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Response to Bruno Latour's "Thou shall not freeze-frame" (Martin Holbraad)

Response to Bruno Latour's "Thou shall not freeze-Frame"

Martin Holbraad, University College London (m.holbraad@ucl.ac.uk)

(Este texto, que acabou não sendo publicado por falta de tempo para a tréplica, foi escrito por Martin Holbraad como um comentário ao artigo de Bruno Latour "'Não congelarás a imagem', ou: como não desentender o debate ciência-religião", publicado em Mana. Estudos de Antropologia Social 10 (2): 349-376, 2004).

With his well-known taste for symmetry, Latour places religion and science on opposite poles of an axis of his own making: that of proximity and distance. Traditional philosophers of science assume that science is basically a sophisticated version of common sense, concerned with producing discourse that matches reality directly and transparently: there's the mat's cat, and there's the neuron firing. Latour has for long insisted that this is prejudice. In action, science is a much more delicate business, whose truth and objectivity lies in the piecemeal transformation of information. Through ingenious acts of artifice - in the field, the lab, the drawing board, the paper -, scientists seek to establish viable chains of reference that connect copiously with distant, obscure and hard to understand matters - regarding the firings of neurons and such - by transforming them at each stage into increasingly manipulable versions of themselves (they remain 'themselves' precisely to the extent that each link of the chain is connected). A symmetrical paradox holds for religion. Traditionally it has been assumed of Christianity at least (the point is moot, and we'll come to it presently) that faith is directed at the obscure and the unattainable: mysterious and subjective stuff that lies beyond the transparent objectivity of science. But just as the chimera of representational transparency in science results from bracketing off the long 'distances' traversed by scientists' fragile chains of reference, so the notion of transcendence in religion (the distance faith is supposed to 'leap' across) ignores the intimacy religious expression is meant to elicit. For in religion, as in love, the message is the medium. Latour chooses Catholic art, but the point could be made as well with reference to prayer, the Eucharist or the Life and Passion of Jesus: each of these 'speech-acts' conspires to efface its own propositional force so as to render present, in the act, the intimacy of relation itself.

One of the many merits of Latour's sermon is that without apology it makes explicit the messianic tendency in much of his previous work. When it comes to science, and now religion, Latour is nothing if not a combative revisionist. You thought science was about getting the facts straight, but let me tell you why it isn't! You thought religion was groping at the unknowable, but let me show you how it's about embracing what is most present! But, attractive as one may find both theses, the problem is precisely that they are more than provocative. [1] One thing is to suggest a radical re-interpretation of science and religion - in conversation with other commentators, such as anthropologists and philosophers - and quite another is to preach a wholesale revision of scientific and religious - Catholic - 'cosmology', if one may speak in these terms. From an anthropological perspective, the risk is not so much that of speaking over the heads of one's informants, as that of speaking against them, by way of conversion. No anthropologist should dream of 'correcting' his informants. It seems that Latour is giving himself this licence, maybe because his informants are less like natives and more like colleagues - here scientists and the putatively pious. With regard to the argument on science, I wouldn't be surprised if the resistance he encounters among practitioners ('do you believe in science?', as he reports in Pandora's Hope) is due not just to the radical nature of his argument, but also to the fact that it gives the lie to scientists' own common sense view of what it is they do. More than analytical challenges, Latour's arguments amount to indictments of false consciousness. And now, in good faith, we have heresy!

The source of Latour's revisionism is his trenchant anti-representationism, the root of his symmetrical argument on science and religion. There is no ontological discontinuity between word and world - science is no mirror of nature -, and, remarkably, there is no such discontinuity between (human) word and God either. Statements about the world and about God should not be taken as attempts to determine how things stand 'out there' or 'up there', for each statement creatively re-casts our relationship with what it is we talk about: in science words bring the most obscure facets of the world closer by transforming them, and in religion words - and paintings - erase the very possibility of distance between word and God by rendering Him present in the utterance. In fact there is an important logical complementarity between Latour's respective points about science and religion. For his point that words can perform ontological work by transforming what they are commonly deemed to represent - as in science - presupposes that the representational capacity of words may be effaced - as in religious speech-acts. Science, in this sense, emerges as a peculiarly pious exercise. A kind of marathon-run of religious intimacy, the 'circulating references' that bind the world and science together are 'transformations' only if premised on ontological proximity - the same proximity that religious speech is supposed to elicit. God as Actor Network, or something like it.

