Latour begins his book, Rejoicing – or the torments of religious speech, (2013b), with a tortured, twisting soliloquy. This is what he wants to write about, but he can’t. He can’t seem to find the words… We are still in the third person: ‘He is ashamed of not daring to speak out and ashamed of wanting to speak out, regardless […] Ashamed that he goes [to Mass on Sunday], ashamed of not daring to say he goes’. The honesty is searing, the angst almost palpable, the courage taken demands to be matched.
Your reviewer will try her best. She wants to write a review which makes others like her read the book; as many as possible. But first, she has to come out. Come out as somebody who is not well-versed in Scripture; who desires to understand what it means to be religious; who is uncomfortable with – and feels something lacking in – recent aggressive atheist output, yet is not properly equipped to counter it. This book holds out some hope. And, of course, she is reassured by the author’s credentials in science and sense. Philosopher, sociologist of science, anthropologist, with a side-line in legal theory, theology, drama and curation, Latour’s qualifications as a sensitive analyst of our contemporary condition are well recognised. And I proceed believing that he speaks my language.
But the experience of the book is less comfortable: yes, it deals with religion and Science (as one would expect from a book by Latour of this title). But through meditations (circuitous and often repetitious) on belief, Scripture, love, translation and, above all, the transformative role of language, Latour makes precarious the very ground we stand on. He does speak my language, on the surface, but with it he reveals an elasticity at its core which, fully acknowledged, would have a seismic effect upon our Modern sense and understanding.
The book has no contents page, chapters, sections or index. Where normally we might find the chapter title repeated, above the text on the page, we have textual pointers which act as both summary and navigational aid – although both in cryptic fashion. The first of these ‘headers’ is both alarming and disarming: ‘Above all do not believe’. This sets the tone of the whole book. There is nothing prosaic here; this is not a scientist forcing himself to ‘admit’ to being religious and trying to square the circle for himself and his readers. Nor is it a book in which religion is subsumed by some sleight of hand into a generous Science:
Most other people (if they give a rat’s arse about the subject) hope to extend Science over religion’s territory through an offensive apologetics, or to protect religion’s territory from Science through a defensive apologetics. (24)
It is an attempt to raze the land of the contemporary Western mind of multiple layers of miscomprehension, conflation, and poor teaching with regards to religious speech, and to render that same land fertile – not necessarily for the uptake of a Christian outlook (the book is by no means proselytising in the usual sense) – but for an appreciation of what religious speech (and therefore religion) is about, and can offer.
The book starts by laying out Latour’s reason for writing – for persevering in what often seems self-torture, and futile to boot:
There’s no means now of saying what is at issue. Or, rather, the means of talking both simply and subtly about religious matters have been taken from us. Those means have become either complicated, archaeological, scholarly, or so inane, religiose, simplistic, that you can only cry in pity over them. (7)
He expresses his internal conflict using a financial metaphor. ‘Think’ he asks us, ‘of all the arrears I have to pay on top of the words, formulae, turns of phrase that I draw out of my meagre fund: yes, arrears, deficits, unpaid translation debts’ (14). His task is insurmountable. But, as he wavers, he’s ‘caught again. The gold shines beneath the inanities’ (16). The metaphor is woven into the book and into the argument proper. It therefore becomes more than a poetic, illustrative rhetorical device and becomes part of the true fabric. It is mimetic of the religious speech Latour describes: both are irreducible, and paradoxical. ‘The Scriptures’, Latour insists, ‘have been properly and faithfully handed down’, and yet there is such a mass of translation arrears – that is, such a long-lasting and regrettable negligence by ‘the people whose job it is to change words so as to keep the meaning, clerics’ (8) – that ‘the words no longer have meaning’ (15). Latour does address the paradoxical nature of religious speech, but not head-on. In fact, the great obstacle which the book poses is that, in trying to teach us to see obliquely, read religiously, comprehend at heart that which is vague in mind, appreciate, accept, and get beyond the contradictions of Scripture, Latour’s writing places similar demands upon the reader.
