Latour and religion: a quick overview

Over the last few months I’ve written a number of posts on Latour’s concept of ‘religion as a mode of existence’ and the political theology that ensues. We’ve only scratched the surface. I’ll continue to write more of course. But I thought it might be worth a moment to collate some of those posts, so that (if you’re interested) you can begin to trace a journey through it all in some kind of order. So, here is a list of some (not all) of the posts that you might like to follow for a quick overview of the topic:

  1. The Religion of the Moderns
  1. Making a transition
  1. Religion as a Mode of Existence

 

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The World-Historical Institution of [REL], part 1 of 2

The presentation of ‘religion as a mode of existence’ that I’ve offered in various posts above remains close to the technical nomenclature of Latour’s own system. For some, this nomenclature is too technical, too self-referential, too meta-narratival… or maybe just too much. Are you fed up with [REL], [DC] and talk of ‘crossings’ yet? Perhaps you are. But the bigger problem is that such technical nomenclature runs the risk of abstraction.

Even to a casual observer, ‘abstraction’ is not a criticism to which Latour’s system should be vulnerable. It would be out of step with the very telos of a mode of existence which, as has been demonstrated above, is only meaningful insofar as it is constructed by agents operating within the pluralist ontological landscape of the common world.

So the question must be asked: what is the occurrence of [REL] in the world? Or, to put it another way, what is the world-historical institution of [REL]?

This is a very significant question. I’ll just lay out a few preliminary thoughts here and in a subsequent post.

With the question of the world-historical institution of [REL], a tension begins to play out within Latour’s account. For an initial response to this question would suggest that [REL] is found (virtually) nowhere in the world. The Religion of the Moderns, that is, the [DC:REL] crossing, has become ubiquitous. Or, to use the language of the Inquiry, the transmogrification of religion-as-subsistence into religion-as-substance has rendered [REL] almost impossible to detect and enunciate in the contemporary public space.

Latour frequently figures this situation in terms of the awkwardness of religious speech. Hence the title of his key work on [REL]: Rejoicing, or the Torments of Religious Speech. The emphasis on corrupted ‘speech’ should not be surprising to us: after all, both forms of religion have been characterised by their management of an original utterance (in the case of the Religion of the Moderns this management was enacted by the stale procedures of rationalization and derationalization; in the case of [REL] by the faithful innovation of reprise). The burden of Modernity, then, is that it has ‘turned the logos into a substance, one that moreover has the strange particularity of being endowed with speech to boot’ (Rejoicing, p.133). Latour has spoken of his own personal Catholic faith as being infected by this same burden. He finds that his prayers are ‘weighted with lead’ (Rejoicing, p.1). Although he regularly attends Mass, he finds himself incapable of describing ‘what I am doing there’ – even, he claims, to his own children (Latour, Thou Shallt Not Freeze-Frame, or How Not to Misunderstand the Science and Religion Debate, 2005, p.127). And when he does attempt to register his religious experience in words, the hegemony of the substance metaphysic within which he is required to operate renders his account quite literally ‘meaningless’ (Rejoicing, p.2). Latour’s own life bears witness to the drag exerted upon religious speech by Modernity.

In what space, then, might [REL] by articulated? It is at this point that the tension begins to arise. To begin with, Latour intimates that if [REL] is so dispersed, obscured or even absent in the world, then it will need to be intentionally activated in some way. And he categorises his own writing on religion as a vehicle of this activation. Thus, the stated aim of Rejoicing is that by its own textual activity it will achieve the ‘re-activation’ of reprise that is necessary in order to generate the value of presence (Rejoicing, p.128).[1] In addition, a number of his writings on religion unashamedly describe themselves as having sermonic form, in the sense that they metaphorically posit a congregation (readership) to whom, through the ministration of the Word (Latour’s own writing), an authentically religious experience is mediated. Thus, the value of being brought-into-presence is quite literally performed by the text, ‘today, as the hic et nunc, for you as listeners, composing now, because of my unusual manner speaking, a gathering of persons, those who receive the present of presence’ (Latour, Thou Shallt Not Take the Lord’s Name in Vain, 2001, p.226).

Claims like this expose Latour to the charge of pre-orientation. This would suggest that Latour’s achievement (whether he realises it or not) is in fact nothing more than the retrofitting of a religious experience that he himself has designated a priori as normative. As a consequence, in enunciating [REL], Latour is accused of merely providing a post-empirical and autobiographically delimited version of the religion of the Moderns, and not one that can be grounded world-historically. Terence Blake has articulated this point very clearly on his blog.

