Author: Tim Howles, University of Oxford
And so we arrive at chapter 11 of AIME, ‘Welcoming the Beings Sensitive to the Word’. Here, we find religion as the next mode of existence to be encountered.
To get us going, then, may I offer a provocative suggestion? Could it be the case that religion is in fact the concealed dynamo of Latour’s entire intellectual project? And, moreover, that it has functioned in this way from the very beginning?
Some such account seems to be what Latour himself is increasingly nudging us towards believing. For in a number of recent interviews and articles, he has drawn our attention to a little-known detail of his CV, namely, his early doctoral work with André Malet, the first translator of Bultmann into French (Latour, 2013; for more references cf. Schmidgen, 2013). Latour recollects how, seen through the eyes of Bultmann–Malet, religion began to reveal itself to him in a new mode – not merely as doctrine, not merely as praxis, but as ‘a process of transformations, inventions, glosses and diverse rationalizations which, taken together, sketch out […] the question of fidelity or treason’ (Latour, 2013, p.288). This is precisely the project of AIME: indeed, we could hardly have come up with a more apposite marketing gloss for the dust cover of this book! Religion, then, was the first mode of existence that Latour observed in operation. Or, to put it another way, by foregrounding his intellectual heritage in this way, Latour is acknowledging the biblical text, even more than the documents and inscriptions of laboratory science, as a kind of Ur-source – a Quelle, we might say – for the Inquiry we have before us.
Having resourced him for the journey of a lifetime, however, religion now stands in need of Latour’s help. For as with all the modes the grubby imprints of modernity have besmirched its pristine robe. And nowhere is this more evident than in the (re-) appearance of strong forms of religiosity in the contemporary world, a phenomenon that Latour disdainfully describes as ‘fundamentalism’ (300, cf. Latour, 2014). For Latour, fundamentalism is directly bequeathed to us by the modern constitution. And it is highly pernicious. For fundamentalism (as Latour defines it) justifies its existence by means of ‘a desperate quest for substance, guarantees, substratum’ (299). This is what is known in the business as ‘onto-theology’ (space will not allow further explanation of this important concept in twentieth-century theology, but for a useful introduction, cf. Westphal, 2001). And this, for Latour, is precisely the wrong ontological tenor for religion to assume.
In this chapter, then, we arrive at Latour’s attempt to articulate the beings of religion [REL] contra their interment within the prison-cell of modernity.
Writing (I should admit) as a theologian, I found Latour’s ideas in this chapter both complex and thrilling. At times I feared that [REL] was situating itself on the razor’s edge of (what we might call) orthodoxy, even where that word is taken in its most generous and in its least confessional sense. After all, if we are to disabuse ourselves of any form of transcendence that has ‘immanence as its opposite rather than its synonym’ (299), what are we left with? Surely what is normative for religion, what defines (dare I say it) the essence of religion, is its ability to posit something more than merely the immanent? Can religion remain intact if the supernatural is flattened in this way? And yet, just when I feared it was about to collapse into aporia, I found [REL] appearing once again on the horizon as something that recognisable, something that does indeed chime with my personal experience and, albeit sketchily, with a theological heritage (of sorts) that it is possible to trace, something that is curiously objective and even (dare I say it) curiously transcendent. I should not have been surprised. After all, this has been Latour’s claim from the very beginning: ‘I am not making a relativist argument (in the sense given this term by the papacy) about the impossibility of reaching any truth whatsoever, but only an argument about the fact that there are incompatible felicity conditions that nevertheless allow us, each in its own way, to reach incontrovertible judgments […] on the truth and falsity of what they are to judge’ (18). By contrast with so much twentieth-century theology, then, what Latour is offering is not a re-construction but a re-pristination (to use an old theological term) of religion. This is religion freed from the encrustations of modernity. This is religion made available to those who have never been modern.
In common with all the modes, Latour returns to ‘experience’ (323, cf. 11) as the touchstone of his methodological approach. What shared experience is most congruent with the values housed within [REL]? Building on his extended discussion in Jubiler, ou les Tourments de la Parole Religieuse (Latour, 2002), a work that provides a vital context for this chapter, Latour proposes that this will be the experience of love-talk.
