Absolutely wonderful to see this lecture on Latour from one of the best critics around (and my old French tutor!), Martin Crowley, delivered at Oxford.
Stephen Gaukroger’s monumental series on the modern world is a must-read for those interacting with Latour’s concept of Modernity.
In this third volume, published last year, Gaukroger considers the crucial period 1739 (the publication of Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature) to 1841 (the publication of Feuerbach’s Essence of Christianity). He argues that this period saw an abrupt but fundamental shift in the way in which scientific enquiry was conceived, such that science came to be understood as the essential means of explanation of the human condition. The key formula thus becomes “the naturalization of the human”, by which Gaukroger means the constitution in empirical terms of questions about the human realm that had up to that point taken a non-empirical form.
I’ve written a brief review here.
Readers of this month’s edition of the journal Modern Theology can look at my extended review of this excellent book:
A Philosophy of Christian Materialism: Entangled Fidelities and the Public Good, Christopher R. Baker, Thomas A. James and John Reader
Do drop me an Email if you need a copy.
This book will be a vital resource for those considering theology in light of the various Continental philosophies of materialism and the Real, including the work of Badiou, Meillassoux, Deleuze and Latour, as well as Harman and the programme of speculative realism. For the book listing see here. For a sample of the book itself see here.
Here’s my first paragraph as a sample:
This co-authored book engages with and appropriates a new strand of thought within contemporary Continental philosophy, namely, the re-emergence of the Real as an ontological and material category. Its provocative ambition is to recalibrate, or perhaps even reformulate, Christian systematic theology in the wake of this philosophical development, so as to equip it to engage ‘in new and hyper-connective ways with the public sphere’ (p.2). The programme that ensues is called ‘relational Christian realism’ (henceforth ‘RCR’). Thus, whilst the book will certainly be of interest to sociologists analysing in an empirical mode the ways in which religion is embedded in human relationality, it ultimately requests (and deserves) to be considered as a programme located within and measured according to the categories of Christian systematic theology.
I have posted bits of this before, but if you’re interested here’s a short essay on Latour’s reading of Emile Durkheim’s 1912 text in social theory, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life.
Latour is a great reader of other texts, a fact that is sometimes neglected. Durkheim has always served in his corpus as a negative exemplar: Latour always contrasts his understanding of the ‘social’ with the Durkheimian idea of the ‘social fact’ as a value or norm which is general over the whole of a given society and independent of its individual manifestations. Here, we find him critiquing, but also re-appropriating, Durkheimian sociology of religion in relation to his own concept of ‘religion as a mode of existence’. The Dieu-Société gives way to ‘the beings of REL’. Latour’s original review (in French) can be found here.
If you’re struggling with the link above, I’ve also loaded it onto my academia page.
See the previous post here.
For Voegelin, all human experience, including the ‘sacred symbols’ through which that experience is mediated for any given generation, is structured as an ‘ordering-towards’. For most political collectives in history, this has taken the form of ordering-towards a transcendent being. The profile of such societies has thus been hierarchical, with their internal relations of power—whether social, cultural, racial or economic—being taken as emanating from a transcendent source and cascading downwards. Human societies have thus functioned according to the principle of ‘the divinization of the worldly order of dominion’ (The Political Religions, p.44). For Voegelin, the nature of the supreme being is less significant than the basic fact of the orientation towards transcendence; hence, the mystery cults of the Greek world and the corpus mysticum of Christianity are equivalent symbols in this regard.
Voegelin’s argument, however, is that in the modern period this ordering-towards transcendence has found itself re-conditioned as an ‘inner-worldly’ phenomenon, with the consequence that internal relations of power, aping what they have replaced, now take the form of a hierarchy emanating from a non-transcendent being—one whose surrogate authority can easily be usurped by a human individual, party or credo. ‘There is no longer any sacral permeation from the highest source’, Voegelin writes, and in its place the immanent political order ‘[…] has itself become an original sacral substance’ (The Political Religions, p.59). This transposition is the essence of what he calls ‘political religion’. It is instantiated above all in the form of the modern state, which imports from religion ‘the world-transcendent God as the ultimate condition and origin of its own existence’(The Political Religions, p.28). For Voegelin, then, contemporary political collectives derive their authority from ‘a realm of religious order’: their existence and persistence can only be understood by ‘taking into account the religious forces inherent in its society and the symbols through which these are expressed’ (The Political Religions, p.31).
In his 1938 work, Voegelin employs his concept of political religion primarily for a diagnosis of the fascist mass movements that were contemporary to that time, the common feature of which consists in the ability of their political leaderships to leverage religio-ecstatic obligations over the people in the guise of a ‘unio mystica’ between the two. Elsewhere he extends his diagnosis to ideological regimes of different kinds, including Marxist ones. However, the concept is highly consonant with Latour’s description of the ‘crossed-out God’ as an instrument of political sovereignty, for at least two reasons.
