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On the Modern Cult of the Factish Gods [Paperback]

Bruno Latour , Catherine Porter , Heather MacLean

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Book Description

Dec 28 2010 Science and Cultural Theory
On the Modern Cult of the Factish Gods continues the project that the anthropologist, philosopher, and influential science studies theorist Bruno Latour advanced in his book We Have Never Been Modern. There he proposed to re-describe the Enlightenment idea of universal scientific truth, arguing that there are no facts separable from their fabrication. In this concise work, Latour delves into the "belief in naive belief," the suggestion that fetishes, objects invested with mythical powers, are fabricated, and that "facts" are not. Mobilizing his work in the anthropology of science, he uses the notion of "factishes" to explore a way of respecting the objectivity of facts and the power of fetishes without forgetting that both are fabricated. While the fetish-worshipper knows perfectly well that fetishes are man-made, the Modern icon-breaker inevitably erects new icons. Yet Moderns sense no contradiction at the core of their work. Latour pursues his critique of critique, or of the possibility of mediating between subject and object, or the fabricated and the real, through the notion of "iconoclash," making productive comparisons between scientific practice and the worship of visual images and of religious icons.

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Review

"Latour came into view in the 1980s as an uncommonly engaging as well as radical practitioner of the new discipline of science studies... witty, imaginative, literate and unrelentingly ironic. For some, all this spells something manifestly frivolous and naturally suspect. Others, including many not ordinarily drawn to treatises on science and technology, are attracted by Latour's style into engaging with ideas they find illuminating and a mode of analysis they can use." - Barbara Herrnstein Smith, London Review of Books, March 8th 2012 "What immense spiritual and intellectual relaxation! With what vivacity and cunning Bruno Latour gets us out of the cage holding us hostage of the mumbo-jumbo of Subjects and Objects all these long years of Western Civ. Out-fetishizing these fetishes, nudging us towards the mastery of non-mastery, he invites us thereby to the sort of thinking needed to remake a failing world."--Michael Taussig, Columbia University "Bruno Latour's is a joyous and generous science, not a warmongering, invidious one. His unique intellectual trajectory beautifully replicates those strange objects he was the first to fully discern. For his work is eminently suitable to an actor-network treatment; it thrives on associations; it deals in mediations; it articulates heterogeneous modes of existence; it modulates its own regime of enunciation as the truth it describes changes its own conditions of production. What started as a 'social description of scientific practice' morphed into a radical redescription of the social at least as much as of science itself, and it bloomed as a daring project of a general anthropology of truth, within which facts and fetishes, divine forces and material forms, art and science, religion and law, all are made to inhabit a virtual plane of coexistence, which we are challengingly invited to bring into actuality as our common world."--Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, Museu Nacional (Rio de Janeiro) "Eloquent, amusing and fabulously well-informed, Bruno Latour is one of the superstars of French intellectual life... His recent book On the Modern Cult of the Factish Gods shows that Latour remains a great star, even if he has been through some kind of midlife crisis about the work that made him famous... he also grapples for the first time with a problem that has always haunted the philosophy of science: the question of religious belief. "Any change in the way science is considered," he observes, "will have some consequences on the many ways to talk about religion." There is of course a hoary orthodoxy which maintains that the rise of science annihilates religion just as the dawning of day dispels the darkness of night." - Johnathan Ree, New Humanist, July 2012

About the Author

Bruno Latour is Professor and Dean for Research at Sciences Po in Paris. His many books include "Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory";" Politics of Nature: How to Bring the Sciences into Democracy";" Pandora's Hope: Essays on the Reality of Science Studies"; "Aramis, Or, The Love of Technology"; and "We Have Never Been Modern."


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Amazon.com: 3.7 out of 5 stars  3 reviews
18 of 27 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Helping us gain our bearings and live faithfully in a world that is increasingly awash in images Sept. 10 2011
By Englewood Review of Books - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
[ This review originally appeared in
THE ENGLEWOOD REVIEW OF BOOKS - 24 June 2011 ]

As a graduate student in philosophy of science over a decade ago, I was deeply moved by the work of Bruno Latour, and particular his work (co-written with Steve Woolgar) Laboratory Life: The Social Construction of Scientific Facts, which is a bold critique that drives at the heart of what science is. Although Latour has, in recent years, grown increasingly skeptical of social criticism, he remains one of the clearest and most sensible social philosophers of our age. Thus, I was intrigued by his newest work, a slim volume of three essays entitled On The Modern Cult of the Factish Gods.

