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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Notes on Face à Gaïa (Lecture 6)

Continuing my posts on Latour’s Face à Gaïa.

Lecture Six. Comment (ne pas) en finir avec la fin des temps

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Objective

  1. To diagnose the religious (or ‘counter-religious’) origin of Modernity, and in particular its tendency to generate disinhibition (cf. Fressoz) in the face of climate change: ‘je vais tenter, dans cette conférence, probablement plus difficile que les autres, de continuer à explorer l’origine religieuse, où, plus exactement (contre)-religieuse de cette remarquable indifférence de nos contemporains à la mutation écologique’.
  2. This counter-religious origin of Modernity comprised a mistaken understanding of the spatio-temporal nature of immanence: ‘c’est dans un certain rapport avec la notion d’immanence, que nous allons trouver la clef de l’indifférence au terrestre. Cette indifférence est bien d’origine religieuse’.
  3. However, this is not true Christianity, which (when it is understood correctly) offers a proper understanding of the spatio-temporal nature of immanence:‘mais pas du tout pour la raison d’habitude invoquée pour faire peser sur le Christianisme la responsabilité de l’oubli du monde matériel’.

1610

This year has significance in the history of Modernity for at least three reasons:

  • Galileo and the Modern Constitution: in this year Galileo moved us out of the ‘closed world’ into the ‘infinite universe’ (Koyré); promising to take us beyond (arracher) the limits of this world alone; initiating the drive towards the movement of plus ultra; and so on.
  • The Anthropocene: this year was also offered in a recent Nature article as the beginning of the Anthropocene, caused by a spike in CO2 due to reforestation of the Americas (enabled, we might add, by the destruction of local Indians); reminding us that contrary to what Galileo suggested the earth is reactive.[1]

And the third? Interestingly, this is the same date as the regicide of Henri IV pace Toulmin.

1610 as transition between two ages

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Toulmin argues that the assassination of le bon roi in 1610, and the thirty-years war that followed, marks a transition from one age to another:

Former Age New Age
Characterized by pluralism and healthy skepticism, ‘ouverture d’esprit, de relativisme, d’expérimentation ou de tolérance’. Characterized by the requirement of certitude, even if it wasn’t necessarily clear or even important what that certitude should be in.
Represented by the humanisms of Montaigne, Erasmus, Rabelais, Palissy. Represented by Descartes, wars for the definition of ‘true religion’ (Reformation and Counter-Reformation), Hobbes, and the peace of Westphalia.
Features the mixture and compatability of different regimes of truth: ‘mélangeant les découvertes en science comme en religion ou en politique’. Rendered different regimes of truth (science, politics, art, religion, etc) incompatible with one another.
Spatio-temporal grounding: (A) the particular; (B) l’enracinement dans le temps. Spatio-temporal grounding: (A) the universal; (B) une vision intemporelle.
The ‘true’ Revolution. A pernicious ‘Counter-Revolution’.

The latter spelt the death-knell for the former: ‘une nouvelle forme de certitude absolue qui met fin au pluralisme et au scepticisme’.

1610 as foreshadowing our own time

In our own time, we have similar movements: ‘il est difficile de ne pas lire cette citation, sans la rapporter au temps présent’:

  • The hegemony of certitude.
  • The threat posed by the recalibration of agencies threatened by the Anthropocene: ‘que la Terre puisse réagir à nos actions embarrasse tout autant les intellectuels d’aujourd’hui que l’autonomie de la matière embarrassait jadis les tenants de l’ordre établi’.

Certainty

What is the nature of the ‘certainty’ that Toulmin thinks was introduced at this time?

  • Inertia of matter: a commitment to rendering matter de-animated such as to be able to produce ‘matters of fact’.
  • Reduction of autonomy: the creation of matters of fact enabled society to reduce ‘l’autonomie’ of human behavior, and thus to prevent the freedom of composition that had led to war.

Thus there was a political motif behind the transition to certainty.

Rationality

Ironically, by introducing the discourse of certainty, this transition lost rationality (as it is defined by AIME): ‘la Raison devient l’interdit de suivre les raisons’.

What does Toulmin diagnose?

Toulmin diagnoses a historical moment:

  1. This moment does succeed in securing an ‘armistice’.
  2. But it is at the cost of amalgamation of modes: ‘ce fut au prix d’une paralysie de la pensée figée pour plusieurs siècles dans une répartition malencontreuse des fonctions entre la politique, la science et la religion sous l’autorité protective de l’État’.

