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.



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.


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).


Notes on Face à Gaïa (Lecture 8)

Continuing my posts on Latour’s Face à Gaïa.


Lecture 8: Comment gouverner des territoires (naturels) en lutte ?


The value of simulations:

  • Embodied, practical simulations are useful because they are able to represent and re-enact the compositional processes of science, art and politics: ‘compliquer les modèles du monde et y impliquer ceux qu’ils concernent pour ensuite composer, voilà qui me semble une définition commune aux sciences, aux arts et à la politique’.
  • Within a simulation each actor represents something, but the important thing is that this has to be made explicit (in the same way as Assmann’s translation tables).

In other words, simulations enact the ‘figuration’ of as broad an array of agencies as possible.

The MakeItWork simulation


  • This simulation focused and tried to represent non-conventional ways of occupying space: ‘les diverses manières d’occuper des territoires’.
  • This allowed the simulation to bring into the negotiating room (the ‘interior’) unconventional actors: ‘aux Amandiers, les organisateurs ont décidé de placer toutes les parties à l’intérieur pour qu’il n’y ait plus d’extérieur, et pour qu’on voie les parties prenantes exercer leurs pressions toutes ensemble. Que chacun se batte sous ses propres couleurs’.
  • Once in the room, all these actors were required to work together by ‘showing their hand’ and being ‘explicit’ (cf. Sloterdjik, expliciter) about how they were working: ‘s’opposer aux autres en explicitant sur quel territoire elles se trouvent’.
  • Emergence could certainly take place, but only by explicit (not en douce) operations within the room: ‘elle [une partie] n’aura pas à agir en douce, elle devra se présenter et dire quels sont ses intérêts, quels sont ses buts de guerre, qui sont ses amis et ses ennemis, bref où elle se trouve, qu’est-ce qui permet de l’espacer des autres’.
  • Thus, the negotiation had a conflictual character: ‘alors que Hobbes devait inventer une politique après des décennies d’affreuses guerres civiles, le paradoxe des négociations sur le climat, c’est qu’il faut faire comprendre aux protagonistes qu’ils sont bel et bien en guerre, alors qu’ils se croient en situation de paix’.

Rejection of totality

The delegates gathered under the banner: ‘ni Dieu, ni Nature—et donc pas de Maître’. The ‘Maîtres’ (metaphysical principles) they were rejecting included the following:

  • The nation-state.
  • A ‘world government’ that could decide for all.
  • A single, unified concept of ‘Nature’ that could decide all the debates.
  • The unifying power of capitalism in the guise of the ‘Economy’.
  • Indeed, this also meant that they had to reject ‘Gaia’ (at least, Gaia understood as an overarching actor): ‘de ne pas prendre Gaïa pour un Système unifié’.

Another way of saying this is that the simulation was premised on the redundancy of the figure of the ‘Globe’ (as demonstrated in earlier chapters): ‘nous retrouvons ici la figure du Globe dont nous avons appris, conférence après conférence, à quel point elle était non seulement impossible, mais moralement, religieusement, scientifiquement et politiquement délétère’.

Thus, the task was to find an alternative way of representing the actors of this world than that of Totality (the globe): ‘pour retrouver le monde commun—et peut-être aussi le sens (du) commun—, la solution n’est pas de faire appel à la Totalité, qui de toutes façons n’existe pas, mais d’apprendre à représenter différemment le territoire auquel on appartient’.

Politics from above/ politics from below

The simulation allowed two types of politics to come to light:

  1. To defer ‘upwards’: politics defers upwards to an operation of scale, ‘en faisant appel à un principe supérieur commun, à l’État de la Nature’; however, this serves only to ‘dépolitise toute la négociation devenue simple application de règles de distribution’.
  2. To defer ‘downwards’: this enacts the opposite movement, ‘en traitant toutes les parties prenantes à égale niveau de souveraineté’, granting to all entities the right to ‘prendre parti’; this is what alone provides a true and proper politics.

Defintions of space as ‘utopia’ and ‘topos’

In terms of the two forms of politics above:

  1. To defer ‘upwards’ is to defer to a utopia; its movement is ‘utopique, au sens étymologique de ce qui est nulle part’.
  2. To defer ‘downwards’ is to reterritorialise oneself; its movement ‘consiste à se donner un sol’.


The sort of politics that defers ‘upwards’ is a politics of ‘externalisation’, which refers to the bracketing out of agencies, and thus is ‘synonyme exacte’ of ‘la negligence calculée’ that has already been defined (via Serres) as the essence of irreligion.

The utopia/ achronia of the Modern understanding of the natural world

By understanding the things of the natural world according to ‘the laws of nature’, the Moderns assume that these things will work always and forever in the same way.

In doing so, they denude them of the right to act in space and time:

Le problème des questions écologiques, pour employer un terme désuet, c’est qu’elles semblent parler d’objets qui ont été téléchargés dans l’utopie aussi bien que dans l’uchronie. Ni l’eau, ni le sol, ni l’air, ni les vivants, ne sont dans le temps et dans l’espace de ceux qui en font le cadre de leur action.

And, in addition, they impose upon them an operation of scale that comes from the ‘exterior’:

Elles ne peuvent être dictées de l’extérieur simplement parce qu’elles auraient été
‘déterminées objectivement par les Lois de la Nature’.

Planetary boundaries and critical zones

These two terms indicate the sense that we should not be trying to escape to another planet as a means of understanding this one.


The disciplines that Latour suggests instead are ‘geo’ ones, starting with the ‘géo-traçante’; these are ‘cette activité de pistage de l’espace, de parcours des lopins et de traçage de lignes’.


