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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Religion as Mediated (Part 1 of 2)

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

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

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

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

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

The Form and Style of ‘Rejoicing’

Following exchanges with the excellent and insightful Michael Flower, and with full acknowledgment of his insights, here are some quick thoughts on the form and style of Rejoicing, or the Torments of Religious Speech.

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More than anywhere else, Latour foregrounds the textuality of this book. It consists of largely unbroken, unmarked narrative. There are only six white-space breaks in the text—on page 1 and then not until p. 118 and 120 and then very near the end on pages 166, 172 and 174 (the final page), as Michael points out. There are curious shifts in authorial stance, from ‘I’ to ‘we’. Is there a shift here between Latour as investigator and investigated, Latour as philosopher and Latour as ethnographic subject? Or do these indicate performative authorial stances? We recall Latour’s remarks at the beginning of ‘Thou Shalt Not Take the Lord’s Name in Vain’, where he muses on the different forms of address that can performatively convoke different modes of existence in the audience (‘dear colleagues’, referential; ‘dear comrades’; political; ‘dear brothers and sisters’; religious).

It might be interesting to compare to some of the other classics of spiritual biography (if that is what Rejoicing is), the obvious one being Confessions, where Augustine carefully enacts a progressive structure, chapter by chapter, that mimics the neo-platonic journey of the soul to God as the One. Here, by contrast, everything points to circularity and repetition – an enactment of the very mechanism of reprise, perhaps? These are not didactic confessions, it seems, but the rolling around of confused agonies of the soul (‘torments’ – what a strong word that is!), confused, we assume, because of the confusion exerted upon this value by Modernity.

One thing we can be sure of is that in the original French edition (2003, was it?) the text actually began on the front cover and spilled over to the rear. I understand this was at Bruno’s insistence (although it has not been replicated in subsequent editions). Attached is the only (small) photo I can find of it on Google Image. Why so? I can’t help but think it might relate to one of the great unacknowledged influences on his life, namely Derrida, who of course dismissed transcendence with the claim ‘il n’y a pas de hors-texte’. Although that statement is usually rendered ‘there is nothing outside the text’, ‘hors-texte’ actually refers to a preface or cover-plate of a book, that is, something that sits outside the main narrative and authorises or explains it from the outside precisely because it is outside the text. Of course, Derrida wants to deconstruct that authority position. Latour, brilliantly, simply adds it in to the flow of immanent meaning: there is nothing outside networks, we might say. Or, if the God of the Bible wishes to engage in revelation, it will not be in excess of the flows of religious meaning that are composed from within the common world. 

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Response to Graham Harman

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

Point 1: our agreement on what makes Latour great

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The World-Historical Institution of [REL], part 1 of 2

The presentation of ‘religion as a mode of existence’ that I’ve offered in various posts above remains close to the technical nomenclature of Latour’s own system. For some, this nomenclature is too technical, too self-referential, too meta-narratival… or maybe just too much. Are you fed up with [REL], [DC] and talk of ‘crossings’ yet? Perhaps you are. But the bigger problem is that such technical nomenclature runs the risk of abstraction.

Even to a casual observer, ‘abstraction’ is not a criticism to which Latour’s system should be vulnerable. It would be out of step with the very telos of a mode of existence which, as has been demonstrated above, is only meaningful insofar as it is constructed by agents operating within the pluralist ontological landscape of the common world.

So the question must be asked: what is the occurrence of [REL] in the world? Or, to put it another way, what is the world-historical institution of [REL]?

This is a very significant question. I’ll just lay out a few preliminary thoughts here and in a subsequent post.

With the question of the world-historical institution of [REL], a tension begins to play out within Latour’s account. For an initial response to this question would suggest that [REL] is found (virtually) nowhere in the world. The Religion of the Moderns, that is, the [DC:REL] crossing, has become ubiquitous. Or, to use the language of the Inquiry, the transmogrification of religion-as-subsistence into religion-as-substance has rendered [REL] almost impossible to detect and enunciate in the contemporary public space.

