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.