By contrast, 2D maps are the opposite: they limit our ability to visualize new configurations of human and nonhuman agencies, compelling us instead to stick with old forms of representation that (in fact) are not very representative at all, and over which wars are too easily fought:

C’est aussi parce que nous sommes limités à l’imaginaire de ces cartes en deux dimensions, aux frontières délimitées, qui sont bien utiles, comme on le sait, pour ‘faire la guerre’[1] mais fort insuffisantes si l’on veut s’y retrouver dans la géopolitique des territoires en lutte.

So the way of representing the world would be via a ‘geo’-map of some sort, ‘une chose comme une carte géologique avec sa vision en trois dimensions, ses couches multiples encastrées les unes dans les autres, ses dislocations, ses ruptures, ses reptations, toute cette complexité que les géologues ont su maîtriser pour l’histoire longue des sols et des roches, mais dont l’infortunée géopolitique reste dépourvue’.

The future of the nation-state

In reorganizing the distribution of powers the simulation showed what a true politics (in the sense of a nomos) would look like vis-à-vis the nation-state:

  • The nation-state no longer has the political privilege of violence.
  • Politics must now shift to new configurations, including those incorporating Gaia: ‘comment conserver ‘le monopole de la violence physique légitime’ quand il s’agit de la violence géohistorique du climat?

Quelle avancée si l’on pouvait enfin passer des États régnant sans contre-pouvoir sur un sol délimité par des frontières, à un ordre constitutionnel enfin doté du système complexe de contre-pouvoirs exercé par les autres délégations—ces fameux ‘checks and balances’ tant célébrés par les Humains, mais que les Terrestres en sont encore à rechercher?.

Gaian politics

This new form of politics coalesces around Gaia (it is here that differences with the Schmittian politics become most apparent):

  • Gaia does not mimic the old function of the nation-state: ‘contrairement à la Nature, Gaïa ne fait pas irruption pour régner à la place de tous les États forcés de se soumettre à ses lois, mais comme ce qui exige que la souveraineté soit partagée’.
  • Gaia forces us into new political configurations that need defending and justifying: ‘comme Gaïa ne sont ni extérieures, ni indiscutables, elles ne peuvent pas rester indifférente à la politique’.

Nature as religion

The construct ‘Nature’ acted as a religion, insofar as it demanded allegiance as a ‘cult’: ‘tandis que la Nature pouvait régner sur les humains comme un pouvoir religieux auquel il fallait rendre un culte paradoxal, civique et séculier […]’.

Gaia is not religion

By contrast, the state of Gaia is not religious:

  • For example, here is a basic statement: ‘Gaïa ordonnent seulement de partager le pouvoir comme des pouvoirs profanes et non pas religieux’.
  • Thus, we are not moving (in Comptean fashion) from ‘metaphysical God’ to ‘Nature’ to ‘Gaia’: ‘Il est inutile d’espérer une nouvelle translatio imperii qui irait de Dieu à la Nature, puis de la Nature à Gaïa. Aucune ‘loi des trois états’ n’est ici à l’œuvre’.
  • Gaia is strictly limited by this earth: ‘Gaïa se contentent de rappeler les traditions plus modestes d’un corps politique qui reconnaît enfin dans la Terre ce par quoi ce corps assemblé accepte solennellement d’être définitivement borné’.
  • To reintroduce the old ‘God’ of metaphyiscs is to forestall Gaian politics: ‘si vous en faites une divinité totale, vous suranimez et vous dépolitisez tout aussi sûrement’; ‘nous réalisons que nous sommes convoqués par un pouvoir qui est pleinement politique

Whatever [REL] is, then, it must not be religious where Gaia is not.

However, Gaian politics will depend on religion

Having said that, the extent to which we might embrace Gaian politics depends very much on the way in which we inherit religion and which religion it is that we inherit: ‘l’issue de ce combat dépend forcément de la façon dont nous nous rendrons capables d’hériter de la religion’. To put it in more general terms: ‘autour de ces questions passablement obscures de la fin, des buts, de la finitude, de l’infini, du sens, de l’absurde, et ainsi de suite, il y a toujours la question religieuse’.

  1. Secularisation is counter-religious

As we’ve seen before, Latour thinks that ‘secularisation’ is actually a counter-religious function: ‘ce qu’on appelle ‘sécularisation’ n’a fait que reprendre le trait principal des contre-religions—vivre dans la fin des temps—, mais en décalant cette fin des temps dans l’utopie de la modernisation, on comprend que l’accès au terrestre sera rendu impossible’.

  • It lives in ‘the end times’.
  • Thus it functions as a utopia.

Thus it has no immanence/ earth-boundedness

2. The overthrow of the secular cannot come via politics or science alone

The overthrow of the secular cannot be a function of politics or science alone: it must tackle this issue of the counter-religious origin: ‘même si nous parvenions à redonner une place aux sciences et à dynamiser de nouveau la politique, il n’en resterait pas moins que ceux qui ont hérité du modernisme—c’est-à-dire, aujourd’hui, la planète entière dans ce qu’elle a de globalisé ou de mondialisé—se situent dans un temps impossible, celui qui les a pour toujours arraché au passé et lancé dans un futur sans avenir’.

3. Religion must be an element in the new world

This is because religion is also a key component in the progressive composition of the common world, just like politics and science. Thus, the new world will come: ‘en acceptant la finitude : celle de la politique, celle des sciences, mais aussi celle des religions’.

  • This subverts the usual sociological comment that we must ‘leave religions behind us’ in order to make progress.
  • Religion is thus a ‘poison’ (in the guise of ‘counter-religion’), but also and crucially it is the ‘counter-poison’ also.

4. Religion must engage with the other modes to engage this new world

Another way of putting this is that religion is one of the three ingredients in the new common world that must be composed: ‘autrement dit, pouvons nous enchaîner trois humiliations en cascade, celle des sciences, de la politique et de la religion, au lieu de cet amalgame mortifère qui en a mélangé les vertus, mais n’a réussi qu’à nous empoisonner’.

