Fundamentalism: Too Close to Home for Comfort?

In various posts below I’ve described how, for Bruno Latour, the religion instantiated within Modernity is upheld at the [DC:REL] crossing. Extending this analysis, it will now be shown that the religious situation in general that results in Modernity (and, indeed, the one that is prevalent in the world of ‘secular modernity’ that we all inhabit) can be called ‘fundamentalism’—however paradoxical this might seem to be in our age of pluralistic toleration.[1]

Latour’s re-allocation and re-appropriation of the febrile and toxic concept of ‘fundamentalism’ is one of the most interesting aspects of his recent work. According to its technical usage within the Inquiry into Modes of Existence, fundamentalism does not indicate a ‘return to the past’, that is, it should not be understood in the narrow sense of adherence to an original movement or tradition. Rather, within the Inquiry, fundamentalism refers to the attempt to stabilise a regime of truth in the public space by means of the logic of [DC]. It does not have creedal definition so much as a performative one: it describes the efforts of the Moderns to base epistemology on a foundation other than the logistics of [NET:PRE]. Thus, fundamentalism should be understood as a recent production, or at least as one that is contemporaneous with the advent of Modernity and le front de modernisation.

The logic of fundamentalism can hitch itself to any regime of truth: law, politics, science, or indeed religion.

What is more surprising, however, is that, when it comes to fundamentalist religion, Latour accuses secular modernity itself of being its generator and sustainer. Once again, this conclusion is warranted by the methodology of the Inquiry. It can be demonstrated in three steps. First, as has already been seen, Latour has demonstrated the way in which the Moderns have encoded religion as referential informational correspondence via the [DC:REL] crossing (albeit they have done so in the spirit of ‘pious’ countermeasure to the perceived encroachment of Science). With this in mind, a second step follows: Latour argues that the Religion of the Moderns is ‘undiplomatic’, that is, it asserts religious truth apart from the negotiated logistical operations of [NET:PRE]. Unmoored in this way, no control whatsoever can be exerted on unilateral religious claims (for more on this, cf. Rejoicing, or the Torments of Religious Speech, 2013, 2001, p.65). The third step is the inevitable correlate of the second: the Religion of the Moderns is rendered susceptible to vicious feedback cycles initiated by those who wish to usurp its authority in the interest of a particular expression of power or domination.

As far as Latour is concerned, then, fundamentalism is not at all a description of a religious sensibility that has been overcome in Modernity but that threatens to break out primordially in parts of the world awaiting the advent of the Modernization process for themselves; rather, it is a description of the pharmakon that lies at the heart of the very religion that is promoted and justified by the Moderns within secular modernity.[2]

By inscribing fundamentalism in this way, Latour is able to make a controversial connection between violent religious extremism—including the phenomenon of Jihad-inspired terrorism—and secular modernity. For example, in a newspaper opinion piece written in response to the Charlie Hebdo massacres that took place in Paris in January 2015 Latour argues that the rationality of those criminals is ultimately the same (albeit in mutated form) as the one that is secured by the Modern constitution and espoused by those promoting the Religion of the Moderns:

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. (op.cit)

The hegemony over the interpretation of religious truth claimed by the Jihadists stems from a disregard of the delicate and dispersed rationality of the modes of existence.

charliehebdo

The violence they exert upon the Other is justified by their privileged claim to referential informational correspondence to the command of their ‘God’. Latour’s startling claim is that this informational claim derives from the same amalgamation as that which determines the Religion of the Moderns, namely, [DC:REL]. The skewed and bastardized rationality of the Jihadists is no different in kind from the sanitized and widely-disseminated rationality that is proudly espoused by the Moderns. So, on the one hand, he can propose that the Jihadists, ‘behind their archaic appearance must be understood above all to be fanatical modernizers’. And, on the other hand, he can propose that secular Moderns ‘like the most extremist zealots of Jerusalem and Ramallah—the parallel is uncanny—rejecting the efforts of diplomats, want to claim the whole land for themselves’ (‘Thou Shallt not Freeze Frame‘, p.35).

For Latour, a phenomenon like Jihadist religious violence must be appreciated for what it really is: not a return to a pre-modern (pre-Enlightenment) worldview, but the logical instantiation of a Modern one.

You might like to consult as well an earlier post by Philip Conway on Latour’s very interesting and poignant response to the Charlie Hedbo massacres.

[1]   The term ‘absolutism’ is used in a nearly analogous way in An Inquiry into Modes of Existence (2013, English edition), p.94.

