Gaukroger and the “naturalization of the human”

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.


Latour and the Secular

The argument I have been advancing on this blog has centred on the claim that religious categories are essential to Latour’s philosophical project. For Latour modernity, notwithstanding its claims, is “religious” in form because it leverages categories of transcendence to secure its political hegemony over minority collectives in the world. Modernity is always making a move upwards to the transcendent, then, and using what it finds there to secure its own epistemology as “unified”, “de-animated”, “indisputable”, and so on. This is how it procures and leverages the transcendent epistemological categories of “Nature”, “Society”, “the Economy”, and so on. The movement up and down is associated with the being of “the crossed-out God of Modernity” as Latour presents it in We Have Never Been Modern.

Latour’s analysis of Modernity as an ersatz religion or religiosity can be applied to our contemporary situation, and in particular to our cherished ideology of secularism. This is the ideology that Latour claims has become ubiquitous in what he loosely describes as “Europe” or “the West”.  Latour considers the phenomenon of “Western” secularism to be failing according to its own definition.

Evidently, a full consideration of how the term “secularism” is understood and appropriated, let alone how it has come to determine the self-identity of those inhabiting “the West”, is beyond the scope of this blog post. To begin with, I am going to borrow a definition provided by Graham Ward in his 2014 article ‘The Myth of Secularism’. Ward understands secularism as a post-Enlightenment ideology and social habitus. Its distinctive feature is to propose itself as a neutral scenography that is able to guarantee the emancipation and flourishing of all human ideologies precisely because it is neutral with regard to those ideologies itself. Thus, Ward proposes the following definition:

Secularism as a norm, as the natural default position prior to individual life choices, as the eternal condition upon which constructive choices can be made

For Latour, this neutrality is precisely what cannot be predicated of secularism. This is because he understands secularism to be an expression of Modernity and therefore an inheritor of the structure of religion that Modernity encodes.

This enables Latour to make the apparently paradoxical claim that Western society is characterised above all by “religious fundamentalism”. With this term, he is not referring to some kind of regressive or recursive adherence to a particular religious creed or tradition. Nor is he referring to the so-called “return of religion” in contemporary French philosophy as has been exhaustively documented in recent studies by McCaffery and Lambert, whose programme can be better understood as an attempt to reform secularism by means of a secular critique of religion, and as such representing ‘a more profound post-secular phenomenon’. Rather, Latour is referring to the way in which the political, cultural and economic existence of Western society is characterised by its immanentization of the category of transcendence, such that the decisions and choices its subjects make do not arise from processes of progressive composition that take place within this framework of this world. In other words, Latour is criticising Western society for possessing an irreducible belief system. Whatever its claims to secular neutrality, then, Latour’s analysis arraigns the West for being guilty of re-inscribing a discourse that its own adherents would suppose had passed away with the most hegemonic and dogmatic forms of fundamentalist religion of the past.

By means of this insight, in a series of recent articles Latour has proposed a controversial connection between the contemporary (European) secular state and non-state actors engaged in violent religious extremism and even Jihad-inspired terrorism. For example, in a newspaper opinion piece written in response to the Charlie Hebdo massacres that took place in Paris in January 2015, published in Le Monde, he argues that the fundamental ideology of those criminals was ultimately the same, albeit in perniciously mutated form, as the one espoused and promoted by the secular ideology they were seeking to destroy:

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.

The hegemony over interpretation of truth claimed by the Jihadists is a function of political religion. But Latour’s startling claim is that an identical movement is enacted within the secular West as well. Both claim access to transcendence as warrant of their actions, in one case citing ‘fi sabilillah’ (“the cause of Allah”), in the other case citing the being of ‘the crossed-out God’, or its theistic reduction in the form of the laws of “Nature”, “Society” or “the Economy”. And both wield this as an instrument of political sovereignty, demanding the total obedience of citizens to diktat of this metaphysical paymaster. Thus, with regard to the Jihadists, Latour can propose that “behind their archaic appearance they must be understood above all as fanatical modernizers”. And correspondingly, with regard to Western secular society, he can propose that “like the most extremist zealots of Jerusalem and Ramallah” its adherents are in fact nothing but “political fundamentalists” (Latour, 2015, Thou Shallt Not Freeze-Frame, p.35). There is an uncomfortable synergy between the structures that lie behind both dogmatic ideologies, even if this issues in radically different forms of world-view and behaviour.

