«Thou shalt not take the Lord's name in vain» being a sort of sermon on the hesitations of religious speech - PDF

«Thou shalt not take the Lord's name in vain» being a sort of sermon on the hesitations of religious speech Bruno Latour Prepared for Res Final version N 79 March 2001 The difficulty of beginning How should

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«Thou shalt not take the Lord's name in vain» being a sort of sermon on the hesitations of religious speech Bruno Latour Prepared for Res Final version N 79 March 2001 The difficulty of beginning How should I begin? If I address this audience by saying «dear colleagues», since we are inside the walls of a University, you will expect me to give some sort of scientific talk, to provide you (through the use of description, slides, overheads) with access to some state of affairs which is not present right now in this room, but about which we would gain novel information thanks to a bewildering array of transformations offering here and now a grasp of things far away in time and space. 1 This is what I would have done, had I talked about the field work I am doing on a French Supreme Court, or had I chosen to describe to you the work my friend Shirley Strum is doing on baboons in Kenya, or if this other friend of mine, Steve Glickman, had decided to present you his novel data about complex hormonal pathways in hyenas. Neither the supreme court, nor the baboons, nor the hyenas would have been present here in themselves, but they would not have they been absent either, since through their being lifted and displaced into forms (the etymological meaning of in-formation) they would have been made to be A first draft of this paper was given at a special symposium on Objects organized at Brunel University by Dick Pels in September I tried to retain some of the oral tone indispensable for the argument. To make clearer the differences between regimes of enunciation, I included a revised section of a paper originally published in French, Quand les anges deviennent de bien mauvais messagers. Terrain 14 (1990) : 76-91, translated by Lydia Davis and unpublished in English. 1 This is the definition of what I have called referential chain. See B. Latour Pandora's Hope. Essays on the reality of science studies. (Cambridge, Mass, Harvard A sermon for RES 2 transportable, describable, countable. Then, you could have qualified those informations as accurate or inaccurate, likely or unlikely, disputable or indisputable, interesting or uninteresting, true or false. This is what William James called his «deambulatory theory of truth», tracing through the successive modifications of forms a path in space-time with two provisional termini, one here among this distinguished audience, the other absent and far, while the connections between the two are laid with various types of what I called inscriptions, the «form», which have the peculiarity of maintaining some features stable while everything else, «the matter», change. 2 Had I decided to speak in that way, I would have extended a reference chain a bit further by making you familiar with those field sites far removed in space and time about which you would have learned something new. On the other hand, the interpellation dear colleagues could have signaled the beginning of something less scientific : an adress not aimed at producing a reference pathway, but at mobilizing you as a group, or to help, in the very first words of the talk, in providing you with some sort of joint identity, of common will, some shared interest no matter how faint this common ground could be. Had I intended to do so, I would have continued by saying for instance : Dear colleagues in science studies, after having scrutinized scientific practice for so many years, we all need to work together towards a more complete understanding of religious practice. Then, you would have evaluated this statement, not by deciding whether it is accurate or inaccurate but by deciding for yourself if you wanted or not to be part of this we and share the common goal outlined for you by the speaker, or on the contrary, if you wished to extricate yourself out of this common will. Had I begun in that way, I would have started what could be called a political exhortation, having to do not so much with states of affair far away in time and space, not so much with the transportation without deformation of information, but with the formation, the shaping of a boundary between us and they through the performative use of we. This is what organizers, statewomen, activists often do when they begin by the vocative dear comrades!, fellow citizens!, or even the subdued ladies and gentlemen. Groups don t University Press, 1999)., chapter 2 for a more complete definition. 2 W. James Essays in Radical Empiricism. (London, University of Nebraska Press, A sermon for RES 3 exist by themselves and they need to be constantly whipped into existence, reminded of what they have in common, propped to action, stirred into taking their destiny into their hands, and mobilized toward some goal. Without information-carrying talks we would be stuck here and now without any way to move nor to refer, but without group-formation talks we would not know to what entity we belong nor with what sort of will we should be endowed. 3 But now suppose that I start this talk by saying Brothers and sisters!. Since this is clearly an academic setting, something would be odd at once, as if I had changed the regime of enunciation and transformed this assembly who was expecting a scientific or, at any rate, a quasi-referential presentation, into a congregation. Brothers and sisters is the way priests, parsons, preachers and evangelists adress their Sunday gatherings, and the word sermon would immediately have come to your mind. Those of you with bad memories of sermons would have jumped from their chairs in dismay (although it is hard to say whether in our life we have been more bored by religious hectoring than by academic lecturing ). But what exactly is the difference between the political talk I could have engaged in by saying we in science studies and this exhortation brothers and sisters? To be sure, the assemblage of a congregation is also the result of some sort of political talk in the same way as any scientific meeting, no matter how referential it purports to be, requires some sort of boundary-making, bond-enhancing. Behind every adress about matters of fact, there is an associated group of colleagues and witnesses being produced we, in science studies, have shown that. Still, brothers and sisters offers a key to my enunciation which engage you and me (you in decoding what I say, me in continuing what I have begun) on another path than that of political talk. How are we going to define this regime of enunciation? If you did not switch off your brain as soon as the word sermon was uttered, you would have probably felt that, if I had addressed you as brothers and sisters, I would have meant something else than trying to provide you with some piece of novel information [1907] republished in 1996). 