Latour and Laruelle on Religion: empiricity vs genericity

Bruno Latour, in AN INQUIRY INTO MODES OF EXISTENCE, proposes a generalisation of ontology that does not restrict itself to the description of a metaphysically unique mode of existence,  of what has traditionally been called “being-as-being”, but of a plurality of modes of existence, which he calls “being-as-other”. On the analogy of Non-Euclidean geometry, we could call this Latourian extension of ontology a “non-ontology”. As such Latour’s project invites comparison with a contemporary endeavour to escape the constraints of standard philosophy, François Laruelle’s project of non-philosophy. As both of these projects are vast in scope, to conduct such a comparison is a near impossible task if we desire to examine all the domains that have been analyses by both thinkers. Given the importance accorded by both Laruelle and Latour to the religious phenomenon, I will open such a comparison by attempting to use their treatment of religion to throw light on the interplay between genericity and empiricity that traverses their work.

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 an illuminating interview (“Pour une ethnographie des modernes”) Bruno Latour clarifies his pronouncements on religion. In reply to a question posed concerning 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”. The reason he gives shows that his idea of empiricism 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 two sorts of empiricism (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, one is entitled to ask 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 charged with representing us? His inclusion of “religion” in the modes of existence, and his explicit limiting of religion to the monotheist variety, leads us to doubt his impatiality and his representativity. The latent normative thrust of his “descriptive” project is apparent in this case. 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.

Does Bruno Latour, like Kant, limit science in order to make room for faith? His book AN INQUIRY INTO MODES OF EXISTENCE reads very much like a CRITIQUE OF MODAL REASON aimed at justifying the faith of his childhood. Including what by his own account is a dead mode of existence into his SUMMA ONTOLOGICA is a partisan violation of the overt specifications for his ethnographic project, aimed at discovering and describing the values of the Moderns.

Latour cites Jan Assmann’s work on the mosaic distinction as an account of the emergence of religion as modeof existence from polytheism (which is not “religious” in Latour’s terms, but rather concerned with the “beings of metamorphosis”). Latour’s description of the mode of existence of beings of metamorphosis or MET is not at all neutral, and is oriented towards prohibiting religion’s re-absorption back into MET. Human’s apparently lived for perhaps millions of years before the emergence of religion, or REL, as Latour describes it. Would we be less human or less complete if REL became extinct? What is to prevent the emergence of a more inclusive mode that absorbs both REL and MET? Historically, there are various candidates for such a mode, most notably Gnosticism (could there be a gnostic mode sui generis, “GNOS”?). Understood in terms of a process of individuation, and not as a causal referential science, Gnosticism as psycho-spiritual experimentation, like its successor alchemy, combines polytheistic pantheon and Christian deity in a more inclusive mode.

It is quite surprising that in AN INQUIRY INTO MODES OF EXISTENCE Latour states that he wishes to overcome the subject-object distinction, yet declares that only religious utterance provides “the passage of words that make the subject exist as a unified person” (301). Latour denounces religion transformed into ideology, yet he defines living religion positively in terms of our interpellation as a “unified person”, which is the very criterion of ideolgy as analysed by Althusser.

More generally on the critique of the subject/object dichotomy, Latour practices a strange form of ethnographic “empiricism” that observes dichotomies but 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 both to critique the subject as it occurs 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).

In this context we may note that some of Laruelle’s these on religion are very close to Latour’s own position. If, as Laruelle suggests, we abandon the historical Jesus on the Cross to physicality and empirical research, we are in effect assigning him to what Latour calls the referential mode of existence, that is authorised to pronounce on the factuality of Jesus’s death, of his despairing cry on the Cross, and even of his historical existence (or not!). A meta-physical or a generic Christ would belong to another mode of existence (“messianity”) that tends to isolate the Christ-figure not only from ordinary factual criticism, but also from more complex forms of pluralisation. So my question is: to what extent is messianity compatible with historicity and complexity, except only partially, locally, hypothetically and provisionally? A further question is: to what extent is Laruelle, like Latour, enouncing a post-empirical autobiographically delimited vindication of Christic enunciation, itself declared to be “science”, for the same sort of autobiographical (and thus ultimately non-generic) reasons? Unlike Latour with his talk of ethnographic investigation, Laruelle at least has the advantage of not claiming empirical validity for his generic analysis of religion.

