Review: ‘A Philosophy of Christian Materialism’

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.


Michel Serres and Pollution

I read these meditations of Graham Harman and Bruno Latour on the subject of ‘waste’ with interest.

In The Natural Contract (1992), Michel Serres defines ‘pollution’ as the act by which human subjects define themselves apart from the world of relations, thereby enacting the epistemological bifurcation of ‘knowing subject’ from ‘known object’ that is characteristic of Modernity. Pollution is the excrescence of a contract that is sealed between humans contra the world or in neglect of the world. It defines the propriety of the human subject as an act of aggression and land-grap. Thus, just like animals who urinate on their territory to mark it as their own, just like a thief who leaves excrement behind in the house he has ransacked, just like a child who spits in the salad bowl in order to ensure only he can eat the rest:

[…] no one else ventures again into the places devastated by whoever occupies them in this way. Thus, the sullied world reveals the mark of humanity, the mark of its dominators, the foul stamp of their hold and their appropriation. (The Natural Contract, p.33)

But for Serres this also means that pollution is a utopian gesture, since it is deferring the responsibility that is incumbent upon us all to ‘progressively compose’ (Latour’s terminology) a pluralistic common world in which we all – present and future generations – might hope to live. Pollution is an act of inhabiting the world in violence against the world and in violence against the entities that have an ethical right to inhabit that world. For Serres, then, ‘peace’ and ‘beauty’ (what we might now understand in Latourian terms as ‘diplomacy’) can only arise through the construction of a ‘natural contract’ between humans and the world, in which pollution would be dispersed. This of course is an early version of what Latour calls a ‘political theology’ of Nature, or a ‘Gaian politics’, as Latour himself suggests in the final of his Gifford Lectures of 2013.

In the video, when asked when an object turns into waste, Harman says the following:

I suppose it turns to waste when it detaches itself from its use value or detaches itself from its surroundings. Which is interesting because, for me, an object is precisely what it is when it detaches itself from its surroundings. So in a sense, objects and waste are two sides of the same coin. There is a non-relational aspect to both of them.

I don’t think Serres would agree. For him, ‘waste’ is not a positive metaphor for an ‘object’, since for Serres an object is a ‘quasi-object’ and cannot withdraw from relations as Harman supposes. Where Harman sees in Garbage City a metaphor for objects, Serres would see it (I think) as the Valley of Hinnom, that Gehenna in which objects are burnt up precisely because they have lost all relation to the common world and all relations within the common world.

Also interesting in the context of this blog, I think, is Serres’ thinking about the relation of religion to pollution. We find interesting thoughts on this in his Malfeasance (2008). In that text, Serres first of all identifies a stratum of ancient (read: Girardian) religion that ‘is always characterised by sacrifice, that is, by blood polluting the land’.

What smells of burned flesh, which bone yards did they leave behind? Did they know that their passage was marked by garbage of whose function they might have been unaware. They were purifying, so they said.’ (Malfeasance, p.15)

But what about Christianity? Does Serres have a place for religion as a site in which relations can be ‘instituted’, just like Latour does in the guise of his ‘religion as a mode of existence’?

Serres notes that in Christianity we  have motifs of the ‘clean’. But these are potentially as polluting as the Garbage City of Cairo, for in removing the material and historical trace – a ‘political theology’ of Nature , we might say – they threaten to remove us also from the space and time of the present, thus re-imposing a contract that neglects the ethics of representation that all beings demand. In the Mass, for example, the blood has shifted to wine and water, and the whole operation is conducted on white linen: ‘nothing dirty is left, only what is clean and proper. At the altar as at the hotel?’ (p.18). In the case of the resurrection, there is literally no body located in the ground at all: ‘his departure leaves nothing behind on earth. There is nothing there, not the least scrap of cloth, not the smallest relic, not the smallest mark implying a story’ (p.19). The risen Christ is pollution-free. ‘With the resurrection of the new god Jesus Christ, there is no longer any marked place. There is no more space, no more history, no more time’ (p.20). What is left are utopian motifs, our future hope being invested in ‘the heavenly Jerusalem, completely absent from this world’ (p.20). For Serres, Christianity enacts an ambiguous movement: becoming a person of ‘clean evil’ (‘le mal propre’) via the forgiveness that Christian grace offers is a hair’s breadth away from becoming a ‘malpropre’ (a ‘sleazy, dishonest, despicable person’, in the French idiom), precisely because such a gesture threatens to remove us from the sort of relationality that is secured through the common world in favour of a non-material and non-historical, that is ‘utopian’, realm.


Response to Graham Harman

In response to Graham Harman’s thorough and very helpful response (thank you, Professor Harman, for taking the time). Just two points here, amongst so much that can be said of course.

Point 1: our agreement on what makes Latour great

Harman opines that I may be ‘diluting’ the value of Latour, even rendering him ‘mediocre’ as a thinker, by circumscribing the full extension of his philosophical system. I do this, so he claims, in the way one might blow up a balloon to its maximum extent, before loosening ones’ lips and allowing the air to escape all of a sudden, leaving behind a limp piece of rubber dangling in one’s mouth. I inflate Latour’s intellectual system by celebrating its insights into networks of mediation and access. But I deflate it by then withdrawing the reach of such networks of mediation to the thing itself. We are left with some insights into epistemology. But no ontology. What is left is limp – ‘wishy-washy, diluted, safe, prudent’, he says.