3 On the political regime of enunciation and the key notion of autophuos see J. Dewey The Public and Its Problems. (Athens, Ohio University Press, [1927] republished in 1954), B. Manin Principes du gouvernement représentatif. (Paris, Calmann-Lévy, 1995). B. Latour Pandora's Hope chapters 7 & 8. A sermon for RES 4 about something far away in time and space, and also something else than offering you some type of identity, goal, interest, or common destiny. The first way to register this third type of enunciation is so far purely negative, but it is an important sort of negation: can I adress you without giving you any information and without performing any group-bonding? Let me be even stronger: can I adress you so as to take your attention away from the transportation of information and the making of identities? Is there room for that form of talk? Had I been courageous enough to face the ridicule of addressing you by really saying Brothers and sisters, I would have attempted a speech act that would have had the strange characteristic of attracting attention to you, here and now, as being what I call persons. I would have done something different from information-transfer or group-making, something that could be defined, very provisionnaly, as persongiving or presence-enhancing. It is to this form of highly specific speech act that generates or performs persons in presence and thereby a new assemblage of persons in presence, that I want to dedicate this sermon, I mean this lecture, and since I am not masochist enough to dare address and academic setting such as this one by a resounding Brothers and Sisters, I now start by a far less risky : Ladies and gentlemen, dear colleagues. Redeeming the «power» of religion «Religion will not regain its old power until it can face change in the same spirit as does science». 4 I want to begin with this quote by one of the unofficial Fathers of the Church, Alfred North Whitehead. Regain its old power should not mislead you about Whitehead s intention nor about mine. The question before us today is not to go back to the past when the same more or less unified form of life, under the name of Christian religion, was assembling into a single civilisation, law, ethics, cosmology, piety, charity, science, letters, architecture and politics simultaneously. This sometimes beautiful, most of the time stifling, total institution, whose revamping has been dreamed many times by the various revivals of religion, especially in Catholicism and nowadays in Islam, is in no way essential to religion, but was, in the Christian tradition at least, a contingent factor 4 A. N. Whitehead Science and the Modern World. (New York, Free Press, 1925 A sermon for RES 5 due in large part to the demise of the Roman Empire. Religion has no vocation to be the whole of human experience and we have learned the hard way and are still learning the danger that religious hegemony represents for all the other forms of life. To distinguish the different regimes of enunciation instead of lumping them into one, is precisely what I want to do. But to say that religion need never again replace all other functions as it once did for contingent reasons, does not mean that, in the non-modern world that I am interested in mapping out, religion should be understood as if it were a mere remnant of an unenlightened past, as the modernists should like to think Science, with a capital S, illuminating out the dark recesses of religious imagination. «Disenchantment has also produced a radical disenchantment with the idea of disenchantment itself; or, in other words, demythification has finally turned against itself, recognising that even the idea of the elimination of a myth is a myth», writes Vattimo in a recent book on faith. 5 It does not mean either that religion should remain in a state of utter weakness as a puny furniture of an individual soul. Certainly, the failure to regain its old power, does not imply that religion should be so debased as to become an odd form of psychology. Here is Whitehead again as cruel as he is accurate : «Each revival touches a lower peak than its predecessor, and each period of slackness a lower depth. ( ) Religion is tending to degenerate into a decent formula wherewith to embellish a comfortable life» (p.223). To sum up, it is not because we want to make sure that religion does not overstretch itself that we wish to underestimate its quality. One of the way to avoid those two pitfalls is not to judge its ability to speak the truth according to the conditions of felicity of another form of speech act, and to recognize for each regime of enunciation its own dignity, its own type of vehicle, itw own key. So we need to be careful with this appeal for religion to regain its old power. The worst reactionary trends could be mixed with the novel (very old, always to be renewed) task of clarifying again what it means. I am not longing for the old power of what was in effect not religion but a mixture of everything from law and order to spirituality through rituals, arts and social work. But I don t wish republished in [1967]) p G. Vattimo Belief. (Stanford, Stanford University Press, 1999) p.29 A sermon for RES 6 either that in the settlement that should respect the various forms of talks, religion be reduced to an impotent form of psychological consolation because of another contingent history, due this time to the emergence of the nation-states. 