French Philosophy Today paperback now shipping

I just received my copy of French Philosophy Today in paperback. You can find it on Amazon here.

Alain Badiou, Quentin Meillassoux, Catherine Malabou, Michel Serres and Bruno Latour: this comparative, critical analysis shows the promises and perils of new French philosophy’s reformulation of the idea of the human.

See here for chapter summaries.

French Philosophy Today paperback now on Amazon pre-order

French Philosophy Today. New Figures of the Human in Badiou, Meillassoux, Malabou, Serres and Latour

I am delighted to announce that the paperback edition of French Philosophy Today is now (finally!) available for pre-order on Amazon. The U.S. site has it at $39.95 and most European sites set the price at around €25. Curiously, has the paperback at £150, which I assume is a mistake soon to be corrected.

Here is a series of posts I wrote when the book was first published, summarising its content chapter by chapter.

French Philosophy Today reviewed at NDPR

French Philosophy Today. New Figures of the Human in Badiou, Meillassoux, Malabou, Serres and Latour

French Philosophy Today has just been reviewed over at Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews. Here are some highlights:

Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s famously defined philosophical production as concept creation. If they are correct, then Watkin’s work is not just a scholarly commentary of philosophy but also itself an inventive philosophical work.

If Alain Badiou, the first French thinker analyzed in the book, is to be believed, then philosophers are his country’s greatest export. Certainly those who want to keep abreast about what is happening in France today in regards to this export should pick up Watkin’s book.

This book is relevant to anyone who is interested in the scholarly methodology and creative enterprise of syntopically reading multiple philosophical oeuvres together. Watkin’s bibliographic thoroughness and analytic meticulousness is impressive. It appears that he has read almost anything of relevance to the topic. The texts he references include not just philosophical works from various eras, schools and geographies but also works from theology, the humanities, social science, natural sciences and mathematics.

Watkin’s formulations are rigorous and precise. Through his careful reading and evaluation of the texts by the five French philosophers, Watkin introduces an arsenal of new conceptual technologies and divisional schemas for understanding the question of the human.

See here for chapter summaries of the book.

French Philosophy Today: Summary of Chapter 6 – Bruno Latour

French Philosophy Today, New Figures of the Human in Badiou, Meillassoux, Malaobu, Serres and LatourThis is the sixth in a series of posts providing short summaries of the chapters in my latest book, French Philosophy Today: New Figures of the Human in Badiou, Meillassoux, Malabou, Serres and Latour. For further chapter summaries, please see here.

Chapter 6 considers the figure of the human that emerges in Bruno Latour’s An Inquiry into Modes of Existence and his ‘Facing Gaia’ lectures. Like the other thinkers discussed, Latour neither repeats nor discards previous notions of humanity but translates them in a gesture that can be traced all the way back to his doctoral work on the theologian of demythologisation Rudolf Bultmann. In his attempts to elaborate a figure of the human that follows neither the structure nor the emancipation narrative of modernity, Latour (like Serres) develops a multi-modal approach. The human is an amalgam of multiple modes of existence, and cannot be isolated within, or adequately narrated in, any single one. This dispersal mitigates the danger of Serres’s singular Great Story acting as a host narrative of humanity. In addition, Latour avoids the problems inherent in a host capacity approach by distributing both capacities and substance across human and nonhuman actors in unatomisable collectivities. Whereas the host capacity and host substance approaches seek to understand the human by looking within, Latour insists that the human only becomes comprehensible when we look outside and around. His 2013 Gifford Lectures both develop and challenge themes from the Modes of Existence project, reasserting the centrality of the human now in the new form of the ‘Earthbound’, a non-modern anthropos defined in terms of its limits and its multiple attachments to its world.

In this Sunday’s Age and Sydney Morning Herald I’m quoted talking about robots, consciousness and Descartes

With the publication of my book on contemporary limits and transformations of humanity coming out next month I had the chance this week to talk with John Elder of The Sunday Age about the future possibility of rights for robots. John’s article came out today in The Sunday Age and the Sydney Morning Heraldwith the title “What happens when your robot gets ambitious?

In the course of a stimulating conversation with John I argued that one of the main reasons our society finds the question of robot rights so hard — and so scary — to answer today is that we moderns are still suffering from a Cartesian hangover that makes us to see the world as divided into the two categories of “subjects” (human beings) and “objects” (everything else); we load all agency and power onto the subject side of the equation, with the result that everything non-human is thought to be passive and inert (readers of Latour’s We Have Never Been Modern will find themselves on familiar ground here, as will those versant with Michel Serres’s discussions of subject and object in The Parasite and elsewhere). If robots were to have rights in such a way of thinking, then it would mean that they would have crossed over the subject-object abyss and become “one of us” or even perhaps made “in our image”.