Thus, ‘la religion en se limitant, apprenne à conspirer avec les sciences et la politique, pour redonner un sens à la notion de limite’.

End times

The final appeal of the book is to inhabit apocalypse, not utopia, which means switching from the ‘end of time’ to the ‘time of the end’:

Pouvons-nous réapprendre à vivre dans le temps de la fin, sans pour autant basculer dans l’utopie, celle qui nous a téléchargé dans l’au-delà, aussi bien que celle qui nous a fait manquer l’ici-bas?

The new world

The new world, the common world, that Latour wishes to invoke, then, is a rupture within space-time, not a rupture in space-time (this world seized differently, not another world):

Avant d’être enflée dans de grandioses scènes cosmiques à grand budget, la rupture radicale de l’eschatologie doit être d’abord reconnue dans une tonalité plus légère, plus humble et plus économe. La fin du temps n’est pas le Globe Final qui encercle tous les autres globes, la réponse finale au sens de l’existence; c’est plutôt une nouvelle différence, une nouvelle ligne, tracée à l’intérieur de toutes les autres lignes, qui les traverse partout, et qui donne un autre sens à tous les événements, c’est-à-dire un but, une présence finale et radicale, un achèvement. Non pas un autre monde, mais ce même monde saisi d’une façon radicalement nouvelle.

The wrong way to grasp the apocalypse

What Latour is seeking to avoid, then, is an understanding of these great theological themes as a flight into transcendence and out of this world. In other words, these themes as given by the old ST:

  • Eschaton: as ‘echappée hors du temps, en saut dans l’éternité, dans ce qui ne connaît pas de temps’.
  • Incarnation: as ‘altérée en fuite loin de toute chair vers le royaume désincarné du domaine spirituel du lointain’.
  • Salvation: as ‘tout ce que pour quoi, selon leur propre récit, leur propre Dieu avait fait mourir son propre Fils, à savoir la Terre de Sa Création’.

The Holy Spirit

It is difficult to know exactly what this means, but the (metaphorical?) appeal is finally made to the Holy Spirit as that which can renew the world, but only if it is working in the framework of a Gaian politics, not in the old politics of Nature: ‘le Saint Esprit peut ‘renouveler la surface de la Terre’, mais Il est impuissant quand on le confronte à la Nature sans visage’.

Bad theology

Theology goes wrong not when it addresses its theological themes (God, etc), but when it addresses them according to ‘Nature’, that is, in the guise of ‘Religion One’:

Comme il est étrange que les théologiens qui combattent le matérialisme, aient mis si longtemps à comprendre que ce sont eux qui ont construit, à travers les siècles, un véritable Culte de la Nature, c’est- à-dire la recherche d’une entité extérieure, immuable, universelle et indiscutable, par contraste avec le récit changeant, local, intriqué et discutable que nous autres Terriens habitons. Pour sauver le trésor de la Foi, ils l’avaient abandonné à l’Éternité.

Laudato Si


Latour was nearly in despair in seeing an understanding of religion in this way until he came across the encyclical:

  • It re-unites politics, science, religion (cf. chapter 6, where Toulmin had argued that 1610 saw their separation): ‘en rattachant enfin l’écologie avec la politique et sans mépriser pour autant les sciences’.
  • It enacts the new mode of conversion, which is not towards separation but rather towards composition: ‘serait-ce possible, me disais-je en lisant l’appel du Pape François à la conversion, que l’intrusion du Gaïa puisse nous rendre proches de tous les dieux?’.

The future

All is open, everything to play for.

New world

The new world that is to be found will not be via ‘expansion’ (Columbus, etc), but by ‘intensity’ (understanding better the earth we live on, not finding a new one): ‘il s’agit toujours de l’espace, de la terre, de découverte, mais c’est la découverte d’une Terre nouvelle considérée, si je peux dire, dans son intensité et non plus dans son extension’.












[1]   This is an allusion to the celebrated essay: Yves Lacoste, ‘La géographie, ça sert, d’abord, à faire la guerre’, 1982 (fn. 283).

New book by Christopher Watkin

I’m very pleased to see that my friend Christopher Watkin’s latest book has just been published. I have seen part of it – and as with all his writing it’s lucid, innovative and extremely up-to-date. Highly recommended: Chris is one of the very best Anglophone writers on Continental philosophy.

French Philosophy Today: New Figures of the Human in Badiou, Meillassoux, Malabou, Serres and Latour

Contemporary French philosophy is laying fresh claim to the human. Through a series of independent, simultaneous initiatives, arising in the writing of diverse current French thinkers, the figured of the human is being transformed and reworked. Christopher Watkin draws out both the promises and perils inherent in these attempts to rethink humanity’s relation to ‘nature’ and ‘culture’, to the objects that surround us, to the possibility of social and political change, to ecology and even to our own brains. This comparative assessment makes visible for the first time one of the most important trends in French thought today.


Notes on Face à Gaïa (Lecture 5)

Continuing my posts on Latour’s Face à Gaïa. Remember, these are nothing but notes: they don’t contain any of my own interpretation, so it’s really the case that they’re just a record of some of the themes and content of the book.

Lecture Five: Comment convoquer les différents peuples (de la nature)?

Hobbes and Nature

The difference between the two images (Leviathan frontispiece, Nature cover):



  1. The first proposes unity.
  2. The second proposes and enacts division; it is less clear how to act when faced by it.

Thus: ‘face au Léviathan, vous savez qui vous êtes et devant quelle autorité vous devez plier le genou; mais comment se comporter devant cet autre Cosmocolosse’.

The second image, corresponding to the Anthropocene, therefore marks a radical new situation in the world with which we must take account: ‘on peut douter que l’Anthropocène marque une époque géologique, mais pas qu’il désigne une transition qui oblige à tout reprendre’.

