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.



Sloterdijk, ‘In the Shadow of Mount Sinai’, part 3

Continuing some posts on Sloterdijk’s recent text:In the Shadow of Mount Sinai: A Footnote on the Origins and Changing Forms of Total Membership (2016). See posts 1 and 2 above.


So, religion is an essential component of the Sloterdijkian version of Mitsein. Religion is that which provides an immunological envelope that enables humans to survive and flourish. (The contrast with the Girardian sacred is here most evident).

However, as far as Sloterdijk is concerned, there are two different expressions of religion in history that have led to two different modes of Mitsein.

Neither approach is exactly to be lauded: both are premised on systems of control-by-fear. However, they are different in their effects: where the first is a ‘phobocracy’, the second is an ‘auto-phobacracy’ (p.46), and for Sloterdijk the latter is more pernicious in its psychopolitical effect, and leads to more violence.

  1. Syncretistic religion

Syncretistic religion is the standard technique of successful empires throughout history as they have handled defeated and treaty-amalgamated religious groups following a religion that is not their own. Its objective is to secure a peaceable working arrangement amongst sovereign and vassal by means of ‘a liberating amalgamation of foreign worlds of peoples and gods’ (pp.19-20).

Syncretistic religion functions on a day-to-day level via ‘diplomats’ (p.20), those who are trained to recognise similar functions of divinities underneath the array of different gods that are worshiped across the empire. This diplomatic work is what enables different people groups to approach one another in the form of ‘ecumenism’ (p.20), whilst simultaneously ensuring the maintenance of peace in the empire (p.46). We are here on the same ground as the ‘diplomat’ of modes of existence.

The great innovation of this school of thought lies in the discovery that with inter-culturally sustainable gods, the inner and the outer converge: what one had taken for a foreign god is revealed, upon closer inspection, as a different guise of one’s own deity. (p.20)

This syncretistic process is exactly what is described by Jan Assmann in his ‘translation’ tables and picked up in the wonderful fifth lecture of Latour’s Face à Gaïa.

  1. Boundaried religion

The second form of religion in the world is ‘boundaried religion’, whose objective is to secure its own existence and perpetuation in history via a process of ‘withdrawing to what is its own’ (p.21).

Some of the functions of ‘boundaried religion’ include:

  • It will defend (to the death) the ‘singularity’ of an ‘untranslatable god’ (p.21).
  • It will likely incorporate some kind of ban on images, which is a cynical move intended to withdraw God from the risks of self-justification in the agora (p.22).
  • It will promulgate that idea that to forsake this deity is to ‘go under amid multiplicity’ (p.21), with the corresponding doctrine that ‘whoever mixes themselves is eliminated and whoever translates falls from grace’ (p.23).
  • It is prepared to enter into a ‘great contest’ (p.21), no doubt agonstic, with other ethnic groupings that follow different gods.
  • It demands the total adhesion of its members to the boundaries it stipulates, even to the extent of demanding some kind of total adhesion of being: it reaches for ‘the entire existence of its members’ (p.52).
  • It will likely incorporate some kind of ban on images, which is a cynical move intended to withdraw God from the risks of self-justification in the agora (p.22).

It is no surprise, then, that this second avatar of religion refuses to participate in Assmannian translation tables (p.21).

So far, Sloterdijk’s methodology has held in tact: he has described two forms of religion in terms of the immunological-compositional effects, rather than in specifics of monotheistic doctrine. We are soon to enter into the shadow of Sinai, however.

Sloterdijk, ‘In the Shadow of Mount Sinai’, part 1

Peter Sloterdijk’s recent text, In the Shadow of Mount Sinai: A Footnote on the Origins and Changing Forms of Total Membership (2016), is an important appendix to and even recalibration of much of his previous work on globalising religion, particularly as found in the Spheres trilogy and in God’s Zeal. I’ll be offering a few posts on this interesting new text in the days to follow, with particular reference to Latour’s Face à Gaïa (suggesting as well a somewhat subterranean dialogue with certain ideas of René Girard).


Sloterdijk begins the text by registering complaints that had been made about You Must Change your Life (2013) and God’s Zeal (2009), namely: ‘the allegation that I had indiscriminately ascribed to the monotheistic ‘scriptural religions’ (namely Judaism, Christianity and Islam) an intrinsic or, put differently, an irremovable violent component’ (p.3). The complaint made against Sloterdijk, therefore, and that he here willingly registers, is that he has confused the irenic originary purposes of these religions with their contemporary iterations.

The objective of this new text, then, will be to understand in a more integral way the link between religion and violence.

To do so (bearing in mind the complaints made against him), Sloterdijk agrees to shift his methodology somewhat. First of all, he will forgo the potentially polemical discourse of ‘monotheisms’. Why? Because Sloterdijk now sees that ‘monotheism’ is not actually very useful as a heuristic concept and, indeed, should be rejected: the religion that breeds violence (and that needs to be diagnosed in this text) is not concerned with defending ‘the numerical word one’, so much as with ensuring a ‘non-mixing contract and non-translation oath’ (p.23). What will be analysed in this text, then, are the boundarying forces that exist between people-ground and people-group. With this shift to a purer form of immanence, then, we can immediately see that we’re in the real of the Schmittian political theology espoused by Latour in his own recent work.

And so, instead of analysis in terms of ‘monotheisms’, Sloterdijk proposes instead the greater clarity offered by the concept of ‘zeal’. This shifted methodology allows a slightly different formulation of the link between religion and violence: it enables him instead ‘to focus on the phenomenon of zealous and potentially violently manifested motivation with reference to certain religious norms without addressing again the logical construction of the one-God faith’ (pp.4-5).