The problem with this view of things, though, is that the two-speed gearbox of subject and object is really not up to the task of parsing out the variegated and complex ways we relate to technology (including robots) today, never mind in the future, and I argue that we need something more sophisticated than the all-or-nothing subject-object dyad if we are to do justice to complex ways in which humans interact with increasingly sophisticated and humanoid robots, as well as with technology more generally.

Hollywood blockbusters aside, it’s not a question of “humans versus robots”, but rather we humans ourselves are irreducibly technological beings: strip away from a human being all the technology and technique (the building of dwellings, cultivation of crops, language, social customs, rituals, religions and symbols, tools, art, complex social groups…) and what you are left with is no longer a human being. As Michel Serres is fond of saying (see YouTube clip below), everyone carrying a laptop today is like Saint Denis walking around with their head under their arm: we outsource significant quantities of our cognitive processing to technology as well as much of our manual work to tools, chemical compounds and engines. That is not some alien technological intrusion into a pristine and untroubled non-technological humanity; it is who, as human beings, we are, who we always have been, and who we will be in the future, no doubt with ever more sophisticated ways of building technology into our existence. Technology in general and robots in particular do not threaten our humanity; without it (and them) we would not be human to begin with.

What about the question of robot consciousness though? Well, it’s certainly an important question, but we make a grave error if we assume that it is the only, or even the salient, question in the public debate about any eventual robot rights. I argue that there’s more to the question of robot rights than whether robots are conscious or not, for the good reason that there is more to human rights than the fact that we humans are conscious. Our finitude and neediness–to take just one set of examples–also irreducibly inform the discourse of human rights, and it is unclear how limiting factors like the need for rest and for recreation, or having a family (or even oneself) to support, would pertain to robots. The cry of the Australian Trades Unions in the 1850s was “8 Hours labour, 8 hours recreation, 8 hours rest”, a demand that reflects not only human consciousness but human finitude and the web of relationships into which human beings are born.

If not consciousness, then what about capacity? Well, if we define robots’ status or access to rights by what they can do (think rationally, use language, beat humans at board games…) then we are, at least implicitly, consenting to making one capacity or a suite of capacities the shibboleth of human rights too, and in the new book I argue that this “capacity approach” is a dangerous position to hold. We shouldn’t make human capacities the gatekeepers of moral equality or of the right to have rights, because exceptions can always be found to whatever capacity is chosen and it is often some of the weakest and most vulnerable who are left outside the circle of human rights if entry is granted on the basis of this or that capacity. On this basis, capacity should not be our yardstick for assessing robot rights either. It is much too blunt an instrument.

The Age--What happens when your robot gets ambitious

Bookending the crisis of modernity: Latour is finishing what Nietzsche mistakenly started

Nietzsche Latour

I’m currently writing the final chapter of The Human Remains, addressing Bruno Latour’s modes of existence project and work on Gaia in relation to Serres, Malabou, Meillassoux and Badiou’s accounts of the human. It’s all hands to the pump and there is little time to expatiate on this blog, but I couldn’t resist quickly drawing attention to one striking Neitzschean resonance in Latour’s We Have Never Been Modern. One passage in NM struck me as reading inescapably like a “translation” (to use that pregnant Latourian term) of Nietzsche’s parable of the madman from Die Fröhliche Wissenschaft, and handily enough this resonance provides a convenient vignette of something larger at stake in Latour’s thought: Nietzsche and Latour stand as bookends to the crisis of modernity. Here are the two passages side by side, Nietzsche first…

Do we hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine decomposition? Gods, too, decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.  How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us?[1]

Haven’t we shed enough tears over the disenchantment of the world? Haven’t we frightened ourselves enough with the poor European who is thrust into a cold soulless cosmos, wandering on an inert planet in a world devoid of meaning? Haven’t we shivered enough before the spectacle of the mechanized proletarian who is subject to the absolute domination of a mechanized capitalism and a Kafkaesque bureaucracy, abandoned smack in the middle of language games, lost in cement and Formica?  Haven’t  we  felt  sorry  enough  for  the  consumer  who  leaves  the driver’s seat of his car only to move to the sofa in the TV room where he is manipulated by the powers of the media and the postindustrialized society?![2]

Nietzsche and the other preachers of the death of God are, according to the Latour of Facing Gaia, cosy “Epicurean tourists” who offer us a meal of disenchantment and meaninglessness, the taste of which is extinguished for Latour by stronger foods, namely Gaia and the anthropocene:

But it is only now, when geostory unfolds, that we realize how cosy it was to preach the ‘death of God,’ to frighten ourselves with the ‘absurdity’ of life, and to delight in the happy task of critique and deconstruction: those who used to enjoy those games remained like epicurean tourists comfortably seated on the shore, safely protected by the ultimate certainty that Nature at least will always be there, offering them a totally indifferent but also a solid, eternal ground. ‘Suave mari magno turbantibus aequora ventis.’ This time: ‘Shipwreck with spectators!’[3]

Latour is finishing what Nietzsche (mistakenly) started, using some of the German’s own stylistic tools to get the job done.


