When the widely respected French sociologist Bruno Latour died last autumn, at age 75, my first thought was not of his fertile and capacious mind or the new intellectual vistas he may yet have opened—though such losses are terrible. Nor did I think immediately of his colleagues or family or friends. I thought instead of the poor priest faced with the impossible task of standing over Latour’s remains and finding the right words to say.
Today, this is an especially perilous task, not just to speak of the dead but to offer the words—in that religious way of speaking—that, in the wake of death, recall the promise of new life, of resurrection and redemption. Part of the problem is that the words themselves—“heaven” and “hell” and “eternal life”—ring hollow, their meaning lost. At least they had been lost to Bruno Latour. And no doubt, to the many others who, like Latour, found themselves beset by a condition that he had chronicled as well as any other thinker: that is, the condition of modernity.
Articulating the depth of this particular problem, of the twisted nature of our religious speech, was one of Bruno Latour’s most underappreciated contributions. Though he is best remembered for detailing the social construction of scientific knowledge, the anthropology of modernity, and the politics of climate change, he also turned his uniquely discerning attention to religious utterance. And he did so not just as an academic observer but as a religious man himself, one who, like myself (and, dare I say, at least a few of you), was tormented by religious speech, left yearning for the truth of a religious language that had lost its way.
To offer a funeral for Bruno Latour—to reach for the words that might usher him from life to whatever comes after—is to traffic in this most troubled of discourses, one that Latour once illuminated with characteristic grace. Perhaps he can still show us the way.
“Rejoicing—or the torments of religious speech,” are both the opening words and the title of Latour’s often overlooked 2002 book, which did not appear in English until 2013. This religious speech, “that is what he wants to talk about, that is what he can’t actually seem to talk about,” Latour begins, conjuring a conflicted third person stand-in for both Latour himself and the readers of his book, meaning those who are unable to quit religion. “He goes to mass, and often, on Sunday, but it doesn’t mean anything,” Latour writes. Worse yet, “he is ashamed of what he hears on Sunday from the pulpit…but ashamed, too, of the incredulous hatred or amused indifference of those who laugh at anyone who goes to church.” For those who can relate, the unmistakable urgency of Latour’s prose will pull you in.
What Latour takes up in Rejoicing is not “the religious or religion—still less religions plural,” he insists. Rather, Latour is interested in religious utterance, the form of expression—the Word. To understand it, to make sense of it, to bring it back to life, Latour leads the reader through a lengthy self-dialogue that, in fits and starts and misdirections—and 174 uninterrupted pages, nary a chapter break among them—arrives at something that resembles a resolution, a way of speaking that avoids the dangers, toils, and snares that challenge the yearningly religious.
Those willing to follow along on this journey will soon realize that Rejoicing is yet another piece in the elaborate puzzle that Latour had been assembling for decades. The central problem that besets religious speech is also the central problem that Latour has identified in his other works: namely, that we have inherited an unrealistic vision of science and insisted that all modern experience should be viewed through this distorted lens. The problem is that we “moderns” have enshrined a capital-S Science as the undisputed arbiter of reality and truth. And this has led to the “madwomen in the attic” of our modern condition, what Latour calls “double-click communication, in honor of the computer mouse,” who has tricked us into believing that we have “free, indisputable, and immediate access to pure, untransformed information” and that this “costless access” should be “the model of all communication, the ideal, the metric standard of all movement, the judge of all faithfulness, the guarantee of all truth.”
Latour has made a career of debunking this “sheer fantasy.” From his anthropological study of Laboratory Life (1979) to his Science in Action (1987) to The Pasteurization of France (2001), Latour has set out to demystify the production of scientific knowledge—to open up the black box and inspect its cogs and wheels. From those works, Latour proceeded to a set of projects culminating in his preposterously ambitious 2013 magnum opus, An Inquiry into Modes of Existence, in which he turned his anthropological eye toward the “moderns” in all our ways of being in the world—from politics and fiction to law and religion—and insisted that the institutions, truth conditions, and “regimes of speech” of these various modes of existence have become impoverished by the hegemony of Science.
What the dominion of Science has done to religion is to convince us that it is all a matter of belief, that one either believes or does not. But this “belief in belief” Latour writes, has led us down the wrong path. “To confuse belief (or nonbelief) in ‘God’ with the demands of religion means taking the décor for the room, the overture for the opera.” What religious speech accomplishes—if we can get it right—does not depend on proofs of God’s existence or the historical truth of our religious narratives, as if from those we could determine the meaning of our present lives. For Latour, religious speech works in the opposite direction. It all starts, he insists, with the religious utterance—the moment the words are spoken. And from this point of departure, Latour sets out to investigate the effect, to see what this speech can accomplish, how in the moment of revival and renewal we can travel backward through time to rediscover the same meaning of the traditions and rituals and scriptures that the faithful have clung to for generations.
To help us understand how this might work, Latour turns repeatedly to a different speech regime, one that so many of us have experienced: that of love. “Imagine a lover,” Latour implores us, as he conjures a familiar scene in which a woman has asked her boyfriend, “Do you love me?” Latour has us imagine this intimate scene because he wants us to consider another question: How will the woman know that her boyfriend loves her? How can anyone determine the truthfulness of an answer to this question?
