Here is an excellent short introduction to the theology of Latour by the ever-wonderful John Reader: do check it out.
If you are in or near Oxford next week and are interested in philosophies of “new materialism” and how they might relate to contemporary theology, do come to this event:
The event will centre on the publication of a very important new book by John Reader. An expert panel, featuring Beverley Clack, James Hanvey and Tim Howles (!) will discuss the themes and arguments of the book, which include not only issues of human agency and transcendence, but also the search for a New Enlightenment and practical issues of politics, aesthetics and technology. There will likely be a healthy dose of Latour from at least one of the panellists!
Following the panel presentation, a wider debate will follow in which all are invited to participate. Drinks afterwards.
But do sign up here for free. Thanks.
See my first post on the topic here.
Latour’s appropriation of the concept of utopia is quite different from what I described in my previous post.
Latour understands utopia to be a representation of a certain spatial conditioning effect that is imposed upon the human subject by the epistemological regime of Modernity. Unlike the social theorists mentioned in my previous post, then, Latour dismisses the possibility of utopia functioning as a resource by which alternative futures might be mapped and by which constructive political forces might be motivated. On the contrary, he shows how the discourse of utopia, wherever it is found in the contemporary West, refers to a territory that has already been mapped out for its inhabitants and thus contains within itself no internal dynamic for change. The idea of utopia does not facilitate a social imaginary in which a different configuration of human existence to the one currently being lived might be thought and through which progressive action to achieve it might be unleashed. Instead, it functions to neutralize all thought of an alternative future, thereby de-animating the associative ‘political’ forces that would be required to bring it about. For Latour, utopia is therefore subservient to the teleology of Modernity, whose end is always to abridge and curtail the generative complexity of the ‘political’ movements of plural actors in favour of an account of the world that is imposed upon it ‘from above.
Latour’s description of utopia in this negative sense develops out of his analysis of globalization, which he interprets as a vehicle for the epistemology of Modernity in general.
What is globalization? It is a logic of commerce and exchange that promises a large and unambiguous net gain for everyone. Because globalization allows different kinds of producers and consumers to inter-connect across borders, so the celebratory narrative goes, all would ultimately enjoy the benefits of progress and growth that globalized economic and trade networks would facilitate.
For Latour, however, that narrative is idealized, its promise of some kind of integrated wealth distribution being ultimately unrealizable. This is because, far from mobilizing associative forces, globalization has in fact already defined territories within which its various stakeholders must operate, thereby foreclosing the possibility that these same stakeholders will define any other future for themselves than the one they are currently experiencing. For all its expanded borders, globalization imprisons us all within a territory. Globalization thus imposes a utopia upon those who live within its reach, in the negative sense that I defined in my previous post.
In order to illustrate why globalization functions in this way, I will consider some of the expressions of utopia that Latour identifies and describes in our contemporary globalized world.
The 1% of Global Elites
The first is the utopia of the global elites, the 1% who are able to profit from the wealth generated by globalized networks of capital flow. Whilst their rhetoric has warmly embraced the concept of globalization as an opportunity for the material benefit of the whole, this minority section of society was really leveraging globalization for its own end and had no will to see greater wealth and resource distribution to the majority. For these elites, globalization was a utopia that only they would be inhabiting in the end. The self-interested and exclusionary utopic vision of these global elites was exposed by the global recession of 2008–2009 and by the retrenchment of capital flow that followed, when the myth of the progressive spread of wealth to the whole was suddenly and brutally revealed as hollow. Latour makes this point in a recent article on the future of the European project, where he observes that “si la mondialisation était une utopie—elle était réservée à ceux qui avaient abandonné jusqu’à l’idée de faire monde commun avec les masses” (my translation: “if globalization were a utopia—it was one reserved for those who had abandoned the idea of making a common world with the masses”).
