Speculative Non-Buddhism

ruins of the buddhist real

Practicing Myopia

Posted by Adam Miller on April 13, 2012

What work does x-buddhism claim to accomplish? Does it claim to do the work of, for instance, science? religion? philosophy? psychology? medicine? Or is it perhaps sui generis—a singularity in the world of knowledge, a dharmic lapis philosophorum?

In contemporary North America, the question is being posed in the broad terms of the science-religion distinction. I think that the current x-buddhism debates—those between the scientistically exultant/secularly liberal forms, on the one side, and the spiritually exuberant/conservatively orthodox forms, on the other—are primarily debates about the relative merits of science and religion. Secondarily, of course, the debate is about where Buddhism properly fits in. Once that’s established, one can proffer what s/he thinks x-buddhism does, what it accomplishes (e.g., it illuminates the world “as it is;” it reduces stress; it constructs a worldview; it heals; it eradicates craving; it enables “deep joy” and “real happiness;” it enlightens; it ensures favorable rebirth; it ensnares in an deceptively ideological web; it liberates, etc., etc.).

Another way of understanding current x-buddhism debates is that they concern the relative value of immanence-oriented and transcendence-oriented systems of thought. Science is an instance of the former, and religion, the latter—right?

To spur us on to further thought about these matters, I present you with a provocative essay by Adam S. Miller. It is provocative on several counts. First, with the backing of French sociologist of science Bruno Latour, it insists on an inversion of values whereby science is seen as surveyor of the transcendent, as “a third-person exposition of the [distantly or minutely] unavailable.” Religion, contrary to our habitual way of thinking about it, names, in this account, a relentless thrust toward immanence; it is “a first-person phenomenology of the obvious.”

Miller’s second provocation should thus be obvious. Science, not religion, indexes the “spiritual, miraculous, soul-lifting, uplifting;” and “it is religion that should be qualified as local, objective, visible, mundane, unmiraculous, repetitive, obstinate, sturdy” (Latour’s words).

From this, a third provocation: religion as correction of vision, as organon of immanence.

A hidden provocation here, to my eyes, is the insistence on preserving what, in light of the very analysis, begins to look like calcified terminology (science, religion). It is a refusal to provide an easy way out of a very modern, western dilemma with the mere conjuring of acceptable terminology.

I think the relevance of Miller’s essay to speculative non-buddhism will be clear to careful readers. Speculative non-buddhism is, in Miller’s terms, interested in the question of the line: as a line of vision, is x-buddhism vertical, horizontal, circular, or something else?

From a speculative non-buddhism perspective, x-buddhists error in insisting on a vertical line. It is because of x-buddhism’s intransigence in adjusting its line of vision that a speculative non-buddhism is necessary. X-buddhism’s line runs from dharmic-oracular transcendence to samsaric immanence and back again. Speculative non-buddhism adjusts that line by tipping it horizontally. Why? In order to make a good democratic citizen of aristocratic x-buddhism—to make x-buddhism mingle, on the same level, with representatives of all humanistic knowledge.

Or, in Miller/Latour’s terms, it does so in order to make x-buddhism a religion devoid of religion.

_____________

Practicing Myopia
Adam S. Miller

A. Introduction

Say we assumed that everything religion tell us – Eastern, Western, Buddhist, Christian, Whatever – was true . . . except that all of it applied exclusively to the ordinary, commonplace stuff circulating here and now and in plain sight.

Say we assumed, with just one caveat, that religion was right about everything – the caveat being that we would refuse, from this moment on, to countenance the idea that any religious claims ever referred to any absent objects.

Say we assumed that the one thing religion is never about is a tenuous “belief” in AWOL people or places.

Say we assumed a kind of non-religious religion for the sake of being super-serious about religion. What would we see? Wearing such spectacles, how might things look?

If religion corrects for my defective vision, what’s the nature of my defect? Wearing an earnest religion on the bridge of my nose, what kind of specular correction am I getting?

B. Hyperopia

The defect is common enough. Hyperopic, we mistake the living for the dead.

Religion corrects for this congenital farsightedness. It brings into focus bodies that are otherwise too close to be seen.

Life, like breath, is too close, too familiar, to be easily seen. Absorbed in the middle-distant gray of worry and desire, a tree, a dog, a neighbor, even my own flesh, may show up as lifeless simply because I fail to notice its breathing. A breathless body is a corpse and a living body that looks breathless presents as undead. Absent the breath of life, the world rolls by like an empty carnival ride, bumper to bumper with weirdly mobile but gaily painted sepulchers.

Phenomenologically, this hypermetropia should be familiar. Without quite meaning to, you can easily spend unbroken years wavering in limbo between the living and the dead – hoping for this, avoiding that, clenching your teeth asthmatically.

But whiting your sepulcher is no kind of life. No one cares about the shade of your semi-gloss. Quit this work and, instead, roll back the stone. These bodies are no tombs. Their hearts still beat, their nerves still crackle, their bowels still move, their lungs still breath.

The answer is not to see farther or move faster. Rather, get religion and start practicing nearsightedness. Sit in self-emptying silence with the pulse of your temple and the swell of your lungs.

Religion is nothing but this corrective practice of myopia. Religion is no cure-all, but you may, at least, stop mistaking the living for the dead.

According to Bruno Latour, confusion about religion results when we expect religion to do some other kind of work. In particular, confusion results when we ask religion to do the work of science.

Latour claims that where religion corrects for our inability to see what is otherwise too close, too familiar, too immanent, science brings into focus those bodies that would otherwise be too distant, too transcendent, and too strange to be seen.

Mark this distribution. On Latour’s account the field of religion is immanence, the discipline of science is transcendence.

C. Irreduction

This unusual distribution of tasks follows, for Latour, from an “experimental” approach to metaphysics that is, in turn, shaped by what he calls “the principle of irreduction.”

If any single term characterizes the antithesis of Latour’s project, it is reductionism. Latour isn’t opposed to reduction per se, but he views the blanket imposition of any preliminary expectation of reduction as the primary obstacle to an actually empirical metaphysics.