[1] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science (1882, 1887) para. 125; Walter Kaufmann ed. (New York: Vintage, 1974), pp.181-82.

[2] Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993)  115.

[3] Bruno Latour, Facing Gaia, 110.

A table showing who is part of the new materialism, and an argument as to why it is not a “turn”

I’m currently writing the introduction to The Human Remains, discussing the figure of the human in the new materialism. I thought I would share the table I drew up of all the thinkers identified as part of the new materialism in different monographs and collected volumes. I have excluded individual journal articles from the list below in order to keep it under a page, and the table also excludes occasional references to the term “new materialism” by writers in the list (Catherine Malabou, for example, uses the term on a number of occasions).

Some of these texts employ the “new materialism” tag explicitly, while others have been included because the themes they identify in contemporary thought overlap substantially with at least some of the main concerns of NM. I was inspired by the table drawn up by Joe Hughes in his review of Ian James’s The New French Philosophy for NDPR.

If you think I’ve missed any important entries, let me know and I’ll update the table. It does not attempt to be exhaustive, but it does attempt to include all the main book-length treatments of the new materialism. The full bibliographical references are given below the table.

new materialist thinkers, ordered alphabetically

Bryant, Levi, Nick Srnicek, and Graham Harman, eds. The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism and Realism. Melbourne:, 2011.

Coole, Diana, and Samantha Frost. New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010.

Crockett, Clayton, B. Keith Putt, and Jeffrey W. Robbins. The Future of Continental Philosophy of Religion. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2014.

Crockett, Clayton, and Jeffrey W. Robbins. Religion, Politics, and the Earth: The New Materialism. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.

Dobrin, Sidney I. Ecology, Writing Theory, and New Media: Writing Ecology. London: Taylor & Francis, 2011.

Dolphijn, Rick, and Iris van der Tuin. New Materialism: Interviews and Cartographies. Ann Arbor, MI: Open Humanities Press, 2012.

Galloway, Alexander R. Les Nouveaux Réalistes. Paris: Editions Léo Scheer, 2012.

Gratton, Peter. Speculative Realism: Problems and Prospects. London: Bloomsbury, 2014.

Hallward, Peter. “The One and the Other: French Philosophy Today.” Angelaki 8, no. 2 (2003).

James, Ian. The New French Philosophy. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2012.

Johnston, Adrian. Prolegomena to Any Future Materialism: The Outcome of Contemporary French Philosophy. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2013.

Mullarkey, John. Post-Continental Philosophy. Transversals. edited by Keith Ansell-Pearson London: Continuum, 2006.

Pfeifer, Geoff. The New Materialism: Althusser, Badiou, and Žižek. London: Routledge, 2015.


Here is a passage from the introduction to The Human Remains, sketching why I think it misleading to refer to the new materialism as a “turn”. The extract jumps in towards the end of a reading of Ian James’s The New French Philosophy:

In the final paragraph of the introduction to The New French Philosophy, James makes a brief but very telling remark: “these philoso­phers seek to renew the way in which they think, to transform the manner in which they come to write philosophy itself” (James 2012: 16). In his conclusion James returns to this idea in order to establish a three-fold chain of influence which accounts for the emergence of the new materialism, a chain which leads from a demand, through a technique, to a philosophy. The new materialism, he argues, has heeded a new demand and generated in response to that demand a new technique or techniques, which have in turn produced the philosophy that we now call “new materialism”. The demand is issued by the real:

it can be argued that a transformation in philosophical practice or technique has occurred in response to the necessity of rethinking the real outside of the linguistic paradigm and in response to the necessity of repo­sitioning of the real itself as immanent to the techniques or technicity of thought. […] The task of thought which these philosophers take up, and the demand of thought to which they respond, is one of thinking material immanence and worldly, shared existence. They do so by way of techniques which affirm themselves as resolutely mate­rial. (James 2012: 187,8)

What I find compelling about James’s analysis at this point is that, with the emergence in French thought of what is coming to be called the “new materialism”, we are dealing not only with a new set of thoughts but with a new way of thinking, not just of new philosophy but at least new “technique”, and perhaps a little more as well. There are parallels to be drawn here with the emergence of “postmodernism”, however unwieldy we consider that term to be.

