DE-CONVERSION IS MORE “RELIGIOUS” THAN CONVERSION: On some paradoxical consequences of Latour’s distinction between empirical domains and transcendental modes

It is important to understand in which interpretative key we must read Bruno Latour’s assertions in AN INQUIRY INTO MODES OF EXISTENCE. Despite Latour’s talk about “ethnographic investigation” and “empirical metaphysics” we do not see any sociology in this book, but rather a combination of philosophy and diplomacy. At the speculative level of the invention of concepts and of adequate theoretical vocabularies the book is a philosophical treatise:

“I have not been able to see any way this inquiry into modes of existence could do without philosophy. I am turning to philosophy, then … in the hope of forging a metalanguage that will allow us finally to do justice, in theory, to the astounding inventions that the fields reveal at every step—among the Moderns too” (21).

The task here is that of “forging a metalanguage” to do justice to the multiplicity of modes of existence. Yet that notion of doing justice to pluralism evokes the second aspect of the treatise. At the practical level it is an exercise in diplomacy, the new accounts created to describe more adequately the various modes are meant not only to preserve the essential values of their practitioners but also to gain their assent and adhesion (Good luck with that, Professor Latour!):

“it is not in the mode of knowledge that I claim to be working. The term “inquiry” has to be taken in a plurimodal sense whose object is to preserve the diversity of modes … To situate this reprise of the rationalist adventure, but to mark clearly that it will not take place under the auspices of Double Click, I have entrusted it to the term diplomacy” (481).

A major problem with this project is that the people to whom these abstract accounts are addressed, supposedly his “informants” and their associates, are practitioners of the empirical domains, i.e. they are embedded in a multiplicity of heterogeneous plurimodal networks. They are certainly not the ideal participants of pure, semiotically isolable modes of enunciation and of existence. Paradoxes are generated by the fact that the same word can have different or even antithetical meanings depending on whether it is referred to the empirical level of domains or to the speculative level of the philosophical metalanguage accounting for those domains.

In the case of religious conversion we can see some very counter-intuitive consequences, despite the lexical veil that Latour’s consensual vocabulary tends to throw over the diverse ambiguities and resulting paradoxes. Empirical conversion to a particular religion is not at all the same thing as speculative conversion, as defined in terms of Latour’s religious mode of existence. Latour describes his “modal” conversion as a turning away from a concern with remote objects and with the Beyond, and as a turning towards the nearest and the neighboring beings.

In Latour’s terms someone may “convert” to Catholicism by adhering to its beliefs and rituals (Apostle’s Creed, Catechism, baptism, Confession, Mass etc.) without any modal conversion at all. Indeed we may imagine the opposite, a fundamentalist conversion that leaves its convert separated from his or her friends and family, engaged in sectarian practices and dogmatic proselytism. We may even imagine the converse situation. A fundamentalist believer, coming to see the dogmatic unproveable character of their beliefs and realising how cut-off from and insensitive to their close ones they have become, deconstructs their creedal adhesion and cultivates an attitude of loving kindness towards those around them.

Such a “de-conversion”, and there are many accounts of such experiences, at the empirical level of the domain of religion, would have to be qualified a “conversion” at the speculative level of the religious mode. However Latour does not discuss or even envisage this sort of possibility. Rhetorically, he laments over empty sermons and mocking atheists, and seems to want the sermons to become full again and the atheists to hold their tongue. The effect of resorting to this rhetorical level of an appeal to common sense examples is the blurring of the conceptual distinction between the speculative and the empirical acceptions of the same word, and thus reinforcing the intuitive plausibility of the speculative scheme at the price of de-naturing its rupture with the established “accounts” of the modes.

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One Response to DE-CONVERSION IS MORE “RELIGIOUS” THAN CONVERSION: On some paradoxical consequences of Latour’s distinction between empirical domains and transcendental modes

  1. Philip says:

    I agree that Latour is doing two different and largely incompatible things with the religion mode. Now that I’m nearing the end of the book I can see where it fits into the overall system and having a mode of ‘personification’ as one of the trio of quasi-subject modes makes sense. However, I see no justification for building it exclusively around religion. Latour gives two examples of personifying events: love and then religion. Maybe he thinks that religion is the bringing into presence, the personifying event par excellence. Fine but it’s a failure of diplomacy to expect your faithless interlocutors to adopt the entirety of your vocabulary. The need for a mode of personification within this system – that I have no problem with philosophically. However, to tie that to directly to religion actually seems to indicate a *departure* from diplomacy. He’s not searching for a compromise in this mode; he’s attempting to tie his opponent in a bind: accept religious language or lose a mode (and an essential mode at that). But his lack of subtlety here will backfire. It is not a rearticulation of religious language so much as a reassertion of it. And that leaves those on the other side of the table with little choice than to say ‘no deal.’

    Diplomats are trickier and more partial characters than Latour makes out. They are not neutral arbitrators. They seek compromise, yes, but only as much compromise as it takes to get what their sovereign wants. On religion Latour tries to ‘play hardball’ and doesn’t offer his opponents enough to do anything other than say ‘no.’ Which is ironic since religion is probably the most difficult mode he has to defend.


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