Religion in the Anthropocene

One of the things the Anthropocene (as represented by the Nature-image) shakes up is religion.

  • Where the Leviathan-image sought to situate religion in a clear and controlled way.
  • The Anthropocene has thrown it into doubt and unsettled it.

This is particularly the case for religions that claim some kind of global or all-encompassing authority: ‘la survenue de Gaïa oblige à douter de toutes les religions englobantes’.

Religion One

To be more precise, what is shaken up in the Anthropocene is the form of Religion One (as defined in the Gifford Lectures), that is, ‘l’étrange idée qui faisait de la Nature connue par la Science ce qui devait s’opposer à la Religion’. We might call this ‘natural religion’ in a specified sense to indicate this is religion under the aegis of the Modern Constitution (the ‘MC’), the Religion of the Moderns.

Religion One and land appropriation

Religion One, like all expressions of the MC, is always a function of a land appropriation:

C’est à toutes les cosmologies [in which religion is included as one] que la même question se pose: que veut dire, pour un peuple, de mesurer, représenter et composer la forme de la Terre à laquelle il se trouve attaché?

  • Religion One thus seeks to control, measure, represent, figure, etc that which is immanent and secular.
  • However, it does so from a position ‘above’ the immanent and secular, and thus is guilty of being transcendent and dogmatic.

An opportunity to corrode Religion One

The opportunity posed by the Anthropocene is to dissolve Religion One and to recast it instead as fully rational and veridicted: ‘c’est l’une des forces de Gaïa, cet acide si puissant, qu’elle corrode l’amalgame de toute religion naturelle’.

Religion Two and land appropriation

The recalibration of this debate will come via an act of remapping: ‘ce que je voudrais dessiner, c’est une carte grossière des territoires occupés par des peuples en lutte les uns contre les autres’. This would replace the artificial land appropriation given by Religion One above.

What is proposed, then, is a new spatial-temporal configuration of religion, which would be a land appropriation, or a *‘design’:

Pour esquisser un tel dessein, il nous faut apprendre à repérer, pour les collectifs jusque là mal assemblés par le format nature/ culture, comment ils pourraient s’entre définir, s’articuler l’un par l’autre, en procédant à des opérations que l’on pourrait dire de guerre ou de paix, autrement dit de diplomatie risqué.

Note from this quotation:

  • This procedure will entail operations of ‘war and peace’ (Schmitt).
  • This procedure will ultimately lead to ‘diplomacy’.

Five questions

If an institution (such as Religion Two) is to be mapped more appropriately, five questions will have to be posed, each of which concerns how the collective is to be composed:

  1. What is the supreme authority that collects it?
  2. What is the extent of the people gathered?
  3. What space do they occupy? (‘sur quel territoire se sentent-ils habités?’)
  4. What time do they believe they inhabit?
  5. What is the organizing principle (‘le principe d’organisation’) that distributes their agencies? = which is also called their ‘cosmogram’? This fifth question is the one that allows the value judgment (PRE) to arise.

This fivefold method will allow questions to be asked of religion that evade the Nature/ Culture schema.


To ask these questions is to arrange a collective on the ground. It is thus a land appropriation that seeks to displace the land appropriation previously in place. It is bound to entail jostling, repositioning, self-defence, etc against those who are trying to assimilate us to a different configuration:

La violence que doivent apprendre à regarder en face ceux qui prétendent assembler des peuples pour se défendre contre ceux qui prétendent détruire leur sol. Comment s’en étonner, puisque c’est bien dans une guerre des mondes que nous nous trouvons désormais engagés?

The (new) land appropriation will therefore follow the pattern: (A) violence first; (B) afterwards, a hope of diplomacy.


At this point, Latour picks up Serres’ definition of religion as the antonym of ‘neglect’.[1]

  • Religion is understood as a broad definition of whatever it is we take care of/ build together/ assemble. In fact, religion occurs wherever there is composition: ‘en ce sens, on le comprend volontiers, il n’existe pas de collectif irréligieux’.
  • Religion will only be lacking, then, where neglect of this principle of composition exists.

Religion and diplomacy

In adapting its compositional role, religion represents something like a radar able to detect compositional processes in general (and where they may or may not be present in other collectives). Thus, to be religious is ‘devenir attentif au choc, au scandale, que peut représenter pour un collectif le manque de soin d’un autre collectif. Autrement dit, être religieux, c’est d’abord se rendre attentif à ce à quoi d’autres tiennent’.

To be religious is therefore to be the highest form of diplomat: ‘c’est donc, pour partie, apprendre à se comporter en diplomate’.

What renders religion so diplomatic? It is because it is able to be sensitive to the fivefold questions posed above.

Q1. Religion is sensitive to the fact of a supreme authority that collects

For Latour, religion is equipped to enquire and respect the Durkheimian observation that all collectives have a supreme authority of one sort or another, whether that be a God or something else, and that the most important thing is that we at least come to see what that is. Thus: ‘nous le savons depuis que l’anthropologie existe: pas de collectif sans un rituel au cours duquel on découvre que le seul moyen de se rassembler réellement comme groupe consiste à être convoqué par cette autorité et à l’invoquer en retour’.

This is what Latour means when he says there is no secular, because however ‘secular’ a collective claims to be, it is still operating under the aegis of a supreme authority of some sort. To put it another way, for Latour there has to be a ‘god’ function in any collective.[2] Cf. John Milbank in Theology and Social Theory.


Q2. Religion is sensitive to the fact of a collective that sustains their supreme authority

The life of a collective is not secured only in a top-down way, however, but also by a reciprocal process of definition: people are assembled by a god; god is invoked by the people. This is a ‘mouvement d’aller-retour qui relie un peuple rassemblé par ses divinités à des divinités rassembleuses invoquées par leur peuple’. To put it another way: ‘pas de culte sans culture vivante; pas de culture sans culte vivant’.