This is why it is misleading to speak of a “turn to the material”. The genus “turn” comes in two prepositional species: the “turn in” and the “turn to”. Perhaps the classic example of the first variant is the “theological turn in French phenomenology”. He we have a relatively consistent (though contested) theoretical framework, namely phenomenology, deployed to investigate new sets of phenomena, namely theological ones. This “turn” is a relatively modest change, and that is why it has courted such controversy. If the theological phenomenologists were claiming to be doing something completely new, departing radically from phenomenology, then the non-theological phenomenologists would not feel the need to enter the lists against them. This sort of “turn in” is an extension of a way of thinking that already exists. Turns “to” cover much the same ground. A technique of thinking that already exists turns to redirect its critical and analytic gaze onto a new subject matter or a new problem. A cursory Google search turns up “the turn to technology in social studies of science”, “the affective turn in philosophy”, the turn to religion in early modern English studies“ and “the turn to community in the arts”. To describe the new materialism in these terms would misunderstand what it is. As James rightly points out, it is not just that something new is being thought about, but that thinking is happening in a new way, with a new technique and a new style.

I would, however, nuance and develop James’s helpful account in two ways. First, the influence of the demand on the technique and the technique on the philosophy should not be thought to be unidirectional. Secondly, I would question the extent to which we can differentiate between a new demand and a new capacity or predisposition to apprehend and respond to a demand. I want to re-frame James’s new demand as what I will call a new “disposition”. Disposition is to technique as technique is to the content of philosophy.

A philosophical disposition includes, to be sure, a new fundamental set of assumptions about the nature of reality, but it articulates and deploys those assumptions as part of a new way of holding oneself in the world and new style of writing which are just as fundamental as the assumptions that take root in their soil. Such a new disposition informs and engenders not only a new set of concepts and ideas, and not just a new set of philosophical questions, themes, and areas of investigation but also, along with them, new rhythms of language and of engagement with the world, along with a demand for a new way and rhythm of reading.

[…at this point in the introduction I work through the notion of “disposition” systematically. I’ll cut to the concluding paragraph…]

What is captured by evoking a new disposition but missed when we refer merely to a new “turn”, “event” or “technique” is that the change we are witnessing with the rise of the new materialism implies and predisposes not only to a way of thinking and writing but to away of holding oneself in the world, and that this in turn brings forth a new world, where “world” is understood as the objects, concerns and ideas that appear to a particular philosophical disposition, and that appear important. It is not only that certain things appear more important than before (that would be a “turn”), nor that certain things appear simpliciter, in the sense that they are now written about when previously they were not considered at all (that would be an “event”), but that a new way of holding oneself in the world brings forth a new set of concerns, objects and ideas that also in turn form and inform that same emerging disposition.

I then go on in the introduction to relate my notion of “disposition” to ideas from Jean-Luc Nancy and other thinkers.


Next week I plan to press on with re-drafting the first chapter, which deals with Jean-Pierre Changeux and Paul Ricœur’s respective readings of Spinoza in What Makes us Think? and elsewhere.

Brief comparative remarks on love in Bruno Latour’s Jubiler and Jean-Luc Nancy’s L’Adoration


In Jubiler ou les tourments de la parole religieuse (Rejoice, or the Torments of Religious Speech), Latour’s attempt to re-think religious discourse in the face of the double-click fantasy is drawn out of a consideration of lovers’ discourse, and it bears an interesting resemblance to Jean-Luc Nancy’s treatment of love in L’Adoration.

Both texts give a prominent place to language in their treatment religion or the divine. Both texts draw on the lexicon of love in seeking to understand language. And both take a detour via love to help them re-think religious ideas and language for today.

Latour’s basic distinction is between language as information and language as relation.

  • Whereas double-click knowledge seeks to establish states of affairs once and for all, the lovers’ ‘I love you’ cannot be spoken one time only. Lest we be in any doubt, Latour reminds us that, to the dewy-eyed question ‘do you love me?’, it is not sufficient to reply  ‘I refer you to my earlier answer’. The question is not a demand for information (Jubiler 30-1). Conversely, you can tell someone you love them perfectly well without repeating the phrase ‘I love you’.
  • Also, whereas information can be repeated verbatim, the ‘I love you’ cannot simply be quoted; it must be uttered each time in a fresh way (Jubiler 84). With echoes of André Breton’s poem ‘Toujours pour la première fois’, Latour insists that the lovers’ discourse must always be spoken for the first time, in the present (Jubiler 86).

The lovers, caught in what looks remarkably like a deconstructive double bind—they cannot reinvent grammar with every utterance but neither can they remain silent—add to their protestations of love a ‘je ne sais quoi’ that fills the hackneyed phrase once more with authenticity (Jubiler 93). Lovers’ discourse and religious language alike are not to be judged on the decrepitude of the words they employ, but on the way in which those words provide a conduit for the energy that can distance or draw close, kill or save (Jubiler 94).

