Guest Post: Ben Epstein on Bruno Latour’s ‘Factish Gods’ – Part 2: Science and Religion

French sociologist of science, Bruno Latour

‘The difference between science and religion then would not be found in the different mental competences brought to bear on two different realms – belief applied to vague spiritual matters, and knowledge to directly observable things – but in the same broad set of competences applied to two chains of mediators going in two different directions.’

[Bruno Latour, On the Modern Cult of the Factish Gods]

In one of the essays in On the Modern Cult of the Factish Gods, Latour brings to bear on both science and religion the notion that our knowledge of the world is mediated by a networked series of representations – ideas that are neither entirely human fabrications (fetishes) nor pure, untouched ‘facts’ about the external world; instead, they are a blend of the two – ‘factishes’, in Latour’s phrase.

The various realities through which these representations pass – science practices, lab technology, systems of measurements, clinical realities (those of both clinician and patient) – mean that science ends up relying on long, multilayered ‘referential chains of inscriptions’.

Large prism spectrometer (late nineteenth-century)

Moreover, there is no simple linear progression of these inscriptions, such that picking one – ‘freeze-framing’, in Latour’s words – would offer meaning in and of itself. As Latour puts it: ‘isolated, a scientific image has no truth-value.’

What would we make of the readings on a spectrometer, for example, taken in isolation from the whole array of other inscriptions – the other ideas and pieces of information – upon which the coherence of that one reading relies?

The impossibility of successfully freeze-framing the continuous progression of references in this way goes to show, for Latour, that ‘matters of fact – those famous matters of fact that are supposed by some philosophers to be the stuff out of which the visible common-sense world is made – are nothing but a misunderstanding of the artificial but productive process of scientific objectivity.’

Icons have long been used in Eastern Christianity as aides to silent as well as communal prayer

Icons and idols in the religious life are, says Latour, great examples of this necessary train of ‘factishes’, since they are more clearly understood (when compared with many ideas in the realm of science) for what they really are: rather than aspiring to be accurate representations of something, they are based on an understanding of reality that is nether totally internal nor totally external, and their purpose lies in the facilitation of action and transformation.

In this sense, religious understanding is a constant motion, with no fixed concept able to supply meaning. And yet, according to Latour, too often in the past ‘we chose, by a cruel deviation from theology, to idolise mastery as an ideal of detachment from everything that brought it into action.’

At a recent symposium at the University of Edinburgh Birgit Meyer (Chair of Religious Studies at Utrecht) deployed Latour to propose a ‘material approach’ to religion, in contrast to what she criticizes as the protestant legacy of secular studies of religion, where religion is relegated to mentalistic, ‘inward’, ‘private’ and ‘invisible’ phenomena. She pointed out that religion – in much the same way as science – is of course made up of practices that involve the use of materials and images; in that sense it is ‘fabricated’ and is inseparable from a real material world and associated power structures. Theology, religious studies, and social studies of science could all benefit, she says, from a newly-reconstituted materialist approach. Such an approach would enhance rather than efface religion’s task of ‘materialising the sacred’.

On the Modern Cult of the Factish Gods is a eulogy to the cascade of mediators that make action possible. It’s also an indictment on our apparent need to destroy valuable ‘icons’ in the name of replacing old ‘fetishes’ with new ‘facts': out goes psychoanalysis and in comes the neurone, for example, and we remain unaware of the factish nature of this new thing, which seems so temptingly independent of the multiple realities that give it life and meaning.

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One comment

  • Katie Phair
    May 30, 2013 - 2:31 pm | Permalink

    Hi Ben,

    I’ve been eyeing up this Latour for a while so I was delighted to stumble upon this very excellent review. I think your/Brigit Meyer’s final proposition is the most interesting dimension of Latour’s work (well, to me at least). A ‘newly-reconstituted materialist approach’ could achieve the kind of cross-disciplinary research history and the social sciences has been crying out for. If the pretensions about method are distilled into the kind of approach you’ve mooted here I think it would do wonders for both the depth and quality of our research. Off to buy a copy of the text now, thank you!

    p.s. I met a nice bearded man in Brauhaus just before Christmas who was also a massive Chris Harding fan and I have a sneaky suspicion it was you! If so, a) hello and b) the gender history student was my boyfriend. I’ll tell him you say hi :D

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