Bruno Latour wants to produce a new account of the values of the Moderns, but each of the key terms of this ambition is fraught with presuppositions that make their uncritical use more of a hindrance to thought than an aid. An « account » that is supposed to be a better mirror of its object, representing without revising or distorting our values, is an empiricist illusion unworthy of a philosophy of creative mediation. Unless against this passive empiricist acception of « account » we advance a more active constructivist sense, where reconceptualising an object means also intervening in and modifying the experiences and practices underlying that object’s current compositional form. The word « Moderns » is also ambiguous between the reference to an empirically delimitable socio-historic collectivity and a non-empirical conceptual persona instantiated in diverse historical periods and sociological contexts.
However, the term « value » comports the most misleading set of ambiguities, and merits our closest critical attention. It may seem overkill to concentrate on the use of this one word « value » in Latour’s « empirical » metaphysics, but it is a key term in Latour’s metaphysics, and yet its nature and scope remain unclear and undefined. Sometimes it refers to the values relly maintained by the practitioners of a mode, sometimes it refers to the values embedded in their (often illusory) account of their practices, sometimes it refers to the values of the « Moderns » in a philosophical, social, political, or historical sense.
« Value » in a Deleuzian context evokes a transcendent unifying instance that replaces one phase of the immanent diachronic criteria of modes of existence with their synchronic equivalents. To capture the diachronic character of these criteria as diverse, composite, non-obligatory, and evolving over time, Deleuze prefers to call them « evaluations ». In Deleuze’s philosophical vocabulary « value » is a term for the conformist codification of practice and experience, and of modes of existence. It is rather singular evaluations (or valuings) that allow us to construct our modes of existence without succombing to transcendence in the sense of a higher objective court of appeal. In valorising the term « value » over that of « evaluation » to characterise modes of existence Latour seems to be trying both to make use of Deleuzian terminology and to reorient it towards producing more conservative conclusions than Deleuze would allow.
Latour’s “felicity conditions” are themselves conformist: they are the criteria determining whether some already constituted value has been respected or attained, or not. Treating science as being faithful to the value of “objectivity” as Latour does in the introduction, or religion as bound to the value of conversion, is a reductive and conservative move. Indeed, the idea that each mode of existence embodies a specific “value” that can be isolated out is a conservative reduction. It is conservative because it consists in giving a new account of the practices and experiences underlying a mode of existence aimed at preserving the practices and simply re-stating those experiences. It is a reduction in that something of the complexity of those practices and experiences is lost. Wanting us to give up the “belief in beliefs” in favour of a belief in values seems to involve little conceptual gain, but tends towards denying any political and cognitive dimension to values.
A comparison with Feyerabend’s ideas on traditions is useful here. For Feyerabend modernity is just another « tradition » on a plane of equality with any other tradition: it has no valid claim to superiority over the others. A tradition is an evolving self-correcting collective process whose contents are ambiguous and whose borders are fuzzy. In a tradition, which is somewhere between a « mode » and a « domain » in Latour’s sense, there are varying degrees of sophistication and abstraction, corresponding to the various sub-groups and their party-lines contained within that tradition. Latour is careful to distinguish the mode from the domain in the case of religion, yet viewed in Feyerabend’s terms this amounts to giving legitimacy and primacy to one sub-group of a tradition over the others. The distinction is more one of political ontology than of the strangely idealised enunciative ontology that Latour is elaborating. For Deleuze, as for Feyerabend, each tradition contains and is constituted by, and in reaction to, a set of more or less developped counter-traditions.
Zizek provides a very useful corrective to Bruno Latour’s view on religion, which aims at correcting our account of religious practice while leaving the practice itself untouched. Zizek espouses the death of God as a counter-theology having a real emancipatory potential. Latour can be seen as expounding his own version of a theology of the death of God (as object of belief, or as transcendent signifier) which is designed to reinforce the tradition’s practices rather than to contest them or to appropriate them for progressive ends. Zizek’s atheist theology is revolutionary while Latour’s is conservative: it does not include a notion of withdrawing from the present order and of attaining real freedom. We see the same conservatism in Latour’s views on science: he criticises the current accounts and replaces them with better ones, while leaving everything as it is.