Thus, the phenomenon that is diagnosed as causing religious violence is broadened from ‘monotheism’ (without further nuance) to the way in which religious zealots construct a system for themselves that breeds violence. This diagnosis is in the realm of spherology/ immunology. Sloterdijk describes this new object of analysis in the following formula: it is ‘the form and the intensity of the absorption of faith practisers by the system of norms to which they subordinate their existence’ (p.6).

More to follow.

René Girard and Bruno Latour: An Intellectual Kinship?

I don’t know if Bruno will write a few words of reflection following the sad news of the passing of René Girard last week. He has done so before for those he has considered intellectual companions of one sort or another. Perhaps he will do so again

At any rate, we might take the opportunity to consider for a moment the extent of the potential cross-pollination between their two bodies of work—these two quintessentially French thinkers whose oeuvres seem, in many ways, more at home in an Anglophone register.


As it happens, I’ve raised the subject of Girard with Bruno during interview—his response has bespoken both personal respect and more than a passing scholarly interest in mimetic theory, albeit that he has always chosen to interact with it somewhat from afar. In addition, on an intellectual biographical note, it’s interesting to note the triangle that encompasses these two with Michel Serres (although it should be remembered that Girard was a generational peer of Serres in a way that Latour, being the ‘next generation down’, wasn’t; see Latour’s reminiscence of attending Serres’ seminars as a beguiled student here, p.10; or James Williams’ fascinating reminiscences of Stanford life in the shadow of Girard and Serres as collaborative intellectual titans here).

Of course, the primary reference to Girard in Latour’s work is found in the second chapter of We Have Never Been Modern (1991, 1993), where it crops up in the context of a discussion of Modernity and its capacity to sanction critique.

But first, a brief digression to another text entirely … Latour’s wonderful discussion with Michel Serres entitled Eclaircissements (1995). There, the following comment is made about the ‘sanctioning’ of critique:

Have you noticed that the term ‘sanctioned’ comes both from the law and from religion, to reaffirm the ‘sanctified’? (Eclaircissements, p.53).

In considering this matter of Modern critique, then (that is, the capacity of the Modern constitution to sanction critique against itself, against others, or whatever), we immediately find ourselves in the somewhat Girardian register of the ‘sacred’.

Well then, turning back to We Have Never Been Modern, we can now see that it is within the framework of the Girardian ‘sacred’—this quasi-religious pharmakon mechanism of humanity, both fully operative and fully concealed to the self-consciousness of those practising it—that the Moderns’ capacity for critique must be understood. Modern critique, in Latour’s terms, most certainly is a sacred phenomenon:

  • On the one hand, the Moderns use ‘the power of critique’ to barefacedly assert their transcendence and finality over other collectives: in this sense, critique is a tool, it has provided them with ‘justification for their attacks and for their operations of unveiling’ (We Have Never Been Modern, p.43, and all subsequent references).
  • And yet, on the other hand, the Moderns have simultaneously closed down and concealed the functioning of critique. It is that ‘thing hidden before the beginning of the world’. We’ve already seen some of this in our study of the various ‘locks’ enacted in the Modern constitution. As with the entire epistemology of the Moderns, its functioning is hidden to themselves, and thus sacred: ‘the very foundation of the modern critique […] turns out to be ill-assured’; ‘the upper ground for taking a critical stance seems to have escaped us’ (We Have Neverp.43). As a result, the practise of critique is really wielded as a weapon in order to scapegoat others: ‘critical unmasking […] was only a matter of choosing a cause for indignation and opposing false denunciations with as much passion as possible. To unmask: that was our sacred task, the task of us moderns’ (We Have Neverp.44).

Pace Boltanski and Thévenot (2006, 1991), then, Latour sees his task in the Girardian register as one of revealing, unveiling, laying bare, disclosing, publicising, exposing, ‘debunking’ the power of critique—or better, getting alongside a dispensation of history that is doing that work anyway (the Anthropocene). The ‘scapegoating mechanism’ (We Have Neverp.44) of Modern critique ‘no longer has the privilege of rising above the actor by discerning, beneath his unconscious actions, the reality that is to be brought to light’ (We Have Neverp.44). This has eerie resonance with the late-Girardian (by which I mean Achever Clausewitz, 2007) diagnostic of secular modernity as characterised by a progressive draining-away of the protection that was previously offered by the sacred against the inevitable escalation of mimetic contagion, and indeed by an increasing disregard for the katéchon potential of the Gospel itself.

For both Latour and Girard, then, the simple fact is that the Moderns can no longer make sincere accusations—the very ground on which they have done so up to now has been eroded from under them. That particular arrow of ‘progress’ has turned around (as Latour demonstrates via the choric movements of dancer, Stephanie Ganachaud).


Or, to put it another way, we might say that both Latour and Girard are apocalyptic in their commitment to ‘unveil’ (We Have Never, p.43) the chimera of a supervenient, sacred power that humanity has claimed to itself as a function of its own putative hegemony over a scapegoated other.

It is a little unfortunate that in We Have Never Been Modern Latour then slips into accusatory mode against Girard: the accusation he advances is that, according to Girard’s formulation, the object of Modern critique is faceless and arbitrary: it doesn’t really matter who or what the victim of the group lynching is, only that he/ it is available to be used for the scapegoat mechanism. Latour condemns Girard in this way for overloading the theatre of the human subject. Subsequent analysis (remember, Latour’s text is over 25 years old now) has shown that mimetic theory has a far greater role for the nonhuman object than this (see, for example, Girard’s own response in the excellent Evolution and Conversion, 2007). But this shouldn’t conceal the schematic synergies of their concepts of Modernity at large.

Requiescat in pace.