For Latour, what is distinctive about love-talk is its person-forming effect: ‘words of love have the particular feature of endowing the person to whom they are addressed with the existence and unity that person has lacked’ (302). Religion, then, does not share the ontology of the beings of [REF], whose veridiction is the aligning of representations for the transmission of information about distant objects. Nor does it share the ontology of the beings of [MET], whose veridiction is the manufacture of a subject’s interior life by means of psychogenic networks. No, the labour performed by the beings of [REL] is always directed to connecting people and making them present to one another. In linguistics, this is described as ‘phatic’ communication. But for Latour it is a much more embodied phenomenon. Have you ever been transported into (as it were) a new world as a result of a gentle word or a warm gesture freely offered to you in love? Have you even felt time frozen around you as you have weighed up – calculated, even – the risk and reward of investing in a loving word or gesture to somebody else? If so, perhaps you will recollect the density of being that collects around such moments. Well then, for Latour, you have been visited by the beings of [REL]. In a notion borrowed from the work of Michel Serres (Serres, 1993), these beings are ‘angels’ (303), messengers from the outside.
The work of chapter 11, then, is to make audible the address of these beings once again.
First, how do the beings of [REL] address us? Not through a logos given once and for all, but through fleeting speech-acts, now appearing, now disappearing, through alteration and flow, through a stream of words that can never be pinned down into a single utterance. This is what Latour calls their ‘reprise’ of speech (306).
Second, how is the address of the beings of [REL] to be received? Not as dogma. This would be to calcify their transmissions, to pin them down, to trap the nimble beings of [REL] like flies on sticky paper, to transmogrify their words into double-click. From the ‘deictics’ of evangelical propositionalism to the pseudo-science of the Intelligent Design movement to the dictats of the Catholic magisterium – for Latour, all such forms of religion are in the business of hegemony rather than diplomacy (and no doubt we will all have our own experiences of institutionalised religious communications to add to this list). The beings of [REL] are not at all like this. Rather, they create hesitant exegetes of those they address. Consider the examples of those addressed in Scripture (Abraham, Moses, Jeremiah, Isaiah, Paul, to name but a few): ‘are they not always accompanied by doubt as to what or who was just seen’ (310)? Absolutely. And, indeed, this is the very mark of the fidelity of such saints. For those who are truly religious ‘what matters is that no one is ever exactly assured of the presence [of the beings of REL]; one must go through the process again and again to be quite confident that one has seen them, sensed them, prayed to them’ (309).
Third, then, what do we understand about the beings of [REL]? The crucial point is this: they cannot be reified. Or, if you will indulge me with one more theological term at this point, they cannot be hypostatised. We cannot specify an essence up there, in the supernatural realm, that we might come to know. Any attempt to identify the address of these beings with a ‘who’ or a ‘what’ or a ‘why’ would be to mistake transformation for information, that is, to mistake religion for science. It would be to seek from the beings of [REL] a form of knowledge they are unable to provide. ‘The word God cannot designate a substance’, writes Latour, ‘it designates, rather, the renewal of a subsistence that is constantly at risk, and even, as it were, the pathway of this reprise, at once word and being, logos’ (310). The beings of [REL] do not find their essence in addition to or beyond other beings. They partake of being-as-other. Or, as Latour whimsically suggests elsewhere, ‘God is another mediation’ (Latour, 1998, p.434).
What are we to make of all this?
In a useful article (albeit written before the publication of AIME) Jan Golinski suggests that Latour’s conception of religion will likely prompt a ‘backlash’, comparable to the backlash experienced in the so-called ‘science wars’ of the 1990s (Golinski, 2010). He suggests that this will be prompted by Latour’s definition of religion as merely ‘an expression of representational practice’: on the contrary, religious people, Golinski thinks, ‘will still want to insist on the ontological reality of the things they believe in and will not be happy to have their religion reduced to the manipulation of signs that lack any reference to the real world’ (Golinski, 2010, p.60).
However, in the light of this chapter, I suggest we can put Golinksi’s claim to bed as unfounded. Latour does not lead us into the realm of apophatic theology and the beings of [REL] are not to be taken as merely Feuerbachian projections. There is ballast to Latour’s theology. For although the beings of [REL] function via displacements and mediations within time, as has been described above, they nevertheless point to an experience that is found outside time. In Latour’s words, they bring news that ‘the time has come’ (312). Thus, ‘[religion] has only this one distinctive feature, but one that is entirely of its own making: the time has come in spite of and thanks to the passage of time. No other mode can offer this; no institution but religion has extracted this contrast, cherished it, amplified it, preserved it’ (316). So the time has come,while time is still going on; God is here, whereas he is coming; God is going to come, whereas he has come. This is certainly a delicate dialectic and requires nuanced elaboration. But my suggestion is that somehow, in the midst of this dialectic, transcendence is allowed back in. This is not the old sort of transcendence, the one that leads inexorably to onto-theology. Rather, this is a ‘good’ or ‘small’ transcendence, one that seeks its ontological footing not in substance but in subsistence. For Latour, this new sort of transcendence – this ‘good’ or ‘small’ transcendence – is the real meaning of the Incarnation, ‘God with Us’ (320).