To keep this post from turning into an essay, I will tease out some commonalities between Latour and Nancy through focusing on two brief passages, one from Jubiler and one from L’Adoration.

Il existerait donc une forme d’énonciation origi­nale qui parlerait du présent, de la présence défini­tive, de l’achèvement, de l’accomplissement des temps, et qui, parce qu’elle en parle au présent, devrait toujours se décaler pour compenser l’inévi­table glissement de l’instant vers le passé ; une forme de parole qui aurait pour seule caractéris­tique de constituer ceux à qui elle s’adresse comme étant proches et sauvés ; un genre de véhicule qui différerait absolument de ceux que nous avons par ailleurs développés pour accéder au lointain, pour maîtriser les informations sur le monde. (Jubiler 140)

There exists, then, a sort of original enunciation that speaks of the present, of definitive presence, of completion, of the end of the ages and which, because it speaks of these things in the present, should always be declared again in order to make up for the inevitable slippage of the present instant into the past; a form of speech whose sole characteristic is to constitute those it addresses as close by and saved; a sort of vehicle that differs absolutely from those we have developed to reach distant places, to manage information about the world. (my translation)

Adoratio : la parole adressée. Oratio : parole solennelle, parole avant tout tenue, tension de la voix, de la bouche et de tout le corps parlant. Parole dont le contenu est inséparable voire indis­cernable de l’adresse. Langage soutenu qui se distingue de sermo, langage ordinaire. Prière, invocation, adresse, appel, adjuration, imploration, célébration, dédicace, salutation. Et plus exacte­ment, non pas l’un ou l’autre de ces registres, mais une composi­tion de tous ensemble. Et d’abord, ou pour finir, un salut. Oui, le simple « salut ! » participe de l’adoration. Lorsque Derrida écrit ou plutôt lorsqu’il lance, et de toute sa force : « salut ! – un salut sans salvation », il indique ceci : la parole adressée, l’adresse qui ne contient presque rien de plus qu’elle-même, porte recon­naissance, affirmation de l’existence de l’autre. Cela seul, sans relève ni sublimation dans un ordre supérieur de sens ou de dignité : car cette existence se suffit, elle est « sauve » par elle-même, sans avoir à sortir du monde. (L’Adoration 28-9)

Adoratio: the word as it is addressed. Oratio: a solemn word, a word above all held (out), a tension in the voice, the mouth and the whole speaking body. A word whose content is inseparable or indiscernible from its address. A formal language that is different from the sermo of ordinary language. Prayer, invocation, address, call, adjuration, imploring, celebration, dedication, salutation. More precisely, not one or the other of these registers but a coming together of them all. And first of all, or to finish, a greeting/salvation. Yes, the simple ‘hi!’ participates in adoration. When Derrida writes—or rather when he lets out with all his might—“salut!—a salutation without salvation” he points out that the addressed word, the address that contains almost nothing more than itself, carries the recognition, affirmation and existence of the other. That is all it does, without replacement or sublimation to a higher order of meaning or dignity: because this existence is sufficient to itself, it is “safe” in itself, without needing to leave the world. (my translation)

For both Nancy and Latour here there is a sort of original enunciation, a first word or first speaking-towards, that does not convey information but carries or recognises a relationship. For both thinkers this originary word is an address (Latour uses the language of address on Jubiler 65-6), and for both this address is phatic, like saying ‘hi!’ (see Jubiler 39-40); it does not convey determinate information and its only function is to constitute those it addresses as near and saved. Both Nancy and Latour evoke this word using the language of salvation and proximity. Finally, both Latour and Nancy have recourse to the language of love in order to explain how this originary word functions.


It would be too easy to push these comparisons too far. Latour’s approach is, of course, empirical, seeking conditions of in/felicity, while Nancy is elaborating an ontology of the singular plural. Latour seems most concerned with erotic or at least romantic love, while Nancy spends most time talking about agapic love (though he maintains that the different loves cannot ultimately be untangled). Even with this and other necessary caveats duly noted, however, the resonance between the two accounts is noteworthy.

Latour later frames his ‘original enunciation’ in terms of attributes preceding the substance. Once there is presence it is a secondary matter what name to give it; once one has the attributes it is a secondary matter to what substance to ascribe them (Jubiler 152). (Latour also uses the rhythm/melody distinction in this context: see previous post on Jubiler). To schematise rather too quickly, Latour’s attributes/substance distinction in this context bears a strong resemblance on first blush to sense and signification in Nancy’s thinking. Substance and signification are both determinate; attributes and sense cannot be captured in one determinate meaning. Signification and substance are reductions or derivative of sense and attributes respectively.

