(Networks & Religion) Bruno Latour (Modes of Existence)


I’m not sure if Bruno Latour is Christian or neo-pagan or more likely some new amalgam. We read it in the Syracuse Department of Religion theory reading group two years ago and I’m trying here to sort through and get a grapple on my notes. Perhaps Latour’s magnum opus, An Inquiry into Modes of Existence is a systematic take on the multiple modes of existence, the multiple types of being and intersecting nodal points that make up contemporary life (in the west) as seen from a Euro-techno science-studies perspective.

Post-Hegelian and pragmatic, the book’s fundamental imperative has to do with the construction of global networks qua conceptual structure by which we connect up everything together (science, nature, politics, society, religion, technology) and under what felicity conditions? Proposed are new ontologies freed from the so-called modern split between subjects and objects. Knowledge is not the reflection of a subject on the world qua object, but is itself a mode of existence, a way of being in the world. Anti-metaphysical and anti-Cartesian, Latour sets out to recoup common sense and the ontological dignity of secondary qualities (pp.56, 116-20). Networks and the knowledge they produce are themselves distinct modes of existence that cross over and impact upon the world.

Part I is devoted to the overcoming of impediments on the multiple modes of existence imposed upon them by modern, epistemological subject-object bifurcating. By “beings of reproduction,” Latour means to signal the way science is itself another mode of being in the world. As such, scientific networks are the medium-based establishing of chains of reference via instruments and formalisms through which the world is reproduced and transformed by science and scientific praxis. “Existents” aren’t material per se, and definitely not “substantive,” as much as they are constituted by lines of force that materialize into habits, languages, structures, and things like that. The critique of substance is by now old hat in modern, post-Newtonian physics and quantum mechanics. What Latour brings is an unapologetic speculative component, which is the invitation (insistence) to make room for the “reality” other kinds of beings. These would be the ones talked about by poets, rhetoricians, “common people,” priests, doctors, “in short everyone,” including scientists. All of these have character of an artifice. The question is whether or not the construction has been well made or not (p.171). The first thing that matters is that a construction be well constructed.

In part II, having once broken through the narrow ontology of modern bifurcation, Latour explores the reconstitution of beings, plural ontologies, new new beings, new modes of existence that stand outside the very narrow prism of Cartesian metaphysics and modern materialism. These are largely “invisible beings.” Indeed, there is something occult-like about the quality of such things like the beings of technology, fiction, and phantasy. Rather than respect their status as a mode of appearance, moderns are faulted for trying to reduce these things to psychic irrationality, brain functions, and subjectivity. But once both subject and object (matter) have been so sublimated by post-Newtonian physics, what’s left to this critique? The self like any other bit of matter is defined not by way of a “core,” but as a capacity to let itself be carried along by forces that install themselves within and around it (op.196). Their only verification is whether or not one can speak felicitously about them. Not exactly copping out, Latour characterizes this felicity condition as “a terribly demanding form of verification” (pp197, 245).

The discussion in part III is unpredictably weak. It’s where Latour was going to redefine “collectives” (i.e. intermeshing social forms composed of heterogenous types of beings) around the nodal points of religion, politics, law, and economy. The chapters are not uninteresting, but hard to see how they fit into the larger scheme of the book. I’m not sure they represent anything more than one intelligent person’s reflections about the subject matter at hand.

Having said that, the takeaway for a theory of religion is promising. In part II, freed from modern systems of bifurcation, we network with beings (beings of fiction and phantasy, invisible beings) with whom we never ceased interacting (p.205). Latour wants to get at their real existence as mediated and made manifest through technologies and artificial arrangements such as ritual and myth (pp.187, 194). Against reducing them to language and symbols, Latour thinks they have a real existence which is non-material, non-linguistic, and non-social (pp.234-5). In other words they are not simply “mere” products of the imagination (pp.238-40). To be sure, their mode of persistence is not the same as the one enjoyed (or suffered) by tables and other kinds of objects (p.242). That is because they don’t have to enjoy the same mode of existence as that mode given to what we would call a natural object (200). Their relation to the world is more tenuous and untethered. Like anything else but even more so, this mode of existence is one in which beings appear and disappear. Their reality, namely that sense in the world that they carry, is particularly fragile given their reliance on the solicitude of “readers” (pp.225, 238-40, 200, 202)

In this weird mix of continental philosophy and science studies, for Religion Studies, what’s going to be more important than this or that dissection of religious experience (chapter 7) and the social authority of religion and felicitous speech conditions (chpter 11) has to do with the larger view of the place of religion in a global network theory. Moving past post-structuralist theory, the real action of the book is to rethink hoary binaries between subject and object, the rejection of fixed and autonomous domains, the emphasis on associational thinking, the interlinking of art-religion-science-politics based primarily on figures and figuration, the complete opposition to biological and psychological reductionism with which to explain away peculiar psychic states of awareness, the non-substantive notion as to what counts as natural or as matter, the understanding of habit, the obsession with technical and technological mediation spanning science and religion, the very taking seriously the reality of different modes of being and how they cross over one into another.

Perfect for reading along with the extenuated sense of reality in Talmud and Zohar, Latour’s map of the human world is of an interconnecting nexus mediated by emergent and cross-over nodes that capture lines of physical force.  Excluding nothing, it’s an uncanny world in which beings appear and disappear, in which nothing is too strange to take hold.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish though and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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