Translation tables

A (religious) diplomat sensitive to Q1 and Q2 would be adapting a methodology akin to that of Assmann: it is to look underneath ‘names’ and towards ‘performances’: ‘tant que l’on s’en tient aux noms, on se bat sans cesse et en vain’.

The Mosaic division

Latour agrees with Assmann that the function of translation was systematically lost at a punctuated point of history: the Mosaic distinction.

With the MD, Latour seems to be agreeing that there was a particular moment in history (Moses) in which the possibility of being religious was lost and in which the phenomenon of Religion (using Assmann’s terms: ‘counter-religion’ or ‘secondary religion’) became a majority player on the stage.

Features of the MD include:

  • From that time on, we became non-attentive/ neglectful of that to which other collectives hold, thereby indicating that our own belief system was not being progressively composed in the common world (but rather that it was held to as a fundamental belief): ‘l’ancien sens du mot religion n’est plus compréhensible: bien au contraire, négliger ce à quoi les autres tiennent, telle est la nouvelle injonction’.
  • From that time on, the idea that we should be prepared to defend our own fundamental belief in the common world (by means of translation tables, for example) induces horror: ‘À partir de ce point de rupture dans l’histoire, on va pouvoir repérer l’irruption de la religion par les réactions d’horreur devant le relativisme modéré qu’autorisaient les tables de noms de dieux, et par la multiplication des gestes iconoclasts’.

Contemporary secularity as ‘religious’

  • The Mosaic Distinction (and the Religion of the Moderns that it sets in motion) seems to be a far cry from (what appears to be) our contemporary society, which is highly pluralistic and apparently tolerant.
  • And yet the dynamic that lies behind the Mosaic Distinction is everywhere apparent in our contemporary society, in the way it ‘invokes’ the ‘god’ Nature.
  • This is in spite of the fact that our contemporary society may well assume that it is secular, and perhaps even irreligious: ‘il ne suffisait pas pour être irréligieux de se croire irréligieux’.

True religion (which for Latour = REL, composition, secular) is rare in the contemporary world, then, because there is always a metaphysical over-determination waiting in ambush around every corner: ‘il y a toujours une déité en embuscade qui exige de n’être rendue commensurable avec aucune autre’.

Contemporary secularity, then, in spite of its pluralistic claims, refuses to enter into composition and thus acts as the worst kind of fundamentalist religion of the past. In fact, contemporary secularity has really just replaced the God of former times for the God as given by Nature: ‘du vrai Dieu fulminant contre toutes les idoles, on est passé à la vraie Nature fulminant contre tous les faux dieux’.

The Moderns are religious

Thus it can be said that the Moderns are the most religious people of all, by dint of the fact that they will have some concept of ‘truth’ that preys on the metaphysical status of a ‘supreme authority’:

Quoiqu’on pense des Modernes, aussi incroyants qu’ils s’estiment, aussi délivrés de toute divinité qu’ils s’imaginent, ils sont bien les héritiers directs de cette ‘division mosaïque’ puisqu’ils continuent à lier autorité suprême et vérité, à cette nuance près que la division passe désormais entre, d’un côté, croire en une religion quelconque et, de l’autre connaître la vérité de la nature.

Whatever one thinks of the Moderns, as unbelieving as they consider themselves to be, as free of all gods as they imagine themselves to be, they are all the same the direct inheritors of the ‘Mosaic Division’, insofar as they continue to associate truth with a supreme authority, if we nuance the division by understanding it nowadays as passing, on the one hand, between belief in some religion and, on the other hand, knowledge of the truth of nature. (my loose translation)

And this is the case however vehemently ‘secular’ the Modern in question might conceive himself as being, and indeed however anti-monotheistic he might conceive himself as being: ‘même ceux qui vomissent les religions monothéistes, leur ont emprunté cette façon si particulière de vomir l’idolâtrie’.

Nature is revealed as ‘Religion One’ by dint of translation tables

  • The cry of indignation quickly rises: Nature is not a ‘god’ that is invoked like Jesus or Buddha; it is simply how things are.
  • But be patient, and apply the category of ‘Nature’ to the translation exercise outlined above.
  • This will soon show that Nature ‘n’est pas un domaine mais un concept’.

Cenosotone as deity

Thus follows the thought-exercise around the collective: ‘ce-dont-nous-sommes-tous-nés’, the equivalent of OWWABB in the Giffords. Here, cenosotone can be taken as the ‘deity’ that convokes a people. The question is, what kind of deity is this?

Cenosotone is of course the deity: Nature One.

There follows lengthy descriptions of the contrast between theory (what the Moderns think cenosotone is) and practice (how cenosotone actually functions):

  1. Externality.
  2. Universality (in the sense that all agents obey its law).
  3. Inanimate (in the sense that individual agents don’t have their own wills).
  4. Indiscutable (in the sense that it presents itself as a closed matter of fact, not as a matter of concern).

Of course, these functions are contradicted by practice: ‘les attributs sur lesquels insistent ses adeptes révèlent également que la Nature est à l’intérieur, qu’elle est multiple, qu’elle accepte de se trouver aux prises avec des êtres animés et fortement controversés, qu’elle a une histoire confuse et que son extension est aussi limitée que variable’.

In summary, cenosotone is a ‘deity’ that should be understood as compositional (cheiropoeite), but which is all to often taken as non-compositional (acheiropoeite): ‘tout se passe comme si ces gens devaient faire tourner leur cosmologie autour de deux foyers en même temps: l’une où tout est extérieur, où rien n’est fait par l’homme; l’autre où tout est intérieur et fait par l’homme’.