In anthropology at least, anti-representationism has been a revolution - to my knowledge the most recent we've had. As vigorously as M. Strathern, Viveiros de Castro and Wagner, Latour has articulated a frame within which old anthropological problems are dissolved. For example, in the anthropology of religion, the so-called problem of belief has been shown up as a simple category mistake. As Latour says, only if you think religious utterances are statements of fact can you even raise the question of how people can believe them. But this is just the problem: whether Latour likes it or not, Christians do tend to think just that - ask Pascal! Just like many scientists assume that toil in the lab is in the service of accurate representations of the world, so Christians are often rather worried about the effort they put into their faith, and this effort is construed in the face of doubts that seem to be of a straight representational nature (e.g. how can God and palpable evil coexist?). Latour's vision, by contrast, treats Christianity on the same footing as what he has infelicitously called 'fetishism' elsewhere. God is not the object of a representation but the subject of a relationship that needs to be enacted afresh, be it by means of paintings that 'unsay' what they seem to represent or by consecrated fetishes that simply are what they represent. In fact, insofar as vestiges of Victorian evolutionism still animate Western thinking about religion, Latour's argument entails an attractive paradox. Christian art here emerges as a peculiarly underdeveloped or logically incomplete version of the 'fetishes' that anthropologists traditionally study in animist, totemist or polytheistic contexts. In conspiring to redirect the viewer's gaze from the transcendent image of the Saviour to our immanent relationship with Himim, a Caravaggio is grappling with a problem the primitives 'solved' long ago (in our manner of speaking) by allowing gods to reside in their images. But Latour should be unable to comment on this paradox. In doing so, he would have to admit that the 'problem' of Christian art is a function of the integral role of transcendence and representation in Christian cosmology. And in not doing so, he fails to offer any interesting distinction between Christianity and - say - animism, an ethnographically blunt position.

More than a question of good manners towards one's informants, this lack of ethnographic sophistication indexes what I think is the most pressing theoretical/tactical problem for militant anti-representationist analyses. The problem is characteristic of revolutions that reach maturity, as anti-representationism has, insofar as Latour, Strathern, Viveiros de Castro etc. now constitute orthodoxy for many of the more creative anthropologists of my own generation. What to do with the rulers - bourgeois representationism! - once they've been defeated? (ok, conceptually and in limited circles.) Latour's option in this sermon is to flog them: let's show how the whole world, and God too, can be repainted anti-representationally, thus lifting the false dominion of representation yet further. But the risk with this is that under the cloak of vanguard radicalism, militants repeat the injustices of their erstwhile persecutors. For example, Latour rightly ridicules those who, having interpreted religion as a set of frankly unreasonable representations ('beliefs'), proceed to explain it away on psychological grounds, as a feel-good "supplement of the soul". But isn't his own strategy regarding the 'modernist constitution' of representationism essentially the same? Having shown that distinctions between world and word, fact and value, nature and society, etc. are ontological chimeras, he proceeds to explain them away as political conveniences (re. his fascinating discussion of Plato in Pandora's Hope). In either case the conceptual import of the phenomena discussed - viz. religion and representationism - is kept in the box, analytically at arm's length, and thus pretty hopeless.