This charge of pre-orientation must be offset, however, by the increasingly tendency of Latour’s writing on [REL] to be framed in terms of the doctrines and traditions of the Christian religion. This tendency becomes particularly apparent in the Gifford Lectures which he delivered in 2013 and in his current book Face à Gaïa.

face

By means of this framing, Latour answers the accusation levelled above: rather than empirical abstraction (which opens him up to the charge of pre-orientation), his articulation of [REL] now begins to take the form of an apologetic for a specific world-historical institution.

However, at this point a new charge arises. This would proceed as follows. If [REL] is indeed a mode of existence, embodied in a universal experience (as shifted up from its empirical site) then it certainly must not correlate to a particular world-historical form. In closely identifying [REL] with a world-historical institution, is it not the case, then, that Latour has post-orientated it, delegating by means of a substance metaphysics (in this case, the doctrines and received forms of tradition given by Christianity), and not to as a process of subsistence?

Does Latour manage to navigate the Scylla and Charybdis of these accusations?

In the next post, I will try to sketch out a route by which we might answer this question with a ‘yes, mabye’.

Reference

[1] It is very interesting that Latour elsewhere describes Rejoicing – his book on religion – as his most ‘scientific’!

Reprising Latour’s Religion

My previous post set out some of the criteria for the ‘empirical site’ that will fuel Latour’s diagnosis of religion as a mode of existence. You might also like to refer to this post for a critical comparison of Latour’s empiricism with that of Badiou.

But what aspect of the empirical site does Latour intend to shift up to the regime of truth that constitutes [REL]?

The aspect Latour particularly highlights centres on a request for affirmation of love. He depicts a scenario[1] in which one partner within a love relationship asks the other: ‘do you love me?’ (Rejoicing, pp.25-26, and all subsequent references in this post). To this question, the latter replies: ‘yes, but you already know that, I told you so last year’ (Rejoicing, p.25). Evidently, this would not represent an appropriate reply to the original question, which was asking not for a banal repetition of the datum of a previous love experience, but for a verbal, or phatic, actualization of love in the present moment. In fact, the latter’s reply can be readily understood as a [DC] informational reference: it is as if the partner ‘imagines that he had recorded this memorable sentence on a tape recorder and that, as his only answer, he’s just happy to press the replay button to produce the indisputable proof that he truly loves’ (Rejoicing, p.53).[2] By responding in this way, he seeks to fulfil his partner’s request by referring to a past event that he takes to be the complete encapsulation of their love in itself and that he supposes represents without any further modification or alteration an appropriate answer to her question (Rejoicing, p.25). Of course, this response is unsatisfactory. The partner is in fact highly sensitive to the tonality of the words that are uttered. Implicitly she weighs them up, analysing their meaning:

It isn’t the sentence itself that the woman will closely follow, or the resemblance or dissimilitude between the two instances, but the tone, the manner, the way in which he, her lover, will revive that old, worn-out theme. With admirable precision, exact to the second, she will detect if the old refrain has captured the new meaning she was waiting for, if it has renewed in an instant the love that her lover feels for her, or if the weariness and boredom of a liaison long over show through the worn-out vocables. (Rejoicing, p.26)

For the partner, then, amatory speech comports more than merely a vehicle for the transport of information. Her original question was in fact inviting a performance of something in the present: in this case, the bringing-into-presence of two people to each other. As far as she is concerned, the meaning of her question is found not in informational transfer but in relational transformation, in such a way that the response to her question will draw her into relational closer proximity with her lover.

