Posts

Climates of Queer Concerns

It’s that hectic time of year for academics when papers and exams pile up and the end-of-year holidays loom large. In the midst of it all, I’ve been dividing my attention between the knowledge projects that interest me most: queer feminist theory, religious studies, and feminist science studies – particularly those engaged with the climate change and the politics of our new global epoch which some have christened the Anthropocene. Responding to Mary Jo Nietz’s “Gender, Queer Theory, Religion” interview provides an excellent opportunity to bring these projects into more explicit conversation with each other.

Beginning with important basics – What is gender? How is it different than sex? – Martin Lepage expertly leads Neitz into a substantive conversation about the impact of post-structuralist thinking, particularly Judith Butler’s work, which many consider foundational for queer theory. Given the brief structure of the interview, Neitz provides excellent summaries of what she describes as Butler’s complicated liberatory project, which eschews the powerful and persuasive essentialism one so often sees in pop culture.

Having provided an introductory outline of feminist queer theory, the interview then attends to the ways it might be used in studies of religion. Neitz proposes several options. She briefly mentions (but does not provide details) that one can use queer theory to critique religion. She then moves to the question that most interests her: how might we use queer theory to find spaces of opening or possibility for playing with categories? She elaborates by asking how beliefs might open spaces for marked groups (e.g. gay men in the Roman Catholic Church).

More specifically, she is looking for places where there are “openings to the sacred” that allow people to play with heteronormative categories. She describes some of these contradictory sites and explains that, as an ethnographer, she looks for transgressions of gender norms in the social formations she studies. She then applies a Butlerian lens to these transgressions in a way that differently focuses attention on previously unmarked groups. Lastly, Neitz notes that more and more sociologists are attending to affect theory, which is rooted in queer theory. She briefly outlines her framework for understanding religious cultures in terms of (conjuring yet tweaking Weber here) ideal affects and arousal levels that she associates with different religions.

Lepage concludes the interview by asking Neitz how she sees the future study of religion unfolding in relation to Butler’s work and queer theory. Neitz remarks that while she can’t predict the future, the most influential use of Butler in the study of religion can be found in Saba Mahmood’s work, which challenges the foundations of neoliberal discourse by posing the question of just what a feminist liberatory project is.

Overall, this interview provides a useful introduction for scholars interested in becoming conversant with queer theory and its potential applications in religious studies. I concur that queer theory can be used to critique religion and/or to open up spaces of possibility for playing with categories, particularly when one attends to transgressions. Like Neitz, I also have much appreciation for current work on affect and religion. Along these lines, I recommend Donovan Schaefer’s recently published book, Religious Affects: Animality, Evolution, and Power.

While I generally agree with Neitz’s overview of queer theory, there are a couple of places where her religious studies language raises warning flags for me. The first concerns her statement that she is interested in how beliefs might open spaces for marked groups. Here it is the recourse to belief as the primary object of study that gives me pause. A belief-centric approach does not radically alter the Protestant-based frameworks for understanding many social formations constituted as religions. Here, Manuel Vasquez’s work on a materialist theory of religion might provide tools that better align with the material bodies at the center of queer theory.

The second instance where Neitz’s language tripped me up occurred when she explained that she is interested in places where there might be “openings to the sacred.” Here her language fails to register the many critiques that have been waged against uniform understandings of “the sacred.” The most recent iteration can be found in Russell McCutcheon and William Arnal’s book, The Sacred is the Profane: The Political Nature of Religion. The radical understanding of discourse underpinning so much of queer theory ought to also be applied to religious studies categories so that the “sacred” is understood as yet another discursively produced category on a planet where, as Durkheim argued over a century ago, the most basic classification operation employed by religions is that which divides the world into sacred and profane.

Speaking of our planet, let’s conclude this journey through knowledge projects by returning to those regarding our current epoch. As the Earth’s northern hemisphere moves farther from the sun, the World Meteorological Organization has released a report indicating that the global average surface temperature this year is on track to be the hottest year on record and will likely reach the symbolically significant milestone of 1° Celsius above the pre-industrial era. Not a moment too soon, nearly 200 world leaders are converging on Paris for the United Nations conference on climate change.

Confronting this potential planetary catastrophe, Bruno Latour’s interviews with him recorded in Edinburgh where he elaborates on his project).