It is clear why the people of cenostone are so unstable (as Latour would say in WNM, they are unstable between theory and practice): ‘on comprend pourquoi ce peuple divisé contre lui-même est tellement inquiet, tellement instable’.

Cenosotone and space-time

Importantly, when cenosotone is entered into a translation table under the ‘deity’ column, the collective that results is revealed as being spatially-temporally awry:

  • To be convoked by the deity cenostone means that one does not defend a spatial territory, that is, that one’s feet are literally not implanted in this ground (thus, that this person has become airily transcendent): *it indicates ‘la plus étrange façon d’être et de ne pas être de ce monde. Ils refusent d’être un peuple et d’être limité à un territoire. Ils sont à la fois partout et nulle part, absents et présents, envahissants et d’une négligence ahurissante’.
  • To be convoked by the deity cenostone means that one does not occupy a temporal moment, that is, that one’s feet are literally not situated in a particular historical moment (thus, that this person has become airily non-temporal): *one has become ‘universel, et l’époque où il se situe de tous les temps’.

The convocation of the deity cenosotone does not ground one in space-time, then: ‘ce peuple est décidemment inassignable, d’autant qu’il est aussi impossible à situer dans le temps que dans l’espace. À quelle époque appartient-il? À aucune, puisqu’il est indifférent à l’histoire et qu’il accède à des vérités universelles qui existeraient de toute éternité’.

  • The people of cenosotone do have an account of their own historicity, however, but it is one that is grounded in revolution and rupture: ‘en même temps, bien sûr, ce peuple a une histoire et il se reconnaît comme l’héritier d’une rupture radicale, arrivée récemment, et qui lui a permis d’échapper à un passé archaïque, obscur et confus, pour entrer dans une époque plus lumineuse qui permet de distinguer radicalement le passé du présent et du futur radieux : quelque chose comme une Révolution scientifique’.
  • When the people of cenosotone encounter how history really is, its twists and turns, they simply don’t know what to do with it: ‘ce peuple sans histoire a bel et bien une histoire dont il ne sait pas quoi faire et qu’il considère comme quelque chose d’aussi honteux que d’appartenir à un sol’.

We should not be surprised at their groundlessness, which is due to the impossibility of them understanding their own composition: ‘comment s’étonner qu’il se sente incapable d’occuper la Terre en sachant où il se trouve et ce qu’il peut y faire, alors même qu’il prétend la saisir ‘dans sa globalité’’.

Cenosotone in the time of the Anthropocene

The significance of the Anthropocene is that it disrupts the assumptions made by those convoked by cenosotone and serves as a means of re-uniting the artificial division made between theory and practice:

Et l’on ne s’étonnera pas qu’il prenne si mal aussi bien l’irruption de Gaïa que l’hypothèse de l’Anthropocène qui l’obligeraient à s’ancrer, à se situer, à expliciter enfin ce qu’il veut, ce qu’il est, à désigner enfin quels sont ses amis et ses ennemis.

Note that Gaia (as given in the Anthropocene hypothesis) is that which challenges the Moderns to enter themselves into a translation table and to define themselves according to a Schmittian politics.

What kind of a composition does Cenosotone create?

To be convoked under the name of Cenosotone is to be torn between the list of traits given above:

  • son statut d’extraterritorialité l’empêche de définir son territoire
  • son universalité lui interdit de comprendre les relations qu’il doit établir
  • sa quête d’objectivité le paralyse devant les controverses dont il ne sait plus sortir
  • sa prétention à embrasser tout le monde le laisse déconcerté devant le petit nombre de ceux qui lui appartiennent vraiment
  • quand à son histoire, il ne sait jamais s’il doit sortir du temps présent par une nouvelle révolution ou sortir de l’idée même de révolution radicale

In other words, Cenosotone is not a collective entity at all; it is one that has been imposed undiplomatically: ‘il n’accepte jamais de se présenter comme un collectif, justement, et surtout comme un collectif au milieu des autres en précisant son mode de collecte, son cosmogramme’.

Religion One

Nature One, cenosotone, is matched by an equivalent deity: Religion One. This is the deity of ‘Dieu ordonnateur’. And the people this deity convokes are: ‘le peuple qui se déclare Enfants du Grand Dessein ou encore Peuple de la Création’.

Comparisons of Religion One and Nature One

General observations:

  • In general, Religion One is just as non-compositional as Nature One: ‘on fait appel à une autre autorité suprême qui n’est pas si différente de la première colonne du tableau ci-dessus’.
  • It shares three features in particular: its truth is given as exterior, universal and incontestable.
  • Just as the people of Nature One are rigorously selected according to what they believe and housed in a particular institution (Science), so the people convoked by this deity are ‘selected’ (‘ils sont recrutés par une procédure explicite — une forme de conversion’) and housed in a particular institution (Church).

Two more interesting comparisons:

  • Both propose a temporal ‘rupture’ in their own pasts. This is the moment in which the ‘deity’ intervenes from outside of this world: […] ces deux peuples partagent cette idée qu’une rupture radicale a eu lieu dans un passé plus ou moins proche. Rupture qui les a propulsé dans une histoire totalement nouvelle que les uns l’appellent celle de la Lumière, les autres, au pluriel, celle des Lumières. L’important, c’est qu’ils se situent tous les deux dans le temps qui succède à une rupture radicale—Révélation ou Révolution.
  • Neither therefore have a rationality that comes from this world: ‘quant à l’appartenance au sol, elle leur manque à tous deux également, le premier parce qu’il est de toutes façons hors sol, le second parce qu’il appartient à un autre monde, celui, apparemment, du sens et des buts, d’un grand Dessein, d’une Providence vers laquelle ils aspirent à se télécharger.