Well, I couldn’t agree more. Such an approach to Latour would indeed be limp. But never at any point have I tried to do it. ‘Access’, if you want to use that word for [NET:PRE], is indeed the whole point! It’s the beauty and the novelty of Latour’s contribution. And nowhere is this more so than in religion.

So let’s be clear about what Harman and I agree about in our reading of Latour:

  • There is no religion apart from the ‘rituals and processions’ that determine its rationality: if we ‘get rid of all that’, then ‘we lose the mode itself’ (How to be Iconophilic in Art, Science and Religion, 1996, p.437).
  • To claim otherwise is to lapse into either [DC:REL], in which religious veridiction is deprived of mediation altogether, or [REF:REL], in which religious veridiction is confused with a mediation that is not its own, resulting in belief in that rather naff ‘God of beyond’ that Harman mentions (he need have no fear, then, that I am appropriating Latour as ballast for teleological or cosmological arguments for the existence of God, as he suggests towards the end of his post).
  • Therefore, the value of [REL], which as we know is ‘person-production’, is given as a function of subsistence, not as a function of substance. The latter, which Latour calls something that is ‘preserved intact over time, like a gold coin forgotten under a mattress that you might come across happily years later’ (Rejoicing, 2013, p.126), is not a foundation for anything.

I have shown all this in countless posts on this blog.

So we are in agreement as to what makes Latour great.

But what I’m trying to do is to take things further. To tease out the full implications. To keep blowing and see how far the balloon will go.

Point 2: given that, why try to shut down in advance the types of agency that Latour’s system can handle?

My question is simply this: is there anything in what we both celebrate above that precludes the existence of an actor like that of ‘God’?

Let’s be clear again. I’m not assuming the God of Christian theism here: to start from that point would immediately be to work with a substance metaphysic, that is, to assume the nature of the actor before he/ she/ it had entered into the logistics of [NET:PRE]. Harman and I both appreciate that is anathema to Latour: ‘the analyst […] should not try to be reasonable and impose some predetermined sociology on the sometimes bizarre inter-definition offered by [the actors] studied. The only task of the analyst is to follow the transformations that the actors convened in the stories are undergoing’ (The Pasteurisation of France, 1984, p.10). This is why Latour addresses this entity as merely ‘G’ in the opening pages of Rejoicing, in an attempt to neutralise some of the dogmatic categories that have inevitably become encrusted upon it by centuries of theistic (and deistic, pantheistic, etc) tradition. We have to address religion by ‘taking it the right way round, starting from the attributes and going back (or not) to the substance, it becomes accurate again, since it retrieves all its truth values’ (Rejoicing, 2013, p.138).

So we’re not handling a pre-orientated entity of that sort, nor are we lapsing into discussion of a ‘substance’. This isn’t a retrospective justification of Christian (or Catholic) dogmatics. But still the question remains: what is there in Latour’s system that precludes the existence of an actor like that of God—if that actor reveals itself by means of mediation, that is to say, as subsistence, or to be as precise as possible, by means of [NET:PRE]? Adam S. Miller might call this the work of ‘grace’.

And, moreover, if we answer this question with a ‘no’, as Harman does,  then are we not ourselves perpetuating a ‘premature unification of the common world’, that most heinous of crimes within the terms of Latour’s own intellectual system… That is, to say that this could not be so is to act as a Modern, to impose categories of meaning that have been determined before the work of mediation, that filter in advance what can count as an agent, what might be out there, what might be acting.

This isn’t yet to say that ‘G’ is acting. All I’m saying at this stage is that Latour’s system requires us to be open to that possibility. To be open to this possibility is the great innovation that comes from understanding religion as a mode of existence. Religious experience is opened up to a scenography of production that was foreclosed by the premature unification enacted by the Modern constitution. There is no limit whatsoever to type or proliferation of being that might enter into the logistics of [REL]: they might range, for instance, from the actors acting at a regular experience of liturgical worship at a Sunday Mass in a small French village (this is what Albert Piette analyses in a book that Latour has nodded to frequently in terms of [REL], which is entitled La religion de près: l’activité religieuse en train de se faire), all the way to the ecstatic visions of the Virgin claimed by crowds of pilgrims at the shrine of Medjugorje in Croatia (this is what Elisabeth Claverie analyses in a book that Latour has referenced in the same way, which is entitled Les guerres de la vierge: une anthropologie des apparitions). The entities associated with these experiences might be very different (in the first case, the entities involved are material, habituated and mundane; in the second case, they are immaterial, extraordinary and ‘out of this world’). But both are allowed to exert their agency in the common world first in order to ascertain whether or not their agency mediates the value that is specific to [REL].

