Monthly Archives: May 2010
I just started re-reading Talal Asad’s Genealogies of Religion, which I haven’t looked at in a few years. Only a few pages into the introduction, I came across something that 3 or 4 years ago I wouldn’t have thought too hard about, but now seems very interesting. The context is a brief critique of certain then-recent discussions in anthropology regarding its place in relation to other of the “human sciences”:
There are systematic features of human collectivities that are real enough even though you can’t see them directly—for example, life expectancies, crime ratios, voting patterns, and rates of productivity. (You can see them once they are represented as tables, graphs, and maps, on a sheet of paper or a computer screen: here seeing and manipulating are closely connected.) Various kinds of social practice are inconceivable without such representations. (6)
He goes on to explain how these systematic features, their representations, and the uses to which they are put are what he is interested in analysizing. He argues that this analysis, while clearly informed by “on the ground” anthropological fieldwork, lies outside the scope of such fieldwork but at the same time doesn’t relegate it to some secondary status.
What I think is interesting here, though, is Asad’s determination to incorporate a variety of collectives (indeed, a variety of kinds of collective) into a broader anthropological umbrella. Now, he doesn’t seem to be going all the way with this, as he implies (1) a fairly clear distinction between “systematic features” themselves and their representations; (2) a distinction, perhaps less clear but still there, between representational figures (tables, graphs) and the material on/in which they are located; (3) that this material as such does not figure into the systematicity that is at issue for him, but only qua representation. But just bringing these elements together as he does here is an important step. The next one would be to follow the effects of dropping the above assumptions and fully grant the same kind of reality to systems, their representations, and their representational media in all its materiality.
I’ll grant that it’s also a bit misleading to call the list above a “litany” in the same sense as a “Latour litany”, in that it obviously doesn’t aim to incorporate the same range of objects. Nevertheless, in the same couple of pages as the passage above, Asad references “governments, businesses, churches, … distributions, trends, … matters of landed property, disease, and literacy.” One could view these narrowly as simply different collectives or systems that can be represented on graphs or in reports. But I think the much more interesting and productive approach would be to use such systematic groupings as starting points from which one could trace relations out to markets, consumer products, tools, ideas, divinities, books, buildings, topographical and geological features, crops, insects, and microbes – not to mention the “local peoples” who remain the objects of anthropological studies.
About a week ago, Graham Harman posted a couple of severe disagreements with my previous post – ones which I consider serious, enticing, and complimentary in their severity. I’d like to respond, but I’m putting it off since my attention has been elsewhere lately and a good response would require some significant effort on my part.
Instead, what I have been working on recently is reading through Danièle Hervieu-Léger’s Religion as a Chain of Memory. In it, she argues that a good sociological working definition of “religion” is that it is a way of believing that appeals and/or is committed to the authority of a tradition, around the (continually reconstructed) memory of which meaning is generated for the individual and community. There are a number of aspects of her approach that I find very helpful, not the least of which is her insistence that her definition of religion (or the religious) is provisional and entirely dependent on concrete sociological analyses (to which she often refers). More interesting to me right now, though, is a related point she makes drawing on Jean Séguy’s reading of Weber. In following a sociological impetus to eschew substantial or ontological definitions of religion, she argues that a more appropriate goal should be
to comprehend changes in the sphere of religion, considered by way of its tangible socio-historical manifestations. … Hence attention needs to be drawn to the process of change itself. Definition (if the term can still be used unambiguously) is a dynamic concept, whose aim is not that of fixing the subject matter but of pointing to the lines of transformation around which it reconstructs itself. 
Hervieu-Léger underplays, I think, the potential of this “dynamic” approach to understanding religions. She articulates it in the context of an examination of the problem of finding the place of religion in “modern” societies, as this is indeed the overall object of her book. And this is one of the things I find wanting in this work (there are a couple more, which I might bring up in a later post) – viz., an ongoing assumption of a phenomenon or complex of phenomena called “modernity” whose distinction from the “pre-modern” goes more or less unquestioned (even when she aims to show how both the religious and what is not religious, and their relation, have not undergone any essential transformation with the advent of modernity). I would argue that understanding religion primarily in terms of change and dynamism would be productive in general, and not just within modern Western milieux. This would be so not because what we usually call religions are, with regard to their content or to the practices associated with them, committed in any special way to social or historical change (it should be obvious that this is not always – even usually not – the case). It is because religions do in fact operate as ways of believing, of orienting individuals and groups in the world, with reference specifically to the past and to the future in a particular way for which tradition is a good enough word.