Latour starts with the absurd, with a boyfriend who answers “Yes, but you already know that, I told you so last year.” As Latour sees it, “You’d be hard pressed to find more decisive evidence that he has stopped loving in earnest. He has taken the request for love as a request for information.” What this woman is looking for “isn’t the sentence itself…but the tone, the manner, the way in which he, her lover, will revive that old, worn-out theme.” And she will know “with admirable precision” if the words spoken have “renewed in an instant the love that her lover feels for her.” If the words come out just right, one can feel “transported, transformed, slightly shaken up, changed, rearranged.” That is because these amorous sentences are not meant to “map out references” but to “produce something else entirely: the near and the far, closeness or distance.” It is risky and fragile but it all depends on this linguistic act. And when it is renewed, it forms together with the history of this renewal a story, moving from the present moment back through the past to create a narrative that draws the lovers together closer still. Even though Latour’s lovers grow older, “though they know perfectly well that everything has changed, themselves and the times with them,” they can still claim possession of “the ‘same love,’ everlasting over time.” “Who hasn’t had some experience of this?” Latour prods.
What makes the example of amorous speech so useful for Latour is that “happily… double-click communication doesn’t govern” this particular regime. And we know it. There is no information that can prove the truthfulness of one’s confession of love. There is no underlying substance of love that must be maintained through the years. No double-click of a mouse can pull up the page where the verification of this love is documented. There are only the words themselves—and the way they are spoken.
So it is with religious speech, Latour insists. But what it can achieve is not just the experience of two lovers but of a whole people transformed. For Latour, what religious speech can accomplish is “the making of the individuals made close again.”
What makes this so difficult is that time has a way of eroding the power of words. Consider a significant one: God. For Latour, the meaning of this word has been lost. Or more precisely, we have failed to translate it properly into a contemporary idiom that allows it to accomplish what it previously could. “The word ‘God,’” Latour writes, “which once served as the premise of all arguing, could have been translated, when ways of life changed, as ‘indisputable framework of ordinary existence.’” But the meaning of this word has been altered through the years, Latour argues, and turned into an object of belief. Instead of clinging to the attributes of this word, of what it accomplished, and translating the term from age to age to preserve that particular purpose, the word God, which was “once an indifferent preliminary”—the “starting point of all discourse”—has “become a major obstacle of understanding,” a “stumbling block,” a “scandal.”
But how can the faithful recover the meaning of religious speech and learn to speak it again? It is not to purify religion, Latour writes in Rejoicing; nor is it to rationalize it. The goal is not to uncover some symbolic meaning or to merely aestheticize religion. Rather, in order to recover religious speech, we must perpetually renew the message, revive it, translate it from one era to the next, to “say the same things” that religious speech has always said but “in a completely different idiom.” What is required is a perpetual Pentecost of sorts, the words translated into our own language, calling on us “to be part once again of the same people, to be faithful once again to the same tradition, to be trustees of the same message,” but only after the words meant to convey this message have been refashioned and thereby revived, again and again.
The only way to “distinguish good translation from bad,” Latour continues, the only way we can know if this tortured language has been revived, is to witness its effects. Can it offer a “decisive message that transforms forever the lives of those who then recognize themselves instantly as members of the same people”? Can it “draw the virtual people again, that ‘communion of saints,’ made up of those who retrospectively understand the buried truth of words revived in the mouths of the living”? It is no small task, but you will know it when you hear it. By their fruits you will recognize them.
Latour’s attempt to recover religious speech does what his work has always done. It has redirected our gaze, re-situated us in space and time. Instead of looking to the heavens, instead of musing on the mysteries of the divine, instead of lifting us up “to sublime spheres,” Latour directs our sight downward, to the critical zone of experience. Instead of looking to the past, of digging through the archaeological record of some distant land, of searching the ancient texts for some definitive proof, some bit of information that could unite the faithful, Latour refocuses our attention on the here and now. The effect is one of revival, not of the Word itself, but of our receptive capacity to hear it—to remove our heart of stone and give us a heart of flesh.
There are few events as capable of bringing us together, of making us close again, as a funeral. But this doesn’t make it any easier to find the words capable of transforming us, of translating the old message. That Latour himself was such a keen judge of those words makes the task all the more intimidating.
First, we must speak of death, of this transformation into a new existence, of what comes after—that is, an after-life, to put it in the most literal of terms. This is what a funeral ought to do, after all, to usher the deceased into that increasingly liminal space where the dead reside, where they are carried in the hearts of those most loved, a presence one can feel but not touch, conjure but not see.
To speak religiously over the remains of the dead is to remind us of the truth that death is not an utter lack of existence but a new state of being, with its own geography and time. This new state is what we mean when we speak of life everlasting. In death, we find a new and final existence, a new life that will never end.
Brought together by their grief, the mourners come to sit with the fact that a life has become an after-life. As they contemplate the life lived, at some point, the mourners focus will likely shift from the dead to the living—to their shared humanity, to their own eventual death. At this moment, if the words are right, they have the power wake us up, to reveal to us our lives anew, to convert, to redeem, to save. The effect is a profound leveling. One is connected not just with the deceased, not just with their fellow mourners, but with the entire communion of saints, past and present, living and dead. All are made close again.
Bruno Latour’s death, then, is so much more than an opportunity to revisit his life and ideas. Indeed, the occasion of his death offers us something even more than the chance to try, yet again, to speak religiously. Though Latour himself could not revive the revival, he could still offer those of us who remain yearningly religious something profound. “All I have left,” Latour writes, “are the ravings of a voice crying in the wilderness.”
This may not seem like much. But it encapsulates what Latour has achieved in Rejoicing. In his own idiosyncratic way, Latour reminds us that at the core of his intellectual project is a call to “repent”—metanoeo, in the Greek—to change our thinking. For those who, like Latour, have wandered alone in the wilderness all these many years, a funeral for Bruno Latour is a call to assemble, to come together, to draw close. In the act of remembering Latour, of retracing the steps of his torturous and meandering journey through the tangle of religious discourse, we cling to the hope that if we too repent, if we change our thinking, we might prepare the way once more. We might make the paths straight yet again.