What might a queer feminist engagement with Latour’s proposals look like? If we return to the basic task of analyzing how and when gendered operations take place while also remembering Durkheim’s insight regarding the division of the world into sacred and profane, it becomes apparent that the modern constitution that divides the world into sacred and profane, religious and secular, could use some queering. This is one of the tasks I have begun to take up in my work, and I offer it as a provocation to others who may share my interests and commitments. If Neitz’s position as advisor to the Black Earth Institute is any indication, our different modes of working with queer theories and religious studies share an orientation toward what feminist science studies scholar, Maria Puig de la Bellacassa, has termed “matters of care.” As we confront the urgent problems of the here and now, these shared commitments matter most.

Suggested Reading

Arnal, William E. and Russell T. McCutcheon. The Sacred is the Profane: The Political Nature of ‘Religion.’ New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 2006.

Haraway, Donna. “Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Chthulucene: Making Kin.” Environmental Humanities. 6(2015): 159-165.

Mahmood, Saba. Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005.

Muñoz, José Esteban. Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics. Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1999.

Puig de la Bellacasa, Maria. “Matters of care in technoscience: Assembling neglected things.” Social Studies of Science. 41.1 (2011): 85-106.

Schaefer, Donovan. Religious Affects: Animality, Evolution, and Power. Durham: Duke University Press, 2015.

Vásquez, Manuel A. More Than Belief: A Materialist Theory of Religion. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

“I Made It All Up and It Came True Anyway”

From Hell, Alan Moore & Eddie Campbell, 1994. Click to embiggen.

The story goes that somewhere on the West Coast of Africa, sometime in the 17th Century, some Portuguese colonials came upon natives worshiping idols made of wood and clay. “Have you made these yourself?” the Portuguese mockingly asked. The Africans answered in the affirmative. “Are they true Divinities?” Again, affirmative. “They cannot be both!” the Portuguese exclaimed, but the Africans simply didn’t see the distinction. The Portuguese laughed at their ignorant beliefs, and went back to their ships, their crucifixes and their saints (Latour 2010, 2-3).

I met Bruno Latour in the lobby of a swanky hotel in Edinburgh’s West End, where the receptionist was quick to ask if he could help mainly because I was clearly an outsider. Nor is continental philosophy or the anthropology of science an area of expertise for me. But I’d been exploring. In a week I’d read three of his books, including the proof of his then-forthcoming Rejoicing: On Religious Speech, which seemed a departure from his works on the philosophy of science, and Latour had provided me with the full text of his lecture series. I later discovered that mine was the only interview he’d undertaken while in the city.

I was extremely curious how an anthropologist of science comes to be giving the Gifford Lectures. Established in 1888 to ‘promote and diffuse the study of Natural Theology in the widest sense of the term”, previous presenters have included such luminaries as William James, Wilfred Cantwell Smith and E. B. Tylor. A year on, I still don’t understand Latour’s argument about Gaia. But a few things from my readings have resonated with things I’d been thinking about in the meantime.

The Dark Continent

RS has been slow to pick up on the work of European sociologists; although Foucault and Bourdieu are becoming familiar names, Hervieu-Leger, Beyart and Latour himself are little known in Anglophone academia, with their books appearing in English sometimes twenty years after their native publication. (That I cannot read them in their original language is partly my own failing and partly the fault of a post-imperial education system which saw European languages as less important than English—see how easily I wield post-structuralist critique?) And this affected Latour too; while Rejoicing seems like an unexpected direction after We Have Never Been Modern and Factish Gods, in the original French, Rejoicing came first, lending the later works a somewhat different reading. In fact, Latour, who identifies as a Catholic, began his academic career in Biblical Studies, which lends the destabilisation of the apparent certainties of modernity in his later writings a different perspective.

Rejoicing is an unusual book for Latour, personal, confessional, almost sermon-like. Ostensibly, it concerns not “religion”, nor “religions” but the adverb “religiously”; what does it mean to talk religiously? Is it still even possible?

Latour interview, Part 1:

Latour’s answer is yes, but not in the way one might expect. Rejoicing is at the same time a fierce attack on religions;

We have to go through this fundamental disappointment: religion leads nowhere. It is the absolute opposite of social or sociologizing explanations that think they’ve explained the need for religion as a bid to fill a world that’s too empty or, conversely, according to the chosen metaphor, as a means of carving out a bit of transcendence in a world that’s too full (2013, 33).