Latour
The contrast between these two utterances, or as Latour calls them ‘regimes of enunciation’, can now be brought out in full. On the one hand, the in-form-ational response[3] attempts to secure a value (the bringing-into-presence of two people) by carrying forward the stable form of a previously-declared attribute into the present (the rehearsal of a previous declaration of love). On the other hand, and by way of contrast, a trans-form-ational response attempts to secure that same value by an alternative means: it enacts in the present an entirely new configuration of the previous declaration of love, in such a way the two partners are brought-into-presence precisely by dint of the freshness, the originality and the innovation to which the original utterance is subjected. Measured by that criterion, the in-form-ational response is of course bound to fail. Its logistics are designed for the preservation of form from past to present, and not for its alteration. Indeed, in this empirical context, an in-form-ational utterance will be deemed irrational—if this word is understood in the context of ontological pluralism, that is, as bypassing [NET:PRE] associativity. It will fall flat on the ears of the partner. The trans-form-ational response, by contrast, does not trade at all in the currency of [DC]: in fact, it brings informational ‘disappointment’, that is, ‘zero informational content’ (Rejoicing, p.32). Instead, it brings disturbance to the stable transports of [DC] by means of a ‘twisting’ or ‘alteration’ of the original utterance. Latour’s primary description of this process is ‘reprise’ (Inquiry into Modes of Existence, p.306). It is precisely on account of reprise that trans-form-ational amatory speech is able to activate love, that is, to bring-into-presence two individuals.[4] Thus, when reprise is enacted, the love relationship comes alive in the present as if it were new: ‘when they look at each other again, talk to each other again and once again something happens, they find themselves in each other’s presence, and then their love, beyond and between them, gets back its freshness and effectiveness, its force’ (Rejoicing, p.125).

Reprise therefore enacts alteration of the form of the original utterance.

However, this alteration does not render the original utterance less meaningful in the present, but more. This much seems to be indicated by the word itself: for an original utterance to be subject to reprise implies that something that came before is being taken up again and re-appropriated in the present. And Latour argues that this is also attested empirically in the situation of amatory speech: successful communication and activation of a love relationship in the present can only be achieved by recalling or re-activating a shared history of love that came before, to such an extent that Latour even suggests that by means of reprise the lovers end up getting ‘the same’ back again (Rejoicing, p.47). If reprise is to be activated in the present it must be reprising a previous love declaration of some sort. To lose that connection would be to lose reprise altogether. Thus, to use an idiomatic formulation: reprise must be a reprise of something. Reprise must be neither an immediate repetition nor a wholesale betrayal of the original utterance: it sits between the two in an uneasy and never completely secure tension, playing out every time ‘the question of fidelity or treason: faithful or falsified invention, impious reworking or astounding rediscovery’ (‘Biography of an Inquiry’, p.288). As the argument proceeds, and the empirical site is shifted up to the mode of existence, this will provide vital ballast in countering cheap accusations of relativism that have been thrown at [REL] in the critical literature.

In summary, reprise repudiates the procedures of [DC]. When reprise is activated, a value is instituted: the ‘bringing-into-presence’ of two people. Reprise can therefore be understood as a logistics (that is, as a particular configuration of the [NET:PRE] crossing that defines a rationality). Amatory speech provides an empirical demonstration of this movement. Thus, although the language might seem counterintuitive, for Latour it is correct and accurate to describe a love relationship as one that is ‘gripped by a logic of transformation—and yes, it is indeed a logic, and even a mechanics, as lovers themselves know only too well’ (Rejoicing, p.100).

References

[1]  Descriptions of this scenario occur at various points in Latour’s writing on religion, for a typical version cf. Rejoicing, or the Torments of Religious Speech (2013), pp.25–26.

[2]  Latour usually figures the offending partner as the ‘male’ (this practice will be continued here for ease of reference).

[3]  Latour sometimes transcribes this as ‘in-form-ation’ so as to indicate that the lover’s response seeks to preserve a stable ‘form’ of the original utterance through a spatial and temporal shift (the new place and time in which that love needs to be validated), for which cf. Rejoicing, p.25. This is then contrasted with its opposite, which is transcribed as ‘trans-form-ation’.

[4]  The influence of Michel Serres’ concept of ‘translation’ is crucial here. Particularly in his Hermès series and in The Parasite, Serres analyses patterns of communication as equal mixtures of signal and noise, or ‘interference’, produced in the course of transmission. For Serres, can there be no straightforward exchange of messages from one point to another: ‘translation’ is therefore a necessary, and productive, component of all information transmission.

Where do we even Start? [DC:REL] and the Hijacking of Religion

My intentions on this blog are to exegete, clarify and test the political theology of Bruno Latour. The positive, logistical formulation of religion as a mode of existence, [REL], must therefore be constantly in view. The point will be to present [REL] —and then, having done so, to put it through the grinder of empirical experience (hopefully with your help) to see whether the new housing Latour proposes for it better reflects the value that needs instituting (‘experience’, ‘value’, ‘instituted’ – these are all terms that will need nudging into a slightly altered lexical position as time goes by).

So that’s the constructive task that lies ahead. And yet, one of the strengths of Latour’s work on religion is that first of all it resources us for (to employ a medical term) a ‘differential’ diagnostic of the situation of contemporary religion. And so, before moving on to [REL] per se, I think it’s worth thinking further about what religion is when it is ‘instituted’ by the Moderns. What have they done to it? Where have they gone wrong? The next few posts will be on this theme.

