Some thoughts on [HAB]

Contrary to what is sometimes claimed, AIME manifests a great deal of sensitivity towards diachronicity. It recognises, for example, that a category mistake between two or more modes may have manifested itself as useful and even appropriate at a particular moment in history.

Of course, the general trajectory in which category mistakes take us is pernicious, whether these are found in science, psychology, religion, or whatever:

It is only gradually, and through the shock waves that reverberate in each of the histories proper to each mode, that we find ourselves lamenting, three centuries later, the simultaneous loss of the sciences, subjects, and gods. (An Inquiry into Modes of Existence, p.260)

(In fact, Latour refers to category mistakes in general as ‘malign inversions’, a term taken from the work of Ivan Illich, denoting the threshold above which some good actually ends up creating more bad than it set out to remove in the first place).

And yet still: with malign inversions, we can at least say that there has been history. That history has to be taken into account. And indeed, the value of such historical awareness, perhaps, is that it enables the inquirer to see that the Moderns, even when their trajectory has been pockmarked by category mistakes, have nevertheless not been entirely hamstrung. They have managed to carry on regardless. Or, to put it another way, in spite of the heritage, they have managed not to lapse into total irrationality, by means of applying to themselves ‘an apparent continuity of action’ (Inquiry, p.261; all subsequent references are to the chapter in [HAB] in the Inquiry).

This continuity of action is what is ensured by [HAB].

I was reminded of [HAB] today by someone mentioning it briefly on Twitter. I’d forgotten about it, to be honest. Maybe that’s the point: after all, ‘forgetting’ is central to its logistical operation.

And yet, as Latour himself says, [HAB] is a mode of existence that we neglect or take for granted at our peril:

It is the most important, the most widespread, the most indispensable of the modes of existence, the one that takes up 99% of our lives, the one without which we could not exist, obsessed as we would be with avoiding category mistakes. The one that allows us to define the courses of action that we have learned to follow through the notion of association networks [NET]. (Inquiry, p.262)

Let’s look at its logistical specification. The function of [HAB] is something like the following:

  • It does not ‘forget’ a [PRE].
  • And yet, it ‘omits’ or ‘veils’ it (p. 264), in such a way that prepositional hiatuses get ‘smoothed over’ (p. 266), such that what remains in the functioning of a habitual activity is merely a ‘memory’ (p.266) of them, not necessarily a constant foregrounding.
  • But crucially, all along it is lithe enough to ‘retrieve’ a [PRE] at any point, should that retrieval be required for a ‘restart’ of the mode in question, for whatever reason (p.267).

So if [PRE] is what signals the trajectory, [HAB] is the dynamic that gets us walking through that trajectory according to the initial direction; this forward-movement is key, for it is not that [HAB] indicates blind or brutish capitulation to a pre-determined leader, but more a rapid or efficient following of where we were going anyway.

So we now have to recognize two different senses in the notion of category mistake: being mistaken about the mode on the one hand and on the other limiting ourselves to the search for the right mode without advancing toward what it indicates. (p.265)

But what is the rationality (or veridiction) of [HAB] per se? And how has it been treated philosophically?

We often will assume that a habit is irrational, because it seems to represent an act of supine ‘following’, rather than of active ‘innovation’ (the ‘speed of thought’ promoted by Deleuze, perhaps). But, in fact, habit has its own rationality. And this idiosyncratic rationality is precisely to ensure this ‘following’ does indeed take place (p.266). What we need, then, are more ‘philosophers of habit’ (p.266), serious thinkers who could re-dignify and re-pristine the quality of habit as a function of lived experience. Félix Ravaisson-Mollien might be one notable exception (to which we might add several of the early Church and medieval mystics, perhaps).

The philosophical integrity and practical usefulness of [HAB], then, will be defined by whether it is grasped in its felicity or in its infelicity conditions:

  • [HAB] grasped according to its felicity conditions: these would be habits that enable us to live, but which nevertheless keep us skilful, attentive and alert, and keep the engine of our lives ready for a ‘manual restart’ whenever one should be necessary.
  • [HAB] grasped according to its infelicity conditions: these would be habits that make us more obtuse, that promote merely mechanical gestures or routine obeisance. The infelicity condition of [HAB] is akin to spam: messages that are rootless, without addresser or addressee, destined for the trash (p.269).

So what is the macro-contribution of [HAB] within the context of the Inquiry?

I think one thing is that it provides us with a new take on the story of the Moderns. Without [HAB], the bifurcated epistemology of the Moderns is normatively described in that most familiar of Latourian tropes, namely, the confusion of knowing subject/ known object at [REF:REP]. But with the entrance of [HAB] as a category of modal thought, a more charitable explanation of the story of the Moderns can be offered: the Moderns have simply confused [HAB]. They have drunk the liquor of [HAB], succumbing to its intoxicating power to render implicit the vast majority of courses of action. And yet they have over-indulged, now finding themselves too dozy to activate the manual restart that is also with the gift of [HAB], but which requires sober hands to grasp.

Consequently, when we complain that the Moderns do not know how to account for their own riches, we are not trying to extend the critical question, the Socratic question, to their entire anthropology: we are asking, proposing, suggesting that they no longer raise that question, so that all the other keys can be made explicit, each according to its mode. (Inquiry, p.273)

That, I think, is why we need to wake up a little to the quality of [HAB] and investigate its harmonic potential in association with modes such as [REF], [POL], [LAW] (I think of the recent re-interpretation in English law of the ‘joint enterprise’ means of conviction in a criminal case, for example) – but most of all [REL].