For example, when he invites us to look ‘more closely’ at the Gospel According to Mark, if we attempt to do as instructed (‘not try to aestheticize, rationalize, purify, demythologize’ 112), but, instead, to ‘do the opposite and try hard to keep the gaps, the unfinished bits, the breaks, the implausible details. Above all, no filling in’; if we are ‘attentive once more to the instructions for use’, we (can? will?) learn to ‘take it’, ‘read it’ and ‘understand it’ in ‘the right way’ (my italics). And this ‘right way’ involves not a single ‘correct interpretation’, but the discovery of an exegetical method whereby the transformative power of the Scripture can be realised. He envisages the text as having ‘two movements’: the ‘longitudinal series’ tells a ‘wondrous story’; the ‘vertical series’ tells us ‘how we have to understand any story of salvation – so that we can produce new ones’ (113). And yet, as a reader, I am left wanting; wanting enough help to let me get a foothold, and wanting – wishing, hoping, desiring – to grasp what I am taking on trust is graspable. The promise of this section, and its (or my) inability to redeem that promise, left me frustrated but not unmoved.
A look back over some of Latour’s earlier work, We Have Never Been Modern (1993), and On the Modern Cult of the Factish Gods (2010b), is helpful, – if not to navigate this razed land then at least to soften any sense of frustration towards Latour. His project – of which this book is a part – to redefine the modes of existence, is brilliantly, atrociously, ambitious and continues apace (with An Inquiry Into Modes of Existence: An Anthropology of the Moderns, released later in 2013). Exegesis has been a long-standing concern of Latour’s:
It was in this key, this way of discriminating between two opposite types of betrayal – betrayal by mere repetition and the absence of innovation, and betrayal by too many innovations and the loss of the initial intent – that I wrote my PhD thesis. (‘Coming out as a philosopher’, 2010a: 160)
The lack of a contents page or chapters is another example of Latour’s apparent decision to write rather more religiously than scientifically. Latour stresses the importance of distinguishing between two very different ways of understanding the world: one through Science, which involves information, mapping out, and pain-staking work done by people in lab-coats (and here we are on familiar Latourian ground); another through religion, which does not concern information and ‘leads nowhere’ (33). This arresting statement (‘leads nowhere’?!) is explained clearly, with insight and humour. The example of Yuri Gagarin, first man in Space, who is reported to have said that he had proven the non-existence of God by not having spotted Him ‘from the tiny porthole of his cramped cabin’ (38), is used to exemplify our own misunderstandings:
We’ve laughed a bit too hard at the good Gagarin, the first anti-cleric to travel in space […] Gagarin’s proof was perfect, actually, since it corresponded precisely to the requirement of visibility of scientific tools. In the sky, there is no ‘God’. (38)
There are no maps to heaven either: ‘those [religious] texts, those words do not provide access to anything whatever’ (20). The whole rationalizing enterprise to which, as Latour puts it, clerics have become unwisely wed, has led us to make ‘a category mistake’:
It’s as if, to defend itself against the hold, judged to be deleterious, of Science, religion had tried to emulate it by going above and beyond, while sticking to the same vehicle. (29)
There is ‘scientific reference’ and ‘religious translation’: the first informs, the second transforms. They are two ‘forms of utterance’ that create ‘incommensurable ecological niches’. Has Latour decided to challenge us by writing his book in the second form, that of religious translation? The lack of a map of the book suggests that the answer may be yes.