I would also suggest, although I haven’t got time to argue it here, that the logistics of [REL] itself (which Harman and I both know is ‘reprise’) displays a powerful thrust towards (what I call) an ‘originary unit’, something that once happened as an intrusion or incarnation into the world (and then needs to be faithfully taken up by reprise by we who follow). I’d support this with reference to Latour’s handling of concepts such as ‘deictics’ and ‘anaphora’ in relation to [REL], both of which require anchoring in a reference point called an ‘origo’: this shows us that what is in view here is not endless deferral, but the clarification of an originary revelation by means of repetition. Consider this quotation: ‘the word ‘God’ cannot designate a substance; it designates, rather, the renewal of a subsistence that is constantly at risk, and even, as it were, the pathway of this reprise, at once word and being, logos’ (Inquiry into Modes of Existence, 2013, p.310). Logos as word and being. But please note, this is not to posit a God that lies at the other end of a chain of reference.

What Latour gives us, then, is the apparent paradox of (A) an empirical methodology (“it is all mediation”) that (B) liberates the phenomenon of religion for extraordinary metaphysical adventures involving the possibility of actors that may surprise us (“don’t reduce what mediation can do!”)

That Latour’s system is open to such metaphysical adventures appeals to me, a theologian. For me, it equates to the possibility of greatness squared. And it opens up rich avenues for cross-disciplinary exploraiton. Some of the most excellent interpreters of Latour’s work see this implication too, but defer from it (Terence Blake being the best example): that’s fine, but the point is they do see it is there.

In conclusion, I would respectfully respond by suggesting that it is Harman, not me, that is in danger of limiting the greatness of Latour. And my challenge to him, then, is as follows (and it is a friendly one, offered with the greatest of admiration for his ground-breaking work on Latour): to see the potential in Latour’s system to be even greater than he thinks it already is.

Graham Harman on Latour’s God

In a recent post, Graham Harman writes as follows about Latour’s conception of God:

Another point to consider… Latour is a practicing Roman Catholic. This entails belief in God, and such belief normally entails belief in a real omnipotent entity that exists outside the mind. Yet this is not Latour’s concept of God. His concept has nothing to do with the mode of existence he calls [REF], a scientific mode that enables us to link actors in such a way as to approach the strange and the distant. Instead, Latour’s concept of God is a purely immanent one (as far as I can tell), a God that does not exist outside the processions and rituals that make God present. Now, this is a pretty huge sacrifice to make in comparison with mainstream religious belief: denying the very existence of a God-in-itself outside all networks. What could possibly lead Latour to adopt such a position? A mere methodological devotion to empiricism? Hardly. The reason is that he simply does not think that anything could exist in a non-relational sense.

To be honest I’ve only got two minutes before I need to leave the house, but I thought I might briefly write something while I can. I hope you will excuse the brevity.

What stood out to me was how in the middle of Harman’s analysis we find a quite unwarranted elision:

  • On the one hand, Harman correctly notes that for Latour God cannot exist ‘outside the processions and rituals that make God present’.
  • But then, in the very next sentence Harman goes on to infer that Latour therefore denies ‘the very existence of a God-in-itself outside all networks’.

I don’t think this is right. In fact, it has the status of logical fallacy. Let me just quote Latour himself, as if in direct response to Harman:

But no, not at all, it’s not that! You’ve got it all wrong, without a path of mediation you can’t access any foundations, especially the True, but also the Good, the Just, the Useful, the Well Made, God too, perhaps’ (An Inquiry into Modes of Existence, p.155).

So ‘a path of mediation’ is required, yes, that’s right, of course. But what Latour actually says is that ‘without a path of mediation you can’t access any foundations’, amongst which might be found (alongside others) an entity known as ‘God’. My question is, then: is Harman warranted in leaping from a condition of ‘access’ to a condition of ‘existence’, in as blithe a way as he apparently has done?

Having engaged with the relevant primary material in substantial ways, I have not yet found any place where Latour has made a claim about the existence-in-itself of God. All he has done is to argue that a God-entity could only be known by us rationally (to use his nomenclature, could only be ‘veridicted’) by dint of entering into the situation of epistemological pluralism (NET:PRE) through which alone meaning can arise in the world. If the knowledge of God is claimed on any other basis, then yes this will be irrational, since it would be short-circuiting this logistics, this ‘trajectory of instauration’ (Inquiry, p.166). This is precisely what the Moderns do (as I have written about many times on this blog). And it is the opposite of the knowledge of God given in [REL]. Just as Latour puts it in Face à Gaïa: ‘les divinités, comme les concepts, comme les héros de l’histoire, comme les objets du ‘monde naturel’—fleuves, rochers, rivières, hormones, levures—, n’ont de compétence—et donc de substance—que par les performances—les attributs—qui leur donnent forme in fineBut to preclude the existence of God as ontologically prior to this access is to practise a form of hegemonic pre-orientation that is worthy of the very Modernity that Latour has sought to critique and move beyond.

In theological speak, we would say that Latour has operated in the category of analogia entis. To say any more than that, especially if it is to question his orthodoxy as a practising Roman Catholic, is to say more than Latour himself has He is owed better than that.