Latour argues that religion is not, never was, about the far-away things; rather, that is properly the domain of science. Religion should be about the near things, the everyday. I don’t know if I agree, but this simple shift of emphasis seemed to me a radical departure from how debates about the role of religion in modernity are typically framed. Rather, Latour suggests, religion is a way of speaking; a kind of language, if you will, about the everyday certainties of existence;

For instance, the word ‘God’, which once served as the premise of all arguing, could have been translated, when ways of life changed, as ‘indisputable framework of ordinary existence’ so that we could continue to really see that what was thereby designated was merely the preliminary and prelude to a conversion of meaning (2013, 8).

However, our invented scholarly creation—the category “religion”—comes back to bite us, and becomes real as agents begin to take sides in the argument;

But instead of this direct, painless, progressive translation, they started clinging for dear life to the term ‘God’ and pitting it against ‘non-God’, without seeing that they were dealing with two forms about as different as God, Deus and Theos for translating the same everyday reality. Thinking they were protecting their heritage, they squandered it (2013, 8).

Factish Gods

In Factish Gods, Latour argues that most critical writings on culture take one of two positions; “the fact position and the fairy position” (2010, 237). The fact position argues that categories of belief are merely empty terms onto which power is projected; alternatively, the “fairy position” has it that there are in fact forces which dominate and motivate individuals, albeit without their conscious acquiescence. To take just one of these categories, RS is largely split between those who see religion as a sui generis category, a thing in itself which exerts power over individuals, and those who see it as a socially constructed but powerful category (and I include myself in the latter camp).

…while there is a staggering amount of data, phenomena, of human experiences and expressions that might be characterized in one culture or another, by one criterion or another, as religion—there is no data for religion. Religion is solely the creation of the scholar’s study. It is created for the scholar’s analytic purposes by his imaginative acts of comparison and generalization. Religion has no existence apart from the academy (Smith 1982, xi)

Latour, however, is attempting to construct a third way. I asked him about this quote from J. Z. Smith; he replied that he was correct, religion is a constructed category, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t also real. So Latour takes the constructionist agenda of the post-structuralists a step further. Our categories are indeed invented, but not “merely” so, for they are also real. They become real through our wielding of them.

I have to be able to talk about religious elaboration without threatening voices, coming from inside as much as outside, immediately asking me to choose: ‘Is it real or is it made up?’ I have to be able to answer once more: ‘Both’ (2013, 144).

Just like the founders of Discordianism found. A few years after inventing their parody religion, Greg Hill stated that “if you do this type of thing well enough, it starts to work… If you take a goddess of confusion seriously, it will send you through as profound and valid a metaphysical trip as taking a god like Yahweh seriously” (Adler 1986, 335). As Kerry Thornley, ever playful, put it, “if I had realised that all of this was going to come true, I would have chosen Venus” (Adler 1986, 336).

So Latour argues that we have the categories wrong. Rather than seeking to “extend Science over religion’s territory through an offensive apologetics, or to protect religion’s territory from Science through a defensive apologetics” (2013, 24), Latour challenges the basis of these demarcations. There is no boundary between “manufactured” and “real”, between “knowledge” and “belief”. Latour’s work argues that we all, ostensibly religious or not, have an epistemology based on invented certainties. We have never been Modern. None of us hold beliefs that are any more naive than anyone else’s. There are other ways to think about religion, beyond the simple dichotomies which populate the field and that many of us are so tired of.

Latour interview, Part 2:

The future of the discipline, in short, whether RS can demonstrate its utility to the broader academy, may depend on us getting over such false dichotomies—religious/secular, faith/knowledge, object/subject, fact/fetish, invented/real. We need to stop talking about how some people believe, and instead analyse our multiple, competing, situational, invented epistemologies.

Actually, I’m not sure this is what Latour means at all. I just made it up.

It’s turned quite cold, hasn’t it? Shall we be heading back?

References

Adler, M. (1986). Drawing down the moon: Witches, Druids, goddess-worshippers, and other pagans in America today. Boston: Beacon Press.

Latour, B. (1993). We have never been modern. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Latour, B. (2010). On the modern cult of the factish gods. Durham: Duke University Press.

Latour, B. (2013). Rejoicing: Or the torments of religious speech. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Moore, A., & Campbell, E. (1994). From hell. Northampton: Mad Love Pub. in association with Kitchen Sink Press.

Smith, J. Z. (1982). Imagining religion: From Babylon to Jonestown. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Bruno Latour, Gaian Animisms and the Question of the Anthropocene

The question about climate change has emerged as one of the defining debates of contemporary social and political discourse. With the explosive exponential growth of the human population since the industrial revolution, our species’ impact on the biosphere has become so intensive that it threatens to destablise an ecological balance that has sustained life on the planet for millions of years. It is for this reason that scientists have begun to call the modern era (not without controversy) the “Anthropocene”, the epoch of human domination. Amidst the voices calling for action – which cut across the full spectrum of society – one of the most recent is philosopher Bruno Latour, whose 2013 Gifford Lectures addressed precisely this theme.