What does Toulmin propose?

The final part of his book proposes as it were that we go back to 1610 and before, in order to recapture science, politics and religion before they were captured by certainty: ‘il faut accepter de se replonger dans le maelstrom de la Renaissance […] c’est la seule chance de rattraper ce qui a été perdu en un tel moment par cette demande de certitude indifférenciée, seul moyen, après 1610, d’empêcher les guerres de religion’.

A second candidate for the transition

Toulmin’s reference to 1610 as the ‘Counter-Revolution’ reminds us of another thinker: the ‘counter-religion’ of Assmann. Thus, now Latour proposes to go back further than merely 1610 in order to trace the moment at which this transition occurred: ‘pour découvrir l’origine de la désinhibition, il faut donc remonter encore plus loin, longtemps avant la solution apportée par l’État’.

Religion is the original site of the transition

By going back to Assmann, Latour shows that the transition (exemplified by 1610) actually goes back to religion as an original site: ‘qu’il faille chercher dans la religion l’origine de cette forme curieuse d’indifférence aux alertes sur l’état actuel de la nature’. That is to say, religion was the original vehicle by which the concept of ‘certainty’ was carried through.

Apocalypse

Religion was originally loaded in this way by a mutation in time, which might might characterize as ‘apocalypse’. Thus, we now shift to a consideration of apocalypse.

We might define apocalypse as Latour’s trope for a form of existence that is open to change from the outside.

  • It is lived, present, historical reality that some inhabit, and others don’t: in fact it represents ‘la révélation d’un certain régime d’historicité’.
  • However, apocalypse as lived, present, historical reality has been obscured by John’s Revelation, which has transmuted it into a future event to come.

Modernity and Apocalypse

  • Moderns live ‘après l’Apocalypse’, in the sense that they are located after a cut that ensures the forward progress of everything.
  • Thus, the forward march of time, le temps qui passe, is in realization of a future that is already determined: ‘un certain nombre de peuples se disent désormais absolument certains d’avoir atteint la fin des temps, d’être parvenu dans un autre monde, et d’être séparés des temps anciens par une rupture absolue’. This is the march of plus ultra.
  • But this is paradoxical: the Moderns are living in time but not in time: ‘il est paradoxal, en effet, de vivre le temps qui passe, à la fois comme ce qui distingue radicalement du temps des fins, et, néanmoins, comme ce qui réalise ces mêmes fins’.

This attitude is highly religious, in the sense of Religion One, that is, it is undergirded by transcendence, belief and certitude: ‘rien ne peut plus leur arriver. Ils sont déjà et pour toujours dans un autre monde’.

[REL] and Apocalypse

By contrast, [REL] is able to handle the idea of living ‘in’, not ‘after’, apocalypse. Thus, [REL] when it is properly understood is a vehicle for immanence, and thus for political theology.

The key formulation is as follows: [REL] makes the discovery

*‘que l’on peut vivre, que l’on doit vivre dans le ‘temps de la fin’, en ce sens, à la fois très précis et terriblement instable, que les fins sont atteintes définitivement, au sein du temps et ne peuvent être réalisées que grâce à lui’.

In other words, [REL] is the ultimate vehicle by which the outside can be brought to the inside and made to change.

‘End of time’ or ‘time of the end’

The apocalyptic distinction is brought out between:

  • Modernity: the end of time, ‘la fin des temps qui passe’.
  • REL: the time of the end, ‘le temps de la fin dans le temps qui passe’.

 The only sense in which ‘the end of time’ can be conceived is as a provisional macro assemblage in time (and subject to change in the future): the concept of ‘fin’ can only be validated ‘toujours dans et avec le temps et surtout par son truchement’. Another way of putting this is that what endures only by dint of what is temporary: ‘ce qui dure pour toujours ne dure que par ce qui ne dure pas’ .

Voegelin and the end of time

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Voegelin understood the problematic political theology of Modernity in precisely these terms: ‘ce n’était plus le temps de la fin dans le temps qui passe, c’était la fin, l’interruption finale du temps qui passe’.