Reductionisms that attribute explanatory strength to hidden macro-forces, assume some original ontological unity or fundamental compatibility, and then sublate any remaining local differences in the conspiratorial movement of a global system make for bad science and bad religion.

We must resist the metaphysical temptation, Latour pleads, to assume some elementary force that would “be capable of explaining everything, translating everything, producing everything, buying and redeeming everything, and causing everything to act” (PF 172).

Instead, Latour argues, we must begin by making the axiomatic move that characterizes an experimental metaphysics as such: we must begin by granting full metaphysical dignity to the buzzing multitude of objects that are presently and availably at work in the foreground of the world and then assume that they are capable of explaining themselves.

Latour refers to this axiom as the principle of irreduction. Its formal version looks like this: “Nothing is, by itself, either reducible or irreducible to anything else” (PF 158).

The brilliance of Latour’s formula shines in how it balances reduction and irreduction. On my account, as an axiom, it makes two distinguishable but soldered claims. Given an original multiplicity, (1) no object can be entirely reduced without remainder to any other object or set of objects, and (2) no object is a priori exempt from being reducible in part to any other object or set of objects.

Latour doesn’t describe things this way, but we might summarize the two halves of the principle of irreduction in terms of (1) resistance, and (2) availability. Every object resists relation even as every object is available for it. No objects are wholly resistant and no objects are entirely available. Objects are constituted as such by this double-bind of resistant availability.

Phenomenologically, the “visibility” of each object also depends on this double-bind of resistant availability. The visibility of an object depends on the varying degrees of resistance and availability that characterize it relative to a given line of sight.

Developing an image depends on optimizing the balance between an object’s resistance and its availability. Objects that are either too resistant or too available will fail to appear. Both the unavailable and the acquiescent tend toward invisibility. In one case, the object is too distant, too opaque, too transcendent. In the other, it is too close, too transparent, too immanent.

The phenomena of life, depending on our line of sight, may be either.

D. Science and Religion

For Latour, science and religion differ in their approach to life because they address two different kinds of invisibility. Where science aims to illuminate resistant but insufficiently available objects (like cell structures), religion aims to illuminate available but insufficiently resistant phenomena (like breathing).

Science is a third-person exposition of the unavailable. Religion is a first-person phenomenology of the obvious.

With this distribution of work, Latour means to untangle religion from the wide web of vestigial expectations that now only serve to hamper it. In defending religion, he says, “I am not longing for the old power of what was in effect not religion but a mixture of everything” – politics, science, philosophy, mythology, psychology, art, etc. (TS 217).

Religion is just one among many “different types of truth generators” or “regimes of enunciation” that help relate and articulate the multitude of objects at work in the world.

With respect to Latour’s take on religion, his originality lies less in his attempt to identify a more modest but still viable role for religion than in his striking redistribution of its responsibilities in relation to science. For Latour, religion and science do have distinguishable magisteria – but these magisteria are anything but “non-overlapping” and, more critically, Latour finds their commonly assigned division of labor laughable.

“What a comedy of errors! When the debate between science and religion is staged, adjectives are almost exactly reversed: it is of science that one should say that it reaches the invisible world of the beyond, that she is spiritual, miraculous, soul-lifting, uplifting. And it is religion that should be qualified as local, objective, visible, mundane, unmiraculous, repetitive, obstinate, sturdy.” (TF 36)

It is the work of science to build fragile bridges of carefully constructed, painstakingly tested, and incessantly extended chains of reference. It is science that gropes out into the dark beyond and bring us into relation with the distant and the transcendent. It is science that funds the miraculous, defends the counterintuitive, excavates the unbelievable, and negotiates with the resistant and unavailable.

But the invisibility of the resistant and transcendent is only one kind of invisibility. The invisibility of the available, obvious, familiar, local, repetitive, sturdy, matter of fact phenomena remains. This invisibility, while quite different in character, is just as difficult to breach.

Confusion results when it is assumed that all invisibility is reducible to a single kind, accessible from a single line of sight. In particular, confusion results when it is assumed that the invisibility proper to religious phenomena is identical to that of scientific phenomena.

On Latour’s telling, the story of our common confusion about science and religion goes something like this (though the analogy is mine).

To great applause, science works out dependable methods that correct for our near-sightedness and bring into focus distant, transcendent phenomena. This work is to be commended. However, full of its own success, science starts comparing itself with the Joneses. Science borrows some spectacles from religion (spectacles meant to correct for our hyperopia), puts them on, and then loudly complains that these glasses are useless. All of its hard-earned objects have suddenly become blurry or disappeared altogether!

The mistaken assumption that commonly follows – for religious folk and scientists alike – is that religious talk, because it doesn’t address the transcendent objects articulated by science, must then be referring to “an invisible world of belief” that is even more distant, even more transcendent, even more miraculous, than the one science itself is articulating.

As a result, both science and religion get backed into a corner. Scientists think such religious talk about the super-transcendent is ridiculous and religious folk feel compelled by the strength of their own practice – knowing that religion does in fact bring something crucial into focus – to make a public virtue out of believing in the super-absurd.

“Belief,” claims Latour in response, “is a caricature of religion exactly as knowledge is a caricature of science” (TF 45). Both of these caricatures need to be abandoned. Science doesn’t deal with obvious facts any more than religion deals with magical beliefs.

“The difference between science and religion would not be found in the different mental competencies brought to bear on two different realms – ‘belief’ applied to vague spiritual matters, ‘knowledge’ to directly observable things – but in the same broad set of competencies applied to two chains of mediators going in two different directions. The first chain leads toward what is invisible because it is simply too far and too counterintuitive to be directly grasped – namely, science; the second chain, the religious one, also leads to the invisible but what it reaches is not invisible because it would be hidden, encrypted, and far, but simply because it is difficult to renew.” (TF 46)

Science corrects for our myopia. Religion corrects for our hyperopia.

