LATOUR AND LARUELLE ON RELIGION: is performative reactivation a pluralist gesture?

In a very interesting interview (“Pour une ethnographie des modernes”) Bruno Latour clarifies his attitude to 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). For Latour, “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 his book on religion as a mode of enunciation, REJOICING, he claims that “in the operation of the book the enunciation that is being studied is produced” (ibid, 8). One may wonder: if Latour’s role is purely descriptive, empirical and ethnographic, why would he give himself the trouble of reanimating a dead mode of existence? In fact, Latour is rather proud of this feat and declares “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”.

Some of Laruelle’s theses on religion are very close to Latour’s own position. If, as Laruelle suggests, we abandon Jesus on the Cross to physicality and empirical historicity, we are in effect assigning him to the referential mode of existence that is authorised to pronounce on the factuality of his death, of his despairing cry on the Cross, and even of his existence (or not!). A meta-physical or a generic Christ would belong to another mode of existence that tends to isolate the Christ-figure not only from ordinary criticism, but also from more complex forms of pluralisation. So my question is: to what extent is messianity compatible with complexity except only partialy, locally, and provisionally? A further question is: to what extent is Laruelle, like Latour, enouncing a post-empirical and autobiographically delimited vindication of Christic enunciation, itself declared to be “science”, for the same sort of contingent autobiographical (and ultimately non-generic) reasons? Laruelle has the advantage of not claiming ordinary empirical validity for his generic analysis, which he calls a “Christo-fiction”, but he maintains this fiction in a close proximity with quantum physics.

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 than in Latour. In Laruelle’s system, Christ is treated as a “formal supplement” able to “orient” a religion generically. For Latour Christian monotheism is a sui generis mode of enunciation and of existence that effectuates a reduction of theological content, assigning it to a quite different, referential, mode of existence. Aside from the obvious question of the desirability of such a universal “formal supplement” there is also that of its coherence. 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 “orientation”. There is an unresolved conflict between reduction and orientation, which resurfaces in the conflict between a principled generic concept (or “formal supplement”) and a non-generic name (“Christ”). My worry is that this name is also pre-oriented, that is to say pre-decided, biographically in Laruelle’s case, as it is for Latour, and thus that the necessary genericity is only invoked but not attained.

The pluralist question is: is Laruelle’s appeal to a “christic intuition” compatible with a democracy of intuition, or does this step beyond schematization in terms of familiar religious imagery retain nonetheless some trace of the original. For Laruelle and his empirical biography, this is the image of Christ on the Cross, which escapes empiricity in that it is oriented towards its generic sublimation. The appeal to quantum schematization and also to that of imaginary numbers would seem also to partake of this autobiographical post-empirical schematization, just as is the case for Badiou’s sets and sheaves. Are these intuitions, (scientific,  mathematical and religious) pluralistic heuristic indicators towards a fully post-schematized space, or are they regressive apodictic stopping points?

I wish to distinguish what Laruelle seems to identify, i.e. the “human incarnation” and the “name of Christ”. In Stieglerian terms, the “human incarnation” designates the process of 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 Bruno Latour is forced to acknowledge is a virtually dead mode of existence, even if the religious domain is still going strong. Does Laruelle’s transgressive juxtaposition of “physics” and “christic body” really indicate a path that will free us from ideological entrenchments, whether idealist or theological?

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7 Responses to LATOUR AND LARUELLE ON RELIGION: is performative reactivation a pluralist gesture?

  1. This is the mode that I find most perplexing. I think I have a good grasp of the others but [rel] escapes me. Latour says that this is a ‘lost’ mode in practice and so he’s trying to bring it back. Okay. But in AIME he discusses love as effectively equivalent to religion (or seems to). Also, this is supposed to be one of the three modes of quasi-subjectivity alongside [pol]itics and [law]; it is the mode that engenders persons. So, if this mode is ‘lost’ are we, then, not persons? (And if we are not persons then what on earth is a ‘person’?) Perhaps [rel] has only been lost from religious practice but is alive in other ways (e.g. in declarations of love) but in that case why lament its disappearance from religion if it is alive and well elsewhere? It seems to me that Latour wants [rel] to do too many things. It’s clearly a very special mode for him and he’s trying to actively defend and resuscitate it in a way that he isn’t for the other modes. But that can only work if it makes some kind of coherent sense and I, for one, can’t make heads nor tails of it. Maybe my second read through of the book will make things clearer.


