Friday 22 March 2013

Latour's Religion, more like Culture?

I'm just working my way through the text of Latour's Gifford lectures.  Not got a lot of time for this so it may take me a while.  Only part way through the second one right now so there's a long way to go but here are some initial thoughts (it'll be interesting to see if these still stand up when I get to the end!).

In the second lecture Latour takes Hume for his thought-he-was-Modern-ist punching bag:
For [Hume], it seems, there is just one regime of speech that he may use exactly in the same fashion to ask his butler if he should carry an umbrella to visit his friend Adam Smith; if his mistress loves him for good; if Cromwell was born the 25th of April 1599; or if God is a spider, an architect, or a giant vegetable. One size fits all. And yet rational discourse is not to treat everything in the same dispassionate tone, but to learn how to detect the different tones adjusted to the different situations so as to be able to sing all of them in the right tune.
So far so straightforward -- science and religion are different regimes of truth, modes of existence, felicity conditions, etc. and treating one in terms of the other is a category error.  A familiar argument.  Instead of taking a singular, referential mode to be germane to all instances Latour insists that we instead become sensitive to differences and learn to both hear and speak the several tongues, become modally plural, make our 'mother tongue,' whatever it may be, one tongue among many rather than the one that speaks the others.  To put both information transfer (science) and incarnation (religion) in their proper places.
[Religious] talk is not about carrying information (Is there an ultimate cause? Is it a deity, a giant spider, a benevolent Providence or a ‘blind watchmaker’?), but about transforming, converting, resuscitating those who are talked to.
Hume fails to even understand what religion is.  'Do not speak about religion,' proclaims Latour, 'but speak religiously -- passionately, compulsively, obsessively -- spread the Word!'  Ventriloquising Pamphilus, speaking against Hume's Philo, Latour says:
You have transformed the only speech act able to generate proximity into a vain quest for accessing far away regions — a quest which will never have the efficacy of the natural sciences.
When science and religion get mixed up "religion is transmogrified into an unfathomable mystery".  Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's and all that.

I'm puzzled by how Latour associates science with the transcendent (or the 'far away' as he puts it) and religion with the immanent (or 'close at hand').  The "far away" is "accessed ... beautifully by the sciences" while the "near at hand" is "accessed ... efficaciously by Religion Two".  What he ends up suggesting is the confirmation or disconfirmation of the existence of religious entities in a referential sense is something beyond religious practice (and presumably scientific practice too, for all its "efficacy" in that area) -- and that reference is therefore irrelevant to religion.  The religious may speak referentially but in so doing they are ceasing to speak religiously, they are only aping science.

What, then, is religion without reference, without transcendence?  It's about "transforming, converting, resuscitating" the hitherto untransformed, unconverted and asphyxiated -- a (in every sense) religious outward projection of the Word of the Faithful -- a performance that creates 'persons', i.e. a process of evangelical subjectivation.  At root this is all pretty standard stuff: religion is about joining people together, creating community, establishing a network of faiths and values and, above all, proselytising like it's going out of fashion.  It's a liberal religion that's all about building a People in an ever changing, dynamic constructive process rather than submitting anybody to an absolute, unchanging authority.
[T]he entity around which the Church [of Religion Two] assembles bears no relation to the others [of Religion One], since it shares none of its characters of unity, universality, indisputability and immutability. On the contrary, it’s best characterized, as far as we can tell, by a chain of successive and radical metamorphoses, mutations, and conversions, of reprises, in the very definition of what any entity is. Even when this chain is artificially segmented in successive events — God, Son, Holy Spirit, Church, none of them may be defined as a stable substance. The label ‘Trinity’ does not help much at this point, except that it underlines how far it is from the already unified ‘God’ implied by Religion One. Most importantly, grasping each of its sequences requires a highly specific movement of appropriation and of retelling, so that the whole narrative of incarnation can be carried one step forward in time and space in a new refreshing way. While Religion Two is defined by a succession of events taken up one after the other, Religion One strives to define a distant and stable object. And it has no other way to define it except by choosing words that have to be as independent as possible from the distant target. By contrast, in Religion Two, the realisation of the event — in all the meanings of ‘realization’ — depends on a logos, that is, on how to retell the narrative, how to address and more exactly to convert the faithful, how to spread the Good News of the Gospel. Here again the discrepancies between the two meanings of religion are baffling. The thing told and the word telling it are one and the same — that is, ‘the Word’ with a capital W, this Word that stands ‘at the Beginning’ of John’s scripture.
Continuing the translations and transformations faithfully -- not attempting to fix dogma as though there were some pure point of origin followed by misinterpretation but taking the translational process to be the very point of it all.  All familiar Latourian themes.

