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.