BADIOU vs LATOUR: Is religion a mode of existence?

“Thus, in this inquiry, “the social” is the concatenation of all the modes. But the inventory of these modes still remains to be completed. It is hard to imagine an ethnography that would not speak of religion or politics or law or the economy” (Bruno Latour, AN INQUIRY INTO MODES OF EXISTENCE, 296).

Latour argues from the difficulty of imagining not discussing religion in an ethnography of the moderns to the necessity of discussing it – which amounts to an argument in favour of conceptual conservatism. Further, this argument from lack of imaginable alternatives is purely negative and abstract. It argues that we must “speak of” religion and include it in the inquiry, but gives no positive reason to think that religion is to be considered a separate mode. Latour simply passes from the need to inventory the modes of existence to the necessity of speaking about religion, to the presupposion that religion is a mode. It must be recalled that for Latour society is not a mode, nor is the economy, nor even philosophy, but religion is self-evidently a mode. However, this is not obvious to everyone, and I think the vast majority of those who read the book will find this chapter very unsatisfying.

An alternative account can be found by comparing Badiou’s truth-procedures and Latour’s (and AIME’s) modes of veridiction. Badiou’s hypothesis is that religion is like philosophy: not a truth-procedure (not a mode), but a general conception of truth . The existence of this alternative hypothesis as to how religion should be classified and analysed, shows that treating religion as a mode without further argument, is not the only imaginable analysis, but just one hypothesis amongst many possible. It is by no means self-evident, without consulting its practitioners and representatives, that religion is to be regarded as a mode on the same plane as any other mode, rather than an overarching understanding containing all modes.

This is perhaps an example of the shared blindness of a highly motivated team working together on a close reading. Alternative interpretations tend to be exluded, or not even perceived as requiring discussion. Thus, Latour briefly raises the question of the status of religion for the inquiry, and proceeds to elaborate the hypothesis that religion is a mode, without examining alternative accounts. One possible hypothesis is that religion is better analysed as a sub-mode of a more general mode or group of modes. Another is that religion, like philosophy, is an overarching meta-mode, englobing all modes. – this is Badiou’s hypothesis. In each case the specific difference of religion is maintained, but analysed differently. In Latour’s own terms, only conducting an anthropological inquiry can decide which hypothesis is verified.

Alain Badiou proposes a system of modes of veridiction, called by him “truth-procedures”, that underpins his alternative analysis of religion as domain but not mode. For Badiou religion is not a truth-procedure, but this is not a self-evident presupposition of his inquiry. It is a conceptual decision that Badiou motivates and gives arguments for. Bruno Latour, however, does not motivate, and seems incapable of motivating, his own conceptual decision, and makes of it a boundary condition for participating in his collective endeavour. If we take Badiou’s truth-procedures to be equivalent to Latour’s modes of veridiction, then Badiou’s argument is that religion is like philosophy in that it is not a mode, but provides a general conception of truth as instantiated in the different modes. cf: An Interview with Alain Badiou. As the chapter on religion in Latour’s book is widely perceived to be problematic it is interesting to confront its theses with a rival analysis. The point is not that Badiou’s account is true and Latour’s false, but that it is by no means self-evident that religion is a mode, as equally plausible rival interpretations exist.

Another alternative analysis is that of Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Kelly in ALL THINGS SHINING., where they argue for the need to return to polytheism, to “lure back the gods”, to “become receptive to a modern pantheon of gods” (222). In effect, they argue that REL is both an overarching meta-mode (corresponding to the ontological pluralism of values, modes, and beings), and one specific mode, that they include under a more general grouping of sub-modes that they call “poiesis” (which corresponds to MET).

Dreyfus and Kelly argue for a renewed sense of the sacred in terms of a pluralist sensibility to multiple values as embodied in a modern pantheon of “gods”, ranging from emblematic figures (Roger Federer, Marilyn Monroe , Albert Einstein, Martin Luther King) to works of literature. This polytheism includes the beings of REL, treated as a sub-mode, under the more general mode of MET. Their analysis is thus different from both Latour’s and Badiou’s but convergent with at least some branches of psychoanalysis. REL as mode is merely one possible hypothesis and not necessarily the most plausible, nor even the most faithful description of contemporary Western society.

My feeling is that religion is not a mode, but a complex phenomenon calling for different levels of analysis. This complexity is responsible for the hesitation and disagreement that can be observed over the status of religion. As sensitivity to a multiplicity of values or modes of existence religion is a meta-mode, as receptivity to the passages of a multiplicity of different sorts of beings it is a sub-mode of poiesis, as specific understanding of being it is a mode.Latour just posits that it is a mode, without considering these alternatives, and with no real argument.