Latour’s diagnosis of secularism as “fundamentalism” can be fruitfully applied to debates in France concerning the function of laïcité and the mode of management that the French state is entitled to pursue in its guise as neutral arbitrator of the boundaries of religion in public life, with the vexed issue of the display of religious symbols being one prominent case-study. These debates were accelerated by the publication of the report of the Stasi Commission of 2003 and the controversy that ensued from it. Latour’s analysis would suggest that the secular French state, or indeed any state apparatus, cannot function as neutral arbitrator of religion, since secularism is itself inflected as a religious ideology. Indeed, as Ward points out in the article mentioned above, in the case of the policy of ‘laïcité’ being pursued by the French state this contradiction is apparent even in a narrowly-defined legal sense, since to enshrine ‘laïcité’ in legislation and to enforce it as law upon the population is simultaneously to enact a gesture of political sovereignty that is characteristic of political religion. Latour has been prominently involved in debates about laïcité that have taken place in France over the last two years. However, this involvement is not knee-jerk: as I have shown, it originates in core philosophical principles that he established from the very earliest part of his career.

In summary, my claim is that Latour offers a radical critique of what constitutes the secular. His work demonstrates that secularism as an ideology does not represent a neutral scenography upon whose canvas an authentically political society can be constructed. Secularism as an ideology, and indeed the so-called secular state as it is promoted and celebrated within Western liberal democracy, is better understood as an expression of political religion and hence as a vehicle of religious ‘fundamentalism’. Failure to appreciate this results in a flawed deployment of Latour’s ideas. This error can be seen in a recent attempt to apply Latour’s work for the analysis of contemporary politics, which makes the assumption that it is aiming to shore up or re-institute the authority of the existing secular state, rather than to provide a radical critique of the concept of ‘secularism’ to which it is bound (see, for example, Tsouvalis, 2016, ‘Latour’s Object-Orientated Politics for a Post-Political Age’).

Review: ‘A Philosophy of Christian Materialism’

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.


Latour as a Reader of Emile Durkheim

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 as a Reader of Emile Durkheim

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.


Latour and Voegelin’s Political Religion, part 2

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’.


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.

Latour on Durkheim: Part 2 of 5

See here for part 1.

Latour’s critique of Durkheim converges upon Durkheim’s sociological method. In the case of the book under review, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912), this primarily refers to Durkheim’s use of the ethnographic data he adduces to explain the most primitive religion that was known at the timenamely, the totemic religion of Australian aborigines. For Latour, Durkheim’s handling of this data is faulty. The give-away is that the ‘universal’ explanation of religion that Durkheim derives from this ethnographic data is the same at the beginning as it is at the end of the book. What this reveals is that his empirical data hasn’t had any effect on his conclusions, which are now shown to have been a priori all along.

Malgré l’érudition manifestée tout au long, le lecteur ne peut s’empêcher de remarquer que les grandes thèses qui s’appliquent à toutes les formes de religion, élémentaires ou avancées, ne subissent pas de transformation notable entre le début et la conclusion de l’ouvrage (2).

In spite of the erudition on display throughout, the reader can’t help but notice that the grand theses that are applied to every form of religion, elementary as well as advanced, are not subject to any notable transformation between the beginning and the end of the work. (my translations throughout)

What Durkheim is doing, then, is using a token empiricism to secure a universal conclusion, which is the polar opposite of the working method of ANT.

With this global critique in mind, the first of Latour’s four comments on the book can be appreciated (see parts 3, 4 and 5 for the others): Durkheim is guilty of misconfiguring the nature of the (religious) agency he is dealing with.

Durkheim’s basic line, of course, is that in Elementary Forms he is investigating the social forces and causes that are present in any given social milieu and that lead to the emergence of religious life. The agent he is handling, then, we might call Dieu-Société (7). What Latour shows, however, is that Durkheim presents us with an actor that can have no meaningful actions! What Durkheim does is first to over-animate his actor (by attributing to it the overweaning power to cause every single expression of religion that the world has ever known), and, second, by consequence, to defenestrate his actor (because by endowing it with this power, this super-agent is in fact rendered unattributable as an empirical phenomenon in the world). The claims made on behalf of the actor Dieu-Société are superficially persuasive (hence, the influence of Durkheim’s philosophy of religion on theologians ever since). But when subjected to a basic semiotic reading, this actor is shown to be insufficient to account for diversity of phenomena it is supposed to have produced. And so the question is begged:

De quelles actions est donc capable, dans le récit, l’acteur dont le nom est ‘société’? (4).