Difference between Religion One and Nature One

The key difference, and what causes the Science vs Religion conflict, is that Religion One results in the over-animation, rather than the de-animation (cause-and-effect), of its agents: ‘elle a en effet les mêmes caractères, à ceci près qu’elle s’obstine à suranimer ce que l’autre s’obstine à désanimer’.

This difference is exhibited in design-type arguments (eg. the intricacy of the human eye). For one, the intricacy signals nothing more than a creator God; to the other, the intricacy signals nothing more than evolutionary contingency. For one, there is a Watchmaker, for the other, a Blind Watchmaker. Both, however, are reductionist, in that in both there is ‘une perte de puissance d’agir, de narration, d’histoire, de géohistoire qui transforme Gaïa en un Système autorégulé’.

Thus, those who explain the intricacy of the eye by means of evolutionary contingency are positing a MP every bit as much as those who explain it be means of a creator God: ‘ce qu’il y a de particulièrement déconcertant pour ceux qui, comme moi, estiment ceux qui chantent la gloire de Dieu aussi bien que ceux qui célèbrent l’objectivité des sciences, c’est que le deuxième récit, en gommant toutes les surprises que l’on trouve à foison dès que l’on suit l’histoire de la structure de l’œil, s’efforce d’être aussi pauvre que le précédent’.

Both, therefore, have problems with emergence.


Neither Nature One nor Religion One have an account of agency that will enable the Moderns to handle the temporal connotations of the phenomenon of emergence:

  • By positing a metaphysical principle of determination, and thus a model of cause-and-effect, they presuppose that the future is entirely contained in the presenting situation. There is thus a ‘net gain’ of zero in any actantial situation: ‘en termes de rôles actantiels—horribles mots pour une si belle chose—le résultat net est zéro puisque la quantité d’animation n’a pas augmenté d’un iota.
  • Thus, nothing new happens, and there is literally no history: ‘tout est dans la cause, rien dans l’effet. Autrement dit, littéralement, rien ne se passe. Le passage du temps ne fait rien au monde. Il n’y a pas d’histoire.

Emergence as Creation

Latour uses the term ‘creation’ (without connotation of the ‘Creator’ or ‘creationism’ of Religion One) in order to describe the model of agency that can handle emergence:

  • Cause-and-effect is not sufficient to explain emergence: ‘la création—qui est l’inverse du créationnisme—suppose que le rapport cause-conséquence soit modifié de telle sorte que la conséquence déborde quelque peu sur la cause’.
  • Emergence-as-creation therefore describes time as moving from the future to the present: ‘ce qui revient à dire que le temps coule de l’avenir vers le présent, et non pas du passé vers le présent. Ou, pour le dire encore autrement, que les conséquences, d’une certaine façon, ‘choisissent’ toujours quelles seront leurs causes’.

Science vs Religion

The debate between ‘materialists’ and ‘spiritualists’ is thereby revealed to be in error:

Et pourtant que de salive on a dépensé pour distinguer
’spiritualistes’ et ‘matérialistes’! Au bout de quelque temps, on ne comprend plus où est la dispute : un dessin et un Ingénieur contre un dessein et un Créateur, quel beau combat en effet, bien digne qu’on s’étripe.

There is no need to continue to fight, nor to reconcile them in their current forms, because neither of them have a correct understanding of the nature of the agency that determines them: ‘on comprend pourquoi il ne sert à rien d’accuser la Science d’être un substitut de religion, ni de chercher dans une religion naturelle ce qui pourrait convaincre les incroyants de l’existence de la Providence. On ne peut ni opposer, ni réconcilier les visions scientifiques et religieuses du monde’.

Instead, it would be better to redefine both nature and religion from scratch: ‘il vaut mieux tenter de faire tout le contraire et de dissoudre l’amalgame entre les deux’.

Natural religions

Religion One should not be known as ‘natural religion’, then. Both Religion One and Nature One are ‘natural religions’:


Radical Rupture

The diagramme above shows the Moderns (Nature One, Religion One) living in a particular époque: this is given by a rupture radicale:

  • This rupture radicale in the past determines the cause-and-effect progress of the future. Another way of saying this is: the Moderns believe ‘le monde a une fin’, but only in the sense that this fin will be the inevitable outcome of their own progress: ‘les buts qu’il poursuit seraient définitivement atteints’.
  • For Religion One, this rupture radicale might be understood in a variety of ways, for example: ‘être ‘sauvés’, être ‘enfants d’un Dieu qui prend soin de nous’, être ‘le peuple choisi par Dieu’,
’avoir été créé’, ‘se trouver dans la Présence’’ .

Religion One thus exhibits an eschatological tension: ‘les temps sont accomplis, mais qu’ils durent’.


[1]   Serres, (1992), Le Contrat Naturel, p.81.

[2]   Cf. Latour’s comments in the sixth Gifford, where he attempts to define what diplomatic value his diagnosis has brought about: he has sought to provide ‘a diplomatic reach wide enough to engage in parleys with potential allies; and, who are summoned by an entity—a divinity, a God, a set of gods, a god function—through specific rituals that would make such a people conscious of their existence’ (Gifford Lectures, p.124).

The Characteristics of [REL], 3 of 3

The third characteristic of [REL] is hesitation. Hesitation is the reflex of reprise. It resists transcendent closure (‘religion is this or that experience’) and continually refers back to the performance of entities in the common world for its definition (‘this or that experience is religious’).