I think not enough work has been done on comparing Latour’s veridictive modes with Badiou’s truth procedures. For example, Latour combines “love” and religion in one mode, but this is incoherent (unless you are presupposing the Christian “God is Love” or some such creedal slogan). Badiou separates love and religion, and argues that love is a truth procedure but that religion is not a truth procedure (in Latourese, religion is not a mode). For Badiou, religion is not on the same plane as the truth procedures , rather it is a general conception of truth in rivality with philosophy. This comparison of religion and philosophy is very interesting, and should be addressed by Latour as he is also very vague and contradictory about the status of philosophy in his INQUIRY.

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7 Responses to BADIOU vs LATOUR: Is religion a mode of existence?

  1. Hi Terence, you have been offering a very interesting commentary on Latour. It resonates with this thoughtful blog post that I stumbled across, by Sam Mickey: http://becomingintegral.com/2013/08/11/latour-rejoicing-a-critical-review/

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  2. landzek says:

    Funny: I have said before and elsewhere that the situation of the existential agent of free will argues multiple gods.

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  3. One can ask the same question for each mode. Is it clearly a mode? Is recognition of a mode depending on intuition (whose intuition? people, informers, are so different)? Are the current criteria clear? (If we give particular courses of action, will independent judges decompose it in a similar sequence of “moving along this mode”?)

    In my opinion the curent connection of the project with meeting Gaia (which I think increased in prominence during the project; initially it could be interpreted as a way to motivate the project or argue for its urgency in a broader public) makes the whole issue of modes more difficult because the discussion is limited on what is important for this meeting.

    As a semi-modern I feel a little amused (I am not sure if it is the right word) with moderns been concerned about the meeting with Gaia: Moderns expand so that they make all the people dependent on them (their research, their financial institutions, their army and health technology) preaching that they bring light to all the Earth’s inhabitants but they certainly bring (in the long run) big problems that will need extended sacrifices for people around the Globe. The moderns are the only ones who can rationaly conceptualize these problems, organize solution plans for them in a big scale, have the resources to deal with them. In few words the meeting with Gaia looks like local problems having been transformed into Global ones (unexpectedly, it was supposed we were walking towards paradize on earth) which can be dealt rationaly only through passing through the moderns (the moderns and their institutions are the critical points) so, guess who will be redundant when the time of sacrifices will come (not the ones who “hold the key to the sollution”). Especially if the “others” are both human and non human, while the moderns are just the moderns: the non-modern and semi-modern people are diluted in the infinity of flows of being.

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  4. terenceblake says:

    I agree that the same problem can be raised for all the modes, and that the criteria of assignment to either domain or mode or meta-mode vary with the what one wishes to emphasise in the phenomenon in question. I elucidate this a little more clearly here: https://terenceblake.wordpress.com/2014/07/16/religion-mode-meta-mode-or-sub-mode/, still using religion as privileged example as it is a point of convergence for several emphases.
    I also agree on the potential dilution of the other-than-moderns into not just a global concept but a global political and economic strategy.

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  5. Many thanks for your thoughts here. Although I’m not sure I’ve commented here before, you have been in indirectly connected to my own blog cluster for some time via the object-oriented ontology blog cluster (I’m not into OOO for my own philosophy, but one should always respect one’s neighbours!). Let me also apologize for making this a lengthy comment – I do not, alas, have time to shorten them.

    I should preface my remarks by saying I’ve not yet read the new Latour – I only just finished his 2005 pair (“Politics of Nature”/”Reassembling the Social”) and am currently working through a few Badiou that are in my never-ending reading pile. But the contrast between Badiou and Latour is for me the most interesting boundary line in contemporary philosophy, being in effect a clash between Badiou’s ontology of Order and Deleuze’s ontology of Chaos, that Latour inherits. Seeing how people come down in this face off is of great interest to me, and in particular because it is also necessarily a mirror of the conflict between positivism (in my broad sense, outlined in “The Mythology of Evolution” and picked up again in “Chaos Ethics”) and the religious traditions, which Latour participates in.

