[ 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!