Here is an excellent short introduction to the theology of Latour by the ever-wonderful John Reader: do check it out.
If you are in or near Oxford next week and are interested in philosophies of “new materialism” and how they might relate to contemporary theology, do come to this event:
The event will centre on the publication of a very important new book by John Reader. An expert panel, featuring Beverley Clack, James Hanvey and Tim Howles (!) will discuss the themes and arguments of the book, which include not only issues of human agency and transcendence, but also the search for a New Enlightenment and practical issues of politics, aesthetics and technology. There will likely be a healthy dose of Latour from at least one of the panellists!
Following the panel presentation, a wider debate will follow in which all are invited to participate. Drinks afterwards.
But do sign up here for free. Thanks.
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’.
Readers of this month’s edition of the journal Modern Theology can look at my extended review of this excellent book:
A Philosophy of Christian Materialism: Entangled Fidelities and the Public Good, Christopher R. Baker, Thomas A. James and John Reader
Do drop me an Email if you need a copy.
This book will be a vital resource for those considering theology in light of the various Continental philosophies of materialism and the Real, including the work of Badiou, Meillassoux, Deleuze and Latour, as well as Harman and the programme of speculative realism. For the book listing see here. For a sample of the book itself see here.
Here’s my first paragraph as a sample:
This co-authored book engages with and appropriates a new strand of thought within contemporary Continental philosophy, namely, the re-emergence of the Real as an ontological and material category. Its provocative ambition is to recalibrate, or perhaps even reformulate, Christian systematic theology in the wake of this philosophical development, so as to equip it to engage ‘in new and hyper-connective ways with the public sphere’ (p.2). The programme that ensues is called ‘relational Christian realism’ (henceforth ‘RCR’). Thus, whilst the book will certainly be of interest to sociologists analysing in an empirical mode the ways in which religion is embedded in human relationality, it ultimately requests (and deserves) to be considered as a programme located within and measured according to the categories of Christian systematic theology.
At the very outset of his Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism, Badiou lays out the possibility of a philosophical reading of Paul:
Basically, I have never really connected Paul with religion. It is not according to this register, or to bear witness to any sort of faith, or even anti-faith, that I have, for a long time, been interested in him.(p.1)
Badiou confirms that he has appropriated Pascal, Kierkegaard, Claudel, etc on the same footing. His project is after all one of a very pure atheistic thought. He goes further, however, by characterizing Paul’s specific religious commitments and methods as irrelevant, as so much noise, along with everything else that renders him a particular historical individual:
Anyway, the crucible in which what will become a work of art and thought burns is brimful with nameless impurities; it comprises obsessions, beliefs, infantile puzzles, various perversions, undivulgeable memories, haphazard reading, and quite a few idiocies and chimeras. Analyzing this alchemy is of little use. (p.2)
This, I think, is where Badiou parts company with a thinker like Latour. For the latter, nothing is given in excess of the logistical flows of meaning that are enacted from within the common world. This is not reductive materialism. It simply denotes an axiomatic philosophical commitment to be open to encounter with a dramatically expanded range of actors. There is no reason why the actor named ‘Paul the religious thinker’ should not be encountered in these terms, unless his being had been prematurely foreclosed by Badiou himself, by means of an external diktat every bit as ferocious as the onto-theo-logical constitution of metaphysics identified by Heidegger.
Latour’s philosophy offers great promise for a re-consideration and re-instatement of theological topoi that have been ‘corseted by too narrow a set of legitimate agencies’ under the aegis of previous epistemological regimes (Latour, 2013, ‘‘Waking up from ‘Conjecture’ as well as from ‘Dream’: A Presentation of AIME’, p.3). ‘All [actors] ask to exist’, Latour writes, ‘and none is caught in the choice—viewed (by the Moderns) as a matter of good sense—between construction and reality’ (Latour, 2010, On the Modern Cult of the Factish Gods, p.56).
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.
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.
Latour frequently identifies the work of William James, Gabriel Tarde, Alfred North Whitehead and Étienne Souriau as the primary intellectual lineage of his ‘modes of existence’ project. However, by his own admission, his exposure to these thinkers came late in his career (see Terence’s blog for various tracings of this). At the time of his formulation of his irreductionist philosophy a different set of conceptual resources and philosophical milieu were available to him.
One key actor within this intellectual lineage (others would be Serres, Lyotard, Marc Auge) is Deleuze, or more particularly the Deleuzian Nietzsche. In his 1962 exposition, Deleuze argues that Nietzsche’s ontology is a monism of forces; it is the interaction of plural forces that forms the basis of the oneness of reality: ‘there is no quantity of reality, all reality is already a quantity of force’ (p.39, all references to the Tomlinson translation). In addition, these forces are affirmative, in the sense that each one expresses only itself, or, as Deleuze puts it, each one says ‘yes’ to itself. Rationality, then, is generated by the interaction of these forces: ‘we will never find the sense of something (of a human, a biological or even a physical phenomenon)’, writes Deleuze, ‘if we do not know the force which appropriates the thing, which exploits it, which takes possession of it or is expressed in it’ (ibid, p.3)—but only because each force furiously affirms its own value, its own being, in the moment of appropriation, exploitation, possession and expression. The polemical basis of Nietzsche’s work, for Deleuze, is directed at anything that would separate force from acting on its own basis, that is, from affirming itself (the primary culprit in this regard being Hegelian dialectic, which confuses this affirmation with a positivity of the real). Deleuze therefore argues that the many antagonistic metaphors in Nietzsche’s writing should be interpreted in light of his pluralist ontology, and not as indications of some sort of psychological aggressivity or inverted ressentiment.
The Deleuzian Nietzsche permeates the pages of Latour’s Irréductions. Fourteen of its one hundred and ninety maxims refer to Nietzsche directly or indirectly. Early reviews immediately noted the resonance, one critic describing it as ‘Latour’s Nietzschean theory of the political nature of all social life’. (Knorr-Cetina, 1985, ‘Germ Warfare’, p.581). Moreover, in his preface to a new edition of the text, published in French in 2001, Latour reiterates the Deleuzian-Nietzschean inflection of his ontology by clarifying a difference between ‘force’ and ‘power’ that he believes has been misunderstood up to then:
Or, c’est à une autre opposition que je m’attache ici: celle entre la force—qui suppose une composition progressive des ressources—et la puissance qui dissimule entièrement les multitudes qui la rendent effective. Il s’agit donc de passer des vertiges de la puissance à la simple et banale positivité des forces. (Latour. 2001, 1984, Pasteur: guerre et paix des microbes, suivi de Irréductions, from the Préface de la nouvelle edition, p.8)
Now, it’s a different opposition that I’m advancing here: one between ‘force’—which implies a progressive composition of resources—and ‘power’, which entirely obscures the multitudes that render it effective. Thus, it’s a matter of passing from the vertigo of power to the simple and banal positivity of forces. (my translation)
In fact, just as Latour’s ontology was first developed at the site of a neuroendocrinology laboratory, it is interesting to note that Nietzsche developed his theory of forces in conjunction with intensive dialogue with the life sciences of his own period (especially Wilhelm Roux’s developmental mechanics, with its idea of the struggle between body parts within an organism) and that Nietzsche himself functioned as an early ethnologist and philosophical visitor of the laboratory.
Latour’s thought is diplomatic, and even ‘ethical’, to the extent that it represents the agency of every one of these ‘forces’ in every event situation in the world. It is precisely this curious ‘ethics’ that he inherits from the Deleuzian Nietzsche. The connection with the mode of existence of [MOR] should be readily apparent.