Friday, January 4, 2013

Realms and Modes, Toward a Robust Understanding of Culture

Latour has only 15 Modes of Existence, though he says that the number and identity of them is provisional. Nonetheless, that notion strikes me as being roughly comparable to what I have been calling Realms of Being, of which there must be 10s of thousands so far.

How could that be, 15 or so vs. 10s of thousands? One thing that’s going goes like this. Latour, for example, has a Mode for religion (which he abbreviates as REL). I’m going to have a Realm for each distinct religion, which must number in the thousands is you count the supernatural belief system of each hunter-gatherer, nomadic, and horticultural society as a religion. If so, then it’s possible that my notion of Realms of Being is not necessarily incompatible with Latour’s notion of Modes of Existence. Perhaps many of my Realms will map onto a single one of Latour’s Modes.

Now the question for religion becomes: does each of those Realms operate according to the same “felicity conditions” (Latour’s term for the operating ‘envelope’ of a Mode)?

I don’t know. It’s a serious question, and an empirical one. An attempt to answer it will move us toward a deeper understanding of culture than we now have.


  1. Latour is an advance on Badiou who has only 4 truth procedures, and refuses to add religion. I certainly think that Latour is opening up the floodgates to he knows not what.

  2. "... to he knows not what..."

    Nor does anyone else. So maybe we'll have a bit of intellectual adventuring ahead of us.

    As I understand it, Latour understands the number and nature of the Modes to be an empirical matter, not something to be abstractly determined from first principles.

  3. Yet as we know this very distinction is dissolved by Latour's theory. There is no such thing as pure gawking empiricism, unguided by ideas and background stakes.

    1. You're right, Terry. It's not only that Latour tells us there's no such thing as naked empiricism, but other thinkers before him have done so. Kuhn was probably most influential in my own intellectual history, but he's hardly the first to have realized that. If anything, he's a bit late to the party.

      And yet I was trying to get something across, and I'm not sure what. As I've been thinking about the matter, it's almost as though what I really had in mind was more like: Yes, there's an empirical aspect to the question. But there's also a philosophical aspect, a judgment that has to be rendered in excess of the empirical account.

      So let me ramble a bit.

      And religion is a good domain in which to think about this. As you may know, back in the 1960s psychedelic drugs were investigated in various ways and one of the questions that arose is: Are drug-induced mystical experiences REAL mystical experiences? One can play that various ways, but there's something going on in the asking of the question that isn't going to be satisfied by even the most sophisticated (neuro)psychological account we can provide.

      Back then the term "altered state of consciousness" was coined. But at some point I realized that plain old consciousness was more of a mystery than whether or not it was a mundance state or an "altered" state.

      And then, back when I was first dipping into object-oriented ontology, there was my sense that by "object" these folks had to mean object in some special metaphysical sense such that a "thing" had to pass a stringent test in order to qualify as a proper metaphysical object. But as far as I can tell the only test is whether or not it's a set. Sets are not objects; they're collections of objects.

      The problem I had then is that, going THAT way, one can declare any number of things to be objects and so admit all sorts of nonsense into the world. That is, if you're going to put objects at the center of your ontology, you need to be careful about what you allow to qualify as a proper object. I realize that insisting on some as yet unstated criterion could easily undermine the thrust of OOO, or of the kind of pluralism I've sketched out, by disqualifying all but tiny particles, or whatever. But THAT can certainly be avoided.

      I'm still at the question that's been bugging for a long time: Where's the line between philosophy and the various specialized disciplines? I think it's a good question. I don't insist that the line be a sharp one, but there is a line and it needs to be thought about, especially by pluralists who must take seriously the existence of other ways of thinking about and living in the world.

  4. On the other hand, it's simple. Latour is taking his project online so that lots of people can contribute "data"* towards refining the analysis. If you're going to talk about Modes of Experience, you need lots of evidence, more than one investigator can amass.

    *From the AIME website:

    "The term is a little simplistic, especially since we know from the sociology of science that data are always “obtained” and in no way arrive fully-formed. We are calling our research data, roughly, any document that undergoes a trial at the point where two modes really clash; this is what we call “category errors”. This clash allows us to draw out a contrast that we were not aware of until then. Many are proposed in the book and in the notes, but the point of the collective inquiry is to bring them together. So each time that you present a situation (by way of a text, a film, a radio program), fully referenced (date, source, context, copyright), and which you think, according to your commentary, can move one of our questions forward (or displace the question in an even more interesting way), then this, for us, is data."