E. Presence

Sciences that dispense with the religion of science are more scientific. Similarly, on Latour’s account, religions that dispense with the religion of religion are also more religious.

In particular, Latour claims, such religions are more religious because they are more revelatory. Correcting for our farsightedness, religion draws us close to the invisible and brings into focus those bodies that science leaves untouched, those bodies that are hidden not because they are too distant and too transcendent, but because they are too close, too available, to be seen.

Religion displays the invisible, “but what is hidden is not a message beneath the first one, an esoteric message disguised in a banal message, but a tone, an injunction for you, the viewer, to redirect your attention and turn it away from the dead and back to the living” (TF 42).

To be unfamiliar with the tone of this message – with the breath-giving, life-saving tone of the living rather than the dead – is to be unfamiliar with religion itself. “If, when hearing about religion, you direct your attention to the far away, the above, the supernatural, the infinite, the distant, the transcendent, the mysterious, the misty, the sublime, the eternal, chances are that you have not even begun to be sensitive to what religious talk tries to involve you in” (TF 32).

Latour is impatient with believers and nonbelievers alike who insist on mystifying religion as a poor man’s science. “I always feel more at home with purely naturalistic accounts than with this sort of hypocritical tolerance that ghettoizes religion into a form of nonsense specialized in transcendence and ‘feel good’ inner sentiment” (TF 34).

“Religion,” he continues, “in the tradition I want to render present again, has nothing to do with subjectivity, nor with transcendence, nor with irrationality, and the last thing it needs is tolerance from open-minded and charitable intellectuals who want to add to the true but dry facts of science, the deep and charming ‘supplement of soul’ provided by quaint religious feelings” (TF 35).

Religion has no role to play in helping us escape this world. This very desire to escape, to turn away, to avoid the demanding familiarity of the present, the close, the nearby, is at the root of our crippling detachment from life. It is this desire to escape that leaves us bent over, vision blurred, coughing, wheezing, and breathless.

Religious practices intervene and force the breath of life back into our lungs by arresting our attention and prompting us to lower our gaze. “Religion, in this tradition, does everything to constantly redirect attention by systematically breaking the will to go away, to ignore, to be indifferent, blasé, bored” (TF 36).

To purposefully disappoint the drive to escape, “to divert it, to break it, to subvert it, to render it impossible, is just what religious talk is after” (TF 32).

Mark this definition: religion is what breaks my will to go away.

“It is religion,” Latour argues, “that attempts to access the this-worldly in its most radical presence, that is you, now, here transformed into a person who cares about the transformation of the indifferent other into a close neighbour, into the near by” (WS 464-465).

“The dream of going to another world is just that: a dream, and probably also a deep sin” (WS 473).

We practice myopia in order to quell our indifference and acquaint ourselves with life in its most radical presence. We sit in self-emptying silence in order to feel, again, the swell of our lungs and hear, again, the approach our neighbors.

Surrounded by silence, listen for that particular, peculiar tone that is the mark of religion.

“Religious talk, as we begin to see, cannot be about anything other than what is present. It is about the present, not about the past nor about the future. It speaks when we no longer strive for goals, far away places, novel information, strong interests, as though all had been replaced by a much stronger sort of urgency: it speaks of now, of us, of final achievements that are for now, not for later.” (TS 232)

Abbreviations:

(PF) Latour, Bruno. The Pasteurization of France. Translated by Alan Sheridan and John Law. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988.

(TF) ——. “‘Thou Shall Not Freeze-Frame’ or How Not to Misunderstand the Science and Religion Debate.” In Science, Religion, and the Human Experience. Edited by James D. Proctor. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

(TS) ——. “‘Thou Shalt Not Take the Lord’s Name in Vain’: Being a Sort of Sermon on the Hesitations in Religious Speech.” RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics, No. 39 (Spring 2001): 215-234.

(WS) ——. “Will Non-Humans Be Saved? An Argument in Ecotheology.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 15 (2009): 459-75.

___________________

Adam S. Miller is a professor of philosophy at Collin College in McKinney, Texas. He received his M.A. and Ph.D. in Philosophy from Villanova University, as well as a B.A. in Comparative Literature from Brigham Young University. His areas of specialization include contemporary French philosophy and philosophy of religion. He is the author of Badiou, Marion, and St Paul: Immanent Grace (Continuum, 2008), Rube Goldberg Machines: Essays in Mormon Theology (Kofford, 2012), and Speculative Grace: An Experiment with Bruno Latour in Object-Oriented Theology (Fordham University Press, forthcoming), the editor of An Experiment on the Word (Salt Press, 2011), and he currently serves as the director of the Mormon Theology Seminar. He contributes to the blogs The Church and Postmodern Culture and Times and Seasons.

Downloadable pdf file of “Practicing Myopia” on the Articles page.

Image: Giorgio Morandi (1890-1964), “Still Life.”

19 Responses to “Practicing Myopia”

  1. Peter K said

    I find this incredibly moving. It articulates a great many things that have been hovering around my mind in the last few years. A bugbear of mine is the way in which fundamentalists seem to present their faiths as “technologies of the infinite” – believe x, practise y and you will achieve z. My objection is an age old one, of course, where’s the “spirit”? Where’s the “soul”? (I see this recently, I think, in the Secular Buddhist movement – at least as it presents itself online.)

    Latour says “It is about the present, not about the past nor about the future. It speaks when we no longer strive for goals, far away places…”

    The great Welsh/English poet R. S. Thomas also wrote about the “receding future” and “imagined past”.

    The Bright Field

    I have seen the sun break through
    to illuminate a small field
    for a while, and gone my way
    and forgotten it. But that was the pearl
    of great price, the one field that had
    treasure in it. I realize now
    that I must give all that I have
    to possess it. Life is not hurrying

    on to a receding future, nor hankering after
    an imagined past. It is the turning
    aside like Moses to the miracle
    of the lit bush, to a brightness
    that seemed as transitory as your youth
    once, but is the eternity that awaits you.