The book opens with the title essay, which is the longest and densest of the offerings here, delving deeply into Latour's work in Actor-Network Theory (ANT). There are some keen insights in this piece, but I want to focus on the book's remaining two essays which I think will be of more relevance to readers of The Englewood Review. Both of the latter essays in the book focus on images and their social role in science, art religion, etc. The first of these essays seeks to provide a robust definition for the term iconoclash, a word of Latour's own creation which refers to situations of image-breaking in which the breaking is such that "there is no way to know, without further inquiry, whether it is destructive or constructive." (68). Latour catalogs five types of approaches to images that span the spectrum from those who are against all images to those who "doubt the idol breakers as much as the icon worshippers" (89). Along this spectrum, Latour argues for the position of those who are against the freeze-framing of images, but not against images. There is an inherent dishonesty in the freeze-framing of images, he argues, in that it denies the reality of motion - motion which might be necessary in order to interpret the meaning of the image. This freeze-framing is particularly problematic, Latour notes, within science which consists of layer upon layer of representations, any single one of which is senseless apart from being part of the larger stream. To depict science in this way, Latour maintains, is to navigate between "naïve worship and naïve contempt." To think of images and image-breaking in this way seems to be an extraordinarily conciliatory approach, and one that would have profound implications in thinking about a variety of realms including not only science, but also art, faith and even politics.

The book's final essay, "Thou shall Not Freeze-Frame (Or How Not to Misunderstand the Science and Religion Debate)," as its title implies builds upon the content of the previous chapter, and is perhaps the most useful in thinking about the nature of images in our faith. Latour presents this piece as a sort of written sermon, beginning with a confession of the weakness of his own faith: religion for him "has become impossible to enunciate" (100). O, that more preachers and theologians would take a similar starting point. Basically, over the course of the essay, Latour turns both science and religion on their heads. Science is that which is held at arms-length, made distant but long strings of images that require transformations from one level to the next. Religion on the other hand is about the immediate, the relational, the loving of our brothers, sisters and neighbors who, in the language of I John 4, we regularly see and know. Latour offers us much to consider here, but his conclusion is profound. Truth is found, not in correspondence, but in submission to "the task of continuing the flow of images," of extending the meaning that underlies the stream of images one step further.

For us who seek to follow in the way of Christ, Latour's reflections here are extraordinary, helping us to gain our bearings and live faithfully in a world that is increasingly awash in images. Many readers might find this book to be a difficult read, but for those who are willing to invest in working through it, it holds a wealth of insight!
3 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Truly, we have never been modern Jan. 11 2012
By Florence of Arabia - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This book is a revelation, a joy to read and on every page rich examples of Latour's witty and highly readable style, together with his unique "take" on the Modern Condition.
64 of 130 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Worth less March 8 2011
By a reader in front of the front range - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Less than what the hype claims for him as a thinker or critic. Certainly less than what we should expect from anyone calling himself a social scientist or theorist. What Latour relies upon are a few easy tricks: grand gestures of provocation to the Western Enlightenment, rationality and scientific establishment; rhetorical, at times oracular, flourishes; strained neologisms.

Take a look at what he offers to try to place science on the level of other beliefs and to characterize it as a "modern cult." There's no careful discussion of the long history of scientific method or specific principles of empirically based discoveries, all of which are, of course, extensively written about in the works of scientists and philosophers of science. You must accept his characterizations of science in terms of "divinities," "fears," "transfears," "factishes." You should be impressed with his diagrams, which remind me of Lacan's old tricks of creative geometry. He doesn't stoop to basing his claims on evidence that is objective and tested. There's nothing here that compares to the kind of critique Thomas Kuhn advanced. By Latour's methods, we must be persuaded by faith in him and the persuasiveness of his rhetoric.

The rhetoric can be shockingly simplistic. There's the repeated use of "Whites" v. "Blacks". Rather than rely on empirical studies, he'll tell us "we have known this since Foucault" (p. 37) or "we have known since Deleuze's Anti-Oedipus" (p. 53). This is the logic of following prophets, of "trust me, we know."

Even more shocking are Latour's own reflections: "By reformulating the metamorphosis of these invisible entities in my own inadequate language, I neither claim to have understood ethnopsychiatry, nor to have theorized it. Naturally, I was only interested in myself, or rather in those unfortunate Whites who are always being deprived of their anthropology by being locked into the modern destiny of anti-fetishism." (pgs. 53-4) This is what passes for a scholar these days?

Yes, scientific practice and institutions can err, go off track, be too readily accepted by the public. Yes, we should continually keep an eye on them, doubt them, challenge them. We should be wary of Platonic or carelessly instrumental use of language such as genes, particles, etc. In other words, we should use good scientific methods in our critiques.

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