Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Latour on religious speaking as "love-talk"...

Provocative thoughts from an essay by the self-proclaimed "not particularly pious" French philosopher/sociologist Bruno Latour:

"Transport of information without deformation is not, no it is not, one of religious talk's conditions of felicity. When the Virgin hears the angel Gabriel's salutation, she is so utterly transformed, says the venerable story, that she becomes pregnant with the Savior, rendered through her agency present again to the world... On the other hand, asking Who was Mary?, checking whether or not she was 'really' a virgin, imagining some pathway to impregnate her with spermatic rays, deciding whether Gabriel is male or female, these are 'double-click questions.' They want you to abandon the present time and to direct your attention away from the meaning of the venerable story.

These questions are not impious, nor even irrational, they are simply a category mistake. They are so irrelevant that no one has even to bother answering them. Not because they lead to unfathomable mysteries, but because their idiocy makes them generate uninteresting and utterly useless mysteries. They should be broken, interrupted, voided, ridiculed — and I will show later how this interruption has been systematically attempted in one of the Western Christian iconographic traditions.

The only way to understand stories such as that of the Annunciation is to repeat them, that is to utter again a Word which produces into the listener the same effect, which impregnates you, because it is you I am saluting, I am hailing tonight, with the same gift, the same present of renewed presence. Tonight, I am your Gabriel! Or else you don't understand a word of what I am saying — and I am a fraud.

Not an easy task — I will fail, I know, I am bound to fail, I speak against all odds — but my point is different because it is a little more analytical: I want you to realize through which sort of category mistake 'belief in belief' is being generated. Either I repeat the first story because I retell it in the same efficient mode in which it was first told, or I hook up a stupid referential question to a messenger-transfer one, and I do more than a crass stupidity: I make the venerable story lie because I have distorted it beyond recognition.

Paradoxically, by formatting questions in the procrustean bed of information transfer so as to get at 'exactly' what it meant, I would have deformed it, transmogrified it into an absurd belief, the sort of belief that weighs religion down and lets it slide toward the refuse heap of past obscurantism. The truth-value of those stories depends on us tonight, exactly as the whole history of two lovers depends on their ability to re-enact the injunction to love again in the minute they are reaching for one another in the darker moment of their estrangement: if they fail (present tense), it was in vain (past tense), that they have lived so long together."

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