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.