This recent interest in the discourse of love (in addition we might note love as a truth condition in Badiou’s work, and his De L’Amour/In Praise of Love) sits in a context of sustained reflection in twentieth century French thought on the philosophical implications of love (to mention just two of the most important texts: Roland Barthes’ Fragments d’un discours amoureux/A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments and André Breton’s l’Amour fou/Mad Love, to which Badiou refers at some length in his seminars). It is a theme that continues to entertain a sometimes subterranean conversation with the Christian tradition (primarily through Paul, Augustine and Kierkegaard) on this theme central to Christian ontology, epistemology and ethics.

Bruno Latour, Jubiler, ou les tourments de la parole religieuse (Rejoicing: Or the Torments of Religious Speech) #1

image001Bruno Latour’s Jubiler, ou les tourments de la parole religieuse (Les empêcheurs de penser en rond, 2002) is set to come out this year in English wish Polity Press as Rejoicing: Or the Torments of Religious Speech. Though Latour claims that the book exhibits a rigorously scientific approach, it certainly reads as something of a complex literary confession, flowing in and out of first, second and third person voices without clear indication of the switch.

The English blurb states that the text addresses ‘the necessity of devising a way of writing that brings to the fore this elusive form of speech to render it audible again’. I found two elements of this new approach to thinking religious speech particularly engaging: the analogy between religious speech and lovers’ discourse, and understanding the religiousness of religious speech in terms of the distinction between rhythm and melody. I will address the latter idea in this post and the former, I hope, in a subsequent reflection.

To cut to the chase, Latour rounds off a series of reflections on commonalities between lovers’ speech and speaking religiously by saying that, for amatory as well as for religious language, we must be sensitive to the difference between its melody (its constantly changing content, stories and expressions) and its rhythm (that which remains consistent through all the changing content). This distinction does the work of allowing Latour a way of accounting for the importance of speaking religiously that does not oblige one to take literally the content of religious speech.

The notion of ‘not taking literally’ needs clarification here, for Latour is far from treating religious speech as ‘mere’ metaphor or as ‘mere’ myth. Latour has short shrift for those who want the message of the bible (it is primarily the bible with which he engages: Genesis and the gospels of Mark and John) to vanish in a puff of metaphor, and he has no time for the demythologisers who have no reliable way of deciding where their demythologising should stop. In one of his characteristically memorable and humourous images he characterises such critics as striking a blow with a philosophical hammer which, far from shattering its intended object, ricochets and knocks them out themselves. In contrast, Latour describes his own approach as a new sort of faithfulness, a renewal of everything without getting rid of anything, a ‘renewing repetition’ (répétition de renouvellement):

Oui, mais comment mar­cher droit ? À quoi être à nouveau fidèle et comment ? Que peut vouloir dire « tout renouveler sans rien trier » — surtout qu’il faut bien en même temps trier, discerner, reprendre, défaire, rejeter ? Pas de doute, je me trouve bien au milieu des tour­ments de la parole religieuse. (p. 76)

Yes, but how are we to keep on the straight and narrow? To what should we be faithful now, and how? What can “renew everything, get rid of nothing” mean – above all that we must at the same time get rid, discern, take up again, dismantle, reject? There can be no doubt about it; I find myself right in the middle of the torments of religious speech. (my translation).

In ‘renewing repetition’ it is the not the melody but the rhythm that is important. It is no good dealing with the sacred stories themselves; we need access to the ‘machine’ which has produced them and can produce them again (p. 115). Melody informs, but rhythm transforms, and religious speech is not there (or should not be understood to be there) to inform us at all, Latour insists, where ‘inform’ takes on all the negative ballast of what Latour often refers to as ‘double-click’ information. No, religious speech is not there to inform but to transform:

les anges ne transportent pas de messages ; ils modifient ceux à qui ils s’adressent. Ce qu’ils transfèrent n’est pas un contenu d’information, mais un nouveau contenant. (p. 39)

angels do not bring messages ; they change those whom they address. What they transfer is not informational content, but a new container. (my emphasis).


This dismissal of content is a recurring theme in Jubiler: Latour argues that in Peter’s Pentecost sermon Acts 2 there is no mystery (in the biblical sense) other than the call to convert (p. 51), and we are mistaken in seeking in religious language a communication of information from the past to the present for the text in fact transforms the reader from (depuis) the present to (jusqu’au) the past (p. 104-5). To do anything else would be, for Latour, to treat Genesis like the speaking clock.

In order to hold this position, Latour relies on a strict dichotomy between information and transformation that pushes him into the rather awkward position of having to argue that there is no discernible message (information, news) in Christianity whatsoever:

Pour traduire le mot grec « évangile », on parle toujours de la bonne nouvelle, mais personne encore, depuis que le monde est monde, n’a expli­qué quelle était cette fameuse nouvelle. (p. 146)

When we are translating the Greek for ‘gospel’ we always speak of the good news, but no-one to this day, since the beginning of time, has explained what this notorious news was.

