Bruno Latour and Object-Oriented Theology
Publication Year: 2013
Published by: Fordham University Press
Title Page, Copyright, Dedication
Since its inception with the work of Graham Harman, object-oriented ontology (OOO) has had an uneasy relationship with theology.1 While OOO has been influential in fields as diverse as media studies, literary criticism, ethnography, art criticism, history, biology, and rhetoric, it has been difficult to see how something like an object-oriented...
This book models an object-oriented approach to grace. Its
approach is object-oriented in that it gives full metaphysical
credit to the multitude of individual objects that compose
our universe for the collective formation and continuation
of their own existence.
Another way to say this is that in offering metaphysical independence to the multitude, this book experimentally frames the meaning of grace in a post-Darwinian world. In...
2. Porting Grace
When I say that I want to ‘‘port’’ grace into an object-oriented framework, I’m using the word in a way that is analogous to its use in computer programming. To a programmer, to port means to modify a program or application for use on a different platform or with a different operating...
The entry on ‘‘grace’’ in Mircea Eliade’s The Encyclopedia of Religion is general but instructive. Grace, it reports, ‘‘stands primarily not for human virtue but for God’s presence. Grace is a divine activity in human history and human lives.’’ Foremost among the features identified in this entry...
4. Conspiracy Theories
An object-oriented metaphysics distinguishes itself from more traditional approaches in that it is non-conspiratorial. Classically, metaphysicians consistently fall prey to the same temptation: they are conspiracy theorists. They assume a much higher degree of fundamental unity and intentional coordination than is actually needed to account...
5. An Experimental Metaphysics
For Latour’s part, a genuinely contemporary metaphysics ought to be shaped by its refusal to countenance any conspiracy theories. As a result, a contemporary metaphysics ought to be ironically characterized by a deeply anti-metaphysical stance. Of course, Latour’s metaphysical project, like all metaphysical projects, must begin with some axiomatic...
Latour’s vital, metaphysical minimum might also be summarized in terms of the following, deeply non-theistic maxim: ‘‘replace the singular with the plural everywhere’’ (PN 29). Where, traditionally, a metaphysician would assume an underlying macro-unity or background compatibility...
7. A Metaphysical Democracy
An experimental metaphysics is a metaphysics without aristocracy. No object or concatenation of objects has any innate royal prerogative. All objects are bastards and none have a divine right to the throne. In Latour’s scheme, if God exists, he is no metaphysical king. God, if he exists, is...
Latour’s approach to metaphysics is shaped primarily by methodological concerns. If, he asks, we want to engage in an experimental metaphysics where networks of objects are responsible for explaining themselves, then what will we have to assume about the nature of the real? If we want to...
9A Flat Ontology
By banning the One, Latour flattens his ontology. As a rough image, we might say that, rather than working on the kind of two-dimensional plane that would allow objects to be encircled, absorbed, and reduced, Latour strips out a dimension so that we end up working instead with only the...
10. Local Construction
The second half of our formula—‘‘though the One is not, there are unities’’—emphasizes how the multitude of objects, each of which is itself a multitude of objects, is responsible for locally constructing what unity there is. Absent a preformatted world, the multitude of objects must...
11. The Road to Damascus
With a basic framework in place, we’re ready to take a careful look at the heart of Latour’s project: the principle of irreduction. Using what he calls a ‘‘pseudo-autobiographical style,’’ Latour describes in self-consciously (and mildly parodic) religious language how he arrived at the principle of irreduction. Bone-tired, he is traveling home on the road...
12. The Principle of Irreduction
Latour’s formal version of the principle of irreduction looks like this: ‘‘Nothing is, by itself, either reducible or irreducible to anything else’’ (PF 158). Pragmatically—and, as we’ve seen, pragmatic issues are not, for Latour, separable from metaphysical ones; indeed, methodological concerns...
Characterizing the principle of irreduction in terms of resistant availability also allows us to retrofit the notion of transcendence for use in an experimental metaphysics. Transcendence, rather than naming a single, definitive, supernatural difference between this world and another...
14. Dislocated Grace
It is this dislocation—a dislocation of transcendence from its status as a founding and singular ontological exception to its dispersal as what characterizes the resistant availability of the multitude—that simultaneously marks the dislocation and distribution of grace...
15. Resistant Availability
Operationalized as a ‘‘tangible micro-force,’’ grace shows up as the ordinary business of objects at work. And, on Latour’s model, all objects are engaged in the same kind of work: the work of negotiating the uneven local terrain of a multitude of transcendences. Or, again, all objects are engaged...
Objects are like houses built from playing cards that, in
their weakness, manage to stand only by leaning on each
other. Each object is an actor, an agent, but the strength of
its agency is always a borrowed grace.
With Latour’s objects, we need to give full weight to the ordinary meaning of agency. To be an agent is to act on...
Latour calls the work of agents in relation to each other ‘‘translation.’’ How is it that, though there are no equivalents, ‘‘everything may be made to be the measure of everything else?’’ (PF 158). The answer is translation. Cast out of the garden of reductionism, the work of aligning objects...
‘‘Translation,’’ as an ontological operation, neatly summarizes the principle of irreduction in a single word. Talking about intimate detours is just another way of talking about resistant availability. Similarly, we might also summarize the principle of irreduction with just the term ‘‘representation’’ because all translations are representations...