The Fragmented Remainder of hte 99%
But there is also a second utopia. This is the utopia of the fragmented remainder. After the recession of 2008–2009, having realised that the project of globalization would not be serving their interests in the way that had been rhetorically mooted, those who were not global elites found themselves regressing to an alternative vision of utopia, which would be a space that this time they themselves would occupy and call their own, and in which they would not be beholden to the global elites as previously. This was the utopia of the nation-state, with the protections that are implied by its clearly-defined and firmly-policed borders. As Latour puts it in that same article, the utopias of the fragmented majority are the various spaces of “ceux qui fuient à rebours vers la protection, elle tout à fait imaginaire, assurée par les frontières nationales ou ethniques” (my translation, “those who flee backwards towards the completely imaginary protection offered by national and ethnic borders”). Latour proposes this second utopia as an explanation for the populism that has surfaced in contemporary British (post-Brexit), European and Trumpian politics, which is characterised by its promise to uphold the identities of those who are threatened by globalizing trends precisely by returning to or re-instating a narrower definition of what constitutes a valid social community, often couched in terms of nationally- or ethnically-based identity markers and anti-immigration policy platforms.
But in both cases—the minority utopia of the globalizing elites and the populist, border-orientated utopia of the fragmented majority who have been left behind—these utopias symbolize singular, monistic and defensive occupations of a territory, where the impetus to include or to represent the interests of other actors, those who are not yet incorporated into the territory, is diminished and sometimes even halted entirely. In other words, Latour identifies globalization as a generator of utopias that (A) are already fully realized in the present; (B) are premised on a gesture of exclusion of new entrants into the utopian territory that has been established; and therefore (C) cannot be vehicles for the sort of future-orientated, associative politics that is envisaged by the social theorists described above, and that Latour himself encodes in his concept of nonmodernity. In this way, Latour offers a revisionist critique of the contemporary project of globalization.
Latour advances one additional, but very important, point about the utopias that have arisen in the contemporary globalized world: they must actually be understood as non-spaces, in the sense that those who inhabit them find themselves removed and dislocated from the concrete space of this world in which ‘political’ existence can take place. Hence, as Latour puts it in his recent text, to invest in “l’utopie de la Modernization” (whichever version of utopia is in view) means that “l’accès au terrestre sera rendu impossible” (my translation: “access to the earthly has been made impossible”). When he refers to “le terrestre” (or, in other formulations, to “the Earth” or to that which is “Earthbound”), Latour is describing how the utopias of globalized Modernity cause human beings to be dislocated from their attachments to this world as if they were finding themselves dislocated from physical existence on the planet Earth itself and elevated to a realm located somewhere else. Perhaps this accounts for trends in the genre of ‘utopian’ writing itself, whose internal geography, it seems to me, has had to become more and more fantastical over time as it has begun to exhaust or exceed the boundaries of this Earth (think of Hollywood). Whereas for the Renaissance utopias the exoticism of the New World sufficed, the genre has since then found itself increasingly having to explore other or parallel worlds in various modes of avant-garde, symbolic or science-fiction writing.
Utopia must therefore be understood “au sens étymologique de ce qui est nulle part”. Or, as Latour put it in a lecture delivered in 2009:
For me, the whole history of the Moderns offers up a most radical utopia in the etymological sense: the Moderns have no place, no topos, no locus to sit and stay.
The idea of the planet Earth as the literal, physical site (Latour sometimes refers to the “soil” that lies “under our feet” to render the image as clearly as possible) on which human existence must be elementarily grounded is a hugely powerful one in his recent work. Its opposite or negation, namely, human existence as that which has become displaced or dislocated from its situatedness on Earth, is a good description of Modernity and of the gesture of transcendence that lies at its heart and that functions as its operating principle. This idea has already been encountered in this chapter in the idiom of “le point de vue de Sirius”, which is the cosmo-eccentric vantage-point from which Modernity artificially fixes the movements of actors in the space of the ‘down below’.
This same utopic space, and its implications for what might be called ‘Earthbound’ existence, is also explored by Carl Schmitt, with delicate irony, in the foreword to a book he wrote in the context of the post-war political situation in Europe, published in 1950, entitled The Nomos of the Earth.