  • He pointed the finger at Joachim de Fiore, who he deemed to have initiated a system ‘of the Spirit’ in which time could be understood as cause-and-effect, that is, as definitely moving forward in a fixed way to a fixed end, thus ‘la fin des temps’. This was realized eschatology, assuming the Augustinian ‘Cité Céleste’ on earth: this was the bad form of political theology.
  • For Voegelin, this is exactly the political theology of contemporary fundamentalists who wish to realize some eschatology here and now on earth and who are not prepared to live with the form of political theology that has a delicate compositional flavour: those who are ‘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’.
  • Thus, Modernity had not passed therefore from the religious to the secular, but from a tentative and hesitant grasp of the end of time to the end of time being secured in the here-and-now: ‘il nous dit que nous sommes passés d’une situation où l’immanence et la transcendance, le passage du temps et le temps de la fin, la Cité Terrestre et la Cité Céleste, étaient dans un rapport de révélation mutuelle—c’est le sens propre du mot apocalypse—à une situation toute différente, où l’on croit pouvoir saisir dans l’ici-bas la promesse certaine de la présence réalisée de l’au-delà. D’après lui, les Modernes ne sont pas sécularisés—et c’est l’objet d’une vaste dispute—mais à l’inverse immanentisés’.

Voegelin’s target was therefore a political theology defined by over-realisation of the present time, such that it would foreclose progressive composition in favour of certitude.

Immanentization

The political theology diagnosed by Voegelin has at its heart the curious process of ‘immanentization’:

[…] cette curieuse façon d’échapper à la fois à l’immanence par un appel déplacé à la transcendance, et à la transcendance par un court-circuit trop rapide avec l’immanence.

In other words, Voegelin’s observation was that immanentization actually served not to be immanent, but to lose all connection with the world, precisely because its immanent was given by a MP, not by progressive composition: ‘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’.

Modernity and apocalypse

The Modern cannot handle the apocalyptic, the irruption of change in his life, because, as far as he is concerned, the future should be mapped out according to linear coordinates:

Allez dire à des Occidentaux—ou à ceux qui viennent récemment d’être occidentalisés avec plus ou moins de violence—que les temps sont finis, que leur monde est terminé, qu’il faut qu’ils changent leur façon de vivre, ne peut entrainer qu’un sentiment de totale incompréhension puisque, pour eux, l’Apocalypse a déjà eu lieu. Ils sont déjà passés de l’autre côté.

Modernity and the Earth

What kind of Earth (space), then, are the Moderns inhabiting? A no-time/ no-space Earth, because the Earth is not allowed to act: ‘cette Terre n’a rien de terrestre, puisque ce qui est nié, justement, c’est qu’elle aie une histoire, une historicité, une rétroaction, des capacités, bref des puissances d’agir’.

The religious underpinning of Modernity

The faulty relationship of the Moderns to the Earth (as shown by their disinhibited reaction to climate change warnings) is religious in origin: ‘si la modernité n’était pas si profondément religieuse, l’appel à s’ajuster à la Terre serait facilement entendu’.

Voegelin and gnosticism

In attempting to describe the religious underpinning of Modernity, Voegelin uses the concept of ‘Gnosticism’ as a trope:

  • It is a vehicle for ‘la connaissance assurée’.
  • And yet, this certain knowledge is grounded in a non-worldly transcendence that causes them to despise this world and its materiality: ‘le mépris de la matière’. A mistrust, and even hatred, of this world (a lack of ‘care’) is thus characteristic of the Moderns.

Christianity

What is the role of Christianity per se in this Gnostic disinhibition?

  • It is not that Christianity is intrinsically contra the earth, as was the criticism levelled at it by Lynn White: ‘s’il y a une origine historique à la crise écologique, ce n’est pas parce que la religion chrétienne aurait rendu méprisable le monde créé’.
  • Rather, it is more the case that Christianity has lost track of its original function in some way: ‘mais plutôt parce que la dite religion chrétienne a perdu, quelque part entre le 13ème et le 18ème siècle, sa vocation initiale en devenant gnostique, avant de passer le flambeau aux formes superficiellement irréligieuses de contre-religion’.
  • It then proceeded to a progressive reduction of its concern for the world, restricting itself to the salvation of the few, then the salvation of the soul, then only a form of morality, that is, retreat to the super-natural, and away from this world.

Thus, what is posited is a historical degradation of Christianity, rather than a intrinsic flaw.