And I say that, as I’ve just come out from a service of Evensong, for the nth time of my life. Did [HAB] sustain me?



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

The Characteristics of [REL], 3 of 3

The third characteristic of [REL] is hesitation. Hesitation is the reflex of reprise. It resists transcendent closure (‘religion is this or that experience’) and continually refers back to the performance of entities in the common world for its definition (‘this or that experience is religious’).

Latour suggests that hesitation, in the form of doubt, marks the response of the faithful even in light of what appears to be direct address from the Divinity (the paradigmatic instance being the ‘call of the prophet’ narrative forms of the Hebrew Bible): ‘not once, in all the Scriptures, do we find traces of someone who was called who could say that he was sure, really sure, that the beings of the Word were there and that he had really understood what they wanted of him’ (Latour, An Inquiry into Modes of Existence, p.310). Except, the same passage goes on, ‘the sinner’, who is thus defined as the one who unflinchingly accepts religious experience as an in-form-ational medium (ibid).[1] In order to dis-amalgamate from [DC], Latour suggests that [REL] will tend towards appropriating and celebrating (what might be called) ‘sticky liturgies’, that is, words from its own tradition that are ‘hard to swallow’, ‘bristling with contradictions’, ‘bizarre’, ‘clumsy’, ‘sticking in our craws’, and so on (Latour, Rejoicing, or the Torments of Religious Speech, p.100). By means of sticky liturgies, [REL] turns its attention to the logistical procedures of the common world.

In this regard Latour reflects the influence of Michel Serres. For Serres, religion is best understood through its complex etymology derived from relegare (‘to read over again’), religare (‘to attach, bind, tie together’) or religiens (‘care, carefulness’, this word being the antonym of negligens): he suggests that religion inherits from all three roots but particularly the latter. In this way religion is orientated away from the notion of ‘belief’, which both Serres and Latour disdain, and towards the notion of ‘concern’, which they celebrate as orientation towards the secular, the mundane and the worldly.

Bringing these three characteristics together, we might therefore suggest that the most distinctive feature of [REL] is ‘subsistence’ (which can now be contrasted with ‘fundamentalism’ as the basic posture of the Religion of the Moderns). Subsistence is once again demonstrable from the empirical site. In seeking to affirm their love, Latour suggests that both partners understand ‘that their love is either a substance whose attributes serve no purpose, or that [they themselves] are responsible for bringing out its attributes and then, yes, effectively, their love stands underneath—which is precisely what the word ‘sub-stance’ means—all the shows of tenderness and affection’ (Latour, Rejoicing, p.126). Amatory speech can be encoded either as ‘substance’, where it lazily leans upon a previous utterance without taking upon itself the work of activating it in the present, or as ‘sub-stance’ (or ‘subsistence’, as Latour more commonly calls it), where it takes responsibility for continually activating its own value in the present moment by means of reprise. The same contrast applies to religion. Unlike the Religion of the Moderns, which operated via a ‘fundamental’ substrate of information, [REL] does not consist in ‘a substance preserved intact over time, like a gold coin forgotten under a mattress that you might come across happily years later’ (Latour, Rejoicing, p.126). Instead, [REL] encodes a movement of subsistence: first comes the performance of a religious experience, and only afterwards can this performance be validated (or not) according to the value it has incarnated. It is no exaggeration to say, then, that subsistence reverses the direction of meaning of a religious experience. A religious truth claim is revealed after (not before) its performance:

I begin with the utterance and end with a substance, I start from existence, from its fragile dependence on the right word, and I recapitulate it after that in an essence. First I make the thing exist and only after that do I name it. (Latour, Rejoicing, p.128).

Hence, it is more accurate to think of [REL] as a participial construction (‘religiously’) than as a referential object (‘religion’).

Defining [REL] in terms of subsistence, however, does not imply relativism.

This is because whichever mode is in view—whether this be [REL] or anything else—objectivity is not granted by appeal to a transcendent, unalterable notion of substance, but via the subsistent movements of entities. The telos of Latour’s entire intellectual project is towards the development of a realism without substance. The regime of truth specific to [REL], like that of any other mode, does not lose objectivity when it is validated by means of its performance within the common world. Rather, ‘as soon as we put it [religion] back on its feet, by taking it the right way round, starting from the attributes and going back (or not) to the substance, it becomes accurate again, since it retrieves all its truth values’ (Latour, Rejoicing, p.138). Only when religion trades in the trans-form-ational utterances of subsistence, rather than the in-form-ational utterances of [DC], will it attain to the status of fully rational discourse.


[1]    Latour includes in this condemnation are the official representatives of the institutional Church when they collude with the Religion of the Moderns in seeking to preserve, rather than reprise, doctrine: ‘the people whose job it is to change words so as to keep the meaning, clerics, have preferred piously to preserve the words at the risk of losing their meaning: they’ve left us, the rest of us, we latecomers, ignoramuses, stutterers, equipped with words that have become untruthful for the purposes of recording the real things we hold dear to our hearts’ in Latour, Rejoicing (2013), p.8.