So, primarily there’s a diachronic element to this approach (I want to call it a “differential definition of religion”), consisting of identifying a religion as such according to the way it relates to its past and to its future, as well as the way it changes over time. But there’s also a synchronic element that would have to do with a religion’s present, yet it would be no less differential. This comes out repeatedly, in fact, in Hervieu-Léger’s account (though not all that explicitly) as she deals with the relationship between religions or the religious (and here she includes “traditional religions” – Christianity, Islam, etc. – as well as newer religious movements or sects) and other spheres of modern society. A provisional, differential definition of religion in its synchronic aspect would take into account the network of internal and external relationships by way of which a religion is continually reconstituting itself in the present among an irreducible religious plurality. Such a re-constitutions way be affirmative or negative, productive or destructive, but they are inevitable. At no particular time or place, though – and this is the payoff of this approach – can any one manifestation, understanding, abstraction, or negotiation become the definition of what it is to be a religion, because religions are as such constantly being renegotiated.
It’s not that purposeful humans, intentional persons, and individual souls are the only interpretative agents in a world of matters of fact devoid of any meaning by itself. What is meant by interpretations, flexibility, and fluidity is simply a way to register the vast outside to which every course of action has to appeal in order to be carried out. This is not true for just human actions, but for every activity. Hermeneutics is not a privilege of humans but, so to speak, a property of the world itself. (Latour, Reassembling the Social, 244-5)
This passage strikes me not only as the most Derridean I’ve encountered in Latour’s work, but really one of the most Derridean passages I’ve read anywhere that doesn’t explicitly make the connection itself. Indeed, you would only have to modify it slightly (perhaps substitute “différance” for “fluidity”?) in order to have a pretty accurate short summary of Derrida’s overall project. Now, I know many would protest this, maybe raising the (certainly reasonable) objection nowhere (or at least very rarely and obliquely) in Derrida’s corpus does he turn to non-human actors and/or collectives in the way that Latour argues we must do. Larval subjects recently made just this point specifically against Derrida’s (and others’) social and political stuff; he states pretty strongly that, in Derrida, Laclau, Balibar, et al., “we find nothing remotely close to the discussion of these issues.” I might debate the “remotely close” part of this claim, but I can’t deny that we don’t find a direct and sustained engagement with non-human objects in Derrida’s work. Nevertheless, I would argue that from the beginning what Derrida pushes his reader to do is to engage with the “vast outside” to which Latour is pointing, and that this necessarily includes not only a consideration of the non-human but also a breaking down of the barrier between the human and the non-human in much the same way as (at least some) proponents of OOO work to do.
The passage from Latour comes up as part of his discussion of “plasma,” which is the “not yet formatted, not yet measured, not yet socialized” background against which actor-networks and collectives emerge. It is a reserve of unknown stuff – unknown not because it’s unknowable or hidden, but simply because it has yet to be connected to any network. It’s the space between the ties. Now, in Prince of Networks, Harman sees a possible problem with this idea, writing that “at best Latour verges on acknowledging a single plasma-in-itself” (134). While I see the worry here, I don’t always buy the argument that something that is inarticulated has necessarily to be unitary. Harman’s position, as I understand it, is that an object is subtracted from all relations but remains, qua object, distinct and differentiated. This is certainly one way of retaining ontological plurality beyond the level of networks. However, I don’t think that otherwise we would end up with some kind of unitary plenum. The undifferentiatedness of plasma (or the reserve or what-have-you) – if we go that way instead of Harman’s – should rather be understood as not (even) one. Once we’ve stepped outside the network of relations, the choice between unity and plurality may prove to be a false one, and it’s for this reason that I think Latour’s idea of plasma may turn out to be surprisingly productive. As he repeatedly notes, compared with that which is part of a network, the outside is astronomically vast, and thus capable of introducing infinitely many opportunities for change and novelty.
