Theology and New Materialism

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:

Theology and New Materialism, 14.00, Trinity College, Danson Room

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.

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Religion as a Regime of Truth (part 2 of 2)

What is it that ensures the objective existence of a reality that you believe in, whether it be God, the Virgin Mary, a Saint, or whatever? Does it not follow a trajectory, does it not perform a movement? Is this not the basis of its rationality?

So religion as a mode of existence is a mediated phenomenon.

But there is also a second aspect to consider. This is Latour’s claim that mediation ‘ensures the objective existence of a reality that you believe in’. In other words, for Latour, the idea of religion as a materially and historically embedded phenomenon, with its own specific felicity conditions, in no way implies the compromise of its status as objective and real. Hence, his repeated insistence that religion as a mode of existence constitutes a ‘regime of truth’. This countermands the charge of relativism that has been occasionally leveled against him. Martin Holbraad, for example, interprets Latour as seeking to ‘lift the lid on the false dominion of religion as representational discourse’:

Latour’s game is to show that, if you look closely and carefully enough, all that seems like rupture is in fact continuous, so that even terms that seem like digital negations of each other (either man or God, word or world) are really ontological transformations of one another, related on a monistic plane by what French philosophers sometimes call ‘difference’. (Holbraad, 2004, ‘Response to Bruno Latour’s Thou Shall not Freeze-Frame’, p.4).

Holbraad’s critique is mistaken. Latour does not collapse religion into relativism. His claim is quite the opposite. For him, it is precisely because it is grounded in the immanent procedures of ontological pluralism that religion is able to claim for itself the status of rationality. Latour makes this clear in his spiritual autobiography Rejoicing—a book of which he claims without irony that ‘c’est pour moi le livre le plus scientifique que j’ai écrit’ (my trans. ‘for me, it is the most scientific book that I have written’, in Latour, 2008, ‘Pour une Ethnographie des Modernes’, p.7)—where he asserts that ‘the things I’m talking about are not irrational but require all our reason, the sole and only reason we have to survive with’. (Latour, 2012, Rejoicing, p.68). Comparable statements are found elsewhere. Of course, Latour is not absent-mindedly re-inscribing into religious discourse the version of apodictic certainty that is sacred to Modernity. That would be to replicate an epistemology that Latour has already deconstructed as artificial and hegemonic. Rather, what is in view here is a definition of religion as that which is characterised by a universal value, a value that is nevertheless secured by the movements of actors within the space and time of this world. ‘Value’ is a technical term within the Inquiry. It refers to that which is generic, regulative and stable about a mode of existence, that is, everything that qualifies it as a ‘regime of truth’. Latour’s objective is to identify the value that is specific to religion as a mode of existence. It is on this basis that he will ultimately argue for the re-instatement of religion as a public institution, as something ‘capable of producing unity and agreement’ in the world (Rejoicing, p.61).

I began with an apparently incidental statement uttered by Latour in our personal interview. ‘What is it that ensures the objective existence of a reality that you believe in, whether it be God, the Virgin Mary, a Saint, or whatever? Does it not follow a trajectory, does it not perform a movement? Is this not the basis of its rationality?’ I propose that the originality and provocation of Latour’s work is found right there. Latour describes religion as arising via a local and contingent agency configuration, such that it is dependent on specific felicity conditions. And yet what arises nevertheless constitutes general and universal truth. The combination of these two requires no clever dialectic. Latour’s claim is simply that the value of religion arises through the mechanism of the actors who produce it in the space and time of this world. To put it in his own words, ‘religion is a full-blown mediation, a form of life, with its own form of judgment, its own canon, its own empirical world, its own taste and skills; and yet also where truth and falsity, faithfulness and infidelity are carefully detected, measured, proved, demonstrated, elicited’ (Latour, 1996, ‘How to be Iconophilic about Art, Science and Religion’, p.429).

Religion as Mediated (Part 1 of 2)

What is it that ensures the objective existence of a reality that you believe in, whether it be God, the Virgin Mary, a Saint, or whatever? Does it not follow a trajectory, does it not perform a movement? Is this not the basis of its rationality?

The first aspect to consider is Latour’s claim that religion is mediated. To be more precise, religion is a materially and historically embedded phenomenon. What does this mean?

