Latour, Rejoicing: A Critical Review

The recent work by Bruno Latour, An Inquiry into Modes of Existence (AIME, for short), deals with the various felicity conditions of different modes of existence, including religious modes of existence.  Along these lines, AIME extends his previous works on religion, including his writings on factishes, iconoclash, and the freeze-frames that convolute science-religion dialogue.  It is appropriate, then, that the release of the English edition of AIME was accompanied by the release of the English edition of his 2002 work on the felicity conditions of religious speech, Rejoicing: Or the Torments of Religious Speech (Polity, 2013).  With these works as well as his recent Gifford Lectures, Latour is making important contributions to theology and religious studies, opening up nice points of contact with science studies, ecology, speculative realism, and object-oriented ontology.

There are a lot of good points coming from Latour’s Rejoicing, which he articulates elsewhere as well.  Religions and sciences are not amenable to worn-out oppositions such as transcendence and immanence, subjective and objective, spirit and matter, fetishes and facts, iconography and iconoclasm, traditional and modern.  Instead of separating religions and sciences into two different realms of being or knowing, Latour recognizes that there is only one world, “no other world, just this one here” (174), and there is no truth we can discern about this world without constructing that truth.  Neither religion nor science has a monopoly on truth about existence, and neither one lays claim to knowledge of another world (since there is no other world).  Religions and sciences involve two different kinds of speech acts which thus have two different sets of felicity conditions, and when those felicity conditions are met, different things happen.  Scientific speech acts bring us knowledge of distant things (atoms, the Big Bang, the climate, etc.), whereas religious speech acts bring us closer to one another (family, friends, loved ones).  Sciences enact references and information about the distant and far away, whereas religions enact translations and transformations of what is close by, the everyday.  Nonetheless, I have a few problems with Rejoicing (which are, more or less, also problems with his other writings on religion).

First, he takes his Catholicism for granted.  He seems to think that his work “located religious utterance well away from what is called religion, the Christian religion, the Catholic religion” (167).  That’s simply not true.  His understanding of faith, belief, knowledge, science, angels, humans, God, world, and love are all drenched in Catholicism.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s a problem that he just does not seem to deal with or apparently even understand.  For example, Rejoicing is full of analogies between religious speech and speech acts between lovers.  I think that makes sense if you’re Christian, but it’s really a weak analogy if you’re trying to convey a sense of the diversity of religious modes of existence.  What about disciplinary speech acts between a teacher and student?  I would contrast Latour on this point with Donna Haraway, another prominent figure in the field of science studies. Haraway was raised Catholic, like Latour, but she’s much more self-aware about how that colors her work, and she’s put forward the postcolonial effort of opening her religious horizons (as evident in her engagements with neopagan feminist spiritualities and indigenous traditions).  Furthermore, even as a Catholic, Latour doesn’t draw on the theological tradition (at least not explicitly), despite the fact that he would have much to work with in everybody from Augustine to Teilhard and Rahner.  Augustine’s facere veritatem sounds like a Latourian phrase to me.  Latour also fails to distinguish between religion and theology, with the latter complicating the boundary between religious and scientific discursive practices.

Second, while taking Catholicism as a default paradigm for studying religious speech acts, Latour takes atheism to be the default paradigm for understanding contemporary affluent occidental societies.  He buys into the idea that for us Westerners there are no divinities showing up in everyday life anymore.  He says divinities used to be “obvious in the air or the soil,” but “it’s not like that anymore—at least, not in the wealthy countries of the West” (5).  That’s not true.  What about the indigenous communities in those wealthy countries?  Maybe they don’t count.  Maybe Latour meant wealthy people in wealthy countries of the West.  Still, although that might make sense in Latour’s France, it doesn’t work everywhere in the West, at least not in the US (it’s probably important to keep in mind that the American Revolution emphasized freedom of religion whereas the French Revolution was much more about freedom from religion).  Jesus shows up in potato chips and snack foods surprisingly frequently.  Presumably, even some wealthy people in wealthy Western countries still experience God in the air and soil, and I’m not just talking about educated theologians who’ve carefully cultivated those experiences.  I’m talking about a former CEO (with no college education) who owns a ranch in Texas and really experiences his land as a divine gift.  Those people exist, and they complicate Latour’s understanding of the abundance, diversity, relevance, and efficacy of religious modes of existence in contemporary societies.

My third problem is that Latour treats religion and science as very distinct categories.  This overlooks Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) in indigenous communities, ayurvedic medical models in Hinduism, the psychological theories elaborated and tested in communities of Buddhist practitioners, the role of qi (ch’i) in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), etc.  Latour dismisses the practice of “slipping electrodes into the skulls of clairvoyants” (91), and his phrasing makes me think he is simply unaware of the actual research on the brain states occasioned by meditation or psychedelics like Ayahuasca (cf. Frank Echenhofer).  It seems like religious and scientific speech acts can overlap quite a lot.  Latour doesn’t like that.  “Those paths should never have crossed” (21).  “There is no in-between” (33).  I like his attitude of “no rough and ready compromise,” but he’s going too far in arguing that “we have to maintain as incommensurable” the science-religion relationship (51) or that religion and science have “incommensurable ecological niches” (21).  I appreciate how Latour avoids the Scylla of scientific dismissals (rationalizations) of religion and the Charybdis of religious dismissals or appropriations of science, but he’s oversimplifying things.  While reading, I kept hoping Latour would say something to stop the incredulous voice in my head complaining about Stephen Jay Gould’s separation of science and religion into non-overlapping magisteria. Et tu, Bruno?  Dawkins is better on this point.  Although he laments the overlap, at least he sees it.

With this third problem, what I’m questioning isn’t just Latour’s mutually exclusive opposition between science and religion.  More specifically, I’m also questioning his claim that sciences specialize in distance whereas religions deal in closeness.  That might make sense for a Christian who is thinking of some of the very this-worldly saying of Jesus (e.g., the Kingdom of God is at hand). But religions do have training guidelines and practices for accessing distant realities.  Traditional Ecological Knowledge is an easy example.  Think of Jeremy Narby’s research on how the indigenous religious use of ayahuasca in the Peruvian Amazon facilitates knowledge of ecosystem management.  The Tibetan Book of the Dead is another easy example.  It’s not supposed to help people care about their loved ones and maintain closeness.  It’s a manual for leaving yourself behind and moving through liminal realms or in-betweens (bardos).  It makes reference to other realms beyond the closeness of one’s mortal existence, and moreover, it is even practiced by wealthy people in wealthy countries in the West.

Overall, Latour makes some important contributions to theology and religious studies.  I think his concepts of factish and iconoclash are extremely useful, but the narrow limits of his evidence prevent him from developing an adequate representation of religious speech acts or religious modes of existence.  What makes all of this worse is that Rejoicing is written in a confessional style and it oscillates between first-, second-, and third-person language.  I don’t know why he has such a confessional tone, although it feels like an implicit Christianization, identifying religion with confessional religion (not to mention the Trinitarian movement of his grammatical changes in person).  The style is excessively mannered, which can be funny and cute, but can also sound sarcastic and melodramatic.  If you want heavily stylized francophone writings on religion, it’s impossible to find a better point d’eau than Derrida’s targumim.

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5 responses to “Latour, Rejoicing: A Critical Review

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