[2]  For more on this theme, cf. ‘Why has Critique Run Out of Steam?’, (2004), p.239; An Inquiry into Modes of Existence, (2013), p.260.

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Religion in Secular Modernity: Part 2 of 2

In the last post, we looked at one of the two ‘procedures’ by which the [DC:REL] crossing is actualised in the contemporary public space. What we’re doing here, then, is something like the following:

  • First of all, we’re acknowledging that the religious sensibility of the world around us—our world, the world of secular modernity, whatever our personal faith position might or might not be—is normatively subject to the grubby fingerprints of Modernity;
  • Next, we’re trying to understand how that operates in practice—to use the technical nomenclature of AIME, we’ve already seen that it functions via the [DC:REL] crossing;
  • Finally, and ideally, we’re then preparing ourselves for a moment in the future (or is it now?) when we will be able to dis-amalgamate this confusion in order to access the rationality of religion as it really is, the beatific vision of [REL] itself in all its glory.

The first procedure, as we mentioned before, was rationalization. The second, it turns out, is … ‘derationalization’.[1]

But hang on a minute: ‘derationalization’ sounds rather more promising: could this be in fact the promised land, the beginnings of a deconstruction of the false rationality that Modernity has sought to impose upon religion, a vista onto [REL] itself?

Alas no. Although (as their names suggest) these procedures move in different directions, they are in fact complementary expressions of the ‘category mistakes’ imposed upon religion by Modernity. They’re both crimes of [DC:REL].

So what on earth is this second procedure, then? Derationalization takes over wherever the informational trail described before, the one that characterises rationalization, begins to break down. Latour suggests that this is bound to happen sooner or later, for wherever rationalization has been attempted by the Moderns it has carried in its wake the niggling awareness that ‘in striving to make [religion] clearer, more reasonable, more ductile, more logical, it has only heaped up the false problems; [it has] multiplied the artefacts, without quite taking the paths of reference through to their conclusion, even so’ (Latour, Rejoicing, 2013 [2001], p.95; all page references to that book in what follows, unless otherwise stated). Where this break-down occurs, however, we don’t yet find [REL]. What we find instead is a substitute procedure in which [DC] intervenes in a new way. Here, then, is the phenomenon that we might call derationalization.

With this procedure, the Moderns sweep away with an Aegean gesture the rationalizations they had so carefully constructed before, disavow the idea that there can be any rational link between the original utterance and its meaningfulness in the present, and restrict religion instead to the realms of either the ‘inner soul’ or the ‘supernatural’. As Latour puts it, ‘suddenly, in mid course, faced with the scepticism provoked by all these whoppers in reasoners whose inclinations we’ve played to, we change our tune once more and admit that we’re dealing here with mysteries too deep for human understanding’ (Latour, Will Nonhumans be Saved?, 2009, p.470). Where the [DC] rationalization procedure entailed addition, the [DC] derationalization procedure entails by contrast elimination.

At first glance it might seem strange for Latour to describe religion’s appeal to the ‘inner soul’ or to the ‘supernatural’ as functions of [DC:REL]. After all, he has already defined [DC] operations as those which, aping the (putative) referential correspondence achieved by Science with a world-out-there, provide access to information. Surely these two realms, the ‘inner soul’ and the ‘supernatural’, are epistemological zones that have the most tenuous or problematic connections with the idea of referential informational correspondence?

But Latour does indeed make this connection. And once again this can be attributed to his subtle diagnostic apparatus. For whether the trajectory is towards interior quietism (where the veridiction of religion is located in a realm ‘within’) or towards metaphysical dogmatism (where the veridiction of religion is located in ‘another world beyond this one’, Rejoicing, p.30), access to religion’s regime of truth is asserted apart from the logistical operations that render such access possible, that is, apart from [NET:PRE]. Both cases ‘proceed as though religion were something like a ladder that allows access—but it is a ladder without rungs or rails’ (Latour, An Inquiry into the Modes of Existence, 2013, p.320). As a result, both derationalization procedures resort to [DC] operations.

