Badiou, Latour and Saint Paul

At the very outset of his Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism, Badiou lays out the possibility of a philosophical reading of Paul:

Basically, I have never really connected Paul with religion. It is not according to this register, or to bear witness to any sort of faith, or even anti-faith, that I have, for a long time, been interested in him.(p.1)

Badiou confirms that he has appropriated Pascal, Kierkegaard, Claudel, etc on the same footing. His project is after all one of a very pure atheistic thought. He goes further, however, by characterizing Paul’s specific religious commitments and methods as irrelevant, as so much noise, along with everything else that renders him a particular historical individual:

Anyway, the crucible in which what will become a work of art and thought burns is brimful with nameless impurities; it comprises obsessions, beliefs, infantile puzzles, various perversions, undivulgeable memories, haphazard reading, and quite a few idiocies and chimeras. Analyzing this alchemy is of little use. (p.2)

This, I think, is where Badiou parts company with a thinker like Latour. For the latter, nothing is given in excess of the logistical flows of meaning that are enacted from within the common worldThis is not reductive materialism. It simply denotes an axiomatic philosophical commitment to be open to encounter with a dramatically expanded range of actors. There is no reason why the actor named ‘Paul the religious thinker’ should not be encountered in these terms, unless his being had been prematurely foreclosed by Badiou himself, by means of an external diktat every bit as ferocious as the onto-theo-logical constitution of metaphysics identified by Heidegger.

Latour’s philosophy offers great promise for a re-consideration and re-instatement of theological topoi that have been ‘corseted by too narrow a set of legitimate agencies’ under the aegis of previous epistemological regimes (Latour, 2013, ‘‘Waking up from ‘Conjecture’ as well as from ‘Dream’: A Presentation of AIME’, p.3). ‘All [actors] ask to exist’, Latour writes, ‘and none is caught in the choice—viewed (by the Moderns) as a matter of good sense—between construction and reality’ (Latour, 2010, On the Modern Cult of the Factish Gods, p.56).


Latour and the Vineyard

I am from the typical French provincial bourgeoisie, from Burgundy where my family has produced wine for generations, and my only ambition is that people would say ‘I read a Latour 1992’ with the same pleasure as they would say ‘I drank a Latour 1992’! I have still a long way to go, as you see. (from ‘An Interview with Bruno Latour’, Configurations No. 1, Vol. 2, pp.247–268, with T. Hugh Crawford, 1993).

Latour’s provenance is viticultural; he was born in 1947 in Beaune into a family of winegrowers (his family are still engaged in the wine business at the Maison Louis Latour in the Bourgogne district). The landscape and processes of the vineyard were thus the context for his upbringing and early formation. There is significance to this apparently incidental biographical detail. Indeed, it also follows up a somewhat enigmatic, and yet intriguing, comment that was made in a 2007 lecture by Peter Sloterdijk (who has become in recent years one of Latour’s closest philosophical interlocutors), when he suggested without offering further clarification that Latour’s entire system of thought is characterised by a ‘primary Burgundism’.

A vineyard is a site of intense logistical activity. Grapevines, terroir, rhizobacteria, trellis and canopy management, fermentation processes, mechanical harvesting, filtration, the glass industry and storage—all these actors and processes of agency, along with many others, contribute to the complex operation of producing and distributing wine. But the way in which these combine requires attention. In ordinary language, to speak of the ‘logistics’ of the vineyard is to speak of the human management of the procedures that take place on that site. Thus, the vintner makes use of the techniques and technologies that are at his disposal to oversee and bring about a desired outcome, namely, the production of wine for sale and consumption. Viticulture is thus understood as an order that is imposed upon nature by humans, just as has been the case from the time of the earliest recorded evidence of grape vine cultivation in human history.