The strongest element in the book is the use Latour makes of a common experience we can all relate to, that of the talk between lovers. He introduces this as a way of helping us to grasp the two ‘forms of utterance’ – with particular attention paid to the ridiculousness of applying ‘double-click communication’ (with which readers of Latour will already be familiar) to expressions of love. He asks us to:
Imagine a lover who answered the question ‘Do you love me?’ with this sentence: ‘Yes, but you already know that, I told you so last year.’ (We might even imagine he recorded this memorable sentence on a tape recorder and that, as his only answer, he’s happy to just press the replay button to produce the indisputable proof that he truly loves…). You’d be hard pressed to find more decisive evidence that he has stopped loving in earnest. He has taken the request for love as a request for information […] (25)
This analogy of romantic love is the corner-stone of the book: it is only here that I, as a reader, feel I have my balance. From this point I am prepared, optimistic, even excited about taking the plunge. Here is a nebulous thing, love, which exists outwith the view of the microscope or the telescope (how ridiculous indeed to look for love through a lens!). Not only is language central to its expression; it is also required for its constant renewal. The ‘language of love’ is both old and new, an ‘ongoing creation [which] is something we accept without any trouble on the part of lovers, who never cease repeating the same love story in different words’ (70). And, crucially, in the final reckoning, the transformative, performative, renewing speech of love, never out of date, faces this: ‘Either it acts, it salvages, it redresses, what it’s about is understood, and it’s the first time it grabs you; or you’ve already heard it a hundred times, you know very well what it means, and that is certainly not what it’s about.’ (71).
‘Hic est saltus’ (73), states Latour at this point, ‘this is where you have to plunge’. And he leads boldly: ‘to tell the truth religion must in fact lie or, at least, if that word shocks, proceed to scholarly, no, to pious, no, to reasonable elaborations’ (70). Here we have the parallel of the old-new words of love: the same thing has to be said differently. Not merely given a face-lift – cosmetics and aesthetics are not enough – real change has to be made. This creates the paradox discussed above. Talk of love, and talk of religion, must not communicate information, but renew and reveal. ‘Double-click communication’, for those readers who aren’t already familiar with this Latourian neologism, is the eliding of the traces (blood, sweat and tears) of the work which goes on in the scientific lab in order to advance knowledge even one iota. With a sleight of hand, Science, removes the translation efforts, the risks, the complexities, the blind alleys and twisted paths of science:
for double-click communication, all difficulties vanish, all paths level out: information becomes faithful communication without any transformation whatsoever, through simple obvious likeness between the copy and the original. (22)
And, Latour argues, this sleekness, and apparent ease of reference has led to all forms of communication being held up to this standard, this new ‘universal’; it has become ‘the judge of all faithfulness, the guarantee of all truth’ (22).
In reaction to this has come the fundamental ‘category error’, and in this ‘diabolical trap’, religious utterance was pitted against informational speech in a race ‘to see which of them went further, took us further’ (30). Latour mentions the rationalising literalism of those who would send religious relics for DNA testing (91) or would attempt to work out, scientifically, how big Noah’s Ark would actually have had to have been ‘to be able to house all the pairs of animals comfortably’ (87). There is light mockery in Latour’s tone here, but no mention of the serious dangers of such literalism. We get no discussion of the aspect of religious speech that seems to prevail in, and perpetuate, a pairing of literalism and fundamentalism. In fact, apart from a few scant mentions, there is little attention paid to the ills which have been done in the world, bolstered and justified with religious speech (or at least speech purporting to be religious). This is a surprising gap in a book arguing for the renewal of religious speech.
After establishing religious and informational speech as incommensurable, we get to the agencies involved. In the translation from amorous to religious speech, who are the two lovers? I think I am one – either in an individual capacity, or in my capacity as a member of a religious group. And the other? ‘G.’? ‘God’? Mankind? Other members of my belief group? Who? Or what? It seems the obvious next question: what agency am I in this tussle of something-like-love with? Or, even if this is a one-way declaration of love, unrequited or unanswered, to whom or to what am I addressing myself? Why is this left out by Latour? He cannot be unaware of this elephant in the room, but sidesteps, asking why, when we are still able to understand, produce and appreciate lovers’ language, we have ‘become so rigid’ when applying these skills and this ‘template’ to religious speech.