Latour is not making a soft claim here about the praxiological forms in which religion is manifest in the world, of the sort that might be amenable to analysis by sociology or anthropology of religion, or of the sort that might be categorisable within a ‘world religions’ paradigm. Rather, what is in view here is the highly idiosyncratic claim that there is no essence of religion that is prior to or detachable from its mediation by material and historical actors in the space and time of this world. As he puts it: ‘religion—again in the tradition which is mine—does not speak of things, but from things’ (Latour, 2005, ‘Thou Shallt Not Freeze-Frame’, p.28). Hence, for Latour, religion is not a ‘substance’, that is, it does not consist of a content that can be brought to bear upon the world, ‘as if there existed some universal domain, topic, or problem called religion that could allow one to compare divinities, rituals, and beliefs from Papua New Guinea to Mecca, from Easter Island to Vatican City’ (ibid, p.28). To think in these terms would be to posit religion as a Durkheimian ‘social fact’ that exists independently of the ‘social’ performances of actors in the world. It would contravene his definition of rationality as given by ontological pluralism. And it would render religion vulnerable to annexation by Modernity.

Instead of religion as a ‘substance’, Latour proposes a definition of religion as ‘subsistence’. He advances this word as a means of describing how religion is instituted and sustained by the movements of actors within the space and time of this world, in such a way that it makes no movement of deferral to transcendence: ‘there is nothing beneath, nothing behind or above; no transcendence’, as he puts it (Latour, 2013, Inquiry, p.102). What Latour’s work facilitates, then, is a flattening of the epistemological categories of Modernity that have previously circumscribed an understanding of what religion is and must be, and the opening-out of an entirely new, wholly immanent scenography by which religion can be analysed as a mediated phenomenon.

This definition of religion shifts attention away from the ontological status of the actors themselves. What is of interest to Latour is not whether a particular actor is ‘religious’ or not. ‘Sacred’ or ‘profane’, ‘visible’ or ‘invisible’, ‘material’ or ‘immaterial’, even ‘natural’ or ‘supernatural’—ontological categories such as these are all prescribed before the actors who are tagged in this way are allowed to perform. These ontological categories can now be redeemed. Latour is agnostic as to the type of actors that might mediate religion. Sometimes, he refers to them generically as ‘the beings of religion’. At other times, he refers to them as ‘angels’—although it must be borne in mind that his use of this word draws upon a particular heritage it has accrued within recent Continental philosophy, especially in the work of Michel Serres, who adopted it is a trope to describe the priority of circulating reference and mobility (‘angels’) over the postulate of a singular, transcendent being (‘God’). The only question to be asked is whether that actor does indeed mediate the value that is proper to religion when it enters into trials with other actors. ‘Even God has no special privilege’, writes Latour, ‘and is not located in addition to or beyond other beings’ (Latour, Inquiry, p.315). When an actor does function as a mediator in this way, the ‘felicity condition’ of religion is activated.

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.

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Latour as a Reader of Emile Durkheim

I have posted bits of this before, but if you’re interested here’s a short essay on Latour’s reading of Emile Durkheim’s 1912 text in social theory, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. 

Latour as a Reader of Emile Durkheim

Latour is a great reader of other texts, a fact that is sometimes neglected. Durkheim has always served in his corpus as a negative exemplar: Latour always contrasts his understanding of the ‘social’ with the Durkheimian idea of the ‘social fact’ as a value or norm which is general over the whole of a given society and independent of its individual manifestations. Here, we find him critiquing, but also re-appropriating, Durkheimian sociology of religion in relation to his own concept of ‘religion as a mode of existence’. The Dieu-Société gives way to ‘the beings of REL’. Latour’s original review (in French) can be found here.

If you’re struggling with the link above, I’ve also loaded it onto my academia page.

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Latour and Voegelin’s Political Religion, part 2

See the previous post here.

For Voegelin, all human experience, including the ‘sacred symbols’ through which that experience is mediated for any given generation, is structured as an ‘ordering-towards’. For most political collectives in history, this has taken the form of ordering-towards a transcendent being. The profile of such societies has thus been hierarchical, with their internal relations of power—whether social, cultural, racial or economic—being taken as emanating from a transcendent source and cascading downwards. Human societies have thus functioned according to the principle of ‘the divinization of the worldly order of dominion’ (The Political Religions, p.44). For Voegelin, the nature of the supreme being is less significant than the basic fact of the orientation towards transcendence; hence, the mystery cults of the Greek world and the corpus mysticum of Christianity are equivalent symbols in this regard.