  2. Tom Pepper said

    Adam,

    I’m trying to figure out your purpose here, and I’m just not sure I get it. It seems to me to be a very Kantian/Heideggerian idealist division between the bodily/being and the abstractions of rational thought. The myopia metaphor is a nice rhetorical move, but it really isn’t supportable—the abstractions of science surely don’t try to transcend the world in any way at all, and if they don’t they aren’t really scientific at all. That is, in real science (not the pop-culture myth of science) the abstraction is always only a useful way of doing something with the very real world in front of us.

    On the other hand, once you accept, as you seem to, the Rortian absolute divide between the realm of science and the realm of the human, then you accept that our subjective “close up” experience of the world is universal, unconstructed, and really true—or at least, it can be, if we strip it of all that hard thinking and just experience it purely. Science gives us cold distant abstractions about a world that is irrelevant, but in the human realm of art and philosophy and religion we are just playing language games, and everyone is always right as long as they “know” that they are only referring to the timeless truth of ineffable being. This, I would suggest, is the transcendent. We look so closely at the experience that we see deep into eternity.

    Ultimately, Kant and Heidegger both had to rely on the idea of a transcendent aesthetic experience, universal and guaranteed by God, in order to support their idealist duality. I really can’t see how what you are suggesting is any different. The “immanent” becomes just another term for the ineffably transcendent experience that cannot be “reduced” to language or abstraction or thought. If there is a god, well, then fine, it will all work out when we get to heaven. If there isn’t, then you’re just insisting that we pretend that the existing construal of the world is not humanly constructed, that we abandon any hope of a science of ideology which could guide our attempts to change that construal—you are reifying the contingent, the very worst kind of ideology.

    I was reluctant to respond to this, because, well, I’m kind of getting tired of being told I’m hostile, rude, mean, etc. every time I disagree with someone. But I’d kind of like to get a little discussion going on this topic. Why is the kind of “myopia” you’re suggesting not the same thing as the transcendent power of x-buddhist mindfulness? It seems to me that unless you are going to concede the existence of an immortal soul and a God (as Kant and Heidegger would), you’re going to just reproduce the “mindfulness’ problem–transcendence that pretends it is immanence.

    Sorry if this seems too combative,
    Tom

  3. Adam Miller said

    Re #1: Thanks, Peter. The verses are fantastic.

    Re #2: Good questions, Tom. I’m anxious to understand your position better. I haven’t followed all the discussions, but I’ve been struck by your posts.

    With respect to Latour, the primary aim of the principle of irreduction is to ban the possibility neatly dividing bodies from abstractions. The work of science involves no more abstraction than the work of religion does. Both involve the difficult work of organizing new assemblages of objects – with some contributing objects being formal, some material, some human, some nonhuman, etc. In every case, the assemblage is always an untidy and unfinished mess. So, for my part, I don’t accept this divide at all. in fact, the aim is to axiomatically ban the possibility of any such divide from the outset.

    As Glenn suggests, we might say that, for Latour, all lines of relation are horizontal. Science is horizontal, religion is horizontal, etc. They are both at work on the same flat, democratic, ontological field. In this sense, both “transcendence” and “immanence” get pretty precise new definitions: the transcendent is that which is too resistant to be visible given a line of sight (too small, too big, too complex, too withdrawn, whatever), the immanent is that which is too available (too familiar, too transparent, too ordinary) to be visible given a line of sight. Any object will be both at the same time, depending on the line of sight and these lines of sight are uncountable and only partially compatible.

    Take, in particular, this passage (cited above) from Latour: “The difference between science and religion would not be found in the different mental competencies brought to bear on two different realms – ‘belief’ applied to vague spiritual matters, ‘knowledge’ to directly observable things – but in the same broad set of competencies applied to two chains of mediators going in two different directions. The first chain leads toward what is invisible because it is simply too far and too counterintuitive to be directly grasped – namely, science; the second chain, the religious one, also leads to the invisible but what it reaches is not invisible because it would be hidden, encrypted, and far, but simply because it is difficult to renew.” (TF 46)

    Science and religion are not differentiated by their competencies (one is not abstract while the other is aesthetic, both are always both). And science and religion are not differentiated by being brought to bear on two different realms. They both use the same competencies and brought to bear on the same situations, but with the aim of producing two different kinds of assemblages.

    If I’ve understood you right, I’m especially interested, though, in your hopeful description of a “science of ideology.” Could you give me a nutshell account of how meditation plays into this science? Given your interest in Badiou (an interest I share), are you thinking about this science of ideology as a truth procedure? In particular, are you thinking about it as a specifically scientific truth procedure (i.e., as one of Badiou’s four truth types of truth procedures)?

  4. Tom Pepper said

    Adam,

    I think is see your position a little better, but I’m not sure I’m getting it. It kind of just sounds to me like reducing all knowledge to aesthetics. I thought you were suggesting a division between the abstract/unperceptible and the phenomenal/unthinkable, but you’re saying that their is no such distinction, right? That there is only one “mental competency,” but a difference in what these are applied to. I’m trying not to take the tired old approach of reducing what you’re saying to something familiar and then dismissing it, but I’m having trouble seeing how this is different from the kantian aesthetics of the sublime and the beautiful. That is, instead of the Rortian divide between science and the human realm, you’re taking all knowledge to be aesthetic? It is always achieving a perception halfway between thought and sense?

    From my perspective, there would still be a divide between the mind-independent and the human realm, between what Bhaskar calls the intransitive and the transitive dimension. Ideology is in the transitive dimension, but unlike the rortians I would say that we can in fact have scientific knowledge of it. Things like romantic love, for instance, aren’t falsifiable because they are real as long as we produce them as social practices–but we can have a scientific knowledge of them. This wouldn’t be, for me, a matter of being too close or too distant, but of having a different ontological status. Cell structure and love aren’t in the same category. To conceive of them both aesthetically denies use the capacity to gain scientific knowledge. From my perspective, the aesthetic dimension always needs to be removed from the examination of the intransitive dimension; the transitive dimension is aesthetic, though–we can have a science of the aesthetic process, but we don’t want to try to remove it.

