Thursday, June 21, 2012

Of Factish Gods and Modes of Existence

Including a brief excursion into the Black Church and concluding with a sighting of the nature/culture riff(t), the cosmic background radiation of our intellectual tradition
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Bruno Latour (2010) On the Modern Cult of the Factish Gods. Duke University Press.
A short book in three chapters. From the back cover: “In this concise work, Latour delves into the ‘belief in naïve belief,’ the suggestion that fetishes, objects invested with mythical powers, are fabricated, and that ‘facts’ are not. . . While the fetish-worshipper knows perfectly well that fetishes are man-made, the Modern icon-breaker inevitably erects new icons.”

In the first chapter Latour discusses an animist ceremony and so forth and so on, but I want to skip over all that and look at some passages in the third chapter, for that leads us to the modes of existence Latour promises in his next book. They’re what I’m interested in. What does Latour have in mind here?

Felicity and Truth

p. 100:
Truth production in science, religion, law, politics, technology, economics, etc. is what I have been studying, over the years . . . Systematic comparisons of what I call “regimes of enunciation” or “modes of existence” are what I am after, and if there is any technical argument in what follows, it is from this rather idiosyncratic comparative anthropology that they will come from. In a sort of weak analogy with speech-act theory, I’ve devoted myself to mapping out the “conditions of felicity” of the various activities that in our cultures are able to elicit truth. . .my problem concerns how to become attuned to the right conditions of felicity of those different types of “truth-generators.”
I take it that truth here does not (necessarily) mean a Tarskian correspondence between some proposition(s) and some state in the world, though it may mean that for this or that mode of existence. The point is that there is no ONE mode of existence with one TRUE DISCOURSE devoted to it (along with many untrue ones). There are many modes of existence, each with its own discourse (or perhaps no discourse at all?). Each mode has its own felicity conditions, its own indices of validity. This is a PLURALIST view of the world.

It would, presumably, be a mistake to attempt to interrogate or inhabit one mode using the rhetorical forms crafted for a different one. Would this be a category mistake, or an error even deeper? Are these modes ontologically different, without any, however, having privilege over others? Or is talk of ontology beside the point?

Latour talks of religion in this chapter and tells us that he is writing as though delivering a sermon. I’m glad he told us for otherwise I wouldn’t have guessed. His point, though, is that in thus writing he is DOING something rather than POINTING AT something.

Religious Sentences

Of religious talk Latour says (p. 102):
. . . such sentences are judged, not by their content—their number of bytes—but by their performative abilities. These are mainly evaluated only by this question: do they produce the thing they talk about, namely lovers? I am not so much interested here in love as eros, which often requires little talk, but in love as agapè to use the traditional distinction. In love’s injunction, attention is redirected not to the content of the message, but to the container itself, the person-making. One does not attempt to decrypt the sentence as if it transported a message, but as if it transformed the messengers themselves.
And so the felicity conditions of such language are not those of science, nor history, nor journalism, each of which aims to transport a message that corresponds to the world, a world somewhere over or out there, or perhaps just around the corner.
[For extra credit, compare this to Jakobson’s discussion of the six functions of language. Does it align with any of the six? Why or why not?]
p. 103:
...what happens to you, would you say, when you are addressed by love-talk? Very simply put: you were far away, and now you are closer...This radical change concerns not only space but also time: you just had the feeling of inflexible and fateful destiny...and suddenly, a word, an attitude, a query, a posture, a je ne sais quoi, and time flows again, as if it were starting from the present, with the capacity to open the future and reinterpret the past...
So religious talk aims at transforming the listener and, I presume, the speaker as well. It is not about informing, but about changing. And it warps both time and space—a Wordsworthian spot in time, perhaps?

Next, some words of clarification, explaining why he uses this love talk (remember, he’s performing his argument) that seems so strange in talk of religion (though it is well to remind ourselves that the medieval poets of courtly love drew upon religious rhetoric for their secular ends), pp. 104-105:
I use the template of lovers’ speech in order that we may rehabituate ourselves to a form of religious talk that has been lost, unable to represent itself again—to repeat itself—because of the shift from religion to belief.
Thus reminded, we may continue on.

Double-Click, Modal Degree Zero

Now Latour introduces the notion of double-click communication (p. 106):
...it wants us to believe that it is feasible to transport, without any deformation whatsoever, some accurate information about states of affairs that are not present to us. In most ordinary cases, what people have in mind when they ask “is this true,” or “does this correspond to a state of affairs,” is just such a double-click gesture, allowing immediate access to information: tough luck, because this is also what undermines ways of talking that are dearest to out heart.
This would seem to be something of a mode of communication degree zero, “the benchmark by comparison with which all the other modes are shown to lie” (see below). The name itself derives, I believe, from mouse-clicking and perhaps connotes the off-hand and apparently direct nature of the action. You click and SHAZAM! it happens.

The Word Incarnate

p. 110:
Religion does not even try, if you have followed me until now, to reach anything beyond, but to represent the presence of that which is called, in a certain technical and ritual idiom, the “Word incarnate,” which is to say again that is here—alive—and not dead over there, far away. It does not try to designate something, but to speak from a new state that it generates by its ways of talking, its manner of speech.
And so religion is about presence, making it quite different from double-click and, as we’ll see in a minute, from science, which is, if anything, even further away.