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Voegelin’s argument, however, is that in the modern period this ordering-towards transcendence has found itself re-conditioned as an ‘inner-worldly’ phenomenon, with the consequence that internal relations of power, aping what they have replaced, now take the form of a hierarchy emanating from a non-transcendent being—one whose surrogate authority can easily be usurped by a human individual, party or credo. ‘There is no longer any sacral permeation from the highest source’, Voegelin writes, and in its place the immanent political order ‘[…] has itself become an original sacral substance’ (The Political Religions, p.59). This transposition is the essence of what he calls ‘political religion’. It is instantiated above all in the form of the modern state, which imports from religion ‘the world-transcendent God as the ultimate condition and origin of its own existence’(The Political Religions, p.28). For Voegelin, then, contemporary political collectives derive their authority from ‘a realm of religious order’: their existence and persistence can only be understood by ‘taking into account the religious forces inherent in its society and the symbols through which these are expressed’ (The Political Religions, p.31).

In his 1938 work, Voegelin employs his concept of political religion primarily for a diagnosis of the fascist mass movements that were contemporary to that time, the common feature of which consists in the ability of their political leaderships to leverage religio-ecstatic obligations over the people in the guise of a ‘unio mystica’ between the two. Elsewhere he extends his diagnosis to ideological regimes of different kinds, including Marxist ones. However, the concept is highly consonant with Latour’s description of the ‘crossed-out God’ as an instrument of political sovereignty, for at least two reasons.

The first reason derives from an analysis of the genealogy of political religions. For Voegelin, these regimes emerge following shifts in the definition of what constitutes the rational, shifts that are associated in turn with the development of the modern scientific method. Wherever science promises an understanding of the world in positivistic terms, that is, ‘as an inventory of existential facts about all stages and as knowledge of its essential and causal contexts’ (The Political Religions, pp.59–60), then the ordering principle of human existence is shifted away from symbols of transcendent religiosity and towards an inner-worldly, immanent definition: ‘the methods of science as the sole forms to study the contents of the world’ become ‘the sole generally obligatory basis of man’s attitude towards the world’(The Political Religions, p.60). It is no surprise, then, that Voegelin identifies the seventeenth-century – and Hobbes in particular – as a turning point in this regard, since this was the period in which the modern scientific method become the ruling paradigm for man’s understanding of the world and his relation to it. Voegelin understands this moment as representing a lapse and a misdirection in the trajectory of human existence: from this point onwards, politics becomes vulnerable to annexation by those declaring themselves to be gate-keepers of the scientific method and thus guardians of the (putative) apodictic certainty that method promises to supply to those who wield it. Through its appropriation of ‘scientism’, then, political religion declares itself to be sole mediator of access to the ‘realissimum’. For Voegelin, the genealogy of political religions thus turns on a shift in the definition of what constitutes the rational: first, political religion forecloses the space of the polis in which rational meaning might be defined through collective human experience, and then, second, it establishes itself as demiurgic fashioner of an order that alone constitutes the real and that, as a consequence, is sacrosanct. As Voegelin puts it:

It [political religion] disregards the rules for examining experiences reasonably, it refuses rational discourse; and the spirit that adopts this assertion will change from being a discussion partner to being an adherent of another order. (The Political Religions, p.29)

In short, for Voegelin, political religion maintains its hegemony over the polis to the extent that it is able to appropriate a discourse of rationality for its own ends. This is precisely what Latour understands is taking place in Religion according to Modernity (not, religion as a mode of existence). In both cases this is a quasi-religious gesture, since it consists of the instrumentalization of transcendent authority claims and their subsequent imposition over the collective space of the polis.

But Voegelin’s work is useful for a second reason also: its description of the effect of political religion upon its subjects. For Voegelin, the potential for the individualization and personalization of the human subject, including one’s ability to act freely, is progressively lost under regimes of political religion. The argument is easy to trace: if, as we have seen, the claim of political religion is to represent ‘the only true reality, from which a stream of reality is allowed to flow back to the people’, then it follows that its subjects will be invited to do nothing more than ‘blend into a suprapersonal realissimum’ (The Political Religions, p.15) As Voegelin puts it, faced with the reality of the modern state, the requirement leveraged upon individuals is ‘to sink down into the impersonal nothingness of their instrumentality’. His focus in the 1938 text is on the ‘technical’ means by which this integration takes place: this of course was indicative of the highly technologized propaganda machine that was being developed at that time under the aegis of National Socialism. But Voegelin’s analysis is consonant with Latour’s depiction of the human subject under the regime of Modernity. For in the same way, the ‘crossed-out God’ enables the Modern regime to instrumentalize its human subjects, not as free actors able to engage in trials with other actors, but in the guise of ‘poor wretches’ who are ‘dominated’ from above (An Inquiry into Modes of Existence, p.421) – a hegemonic politics.