    I should explain that I am using ‘positivism’ in both a historical sense (the tradition descending from Comte) and as a convenient marker for a broad range of practices – in a similar way, in fact, to the way that ‘religion’ collects the Christianities, Shinto, Hindu traditions etc. into one category e.g. very broadly and not very well. But each and every discussion that uses the abstraction ‘religion’ hurdles this barrier, and so the abstraction ‘positivism’ is needed to position against it. And the one thing that unites all the philosophers in the object-oriented camp (as far as I can tell) is their positivism. Graham, Levi, Ian, Tim etc. all step off from a positivistic position and never leave it – which is what they have in common with Badiou who equally begins inside – and never leaves – positivism.

    What tips me off in your very interesting account here that you are probably also moving in this world is that in your attempt to position ‘religion’, you view it as a skeleton key for moving in the belief-truth space – a space that Latour, drawing against Stengers, explicitly rejects. Only someone who was not embroiled in any religious practice could come to perceive religion in these terms – and it’s telling for me that I did the same at a particular point in my enquiries. Latour has the opposite problem: he rejects this view (correctly, in my view) but doesn’t then know how to proceed – an ambiguity he attempts to address in “On the Modern Cult of the Factish Gods” et al, and presumably in the new book too.

    I see both camps in this case – Badiou [+OOO]/Latour & Stengers – as effectively highlighting a split in how to deploy Whitehead. (Obviously Whitehead isn’t on the table for Badiou, but he still ends up moving in the same space because both philosophers begin with mathematics). The positivist move is to use Whitehead to collapse the mythology of ‘scientific materialism’ (Whitehead’s term) into a different-yet-related ontology – in Badiou’s case, into a different kind of materialism, although a kind that I think is so contiguous with most OOO philosophies as to be at least a neighbour. But the counter-move from Whitehead is to go to a process/practices perspective – and Stengers is the best exemplar of this in many respects. Latour absolutely moves in this space, which fits well with his Deleuzean-inspired philosophy, because Stengers is his single greatest touchstone for philosophy.

    My biggest problem with Badiou is that I find his ‘four and only four’ truth procedures to be uncomfortably contrived – and at times, contrived to expressly exclude religion. I found it fascinating to discover Badiou trying to exclude religion from his love condition because this suture is simply a bad play on his part – his love is his “scene of Two”; it is amorous love, eros. As someone so fond of Plato, Badiou should immediately see this is the wrong place to try and sandwich religion, since in so much as love forms a collective theme between traditions in this sphere it is always either agape or philia! Badiou should perhaps be trying to fit religion into his condition of politics – but it sits uncomfortably there because Badiou’s philosophy pursues the universal, and actually religious practices are only mythologically universal (a point that Latour sometimes tries to patiently draw out, but never – in typical Latour fashion – manages to make explicit). The point of religion is found in its community, as every religion practices in community even when it doesn’t know it is doing this. Latour’s philosophy (and even more so his sociology) recognizes this – but it is difficult (impossible?) to get this across to anyone coming from the other side of the divide.

    Well, I cannot come to a useful conclusion in so short a long remark but I hope I have been able to offer you a fragment of another perspective here. As someone trying to broker between positivism and religion (being of both and neither), the mistake I see most often – and especially in Badiou – is to force an understanding of religion in terms of how its mythology generates truth-claims that purport to objectivity i.e. to view religion erroneously as ‘failed science’. This view has nothing to do with the truths of religion, per se, something which Latour seems to recognize, even if he doesn’t fully understand it either. But then, does anyone?

    All the best,

    Chris.

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  6. terenceblake says:

    We agree more than you may think. For me Latour represents an attempt at a non-positivist account of religion, and as such I defend him against charges of relativism: https://www.academia.edu/9332513/FROM_RELATIVIST_EPISTEMOLOGY_TO_PLURALIST_ONTOLOGY_The_pluralist_realism_of_Paul_Feyerabend_and_Bruno_Latour.
    However I think he goes about it in a way that reproduces the old positivistic bifurcation between science and non-science. I much prefer Feyerabend’s take that religious traditions are also cognitive, and not just performative.

    In his new book, as in REJOICING, Latour does not think that the point of religion is in community, but in a special sort of turning towards what is close, in which non-physical religious beings (God, angels) insist non-referentially. This solution is very attractive, and it is close to Wittgenstein’s approach to religion, but I think it is misguided.

    I have tried to explain my misgivings in this little text: https://www.academia.edu/9863626/BRUNO_LATOURS_METAPHYSICS_OF_RELIGION.

    Sorry I didn’t reply earlier, but I am on vacation in Paris for Xmas, and I don’t have much time, or the same access to a computer, internet, and my own documents. Thank you for your substantive comment, and I hope we can develop this exchange further. Best wishes, Terence.

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