LATOUR AND RELIGION: empiricism, democracy, and the need for a “flat” anthropology

Both Badiou and Latour observe that religion as “truth procedure” (Badiou) or as “mode of veridiction” (Latour) is dead in the society at large. Therefore I do not think that it should enter into the ontological description of our modernity. Badiou seems to be more accurate here when he claims that religion is not a truth procedure in our society, although he sometimes leaves open the possibility that it once was a truth procedure.

This death of REL is not a sociological remark, it has nothing to do with a purported death of religion, which seems to be alive and kicking. Religion in this sociological sense is condemned by both Badiou and Latour as an ontologically confused composite, based on illegitimate conflations and crossings. Latour suggests that REL may continue to exist both outside as well as inside the institutions religiion, but that this is a marginal set of practices.

I have no objection on principle to Latour’s personal Catholicism. If his religious affiliation gives him the perspective and the strength to contest scientism, economism, and other reductionisms, this is a considerable heuristic advantage of faith interpreted as fidelity to REL and should be valued as such. REL in some cases may function in a benign crossing with the political mode of existence POL, fueling resistance to the reigning ideology of democratic materialism.

However, I do object to Latour’s inscribing a form of Catholicism, however refined, into the purportedly empirical description of the Moderns, i.e. to his imposing Catholicism on us all, as part of our very definition. The idea that we as “moderns” are all ontologically Catholic is unacceptable and anachronistic. It is un-empirical, and it violates Latour’s own principle of anti-hegemony.

Not only is the forced inclusion of REL in the list of modes of existence constituting the ontological configuation of our society un-empirical, by Latour’s own admission that religious enunciation is virtually dead. His description of  that mode is un-empirical as well, and he would have a hard time getting more than a very small minority of the faithful to agree to it. Latour’s refined theology both too aristocratic and not poetic enough. It seems to be an arbitrary boundary condition imposed on the system from outside.

I have no hostility to religion as such, and I think that there is much to learn from the way Latour takes it out of the mode of REF and and of belief. However, enshrining religion in a separate mode REL is not the best way to do justice to religion historically, sociologically, and anthropologically. Also, it is not good method to smuggle assumptions into a text that is not supposed to be a theological treatise, but an empirical ontology. A philosophical text that is far more widely welcomed by priests and theologians than by philosophers and by the existing faith-communities raises many doubts and questions as to its impartiality and representativity.

Latour wishes to avoid “fundamentalism” in questions of religion and also of science and politics. He defines this fundamentalism as “the refusal of controversies” (i.e. of dialogues where there is no pre-given arbiter) and as “the attempted exercise of hegemony of one mode of existence over the others” (CRITIQUE, Nov. 2012, p 953). This hegemony is what many pluralists have fought under the name of reductionism. Reduction lies in treating religion as a matter of belief, and as submitted to the same truth-régime as referential domains like science.

Latour is quite explicit that for him religion is not a question of belief at all, not a question of reference to the physical world, but one of a transformative message. One can find this sort of poetic, symbolic, existential, non-referential view of religion in the movement of demythologisation and in post-Wittgensteinian philosophies of religion. Slavoj Zizek also propounds this demythologised interpretation as enabling a possible use of religion.

Given the past history of the Christian Church and its persecution of heretics and atheists, of sceptics and unbelievers, in the Occidental world the “refined” approach to religion has frequently involved turning towards Eastern religions (a phenomenon that Zizek discusses under the name of “Western Buddhism”). It may be a minority position compared to the number of fundamentalists, but it is one contemporary possibility for the religious form of life as REL rather than creed.

The reserves that have been expressed over the treatment of religion in AIME are not due to dusty abstract philosophers being unable to cope with empirical investigation (as Latour sometimes implies), but rather they are due to people who take the inquiry seriously, and who finding that it is not empirical enough. For those who are Christians, the reduction of religion to REL has potentially devastating consequences. Not only does God does not exist in a referential sense, but neither does Jesus (or if it could be shown that he did, this would be irrelevant to REL).

The Gospels on this view describe no empirical historical facts, as they are not at all referential texts, but propose the symbolic wisdom or “poetry” of REL. With Jesus non-existent or irrelevant, we have REL as a Christ-without-Jesus mode, that very few Christians would recognise as the essence of their faith. So treating REL as mode is doing no service to Christianity, except for those who already embrace the refined, or symbolic, Christ-without-Jesus version.