Latour frequently figures this situation in terms of the awkwardness of religious speech. Hence the title of his key work on [REL]: Rejoicing, or the Torments of Religious Speech. The emphasis on corrupted ‘speech’ should not be surprising to us: after all, both forms of religion have been characterised by their management of an original utterance (in the case of the Religion of the Moderns this management was enacted by the stale procedures of rationalization and derationalization; in the case of [REL] by the faithful innovation of reprise). The burden of Modernity, then, is that it has ‘turned the logos into a substance, one that moreover has the strange particularity of being endowed with speech to boot’ (Rejoicing, p.133). Latour has spoken of his own personal Catholic faith as being infected by this same burden. He finds that his prayers are ‘weighted with lead’ (Rejoicing, p.1). Although he regularly attends Mass, he finds himself incapable of describing ‘what I am doing there’ – even, he claims, to his own children (Latour, Thou Shallt Not Freeze-Frame, or How Not to Misunderstand the Science and Religion Debate, 2005, p.127). And when he does attempt to register his religious experience in words, the hegemony of the substance metaphysic within which he is required to operate renders his account quite literally ‘meaningless’ (Rejoicing, p.2). Latour’s own life bears witness to the drag exerted upon religious speech by Modernity.

In what space, then, might [REL] by articulated? It is at this point that the tension begins to arise. To begin with, Latour intimates that if [REL] is so dispersed, obscured or even absent in the world, then it will need to be intentionally activated in some way. And he categorises his own writing on religion as a vehicle of this activation. Thus, the stated aim of Rejoicing is that by its own textual activity it will achieve the ‘re-activation’ of reprise that is necessary in order to generate the value of presence (Rejoicing, p.128).[1] In addition, a number of his writings on religion unashamedly describe themselves as having sermonic form, in the sense that they metaphorically posit a congregation (readership) to whom, through the ministration of the Word (Latour’s own writing), an authentically religious experience is mediated. Thus, the value of being brought-into-presence is quite literally performed by the text, ‘today, as the hic et nunc, for you as listeners, composing now, because of my unusual manner speaking, a gathering of persons, those who receive the present of presence’ (Latour, Thou Shallt Not Take the Lord’s Name in Vain, 2001, p.226).

Claims like this expose Latour to the charge of pre-orientation. This would suggest that Latour’s achievement (whether he realises it or not) is in fact nothing more than the retrofitting of a religious experience that he himself has designated a priori as normative. As a consequence, in enunciating [REL], Latour is accused of merely providing a post-empirical and autobiographically delimited version of the religion of the Moderns, and not one that can be grounded world-historically. Terence Blake has articulated this point very clearly on his blog.

This charge of pre-orientation must be offset, however, by the increasingly tendency of Latour’s writing on [REL] to be framed in terms of the doctrines and traditions of the Christian religion. This tendency becomes particularly apparent in the Gifford Lectures which he delivered in 2013 and in his current book Face à Gaïa.

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By means of this framing, Latour answers the accusation levelled above: rather than empirical abstraction (which opens him up to the charge of pre-orientation), his articulation of [REL] now begins to take the form of an apologetic for a specific world-historical institution.

However, at this point a new charge arises. This would proceed as follows. If [REL] is indeed a mode of existence, embodied in a universal experience (as shifted up from its empirical site) then it certainly must not correlate to a particular world-historical form. In closely identifying [REL] with a world-historical institution, is it not the case, then, that Latour has post-orientated it, delegating by means of a substance metaphysics (in this case, the doctrines and received forms of tradition given by Christianity), and not to as a process of subsistence?

Does Latour manage to navigate the Scylla and Charybdis of these accusations?

In the next post, I will try to sketch out a route by which we might answer this question with a ‘yes, mabye’.

Reference

[1] It is very interesting that Latour elsewhere describes Rejoicing – his book on religion – as his most ‘scientific’!