  2. terenceblake says:

    I have argued elsewhere that Latour’s description of the beings of metamorphosis [met] is too restrictive, and that religion is not a separate mode, but properly part of psychogenic networks of [met]. Unified “personhood” is one modality of psychic existence. I take heart that Dreyfus and Kelly seem to agree: even if they make love as agape the basis of the Christian mode of existence it still comes under the meta-ontology of one ontological mood amongst many. Badiou associates love as mode of existence with psychoanalysis, thus making it part of the psychogenic or metamorphic mode. Given what he calls the current conditions of “democratic materialism”, which has much in common with double-click hegemony, “love” is a rare phenomenon, as religion is for Latour.

    I think Latour is caught in a contradiction here. He has described how religion is at the oriigin of his project, with his work on Péguy. One could say that his ontology is religious through and through. This is the autobiographical and normative side. Yet as moderns we are not defined by religion in Latour’s sense at all, but by its abandonment. This is the ethnographic and descriptive side.


    • Philip says:

      I wonder if Sloterdijk’s microspherology would be a good counterpoint to Latour’s [rel]igious personification. If ‘personification’ means something along the lines of Lacan’s mirror stage (and this was my impression, although I have no choice but to be impressionistic…) then Sloterdijk produces an account of personification through microspheres that is at least approximately compatible with Latour’s pluralist ontology. Moreover, microspherology isn’t beholden so distractingly to ‘speech acts’ and so it can produce a much fuller and less awkward account of intrinsically complex biopsychosociophysioatmospheric processes as the production of a unified person.


      • terenceblake says:

        In Latour’s terms the mirror-stage ego would have to be a double-click travesty of personhood. The personification of religion is to do with being overwhelmed and undergoing renewal, whereas mirror-stage ego is an affair of recognition and misrecognition. Of course, if you don’t accept Latour’s take on religion, it is easy to see it in Althussero-Lacanian terms as our ideological interpellation as unified subjects.

        As for Sloterdijk, I don’t know his work well enough to venture an opinion.


  3. Bill Benzon says:

    “In his book on religion as a mode of enunciation, REJOICING, he claims that “in the operation of the book the enunciation that is being studied is produced” (ibid, 8).”

    Hmmm. Color me skeptical. Lévi-Strauss used to say that is analytic work on myths was (also) but (yet) another retelling of the myths. I didn’t buy that from LS and I find Latour’s statement doubtful as well. What I’m wondering is if he’s drunk from the same well as LS.


    • terenceblake says:

      I think in Levi-Strauss’s case this idea may have been tied to a false modesty, as he was committed to the scientific nature of his account. In Latour’s case it may have been a case of false pride, provocatively proclaiming the scientific nature of what obviously isn’t. The rational kernel of Latour’s provocation is not scientificity, but rather the suppposed performative nature of religion. Instead of worrying about the potentially vicious circle that this could entail he had a dig at positivists like Dawkins who do not see the performative aspects at work in science itself.

      As to the question of influences Latour is ambivalent in his references to his early reading. What he has indicated includes being in reading groups centered around Althusser’s READING CAPITAL and Deleuze and Guattari’s ANTI-OEDIPUS. So it is logical that he read LS early. In an article, in French, published in 1985 ( he declares his dissatisfaction with LS’s distinction between science and tinkering (bricolage). So he doesn’t take LS’s statement seriously, and must have quickly become critical of his epistemology.


      • Bill Benzon says:

        Interesting. Latour critiqued Lévi-Strauss in We Have Never Been Modern, which I discuss in a post, Lévi-Strauss and Latour: Transformations of a Myth?. He quotes a passage from The Savage Mind where L-S asserts the “scientific” (scare quotes mine) nature of primitive thought. Latour is doubtful about this.

        But it suggests to me that perhaps for L-S the point of asserting that his analysis of myth is but another retelling is to affirm the “logical” or “scientific” character of myth. I note that both men have made the nature/culture opposition central to their thinking.


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