Latour’s personal experience of the ‘logistics’ of the vineyard, however, is inflected in a somewhat different way, in at least two regards. First, he understands winegrowing not merely in terms of the human management and supervision of nature, but rather as a generative process involving a great number of different actors and processes of agency, both human and nonhuman. As every winemaker knows, what we most value about wine is its complexity, that is, the multiple combinations of factors that contribute to its distinctive appellation. These emerge in the interplay of climate, soil, aspect, altitude, grape variety, and so on—in addition to the vintner’s art, which can now be understood as one, but only one, node of agency in the midst of many others. Accordingly, the rigidly-demarcated boundaries between ‘human’ (the active subject) and ‘nature’ (the passive object) begin to dissolve. Wine is not produced by the human alone, but neither is it given in a pristine or original state of nature prior to its entanglement with the human. This is precisely what Latour indicates when, in a recent article, he reminisces about the countryside of his native Burgundy, describing it as that which is ‘so old and so artificial that it was already ancient at the time of Roman invasion of Gaul’ (‘Fifty Shades of Green‘, 2015, p.1)—the physical landscape stands as a continual reminder that it has been constructed (or, to use a word he prefers, ‘composed’) by means of plural actors over time. His entire subsequent system of thought presupposes the progressive composition of not just the Burgundian countryside, but of every aspect of the world we inhabit.

But second, Latour also describes his upbringing and early formation, his ‘happy childhood in Beaune’ in the context of the landscape and processes of the vineyard, as inculcating in him ‘the most solid realism’ (‘Biography of an Inquiry‘, 2013, p.292). Understanding reality as progressively composed does not lead to relativism. It is this combination that makes Latour such an interesting thinker, for it enables him to arraign the entire Western tradition, including that of contemporary Continental philosophy, for its commitment to materialism and scientism, such that it addresses the world by means of (what Latour supposes to be) a dangerous antinomy: ‘either it is made or it is real’ (‘On the Modern Cult of the Factish  Gods’, 2010 p.81). For Latour, these two are not mutually exclusive.


Religion and New Materialisms: Anna Strhan

Here is a very useful paper that begins (and I think the emphasis has to be on ‘begins’) the process of wielding Latour’s modal thought as a way of analysing secular modernity:

Anna Strhan, ‘Bruno Latour, Prepositions and the Instauration of Secularism’ in Political Theology (2012), Vol. 13, No. 2.

There’s a version of it available on academia here.

Strhan points out that studies of ‘the secular’ and ‘secularism’ (Taylor, Asad) have tended to focus on the conceptual dimensions of these words (normally focused on issues of ‘belief’) and have not been integrated with examination of the material practices and embodiments of ‘secularisms’, that is, with the ‘lived religion’ approach. Since the 1990s, ‘lived religion’ scholarship has reacted against how many established sociological methods of research frame religion according to a particular ‘Protestant’ construction, privileging statements of belief and affiliation to institutions as the measure of religiosity over embodied practices. Scholars within this movement have therefore explored how it is through embodied practices that the sacred can become real. A great example of this is the wonderful recent volume, ‘A Philosophy of Christian Materialism‘.

This turn towards materiality in empirical research on religion can be seen as parallel with, and in some cases influenced by, renewed philosophical interest in materialism and realism. Here Strhan takes up Latour. I do have some reservations about her handling and description of his systematic thought, which has the hallmark (as seems to be so often the case now) of a Harman-Miller inspired inflection towards this thing called ‘object-oriented theology’ (whatever that is). But if we say that Strhan takes up a Latour-directed trajectory for an empirical study of religion, that might be enough.

I will demonstrate how this recent work by Latour provides us with a new way of drawing together the insights of the poststructuralist approach to the histories of concepts that has so far been prominent in the study of secularism and the focus on embodiment and materiality opened up by the ‘lived religion’ approach. (202)

Strhan begins with a summary of Latour’s ‘realism’ (again this is not organic nomenclature, but it will do I suppose). She celebrates his so-called rehabilitation of ‘objects’, not just those that had previously been accepted as significant (by the Moderns), that is ‘facts’, but also those that were previously dismissed (by the Moderns) as ‘fetishes’ or ‘fairy’ objects.