    As for the role of meditation, I’m working on something about that. It wouldn’t look anything like the western verions of zazen at all, but would be much closer to the kind of “therapeutic” (for lack of a better term) philosophical endeavor Nagarjuna suggests.

  5. Adam Miller said

    Thanks, Tom, for the additional questions. A couple of thoughts:

    1. Tom says: “It kind of just sounds to me like reducing all knowledge to aesthetics. I thought you were suggesting a division between the abstract/unperceptible and the phenomenal/unthinkable, but you’re saying that their is no such distinction, right? That there is only one “mental competency,” but a difference in what these are applied to.”

    Yes, I think I still haven’t been clear enough.

    The key is that Latour does not claim that there is only one mental competency. His claim is that science and religion both employ “the same broad set of competencies” – set of competencies (plural) rather than one competency (singular). There is an aesthetic dimension to religious truth-making, but there is an aesthetic dimension to scientific truth-making as well. Similarly, there is a dimension of abstraction to scientific truth-making, but there is a dimension of abstraction to religious truth-making as well.

    Say a truth is something like the assembly of a set (Badiou’s strong sense of the word “truth” being the assembly of a very special kind of generic set). Latour’s point is that this work is, in the end, always very ordinary and very mundane. If religion assembles truths it does so with the same tools and in the same messy world as science does: both these kinds of truths are built with books, fingers, pens, grants, paper, calculations, shelter, organizational acumen, abstraction, empathy, language, test subjects, experiments, whole infrastructures of languages and disciplines and electricity and work spaces and funding from which things can be borrowed and repurposed, etc.

    The work is ordinary and the kinds of broad competencies needed to decode the human genome are the same kinds of broad competencies needed to pitch a sermon or build an oak cabinet.

    2. I like Bhaskar’s distinction between the transitive and the intransitive. I use very similar terms in my discussion of Latour’s principle of irreduction when I frame it in terms of the available and the resistant.

    I would just argue that the transitivity or intransitivity of an assemblage will always be relative to the line of sight one takes or to the situation in which one is working. Every object is always both transitive (available) in some respects and intransitive (resistant) in some respects, but this which aspects are which isn’t absolute and there is no single meta-situation or universal context against which this in/transitivity could be decided once and for all. I assume, though, that you’re probably in agreement with this relativity?

    3. Coming back to Badiou (though maybe this isn’t helpful, maybe you’re not using Badiou in this way) In your discussion of “ideology” do you have something like Badiou’s “state of the situation” in mind? Are you lining up the intransitive with a presented situation and the transitive with the represented state of a situation?

    Is a science of ideology a specific kind of scientific truth procedure (as one of Badiou’s four named truth procedures)?

    Is meditation a therapeutic practice meant to cultivate the interpellation of an individual as a subject to truth rather than simply as a subject to ideology?

  6. Hi Adam,

    Just a few random questions and comments.

    Does Latour offer any thoughts on the pragmatics of a “non-religious religion,” or of a religion in the sense he is giving the term (no belief or transcendence, etc.)? He seems to be laying out a program with such qualifiers as “local, objective, visible, mundane, unmiraculous, repetitive, obstinate, sturdy.” A major concern on this blog is the relationship between representational systems of thought (such as ideologies and our colloquial sense of “religion”) and a practice that helps bring to light such systems (while simultaneously remaining suspicious of its creating a new one). I would want to call the latter a “science of religion;” but you and Latour are turning that usage on its head. So, I am wondering what a “religious” program or practice might look like to Latour–and to you.

    Interestingly, science, as practice, can be left alone here. It can continue to go about its business just as it does. Latour seems to be only re-conceptualizing the nature of its work and results, not redefining its procedures. But that is not the case for “religion,” is it? For instance, Latour says that “Belief is a caricature of religion exactly as knowledge is a caricature of science.” This statement suggests to me that we only need to adjust our expectations for science, but, when it comes to religion, require a complete overhaul of its constituent factors. Science, I agree, is fooling itself when it claims to deal only and always “with obvious facts.” So that pretense needs to be called out and our expectations for science adjusted somewhat. When that happens, though, science will remain science. But religion, as we typically conceive of it, has deep within its very DNA a furious proclivity toward “magical beliefs.” (I even see this proclivity in the so-called “naturalized” (in Owen Flanagen’s sense), “secular,” “atheist,” and “mindfulness” forms of x-buddhism. I say “even” because their entire project is, ostensibly, rigorously to eliminate the magical and supernatural from x-buddhism.) But once we do that, religion is not religion. So, I am wondering what it is, what it would, in practice, look like.

    Much of what I think you are suggesting about a re-conceptualized “religion” here is useful in my own thinking about a “decimated practice,” one that produces a “devastated” subject. What has to be eliminated from thought and practice in order to re-direct our attention–and to do so “repetitively” and “constantly” as Latour says–to the “ordinary, commonplace stuff circulating here and now and in plain sight”? What, in actual, repetitive practice, can serve “to purposefully disappoint the drive to escape, ‘to divert it, to break it, to subvert it, to render it impossible'”?

    I have much more to say, but have to run to work…

  7. Tom Pepper said

    Adam, Re #5:

    I wouldn’t accept the kind of relativism you’re suggesting. The distinction between transitive and intransitive is a fixed distinction between those kinds of things that are relative, and those kinds of things that are absolutely NOT relative (although our knowledge of them may be of varying degrees of accuracy). The physical laws of the universe, whatever they might be, even whether they are in fact constant throughout the universe, are intransitive–our knowledge (or ignorance) of them doesn’t change them. On the other hand, something like romantic love is transitive, it is purely in the realm of humanly constructed ideology, and our knowledge of its psychological mechanisms very well may change it.

    I’m not really lining up the term ideology with Badiou’s concepts in any neat correspondence. Our ideology is part of the State of the Situation, but doesn’t include ALL of what is “represented” there–and certainly doesn’t include what is presented but not represented. The existing but not represented would be one of the things that enable us to break free of our ideology.