Why be so asymmetrical about asymmetry? It seems to me that a more consistent strategy would be to keep asking new questions. If, from a Latourian point of view, modern common sense seems exotic and naïve, then let's take the natives seriously, just like we would (or ought to) when studying 'fetishism' or whatever. The question, then, would be this: taking the sophisticated analytical frame developed by Latour and other non-representationists as the conceptual baseline - as a kind of new 'common sense'-, what further conceptual work is required in order to make sense of representationist assumptions? That further analytical work is indeed required follows from the fact that, as things stand at present in the non-representationist camp, representationism can only appear as naïve falsehood - the bane of Latour's relentless rhetoric. In other words, commonsense representationism is to Latour (et al) as, say, 'fetishism' is to commonsense representationism. So, if Latour has arrived at his current position by revising modern common sense in light of such phenomena as 'fetishism' in India (and the practice of science in France, art in Catholicism, etc.), then the symmetrical thing to do now is to see how far non-representationism needs to be revised in light of commonsense representationism.

Indeed, note: just as we don't expect the serious study of 'fetishes' to turn us into fetishists ('going native'), there is no need to fear that taking representationism seriously will turn us willy nilly into representationists. In other words, what I am proposing is neither a backward move nor some sort of compromise. For the task of developing non-representationist concepts that make sense of representationism cannot be a matter of a retreat to modernist naiveté, precisely because, as Latour's formidable critique has helped show, representationism cannot make sense of itself. Hence such 'constitutional' articles as truth by correspondence, arbitrary signs, referential meanings, causalist metaphysics, subject/ predicate semantics, mind/ body distinctions, individuals and social contracts, free will and personal responsibility, etc. are no longer to be discredited as analytical adversaries waiting to be debunked. Rather they are best treated as ethnographic data; magisterial cultural pyrotechnics that beg sophisticated anthropological analysis, by which I mean simply the search for novel concepts that may make sense of such 'bizarre' data.

Christian cosmology may serve as an example of the kind of project I have in mind. Let's take it as a given - rather than a sin, as Latour has it - that ontological rupture is at the heart of Christianity. To put it in emblematic terms, after the Fall, Man is estranged from God: we no longer enjoy Him in immanence, but rather must have faith in Him as a transcendental guarantor of Creation. Sure, He gave us his Son and the Sacra as media for our return to Him. But this is only testimony to the fact that the distance is there - a (the) problem and a predicament, and not a chimera or a category mistake. One of the reasons Latour prefers to dissolve the problem rather than face up to it must surely be that ontological distance (transcendence) to him smacks of representationism. The last thing he wants to do is add Man v. God to the apples and pares of modernist 'purification'. His game is to show that, if you look closely and carefully enough, all that seems like rupture is in fact continuous, so that terms that seem like digital negations of each other (either Man or God, word or world) are really ontological transformations of one another - related on a monistic (or hyper-pluralist, n-dimensional - it's the same thing) plane by what French philosophers sometimes call 'difference'. Science, love talk and religious art are so many ways of generating relations between things by transforming them. But Christian cosmology poses a challenge. How might this apparently asphyctic universe of relations (the Latourian 'Network') accommodate the kind of negativity implicit in Christian assumptions about transcendence, without falling back into the mysterious antinomies of modernist ontology? How, in other words, might the Network itself be extended (transformed, redefined) so as to include its own putative opposite?

I don't have a full answer to these questions. But it may be worth sketching out the sort of approach one might take to get there. The first point to note is that, ironically, Latour's anti-representationism presents us with an antinomy (a kind of meta-purification). On the one hand we have the armoury of the Network, based on the logical priority of transformative relations (relations precede entities in the sense that the latter are the products of ontological transformation, viz. relations of 'difference'). On the other we have representationism as the enemy, based on the logical priority of self-identical entities, separated from each other by extensive gaps of negativity (either this, or that). So the question is how the key concepts of relation and negation might be brought under a single analytical scheme - how they may be 'hybridized', if you like. What makes such a project an extension of non-representationism is the fact that rather than negating either concept (as Latour does with negation itself), we seek to bring them together by transforming both of them. That is to say, since 'ordinary' concepts of relation (sensu Latour et al) and negation (the either/or logic of representation) are antinomous, the task is to redefine them in an 'extraordinary' way that would overcome the antinomy - to create new concepts, as Deleuze has it.

