AUTHORITARIAN RELIGIONIST PLURALISM: Bruno Latour’s digital apocalypse

This is a set of reflections inspired by Latour’s discussion with the former archbishop of Canterbury, and by their shared appeal to “apocalypse” as a form of insight appropriate to our present situation.

Bruno Latour talks about the objectivity of religious beings, as propagated by the religious mode of being (code name: REL) – a purified abstract essence of the empirical phenomenon of religion. One is entitled to ask the question for this mode of existence, REL, what has been left out and by what mechanisms has its extraction from the empirical mixture been effectuated. Such extraction is not a simple conceptual matter of applying a pertinent criterion of demarcation, in some sort of circular reasoning where the essence guarantees the religiosity of the beings that guarantee the religiosity of the modal essence. Modal extraction involves quite another sort of viciousness than is present in the anodyne vicious circle.

Let us not forget that the Church killed pagans, witches, heretics, and gnostics – this is how the “objectivity” of its mode and the “objective” existence of its beings were instaurated. In his discussions of the religious mode Latour makes reference to the gnostics as somehow being guilty of a category mistake about religion, confusing it with objective knowwledge. Yet the gnostics were the true empiricists of religion, refusing to believe things on faith and requiring knowledge based on experience.When Latour analyses religion as something very different from “belief” he is scotomising the bloody history of the Church from its inception.

Latour, wanting to give an empirical cast to his a priori imposition of the religious mode in his pluralist ontology, talks about the need to take into account the “protestation” of experience, but the mode of existence REL is a simplification, the refined version of one current of belief that beat its rivals by purging them out of existence, i.e. by persecuting, bannishing, torturing, and exterminating them. The Church was not “perverted” at the time of the Scientific Revolution, only then betraying its incommensurable heritage by trying to rivalise with the sciences and re-instituting itself as belief, it went wrong from the beginning. It purged away its other rivals, and would have done the same to the sciences if it could have.

Latour talks of having anew “trust” in the institutions. He also talks about respecting the protestations of experience. However, “protestation” and transgression do not come after, that is how things are seen from the perspective of the institution. Protestation comes first, this is the logical consequence of his concept of “being-as-other”. Epistemologically, ontologically, and politically protestation is not to be limited to the complaint of the practitioners their practice is misdescribed, it is the cry of those from outside and before the institution, the resistance of the non-institutional practitioners.

This purified and pacified idea of the modes and the institutions is where Latour resembles Badiou: both share a metaphysical angelism where evil is regarded as being external and contingent to their modes and procedures. Evil is denied as existing inside the modes and as the condition of their existence and of the particular form they have taken.

As a consequence we have a consensual view of religion purified into REL by removing all distinguishing beliefs and doctrines. Religion is treated as pure of all evil, but there is just “Gaia” coming from outside. Latour goes so far as to declare that global warming and the climate crisis is the fault of the “gnostics”, as they believed in the “wrong” apocalypse. He forgets that they were killed for practicing the “wrong” form of apocalyptic insight.

Latour’s ontological project, AIME, is both a pluralist ontology and religious apologetics, this is a contradiction that cannot be resolved by talking about Gaia. In its actual practice, for example in its politics of validation of “contributions” to its digital platform, AIME is showing up as a new form of authoritarian pluralism: the contributions, to be accepted and published, must correspond to the “religionist” party line. This is one of the regrettably standard practices of the academy when it does not function humanistically, but as cognitive (and career) politics. The difference is that here it is touted as a pioneering model for the digital humanities.

Technologically too, there is no true novelty to the AIME platform: it is just a high-tech version of a heavily moderated blog, with the text of the book as a sidebar. Potential contributions can wait two months or more before being accepted, or rejected as not forwarding the inquiry. I see no “diplomacy” there, and certainly no democracy, just the enforcement of a party line. If this type of platform was used as a pedagogical tool the message would be that only those students who globally agree with the teacher and give both arguments and material in favour of his ideas (euphemism: only those students that make a “contribution”) are validated by the platform.  This is the same problem as that of MOOCS, an ideology of democratisation cloaks an inflation of authoritarian practice.  “Post-critical” means: agree or go elsewhere. “Diplomacy” is a mere masking metaphor.

Latour’s talk of “Gaia” seems to indicate a sincere concern about the degenerating state of the planet. But it is also used as a Trojan Horse to introduce authoritarian religionist pluralism under cover of an ethical cause that is not integrated with the body of his ontological system.

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One Response to AUTHORITARIAN RELIGIONIST PLURALISM: Bruno Latour’s digital apocalypse

  1. dmf says:

    indeed, but that said not sure that we critters can really do otherwise when it comes to institutionalizing our efforts for some common cause/project.
    maybe we could at least own it (as Stanley Fish has suggested in his cutting work against soapboxing on inclusiveness/tolerance and the related archive fever dreams of theory-hope) rather than putting a friendly face on it (Zizek has tried, largely in vain, to cure us of this modern malady of friend-ing authority-figures) but not many folks signed up for that line of thought.


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