Convincing arguments can be given in favour of classifying religion as a meta-mode providing a new image of truth and veridiction to rival that imposed by philosophy (this is Badiou’s preferred solution), or as mode (Latour’s preferred soolution), or as sub-mode of MET (this is the solution I favour). One could argue for same ambivalence (meta-mode, mode, or sub-mode) in relation to other modes, such as MET, or even REP.

Taken as a system, Latour’s categorisation of modes of existence is not as empirically determined and described as Latour maintains. However, when taken pragmatically this ambiguity of categorisation could be seen as a positive feature of Latour’s ontology: its categories exist to expand and to free the range of experience taken into consideration, not to reduce and confine it.

As we have seen, Latour’s system is not as empirical as he would have us believe, nor is it as democratic. “Experience” should mean everyone’s experience, not just that of experts as related to their special subjects and interests.

In the case of religion, priests and pastors are defined as the relevant experts on REL, those who need to be convinced by the inquiry’s redescriptions. Ordinary people who practice a religion must accept the judgement of these modal authorities, or be regarded as “gnostics”. Only the religious experts can approve or protest the proposed descriptions, the testimony of the gnostics (i.e. virtually everybody else) is rejected as irrelevant. Latour applies the same élitist grid that he uses for science (experts vs laypeople, modes vs domains) to religion.

The very naming of the modes is oriented towards differing a priori requirements. Why, for example, is the scientific mode called REF and the psychological mode MET, but the religious mode REL? Calling the scientific mode REF is a democratic move, subsuming specialist science under the more general category of referential knowledge that is open to everybody. Similarly, in another democratic move, the psyche is taken from the exclusive hands of the experts (psychoanalysts, psychologists, and psychiatrists) and subsumed under a more general category – MET, reserved for the beings of metamorphosis, and of the psychogenic networks. This is AIME at its strongest, combining conceptual invention and democratic inclusion.

So why is the mode corresponding to religion called REL? Why isn’t religion treated like these other domains, and subsumed in a more general and more democratic category, such as “attention” or “care”? The answer is simple: the religious mode is called REL because Latour has already decided on its role and content in advance.

Latour is very attached to having religion as a mode, this is not at all an empirical finding but an ideological requirement. This ontological legitimation of religion goes together with the abandon of all empirical description of real religious practice and communities of faith, and the promotion of an élitist abstraction, the refined nonreferential interpretation of religion. To enter the religious mode you must undergo a conversion, a semiotic apocalypse, or stay outside as a “gnostic” or a fundamentalist. Thus REL, as defined by AIME, is both non-empirical and anti-democratic.

More generally, this reduction of experience to expert opinion shows a residual élitism in AIME: it is not a flat anthropology of the experiences and perspectives of all practitioners equally, but a descrition only of the ideological consensus of certain privileged groups and representatives.

 

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5 Responses to LATOUR AND RELIGION: empiricism, democracy, and the need for a “flat” anthropology

  1. Pingback: Terence Blake on religion as an empirical site – Reprising the Political Theology of Bruno Latour

  2. I am a semi modern. A hybrid. From my view point I have contact with people for whom religion is not dead. Moreover (like you perhaps?) I am not so much interested in the coherence of Latour’s system or in studying Latour’s philosophy per se, but about living my life with others. This is what I mainly care for. I have read some of Latour’s books, I have read some of Latour’s commentators, I have read very carefully the MOE book (using the domains in which I have some empirical exposure).
    Even if there are claims that “religious enunciation is virtually dead” , by Latour or others, it seems to me that the way [REL] is presented in MOE does not lead to the conclusion that [REL]igious enounciation is dead. That would mean for example (if I understand well) that the rejoycing and personification that love brings in human lives could be accounted otherwise, and not needind such a separate mode. (This may be true but Latour proposes us this other way).
    You say that the way [REL] is brought forth is not empirical. But [REL] is the mode of personification. [REL]’s lab is our own person, so that bringing forth what one (Latour) feels as his personhood (I guess through “rejoycing”) is the way he acts as an informer but also as a theorist of the experience. There is an empirical question: if many moderns (not all ) look on their experience of what most definitely finally personifies them, do they give a similar account? If this would work for many of you (moderns, even for people claiming they are not religious) then this would count for empirical confimation.
    An account of the modes of existence, since it is an anthropological work needs not be universal. Your (modern) modes of existence need not be identical with mine. Neither the modes presented need account for all of modernity (is it possible to have an empirical account which covers everybody? ).
    So you may be earnest in saying that you are not covered by this mode as far as your personification goes but still be a minority with respect to the moderns (perhaps you are not a typical modern). To me it seems that this is an open (empirical) question.
    There are also perhaps religious politics here, in the sense that we all arrive to existential positions that are dear to us and negotiating among them is not an easy thing. (Maybe modernity, people-wise is so deverse that an anthropology of modernity is similar to searching a national myth–which however may be important politically. A myth that is “fuzzy” enough might be good in this respect so that we recognize ourselves, recognize different interpretations and still keep our own dear)

