Winter in Tennessee

Latour contra Badiou

Hadn't been planning on blogging over the Winter Festival, but I wrote this comment on another blog and then realised it meets the criteria for the Republic of Bloggers, so I've echoed it here in case anyone else might find it of interest.

Dear Terence,

Many thanks for your thoughts in Badiou vs Latour: Is religion a mode of existence? Although I'm not sure I've commented at your Agent Swarm blog before, you have been in indirectly connected to my own blog cluster for some time via the object-oriented ontology blog cluster (I'm not into OOO for my own philosophy, but one should always respect one's neighbours!). Let me also apologize for making this a lengthy response - I do not, alas, have time to shorten it.

I should preface my remarks by saying I've not yet read the new Latour - I only just finished his 2005 pair (Politics of Nature/Reassembling the Social) and am currently working through a few Badiou that are in my never-ending reading pile. But the contrast between Badiou and Latour is for me the most interesting boundary line in contemporary philosophy, being in effect a clash between Badiou's ontology of Order and Deleuze's ontology of Chaos, that Latour inherits. Seeing how people come down in this face off is of great interest to me, and in particular because it is also necessarily a mirror of the conflict between positivism (in my broad sense, outlined in The Mythology of Evolution and picked up again in Chaos Ethics) and the religious traditions, which Latour participates in.

I should explain that I am using 'positivism' in both a historical sense (the tradition descending from Comte) and as a convenient marker for a broad range of practices - in a similar way, in fact, to the way that 'religion' collects the Christianities, Shinto, Hindu traditions etc. into one category e.g. very broadly and not very well. But each and every discussion that uses the abstraction 'religion' hurdles this barrier, and so the abstraction 'positivism' is needed to position against it. And the one thing that unites all the philosophers in the object-oriented camp (as far as I can tell) is their positivism. Graham, Levi, Ian, Tim etc. all step off from a positivistic position and never leave it - which is what they have in common with Badiou who equally begins inside - and never leaves - positivism.

What tips me off in your very interesting account here that you are probably also moving in this world is that in your attempt to position 'religion', you view it as a skeleton key for moving in the belief-truth space - a space that Latour, drawing against Stengers, explicitly rejects. Only someone who was not embroiled in any religious practice could come to perceive religion in these terms - and it's telling for me that I did the same at a particular point in my enquiries. Latour has the opposite problem: he rejects this view (correctly, in my view) but doesn't then know how to proceed - an ambiguity he attempts to address in On the Modern Cult of the Factish Gods et al, and presumably in the new book too.

I see both camps in this case - Badiou [+OOO]/Latour & Stengers - as effectively highlighting a split in how to deploy Whitehead. (Obviously Whitehead isn't on the table for Badiou, but he still ends up moving in the same space because both philosophers begin with mathematics). The positivist move is to use Whitehead to collapse the mythology of 'scientific materialism' (Whitehead's term) into a different-yet-related ontology - in Badiou's case, into a different kind of materialism, although a kind that I think is so contiguous with most OOO philosophies as to be at least a neighbour. But the counter-move from Whitehead is to go to a process/practices perspective - and Stengers is the best exemplar of this in many respects. Latour absolutely moves in this space, which fits well with his Deleuzean-inspired philosophy, because Stengers is his single greatest touchstone for philosophy.

My biggest problem with Badiou is that I find his 'four and only four' truth procedures to be uncomfortably contrived - and at times, contrived to expressly exclude religion. I found it fascinating to discover Badiou trying to exclude religion from his love condition because this suture is simply a bad play on his part - his love is his "scene of Two"; it is amorous love, eros. As someone so fond of Plato, Badiou should immediately see this is the wrong place to try and sandwich religion, since in so much as love forms a collective theme between traditions in this sphere it is always either agape or philia! Badiou should perhaps be trying to fit religion into his condition of politics - but it sits uncomfortably there because Badiou's philosophy pursues the universal, and actually religious practices are only mythologically universal (a point that Latour sometimes tries to patiently draw out, but never - in typical Latour fashion - manages to make explicit). The point of religion is found in its community, as every religion practices in community even when it doesn't know it is doing this. Latour's philosophy (and even more so his sociology) recognizes this - but it is difficult (impossible?) to get this across to anyone coming from the other side of the divide.

Well, I cannot come to a useful conclusion in so short a long remark but I hope I have been able to offer you a fragment of another perspective here. As someone trying to broker between positivism and religion (being of both and neither), the mistake I see most often - and especially in Badiou - is to force an understanding of religion in terms of how its mythology generates truth-claims that purport to objectivity i.e. to view religion erroneously as 'failed science'. This view has nothing to do with the truths of religion, per se, something which Latour seems to recognize, even if he doesn't fully understand it either. But then, does anyone?

All the best,


Terence swiftly replied in the comments (see below), and in the comments of his original post.

No-one else has replied yet.


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We agree more than you may think. For me Latour represents an attempt at a non-positivist account of religion, and as such I defend him against charges of relativism:
However I think he goes about it in a way that reproduces the old positivistic bifurcation between science and non-science. I much prefer Feyerabend's take that religious traditions are also cognitive, and not just performative.

In his new book, as in REJOICING, Latour does not think that the point of religion is in community, but in a special sort of turning towards what is close, in which non-physical religious beings (God, angels) insist non-referentially. This solution is very attractive, and it is close to Wittgenstein's approach to religion, but I think it is misguided.

I have tried to explain my misgivings in this little text:

Sorry I didn't reply earlier, but I am on vacation in Paris for Xmas, and I don't have much time, or the same access to a computer, internet, and my own documents. Thank you for your substantive comment, and I hope we can develop this exchange further. Best wishes, Terence.

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