Is it because of the lack of resemblance between the private history of couples and sacred history? Yet the only difference between them might well be the scale of the group, the ambition of redemption, the choice of the people to be saved. (74)
Perhaps this is taking the analogy too literally. Maybe ‘G.’ or ‘God’ is not an agent, but an action akin to loving. This would help with ‘God is love’, and ‘The word is God’ but, without the parallel to the partner in the couple, this interpretation takes us perilously close to ‘A ‘moral ideal’, a ‘feeling of the infinite’, a ‘call to one’s conscience’, a ‘richer inner life’, ‘access to the great all’’ (62). I say ‘perilously close’ not because these things sound terrible to my ear – in fact, they sound pretty good – but because Latour is derisive: ‘What a lot of poppycock that ‘God’ is! A simple portmanteau of morality – as if morality needed the support of religion’ (62).
Latour is not, however, forthcoming with his assistance in identifying even the fundamental form (agent/action/emotion) of a bona fide ‘God’ (and it is worth noting that Latour sticks firmly to Christianity, and does not mention the competing or complementary nature of other religious speech regimes). The God-as-equating-to-love thesis, however, comes up against another problem: throughout Scripture, throughout all religions, there is an agent, ‘God’ (normally ‘He’), not an action (I God you), or attitude (I feel such God towards you). The semantics matter, the words matter, being all we have with which to pay the translation arrears. Latour gives us this:
Let’s try again. ‘God is nobody’ sounds strange to our ears; but if I say: ‘The thing that turns us into individuals who are close and present might well, in certain places and in certain times, have been called ‘God’, but we could also, today, just as easily call it by another vocable, such as ‘The thing that begets neighbours’. (135)
This is a strange statement – shocking despite his protestations to the contrary. This makes more decisive the idea that ‘G.’ or ‘God’ is the counterpart to ‘love’ in the analogy. Furthermore, we have the mention of another agency – our neighbours. I am to renew my relationship with my neighbours through God.
Latour’s avoidance of anything which might be called ‘supernatural’ is, again, surprising. He offers a presentation of time which helps to reframe another two difficult terms, ‘eternity’ and ‘transcendence’. Latour employs the concept of ‘kairos’, presenting it as the temporal (or rather a-temporal) experience the lovers have ‘of a time from now on fulfilled’ (167). These incremental blows to my incomprehension are most welcome and suggest that Latour’s risky venture could pay off. Yes, to begin to settle the arrears, he has had to locate ‘religious utterance well away from what is called religion, the Christian religion, the Catholic religion’ (167), and I am sure for many ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ (14) this will not only ‘scandalize’ (4) but be perceived as a great loss (for some, I imagine too great a loss; in fact, a betrayal). For some, Latour will have left religion’s green shoots to nurture, whilst for others he will have simply left religion’s edifice standing, only to be repopulated by a breed of soft-edged, agnostic Moderns. But what matters is that, in a book both informative and transformative, Latour may well have succeeded in his aim to ‘reboot the teeniest hint of a beginning of a religious sentiment’ (170).
Latour B. (1993) We Have Never Been Modern, Cambridge, Massachusetts: HarvardUniversity Press.
Latour B. (2010a) Coming out as a philosopher. Social Studies of Science 40: 599-608.
Latour B. (2010b) On the Modern Cult of the Factish Gods, Durham and London: Duke University Press.
Latour B. (2013a) Once Out of Nature – natural religion as a pleonasm. Gifford Lectures – Facing Gaia. A new enquiry into Natural Religion.
Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh.
Latour B. (2013b) Rejoicing: Or the Torments of Religious Speech, Cambridge and Malden: Polity Press.
Latour B. (2013c) An Inquiry into Modes of Existence: An Anthropology of the Moderns, London and Cambridge,
Massachusetts: HarvardUniversity Press.