A clue of how this might be done lies, I think, in the last section of Latour's sermon, where he contrasts the movement of the relational transformations that ('true') science and religion involve with the 'freeze framing' stasis of representationism. Though lightly scripted into Latour's text, this question of motility goes to the heart of the matter regarding the relationship between relation and negation. Inasmuch as the Network constitutes in transformations, it follows that the priority of differential relations over self-identical entities in non-representationism should be supplemented by the logical priority of motion over rest: the Network is not only a relational field but also a motile one. This is important because, as I propose to show, it renders explicit a sense in which negativity is actually constitutive of transformative relations, though this sense is appropriately different from that of negation ordinarily construed.

Consider an ontological transformation from A to B. As a transformation of A, B is not just related to A (viz. 'A - B') but is also the product of it, i.e. the two are related by a vector ('A -> B'). Now we may ask: how might this vectoral relation be distinguished from another (e.g. A -> C, B -> C, C -> B, C -> D, etc.)? The question seems hard to answer because questions of 'distinction' call to mind ordinary senses of negation and identity (e.g. A -> B 'is not' A -> C), which are obviously barred for our non-representational purposes. Rather what is needed is a conceptualisation that would give the same results (distinguishing, say, A -> B and A -> C) in a non-representational frame, i.e. without appeal to 'either/or' negations. Or, to put it conversely, the question is whether one can retain criteria of distinction (of 'negativity' in a peculiarly minimal sense) in a purely 'positive' logical universe, where the only available connective is 'and' - the relational connective, as Viveiros de Castro has discussed (Viveiros de Castro 2003).

The answer would appear to be obvious: in a positive universe distinctions must be made in positive terms, i.e. not as a matter of this 'or' that, but as one of this 'and' that. But this simple reversal - which is really just a restatement of the premise of non-representationism - has consequences that are as important as they are counter-intuitive. Spelt out in terms of our example, the principle states that A -> B and A -> C are distinct because (A -> B) and (A -> C). That is to say that in the radically positive logic of non-representationism, a given transformation can be distinguished from another inasmuch as there is a third one that combines them both. So rather than distinguishing a transformation in terms of what it is not, we now distinguish it in terms of what it becomes, and 'becoming' here must be understood as the transformation that occurs when transformations are combined - a positive act of fusion. Somewhat profoundly, then, the act of distinction is itself a transformation: to distinguish things is to change each of them by bringing them together. (Hence, by the way, the Wagnerian idea that in non-representational logic epistemological questions - how to distinguish - turn into ontological ones - how to create. Or to put it in pop 20th century physics terms, to know something is to change it.)

The point to note, however, is that while these 'creative distinctions' are transformative relations just like the transformative relations they combine, there is nevertheless an important logical asymmetry at play here. For, while distinctions encompass the transformations they distinguish, the opposite clearly is not the case. E.g. 'A -> B' and 'A -> C' are parts of '(A -> B) and (A -> C)' but the latter is not a part of each of them. The point can be put in Aristotelian terms: [2] 'A -> B' and 'A -> C' have the potential to transform into '(A -> B) and (A -> C)', and the latter actualises that potential. So, simply, distinctions actualise potentialities. In fact this is precisely the advantage of seeing relations in motile terms, as vectors. For the asymmetry introduced, as it were, by adding an arrow to the end of a line is constitutive to the logic of ontological transformation, which plays out as a cumulative movement from relatively simple potentialities to relatively complex actualisations.

