I have been working through the first section of Bruno Latour's book, "On the Modern Cult of the Factish Gods". I wrote previously about Latour's work here and here. He is the person who put forward Actor Network Theory and this book continues with a related thread of thought about the relationships between things. I first began reading this book many years ago, but yesterday I picked it up again and started from the beginning. With the reading I have been doing this year I had a very different perspective on this work .Latour's book is not an easy read. It seems like you wade into the words, let them surround you and watch for meaning from the side of your vision. If you look at it directly at the text it is all chaos.
He begins with the story of a colonizer asking an African if they believed that their fetishes were magical. To which the African replies "yes". The colonizer then asks, "Did you made these fetishes?" To which they reply is also "yes". From this response the colonizer is convinced of the primitiveness of the other, wondering, "How can they worship what they have created?" This results in the colonizer smashing these idols as they symbolize backwards thinking and will hold the "other" back from modernity. At no time do they ask themselves about their fetishes. Mother Mary, the right of conquest, modernity and Christina symbolism are ok, but everyone else's beliefs are "bad". They end up replacing the old idols with new ones.
Latour wants to understand these idols, these things and concepts created by man but which are more than man. While modernity promises to free us from old fashion superstition, Latour argues that this is not possible and that we can merely replace one idol with another. Certain beliefs allow us to exist as a culture and people. We should also understand that we are no better or worse than other cultures and times who have had different versions of these beliefs. The wise person he suggests, will come to understand these idols and try to make good choices about their particular versions.
One example close to home is the idea of an economy. It is an invented thing, an idea, but it is real in that it can have tangible impacts on our lives. How about the idea of democracy which only works because we mostly believe in it? Terry Prattchet produces an excel analysis of these ideas in his novel "Hog Father". Why is it important that children believe in Santa Claus? Why are adults careful not to let on that he does not really exist? Prattchet answers that it is because believing in Santa is practice for the other kinds of societal lies that we practice, like justice and democracy. Practicing belief is important. These are the lies we need to live.
Latour calls these kind of shared beliefs, be they ideas or things, "factish". This is the piece of art that escapes the canvas to inspire people. It is an idea bigger than the original thinker. It is writer who says that the characters wrote their own story. These things have their own lives. We don't have to pretend that life is perfectly rationale and we are only moved by good logic. Our belief in facts and logic are themselves just an idol. Here he makes the link back to the actor network thinking, these factish things, have their own existence and need to be listened to if we are going to understand the world. No longer can we pay attention to only the human speakers or pure facts as we seek to understand systems, but we must also consider what is said in this in between. We can not say "this is science," and have that be a shield, divorcing us from any consequences of the resulting actions. Science has its own existence and history that influence its and we can understand it if we try.
He suggest that we also need to give up the view that we (moderns) are better than people in the past. We are believers like these people and their idols are what allowed us to get to where we are today. There are no moderns and savages, we are all just worshipers of differing idols that make life livable. The Moderns call to us to lay off the chains of belief and be free. But this is not possible. We can change from one belief to another, but the chains are needed to keep us together and make life bearable.
Belief is not a naivety that we must cast off to be modern. Belief is a space we can experience. We cannot interrogate it rationally, we must be in it and allow it to wash around us. It is ok that there is no rationalism to save us, rationalism is a part of this space too, as one of many possible idols. This space may be scary to those of us who worship logic. But we can live through these uncomfortable moments. We do not have to hold rigid to our old beliefs, we can experiences the changes in this space and not be undone. We don't have to struggle to get free, we can just be and form relationships with the things, people and ideas that inhabit this space. We don't have to dominate and control, we are part of this web and we can let go of the lie that we are responsible for it all. "Freedom become the right not to be deprived of ties that render existence possible, ties emptied of all ideals of determination, or a false theology of creation ex nihilo."
Latour calls us on the absurdity of pretending that science and academic life happen as though we left our idols outside. In practice he argues, this has only means that the "other" must leave their idols outside. Western idols like scientific detachment and clinical rigor welcomed at the table. Let's stop believing this lie. Let us all bring our idols into the room and see what happens - let's interrogate these idols and put away those that are harmful - ("civilization"??). Let's listen to the voices of the things and ideas all around us, let them be their own masters and let us learn from them. To me, this is really the indigenous way already. On the good red road we recognize that the teachers come in many forms and with many voices. Maybe one of my idols is liking to learn these lessons from western academics?