In this interview, Jack Tsonis talks to leading scholar of nature and religion Bron Taylor about his response to Latour’s lectures, which formed part of a high-profile panel discussion at the 2013 AAR meeting. After discussing the concept of the anthropocene and praising much of Latour’s project, Taylor voices some of his reservations about Latour’s approach, as well as some of his own perspectives on the notion of “Gaia” and other ways to conceptualize our impact upon the planet.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment torate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.ca, or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when you have a purchase to make.

Bron Taylor is Professor of Religion, Nature, and Environmental Ethics at the University of Florida. He is also a Carson Fellow of the Rachel Carson Center (at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität, Munchen), and an Affiliated Scholar with the Center for Environment and Development at Oslo University. He is one of the world’s leading scholars of religion and nature, and is the author of several important publications on the topic:  Religion after Darwin.

Bruno Latour, Talking “Religiously”, part 2

This is the second part of our interview with Professor Bruno Latour, and if you haven’t already, you can listen to the first part here.

This time, Latour and David Robertson discuss Latour’s recent works We Have Never Been Modern and On the Modern Cult of the Factish Gods. Discussion moves from his critique of the distinction between the manufactured and “real”, and how this affects our models of belief.

Conversation finally turns to his Gifford Lecture Series, presented this February in Edinburgh, with the title Facing Gaia: An Enquiry Into Natural Religion. While we are used to problematising the category religion, Latour argues that we should equally question the category of natural. Videos and abstracts of Bruno Latour’s complete Gifford Lecture series can be viewed on the University of Edinburgh’s page.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And if you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us, or use our Amazon.co.uk link to support us when buying your important books etc.

Bruno Latour is Professor at Sciences Po Paris and has also been Professor at the Centre de Sociologie de l’Innovation at the Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Mines in Paris and visiting Professor at University of California (San Diego), at the London School of Economics and Harvard University. After field studies in Africa and California he specialized in the analysis of scientists and engineers at work. In addition to work in philosophy, history, sociology and anthropology of science, he has collaborated on many studies in science policy and research management, producing significant works such as Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts and most recently Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory (Clarendon Lectures in Management Studies). He has also made a valuable contribution to the political philosophy of the environment with the book Politics of Nature: How to Bring the Sciences into Democracy, a theme which the Gifford Lectures continue.

Bruno Latour, Talking “Religiously”, part 1

Professor Bruno Latour is one of the most respected scholars in the social sciences today. This February, he came to Edinburgh University to deliver the annual Gifford Lecture Series, established in 1888 to ‘promote and diffuse the study of Natural Theology in the widest sense of the term” – an opportunity we felt we could not miss. Previous presenters have included such luminaries as William James, Wilfred Cantwell Smith and E. B. Tylor. So how does an anthropologist of science come to be giving the Gifford Lectures?

In this first part, Latour and David Robertson discuss the broader relevance of his work for Religious Studies. They discuss actor-network theory, of which Latour was instrumental in developing. This includes some discussion of phenomenology and religious “essence”. Discussion then moves to Latour’s forthcoming work, Rejoicing: or the Torments of Religious Speech (Polity 2013), a more personal work which concerns not “religion” or “religions” but the adverb “religiously”. What does it mean to talk religiously, and is it still even possible? It is at the same time a fierce attack on religions, but a passionate defence of religious speech.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And if you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us, or use our Amazon.co.uk link to support us when buying your important books etc.

Videos and abstracts of Bruno Latour’s complete Gifford Lecture series can be viewed on the University of Edinburgh’s page.

Bruno Latour is Professor at Sciences Po Paris and has also been Professor at the Centre de Sociologie de l’Innovation at the Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Mines in Paris and visiting Professor at University of California (San Diego), at the London School of Economics and Harvard University. After field studies in Africa and California he specialized in the analysis of scientists and engineers at work. In addition to work in philosophy, history, sociology and anthropology of science, he has collaborated on many studies in science policy and research management, producing significant works such as Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts and most recently Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory (Clarendon Lectures in Management Studies). He has also made a valuable contribution to the political philosophy of the environment with the book Politics of Nature: How to Bring the Sciences into Democracy, a theme which the Gifford Lectures continue.