Thus, for Strhan, in examining any object at all, Latour will be encouraging us to find a ‘third way’ (203) in which our study of that object must resist both ‘fact’ and ‘fetish’ explanation. This is all good stuff.

She helpfully introduces the term ‘instauration’, but defines it too narrowly (if only we all read Souriau?) as that which ‘allows for the agency of the thing as well as the work of the human in the gathering’ (204). She also correctly introduces the notion of ‘prepositions’, assuming that these are the means Latour will avail himself of for communicating ‘different forms of relations’ (204).

Strhan therefore sees Latour, through his modes of existence project, as taking to proper completion a materialist and realist study of ‘lived religion’ in whose tradition she wishes to position herself: ‘while the turn to materiality in the study of religion has shown sensitivity towards how what has been termed ‘religion’ in higher education is the effect of a particular history that often effaced the agency of objects, Latour here brings into yet clearer focus the challenges of finding ways to describe the dynamically relational nature of all forms of existence’ (205).

In addition, Strhan likes the resource AIME  provides for a religious understanding of the secular and, crucially, a secular understanding of the religious. This is bang on the money: this is exactly what REL should enable us to do. Thus she says: ‘Latour’s realism invites us to consider the modes of existence in which both religion and secularism are relationally formed. This extends the turn towards materiality in the ‘lived religion’ approach through the particular attention Latour gives to not just people, but things, facts, gods, and other nonhuman entities, material and nonmaterial in these relations’ (206).

As a result, she suggests the following:

Latour’s irreductionism has significant potential for advancing empirical study of both secularism and religion. Latour’s object-oriented ontology has already helped refocus the empirical study of religion on what its Modern constitution has effaced: the material practices and mediations by which religious lifeworlds and subjectivities are formed. But Latour’s irreductionism also asks us to attend to how incorporeal entities, such as concepts, doctrines and sacred others, are mediated and become real through embodied, material practices.

As the discursive focus on secularism has explored its place within the history of words and ideas, we need an approach that allows us to attend both to this and to the concept’s agency as it is instaured through specific practices. Latour states that work is ‘rare in ethnography, no less than in theology […] that respects the exact ontological contours of religious beings’.

Extending this, we can question how we might consider the ontological contours of ‘the secular’, ‘secularism’ and ‘secularity’ as these exist within and move between religious, non-religious, political and academic lifeworlds. This Latourian approach to secularism could include the insights of Asad’s genealogical method, while extending this through paying closer attention to how its material and relational mediations affect the exercise of its agency. (206)

The meat of Strhan’s empirical project is to sketch out the instauration of a particular form of ‘secularism’ through specific practices in British conservative evangelicalism. Although I haven’t read it, I think this is the project that culminates in this recent book.


Strhan’s paper is well worth a read, and can be helpfully considered alongside Latour’s own cited field-workers (Piette, Claverie), as well as for example Webb Keane’s 2007 book Christian Moderns (Berkeley: University of California Press).

Latour and religion: a quick overview

Over the last few months I’ve written a number of posts on Latour’s concept of ‘religion as a mode of existence’ and the political theology that ensues. We’ve only scratched the surface. I’ll continue to write more of course. But I thought it might be worth a moment to collate some of those posts, so that (if you’re interested) you can begin to trace a journey through it all in some kind of order. So, here is a list of some (not all) of the posts that you might like to follow for a quick overview of the topic:

  1. The Religion of the Moderns
  1. Making a transition
  1. Religion as a Mode of Existence


Latour on Durkheim: Part 4 of 5

This continues the mini-series on Bruno Latour’s analysis of Émile Durkheim’s 1912 text, Les formes élémentaires de la vie religieuse.

At this point, the screw begins to turn. Latour observes that periodically in the text of Les formes élémentaires Durkheim seems to renege on his commitment to the unilateral arbitration of the agent: Dieu-Societé. This agent, instead, comes to figuration as something that is dependent on the animation provided to it by humans or human collectives.