In the same way that Latour’s principle of irreduction blends heaven and earth, transcendence and immanence, resistance and availability, it blends ontology and epistemology. In an experimental metaphysics, one cannot legitimately distinguish between questions about our epistemological...
On Latour’s account, all epistemological problems are actually engineering problems. Knowing things amounts to knowing which objects must be concatenated in what kinds of ways in order to build durable, usable bridges between the agents in question. In this sense, Latour is a constructivist...
Given, then, the weird topography of Latour’s experimental metaphysics—a topography that simultaneously manages to be methodologically modest, metaphysically ambitious, austerely empirical, and acutely refreshing—what can we speculate about the shape of grace? Ported into Latour’s pluriverse...
22. Black Boxes
If the world is stuffed full of grace—pressed down, shaken together, running over—then where does it hide? What accounts for its frequent obscurity? The obscurity of grace is tied, in part, to the nature of objects themselves...
Talking about substances in terms of black boxes is helpful but limited. ‘‘Black box’’ ultimately sounds a bit too solid, rigid, permanent, and static for what Latour has in mind. Substances are really more like acts, procedures, or institutions than they are like paperweights...
Latour’s notion of ‘‘essence’’ mirrors his treatment of substance. There are essences and there are substances, but an object’s essence, like its substance, is plastic in relation to a given line of sight. Like objects in general, an essence is a local work-in-progress that looks just ‘‘a bit more complicated, folded, multiple, complex, and entangled’’ than we...
Latour is generally impatient with talk about forms and structures because such language often just provides metaphysical cover for some brand of conspiratorial reductionism. But forms and structures, like substances and essences, are amenable to rehabilitation if the reductive impulse is checked...
In the context of an object-oriented metaphysics, the use of the word ‘‘object’’ is polemical. The indiscriminate use of the term object to describe every existing thing—formal or material, living or nonliving, sentient or nonsentient, conscious or nonconscious, human or nonhuman—is meant to undermine its common application as just one element in...
If objects are nothing but their relations, then existence itself is a weave of references. In this sense, ontology is semiology and to ask about the constitution of objects is to ask about the nature of reference. For Latour, translation and representation are existential operators. Human languages...
In an object-oriented metaphysics the truthfulness of a statement depends solely on the number of relevant agents persuaded to line-up behind it. With respect to truth, Latour is an unrepentant populist. The result is a kind of relativism, but Latour’s forceful critique of other populist...
The implications of Latour’s approach to language for traditional hermeneutic work are straightforward. When we engage in the business of interpreting texts, we’re not doing something special. ‘‘Hermeneutics is not a privilege of humans but, so to speak, a property of the world itself ’’ (RS...
A reading is an experiment. Exegetes do the same kind of work scientists do in their labs. In both instances, it is not the interpreter’s job ‘‘to decide in the actor’s stead what groups are making up the world and which agencies are making them act’’ (RS 184). Instead, like the scientist, it is the interpreter’s...
31. Science and Religion
The world is a democracy and the principle of irreduction guarantees that, when objects get up in the morning, they all go to work. Similarly, the principle guarantees that, fundamentally, all objects are engaged in the same kind of work. Every object must wrestle with the grace of resistant...
Religion is objective. It is made of objects, practiced by objects, and practiced for the revelation of objects. When estranged from its objective character, religion plays as a ridiculous parody. On Latour’s view, no single mistake does more to reinforce this bitter parody than thinking that religion is about ‘‘belief.’’...
Latour’s claim is that, in order to understand the revelatory force of religion, we must allow religious objects to speak for themselves. This means both making room for dismissed objects and stemming the backwash of scientific expectations into religious self-understanding. Between the...
By redistributing grace to the multitude, Latour has redistributed religion as well. As a practical matter, this move may do little more than clarify and emphasize the work religious objects have been doing all along. Spirit and grace and charity abide robustly in the object-oriented pews. But in...
In the same way that religion gets into trouble when it tries to out-science science, science gets into trouble when it tries to out-religion religion. This is particularly true when science apes the confused, traditional view of religion as something that is all things to all people, a mixture of everything, ...
Dismissing religious objects as empty or flat leaves religion weak. Without objects, religious practices and instruments lose their power to save. In an object-oriented theology, however, this loss has consequences not only for humans but nonhumans. Humans are not alone in their need for...
37. The Two Faces of Grace
Religion corrects for our farsightedness. It addresses the invisibility of objects that are commonly too familiar, too available, too immanent to be seen. To this end, it intentionally cultivates nearsightedness. Religion practices myopia in order to bring both work and suffering into focus as...
Even ported onto an object-oriented platform, it remains apt to say that religion reveals what is, at once, both in us and more than us. Religion presses us to open the black box that we are. It presses us to render commonplace objects less transparently available and, thus, sheds light on those...
Objects circulate through us. A subject is a site, a passage point, a relay station, a halfway house that hosts the objects passing through. Some objects are solids and some are liquids. Some objects are words, some are ideas or images or sensations or desires. Some objects are just passing through...
This both is and is not your grandmother’s religion. Regardless of age, the work of practicing cliche´s is the same, even if the cliche´s differ. On our knees, in the pew, at the mountain top, ‘‘we are not only undergoing a change in experience among others, but a change in the pulse and...
Work and suffering are the two faces of grace. This may not be what we’d like to hear, but this is what the world has to give. And it is, for those with eyes to see and patience to sit, sufficient. We are composed of objects that grace us with both their resistance and their availability, and we, in turn...
Perspectives in Continental Philosophy