Latour, Space and Time (part 6)

This continues a series of posts on Latour’s understanding of space and time, in particular his diagnosis of an essentially religious aetiology to the conceptualisation of space-time found within modernity. I have got to the point where I am examining particular “motifs” of modernity with a view to seeing how they display this religious aetiology. In the last post I looked at the putative “progressive” identity of modernity; what lies beneath the fetishization of the idea of “progress” that is all around us in contemporary political, cultural and identity discourse.

The second motif I wish to address, which once again Latour takes to be integral to the self-perception of contemporary western society, is that of “secularism” and “the secular”. The definition and scope of these terms, and their relation to what might be called “the post-secular”, are highly contested, and it is not my intention to engage with recent scholarship on them in detail.

As a point-of-entry, however, I will borrow a definition provided by Graham Ward. For Ward, the distinctive feature of secularism is that it proposes itself as being neutral with regard to human ideology and belief systems. It can do this on account of its claim to be emancipated from any kind of religious particularism or confessionalism. As a consequence, secularism proposes itself as a structure within which all human ideologies are able to flourish equally. Thus, Ward offers 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. (Ward, 2014, ‘The Myth of Secularism’)

Fundamental to secularism, then, is its claim to provide a neutral or non-aligned space within which human existence can be creatively and independently pursued on its own terms. Ward himself challenges this claim, proposing that secularism must be understood as itself having the form of an ideology and social habitus. Similar challenges have been posed elsewhere within the disciplines of theology, philosophy, sociology and the study of religions.

The work of Talal Asad is prominent in this debate. In his 2003 book Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity, Asad sought to expose the multi-layered history of secularism in an attempt to deconstruct its claim to be offering a neutral or “nonpartisan” rationality. A 2008 collected volume that was inspired by Asad’s work argued that there are various “secularisms” in the world, each one inflected by its particular national, regional and religious context, and that this undermines the claim of secularism itself to be a neutral or “nonpartisan” space.


Latour’s work can certainly be situated in this field of critical reflection on the concepts of secularism and the secular. However, the implications of his work are in fact more radical still. The critique that is developed in this scholarship is premised on the idea that secularism retains the shadow of a religious heritage. That is to say, the putative neutrality of secularism is understood to be compromised at points where secularism has failed to dissociate or dis-amalgamate itself from a particular religion or religious heritage. This leaves open the possibility that a more secular form of secularism might arise in the future, when this residue of religion might finally be sloughed off. By contrast, Latour’s analysis suggests that religious ideology is not merely vestigial within secularism. Rather, it is integrated and even co-opted into its very structure and definition. This enables him to make the apparently paradoxical claim in the Inquiry that contemporary western society is characterised above all by “secular fundamentalisms” (p.94). This is not a naïve observation about some kind of regressive or recursive adherence to a particular religious creed or tradition. It follows directly from the argument I have advanced in this chapter. For Latour, secularism is itself convoked and held in place by a covert appeal to the category of transcendence, an appeal which is always religious in form:

En ce sens, il n’y a pas de collectif durablement sécularisé, mais seulement des collectifs qui ont modifié le nom et les propriétés de cette autorité suprême au nom duquel ils s’assemblent. (Face à Gaïa, 2016, my trans. “in this sense, there is no such thing as a durably secularized collective, but only collectives that have modified the name and the properties of the supreme authority in whose name they gather”).

Latour’s critique of the concept of the secular has allowed him to draw controversial connections between the contemporary (European) secular state and non-state actors engaged in acts of violent religious extremism. For example, in a newspaper opinion piece written in response to the Charlie Hebdo attacks that took place in Paris in January 2015, published in Le Monde and translated by myself, he argued that the ideology of those Jihad-inspired criminals was ultimately the same (albeit in violently-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.

For Latour, Jihadist ideology has the form of a political religion. On account of its claim to be the exclusive interpreter of reality, disregarding the voices of other actors, it asserts itself as the de facto possessor of a transcendent mode of knowledge, “la connaissance assurée”. Here is the eschatological motif I described above, namely, the idea of a final state of knowledge that is brought into the time of the present. Immunized against all doubt by this eschatological importation, the Jihadists are able to claim for themselves justification for their terrible acts of violence. But Latour’s startling claim is that an identical motif is employed within the secular society that is the target of Jihadist violence. Both appeal to the theological concept of transcendence as warrant of their actions, in one case citing “fi sabilillah” (“the cause of Allah”), in the other citing the being of “the crossed-out God”. 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 secularists, he can propose that “like the most extremist zealots of Jerusalem and Ramallah” they are in fact “political fundamentalists”. Of course, Latour is not seeking to render these two groups morally equivalent. His concern is to identify an uncomfortable synergy between the ideological structure that lies behind both, even if this issues in radically different forms of worldview and behavior. Both claim to be in possession of a totalizing knowledge of reality, a claim which by definition implies a claim about the flow of historical time itself:

Ils sont définitivement immunisés contre le doute, puisque qu’ils seront passés de l’autre côté de l’incertitude concernant le temps et sa direction: les fins ne sont plus ce qu’on attend, mais ce qu’on possède. (Face à Gaïa, 2016, my trans. “they are definitively immunized against doubt, since they will have passed to the other side of uncertainty concerning time and its direction. The ends are no longer what you expect, but what you possess”)

Latour’s deconstructive reading of the concept of the secular has arisen in the context of recent debates in France concerning the function of “laïcité” and the mode of management the French state is entitled to pursue in its guise as supposedly neutral arbitrator of the boundaries of religion in public life. These centre on Article I of the French constitution and interpretation of ‘la loi du 9 décembre 1905 concernant la séparation des Églises et de l’État’. Controversy over interpretation of this Article was triggered by the publication of Stasi Commission report in 2003 and has been accelerated in recent years by publicity surrounding bans enacted by various French communes on the wearing of religious clothing in public places.


Latour’s analysis suggests that the secular French state, or indeed any state apparatus, cannot propose itself as being a neutral arbitrator of religious expression, since secularism is itself already inflected as a religious ideology. Indeed, this is true even in a legal sense, since to enshrine “laïcité” in legislation and to enforce it as law upon a population is simultaneously to enact a hegemonic gesture that is characteristic of political religions. Latour has been described as a conservative political thinker. But this is a misreading. On the contrary, his work provides a radical and even an unsettling critique of the contemporary political situation and the secular ideology he perceives as undergirding it.