Of course, this doesn’t exclude the possibility of a ‘pious’ intention behind these procedures: faced with the apparently reduced space for religion in the public space granted by secular modernity, it is easy to appreciate how it would have been deemed more rational to pursue retrenchment in realms that are supposedly secure from amalgamation or usurpation by the institutions of Modernity, in particular by the institution of Science. Indeed, Latour has frequently attempted a characterization of the so-called science versus religion debate as the amalgamation of two different mode-specific logistical operations, taking place at the crossing [REF:REL], from which religion itself has come off the worst, receding wherever the magisterial demarcations of science intrude. His diagnosis here follows Whitehead, who attributed the historical ‘decay’ of Christianity in the Western world to its confused and futile attempt to appropriate the ‘dialectical acuteness’ of science (Whitehead, Religion in the Making, 1926, p.129).

whitehead
However, Religion’s resort to the realm of the ‘inner soul’ or the ‘supernatural’ should not be taken as implying that it has secured for itself a safe epistemological zone that can be considered to be non-overlapping with science and self-coincident with theology’s descriptive competences. Rather, for Latour, these movements equate to a Religion that has squandered its regime of truth entirely. Hence his description of them as ‘de-rationalization’ procedures.

[1]  I should acknowledge here that these two terms aren’t quite synchronous with the terms that Latour himself uses in Rejoicing, where the argument is more subtle, breaking down into categories such as ‘symbolization’ and ‘mythologization’. I think, however, these two will do for now, for simplicity’s sake. Goodness knows we should grab at that life-raft wherever it is to be found.

Religion in Secular Modernity: Part 1 of 2

We’re still on our journey through Latour’s differential diagnosis of the Religion of secular modernity, or ‘the Religion of the Moderns’ as I call it (we’ve not yet got to what he thinks the proper rationality of religious discourse actually is). We’ve seen that the Religion of the Moderns takes place at the [DC:REL] crossing. In this post, I’d like to explore one of the ‘procedures’ in which this crossing is actualised in the contemporary public space. Or, to put it another way, how does Religion actually operate in the world around us? (there are in fact two ‘procedures’: the second will follow in the next post).

The first procedure, I’m going to call ‘rationalization’. Radically redefined within the nomenclature of AIME, rationalization must be understood as the procedure by which Religion, in attempting to make sense of an original event or ‘utterance’ from its own tradition, charts a referential informational path from past to present. Hello again our old friend [DC]! The purpose of rationalization is not to explain away the original utterance (as might be implied by the pejorative connotations of the phrase ‘to be rationalized away’ in contemporary English usage), but rather to connect the original utterance to its meaningful reception in present by means of the apparently secure ‘handrail’ or ‘support’ provided by [DC]. We might say that rationalization is a well-meaning gesture offered by (so-called) ‘friends’ of religion. But with friends like these ….

So what is the damage that rationalization is causing to religion – even if it is being committed unwittingly? Latour is clear: the ‘rationalization’ of religion introduces a logic of direct causation between an original utterance and its meaning in the present. The point will not be difficult to predict for those of us who are familiar with Latour’s work in general. That logic might be appropriate for [REF], one of the other modes, but certainly not for [REL].

(In fact, this gives us an intimation of one of the key themes that we will need to address when it comes to [REL] – if the rationality of religious discourse does not come through a logic of direct causation between an original utterance and its meaning in the present, then what does it come through? The answer is: it comes through a twisting, a morphology, a creative re-appropriation of the old into the new. Latour calls this ‘reprise’. Hence the title of this blog: ‘reprising the political theology of Bruno Latour’).

Latour provides a number of examples of rationalization in Rejoicing, or the Torments of Religious Speech (in my opinion, his most important book, and one that we will frequently have recourse to on this blog).

rejoicing

A representative and at first glance somewhat whimsical example is given by biblical Flood narrative. Latour parodies the Modern exegete for applying an informational framework to this story (and others like it), addressing it with questions such as ‘how big was the ark?’, ‘what kind of wood was it made of’, ‘how many animals?’, and so on (p.88, all references that follow to the English edition of Rejoicing). This would be to practise the strange science of diluvial geology. The text itself, of course, cannot sustain this framework of address and therefore collapses into irrationality.

It is important to register the tone of Latour’s parody here: contrary to what it might seem, the motivation of the Modern exegete in employing this [DC] operation is not to undermine the text’s credibility but, rather, to understand it, that is, to render its meaning present-to-himself. The spirit of rationalization is ultimately hermeneutical. But in employing a [DC] operation in order to do so, the rationalizing exegete ends up generating (what Latour calls) a category mistake in his/ her appropriation of the religious value incarnated in that text.