In this narrative, then, of what actions is the actor that is called ‘Society’ capable?

The ironies revealed here are legionnot least when we consider that, having mis-figured a chimerical ‘metaphysical paymaster’ into being with one hand, Durkheim then proceeds with the other to con-figure a full blown historical genealogy for that very same entity. That genealogy proceeds something like the following:

  1. In early human societies religion was understood as nothing but a brute, non-comprehended, universal force.
  2. Over time, this force found itself being reconfigured anthropomorphically and mythologically, such that what was once a non-comprehended force increasingly began to be figured in terms of a personal force of one sort or another (cf. monotheist religions, pagan typologies, sophisticated modern spiritualties).
  3. In the latter times, in a more sophisticated way, by dint of scientific method, we are able to recognize these forces as deriving from the ‘collective effervescence’ of society, with the hope that in the future we might enjoy something like une forme paradoxale de religion laïque (4).

An agent equipped with a simple diadic causal motor is supposed to have generated this proliferating range of effects! Really! It is as if Durkheim is sending out an F-16 jet into battle, removing its mounted weapons capability, and then telling a story of its great success in defeating the enemy.

Of course, we can immediately spot the synergy between the Dieu-Société of Durkheim’s text and the Modern category of ‘Society’, as developed in We Have Never Been Modern (1993) and elsewhere. Neither the Dieu-Société nor ‘Society’ can explain anything: rather, they are that which need to be explained (by means of the careful and labour-intensive analysis of proliferating agencies in the world):

Tout s’éclaire si la société n’est pas ce qui explique, mais ce qu’il convient d’expliquer (18).

Everything becomes clear if we take society not as that which explains, but what has to be explained.

The Durkheimian sociologist of religion, then, is guilty of setting himself up as an arbitrator of privileged access to a metaphysical paymaster that lies behind every expression of religion that has ever been experienced. This is elitist, non-democratic, non-diplomatic behaviour. The Durkheimian sociologist waves before our eyes an object of enquiry that:

[…] ne peut pas être vue directement sinon par le sociologue équipée, grâce à la science, d’une sorte de masque de soudeur qui protègera ses yeux (6).

[…] cannot be seen directly other than by means of a sociology equipped, through science, with a kind of welder’s mask that can protect one’s eyes.

Consider what Durkheim himself says: ‘social action follows ways that are too circuitous and obscure, and employs psychical mechanisms that are too complex to allow the ordinary observer to see whence it comes. As long as scientific analysis does not come to teach it to them, men know well that they are acted upon, but they do not know by whom. So they must invent by themselves the idea of these powers with which they feel themselves in connection, and from that, we are able to catch a glimpse of the way by which they were led to represent them under forms that are really foreign to their nature and to transfigure them by thought’ (Durkheim, Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, p.209).


The Durkheimian sociologist is now revealed for what he is—nothing but a Modern critic handling religion. Here is an anti-[REL] analytic. In Sloterdijkian language, these Durkheimian sociologists are philosophers of the classical orb, secure in their esoterism by dint of ensuring the ‘invisibility’ of the knowledge they, and they alone, have access to in their gnostic covens (Sloterdijk, In the World Interior of Capital, p.16).

The conclusion? In Durkheimian sociology of religion:

[…] on retrouve là comme dans toute sociologie de la religion l’étonnante attitude qui consiste à expliquer la présence d’êtres inexplicables par l’introduction d’un être encore plus inexplicable (17).

[…] we find in it, just as in all sociology of religion, the surprising attitude by which the presence of inexplicable beings is explained by the introduction of a being that is even more inexplicable.

It is no surprise, then, that Latour will accuse Durkheim of resorting to the most hallowed principles of monotheism, la grande tradition monothéiste (7), in his explanation of religion. What Durkheim does is simply to swap the monotheistic God of traditional religion for a monotheistic Dieu-Sociéténeither of them is capable of accounting for the diversity of religious phenomena in the world. What a tantalizing glimpse this is of Latour’s God, and of the transcendence that will be radically redefined in his worshipful description of that God by means of [REL].

Here is the link to the next installment.

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.