To be sure, Latour maintains that rhythm and melody are inseparable (p. 97) and that the relation between them cannot be definitively stabilised (p. 96), but nevertheless he is very clear that it is the essential rhythm and not the contingent melody, the attributes not the substance, the transformation not the information that makes religious speech religious (though we might also say it is the information that makes religious speech speech).

image005This dichotomy, and the contortions into which it forces Latour in Jubiler, seems at odds with one of his own signature gestures, his own rhythm that persists through the melodies of his different works, namely his critique of the dichotomous thinking of modernity (subject/object, representations/things, theory/practice). In the context of this repeated Latourian drumbeat it is strange that he draws the distinction between information and transformation as quite such a stark dichotomy. Of course, Latour has his reasons: he is seeking to show the continued relevance of religious language to a culture deaf to its message, a culture for which the content of the old stories has lost its resonance. (In passing, we might question to what extent this is and will remain true in an increasingly globalised modernity, but that thought will take us too far from the focus of this post). Latour forces the dichotomy to the extent that we seemingly have to reject the religious significance of determinate content all together, lest we pivot to the other pole of the dichotomy and treat religious writing like a scientific textbook. A third option remains unexplored by Latour: that religious speech might transform in and through its message.

Modernism: Objects and quasi-objects in Woolf’s To the Lighthouse

This is the second in a series of two posts about the ‘subject’ and ‘objects’ of Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, in relaiton to the literary studies unit on modernism I will be teaching this coming semester.

Literary criticism, in step with Cartesian dualism, has tended to operate according to a dichotomy of active subjects and passive objects (If that sentence didn’t make any sense to you, have a look here). On the one hand there are people, who among all the objects in the world have the unique property of thinking (Descartes used the Latin term res cogitans, ‘thinking thing’), who act and will and operate in the world, and on the other hand there are objects, animals, and human bodies, (singular: res existensa, literally’extended thing’, i.e. it has physical dimensions, as opposed to thought which, for Descartes, has none) that are acted and operated upon, passively.

One of the major trends in thought at the moment is what is called the ‘new materialism’, and one impetus within new materialism is what is called ‘object orientated ontology’ (or OOO for short). Drawing inspiration from the thinker, sociologist and historian of science Bruno Latour, OOO challenges the idea that the world is made up of a dichotomy of entities: human agents who will and act, and passive objects that are merely acted upon (it’s all in Latour’s ground-breaking work from 1991 We have Never Been Modern).

Anyway, what all this has to do with To the Lighthouse is that it offers us an approach to texts which aims to give objects their due. Traditionally, literary criticism, obediently trotting along behind Descartes, has had one set of terms and concepts for active “characters”, and another for passive “setting” or “objects”, and never the twain shall meet (I’m caricaturing a bit to make the point; there are exceptions and counter-examples). But what if we approach a text with the aim of discerning not only how the characters act upon each other and upon their setting, but also how objects display agency in relation to characters and to each other. If you like, you could call this an object oriented literary criticism (or OOLC, to follow the fashion for acronyms in this area) or, if you prefer, just think of it as a way of trying to understand the complex relations beween ‘scenery’, ‘objects’ and ‘characters’ in a novel.

The first thing that struck me on reading To the Lighthouse in preparation for the modernism unit was the prominence and importance of objects. We might be tempted to call Woolf’s novel a ‘subjective’ text on account of its ambiguous narrative position and free indirect style, but it would make a very interesting research essay to approach it as a novel of objects. The first section of the first chapter, for instance, could be entitled ‘from a refrigerator to a bag’.

The refrigerator, or rather a magazine picture of a refrigerator, makes its appearance in the book’s second paragraph, and is immediately charged with a peculiar emotional intensity:

James Ramsay, sitting on the floor cutting out pictures from the illustrated catalogue of the Army and Navy stores, endowed the picture of a refrigerator, as his mother spoke, with heavenly bliss. It was fringed with joy. The wheelbarrow, the lawnmower, the sound of poplar trees, leaves whitening before rain, rooks cawing, brooms knocking, dresses rustling–all these were so coloured and distinguished in his mind that he had already his private code, his secret language, though he appeared the image of stark and uncompromising severity, with his high forehead and his fierce blue eyes, impeccably candid and pure, frowning slightly at the sight of human frailty, so that his mother, watching him guide his scissors neatly round the refrigerator, imagined him all red and ermine on the Bench or directing a stern and momentous enterprise in some crisis of public affairs.

There would be much to comment on here: the magazine (bourgeois? cheap? disposable?); the neatness of the cutting (almost a whole personality and destiny is read into the adjective ‘neatly’); the de-contextualisation and re-contextualisation of the represented object achieved by the cutting; the resonance (intended or not) with modernist collage; the unexplained aura of joy that this fetishized representation exudes, like an apparition or a halo. A reading in terms of situationism or Walter Benjamin’s notion of ‘aura’ in ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ and the Marxist account of commodity fetishism would be an interesting exercise.