Latour suggests that hesitation, in the form of doubt, marks the response of the faithful even in light of what appears to be direct address from the Divinity (the paradigmatic instance being the ‘call of the prophet’ narrative forms of the Hebrew Bible): ‘not once, in all the Scriptures, do we find traces of someone who was called who could say that he was sure, really sure, that the beings of the Word were there and that he had really understood what they wanted of him’ (Latour, An Inquiry into Modes of Existence, p.310). Except, the same passage goes on, ‘the sinner’, who is thus defined as the one who unflinchingly accepts religious experience as an in-form-ational medium (ibid).[1] In order to dis-amalgamate from [DC], Latour suggests that [REL] will tend towards appropriating and celebrating (what might be called) ‘sticky liturgies’, that is, words from its own tradition that are ‘hard to swallow’, ‘bristling with contradictions’, ‘bizarre’, ‘clumsy’, ‘sticking in our craws’, and so on (Latour, Rejoicing, or the Torments of Religious Speech, p.100). By means of sticky liturgies, [REL] turns its attention to the logistical procedures of the common world.

In this regard Latour reflects the influence of Michel Serres. For Serres, religion is best understood through its complex etymology derived from relegare (‘to read over again’), religare (‘to attach, bind, tie together’) or religiens (‘care, carefulness’, this word being the antonym of negligens): he suggests that religion inherits from all three roots but particularly the latter. In this way religion is orientated away from the notion of ‘belief’, which both Serres and Latour disdain, and towards the notion of ‘concern’, which they celebrate as orientation towards the secular, the mundane and the worldly.

Bringing these three characteristics together, we might therefore suggest that the most distinctive feature of [REL] is ‘subsistence’ (which can now be contrasted with ‘fundamentalism’ as the basic posture of the Religion of the Moderns). Subsistence is once again demonstrable from the empirical site. In seeking to affirm their love, Latour suggests that both partners understand ‘that their love is either a substance whose attributes serve no purpose, or that [they themselves] are responsible for bringing out its attributes and then, yes, effectively, their love stands underneath—which is precisely what the word ‘sub-stance’ means—all the shows of tenderness and affection’ (Latour, Rejoicing, p.126). Amatory speech can be encoded either as ‘substance’, where it lazily leans upon a previous utterance without taking upon itself the work of activating it in the present, or as ‘sub-stance’ (or ‘subsistence’, as Latour more commonly calls it), where it takes responsibility for continually activating its own value in the present moment by means of reprise. The same contrast applies to religion. Unlike the Religion of the Moderns, which operated via a ‘fundamental’ substrate of information, [REL] does not consist in ‘a substance preserved intact over time, like a gold coin forgotten under a mattress that you might come across happily years later’ (Latour, Rejoicing, p.126). Instead, [REL] encodes a movement of subsistence: first comes the performance of a religious experience, and only afterwards can this performance be validated (or not) according to the value it has incarnated. It is no exaggeration to say, then, that subsistence reverses the direction of meaning of a religious experience. A religious truth claim is revealed after (not before) its performance:

I begin with the utterance and end with a substance, I start from existence, from its fragile dependence on the right word, and I recapitulate it after that in an essence. First I make the thing exist and only after that do I name it. (Latour, Rejoicing, p.128).

Hence, it is more accurate to think of [REL] as a participial construction (‘religiously’) than as a referential object (‘religion’).

Defining [REL] in terms of subsistence, however, does not imply relativism.

This is because whichever mode is in view—whether this be [REL] or anything else—objectivity is not granted by appeal to a transcendent, unalterable notion of substance, but via the subsistent movements of entities. The telos of Latour’s entire intellectual project is towards the development of a realism without substance. The regime of truth specific to [REL], like that of any other mode, does not lose objectivity when it is validated by means of its performance within the common world. Rather, ‘as soon as we put it [religion] back on its feet, 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’ (Latour, Rejoicing, p.138). Only when religion trades in the trans-form-ational utterances of subsistence, rather than the in-form-ational utterances of [DC], will it attain to the status of fully rational discourse.


[1]    Latour includes in this condemnation are the official representatives of the institutional Church when they collude with the Religion of the Moderns in seeking to preserve, rather than reprise, doctrine: ‘the people whose job it is to change words so as to keep the meaning, clerics, have preferred piously to preserve the words at the risk of losing their meaning: they’ve left us, the rest of us, we latecomers, ignoramuses, stutterers, equipped with words that have become untruthful for the purposes of recording the real things we hold dear to our hearts’ in Latour, Rejoicing (2013), p.8.

Thinking about the French thinking

Dr Sudhir Hazareesingh is a very important mediator of and commentator on French thought for an English audience (this book, for example, is a good start for anyone dipping their toes into the field). In this recent lecture delivered at the LSE, he argues that French ‘progressive’ (his words) thought currently finds itself in a cul-de-sac of moribund ideation and reduced influence on national and global politics.

However, the diagnosis (and therefore also the prognosis) is simplistic. First, he conflates ‘progressive’ with ‘leftish’, and then elevates this fabular entity into the standard-bearer for all ‘legitimate’ or proper’ French philosophy. Second, he defines the power of this entity as generated by its ability to foster grand and unifying narratives that can join up the dots of the complexity of meaning que l’on trouve sur le terrain and unify it towards a progressive end (although he does nod towards acknowledging the corresponding blindness of those within this ideology to assimilating the value of the ‘Other’ in their midst, and the straight line that leads to the appropriation of laïcité by Marine le Pen these days).

Perhaps it was for want of time, but Hazareesingh misses the strand of French thought that is really interesting – and that I and many others would claim represents, in fact, the true inheritance of French intellectual life: namely, the radically immanentist, fecundly pluralist ontologies of Michel Serres, Bruno Latour and (that adopted French intellectual) Peter Sloterdijk. Actually, Hazareesingh slips into precisely the error that Latour diagnoses as symptomatic of the Moderns: his definition of ‘progress’ has its arrow pointing the wrong way! So he ends up describing a politics that can do nothing but oscillate between the two traditional ‘attractors’ and has not yet taken account of the all-important third attractor, the one that changes everything.

So nice intro. Worth a listen. But in 200 years time the histories of French thought will, methinks, be identifying a very different lineage from the one for which Hazareesingh is writing the memento mori here.