Durkheim slips into this alternative register, for example, when he writes about the sacred objects of religion:

Sacred beings exist only when they are represented as such in the mind. When we cease to believe in them, it is as though they did not exist. Even those which have a material form and are given by sensible experience, depend upon the thought of the worshippers who adore them; for the sacred character which makes them objects of the cult is not given by their natural constitution; it is added to them by belief. The kangaroo is only an animal like all others; yet, for the men of the Kangaroo, it contains within it a principle which puts it outside the company of others, and this principle exists only in the minds of those who believe in it […] So here we have another point of view, from which the services of men are necessary to them. (Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, p.345).

Durkheim previously stood by his hypothesis that the agent: Dieu-Societé must be understood as the animator of human collectives and their religion. But here is something different. A switch has taken place. Now, Durkheim is apparently suggesting that human collectives must be understood as animators of the sacred. One metaphysical paymaster for another. What was first of all figured as an external agency now turns out to be generated entirely from within:

[…] les forces extérieures de coertion deviennent des forces intérieures de respect et d’approbations (15).

[…] those external forces of coercion have become interior forces of respect and endorsement (my translation).

This movement will be familiar to all readers of Latour’s critique of Modernity. This switching-between-the-two, this exercise of first-one-and-then-the-other, is exactly what he has previously described under the rubric of ‘the power of critique’ (We Have Never Been Modern, p.30 ff). It is a tool of Modernity. And for Latour, this is precisely the tool that is wielded by Durkheim at whim throughout Les formes élémentaires. It is what makes Durkheim’s account of religion contradictory.

The irony, of course, is that the Durkheim quotation cited above would seem to be very much in line with a model of [REL], where religion is understood as that which is instaured through the progressive composition of agents—gods and men—where the agency is not decided in advance but justified by what they compose in the common world.

The problem is however that this hint works against the grain of the overarching hypothesis postulated by Durkheim, namely, the the forms of religious life we see all around us are products of the agency of the Dieu-SociétéDurkheim spots [REL] and its outworking in the world, but then sociologizes it out of existence. Or, to put it another way, for Latour, Durkheim is a prophet of [REL] in spite of himself!

Consider, for example, the following quote taken from the pages of Durkheim’s Les formes élémentaires, which could have been taken straight out of the pages of Latour’s On the Modern Cult of the Factish Gods (2009):

We must be careful not to believe […] that the cult was founded solely for the benefit of men and that the gods have nothing to do with it: they have no less need of it than their worshippers. Of course men would be unable to live without gods, but, on the other hand, the gods would die if their cult were not rendered. This does not have the sole object of making profane subjects communicate with sacred beings, but it also keeps these latter alive and is perpetually remaking and regenerating them. (Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, p.346)

So Latour has diagnosed a great deal of Durkheimian confusion. But out of this mess something positive arises: the outline of religion as a mode of existence, [REL]. It begins to appear via chiaroscuro against the backdrop of Durkheimian sociology of religion.

What is the prescription for this? First, it will be necessary to break with a historical continuum (rompre la continuité historique) that presupposes a universal and impersonal force (Dieu-Societé) animating all religious experience. For Latour, this is precisely what Durkheim is describing as ‘the elementary forms of religion’ (even though Durkheim would consider his description as a most advanced form of recognition). For Latour,  Judaism and Christianity—at least when they display a pernicious commitment to monotheism (in the Sloterdijkian sense)—provide the most sophisticated versions of such ‘elementary’ forms of religion (p.16).

Second, the constructive move: the philosopher of religion will have to be prepared to work hard to find local factors that constitute local religious experience, acceding to a model that we might call cheiropractic, if this is understood as multi-directional (humans made by God’s hands; God made by human hands; not a Dieu-Societé in sight):

Il faudrait substituer à l’obsession monothéiste les énigmes de l’anthropologie et accepter de comprendre que, non, décidemment, l’humanité ne s’est pas posée toujours et partout ce seul et unique problème de savoir comment nous pouvons élever des autels à des dieux que nous n’aurions pourtant pas fabriqué de nos mains. (p.17)

We will have to substitute for our monotheistic obsession the mysteries of anthropology and accede to the realty that humans have not, no – not one bit, felt themselves confronted by this one, universal problem at all times and in all places: how it is that we can raise altars to gods that we would not first have fabricated with our own hands. (my translation)

The commitment of Durkheimian sociology of religion to the agency of the Dieu-Société is therefore undermined by its own empirical account of religion. Or, to put it another way, Durkheim is more outrageously religious than he ever took himself to be!