Objects carry, communicate and create meaning. Take the closing two paragraphs of the first section of the first chapter, with their hammering emphatic repetition of the final phrase:

With stars in her eyes and veils in her hair, with cyclamen and wild violets–what nonsense was he thinking? She was fifty at least; she had eight children. Stepping through fields of flowers and taking to her breast buds that had broken and lambs that had fallen; with the stars in her eyes and the wind in her hair–He had hold of her bag.

“Good-bye, Elsie,” she said, and they walked up the street, she holding her parasol erect and walking as if she expected to meet some one round the corner, while for the first time in his life Charles Tansley felt an extraordinary pride; a man digging in a drain stopped digging and looked at her, let his arm fall down and looked at her; for the first time in his life Charles Tansley felt an extraordinary pride; felt the wind and the cyclamen and the violets for he was walking with a beautiful woman. He had hold of her bag.

The bag here is a quasi-object (a term from the French thinker Michel Serres, described by the Cambridge English professor Steven Connor in this essay). It doesn’t just reflect a relationship or state of affairs that would exist in its absence. Rather, like a ball in a game of rugby it creates and maintains a set of relationships and interactions (players, referee, crowd, television audience, advertisers, stewards…) that could not exist without it.

Previously in the section we have seen Mrs. Ramsay’s bag as a token of her independent social crusading activity:

she ruminated the other problem, of rich and poor, and the things she saw with her own eyes, weekly, daily, here or in London, when she visited this widow, or that struggling wife in person with a bag on her arm, and a note-book and pencil with which she wrote down in columns carefully ruled for the purpose wages and spendings, employment and unemployment

When she goes for a walk with “the atheist Charles Tansley” (that’s how he’s introduced to us the first time we meet him: we learn of his atheism before we know his name), the bag becomes the no-man’s land of trench warfare, the fought-over territory of the couple’s ever-so-understated power struggle:

she made him feel better pleased with himself than he had done yet, and he would have liked, had they taken a cab, for example, to have paid the fare. As for her little bag, might he not carry that? No, no, she said, she always carried THAT herself. [emphasis Woolf’s]

A little further on, the bag wars intensify:

So Mr. Tansley supposed she meant him to see that that man’s picture was skimpy, was that what one said? The colours weren’t solid? Was that what one said? Under the influence of that extraordinary emotion which had been growing all the walk, had begun in the garden when he had wanted to take her bag, had increased in the town when he had wanted to tell her everything about himself, he was coming to see himself, and everything he had ever known gone crooked a little. It was awfully strange.

As I quote the following paragraph in full, notice who is the subject of the different verbs, who observes what passively, and where the bag (now become a trophy) fits:

There he stood in the parlour of the poky little house where she had taken him, waiting for her, while she went upstairs a moment to see a woman. He heard her quick step above; heard her voice cheerful, then low; looked at the mats, tea-caddies, glass shades; waited quite impatiently; looked forward eagerly to the walk home; determined to carry her bag; then heard her come out; shut a door; say they must keep the windows open and the doors shut, ask at the house for anything they wanted (she must be talking to a child) when, suddenly, in she came, stood for a moment silent (as if she had been pretending up there, and for a moment let herself be now), stood quite motionless for a moment against a picture of Queen Victoria wearing the blue ribbon of the Garter; when all at once he realised that it was this: it was this:–she was the most beautiful person he had ever seen.

What does Tansley do in this paragraph? He stands waiting ‘where she had taken him’: the object of Mrs. Ramsay’s action. He hears her quick step, again the passive receiver of the traces of her absence. He hears her voice, looks round, waits, looks again, hears her, sees her, realises she is the most beautiful person he has ever seen. Passive, passive, passive. Apart from one clause: ‘determined to carry her bag’. This is no simple bag. It is Charles Tansley’s one grasp (quite literally) at agency, at asserting his equality (or rather his dominance) by taking from Mrs. Ramsay that token of her public life, her independence, her social conscience. Never since The Devil Wears Prada has so much social and interpersonal significance been invested in one small bag.

And so the final two paragraphs of the section strike like a brace of hammer-blows driving nails into the coffin of Mrs. Ramsay’s control of Tansley: ‘He had hold of her bag… He had hold of her bag’. The bag here does not just reflect a social reality; it is not just a symbol of a relational transaction, it constitutes that reality and creates the desire for, and possibility of, that transaction, just as concretely as the ball in a game of rugby constitutes the game as its sine qua non.

So keep your eyes open for the agency of objects in To the Lighthouse, this most subjective of novels.