In his most recent work, Latour has explicitly taken up some of the concepts and terminology of Voegelin’s political theory in order to describe the quasi-religious procedure by which the transcendent is immanentized within the Modern regime as an instrument of political sovereignty. His point is to draw attention to this procedure as the imposition of a transcendent meta-logic, resulting in a form of religion that has lost touch with its own rational definition, which he thinks instead must always be a function of an immanent, processual, contingent and dynamic logistics.

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’ (Latour, Face a Gaia, 2015).

My translation, ‘the whole paradox of modernization is that it has lost sight, more and more every time, of contact with the mundane, with the material: it no longer sees in the here-below anything other than another world that has been merely immanentized’.

The Religion that is promoted by the Moderns thus lends itself to be wielded as a tool of instrumentalization and hegemony. For Latour, this is precisely what is instantiated in the form of the ‘crossed-out God’.

Voegelin’s concept of ‘political religion’ is thus much more useful for an analysis of religion within Modernity than, for example, Carl Schmitt’s concept of ‘political theology’. From the later, Latour would do better to focus on ‘political romanticism’.

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Si scires donum dei

Latour prefaces the Inquiry with the Latin epigraph ‘si scires donum dei’: ‘if you knew the gift of God’

Taken from John 4:10, these words are found in the context of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s Well. Having previously asked her to give him something to drink, Jesus proceeds to say to her: ‘if only you knew the gift of God (εἰ ᾔδεις τὴν δωρεὰν τοῦ Θεοῦ), and who it is that is saying to you, ‘give me a drink’ (δός μοι πεῖν), you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water (ἔδωκεν ἄν σοι ὕδωρ ζῶν)’.

This verse serves by way of tangential commentary on Latour’s presentation of religion as a mode of existence, for at least three reasons.

First, it contrasts two registers of meaning: the woman understands the request literally, in terms of the water provided by the well; what Christ is offering, however, is ‘living water’—whatever this is, it must have an entirely different signification from the literal. This prepares the ground for Latour’s presentation of religion as a mode of rationality that is distinct from the informational [DC] and the referential [REF]. (There is a delicious irony here, though: current evidence suggests that the site of Jacob’s well itself was recognised and honoured by Christians from an early date as a pilgrimage site, thus re-integrating referential modes of connection that were not intended by the original text, for which cf. Finegan, The Archeology of the New Testament: The Life of Jesus and the Beginning of the Early Church, p.36-42).

Second, it introduces the idea of kinesis and motility. The Old Testament and inter-testamental literature envisages that the broken cisterns of Israelite religion (Jeremiah 2:13) will be unblocked by the divine gift of a ‘living water’ that will quicken the people to spiritual life again (Zechariah 14:8; Ezekiel 47:9; 1 Enoch 48:1, 49:1). Augustine explicitly associates the latter with movement and flow, in contrast to the stagnation of the former: ‘water is designated as ‘living’ when it is taken as it flows: this is the kind of water that was in that fountain’ (Augustine, Tractates on the Gospel of John, in NPNF 1, 7:102).This fits with Latour’s definition of religion as a ‘logistical’ process whose rationality is given by the operational ‘flows’ of plural ontological actors.

Third, the verse in its context (the conversation of Jesus with a Samaritan woman) draws attention to the transgression of established gender, social, political, ethnic and religious boundaries in favour of a new community of understanding. As Latour points out time and time again, [REL] is not given in the mode of fundamentalist diktat, but in the mode of first subject-formation, and second community-formation. For the latter, he borrows the imagery of Pentecost from Michel Serres. The encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well is therefore a ‘diplomatic’ encounter, to use his own terminology, insofar as religion is ‘activated’ between two people at that site, then pushed forward into larger group membership (for which, see John 4:39).

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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.

Latour and Deleuze’s Nietzsche

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.

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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.

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.