It is only when the beings of [REL] are correctly instituted in this way that ‘piety’ – religious praxis, we might say – can finally return. Previously, the reign of onto-theology had caused piety to be directed to ‘another world, in an unhealthy competition with access to remote beings’ (322). But now, piety can be directed back down to the present moment, to acts of charity and grace towards ‘our neighbours’ (322). For Latour, if the beings of [REL] are seen, our eyes will be looking not up, but out, to those most proximate to us. After all, Latour asks, inverting the words of Christ as given in the Gospel of Mark, ‘what use is it to save your soul, if you forfeit instead the world?’ (Latour, 2009, p.463).
The challenge is afoot, then, for diplomats of the nonmodern world. Will we recognise the tonality of the beings of [REL]? Will we listen to their address?
This will certainly not be straightforward. For Latour, whenever we incline our heads to listen, interference threatens. The address of the beings of [REL] is everywhere scrambled. In fact, on the digital platform of AIME, Latour offers a wonderful example of interference in action. In the middle of the nave of the église de Saint-Menoux near to Moulins in the Auvergne region is found a déberdinoire (a sarcophagus-tomb). This strange monument has traditionally been attested as a cure for madness. Upon visiting the church, all a pilgrim had to do was to put their head through a hole in its wall … and wait
Image: ‘Creative Commons Saint-Menoux Débredinoire’ by Accrochoc, licensed under CC BY 3.0.
But visit this small church for yourself and you will notice that the priest himself is still to be convinced about such miracles. For he seems to have placed a notice next to the déberdinoire that reads as follows: ‘this is not a compulsory ritual […] in fact, it is recommended to the visitor not to indulge in superstitious practices’. What better explanation of the interference that threatens the beings of [REL] in our world. Cure … or salvation? So much is at stake. It is imperative that we tell the difference.
I should add one final (bibliographic) word for the sake of completion: all those interested in Latour’s work on religion will be advised to consult Adam S. Miller’s recent book Speculative Grace: Bruno Latour and Object-Oriented Theology. In this book, Miller offers a nuanced and provocative interpretation of Latour’s religion, albeit working with pre-AIME texts and therefore with a slightly different Latourian lexicon. However, whilst it is highly-recommended, it would be prudent to approach Miller’s book as a creative appropriation, rather than a systematic exegesis, of Latour’s work; for more, consult Terence Blake’s review here.
Tim Howles is a doctoral candidate in Theology at the University of Oxford, working on the relationship between Bruno Latour and Michel Serres.
Golinski, Jan, (2010), ‘Science and Religion in Postmodern Perspective: The Case of Bruno Latour’ in Thomas Dixon, Geoffrey Cantor and Stephen Pumfrey (eds.), Science and Religion: New Historical Perspectives (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), pp.50-68.
Latour, Bruno, (1998), ‘How to be Iconophilic in Art, Science and Religion’ in Caroline A. Jones and Peter Galison(eds.), Picturing Science, Producing Art (New York: Routledge), pp.418-440.
Latour, Bruno, (2002), Jubiler, ou les Tourments de la Parole Religieuse (Paris: Les Empêcheurs de Penser en Rond).
Latour, Bruno, (2009), ‘Will Non-Humans be Saved? An Argument in Ecotheology’ in The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute Vol.15, No.3, pp.459–475.
Latour, Bruno, (2013), ‘Biography of an Investigation’ in Social Studies of Science Vol.43, No.2, pp.287-303.
Latour, Bruno, (2014), ‘Beyond Belief: On the Forms of Knowledge Proper to Religious Beings’, speech delivered at the Studium Generale Groningen, available online.
Miller, Adam S., (2013), Speculative Grace: Bruno Latour and Object-Orientated Theology (New York: Fordham University Press).
Schmidgen, Henning, (2013), The Materiality of Things? Bruno Latour, Charles Péguy, and the History of Science’ in History of the Human Sciences, Vol.26, No.1, pp.3-28.
Serres, Michel, (1993) La Légende des Anges (Paris: Flammarion).
Westphal, Merold, (2001), Overcoming Onto-theology: Toward a Postmodern Christian Faith (New York: Fordham University Press).