As I’ve been thinking more about Heidegger’s formal indications, specifically with respect to religion, a question has occurred to me as to exactly what could emerge as a formal indication within the scope of a “phenomenology of religious life” and what could not. It seems, based on what Heidegger himself comes up with, that despite his stated goal of explicating a “fundamental religious experience” that would shed light on “originary religious phenomena” in general, a concept like “religion” does not appear on his radar as something that would work as a formal indication. Only religious concepts – ones that arise out of factical religious life, e.g., sin, grace, damnation, salvation, etc. – become formal indications when transposed into the domain of philosophy proper.
However, I would argue that “religion” or the “religious” does more work philosophically when taken as a formal indication itself – not only because this saves it from being taken to refer to some definable thing the essence of which is the same is the same in each case but also, and more to the point here, because it can cover a much broader field than the formal indications more narrowly determined by (in this case) Christian experience. Now ultimately I would also argue that at the narrower, more “regional” level, Derridean quasi-transcendentals are the more appropriate tool in that they better reflect their historically, materially situated and conditioned structure. But insofar as one wants to retain a generic concept like “religion” (and I think there are several reasons to want this, despite there also being reasons not to), understanding it as a formal indication has benefits not the least of which is that this emphasizes its lack of its own proper content. The content that it indicates would need in each case to be supplied by inquiry into concrete details – guided by provisional quasi-transcendentals that could (and should) be indefinitely multiplied. Coming up with (and just as important, letting go of) quasi-transcendentals would be especially necessary as the scope of what what we think about under the umbrella of the “religious” is broadened (as it should be) to include not only beliefs, creeds, practices, individuals, societies, and gods but also places, buildings, so-called fetish objects, books, and clothing – each on their own terms.
A little over a week ago I attended the annual North Texas Heidegger Symposium, which was great. I had planned to touch briefly on Heidegger in my dissertation, but I hadn’t yet began that particular section. After thinking and talking about his work for a couple of days straight (after not really having done so for a couple of years), I decided to go straight to work on him – which is what I’ve been up to for the past week or so.
The highlight of the symposium for me was the keynote delivered by Theodore Kisiel, detailing the evolution of the concept of formal indication. This was fortuitous for me, since this is exactly what I had already planned to write about – (1) because Heidegger explicates it (relatively) directly during specifically his course on the phenomenology of religion, and (2) because of the status of the Heideggerian formal indication as a sort of precursor to the Derridean quasi-transcendental. So I was already thinking about formal indication as a key element in approaching “religion” by way of quasi-transcendentals. What Kisiel’s paper did was (among other things) to demonstrate – or maybe just to recall – how formal indication never really disappears in post-Being and Time Heidegger, even though he uses the terminology much less often. So, one can understand later terms such as saying, way, or Ereignis (perhaps especially the latter, consider the resonance between eigen and zeigen that Heidegger wants to highlight) as formal indications as well as those concepts he explicitly labels as formal indications in his earlier lectures.
This brought into focus for me again the importance of this idea, as well as the importance of explaining its shortcomings (at least as Heidegger uses it). This explanation is now taking up a slightly more substantial place in my work, and it’s definitely still in progress. But, the basic argument is that the formal indication, despite Heidegger’s protestations to the contrary, still remains too anchored in pre-conceptions at the general or universal level not to avoid determining its content at least in part without reference to the concrete (factical) phenomena. With regard to religion specifically, I still (this was my original argument) think one can see a shift from the course on phenomenology of religion to the 1927 Tübingen lecture “Phenomenology and Theology” – in the former, the focus is squarely on the factical details of religious life (albeit with a clear tendency, in retrospect, toward thinking “religion” essentially or universally); in the latter, though, what is important philosophically is (almost) exclusively the “pre-religious” background. While for Heidegger this is simply a matter of philosophy’s primary concern with the ontological rather than the ontical, the fact that the formal indication (even qua formal) arises out of inquiry into regional, ontic content leaves its formality under-determined. This is not to be lamented, though, but rather acknowledged in a more sincere way than I think Heidegger does. And this is more or less what the quasi-transcendental approach is able to do.