Science Networks Monsters Religion (Bruno Latour)

Just finished reading We Have Never Been Modern. It’s an old book which I never got around to reading. Now that I’m dipping a little into science, technology, and religion, it was time to take a look. Much of the book has entered the academic mainstream –the conception of networks, and human-nonhuman hybrids. So I’ve done my scholarly due diligence, and learned a thing or two in the process. Bruno Latour’s is one of the first broadsides against a version of postmodernism that reduced everything to discourse and to the play of signs. His was one of the first attempts in the humanities to take science seriously, to articulate interconnections between nature, society, and discourse, to integrate the sciences and the humanities, with an eye on religion.

I’m not entirely persuaded by the thesis about “modernity,” but I think there’s something to it. The thesis is that modernity is based on a “constitution” based on the separation of powers, namely the human versus the non-human, society versus nature versus a crossed-out God, or nature versus society versus “discourse.” Modernity is both a mixing of things and then their purification. To be truly modern is to keep all these tracks separate. You could just as well argue that the first modern move is to purify and separate in order, then to mix back together.  But according to Latour, to no longer be modern is to stop the act of purification-separation. The trick is how to do this without being reactionary.

One thing I find interesting here is the idea that our contemporary “crisis” has to do with scale, the way in which the purification systems get clogged up by greater and greater mixtures of more and more complex and sometimes virulent hybrids, by the inundation of creature-monsters that come about with the greater masses of human and nonhuman entities, without being able to rule out politically or morally any single combination.

I was not expecting to find so much religion in science studies. It turns out that [1] Religion is as much a part of network systems as anything else. [2] Religion is indelible. Simultaneous to the crossing out of God in the modern constitution is the reinvention of spirituality. [3] Against Heidegger, the gods might also reside mixed up with and into all the other human and non-human hybrids in our contemporary techno-space, “in a hydroelectric plant on the banks of the Rhine, in subatomic particles, in Adidas shoes…in shopkeepers’ calculations as well as in Hölderlin’s heartrending verse” (p.66).

Latour should encourage us to think that religion and Judaism, Talmud and Kabbalah are also networks.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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