inquiry, p.102). What Latour’s work facilitates, then, is a flattening of the epistemological categories of Modernity that have previously circumscribed an understanding of what religion is and must be, and the opening-out of an entirely new, wholly immanent scenography by which religion can be analysed as a mediated phenomenon.

This definition of religion shifts attention away from the ontological status of the actors themselves. What is of interest to Latour is not whether a particular actor is ‘religious’ or not. ‘Sacred’ or ‘profane’, ‘visible’ or ‘invisible’, ‘material’ or ‘immaterial’, even ‘natural’ or ‘supernatural’—ontological categories such as these are all prescribed before the actors who are tagged in this way are allowed to perform. These ontological categories can now be redeemed. Latour is agnostic as to the type of actors that might mediate religion. Sometimes, he refers to them generically as ‘the beings of religion’. At other times, he refers to them as ‘angels’—although it must be borne in mind that his use of this word draws upon a particular heritage it has accrued within recent Continental philosophy, especially in the work of Michel Serres, who adopted it is a trope to describe the priority of circulating reference and mobility (‘angels’) over the postulate of a singular, transcendent being (‘God’). The only question to be asked is whether that actor does indeed mediate the value that is proper to religion when it enters into trials with other actors. ‘Even God has no special privilege’, writes Latour, ‘and is not located in addition to or beyond other beings’ (Latour, Inquiry, p.315). When an actor does function as a mediator in this way, the ‘felicity condition’ of religion is activated.

What is it that ensures the objective existence of a reality that you believe in?

In the midst of a discussion on religion during the personal interview I held with Latour in London in October 2014, he offered the following comment:

What is it that ensures the objective existence of a reality that you believe in, whether it be God, the Virgin Mary, a Saint, or whatever? Does it not follow a trajectory, does it not perform a movement? Is this not the basis of its rationality?

This comment foregrounds two important aspects of Latour’s understanding of religion. First, religion is a mediated phenomenon. That is, religion is a function of the ‘trajectory’ or ‘movement’ of actors in the space and time of this world. This is what I describe as ‘ontological pluralism’. Second, it is precisely through this mediation that the ‘rationality’ and even the ‘objectivity’ of religion arises.

Thus, Latour claims to describe a form of religion whose reality is grounded in the immanent movements of actors, not in the category of transcendence.This is the basis of his definition of ‘religion as a mode of existence’.

‘What is it that ensures the objective existence of a reality you believe in?’—this becomes the key question to ask of religion.