LATOUR ON THE DEATH OF RELIGION: post-empirical re-animation and autobiographical performativity as science

Modes of existence for Latour are not eternal. They are born, live in a creative « gaseous » state, then are codified, solidify and harden into empty practices and dogmatic formulae, and finally disappear. In his book on the religious mode of existence REJOICING he affirms: « It’s as if the same tradition could appear in either of two states: solid or gaseous ». The solid state of sterile repetition signifies the approaching death of the tradition. Such is the case of the religious mode of existence, which detached itself with much difficulty from the existence of the « beings of metamorphosis », continued as a living Word for some time, and which has now ceased to exist as a living tradition.

In a very interesting interview (« Pour une ethnographie des modernes ») Bruno Latour clarifies his pronouncements on religion. In reply to a question on the « religious phenomenon » he declares: « It has disappeared as religious mode of existence: it is ideology, opinion…the phenomenon itself has disappeared as mode of existence » (page 7, my translation). « Religion » as we find it in our society is no longer a living mode of existence, but mere ideology: empty rituals and meaningless prayers and sermons.

However, Latour himself manages to reactivate this very particular mode of existence. In REJOICING he claims that « in the operation of the book the enunciation that is being studied is produced (ibid, 8). One may wonder if his role is purely descriptive, empirical and « ethnographic » why he would give himself the trouble of reanimating a dead mode of existence? Latour is rather proud of this feat and insists « for me the most scientific book that I have written is REJOICING ». His reason is performative rather than simply descriptive: « because there one is producing the phenomenon that one is talking about ».

This anomalous treatment of religion shows up very clearly the conflict between autobiographical fidelity and ethnographical investigation that traverses Latour’s mode of existence project. If religion as mode of existence is dead in the modernist epoch, why is Latour even talking about it in an ethnography of the Moderns? Is Latour a good enough representative of our current modes of existence to be allowed to take on the (conceptual) role of diplomat representing us? The normative thrust of his « descriptive » project is apparent here. Latour wishes to dissociate modernism from secularism to be able to propose a more satisfying and more complete picture (in his own eyes) of the modernist set of values.

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8 commentaires pour LATOUR ON THE DEATH OF RELIGION: post-empirical re-animation and autobiographical performativity as science

  1. Philip dit :

    I’ve only just started ‘Rejoicing’ but I’ve read the relevant chapter in AIME and I’m not impressed. The whole thing seems to hinge on this supposed Golden Age of REL that presumably began some time after the year 0 and continued for an unspecified amount of time before it fell apart, was emptied out and co-opted by other modes.

    If there was no Golden Age then nothing has been lost and, in that case, there is nothing for Latour to revive and he is creating it from scratch. If there was no Golden Age *then Latour is claiming to be Jesus Christ!* Therefore, in order for Latour to be innocent of the most profound blasphemy this Golden Age must have existed.

    It all comes back, then, to an empirical question. Everything hinges on it. When was the Golden Age? It’s a question of *REF*.

    No matter how much he twists and turns it religion can’t be insulated from reference.


    • Nalliah Thayabharan dit :

      As long as we cannot overcome our primitive fears, particularly that of our own mortality, religion will remain entrenched in the human consciousness Once the fear of our own mortality sets in, our ability to apprehend is lost, since the fear ear causes the brain’s activity to center itself in the brain stem, where the primitive brain resides and access to the reasoning part of the brain – neo cortex – becomes very difficult
      We no longer need religion to the extent it had in the past and now the time has come for science to take a more prominent role in our life. I strongly believe that de-emphasizing religion will improve the quality of our life and assist the progress of our civilization.


  2. terenceblake dit :

    The autobiographical account in BIOGRAPHY OF AN INVESTIGATION ( conflicts with the empirical account presented in the book in terms of an ethnographic inquiry. Religion comes first in the biography, and is then confirmed by science studies. In the book science and law come first, and religion is only a confirming instance. Religion is arguably the motor. Latour’s religion is nostalgic, there is no Future Christ for him, just the re-activating or re-animating what he himself admits is a corpse. If religious language is dead as a mode of enunciation why does Latour include religion in the list of « our » values? We as Moderns are what is to be described, and this description should not be made to conform to Latour’s values. I think we must deny any difference between beings of metamorphosis and beings of religion, except in pragmatic terms. Modernity from Feuerbach, Marx, Nietzsche to Freud declares this analysis to be right. Latour may not be happy with this state of affairs, but he cannot claim to correctly describe or to represent it by presenting an analysis in contradiction with it.


  3. terenceblake dit :

    The Golden Age of faith may only exist in Scripture, in which case there is no REF at all but a vicious circle. Michel Onfray maintains that Jesus is a being of fiction, nothing in Latour can contradict that. If REF is disqualified then all we have for thinking that REL as described by Latour is the essence of religion is his say so, and quite other proferations are possible.


    • Philip dit :

      In that case then REL can only be distinguished from FIC by its ‘transformative’ quality, which is asserted rather than really reasoned (and I fail to see what stops a fiction from reproducing itself by transforming its subjects).

      It seems to me that the REL mode is a failure of instauration because it has nothing in itself that ‘pushes back’ against our criticisms of it. Without Latour’s assertions that it is different from the other modes there is nothing to differentiate it. In this sense REL isn’t a fully formed concept. It simply gives way, caves in, however it is approached. It has no reality independent of its author. Most of the other modes I feel have some degree of reality in and of themselves. Even as I criticise them I feel that they stand up to me – they *make* me criticise them, I have to *work* at it. REL just collapses in on itself. You either accept it as it is without critical consideration or it dissolves in your hands.


  4. terenceblake dit :

    This is why I am very suspicious of Latour’s description of science as being concerned with the « distant ». This prepares the way for his inversion where he associates science with transcendence and religion, concerned with the close, is associated with immanence. In naive picture thinking stars are far, and atoms are far in the sense of far down the microscopic scale. But we are star-stuff is the collapse of the near/far division. The quantum wave-function is not far at all, except intellecctually (but only if we have not been trained to think in its terms). So even the description of science is less empirical and more oriented than claimed.


  5. Nicholas dit :

    what has always bothered me about Latour’s persistent « dichotomy smashing » is that, in smashing them, he also underscores the significance — pragmatic or otherwise — of the dichotomy and the (perhaps, historically shifting) boundary that separates the dualities he’s so keen on smashing. He is having it both ways.


  6. terenceblake dit :

    Yes, it is a strange form of ethnographic « empiricism » that observes dichotomies but that decides that they belong to the erroneous « account » of experience and not to the experience itself. Dichotomous thinking may well be an essential value of the Moderns, even if the details and versions of the actual dichotomies mobilized are historically variable. Latour’s revisionist empiricism allows him to critique the subject in the traditional picture of knowledge (thus staying up to date with poststructuralism) and to re-instate it as the unified person of the religious mode (thus validating the traditional picture of religious engagement).


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