In this very interesting text, Schmitt provides an idiosyncratic historical analysis of European political order. His argument is that, even though there have evidently been many regional conflicts and wars between European countries, a state of general stability has nevertheless been maintained within the European mainland over many centuries because of a particular spatial configuration that he calls a “nomos”. His argument is that this (relatively) stable order was made possible by the fact that extra-European territory was available in the New World and elsewhere for “discovery, occupation and expansion” by the primary European powers. This provided an ‘outside’ that guaranteed a flow of (relatively) stable political forces ‘inside’ Europe. At the time of writing, however, with evidence of the chaos of post-war disintegration all around him, Schmitt diagnoses this particular spatial ordering as rapidly coming to an end. Pondering the possible shape and form of a new nomos, he ruefully suggests that it would require some “fantastic parallel” to the previous one, such as could only be conceived “if men on their way to the moon discovered a new and hitherto unknown planet that could be exploited freely and utilized effectively to relieve their struggles on Earth”. In other words, Schmitt acknowledges that European political order (and, by implication, the nomos of the entire world) had been premised on a utopic ideology in which a new space, situated somewhere else, always had to be found. Since that new space was no longer available in the twentieth-century (short of rapid progress in technologies by which humans might be able to colonise other planets!), a perpetuation of that same nomos was no longer feasible. Instead, for Schmitt, a process of de-utopianization must take place: “human thinking again must be directed to the elemental orders of its terrestrial being here and now”, he writes in the Foreword, so as to re-conceive “the normative order of the earth”.
The analysis, and critique, of utopic space as being, literally, a space of ‘no-where’, is a unifying feature of all Schmitt’s post-war writing. For example, in a 1955 radio broadcast entitled ‘Dialogue on New Space’, Schmitt contrasts two modes of understanding of space that correspond exactly with what I have described above. The first is embodied in dramatic terms by the character of ‘MacFuture’, whose understands the maintenance of post-war global order in terms of American cultural and economic exceptionalism, and the possibility of forms of technological progress that would enable advanced nation-states to move beyond the restrictions imposed upon them by their own boundaries. This character is therefore an advocate for the utopia of globalization. The second understanding of space is voiced in dramatic terms by Schmitt’s own mouthpiece, a character called ‘Altmann’, who advocates instead for an associative mode of politics that takes place in the concrete space of this world, and not in a utopia that abridges or curtails this activity by situating actors in a ‘nowhere’ of transcendence: “the new spaces, out of which this new call comes, must therefore be found upon our Earth, and not outside in the cosmos”, as this character prophetically announces.
As far as Latour is concerned, Modernity has implications for our experience of space and time. In fact, Modernity exerts what I sometimes call a “spatio-temporal conditioning effect” upon our lived experience.
This theme in Latour’s writing on Modernity culminates in his description of contemporary Western society as being characterised by ‘utopia’ (the condition of being ‘without space’) and ‘achronia’ (the condition of being ‘without time’).
But first of all, what is the current state of the field in relation to this theme of utopia? What work is it doing in contemporary discourse?
With reference to the work of twentieth-century theorists such as Ernst Bloch, Zygmunt Bauman and Karl Mannheim, this book shows how the concept of utopia has been positively re-appropriated in recent years, both as a framework for literary and artistic production, and as a tool to relate social theory to social practice and, indeed, praxis. Those working within this trajectory have no interest in utopia understood either as the fortuitous or imagined recovery of a lost earthly paradise or golden age, nor as a future, apocalyptic unveiling and donation of some such space by means of the Providence of God. Rather, they are interested in the idea of utopia as a space that might be achieved by the agency of humanitas and associative politics.
In an article within this volume, Lyman Tower Sargent traces the lineage of this mode of utopic thinking from ancient sources (the Ancient Egyptian Tale of the Eloquent Peasant, Solon, the Lycurgus of Plutarch, the Cryopaedia of Xenophon, Plato’s Republic and Laws), through to the Utopia of Thomas More, from there to Francis Bacon, Giordano Bruno, the Hartlib Circle, the eighteenth-century novel (Defoe, Swift, Johnson) and nineteenth-century science fiction (Wells, Huxley, Orwell), all the way to the progressive social theorists of the twentieth-century mentioned above. The idea of utopia understood in this way is offered to the contemporary reader as both an aspiration and as an objective to actualize in space and in time. As something that is potentially achievable via the co-operative action of humans, utopia is seized upon by these thinkers as something that can contest the static and calcifying drift that they see as inherent to political, economic and religious ideology and system. The concept of utopia thus becomes a tool by which progressive action in the present moment can be stirred up and energized.
Latour’s appropriation of the concept is quite different. I will explore that in my next post.