To use the language of AIME, it might be the Durkheim represents some kind of amalgamation, out of which true religion, [REL], can be unpicked, if the anthropology is good enough!

The next and final post will show how good anthropology can indeed unpick the Durkheimian mess and leave us with something that might be useful in representing the world we really do inhabit.

The Crossed-Out God of Modernity

If you were to ask the ‘man-on-the-street’ for his or her sound-bite understanding of the religious thought of Bruno Latour (Lord, have mercy!), there’s a chance that you’d hear (if nothing else) the phrase ‘the crossed-out God’.

It’s important to understand that this is a description not of the God of [REL], but of the god of the Moderns.

As we know from We Have Never Been Modern, the Modern constitution functions by means of the purification of a properly pluralist ontology into the artificial and non-representative epistemological categories of Nature/ Society. By means of this purification, the Moderns accrue to themselves power vis-à-vis other collectives in the world: this power is rendered by the way they can now leverage the forces of both transcendence and immanence in one and the same movement, even though this movement is in fact mutually and internally contradictory. This subterfuge back-and-forth movement allows the Moderns to evade [NET:PRE] by claiming sometimes that agency is curtailed by forces outside their control (the transcendent lock), whilst at other times that it is generated by their own meaning-making activity (the immanent lock). Latour’s particular contribution, of course, which is in accord with his Nietzschean/ Deleuzian inheritance of ‘epistemologies of force(s)’, is to diagnose this as a ‘political’ tool in the hands of the Moderns: by restricting rational definition to one or other of these locks, the Moderns are simultaneously able to denounce other (entirely legitimate) collective arrangements by which a regime of truth might be conceived to arise. (This denunciation might target human collectives, for which cf. On the Modern Cult of the Factish Gods, or nonhuman collectives, for which cf. Politics of Nature – it really is an all-encompassing power).

To complete the picture, however, another lock must be added. This is provided by the Moderns’ concept of ‘god’. It is no surprise to discover that the divinity of the Moderns is subject to exactly the same manhandling between the poles of transcendence and immanence: sometimes the Moderns situate (H)im according to the transcendent lock, thus vouchsafing their own privileged access to a regime of truth which they claim is guaranteed by (H)is transcendence; at other times they situate (h)im according to the immanent lock, thus preserving their own role as masters and determiners of a regime of truth which they claim is always the result of their own agency and nothing more. The result is a ‘God’ who serves as nothing but a functionary of the Modern constitution, available to the Moderns at any moment of their choosing as a resource to protect their own situation:

His transcendence distanced Him infinitely, so that He disturbed neither the free play of nature nor that of society, but the right was nevertheless reserved to appeal to that transcendence in case of conflict between the laws of Nature and those of Society. (Latour, We Have Never Been Modern, 1993 [1991], p.33)

Just like the first two locks, this quasi-divinity provides a means by which the Moderns can denounce regimes of truth claimed by other collectives. (I’ve simplified the system of ‘locks’ a little bit here).

Latour describes this divinity of the Moderns by means of the intriguing phrase: ‘the crossed-out God, relegated to the side-lines’. Strangely enough, although he advances this description prominently in We Have Never Been Modern (cf. pp.32–35, 39, 127–128, 138–139, 142), which is an early text dating from 1991, it hardly recurs in his subsequent corpus. Notwithstanding, the concept is highly germane to an understanding of Latour’s positive formulation of [REL] that is to follow.

Three observations about ‘the crossed-out God, relegated to the side-lines’ will be ventured here.

