This week, we tackled an our most current text to date: an editorial published in Critical Research on Religion in April 2016 by Warren Goldstein, Rebekka King, and Jonathan Boyarin. As we’ve mentioned a couple times now on the podcast, I was delighted to discover this editorial mere days after receiving news that the panel Lucas and I proposed with Jason Josephson to the Sociology of Religion Group at the AAR was accepted, since the editorial directly addresses many of the same issues we’ll be raising in our panel.

In this post, I want to circle back to a monologue I give in the middle of the episode regarding Bruno Latour and an essay entitled “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam?: From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern.” Because our panel in November is largely focused on the Frankfurt School, Hegel, and Max Weber, we tried to steer away from spelling out the arguments we’ll be giving then and thus spoiling the surprise (though they’re certainly hinted at in the episode.) Latour, however, stands at a much closer temporal proximity to us and, therefore, I think makes an interesting companion for thinking through some of the issues raised in the editorial.

In his essay, Latour draws what I think is a vital distinction between “matters of fact” and “matters of concern” as the title of the essay indicates. This is similar to what I’ve talked about in previous episodes, what religion “is” versus what religion “does,” but for the purposes of trying to keep this post from getting out of hand, I’m going to stick to Latour’s distinction. I’ll only say that, at base, I think both distinctions are trying to clear a conceptual space for values such that their role in social theory has a renewed vigor and explanatory power.

We have to remember how critical discourse got its start: as a questioning of fact. The three “masters of suspicion,” Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud give us the initial distinction between traditional theory and a critical theory. In the former, certain claims are given as natural: There is morality, there is natural law, there is a God, etc. Nietzsche, for example, thinks that the proper approach to the question “What is moral?” is not by trying to derive particular moral actions from some Morality which is assumed to be universal and innate (i.e. natural) in all human beings. Rather, we must ask “How do the facts of morality come to be established and understood as universal and innate?” We might recognize the form of this in contemporary genealogical approaches to the category “religion.” Rather than assume religion is universal and innate, we have to analyze its construction as such.

There are important differences between critical theory and contemporary critical religion (such as Nietzsche’s point that all claims are a product of subjective valuation) but I want to bring us to Latour’s point which is a chastisement for certain deployments of critical theory that I think are exemplified in critical religion. Latour begins his essay lamenting the strong similarity between critical theory and conspiracy theory: that a suspicion of “fact” first leveled in the post-structural and critical theory of the mid-20th century has become almost indistinguishable from contemporary conspiracy theories. He cites a number of examples where dissenters engaged in political discourse surrounding particular matters of fact cast those facts as somehow “undecided,” “produced,” “contested” in some way. We might recognize this, for example, in contemporary criticism of climate change science. Even though most scientists agree that global warming is a human-caused phenomenon, a “Republican strategist” can counter this fact with an appeal to the incompleteness of the evidence rather than direct evidence to the contrary (which he knows does not exist.) In other words, he aims to establish a lack of scientific certainty.

This is obviously a bit of a vexed analogy with critical religion, since so many in that branch of religious studies actually appeal to science. But let’s put Latour’s concern in our discipline’s terms. We’ve reached a point where literally any discourse that can be accused of being “value laden” can also be accused of being “crypto-theological.” I wouldn’t go so far as to say such scholars are “conspiracy theorists”–that would be grossly unfair. But Latour is not saying that scholars deploying critical theory against “matters of fact” are conspiracy theorists either. Rather, he’s trying to show that perhaps we too quickly assume the unmasking of facts should be our conclusion. He writes:

Let me be mean for a second. What’s the real difference between conspiracists and a popularized, that is a teachable version of social critique inspired by a too quick reading of, let’s say, a sociologist as eminent as Pierre Bourdieu [. . .]? In both cases, you have to learn to become suspicious of everything people say because of course we all know that they live in the thralls of a complete illusio of their real motives. Then, after disbelief has struck and an explanation is requested for what is really going on, in both cases again it is the same appeal to powerful agents hidden in the dark acting always consistently, continuously, relentlessly. Of course, we in the academy like to use more elevated causes–society, discourse, knowledge-slash-power, fields of forces, empires, capitalism–while conspiracists like to portray a miserable bunch of greedy people with dark intents, but I find something troublingly similar in the structure of the explanation, in the first movement of disbelief and, then, in the wheeling of causal explanations coming out of the deep dark below.

What Latour identifies here is a kind of “stunted growth” of the deployment of critical theory. Conspiracy theory, for him, is a stand-in for a criticism not taken far enough precisely because it has limited itself to “the facts.” As we say in the episode, critical religion often fails to move beyond pointing out that certain “facts” are value-laden, constructed, etc.

Latour’s solution to this problem is to move our attention from “matters of fact” to “matters of concern.” In other words, while our previous modes of social critique, e.g. discourse analysis, deconstruction, critical theories of race, gender, and class, etc. have insisted that we move away from “facts” as such and toward the production of those facts, Latour argues the aim of critique “was never to get away from facts but closer to them, not fighting empiricism but, on the contrary, renewing empiricism.” To come back to the CRR editorial, this strikes me as remarkably similar to the authors’ assertion that we address religion as “an empirical entity”–something that I think has been seriously misunderstood in the negative responses to the editorial. Latour gives us a conceptual language for getting clearer on what such an “empirical entity” might be. That is, rather than think of such an entity as a “matter of fact” mistakenly taken as inherent, natural, or universal (which is how detractors seemed to understand “empirical entity”), Latour suggests we see such an entity as a “matter of concern.”

A “matter of concern” is a way of talking about phenomena as states of affairs in all of their complexity rather than uncritically accepting what a matter of fact is, thereby limiting our analysis to the production of “bare facts” for the purposes of power. Matters of fact are “objects in the world” in the old, Enlightenment sense of that phrase. They are dead, concretized, and neutral, available for our observation but also our manipulation. Matters of concern, comparatively, are Things in the Heideggerian sense–an object that is struck by an inexhaustible set of connections.

Perhaps an even better way of putting this is to say that Latour is returning a dimension of value to any social or cultural critique. Matters of concern extend beyond matters of fact precisely because they take into consideration the values that traverse them and make them what they are. This consideration is not carried out in a purely deconstructive sense (e.g. “These are the nefarious discourses/values that constructed religious concept X.”) Instead it is critically affirmative, not in the sense of endorsement, but in the sense of an analysis that tries to make sense of the effects of matters of concern on other aspects of social life (which is part and parcel with Latour’s actor-network theory.)

I want to emphasize that this doesn’t exclude critical genealogical approaches in our discipline. As the authors of the editorial point out, much important work as been done through the deconstruction of the concept “religion” particularly as that concept has been deployed for purposes of colonialism, neo-liberalism, etc. I’m not concluding that this sort of work cease. Rather, my argument, echoing the CRR editorial, is that this kind of work does not preclude the scholarly deployment of the category if it is being identified as an “empirical entity,” “matter of concern,” “Thing,” “nexus of value,”–whatever we want to call it. We need to begin developing theoretical ways beyond the critique of “religion” as a matter of fact.

Listen to Episode 9 here:


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