Stephen Gaukroger’s monumental series on the modern world is a must-read for those interacting with Latour’s concept of Modernity.
In this third volume, published last year, Gaukroger considers the crucial period 1739 (the publication of Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature) to 1841 (the publication of Feuerbach’s Essence of Christianity). He argues that this period saw an abrupt but fundamental shift in the way in which scientific enquiry was conceived, such that science came to be understood as the essential means of explanation of the human condition. The key formula thus becomes “the naturalization of the human”, by which Gaukroger means the constitution in empirical terms of questions about the human realm that had up to that point taken a non-empirical form.
I’ve written a brief review here.
The argument I have been advancing on this blog has centred on the claim that religious categories are essential to Latour’s philosophical project. Modernity, notwithstanding its claims, is ‘religious’ because it leverages categories of transcendence to secure its political hegemony over minority collectives in the world. Modernity is always making a move upwards to the transcendent, and then using what it finds there to secure its own epistemology as unified, de-animated, indisputable, and so on. This is where it gets its understanding of ‘Nature’, ‘Society’, ‘the Economy’, and so on. The movement up and down is associated with the being of ‘the crossed-out God of Modernity’.
Latour’s analysis of Modernity as ‘religious’ can be applied to our contemporary situation, and in particular to our cherished ideology of secularism. This is the ideology that Latour claims has become ubiquitous in what he loosely describes as ‘Europe’ or ‘the West’. Latour considers the phenomenon of ‘Western’ secularism as failing according to its own definition.
Evidently, a full consideration of how the term ‘secularism’ is understood and appropriated, let alone how it has come to determine the self-identity of those inhabiting ‘the West’, is beyond the scope of this blog post. To begin with, I am going to borrow a definition provided by Graham Ward in his 2014 article ‘The Myth of Secularism’. Ward understands secularism as a post-Enlightenment ideology and social ‘habitus’. Its distinctive feature is to propose itself as a neutral scenography that is able to guarantee the emancipation and flourishing of all human ideologies precisely because it is neutral with regard to those ideologies itself. Thus, Ward proposes the following definition:
Secularism as a norm, as the natural default position prior to individual life choices, as the eternal condition upon which constructive choices can be made
For Latour, this neutrality is precisely what cannot be predicated of secularism. This is because he understands secularism to be an expression of Modernity and therefore an inheritor of the structure of religion that Modernity encodes.
This enables Latour to make the apparently paradoxical claim that Western society is characterised above all by ‘religious fundamentalism’. With this term, he is not referring to some kind of regressive or recursive adherence to a particular religious creed or tradition. Nor is he referring to the so-called ‘return of religion’ in contemporary French philosophy as has been exhaustively documented in recent studies by McCaffery and Lambert, whose programme can be better understood as an attempt to reform secularism by means of a secular critique of religion, and as such representing ‘a more profound post-secular phenomenon’. Rather, Latour is referring to the way in which the political, cultural and economic existence of Western society is characterised by its immanentisation of the category of transcendence, such that the decisions and choices its subjects make do not arise from processes of progressive composition that take place within this framework of this world. In other words, Latour is criticising Western society for possessing an irreducible belief system. Whatever its claims to secular neutrality, then, Latour’s analysis arraigns the West for being guilty of re-inscribing a discourse that its own adherents would suppose had passed away with the most hegemonic and dogmatic forms of fundamentalist religion of the past.
By means of this insight, in a series of recent articles Latour has proposed a controversial connection between the contemporary (European) secular state and non-state actors engaged in violent religious extremism and even Jihad-inspired terrorism. For example, in a newspaper opinion piece written in response to the Charlie Hebdo massacres that took place in Paris in January 2015, published in Le Monde, he argues that the fundamental ideology of those criminals was ultimately the same, albeit in perniciously mutated form, as the one espoused and promoted by the secular ideology they were seeking to destroy:
It comes from those who believe they possess a knowledge that is so absolute that they have the right to impose it without having to take into account the necessary brakes of law, of politics, of morality, of culture or of simple good sense. It comes when certain people in the name of the utopia of a paradise on earth assume to themselves the right to impose hell on those who hesitate or don’t obey fast enough.