The first reason derives from an analysis of the genealogy of political religions. For Voegelin, these regimes emerge following shifts in the definition of what constitutes the rational, shifts that are associated in turn with the development of the modern scientific method. Wherever science promises an understanding of the world in positivistic terms, that is, ‘as an inventory of existential facts about all stages and as knowledge of its essential and causal contexts’ (The Political Religions, pp.59–60), then the ordering principle of human existence is shifted away from symbols of transcendent religiosity and towards an inner-worldly, immanent definition: ‘the methods of science as the sole forms to study the contents of the world’ become ‘the sole generally obligatory basis of man’s attitude towards the world’(The Political Religions, p.60). It is no surprise, then, that Voegelin identifies the seventeenth-century – and Hobbes in particular – as a turning point in this regard, since this was the period in which the modern scientific method become the ruling paradigm for man’s understanding of the world and his relation to it. Voegelin understands this moment as representing a lapse and a misdirection in the trajectory of human existence: from this point onwards, politics becomes vulnerable to annexation by those declaring themselves to be gate-keepers of the scientific method and thus guardians of the (putative) apodictic certainty that method promises to supply to those who wield it. Through its appropriation of ‘scientism’, then, political religion declares itself to be sole mediator of access to the ‘realissimum’. For Voegelin, the genealogy of political religions thus turns on a shift in the definition of what constitutes the rational: first, political religion forecloses the space of the polis in which rational meaning might be defined through collective human experience, and then, second, it establishes itself as demiurgic fashioner of an order that alone constitutes the real and that, as a consequence, is sacrosanct. As Voegelin puts it:
It [political religion] disregards the rules for examining experiences reasonably, it refuses rational discourse; and the spirit that adopts this assertion will change from being a discussion partner to being an adherent of another order. (The Political Religions, p.29)
In short, for Voegelin, political religion maintains its hegemony over the polis to the extent that it is able to appropriate a discourse of rationality for its own ends. This is precisely what Latour understands is taking place in Religion according to Modernity (not, religion as a mode of existence). In both cases this is a quasi-religious gesture, since it consists of the instrumentalization of transcendent authority claims and their subsequent imposition over the collective space of the polis.
But Voegelin’s work is useful for a second reason also: its description of the effect of political religion upon its subjects. For Voegelin, the potential for the individualization and personalization of the human subject, including one’s ability to act freely, is progressively lost under regimes of political religion. The argument is easy to trace: if, as we have seen, the claim of political religion is to represent ‘the only true reality, from which a stream of reality is allowed to flow back to the people’, then it follows that its subjects will be invited to do nothing more than ‘blend into a suprapersonal realissimum’ (The Political Religions, p.15) As Voegelin puts it, faced with the reality of the modern state, the requirement leveraged upon individuals is ‘to sink down into the impersonal nothingness of their instrumentality’. His focus in the 1938 text is on the ‘technical’ means by which this integration takes place: this of course was indicative of the highly technologized propaganda machine that was being developed at that time under the aegis of National Socialism. But Voegelin’s analysis is consonant with Latour’s depiction of the human subject under the regime of Modernity. For in the same way, the ‘crossed-out God’ enables the Modern regime to instrumentalize its human subjects, not as free actors able to engage in trials with other actors, but in the guise of ‘poor wretches’ who are ‘dominated’ from above (An Inquiry into Modes of Existence, p.421) – a hegemonic politics.
In his most recent work, Latour has explicitly taken up some of the concepts and terminology of Voegelin’s political theory in order to describe the quasi-religious procedure by which the transcendent is immanentized within the Modern regime as an instrument of political sovereignty. His point is to draw attention to this procedure as the imposition of a transcendent meta-logic, resulting in a form of religion that has lost touch with its own rational definition, which he thinks instead must always be a function of an immanent, processual, contingent and dynamic logistics.
Tout le paradoxe de la modernisation, c’est qu’elle a perdu de vue, chaque fois davantage, tout contact avec le mondain, la matérialité: elle ne voit plus dans ce bas monde que l’autre monde simplement immanentisé’ (Latour, Face a Gaia, 2015).
My translation, ‘the whole paradox of modernization is that it has lost sight, more and more every time, of contact with the mundane, with the material: it no longer sees in the here-below anything other than another world that has been merely immanentized’.
The Religion that is promoted by the Moderns thus lends itself to be wielded as a tool of instrumentalization and hegemony. For Latour, this is precisely what is instantiated in the form of the ‘crossed-out God’.
Voegelin’s concept of ‘political religion’ is thus much more useful for an analysis of religion within Modernity than, for example, Carl Schmitt’s concept of ‘political theology’. From the later, Latour would do better to focus on ‘political romanticism’.
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:
- The Religion of the Moderns
- What diagnosis does Latour make of contemporary religion?
- Why is it that Latour thinks, contrary to what we might expect, that secular moderns think of religion as ‘rational’?
- Why does this result in (what Latour calls) belief in ‘the crossed-out God’?
- And why does this drive Latour to think that (however paradoxical it might seem) secular modernity is undergirded by a form of religious fundamentalism?
- Making a transition
- If we want an alternative understanding of religion, why do we need to start with an ‘empirical site’?
- Does this comparison help?
- Religion as a Mode of Existence
- How does that ‘empirical site’ bring us to ‘religion as a mode of existence’?
- Encountering [REL] for the first time
- What does [REL] look like in practice? 1, 2, 3
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-Société. Durkheim 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.