    I would say the a science of ideology would have to cross the lines of Badiou’s four truth procedures–it would need to consider aesthetics, love, politics–not in terms of how they produce “truths” but in terms of how they reproduce ideology.

    I would say that the goal of meditation, for me, would be to produce the subject of truth, as opposed to the reactionary or obscure subject. As you suggest, the work of forcing the truth into appearance is very tedious, long, and non-glamorous. Only the subject of truth would be up to that kind of diligent effort.

  8. Tom Pepper said

    Adam. re #5: Just one more point on the term “aesthetic”

    “There is an aesthetic dimension to religious truth-making, but there is an aesthetic dimension to scientific truth-making as well. Similarly, there is a dimension of abstraction to scientific truth-making, but there is a dimension of abstraction to religious truth-making as well.”

    I’m not completely sure how you’re using the term, but what I mean by “aesthetic” could not be separated out from or put in opposition to “abstraction.” I mean the term in the original sense, as in Kant’s “sensory manifestation of the idea,” as the category of practice which unites, in some fashion, the sensory/concrete/bodily/particular with the abstract/general/mental/universal. For Kant (to grossly oversimplify), the absolute irreconcilability of this duality is resolved by the existence of a universal principle of aesthetics: we can be sure our perceptions are correct and our thoughts are grounded because there is a universal category of aesthetic judgement. The best way, in fact the only way, to know that our thoughts have gone astray or our perceptions are inaccurate, is that they will lead to incorrect aesthetic tastes.

    When I say that your approach seems to be reducing all knowledge to aesthetics, I don’t mean to the purely perceptual, but to this Kantian aesthetics of the beautiful: knowledge becomes the pure balance of eternal opposites. For Badiou, I would suggest, this is perhaps the way “knowledge” works in a given situation, but this is not the same as “truth,” which would necessarily fail to be aesthetic in the Kantian sense.

    My suggestion would be that this aestheticizing of knowledge is a strategy of containment, an attempt to block the appearance of truth.

  9. Adam Miller said

    Sorry for the delay in responding. I’ve been out of town for a conference.

    Re #6: Good questions, Glenn. I think you’re on to something here, but I’m hesitant to see the differences between and religion in relation to their representations as too decisive. Is a critique of science’s representation in terms of “knowledge” any more or less devastating than a critique of religion’s representation in terms of “belief”? I think you’re right that science can still go about it’s work, engaging more or less effectively in its practices, even if its representation is distorted. Can’t religion still practice what it practices? People still go sit in pews, they still sing songs, they still read books, they still shake hands, they still make casseroles for the sick, they still kneel by beds, they still perform baptisms, etc. If religion was “really” about supernatural and miraculous stuff, wouldn’t it be a failure of world-historical proportions? Wouldn’t its failure be so painfully obvious only a daily and weekly basis that no one would bother to still practice? I guess I’m wondering: are religious people any more prone to gullible self-deception than other people? Than scientists? I don’t see how the substance of religious practice is any more “essentially” shaped by self-deception than scientific practices.

    Re #7: Tom, I agree that, for all practical purposes, some things are intransitive in relation to me in a given situation. But I think this intransitivity is de facto, not de jure. As for something like love, I don’t think I would describe it as “purely in the realm of humanly constructed ideology.” I don’t think that anything is purely ideological. Love involves the intransitive as well, especially as a truth procedure.

    Re #8: I think I’m following you, Tom, but your descriptions here seem to be reimporting the kind of Kantian idealist/dualist framework I thought you wanted to avoid. With respect to Badiou, I might say that an “event” would fail to be aesthetic in the Kantian sense, but that a truth procedure wouldn’t because it is by definition engaged in the nitty-gritty of reformatting knowledge. In general, though, I increasingly find Badiou’s whole picture a bit too clean and sharp. The ontology is too neat and tight and this makes both the problems and their proposed solutions look too stark, too dramatic, and too “revolutionary.”

  10. Tom Pepper said

    Adam: re#9, in my comment #8, I was not “reimporting” anything, I was trying merely to “reiterate” what the Kantian concept of aesthetics IS. My intention was to clarify my earlier comment about “aestheticizing” knowledge, suggesting that it is in fact the strong-constructivist approach Latour takes that is “reimporting” the Kantian aesthetic in new terms. I’m simply trying to point out that the correct original meaning of the term “aesthetic” was NOT the engagement with the “nitty-gritty,” but the striking of a balance between the particular (nitty-gritty, if you will) and the universal. My suggestion is that you seem to be under the impression that you are transcending and circumscribing the “aesthetic,” but that is only because you are misunderstanding aesthetics to mean dealing with particulars free of all abstraction, which has never been what aesthetics means except perhaps in some popular usages of the term.

    For Badiou, an event would fail to be aesthetic, and so would a truth procedure, because it fails to accept the correspondance or correlation of thought and sense, the reproduction of this correlationism being the goal of the State of the Situation. A truth procedure would have to follow an aesthetics of the sublime, not an aesthetics of the beautiful, and as DeMan pointed out many years ago the sublime fails to be aesthetic in the Kantian sense. No doubt from within the State of the Situation, from within the aesthetically “beautiful” correlation of thought and sense, Badiou’s ontology would have to look frighteningly “stark, dramatic, and revolutionary.”

    I hope I’ve made my question a bit clearer. This is the kind of thing, I think, that needs a concrete example at some point, or the miscommunication can be endless. Perhaps I can ask if you can give me some concrete idea of what part of the “intransitive” you think “love” might involve? That might give us something concrete to base the conversation on. From my perspective, there can be nothing at all “intransitive” about romantic love, since it would cease to exist if there were no more humans in existence–it is a creation of our minds, and so completely ideological. Without the existence of a world-transcending soul, there could be nothing intransitive about love, as far as I can see. Especially as a truth procedure: while truths may be intransitive, the procedure that brings them into appearance always exists in a World, and so is always transitive in Bhaskar’s sense.