As a point of comparison, recall my account of a local church service. That service was very much about presence, about the Word incarnate, though I’m guessing it was somewhat different from the services Latour’s used to in his neck of the woods. And, like Latour, that preacher used a bit of computer imagery. Here’s a bit from my notes that didn’t make it into the blog post:
Toward the end the minister worked computer imagery into the sermon. Remember, he’d been saying “select” time and again, “bold” as well. So he talked about how, in a word processing program you have to SELECT something if you want to work with it. Well, “when Christ selects you, you gotta’ be careful because the Devil’s right beside you trying to delete you.” That’s not an exact quote, but he DID say something like that several times. And then he talked of hitting Control-B as a way of bolding text. And he worked Control-B, say, a dozen times—by now he’d been prowling 15 or 20 feet down the aisle on his excursions from the pulpit. And then comes the topper, Control-C for Christ.
As I write it out is sounds corny and trivial. But, in context, it did work. Did it evah!

Latour’s remarks on the performative nature of religious discourse bear comparison with some observations by Henry Mitchell, Black Preaching: The Recovery of a Powerful Art (Abingdon 1990). For example (p. 58):
The Black Bible is a living epistle, and the elaborations never take the form of coldly abstract formulations.

The Black preacher is more apt to think of the Bible as an inexhaustible source of good preaching material than as an inert doctrinal and ethical authority... It provides the basis for unlimited creativity in the telling of rich and interesting stories, and these narrations command rapt attention while the eternal truth is brought to bear on the struggle to survive and to find a measure of dignity and freedom.
Scientific Distance, Waaaay Over There

Now we arrive at science, p. 111:
Science in action, science as it is done practically, is even further from double-click communication than religion. Distortion; transformation; recoding; modeling; translating: each of these radical mediations is necessary to produce reliable and accurate information. If science were information without transformation, as good common sense would like to have it, we would still be in complete obscurity about states of affairs distant from the here and now. Double-click communication does even less justice to the transformation of information in scientific networks than it does to the strange ability of some speech-acts to transform the interlocutors in religion.
The point about science is simply that there is a great deal of mediation between the raw stuff, whether direct unaided observation or sensor outputs from scientific instruments, and the final account, expressed in verbal and mathematical form.

Let us conclude with a text from Rev. Mitchell. This text has as its theme the difference between modes of existence (p. 59):
At the best of the tradition, the Black preacher is not as concerned with historical or scientific truth as with what might be called affirmations of faith. There is no intention of making the Bible a science textbook. For one thing, during a stirring sermon, there is little or no interest in science. Rather, the interest is in the Bible as a reliable index to God’s word and will.
I would only add that a stirring sermon so transports the congregation that people are called to reply by shouting “Amen,” by shaking a tambourine, by arm waving, even a little dancing.
[Extra credit #2: Compare Latour’s notion of science’s distance with Franco Moretti’s notion of distant reading. More generally, think about the use of spatial distance as an epistemological metaphor.]
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More Modes

There is a brief characterization of each of Latour's 15 modes at the website for the project: An Inquiry into Modes of Existence. Both double-click and religion are here listed as specific modes, thus:
Double Clic/Double Click (DC)

I am your enemy, your nightmare, I am the power that transports truth and information without needing transformation, translation, mediation, I speak straight, I am transparent, I am the gauge, the template, the benchmark by comparison with which all the other modes are shown to lie.

Religion/Religion (REL)

The mode of existence of religious beings has always puzzled theologians, philosophers, believers and unbelievers alike. It is clear that they have to be understood with their own template. This is especially difficult because religious beings are confused with what science, morality, law or politics has to say about them. To detect these beings, one has to focus attention on the very specific speech form that is able to generate the very person it addresses.
Science does not appear as a mode of its own, but the Reference mode answers to the sense of distance and transformation that Latour associates with science in the passage I’ve quoted from page 111. So:
Références/Reference (REF)

This mode captures the original chain of inscriptions that give access to the far away by multiplying the intermediary steps transforming objects into documents in a cascade of data recording. When the chain is backgrounded, it gives the impression of a free floating “knowledge” about an independent state of affair. But when the chain is foregrounded, it offers a great occasion to observe the practice of knowledge making and to redescribe the institution of science.
Philosophy perhaps?
Préposition/Preposition (PRE)

Since each mode gauges all the others according to its own template, no inquiry is possible without one mode that guarantees the pluralism of all the modes. It is through this mode that one learns to be especially attentive to the keys necessary for interpreting the other modes. This mode allows the detection of category mistakes when one mode misinterprets another. The guardian of all the modes.
Conceptual Background Radiation from the Moderns

Let’s list one more, a strange one:
Reproduction/Reproduction (REP)

This mode explores the capacity of an entity to subsist by running the risk of continuing its existence through the gap that separates two instants of time. It is often confused with the world of objects and even nature. Since it has been hard to recognize in our tradition, we are looking for examples where it emerges by itself without being gauged by another mode.
All of the other modes I’ve listed, and the one’s I’ve not listed, necessarily involve human participation though, of course, not only human participation. This mode of existence does not, that is, not necessarily. Humans have to persist from moment to moment just like any other entity. But all those nonhumans have being doing this for hundreds of thousands of billions of years without benefit of human observation nor without having to cope with human action and interference in their worlds.

Is this really one mode of existence? A traditional ontology that recognizes at least a distinction between the merely physical world and the animate world says no, it’s not a single mode of existence. And I believe that traditional view is correct, though I’m not going to argue the point here (for part of such an argument see the paper David Hays and I wrote on the complexity inherent in the universe, A Note on Why Natural Selection Leads to Complexity).

Assuming that is so, then Latour is missing some modes. He’s flattened a bunch of them into this single mode, Reproduction. Thus he’s giving us a scheme that bears an echo of that old nature/culture distinction he’s worked so hard to replace. His scheme has 14 modes which center on human activity and this one mode that, while humans as physical beings must participate in it, seems to be a single mode only in contrast to, by comparison with, the other fourteen.

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