The resurrection accounts of the canonical Gospels furnish Latour with a second example. Here, the rationalization procedure is more complex because it pertains not only to the practice of the Modern exegete him or herself, but also to the various exegetes located in situ to the story itself. For Latour, the resurrection account begins with a simple proclamation: ‘he is risen’ (p.90). However, faced with the apparent absurdity of this claim, [DC] rationalization begins to intrude, attempting to construct an informational chain linking the original utterance by means of ‘connecting passages’ such that it can be rendered meaningful in the present. In this case, the informational chain stretches back to the spatio-temporal framework of the narrative itself, including the actors reported as performing within it. Thus, to the angel’s original message (‘he is risen’) is added the detail of the empty tomb; to the empty tomb is added the detail of the shroud on the floor; to the shroud on the floor is added the detail of the apostle’s public witness, and so on, each addition providing a posterior ‘layer’ of rationalization smoothing over the interruptive hiatus that came before. From there the procedure advances through the history of its reader reception right up to our own time where (just as was observed in the first example) the contemporary Modern exegete will see fit to add his/ her own rationalizations to the rest. This sets in motion a chain that has its own longitudinal forward momentum: Latour describes this as the ‘pruritus of rationalization’ (p.90), as if it were an itch that continually needs to be scratched by successive readers of the original utterance. And as this rationalization procedure advances a logic is retro-imposed upon the original utterance, such that what came first (the original utterance) is credited as being straightforwardly the ‘cause’ of what follows, in the same way as Nature is credited as being straightforwardly the ‘cause’ of matters of fact under the aegis of the Modern constitution.

The rationalization procedure applies [DC] logic at the [DC:REL] crossing. Thus, for Latour, it provides nothing but a bastardised, purified and ‘stage-managed’ (p.90) version of the associative logistics by which Religious veridiction actually functions. This is the recursive offence of any and every natural theology whose definition of ‘nature/ natural’ has not first been purged of its [DC] assumptions (this was precisely the theme of Latour’s 2013 Gifford Lectures by means of his penetrating study of Hume’s Dialogues).

However, the subtlety of Latour’s differential diagnosis is once again revealed at this point. Although they are counter-productive, ultimately obscuring its regime of truth, rationalization procedures are not generated by a motivation on the part of the Moderns to overcome, subsume or destroy religion (that is, to blast it out of the sky like the Death Star did to Alderaan). The methodology initiated by the Inquiry would suggest this to be a highly reductive, even primitive, understanding of the reception of religion within secular modernity. By contrast, rationalization procedures are (as the name suggests) attempts on behalf of the Moderns to render religion into a more, not a less, rational experience. Their aim is to restore a resonance to religion that is correctly identified as having been lost; thus, their intention can even be said to be ‘pious’ (p.90).

This subtle observation paves the way for the inversion of the Religion of the Moderns that is to be enacted in [REL]: although its specification has not yet been elaborated per se, it can now be seen that [REL] will take the form of a clarification of the rational basis of an original utterance, in contradistinction to the rationalization procedure that had previously been applied to it, in the form of an overlay, by the Religion of the Moderns:

If we need to attack such rationalization, this is not at all because it involves reason in domains where it has no business of being, but more because it claims to reserve the use of reason for conveying information alone (Latour, Rejoicing, 2013 [2001], p.88).

Second procedure to follow very soon!

Love as the Empirical Site of Religion: Bruno Latour and Alain Badiou

In drawing on the lexicon of amatory speech as empirical site for [REL], Bruno Latour seems to be inserting himself into a particular context of twentieth-century French thought that might be characterised as reflecting on the philosophical implications of love whilst at the same time engaging in a subterranean conversation with the theological (Christian) tradition that has appropriated it from Augustine onwards.[1] One important (albeit non-avowed) interlocutor in this regard is Alain Badiou.

Both Badiou and Latour begin with an empirical description of love before ‘shifting up’ to a new plane of philosophical institution. The basic dynamic of that shifting up is as follows: the empirical description serves as an ethnographic or anthropological enquête sur terrain that is capable (when gently tapped by the philosopher’s hammer) of yielding the universal value that is properly housed in the institution. However, they shift up in different ways. A brief comparison of these two might therefore provide a useful context for drawing out what is particular to Latour’s concept of [REL].