The crux of my argument is that this asymmetry of movement - nothing other than its direction - provides an opening for redefining (transforming, distinguishing) negation in non-representational terms. Return to the example. Representationally speaking, A -> B is distinguished from A -> C because A -> B 'is not' A -> C. Non-representationally, they are distinguished because they can transform each other by combination, so as to produce a further transformation, (A -> B) and (A -> C). In the former case negation refers straightforwardly to the external and extensive differences that distinguish A -> B from A -> C as self-identical units. But in the latter case a kind of negation enters the picture as well, not in the logical form of 'not', but as a kind of 'not yet' - the positive 'not' of potentiality. For now the distinction between A -> B and A -> C is recast as a matter of what each of them can become (viz. '(A -> B) and (A -> C)'); as a matter, in other words, of internal and intensive self-difference, projected at one step remove as a potential transformation. A paradoxical expression seems fair: in the motile Network of non-representationism everything is what it is because of what it isn't yet (though one would be tempted to hyphenate this as 'is-not-yet', to show that what is at issue here is not an ordinary privative negation, but rather the positive negation of 'potential' - the one school teachers manage so well in their reports).

Now, I am under no illusion that these tentative abstractions are adequate as a sketch of the 'motile logic' of non-representationism. [3] But I think they do suggest that Latourian concepts may well admit further elaboration so as to allow a more sympathetic engagement with Christian cosmology, and not least with the notion of transcendence. Recall Latour's central claim, that Catholic art reveals our proximate relation to God by conspiring to cancel the possibility of representation. The problem, I claim, is that for Catholics our relation to God is not initially proximate, since our predicament after the Fall is estrangement, i.e. the transcendence of God is not an illusion but a cosmological premise. Unlike Latour's notion of intimacy (analytically cast as the 'relation'), the idea of motility (the 'vector') is able to render transcendence as an irreducible dimension of our relationship with God. On this analysis, transcendence is not to be understood as a mysterious alterity, characteristic of representationist dualisms (the incommensurability of man v. God). Rather it should be taken as a logical constituent of a particular kind of relationship, namely that of transformation, properly construed as a motion that relates terms (man and God) always at one logical step removed, as a potentiality is related to its own actualisation. Man is what he is because of what he is-not-yet, the 'yet' here being that of salvation - the hope of the immanence of God.

On this basis one may hazard an alternative interpretation of the art works Latour discusses. As part of his anti-representationist strategy, Latour finds it necessary to discount 'traditional defences' of religious icons - that they are not intended as objects of idolatrous adoration but as copies that remind us of the original. Certainly, the operative contrast of copy v. original reminds us - the analysts - too much of obsolete representational thinking, and hence Latour's distaste. But in this context the bathwater to the representationist baby is the guiding iconodule contrast, between Christian icons and Christian sacra. For certainly the contemplation of a Caravaggio or even a Byzantine panagia was never meant to be on a par with liturgical acts of worship, such as the Eucharist, and this is surely the main import of the 'traditional defence' of icons. I would suggest that this crucial distinction can be preserved, provided we do not heed the knee-jerk anti-representationsit impulse to interpret talk of copies and originals in ordinary dualist terms. On such an account, Latour's fascinating notion of 'inner iconoclasm' would require a different analytical spin. The point of the 'kenosis' of Christian art is not to short-circuit the viewer's representationist assumption so as to reveal Him as being 'here with us', for in Christian truth He is only properly here with us when we take Holy Communion. Rather, the lesson of kenosis would be that His peculiar (divine) way of being here with us is by not being fully here, an injunction to embrace Him for what He is to us, namely our own potential, with us always one step removed, in transcendence.


[1] By the way, the force of Latour's argument on religion stems less from the originality of the ideas themselves and more from his willingness to apply them in the relatively dusty field of Catholic art and theology. Inspired by speech-act theory and Peircean semiotics, the guiding notion that religious speech-acts bring about relationships (rather than representing contestable facts) has been elaborated most famously in the study of ritual, by Bloch, Tambiah, and Rappaport.

[2] A vocabulary favoured notably by Viveiros de Castro.

[3] For example, an apparently crucial question that has been dogging me while writing this -and for which I have no answer- is whether one would need to specify the conditions under which a particular 'distinction' (transformation of transformations) might actualise, and, if so, how might these be expressed non-representationally.