LATOUR, THE ETHNOGRAPHIC METHOD, AND THE DEATH OF RELIGION

In a very interesting interview (“Pour une ethnographie des modernes”) published in 2008 Bruno Latour clarifies his pronouncements on religion. In reply to a question on the limits of the “ethnographic method” that he used in his studies of science and law,  Latour tells us:

If by ethnography you understand stabilising the metalanguage of an ethnologist or ethnographer concerning a field, it is true that what I did about law and about science, because there I was like an outside observer getting on the inside, is nothing like the work that I did on art or on politics: for art I curated two exhibitions…to study problems of organisation [I became] the director of Sciences Po (page 6, my translation).

The ethnographic method, as practiced by Latour, does not involve an outside observer gaining access to inside phenomena. In each case the method involves becoming part of the mode of existence being investigated:

it’s not at all ethnography in the sense of me studying a situation…it’s rather a case of putting oneself in the continuity of the mode of existence that I am trying to apprehend. Thus the method changes each time the manner of entering the “current” of the mode of existence changes (6).

To study art, Latour curated two exhibitions. To study politics, he became director of Sciences Po. This is Latour’s idea of the ethnographic method, becoming part of the mode of existence to be studied. He dismisses the classical idea of the ethnographic method:

if you agree to call all these different modes, I say yes, it is still ethnography, and everything can be studied by ethnography. If by ethnography you mean that it is the outsider who becomes familiar with an exotic field…no, because there on the contrary ethnography straight away encounters its limits: you cannot do an ethnography of the religious phenomenon for example, because the phenomenon has disappeared. Where can you go to study it? So you will have to produce it (7).

So to study religion, or the religious phenomenon, Latour encountered a specific problem:

It has disappeared as religious mode of existence: it is ideology, opinion, but the religious as mode of existence has to be reproduced as phenomenon. And so for me the most scientific book that I have written is REJOICING, because there the phenomenon being spoken about is produced (7).

“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:

But it is not by going to listen to sermons, I mean…the phenomenon itself has disappeared as mode of existence, it exists as sociology, it exists as ideology, it exists as politics, but the religious itself…has become much more elusive, so it is much more difficult to study something which has so to speak given way under you (8).

However, Latour claims that he himself manages to reactivate this very particular mode of existence. Referring to his book REJOICING he maintains:

in the operation of the book the enunciation that is being studied is produced (7- 8).

One may wonder if Latour’s role is purely descriptive, empirical and “ethnographic” why he would give himself the trouble of reanimating a dead mode of existence? What is so empirical about this? However, Latour is rather proud of this feat and insists

for me the most scientific book that I have written is REJOICING (7).

His reason is performative rather than simply descriptive:

because there one is producing the phenomenon that one is talking about (7).

This anomalous treatment of religion by way of reanimative or productive ethnography shows up very clearly the conflict between autobiographical fidelity and ethnographical investigation that traverses Latour’s mode of existence project. If religion conceived as mode of existence is dead in the modernist epoch, why is Latour even talking about it in an ethnography of the Moderns? Is Latour a good enough representative of our current modes of existence to be allowed to take on the conceptual persona of a diplomat representing us?

The normative thrust of his “descriptive” project is apparent here. Latour wishes to dissociate modernism from secularism to be able to propose a more satisfying and more complete picture (in his own eyes) of the modernist set of values. In order to do so he is led to change the very mode of veridiction of “ethnography” and of empirical description in a way that renders his terminology ambiguous, and perhaps tendentious.

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One Response to LATOUR, THE ETHNOGRAPHIC METHOD, AND THE DEATH OF RELIGION

  1. dmf says:

    ah yeah this has been my argument with @AimeTim that Latour has moved from description to prescription and in the process trying to make his own experience/preferences into a new imperative for all.
    Just part of why I prefer Paul Rabinow, Annemarie Mol, John Law and all.
    https://lareviewofbooks.org/interview/on-the-logic-of-anthropological-inquiry-a-conversation-with-paul-rabinow/

    Liked by 1 person

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