Podcasts

Climates of Queer Concerns

It’s that hectic time of year for academics when papers and exams pile up and the end-of-year holidays loom large. In the midst of it all, I’ve been dividing my attention between the knowledge projects that interest me most: queer feminist theory, religious studies, and feminist science studies – particularly those engaged with the climate change and the politics of our new global epoch which some have christened the Anthropocene. Responding to Mary Jo Nietz’s “Gender, Queer Theory, Religion” interview provides an excellent opportunity to bring these projects into more explicit conversation with each other.

Beginning with important basics – What is gender? How is it different than sex? – Martin Lepage expertly leads Neitz into a substantive conversation about the impact of post-structuralist thinking, particularly Judith Butler’s work, which many consider foundational for queer theory. Given the brief structure of the interview, Neitz provides excellent summaries of what she describes as Butler’s complicated liberatory project, which eschews the powerful and persuasive essentialism one so often sees in pop culture.

Having provided an introductory outline of feminist queer theory, the interview then attends to the ways it might be used in studies of religion. Neitz proposes several options. She briefly mentions (but does not provide details) that one can use queer theory to critique religion. She then moves to the question that most interests her: how might we use queer theory to find spaces of opening or possibility for playing with categories? She elaborates by asking how beliefs might open spaces for marked groups (e.g. gay men in the Roman Catholic Church).

More specifically, she is looking for places where there are “openings to the sacred” that allow people to play with heteronormative categories. She describes some of these contradictory sites and explains that, as an ethnographer, she looks for transgressions of gender norms in the social formations she studies. She then applies a Butlerian lens to these transgressions in a way that differently focuses attention on previously unmarked groups. Lastly, Neitz notes that more and more sociologists are attending to affect theory, which is rooted in queer theory. She briefly outlines her framework for understanding religious cultures in terms of (conjuring yet tweaking Weber here) ideal affects and arousal levels that she associates with different religions.

Lepage concludes the interview by asking Neitz how she sees the future study of religion unfolding in relation to Butler’s work and queer theory. Neitz remarks that while she can’t predict the future, the most influential use of Butler in the study of religion can be found in Saba Mahmood’s work, which challenges the foundations of neoliberal discourse by posing the question of just what a feminist liberatory project is.

Overall, this interview provides a useful introduction for scholars interested in becoming conversant with queer theory and its potential applications in religious studies. I concur that queer theory can be used to critique religion and/or to open up spaces of possibility for playing with categories, particularly when one attends to transgressions. Like Neitz, I also have much appreciation for current work on affect and religion. Along these lines, I recommend Donovan Schaefer’s recently published book, Religious Affects: Animality, Evolution, and Power.

While I generally agree with Neitz’s overview of queer theory, there are a couple of places where her religious studies language raises warning flags for me. The first concerns her statement that she is interested in how beliefs might open spaces for marked groups. Here it is the recourse to belief as the primary object of study that gives me pause. A belief-centric approach does not radically alter the Protestant-based frameworks for understanding many social formations constituted as religions. Here, Manuel Vasquez’s work on a materialist theory of religion might provide tools that better align with the material bodies at the center of queer theory.

The second instance where Neitz’s language tripped me up occurred when she explained that she is interested in places where there might be “openings to the sacred.” Here her language fails to register the many critiques that have been waged against uniform understandings of “the sacred.” The most recent iteration can be found in Russell McCutcheon and William Arnal’s book, The Sacred is the Profane: The Political Nature of Religion. The radical understanding of discourse underpinning so much of queer theory ought to also be applied to religious studies categories so that the “sacred” is understood as yet another discursively produced category on a planet where, as Durkheim argued over a century ago, the most basic classification operation employed by religions is that which divides the world into sacred and profane.

Speaking of our planet, let’s conclude this journey through knowledge projects by returning to those regarding our current epoch. As the Earth’s northern hemisphere moves farther from the sun, the World Meteorological Organization has released a report indicating that the global average surface temperature this year is on track to be the hottest year on record and will likely reach the symbolically significant milestone of 1° Celsius above the pre-industrial era. Not a moment too soon, nearly 200 world leaders are converging on Paris for the United Nations conference on climate change.

Confronting this potential planetary catastrophe, Bruno Latour’s interviews with him recorded in Edinburgh where he elaborates on his project).