6 I recognize that it is difficult because century of bloody religious wars have made indispensable to cherish secularization as a way to avoid their return. In view of what happened in many nations today, no one in his right mind can wish to grant religion its former power. And yet, it might be desirable to reinterrogate secularization and to free religion from the status in which it has been forced to shrink in order to buy peace: a purely internal individual state of no ontological, cultural, metaphysical or public relevance. As long as modernism seemed to be the obvious destiny of the planet, it was perfectly possible to stick to the older settlement and to consider secularization as the only way forward, a scientific world view replacing, every day more clearly, the religious attachements of the past. The public space of politics was allowed to accept, to be sure, many religious ideals, but on the condition that they relinquish any claims to represent another reality than that of private beliefs and inner states of worship. What filled public space was either the smallest common denominator of political interest and consensus, or a sort of watered down, averaged out definition of matters of fact as they are said to be offered by Science. The problem is that religion, politics and science suffer equally in this process of secularization since each has been torn and twisted beyond recognition. No matter how risky the task, we have to reopen this traditional western settlement that engaged not only religion, but also politics and above all science, into one inevitable destiny called modernization. Secularization and modernization cannot pass for a definitive solution to the problem of what I call the «progressive composition of the common world». They settle in effect on a very strange type of pluralism: there is one world, that of nature, that of what older philosophy called the primary qualities, the stuff out of which ultimate reality is made, and then there are many worlds, those of cultures, those of view points, those of beliefs and psychological states, those of religious dogmas. But those many worlds have only subjective relevance. They 6 O. Christin La paix de religion. L'autonomisation de la raison politique au 16 siècle. (Paris, Le Seuil, 1997). A sermon for RES 7 only reach the realm of secondary qualities without ever having any say on what the world is really like. Their imagined worlds might appear meaningful since they correspond to psychological, emotive and personnal attachements, but they are in fact meaningless since they have no ontological content. On the other hand, the one world, the world of primary qualities appears meaningless since it represents no value, meaning, interest, emotion, subjectivity whatsoever, but is the only meaningful and essential thing there is since it is the real stuff out of which we and the universe are made. This is what Whitehead has called «the bifurcation of nature». 7 So whenever we reopen the question of secularization, we have to realize what price has been payed for the sort of pluralism it allowed. In effect, it is a pseudo pluralism for which no common ground will ever be offered : either there is one natural world but it offers no common value, or there are endless numbers of view points but they have no real ground! The only traditional way out of this divided constitution is to obtain closure through a very limitative definition of politics that either bring scientific expertise back in (eliminating secondary qualities through the brutal import of primary qualities and forming thus the one world of nature known by Science), or to reach a compromise between equally ungrounded opinions (the struggle of interests). I contend that science, politics and religion are all unfairly treated in this definition of pluralism which has not explored either plurality nor closure seriously. 8 You might wonder why should social scientists not be content to let religion be a decent formula to embellish a comfortable life? Because it would have lost its specific power (we still have to define what it is), a loss rendering us unable to reconnect with what religion was in the past, cut off from the springs that generated so many vivid forms of civilisation. More importantly, we would be disconnected from the many other cultures, persons and nations for which religion in one of its many guises is not only their present but also their future. How can an anthropologist, a sociologist, a scholar, enter respectfully in relation with the Others when he or she possesses a thoroughly secularised version of what religion is (or more exactly was, since in the eyes of a secular modernist a 7 A. N. Whitehead Concept of Nature. (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1920). 8 On the politics of primary and secondary qualities, see B. Latour Politiques de la nature. Comment faire entrer les sciences en démocratie. (Paris, La Découverte, 1999). A sermon for RES 8 religious attitude is always something soon to disappear or something to be explained by appealing to something else which is its real and hidden cause more of this below)? A large part of what we call fundamentalism in many official religions today might largely due to a reaction (positive or negative) to the modernist gaze that takes it for granted that the question of religion is finished, that it can no longer exhibit novelty and change in the same spirit as science, and that it belongs to the realm of irrational behaviour and should be understood in terms of identity, psychology, politics, tradition or past influence, that is, everything but religion itself. In my work on diplomacy, I am interested in equipping the diplomats the new name given by Isabelle Stengers for one of the functions of scholar 9 with a more charitable and respectful definition of religion than the one provided to them by secular and modernist interpretations so that negotiations to compose a common world might start with a better chance of success than the usual approach: «Let s leave religion aside, let s leave your convictions at the door of the common world». No diplomacy would be possible if such preliminary abandonment remained the prerequisite diktat for peace talks to begin. Religion cannot be limited to an inner conviction, despite our European history that made this essential limit the condition upon which Western states built their civil (scientific) peace. History should be allowed to move on for religion as well as for politics and science. What is the alternative to the secular gaze with its absolute certainty that religion is dead? One way is indicated by Whitehead s sentence and that is to grant again to religion its spirit of change : «Theology itself exhibits exactly the same character of gradual development [as science], arising from an aspect of conflict between its own proper ideas» (p.217). Which conflict? The one, very well known by theologians, catechists, saints, propagandists, between forms of expression which are the unproblematic common sense of a period, and the grain of truth which tries to germinate withing this ordinary turf. This distinction however is a very tricky one. «This evolution of religion, Whitehead continues, is in the main a disengagement of its own proper ideas from the adventitious notions 9 I. Stengers Cosmopolitiques - Tome 7: pour en finir avec la tolérance. (Paris, La Découverte-Les Empêcheurs de penser en rond, 1997). A sermon for RES 9 which have crept into it by reason of the expression of its own ideas in terms of the imaginative picture of the world entertained in previous ages» (p.224). We have to be careful here with the words disengagement and adventitious which Whitehead use
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