At the root of his critique of Religion One is the contradictory nature of this religion being split between immance and transcendence -- between an absolutely existing, indisputable, universal and all powerful deity 'out there' and contingent, dynamic, ritualistic performances of faith 'in here'.  But is this really a contradiction?  Don't the two halves actually rely on each other in religious practice?  Doesn't the one side fuel the other?  Is 'information transfer' really irrelevant to religion?  By abandoning reference and information to the scientific mode hasn't he actually abandoned religion to a plane of meek, pious and unpresuming but also unquestioning performativity?  In fact, what's the point of a deity that isn't 'outside'?  What's the point of religion without transcendence?

In Latour's religion God (as a being that is existentially verifiable in any way, shape or form) is dead but his shadow lives on, borne by the performative practices of his worshippers.  It's as though he turned to Nietzsche and said 'sure, God is dead -- but he's alive in our hearts!' -- our songs, sermons, ceremonies, etc.  'Dead but alive in our hearts' -- this is one of the ways that people rationalise death in lieu of god and an afterlife!  An odd admixture -- a secular, religious mourning and resurrection of God -- all at once.

So, the practice of religion does not require the verification of God's existence both because this is impossible and because referential verification is a completely different mode of speech to the religious mode.  Through such a settlement, Latour seems to hope that the imperia of science and religion can draw their lines in the sand and find peace.

However, one could also ask: if the practice of religion does not require verification of its entities then does it require a belief or faith in a god at all?  If the verity of a god is irrelevant to the religious practice, properly and modally conceived, then why is a god even needed?

In a nutshell, Latour's 'religion' is a performative practice of cultivating the common; fabricating a people or a Church and earnestly, eagerly spreading that way (or form) of life to the unconverted -- who are not presumed to be always already subject to a universal God but must be actively woven into the fabric of His religion.

I think that a better word for Latour's 'religion' would be culture -- not as in movies, TV, celebrities (or, rather, these are but a few forms of culture) but as in horticulture, agriculture, cultivation.  Latour is arguing for religion as a cultural phenomenon.  If it's absurd to speak of an atheist religion we can easily speak of an atheist culture that does most if not all of what 'religion' does.  So why keep speaking of 'religion' at all if the verity of its referential assumptions are no longer of any importance?

These are really just a jumbled series of thoughts but they leave me with some questions as I press onwards.

Since it's not at all difficult to point to utterly godless cultural practices that perform most of the same operations as Religion Two will Latour allow godless cultures to participate in the religious mode?  If so then he really should drop religion as a term and take up culture instead; if not then I think this will sunder his schema since it's absurd.  If religion is "the only speech act able to generate proximity" then either there are a lot of godless religions around or us godless folk are radically estranged and alienated from one another (which may be true but only incidentally so since godful folks also seem to struggle with such existential cruelties!).

At some points Latour makes it seem as though his God depends upon his worshippers for existence -- what is the point of such a pathetic deity?  It's one thing making Him 'inside' insofar as he can only be thought through the practices and processes of interpretation and worship (and insofar as he is transformed as his Word is translated) and quite another to reduce him to his own worshippers (or, more accurately, to bracket out questions of his existence in excess of his manifestation in practice).

By bracketing off reference absolutely from the practice of religion isn't Latour making his cherished faith little more than a fan club for a pop star that may or may not exist -- his fans preferring not to raise the question?  If the universe is not 'unified' enough to speak of a Godly creator but the god of each religion must rely on his followers to unify the universe and bring a more godly existence into being then what's the point of having a god at all?  These gods are so weak as to be laughable.  What's the point of a god who presides over a disunity so chronic that he relies on a few billion bags of flesh on one miniscule rock in an obscure corner of an unremarkable galaxy in a nearly infinite universe to piece things together for him?

What's the point of a god in thrall to humanity?

Finally, how will Gaia (who is yet to make much of an appearance in the second lecture, unlike the first) map on to this not secularised but 'culturalised' religious mode?