  11. Adam Miller said

    That’s helpful, Tom. We’ve got a lot of balls in the air here. Negotiating the alignment of Badiou with Latour with Bhaskar with meditation isn’t something I’ve ever tried all at once before. I’m thinking out loud, but just trying has been helpful so far. Thanks for your patience.

    You say: “You seem to be under the impression that [with Latour] you are transcending and circumscribing the ‘aesthetic,'”

    Kind of. Let’s say that Latour’s strong (ontological) constructivism – a constructivism in which all beings (human and nonhuman, material and formal, etc) are treated as competing transcendental agents – fragments, distributes, and pluralizes the aesthetic as the “beautiful correlation of thought and sense.”

    Whether this just mires us irretrievably in the correlation is, then, the question.

    But I don’t think it necessarily does. For Latour, their is no such thing as the aesthetic, or the correlation. There are just overlapping but only partially compatible assemblages of aesthetics (plural) that produce local correlations of one agent with the other assembled agents. There is, though, no overarching aesthetic that gathers and organizes all the others and every relation of every kind leaves a (sublime) irreducible remainder that cannot be assimilated.

    In this sense, we could say that, for Latour, there is no such thing as an aesthetic of the beautiful. There are only competing aesthetics (plural) of the sublime.

    This produces, I think, a much looser, more ad hoc ontological field than we get in Badiou.

    If the above is intelligible, I take it that your concern would be that, with this banal-ization, fragmentation, and distribution of the sublime, we may have aestheticized the whole field and effectively ruined the sublime as a resource for a truth procedure?

  12. Adam (#9).

    Some more questions about Latour’s idea of “religion.” I think I am confused about it. There seems to be a serious equivocation of the term happening that makes it hard to get a hold of the matter.

    Why does Latour (or you) use the term “religion” at all? Does he want to revalorize religion? rehabilitate it? reconstitute it? He speaks of “Religion in the tradition I want to render present again.” Why render it present again? What is his concern about the loss of that mode of speaking? What is he hoping to preserve or re-activate in continuing to speak in such (spirtualized?) language? I ask because what he describes as “religion” would not be recognizable to anyone I know who considers himself a practitioner of religion. “Religion,” you say, “aims to illuminate available but insufficiently resistant phenomena (like breathing).” What is an example of a religion that aims to do that? A religion that is “a first-person phenomenology of the obvious” no longer needs the language of religion, does it? What would compel a person to retain such language? Don’t we have other, better terms to express what Latour, in your essay, expresses with “religion.” What am I missing here? Not knowing Latour, I wonder what it is about his larger project that would help clarify his usage of “religion” to name something that does not sound like religion at all. For instance:

    If religion was “really” about supernatural and miraculous stuff, wouldn’t it be a failure of world-historical proportions?

    Religion, as I understand the usage of the term, is “a failure of world-historical proportions.” What makes it a failure is that it does not generate the unique truths that constitute its sine qua non. Religion produces a good deal, for sure; but not the main goods. Those goods do remain irrevocably unavailable, because those do have to do with transcendence and irrationality. All the rest we would have without religion.

    Wouldn’t its failure be so painfully obvious only a daily and weekly basis that no one would bother to still practice? I guess I’m wondering: are religious people any more prone to gullible self-deception than other people? Than scientists? I don’t see how the substance of religious practice is any more “essentially” shaped by self-deception than scientific practices.

    The data coming out of the cognitive science of religion strongly suggests that—the wholesale failure of religion to produce its main meal here and now notwithstanding—people will still cling to their religious convictions. Similar, I think, to Latour’s insistence that we bring the same “mental competencies” to bear on different domains of human activity, the cognitive science of religion holds that religion is a wholly predictable result of the normal operation of human cognition. Particular mental systems get activated when we think about, for instance, non-physical supernatural agents. A tweaking of these systems gives rise to “religious” representations of quite ordinary human cognitive capacities. In view of the cognitive science of religion, religious people are “more prone to gullible self-deception than” scientists for one good reason: community. The religious community tolerates and even encourages certain types of thinking that a scientific community would neither tolerate nor encourage. The difference is not “essential;” it’s social.

    I wonder what you think of Barrett’s argument.

  13. Adam Miller said

    ASM: Good questions, Glenn. I’ll try a couple of responses below:

    Some more questions about Latour’s idea of “religion.” I think I am confused about it. There seems to be a serious equivocation of the term happening that makes it hard to get a hold of the matter.

    ASM: I think you’re right that there is some equivocation here with the term “religion,” but I suspect that even when talking about particular religious traditions the equivocation is largely a product of the thing rather than just our way of talking about it. (Though I don’t want to minimize my own contributions to the confusion!) Our relation to a tradition will always involve compromises, selections, reductions, abstractions, etc.

    Religion, as I understand the usage of the term, is “a failure of world-historical proportions.” What makes it a failure is that it does not generate the unique truths that constitute its sine qua non. Religion produces a good deal, for sure; but not the main goods. Those goods do remain irrevocably unavailable, because those do have to do with transcendence and irrationality. All the rest we would have without religion.

    ASM: I’m very sympathetic to the claim that the non-supernatural goods produced by religion could be had without religion. But I suppose I’m really skeptical that that we would have many of those goods without religion.

    Religious traditions provide a crucial infrastructure for doing certain kinds of things and, despite its weaknesses, this infrastructure can’t magically be replaced or simply disposed of – unless the hard work of building a new infrastructure has already been built. This, I think, is the main reason to go to the trouble of repurposing and adapting and recovering religion.

  14. Adam (#13).

    I should be clearer. By “equivocation” I mean that sometimes “religion” refers to the reconfigured version offered by Latour (referring to the present and available); and sometimes, the version he wants to replace (referring to the super-transcendent and unavailable). By “here” I mean in the article AND in the comments. I still wonder why we need the very term “religion” in order to speak about what is as near to hand as our breath. That’s my ignorance of Latour talking, probably.