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  3. “Latour is quite explicit that for him religion is not a question of belief at all, not a question of reference to the physical world, but one of a transformative message. ”
    But is there a “physical world” in the modern sense of this term in MOE and AIME? It is not just that “religion” does not refer to “it”. “It” is not “there” any longer (if I get Latour’s proposal right). “We” do not live in the “physical world” (except that science can speak about “us” but the scientific “us” is not the fullenss of “us”)

    “It may be a minority position compared to the number of fundamentalists, but it is one contemporary possibility for the religious form of life as REL rather than creed.” Would this western Buddhism which I feel you know much better than me find in [REL] something useful. Here you speak as if he could. Is there (when practicing Western Buddhism) a kinf of “moving [REL]igiously” that would need a mode of existence for it? You speak as if your experience tells that it should not be so.

    “Not only does God does not exist in a referential sense, but neither does Jesus (or if it could be shown that he did, this would be irrelevant to REL).”
    But in MOE to not exist “in a referential sense” (which means in [REF]) sense does not mean having a “fictitious” existence (in the modern sense of the world). It is a real non-referential existence.

    “The Gospels on this view describe no empirical historical facts, as they are not at all referential texts, but propose the symbolic wisdom or “poetry” of REL. With Jesus non-existent or irrelevant, we have REL as a Christ-without-Jesus mode, that very few Christians would recognise as the essence of their faith. So treating REL as mode is doing no service to Christianity, except for those who already embrace the refined, or symbolic, Christ-without-Jesus version.”
    I am an Orthodox Crhistian and I understand what you talk about but Gospels may not be out of [REF] and archeology is not irelevant to Christians, Jews, Moslems, Buddhists etc. and still a Budhist text perhaps opens a world for you in ways different from its [REF]rential presence. Why do you find it so difficult to accept that a Christian text, a Christian ceremony, a Christian askisis may work likewise?
    The way I read MOE (which of course is for my uses, I do not say that I am faithful to Latour) does not imply a Jesus-less christianity, or a Christ that is not acting in time. (but this time is not identical with [REF] time, it is the time of my life)

    “In the case of religion, priests and pastors are defined as the relevant experts on REL, those who need to be convinced by the inquiry’s redescriptions.” But Latour himself is neither priest nor pastor. If that was true he should be silent.

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  4. terenceblake says:

    I am not stating my own “beliefs” in this post, but merely enouncing my conceptual investigations of Latour’s metaphysics. REL is incommensurable from REF, which means that the historicity of the biblical texts is not relevant. This may be too high a price for some faithful to pay, and it is not clear that Latour’s pronouncements are always consistent with his own metaphysics. The hypothesis of the incommensurability of REL and REF has some pretty radical consequences for the nature of the Christian faith. Latour’s hypothesis may well be protecting the mode of existence of faith by emptying it of what most of the faithful regard as its essence.

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    • dmf says:

      “by emptying it of what most of the faithful regard as its essence”
      that’s the key really these sorts of philosophical “gods” (including ATS and http://www.philpercs.com/2016/04/book-idea-the-epiphenomenality-of-god.html ) won’t appeal to the religious masses (or most of the tiny minority of philosophical atheists) any more than John Dewey’s naturalized (in a Hegelian sort of way) religiosity did, and this is especially damning for Latour’s project in so much as he is trying to assemble the sorts of large-scale publics who might bring about global changes (against climate destruction and all).

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