What might a queer feminist engagement with Latour’s proposals look like? If we return to the basic task of analyzing how and when gendered operations take place while also remembering Durkheim’s insight regarding the division of the world into sacred and profane, it becomes apparent that the modern constitution that divides the world into sacred and profane, religious and secular, could use some queering. This is one of the tasks I have begun to take up in my work, and I offer it as a provocation to others who may share my interests and commitments. If Neitz’s position as advisor to the Black Earth Institute is any indication, our different modes of working with queer theories and religious studies share an orientation toward what feminist science studies scholar, Maria Puig de la Bellacassa, has termed “matters of care.” As we confront the urgent problems of the here and now, these shared commitments matter most.

Suggested Reading

Arnal, William E. and Russell T. McCutcheon. The Sacred is the Profane: The Political Nature of ‘Religion.’ New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 2006.

Haraway, Donna. “Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Chthulucene: Making Kin.” Environmental Humanities. 6(2015): 159-165.

Mahmood, Saba. Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005.

Muñoz, José Esteban. Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics. Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1999.

Puig de la Bellacasa, Maria. “Matters of care in technoscience: Assembling neglected things.” Social Studies of Science. 41.1 (2011): 85-106.

Schaefer, Donovan. Religious Affects: Animality, Evolution, and Power. Durham: Duke University Press, 2015.

Vásquez, Manuel A. More Than Belief: A Materialist Theory of Religion. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

“I Made It All Up and It Came True Anyway”

From Hell, Alan Moore & Eddie Campbell, 1994. Click to embiggen.

The story goes that somewhere on the West Coast of Africa, sometime in the 17th Century, some Portuguese colonials came upon natives worshiping idols made of wood and clay. “Have you made these yourself?” the Portuguese mockingly asked. The Africans answered in the affirmative. “Are they true Divinities?” Again, affirmative. “They cannot be both!” the Portuguese exclaimed, but the Africans simply didn’t see the distinction. The Portuguese laughed at their ignorant beliefs, and went back to their ships, their crucifixes and their saints (Latour 2010, 2-3).

I met Bruno Latour in the lobby of a swanky hotel in Edinburgh’s West End, where the receptionist was quick to ask if he could help mainly because I was clearly an outsider. Nor is continental philosophy or the anthropology of science an area of expertise for me. But I’d been exploring. In a week I’d read three of his books, including the proof of his then-forthcoming Rejoicing: On Religious Speech, which seemed a departure from his works on the philosophy of science, and Latour had provided me with the full text of his lecture series. I later discovered that mine was the only interview he’d undertaken while in the city.

I was extremely curious how an anthropologist of science comes to be giving the Gifford Lectures. Established in 1888 to ‘promote and diffuse the study of Natural Theology in the widest sense of the term”, previous presenters have included such luminaries as William James, Wilfred Cantwell Smith and E. B. Tylor. A year on, I still don’t understand Latour’s argument about Gaia. But a few things from my readings have resonated with things I’d been thinking about in the meantime.

The Dark Continent

RS has been slow to pick up on the work of European sociologists; although Foucault and Bourdieu are becoming familiar names, Hervieu-Leger, Beyart and Latour himself are little known in Anglophone academia, with their books appearing in English sometimes twenty years after their native publication. (That I cannot read them in their original language is partly my own failing and partly the fault of a post-imperial education system which saw European languages as less important than English—see how easily I wield post-structuralist critique?) And this affected Latour too; while Rejoicing seems like an unexpected direction after We Have Never Been Modern and Factish Gods, in the original French, Rejoicing came first, lending the later works a somewhat different reading. In fact, Latour, who identifies as a Catholic, began his academic career in Biblical Studies, which lends the destabilisation of the apparent certainties of modernity in his later writings a different perspective.

Rejoicing is an unusual book for Latour, personal, confessional, almost sermon-like. Ostensibly, it concerns not “religion”, nor “religions” but the adverb “religiously”; what does it mean to talk religiously? Is it still even possible?

Latour interview, Part 1:

Latour’s answer is yes, but not in the way one might expect. Rejoicing is at the same time a fierce attack on religions;

We have to go through this fundamental disappointment: religion leads nowhere. It is the absolute opposite of social or sociologizing explanations that think they’ve explained the need for religion as a bid to fill a world that’s too empty or, conversely, according to the chosen metaphor, as a means of carving out a bit of transcendence in a world that’s too full (2013, 33).