First, H/he is a function of the severely truncated epistemology through which the Moderns institute their own religious experience. Situated away from the logistics of [NET:PRE], the crossed-out God cannot be encountered as an entity within the common world. This being the case, whatever the piety of the Moderns (and Latour thinks they really are pious, whatever it might seem), there are quite literally no means by which a truth-claim might be made about this divinity: H/he has been denied the right to exert agency by means of an actor-network and therefore H/he cannot be conceived as an object of veridiction. The divinity of the Moderns, and the huge industry of critique that has followed in H/his wake, is chimerical. And so in making this diagnosis, Latour brilliantly bypasses vast swathes of rationalistic critique of religion. The divinity critiqued by all that has quite literally deconstructed itself. In fact, we might say the majority religion of secular modernity – the Religion of the Moderns, we might say – is characterised by a religious sensibility that has been thwarted by its own religious epistemology:

Moderns [are those who are engaged in] on the one hand a search for a substance and a God not made by human hands, a search they have made the origin of all virtue; and, on the other hand, a practice that obliges them not to take that project into account. (Latour, An Inquiry into Modes of Existence, 2013, p.275)

By contrast, Latour’s intellectual project requires experience to be open to encounter with a dramatically expanded range of agencies operating outside the locks applied by the Modern constitution. ‘All [entities] ask to exist’, Latour writes, ‘and none is caught in the choice—viewed (by Moderns) as a matter of good sense—between construction and reality’ (On the Modern Cult of the Factish Gods, p.56). Religious experience is no exception: the specification of divine being to be provided by [REL], whatever this may turn out to be (remember, we haven’t got to that yet), must be justified by the performance of that entity in the common world. The God of [REL] (whose being, to repeat, has not yet been justified) will therefore be open to rational consideration in a way that was foreclosed under the aegis of the Modern constitution.

The second observation concerns the terminology itself: I wonder (and I’d very much like to hear opinions on this if possible) if the very phrase ‘the crossed-out God, relegated to the side-lines’ is subtly constructed by Latour in such a way as to undermine itself, thereby pointing forward ultimately to its own negation, the very negation that he thinks has already taken place via its espousal by the Moderns. Unfortunately this subtlety has been somewhat obscured by the standard English translation. The French that lies behind the phrase ‘the crossed-out God, relegated to the side-lines’ is ‘le Dieu barré, hors jeu’. The second part of this phrase (hors jeu) is alluding to the notion of ‘being called offside’ in sporting competition. With this new translation, a crucial nuance to the Religion of the Moderns comes into view: although its divinity is indeed ‘offside’, that is, outside the play of logistics determined by [NET:PRE], this is only because of a law that has been imposed upon the game by the Moderns themselves and which, in theory at least, could be retracted in an alternative epistemological regime. What would result, were this alternative regime somehow to be realised (enter: AIME), would be a God who is brought back onside, in such a way that His impact within the common world could be detected. The capital letters ‘G’ and ‘H’ in that previous sentence would be re-instated as markers of divine being, rather than as markers of the false transcendences imposed by Modernity (just as the capitals are used in ‘Nature’, ‘Society’, ‘Economy’, etc).

If my footballing analogy holds, then, the formula le Dieu barré, hors jeu can be taken as encoding (in a hidden, but nascent, way – like a potential tectonic force) a shift from the logic of Modernity to the logistical operations of ontological pluralism. This is precisely the movement that will be tracked by the regime of truth given by [REL].


Briefly, a third and final observation. In We Have Never Been Modern, a connection is proposed between the concept of le Dieu barré, hors jeu and a particular heritage in Christian theology: Latour suggests that it was in fact ‘a reinterpretation of ancient Christian theological themes [that] made it possible to bring God’s transcendence and his immanence into play simultaneously’ (We Have Never Been Modern, p.33). This hint, although it is hardly developed further in that text, points forward to something that will need to be carefully considered, namely, what is the relationship of this bastardised religious expression, both in order and priority, with Christian theology? This is a question that is imposing itself with increasing intensity in Latour’s recent work and that embodies a creative tension upon his understanding of religion as a mode of existence [REL]. it will surely have to be the subject of a great deal of our attention in what is to come …