However, it would seem that the autobiographical pseudo-transcendentalisation as covert impulsion towards a proclaimed but non-ratified, except circularly, universalisation is even clearer in Laruelle, where Christ is treated as a figure able to orient a religion towards its generic sublimation. For Latour, Christian monotheism is a sui generis mode of enunciation and of existence that effectuates a reduction of theological content, assigning this content to a quite different, referential, mode of existence. The notion of “reduction”, which is also employed as we saw in the reduction of historical content in the form of Jesus dying on the Cross, cannot be total if it leaves place for  generic sublimation. There is an unresolved conflict between doctrinal reduction and generic sublimation, which resurfaces in the conflict between a supposedly generic concept and its non-generic name (“Christ”). My worry is that this name is also pre-oriented biographically in Laruelle’s case, as it is for Latour, and thus the necessary genericity is only invoked but not attained.

Laruelle’s appeal to a christic intuition makes one wonder if he endorses a democracy of intuition or does his step beyond schematization in terms of familiar religious imagery retain nonetheless some part of the original familiar figures and images. For Laruelle and his empirical biography, there is the image of Christ, which escapes empiricity in that it is oriented towards its generic sublimation. Is this intuition a suitable heuristic indicator towards a fully post-schematized space, or is it a regressive apodictic stopping point?

I wish to distinguish what Laruelle is in danger of identifying, i.e. to distinguish the human incarnation from the name of “Christ”. This is the source of another point of comparison of Laruelle’s treatment of religion, this time not with Latour’s system, but with the ideas of Bernard Stiegler. In Stieglerian terms, the human incarnation is the process of material and psychic individuation freed from its philosophical and theological emprisonments. The name of “Christ”, however, is a more local and more partisan affair. It is non-active, except for those who remain faithful to what even Bruno Latour is forced to acknowledge is a virtually dead mode of existence, even if the religious domain is still going strong. Does the transgressive positing of a Future Christ envisioned by Laruelle really indicate a path that will free us from ideological entrenchments, whether idealist or theological?

“We make a distinction in general between two heterogeneous types of mysticism according to the use they make of their Christian material, a religious or else a non-religious or heretical use, according to their dogmatic or theorematic style, and finally according to the model or one of the models capable of interpreting them concretely, a model that is either micro-physical or quantic or else philosophical. But it is essential to keep in mind firstly that future mysticism, fiction-mysticism, and micro-mysticism (little used here), are all the same in the theoretical structure, in the formalism, and differ in the models, philosophico-religious or scientific, capable of interpreting this formalism and in consequence capable of naming it with their symbols” (François Laruelle, MYSTIQUE NON-PHILOSOPHIQUE A L’USAGE DES CONTEMPORAINS, page 9, my translation).

I think Latour comes close to proposing such a “formalism” in his account of religious enunciation, but ultimately draws back. The idea that such a formal model might have to efface the name of religion, what the provisional name of non-religion points to in Laruelle’s text, is no doubt too disturbing. Nor does Latour’s policing of the boundaries between modes open him to the possibility of a formalism that could instantiate itself indifferently in religious and in scientific models. The privileging of the moment of “conversion” adds a mystical-sounding aura to what is finally conceived as the constitution of the addressee as a unified person.


“The Christ-Word however seizes upon this glorification and adoration of the Name and performs them to the point of the last-Humaneity. If there is a real content to the “Jesus prayer”, it is not the transcendent repetition of this vocable in the desire of interiorising it into itself, at the heart of illumination through repetition. It is to repeat, in a certain manner ritually, this name of Christ in the universal spirit of the vision-in-One rather than in the “spirit of Jesus” which is a historical and mundane spirit, condemned to an ascetic use of language. The future mysticism is a unilateral ritual like the rest of non-philosophy. Let it be born-without-birth, let the cloned name of Jesus be born as other name of the Son or of the Subject…” (ibid, 168).

