LATOUR ON RELIGION: anti-empirical posits and the partisan resolution of conflicts

Thesis: Latour’s system is not descriptive and empirical, but a priori and prescriptive. The treatment of religion is particulalarly revealing of how the fable of an ethnographic investigation serves to legitimate autobiographical prejudices as if they were the result of independent research.

Bruno Latour’s writings on religion aim at correcting habitual accounts of religious practice while leaving the practices themselves and their supposed veridictional value untouched. Here, as for the other modes of existence posited in the AIME project, Latour’s method involves examining various cases of misunderstanding and conflict concerning the truths and the objects of a set of key domains, and extracting out from the various « crossings » that can be identified a set of felicity conditions that define a pure truth-practice, one that corresponds to the postulated ontological essence of the domain in question.

The political nature of this supposed empirical procedure can be seen in the treatment of conflicts over religious issues, which are redefined as merely disagreements as to the defining conditions of the religious language-game. By semantic ascent, Latour imposes one set of conditions (embodying substantial ontological, epistemological, historical, ethical, and factual assumptions) as defining the language-game in question and thus attempts to settle disputes by semantic posit and definitory fiat. Those who disagree with his analyses are stuck in the concrete domain, unable to ascend to the level of abstraction where all is clear and ratifies his own personal beliefs and practices.

In the case of the religious mode of existence, Latour’s method ends up positing and legitimating a fairly conventional Christian idea of religion as based on love for one’s neighbour. The only potentially non-conventional element is to be found in the explication of the sense to be given to the idea that God exists. For Latour God does not exist referentially, i.e. as an object of science, but insists semiotically within religious utterance proferred in the right way, in the right circumstances.

Zizek’s materialist atheology provides us with a very useful corrective to Latour’s views on religion.  Zizek, like Latour, can be seen as expounding his own version of a theology of the death of God (the expiration of God both as object of belief and as transcendent signifier). However, unlike Latour, Zizek draws from his espousal of the death of God the basis for a counter-theology having a real emancipatory potential. Zizek’s views on Christianity are revisionary and emancipatory where Latour’s are conservative and conformist.

Latour’s death of God theology is designed to legitimate and to reinforce our traditional religious practices rather than to contest them or to appropriate them for progressive ends. Zizek’s atheist theology is revolutionary, inviting us to unplug from the system in view of radically transforming it. Latour’s religious mode of existence is both conceptually conservative and practically conformist: it does not include the notion of a collective withdrawing from the present order nor the aim of attaining real freedom. We see the same conservatism in Latour’s views on science: he criticises the current accounts and replaces them with more satisfying, more sophisticated ones, while leaving everything as it is.

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