Latour argues that religion is not, never was, about the far-away things; rather, that is properly the domain of science. Religion should be about the near things, the everyday. I don’t know if I agree, but this simple shift of emphasis seemed to me a radical departure from how debates about the role of religion in modernity are typically framed. Rather, Latour suggests, religion is a way of speaking; a kind of language, if you will, about the everyday certainties of existence;

For instance, the word ‘God’, which once served as the premise of all arguing, could have been translated, when ways of life changed, as ‘indisputable framework of ordinary existence’ so that we could continue to really see that what was thereby designated was merely the preliminary and prelude to a conversion of meaning (2013, 8).

However, our invented scholarly creation—the category “religion”—comes back to bite us, and becomes real as agents begin to take sides in the argument;

But instead of this direct, painless, progressive translation, they started clinging for dear life to the term ‘God’ and pitting it against ‘non-God’, without seeing that they were dealing with two forms about as different as God, Deus and Theos for translating the same everyday reality. Thinking they were protecting their heritage, they squandered it (2013, 8).

Factish Gods

In Factish Gods, Latour argues that most critical writings on culture take one of two positions; “the fact position and the fairy position” (2010, 237). The fact position argues that categories of belief are merely empty terms onto which power is projected; alternatively, the “fairy position” has it that there are in fact forces which dominate and motivate individuals, albeit without their conscious acquiescence. To take just one of these categories, RS is largely split between those who see religion as a sui generis category, a thing in itself which exerts power over individuals, and those who see it as a socially constructed but powerful category (and I include myself in the latter camp).

…while there is a staggering amount of data, phenomena, of human experiences and expressions that might be characterized in one culture or another, by one criterion or another, as religion—there is no data for religion. Religion is solely the creation of the scholar’s study. It is created for the scholar’s analytic purposes by his imaginative acts of comparison and generalization. Religion has no existence apart from the academy (Smith 1982, xi)

Latour, however, is attempting to construct a third way. I asked him about this quote from J. Z. Smith; he replied that he was correct, religion is a constructed category, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t also real. So Latour takes the constructionist agenda of the post-structuralists a step further. Our categories are indeed invented, but not “merely” so, for they are also real. They become real through our wielding of them.

I have to be able to talk about religious elaboration without threatening voices, coming from inside as much as outside, immediately asking me to choose: ‘Is it real or is it made up?’ I have to be able to answer once more: ‘Both’ (2013, 144).

Just like the founders of Discordianism found. A few years after inventing their parody religion, Greg Hill stated that “if you do this type of thing well enough, it starts to work… If you take a goddess of confusion seriously, it will send you through as profound and valid a metaphysical trip as taking a god like Yahweh seriously” (Adler 1986, 335). As Kerry Thornley, ever playful, put it, “if I had realised that all of this was going to come true, I would have chosen Venus” (Adler 1986, 336).

So Latour argues that we have the categories wrong. Rather than seeking to “extend Science over religion’s territory through an offensive apologetics, or to protect religion’s territory from Science through a defensive apologetics” (2013, 24), Latour challenges the basis of these demarcations. There is no boundary between “manufactured” and “real”, between “knowledge” and “belief”. Latour’s work argues that we all, ostensibly religious or not, have an epistemology based on invented certainties. We have never been Modern. None of us hold beliefs that are any more naive than anyone else’s. There are other ways to think about religion, beyond the simple dichotomies which populate the field and that many of us are so tired of.

Latour interview, Part 2:

The future of the discipline, in short, whether RS can demonstrate its utility to the broader academy, may depend on us getting over such false dichotomies—religious/secular, faith/knowledge, object/subject, fact/fetish, invented/real. We need to stop talking about how some people believe, and instead analyse our multiple, competing, situational, invented epistemologies.

Actually, I’m not sure this is what Latour means at all. I just made it up.

It’s turned quite cold, hasn’t it? Shall we be heading back?

References

Adler, M. (1986). Drawing down the moon: Witches, Druids, goddess-worshippers, and other pagans in America today. Boston: Beacon Press.

Latour, B. (1993). We have never been modern. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Latour, B. (2010). On the modern cult of the factish gods. Durham: Duke University Press.

Latour, B. (2013). Rejoicing: Or the torments of religious speech. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Moore, A., & Campbell, E. (1994). From hell. Northampton: Mad Love Pub. in association with Kitchen Sink Press.

Smith, J. Z. (1982). Imagining religion: From Babylon to Jonestown. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Bruno Latour, Gaian Animisms and the Question of the Anthropocene

The question about climate change has emerged as one of the defining debates of contemporary social and political discourse. With the explosive exponential growth of the human population since the industrial revolution, our species’ impact on the biosphere has become so intensive that it threatens to destablise an ecological balance that has sustained life on the planet for millions of years. It is for this reason that scientists have begun to call the modern era (not without controversy) the “Anthropocene”, the epoch of human domination. Amidst the voices calling for action – which cut across the full spectrum of society – one of the most recent is philosopher Bruno Latour, whose 2013 Gifford Lectures addressed precisely this theme.