For Latour, contemporary religious sensibility has been hijacked by the epistemological regime he calls [DC]. The contemporary situation of the religion of the Moderns, then, exists in the following amalgamated form: [DC:REL].

In the Inquiry, [DC] refers metonymically to the ‘double-click’ operation of a mouse button by which the user of a computer is able to generate immediate access to a unit of data. The connotations of this operation within the context of Inquiry are entirely negative: it signifies the promise of access to information without cost, without mediation and without transformation, ‘through simple obvious likeness between the copy and the original’ (Latour, Reassembling the Social, 2005, p.22).[1] As Latour puts it, [DC] ‘wants us to believe that it is feasible to transport, without any deformation whatsoever, some accurate information about states of affairs which are not presently here’ (Latour, ‘Thou Shalt Not Freeze-Frame‘, 2005, p.32). [DC] therefore describes an epistemological operation that bypasses [NET:PRE] associativity, and therefore ontological pluralism, entirely.

The point here is that Latour simply will not concede that such an operation exists. For him, rationality only arises through logistical operations that partake of the [NET:PRE] crossing. And so the claim made by [DC] to provide absolute referential informational correspondence with reality is nothing but a chimera.

Although [DC] is indeed a chimera, it nevertheless represents the default epistemological operation of those living under the aegis of the Modern constitution. At its most basic level, it is encoded in ordinary language: ‘it is what people have in mind when they ask ‘is this true?’ or ‘does this correspond to a state of affairs?’’ (Latour, ‘Thou Shalt Not Freeze-Frame‘, 2005, p.32). At a more sophisticated level, it is encoded in the privileged status granted to the institution of Science, understood as that which provides direct access to a world-out-there without the intervention or mediation of component agencies.

And yet, although the assumption of referential informational correspondence is rarely questioned—indeed, it is usually taken as commonsensical—Latour demonstrates how this assumption in fact conceals the complex logistical operation of actor-networks. This is true in the practice of science, whose regime of truth is not secured via referential informational correspondence, but rather by the maintenance of ‘chains of reference’ that have been carefully constructed in laboratory or metrological environments, [REF]. But it is also true for all other regimes of truth. Thus he writes: ‘if you make the absence of any mediation, leap, or hiatus the one and only test of truth, then everyone, scientists, engineers, priests, sages, artists, businessmen, cooks, not to mention politicians, judges, or moralists, you all become manipulators and cheaters, because your hands are dirtied by the operations you have carried out to maintain in working order the networks that give direction to your practices’ (Latour, An Inquiry into Modes of Existence, 2013, p.94). Within the technical infrastructure of the Inquiry, [DC] therefore represents a kind of ‘quasi-mode’ which Latour sometimes calls the ‘Cartesian evil genius’ on account of the way in which it attempts to short-circuit [NET:PRE] associativity and override all the other modes of existence in a hegemonic fashion.

When [DC] operations are applied to religion the [DC:REL] crossing ensues: this is the locus of the Religion of the Moderns. [DC:REL] can therefore be defined as the process by which [DC] operations hijack religion in order to perpetuate the illusion that religious experience can be attained by referential informational correspondence. In doing so, religion finds itself divorced from its own logistics and confused in its veridiction. Latour describes the outcome of this amalgamation by the word ‘belief’, a word which he wrenches from its positive connotations of ‘faith’ and employs instead to describe a pernicious form of fideism, that is, ‘a demand for access that has been stripped of its practical means of acceding to anything at all’ (Latour, Reassembling the Social, 2005, p.29). Whatever the function of religion is, then, it will not have anything to do with ‘belief’: in fact, ‘belief’ is taken as the polar opposite to [REL].

We’ll need to come on to what [REL] is then, if it is not ‘belief’. But the next post will continue this diagnosis of the Religion of the Moderns by way of preliminary.

[1] It should be noted that Latour has recently suggested that this metaphor is inadequate. This is because the double-click access provided by a computer in fact requires a large number of mediations to be functioning ‘below the bonnet’ in order to achieve the apparent effect of immediate access to information, not least of which is the physical capacity of large server facilities stored underground and away from our sight. In a strange, Anthropocenic twist, these facilities are themselves coming under scrutiny for their huge use of water for cooling. There is no [DC] without huge and hybrid relations of human and nonhuman, it seems!

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