“The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”
–Alfred North Whitehead

Latour annunciating his religion…

“Thou Shall Not Freeze-Frame, or How Not to Misunderstand the Science and Religion Debate” (2004) by Bruno Latour

There is nothing extravagant, spiritual, or mysterious in beginning to describe religious talk in this way.We are used to other, perfectly mundane forms of speech that are evaluated not by their correspondence with any state of affairs either, but by the quality of the interaction they generate from the way they are uttered. This experience—and experience is what we wish to share—is common in the domain of “love-talk” and, more largely, personal relations. “Do you love me?” is not assessed by the originality of the sentence—none are more banal, trivial, boring, rehashed—but rather by the transformation it manifests in the listener, as well as in the speaker. Information talk is one thing, transformation talk is another. When the latter is uttered, something happens. A slight displacement in the normal pace of things. A tiny shift in the passage of time. You have to decide, to get involved: maybe to commit yourselves irreversibly. We are not only undergoing an experience among others, but a change in the pulse and tempo of experience: kairos is the word the Greeks would have used to designate this new sense of urgency.

Religion does not even attempt to race to know the beyond, but attempts at breaking all habits of thoughts that direct our attention to the far away, to the absent, to the overworld, in order to bring attention back to the incarnate, to the renewed presence of what was before misunderstood, distorted and deadly, of what is said to be “what was, what is, what shall be,”  toward those words
that carry salvation. Science does not directly grasp anything accurately, but slowly gains its accuracy, its validity, its truth-condition by the long, risky, and
painful detour through the mediations of experiments not experience, laboratories not common sense, theories not visibility, and if she is able to obtain truth it is at the price of mind-boggling transformations from one media into

the next. Thus, to even assemble a stage where the deep and serious problem of  “the relationship between science and religion” could unfold is already an imposture, not to say a farce that distorts science and religion, religion and
science beyond all recognition.


Iconophily is in continuing the process begun by an image, in a prolongation of the flow of images. St. Gregory continues the text of the Eucharist when he sees the Christ in his real and not symbolic flesh, and the painter continues the miracle when he paints the representation in a picture that reminds us of what it is to understand really what this old mysterious text is about; and I, now, today, continue the painter’s continuation of the story reinterpreting the text, if, by using slides, arguments, tones of voices, anything, really anything at hand, I make you aware again of what it is to understand those images without searching for a prototype, and without distorting them in so many information-transfer vehicles. Iconoclasm or iconolatry, then, is nothing but freeze-framing, interrupting the movement of the image and isolating it out of its flows of renewed images to believe it has a meaning by itself—and because it has none, once isolated it should be destroyed without pity.
By ignoring the flowing character of science and religion we have turned the question of their relations into an opposition between “knowledge” and “belief,” opposition that we then deem necessary either to overcome, to politely resolve, or to widen violently. What I have argued in this lecture is very different: belief is a caricature of religion exactly as knowledge is a caricature of science. Belief is patterned after a false idea of science, as if it was possible to raise the question “Do you believe in God?” along the same pattern as “Do you believe
in global warming?” Except the first question does not possess any of the instruments that would allow the reference to move on, and the second is leading the locutor to a phenomenon even more invisible to the naked eye than that of God, because to reach it we have to travel through satellite imaging, computer simulation, theories of earth atmospheric instability, high stratosphere chemistry, and so forth. Belief is not a quasi-knowledge question plus a leap of faith to reach even further away; knowledge is not a quasi-belief question that would be answerable by looking directly at things close at hand.

What I mean is that in the cases of both science and religion, freeze framing, isolating a mediator out of its chains, out of its series, instantly forbids the meaning to be carried in truth. Truth is not to be found in correspondence—either between the word and the world in the case of science, or between the original and the copy in the case of religion—but in taking up again
the task of continuing the flow, of elongating the cascade of mediations one step further. My argument is that, in our present economy of images, we might have made a slight misunderstanding of Moses’s Second Commandment and thus lacked respect for mediators. God did not ask us not to make images—what else do we have to produce objectivity, to generate piety?—but he told us not to freeze-frame, not to isolate an image out of the flows that only provide them with their real (their constantly re-realized, re-represented) meaning.
I have most probably failed in extending the flows, the cascade of mediators to you. If so, then I have lied, I have not been talking religiously; I have not been able to preach, but I have simply talked about religion, as if there was a domain of specific beliefs one could relate to by some sort of referential grasp. This then would have been a mistake just as great as that of the lover who, when asked “do you love me?” answered, “I have already told you so many years ago, why do you ask again?” Why? Because it is no use having told me so in the past, if you cannot tell me again, now, and make me alive to you
again, close and present anew. Why would anyone claim to speak religion, if it is not in order to save me, to convert me, on the spot?








2 responses to “Latour annunciating his religion…”

  1. mary9macrina Avatar

    “…women—but the angel’s finger points to an apparition of the resurrected
    Christ, which is not directly visible to the women because it shines behind
    them. What can be more disappointing and surprising than the angel’s utterances: “He is no longer here, he has risen”? Everything in this fresco is about
    the emptiness of the usual grasp. However, it is not about emptiness, as if
    one’s attention was directed toward nothingness, it is, on the contrary, slowly
    bringing us back to the presence of presence: but for that we should not look
    at the painting, and what the painting suggests, but at what is now there present for us. How can one evangelist and then a painter like Brother Angelico
    better render vivid again the redirection of attention: “You look in the wrong
    place . . . you have misunderstood the scriptures.” And in case we are dumb
    enough to miss the message, a monk placed on the left—the representant of
    the occupant of the cell—will serve as a legend of the whole story in the etymological sense of the word “legend,” that is, he will show us how we should
    see. What does he see? Nothing at all, there is nothing to see there. But you
    should look herethrough the inward eye of piety to whatthis fresco is supposed
    to mean: elsewhere, not in a tomb, not among the dead but among the living.”
    —–from Latour’s essay
    I would add that the beautiful moving mudra gestures in the hands of the two women closest to the sarcophagus complete the legend/monk, for it is their gestures that illustrate the “vera icona”, the synaeresis, of being present among the living; with love and grace the woman peers into the tomb, her hand in gentle perplexity raised to her brow, questioning. This movement is answered by the woman next to her, to her left, whose hand is now over her heart in a meditative awareness of embodied knowing, with her eyes ( the eye of piety) feeling the movement of heart, prefiguring the chord of pentecost, not with fiery descending tongues of flame, but with the silent preparation of heart, which is as Latour says is presence “that breaks the usual, habituated passage of time,…towards new types of vision” in which we are to complete this painting, break it open into Life.

    1. Matthew David Segall Avatar

      Yes! Good (etheric) eye, Mary!! I think Latour would appreciate your more in depth analysis of what the women were up to in this painting.

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