The hegemony over interpretation of truth claimed by the Jihadists is a function of political religion. But Latour’s startling claim is that an identical movement is enacted within the secular West as well. Both claim access to transcendence as warrant of their actions, in one case citing ‘fi sabilillah’ (‘the cause of Allah’), in the other case citing the being of ‘the crossed-out God’, or its theistic reduction in the form of the laws of ‘Nature’, ‘Society’ or ‘the Economy’. And both wield this as an instrument of political sovereignty, demanding the total obedience of citizens to diktat of this metaphysical paymaster. Thus, with regard to the Jihadists, Latour can propose that ‘behind their archaic appearance they must be understood above all as fanatical modernizers’. And correspondingly, with regard to Western secular society, he can propose that ‘like the most extremist zealots of Jerusalem and Ramallah’ its adherents are in fact nothing but ‘political fundamentalists’ (Latour, 2015, Thou Shallt Not Freeze-Frame, p.35). There is an uncomfortable synergy between the structures that lie behind both dogmatic ideologies, even if this issues in radically different forms of world-view and behavior.
Latour’s diagnosis of secularism as ‘fundamentalism’ can be fruitfully applied to recent debates in France concerning the function of ‘laïcité’ and the ‘mode of management’ that the French state is entitled to pursue in its guise as neutral arbitrator of the boundaries of religion in public life, with the vexed issue of the display of religious symbols being one prominent case-study. These debates were accelerated by the publication of the report of the Stasi Commission of 2003 and the controversy that ensued from it. Latour’s analysis would suggest that the secular French state, or indeed any state apparatus, cannot function as neutral arbitrator of religion, since secularism is itself inflected as a religious ideology. Indeed, as Ward points out in the article mentioned above, in the case of the policy of ‘laïcité’ being pursued by the French state this contradiction is apparent even in a narrowly-defined legal sense, since to enshrine ‘laïcité’ in legislation and to enforce it as law upon the population is simultaneously to enact a gesture of political sovereignty that is characteristic of political religion. Latour has been prominently involved in debates about ‘laïcité’ that have taken place in France over the last two years. However, this involvement is not knee-jerk: as I have shown, it originates in core philosophical principles that he established from the very earliest part of his career.
In summary, my claim is that Latour offers a radical critique of what constitutes the secular. His work demonstrates that secularism as an ideology does not represent a neutral scenography upon whose canvas an authentically political society can be constructed. Secularism as an ideology, and indeed the so-called secular state as it is promoted and celebrated within Western liberal democracy, is better understood as an expression of political religion and hence as a vehicle of religious ‘fundamentalism’. Failure to appreciate this results in a flawed deployment of Latour’s ideas. This error can be seen in a recent attempt to apply Latour’s work for the analysis of contemporary politics, which makes the assumption that it is aiming to shore up or re-institute the authority of the existing secular state, rather than to provide a radical critique of the concept of ‘secularism’ to which it is bound: Tsouvalis (2016), ‘Latour’s Object-Orientated Politics for a Post-Political Age’.
Readers of this month’s edition of the journal Modern Theology can look at my extended review of this excellent book:
A Philosophy of Christian Materialism: Entangled Fidelities and the Public Good, Christopher R. Baker, Thomas A. James and John Reader
Do drop me an Email if you need a copy.
This book will be a vital resource for those considering theology in light of the various Continental philosophies of materialism and the Real, including the work of Badiou, Meillassoux, Deleuze and Latour, as well as Harman and the programme of speculative realism. For the book listing see here. For a sample of the book itself see here.
Here’s my first paragraph as a sample:
This co-authored book engages with and appropriates a new strand of thought within contemporary Continental philosophy, namely, the re-emergence of the Real as an ontological and material category. Its provocative ambition is to recalibrate, or perhaps even reformulate, Christian systematic theology in the wake of this philosophical development, so as to equip it to engage ‘in new and hyper-connective ways with the public sphere’ (p.2). The programme that ensues is called ‘relational Christian realism’ (henceforth ‘RCR’). Thus, whilst the book will certainly be of interest to sociologists analysing in an empirical mode the ways in which religion is embedded in human relationality, it ultimately requests (and deserves) to be considered as a programme located within and measured according to the categories of Christian systematic theology.