LATOUR’S CROSSINGS: Paradigmatic Domains, Platonic Modes, and Heraclitean Assemblages

Living traditions are polarised by Latour into abstract modes and concrete domains. This empirical polarisation, is exaggerated by Latour into a transcendental bifurcation, which ultimately founds the possibility of detachment, where a mode originally associated with one paradigmatic domain can be transferred into quite different domains, e.g. REL originating in religion may be instantiated in law or economy or science or sport (not currently a candidate for modal ascent in Latour’s pluriverse, yet its ontological uplift is not forbidden).

Thus any concrete domain is plurimodal as these transfers are coeval with the emergence of the modes. A domain is a nexus of multiple modal crossings. Although the modes are closed off from each other by the incommensurability of their felicity conditions, they are capable of collaborating together to assure the efficient functioning of a domain. Indeed, the domain would not exist without such collaborational crossing. Modes cross over into and are instantiated in multiple domains, domains contain crossings of many modes.

Collaborational crossings are permitted, as are translational crossings that acknowledge their deformation of the original mode of meaning for pragmatic purposes. What is prohibited are the impositional and the reductive crossings, the hegemony of one mode that insists that all content must be enounceable in terms of its régime or be condemned as sham-utterances or régimes of non-existence (“utter shams” as Harman’s involuntary pun would have it).

This process of polarisation, bifurcation, detachment, separation, and transfer from the paradigmatic domain of reference permits us to see the modes as essences, Ideas, or archetypal forms that can cross-instantiate themselves in diverse concrete assemblages. They can also withdraw from their paradigmatic domains of origin, leaving them to be empty husks or to be recycled to instantiate quite other modes. These modal archetypes are not “idealisations”, but they are extracted from traditions and abstracted into essences. They are extracted abstractions, as Latour does not want to impose some finite list of them as eternal a priori forms. Nor do they seem to constitute an historical a priori as Latour wants them to be opened to diplomatic discussion and negotiation.

Once again the example of religion is quite illuminating. The ethnographic investigation of a religious community cannot limit itself to the mode of REL, nor even make it the most important mode. Yet if there were no relation between the community’s utterances and practices and REL one would want to contest the religious nature of this group. Like the other modes REL is an archetype and has both descriptive and prescriptive pretentions. It purports both to describe the essence, or the Idea, of religious utterance, and to prescribe the conduct of life and the existent objects of any concern that may be called religious.

There remains a question of nomination. If REL as mode of existence can be separated from religious practices and institutions, if historical evolution can lead to so-called “religious” practices and institutions being voided of REL (as Latour claims in his book on the religious utterance REJOICING, then we may deny them the appellation of “religious”. On the other hand we may want to rename REL and call it COM, attributing it to the paradigmatic domain of communist politics, as Zizek does.

This possibility of detachment from the domain of origin and transfer to a quite different domain has the consequence for Latour’s redefinition of the religious in terms of REL that there is no reason why the resulting mode should be called religion, rather than politics. Indeed Badiou’s system can be seen as treating REL as a composite, and further analysing it into politics and psychoanalysis.

The question of nomination would no longer be one of reflecting an essence, but a more pragmatic one of avoiding instituted connotations (church, dogma, transcendence, and supernatural beings.

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4 Responses to LATOUR’S CROSSINGS: Paradigmatic Domains, Platonic Modes, and Heraclitean Assemblages

  1. dmfant says:

    I think that the families of socialization/habituation processes/practices that one finds in ethnographic studies of self-identified religious practitioners are the same general procedures/disciplines as in other activities, as far as I can tell it is the focus on (inclusion of, reference to) the supernatural/etc that makes/marks them “religious”.


  2. Nicholas says:

    I saw that NYT post too, dmfant, and thought the same thing…


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