By contrast, Christianity should be at the forefront of attempts to engage with this world:[2]défendant la matérialité injustement accusée contre la matière indûment spiritualisée’.

The third attractor

Instead of the contrast between ‘science’ and ‘religion’, or between ‘the secular’ and ‘the religious’, Latour proposes instead a third way (this is what he subsequently termed ‘the third attractor’), which he calls ‘le terrestre’:

The ‘terrestre’ is the definition of progressive composition, which Latour here defines as ‘l’immanence libérée de l’immanentisation’.

The third attractor and religion

What is the relationship between the ‘terrestre’ and religion?

  • The third attractor will mean getting rid of ‘religion’ (Religion One), but not to the point where we become ‘secular’ by contrast: ‘si l’on y parvenait, on pourrait en finir avec le religieux, mais pas au sens de séculariser l’existence’.
  • *This is because the true essence of the ‘terrestre’ is in fact ‘religion’ (Religion Two): ‘au contraire, il s’agirait plutôt de réactiver ce que peut avoir d’actif et de fécond le thème ancien de la contre-religion : l’incertitude sur les fins’.

Progress

To appreciate that third attractor, we have to do away with the Modern idea of forward movement/ progress:

Pour retrouver l’histoire, il faut pouvoir s’extirper de ce thème étrange que l’histoire serait déjà finie, qu’il existerait une rupture totale et radicale qui aurait définitivement brûlé nos vaisseaux derrière nous. C’est le cliché bien connu de l’irrésistible ‘fuite en avant’’.[3]

The ‘rupture’ in the past can take a number of forms, corresponding to whether one wants to think of oneself as Scientific, Political or Religious: ‘peu importe que ce soit la Lumière de la Révélation, les Lumières de la Science, ou l’Éblouissement de la Révolution’.

The point is, however, that the Modern concept of ‘progress’ (guaranteed by a rupture):

  1. There is no going back: ‘il n’y a pas de retour en arrière possible’.
  2. Thus, the present is lost: ‘sans un moyen de regagner le présent’.

Nonmodernity and apocalypse

The only solution, and indeed the only way in which to engage the third attractor, is therefore to become apocalyptic: ‘nous positionner comme si nous étions à la Fin du Temps’.

Nature as God/ Gaia as God

As Latour’s cosmogram has shown, every collective must have a deity (deos) that authorizes it. His final point in this lecture is that ‘Gaia’ is a legitimate deity in this regard, when compared with the deity ‘Nature’:

  • The deity ‘Nature’ convoked as a metaphysical hegemon: ‘l’hypocrisie de l’invocation d’une Nature dont on cachait le fait qu’Elle était le nom d’une divinité’.
  • The deity ‘Gaia’ convokes according to the principle of hesitation, the immanent, progressive composition, etc. Gaia is not religious (Religion One), but she is religious (Religion Two): ‘Gaïa, nous le comprenons maintenant, est bien moins une figure religieuse que la Nature’.

The apocalyptic questio

And so the question to determine whether you are Modern or nonmodern becomes: ‘et vous, est-ce que vous vous placez avant, pendant ou après l’Apocalypse?’.

  • Before the apocalypse: this equates to some kind of naivity that Latour doesn’t think anyone in the world really inhabits: ‘par une chance incroyable, vous ayez encore échappé à toute forme de modernisation et donc que vous ignoriez la morsure de la contre-religion’.
  • After the apocalypse: this equates to Modern disinhibition, where no trumpet can rouse you from your belief that the apocalypse has already happened.
  • During the apocalypse: this is what interests Latour, such that ‘vous savez que vous n’échapperez pas au temps qui passe’.

The rational apocalypse

Thus, the apocalypse serves us by calling us back to rationality: ‘apocalypse est un appel à être enfin rationnel, à avoir les pieds sur terre’.

References

[1]   Lewis and Maslin, ‘Defining the Anthropocene’, Nature, 171–180 (12 March 2015).

[2]   Texts that Latour cites here are: Heléne Bastaire & Jean Bastaire, La terre de gloire, 2010; Christophe Boureux, Dieu est aussi jardinier, 2014 ; Michael S. Northcott, A Political Theology of Climate Change, 2013.

[3]   The phrase ‘fuite en avant’ comes from the Deborah Danowski and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro article in the ‘From the Closed World’ volume, entitled: ‘L’arrêt de monde’, 2014.