    Religious traditions provide a crucial infrastructure for doing certain kinds of things and, despite its weaknesses, this infrastructure can’t magically be replaced or simply disposed of – unless the hard work of building a new infrastructure has already been built. This, I think, is the main reason to go to the trouble of repurposing and adapting and recovering religion.

    What are some examples of the kinds of things religious infrastructure affords society that would not be otherwise available? When I said in my comment that once we eliminate transcendence and irrationality from the religion infrastructure, we’d still have “all the rest,” I meant that the social and cultural aspects of religious traditions would still be with us: community, art, architecture, war, marriage, bigotry, making casseroles for the sick and elderly, singing songs, playing the organ on Sundays, holidays, myths of origin, etc. What do you have in mind when you suggest that much will be lost?

    Am I correct to think that the key part of your statement is “repurposing and adapting and recovering”? In some ways, I think certain Buddhist groups in the West are trying to repurpose, adapt, and recover tradition. Secular Buddhism, for example, repurposes the ancient ascetic tradition to address the needs of modern westerners. Doing so requires that they radically adapt that tradition. And, as they go about their adaptations, they suggest that they are recovering the original (or best) intent of the ancient tradition. Is that an example of what you have in mind?

    I am still confused about whether Latour is talking about thought or action–concept or praxis.

  15. Adam Miller said

    I think I understand better. There is some equivocation in how the word is used in the short piece. Sometimes it refers to a more traditional take, sometimes to the aspects of the tradition that Latour wants to foreground. There is, in religion, a strong impulse to implicate supernatural agents in religious business. I believe Latour’s argument is something like: invoking supernatural agents is just the common sense way of talking about the world for most human beings who have ever lived. However, it may no longer be the common sense way of talking for you and I. If so, we shouldn’t worry about it. We should just begin from where we’re at. Either way – supernatural agents or no – religion also has a long tradition of sheltering clear teachings and rigorous practices that strongly encourage the work of rendering ourselves present to the difficulty of what is nearby, to the neighbor, to the spirit/breath, to the text, to our own mortality, to the sky, etc.

    I think I understand better your second claim as well. What would be lost if we dropped talk of supernatural agents? If you’re right that religion is already a total failure in invoking them (though that’s a complicated claim), then we may not have lost much. If religion already gets along fine without it, what’s been lost? Though transcendence and (especially) “irrationality” are also very slippery, equivocal terms that we’d have to be careful applying. They’re local terms rather than global ones.

    Do we need the word religion to talk about what is as near to hand as our breath? I think you’re right that we don’t. But the fact of the matter is that the only reason I started paying any attention to my breath is because of my religious tradition(s). Theoretically, someone or something else could have done this work. But as a practical matter, I don’t have the faintest who it would have been or where it would have happened if it hadn’t happened at church.

    With respect to repurposing and recovering, for Latour’s part there is only repurposing – so of course we’re repurposing. That’s all any one (or object) ever does. There are no originals. There are things that people in the past have themselves repurposed that may now lie dormant (or largely so) that we can put back into circulation and repurpose, but there’s no sense of there being something “original” or “authentic” that we need to go back to.

  16. Bill Gayner said

    Adam, I enjoyed your article and the empathy you showed in your responses to the questions. I was puzzled by your emphasis on “religion is what breaks my will to go away.” I have experienced religious processes that emphasized breaking my will to go away. It strikes me that attempts to break one’s own or someone else’s will are based on a profound misunderstanding of the processes that support softening emotional defences so that we can be more present. This emphasis on breaking the will seems at odds with the empathy you so clearly exhibit. I wonder if you could help me understand your use of the phrase, for example, is some kind of ironic provocation intended in referencing the misuse of religious power?

  17. Adam Miller said

    Bill, thanks for the note. I’m a great admirer of Glenn’s edgy, punk, writing-aesthetic, but I can’t mimic it. A kind of white-bread over-earnestness is my most dependable quality. With respect to religion being “what breaks our will to go away,” the phrase is Latour’s. I think you’re right to urge us to be careful with that kind of language. But I’m inclined to think that it still gets at something very important. It touches on the way that, very dependably, the truth is going to be something that we resist, something that we would prefer not to see, something difficult and, like a burning iron ball, is something that’s really hard to swallow and, in response, a kind of cultivated discipline will be required on our part to not run. In some ways, the language of “break” is too strong, in others the language may not be strong enough 🙂 Is this your experience?

  18. Bill Gayner said

    Thank you for your response Adam. I agree that cultivating the discipline of participating in current experience is challenging. I take it while recognizing the need for caution, you still find in strong, aggressive language something that helps you in your struggle to cultivate this discipline? I wonder if this has an alchemical aspect: perhaps what you describe so modestly as “white bread over-earnestness” tastes better dipped in Glenn’s crushed chillies and Latour’s olive oil and balsamic vinegar? 😉

    It has been my experience that when “the will to go away” is present, it is part of current experience, so to attempt to break with it is to turn away from present experience.

    I have found that which stands in the way of intimacy with current experience is for the most part emotional defenses we developed to survive childhood. Attempting to break “our will to go away” feels to me like attempting to break the young parts of ourselves that could not bear to feel the truth of overwhelming developmental contexts. What I find helps is to arrive at a deep experiencing of and appreciation for the appropriateness of those defenses within the developmental contexts in which they were shaped. I have found “the will to go away” is something young and vulnerable within us that is waiting for us to establish the inner conditions of safety that allow for a deep making sense of these defenses so that they can soften and create space for perceptual/emotional/cognitive/motivational processes more oriented to current situations. These young self parts fall with relief into our arms and attention opens into the present with renewed interest and engagement.

    The language of breaking seems to fit better with how to handle particularly harsh introjects, but even here arriving at, even perhaps increasing the volume on them, is important before confronting them. And sometimes at the heart of a harsh inner bully I discover and rescue the young boy who had to internalize and model within himself that harsh abuse. And he falls with relief into my arms. I would say, be careful not to lose the baby with the bath water.

  19. Adam Miller said

    Yes. I don’t disagree. Much of what we’re flinching from is precisely, I think, a face to face encounter with this vulnerability.

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