In this interview, Jack Tsonis talks to leading scholar of nature and religion Bron Taylor about his response to Latour’s lectures, which formed part of a high-profile panel discussion at the 2013 AAR meeting. After discussing the concept of the anthropocene and praising much of Latour’s project, Taylor voices some of his reservations about Latour’s approach, as well as some of his own perspectives on the notion of “Gaia” and other ways to conceptualize our impact upon the planet.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment torate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.ca, or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when you have a purchase to make.

Bron Taylor is Professor of Religion, Nature, and Environmental Ethics at the University of Florida. He is also a Carson Fellow of the Rachel Carson Center (at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität, Munchen), and an Affiliated Scholar with the Center for Environment and Development at Oslo University. He is one of the world’s leading scholars of religion and nature, and is the author of several important publications on the topic:  Religion after Darwin.

Bruno Latour, Talking “Religiously”, part 2

This is the second part of our interview with Professor Bruno Latour, and if you haven’t already, you can listen to the first part here.

This time, Latour and David Robertson discuss Latour’s recent works We Have Never Been Modern and On the Modern Cult of the Factish Gods. Discussion moves from his critique of the distinction between the manufactured and “real”, and how this affects our models of belief.

Conversation finally turns to his Gifford Lecture Series, presented this February in Edinburgh, with the title Facing Gaia: An Enquiry Into Natural Religion. While we are used to problematising the category religion, Latour argues that we should equally question the category of natural. Videos and abstracts of Bruno Latour’s complete Gifford Lecture series can be viewed on the University of Edinburgh’s page.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And if you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us, or use our Amazon.co.uk link to support us when buying your important books etc.

Bruno Latour is Professor at Sciences Po Paris and has also been Professor at the Centre de Sociologie de l’Innovation at the Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Mines in Paris and visiting Professor at University of California (San Diego), at the London School of Economics and Harvard University. After field studies in Africa and California he specialized in the analysis of scientists and engineers at work. In addition to work in philosophy, history, sociology and anthropology of science, he has collaborated on many studies in science policy and research management, producing significant works such as Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts and most recently Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory (Clarendon Lectures in Management Studies). He has also made a valuable contribution to the political philosophy of the environment with the book Politics of Nature: How to Bring the Sciences into Democracy, a theme which the Gifford Lectures continue.

Bruno Latour, Talking “Religiously”, part 1

Professor Bruno Latour is one of the most respected scholars in the social sciences today. This February, he came to Edinburgh University to deliver the annual Gifford Lecture Series, established in 1888 to ‘promote and diffuse the study of Natural Theology in the widest sense of the term” – an opportunity we felt we could not miss. Previous presenters have included such luminaries as William James, Wilfred Cantwell Smith and E. B. Tylor. So how does an anthropologist of science come to be giving the Gifford Lectures?

In this first part, Latour and David Robertson discuss the broader relevance of his work for Religious Studies. They discuss actor-network theory, of which Latour was instrumental in developing. This includes some discussion of phenomenology and religious “essence”. Discussion then moves to Latour’s forthcoming work, Rejoicing: or the Torments of Religious Speech (Polity 2013), a more personal work which concerns not “religion” or “religions” but the adverb “religiously”. What does it mean to talk religiously, and is it still even possible? It is at the same time a fierce attack on religions, but a passionate defence of religious speech.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And if you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us, or use our Amazon.co.uk link to support us when buying your important books etc.

Videos and abstracts of Bruno Latour’s complete Gifford Lecture series can be viewed on the University of Edinburgh’s page.

Bruno Latour is Professor at Sciences Po Paris and has also been Professor at the Centre de Sociologie de l’Innovation at the Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Mines in Paris and visiting Professor at University of California (San Diego), at the London School of Economics and Harvard University. After field studies in Africa and California he specialized in the analysis of scientists and engineers at work. In addition to work in philosophy, history, sociology and anthropology of science, he has collaborated on many studies in science policy and research management, producing significant works such as Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts and most recently Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory (Clarendon Lectures in Management Studies). He has also made a valuable contribution to the political philosophy of the environment with the book Politics of Nature: How to Bring the Sciences into Democracy, a theme which the Gifford Lectures continue.