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.

References 

[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.

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