To begin, then, what is Badiou’s understanding of the phenomenon of ‘love’ itself? In his wonderful little dialogue, In Praise of Love (2012), Badiou argues that the contemporary situation of love is characterised by existential conservatism (the reluctance to enter into a love relationship until it is ‘safe’ to do so) and regulated pleasure (the withdrawal of the commitment of the whole self from a love relationship once it has begun for fear of damage or rejection).[2]

Badiou

Contra this pernicious drift, Badiou argues that contemporary love must be re-invented. He seeks to do this by positing love as a fundamental truth procedure furnishing a universal ground by which (sexual) difference—what it means to be two and not one—can be thought:

I mean truth in relation to something quite precise: what kind of world does one see when one experiences it from the point of view of two and not one? What is the world like when it is experienced, developed and lived from the point of view of difference and not identity? (Badiou, In Praise of Love, 2012 [2009], p.22)

For Badiou, then, before the encounter that inaugurates the amorous procedure, there would be nothing in the world but ‘monads’ or ‘ones’, each enclosed in its own narcissistic sphere. A declaration of love is a declaration that such solipsistic or narcissistic experience has been irruptively fractured. The unity that results, however, is not wholly or reductively fusional: Badiou describes it as a ‘scene of the Two’ that is affirming of two individuals who were and remain discrete (Badiou, Conditions, 2008 [1992], p.181).

There are many connections here with Latour. Both Badiou and Latour envisage love as a sublimatory movement that shifts up from a situation of difference to a situation of unicity and universality. Both stipulate that this movement constitutes a claim to ‘truth’ (‘truth procedure’ in the case of Badiou; ‘regime of truth’ in the case of Latour). However, two key differences are also apparent—these provide a useful entry point by which to consider Latour’s particular approach.

The first concerns the means by which the love relationship is triggered and maintained. For Badiou, this occurs at (what he calls) ‘points’. A point is a particular spatio-temporal moment around which the truth procedure establishes itself and from which it is renewed. The example Badiou offers is that of the birth of a child, which represents a ‘point’ around which the couple (ideally) re-declare their commitment to the original event of their love. For Latour, however, amatory speech shifts up to a regime of truth in a quite different way: for him, a love relationship is not maintained by means of punctuated re-declarations, but rather by means of the creative taking-up of an original event by means of (what he will call) ‘reprise’ (more posts on this most crucial of concepts to follow).

The second difference is a consequence of the first. For Badiou, love can be shifted up to become a truth-procedure. Religion, by contrast, cannot. This is because religion, notwithstanding its rich (Augustinian) appropriation of the lexicon of love vis-à-vis the believer’s participation in divine being, ends up skewing and distorting love as a truth-procedure when it directs it towards the ‘Great Other of transcendence’. Ultimately, for Badiou, religion does not comprehend and cannot handle love because it will inevitably seek to leverage its intensity towards a non-pluralistic end, directing it ‘towards faith and the Church and encouraging this subjective state to accept the sovereignty of God’ (Badiou, In Praise of Love, 2012 [2009], p.66). Badiou calibrates religion instead as a ‘general’ or ‘generic’ conception of truth. Here again is a crucial difference with Latour, for whom amatory speech and religion have a much more organic connection: for him, the empirical situation of amatory speech, when shifted up, provides a very precise calibration of the regime of truth given by [REL]. For Badiou, religion tends towards hegemony: he is wary of it acceding as an overarching and englobing meta-mode. By contrast, for Latour, religion can be justified as a mode of existence with a veridiction that is universal, and yet idiosyncratic to itself.

[1] For a survey of this particularly French tradition cf. Lancelin, Aude, and Lemonnier, Marie, (2008), Les philosophes et l’amour: aimer de Socrate à Simone de Beauvoir (Paris: Plon); for a sample of such works cf. Breton, André (1937); Barthes, Roland (1977); Nancy, Jean-Luc (2010).

[2] It should be noted that Badiou’s description is also in critical dialogue with Lacan’s theorization (Seminar XX: On Feminine Sexuality) of jouissance as lust for some part or trait of the other in order to possess it, thus determined by the phallic function, in relation to which there can only be ‘supplementary desire’ on the part of the woman. In fact, Badiou’s commitment to a rigidly ‘empirical’ definition of the phenomenon is markedly less than that of Latour.

Groan … another new blog on Latour?

No lengthy explanations (or justifications) here. This blog is simply a space for me to record thoughts and comments on the political theology of Bruno Latour, especially as mediated through his concept of ‘religion as a mode of existence’ [REL]. It’s really an overflow from my twitter account @AIMETim, where I’ve been doing the same for about a year now – but which was bursting the bounds of the aphoristic form that is properly required by that medium. To be honest, I’m not sure even how much I’ll commit to this space (especially as I’m currently on paternity leave and so don’t have the time to write much). But let’s see how it goes …

bruno-latour