Understanding the “name of Christ” in the spirit of Jesus is understanding it in terms of historical and mundane religion. Laruelle does not want to put a stop to this mode of enunciation, typified here in the Jesus prayer, but to change its felicity conditions by understanding it in a different key or spirit, that of the vision-in-One. The problem arises of the indebtedness not just historically, and also biographically, of the name of Christ to the name of Jesus, but also transcendentally. Cloning the name of Jesus into a different mode of understanding, as in effect Latour does too, even if this involves quantizing the name (this quantum effect can be seen in Latour’s privileging of evental conversion over stabilised faith), conserves too much of the historico-biographical plane it departs from and so does not attain the universality it lays claim to.

Laruelle’s upward path of cloning is to be preferred as it attains a formalism that on the downward path of instantiation can include both scientific and religious models. The advantage of quantic conversions is that they are not stopped by the merely relativistic barriers separating Latour’s modes, and this is a great advantage over what amounts to a thesis of operational closure in Latour. This supposed incommensurability of the modes is contradicted not just by their empircally observable mixture in the various domains, but more fundamentally by the real that these modes explore without being able to construct. Underlying the constructivist incommensurability of the modes there is a deconstructivist porosity that makes pragmatic passages possible even where semantic or discursive passage is blocked.

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One Response to Latour and Laruelle on Religion: empiricity vs genericity

  1. inthesaltmine says:

    >But it is essential to keep in mind firstly that future mysticism, fiction-mysticism, and micro-mysticism (little used here), are all the same in the theoretical structure, in the formalism, and differ in the models, philosophico-religious or scientific, capable of interpreting this formalism and in consequence capable of naming it with their symbols

    I am struck here by the deep similarities between Laruelle and (obviously) Novalis.

    There is much debate as to whether or not Novalis’ fragment _Christendom or Europe_ is “a suitable heuristic indicator towards a fully post-schematized space, or […] a regressive apodictic stopping point”. Novalis, before his untimely death, read this fragment to the Jena Circle. The responses were varied. Schelling, for instance, sought to distance himself from its religiosity, and many today do, at first glance, see it as very reactionary. Schlegel, if I recall correctly, nevertheless wanted to include it alongside a more secular-sounding piece. This event goes to show the differences between Schelling and Schlegel, in any case.

    However, I think it is undeniable that there is, beneath the surface, a certain theoretical structure which can be articulated on its own terms. Arguably, to push further, it was this precise formalism that interested Novalis the most in the course of taking up the Goethe-inspired Romantic Encyclopedia. I cannot help but see Novalis as prefiguring Laruelle’s “christo-fiction”. There is a certain “magic” going on in his careful selection of words and signifiers; he is conjuring something.

    Here is, for example, a key passage in question:

    >Christianity has three forms. One is the creative element of religion, the joy in all religion. Another is mediation in general, the belief in the capacity of everything earthly to be the wine and bread of eternal life. Yet a third is the belief in Christ, his mother and the saints. Choose whichever you like. Choose all three. It is indifferent: you are then Christians, members of a single eternal, ineffably happy community.

    This passage is, it seems to me, equivalent *in form* to Laruelle’s formal “future mysticism, fiction-mysticism, and micro-mysticism”, respectively. If I am correct in this correspondence mapping, then it is easy to see why micro-mysticism, as mere “belief in Christ”, is little used here.

    My question, ultimately, for both Novalis and Laruelle, is what would it ultimately take to move into a “postformal” space? Do we need to wait for Laruelle V, VI, VII, VIII, IX, X… in order to realize this? Can we afford to wait that long? Yesterday I posted my initial ideas regarding how to move past this kind of enriched formalism, here: http://www.inthesaltmine.com/diyas-festivity/

    Merry Christmas, and Happy New Year!

    Like

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