On the Modern Cult of the Factish Gods

Society and Business Review

ISSN: 1746-5680

Article publication date: 4 October 2011




Magne, L. (2011), "On the Modern Cult of the Factish Gods", Society and Business Review, Vol. 6 No. 3, pp. 295-298. https://doi.org/10.1108/17465681111171037



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2011, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

With his own style and language games which will displease some people, “On the Modern Cult of the Factish Gods” continues the project that Bruno Latour advanced in his book “We Have Never Been Modern”: to further a “symmetrical anthropology” of western societies. latour (2010) claims that there are no facts separable from their fabrication, and examines some paradoxical human traits. Namely, they produce artefacts with their own hands but are prone to dismiss their own influence on them. Some of these artefacts are objects of worship, devotion or even idolatry: they are fetishes! Aan unbearable fact for reason which ought to dispel such beliefs by breaking these idols and icons. Such an icon‐breaking ritual or “anti‐fetishism” should provide the emotional believers freedom from their factice gods.

Latour questions the modern practice and claim that the moderns are unconscious fetishists themselves, preferring to give a cult to reason instead of other gods by creating “factishes” instead of fetishes. Latour argues that we should criticise the “belief in naive belief,” the suggestion that fetishes – objects invested with mythical powers – are fabricated and that facts are not. While the fetish worshipper knows perfectly well that fetishes are man‐made, the modern icon‐breaker inevitably erects new icons. Yet, moderns sense no contradiction at the core of their work. latour (2010) invites us to investigate this modern “belief in (other people's) naive belief” without which we could not understand them anymore and to suspend our icon‐breaking habits in order to provide some room for analysis. Latour pursues his critique of critique, or the possibility of mediating between subject and object, or the fabricated and the real.

“Factishes”, Latour claims, are a way of respecting the objectivity of facts and the power of fetishes without forgetting that both are fabricated. They are disturbing because they are hybrids, simultaneously objective and subjective, true and false, immanent and transcendent, knowledge and illusion, right and wrong: everything that a binary logic would abhor. However, for the moderns, reason alone is worth legitimate adoration and one should advocate facts against fetishes, rationality against belief […] something which is nothing less than sheer ethnocentrism and which a symmetrical anthropology cannot miss. Breaking divinities nonetheless brings about some void that reason alone cannot fill up, a lack of meaning provided by the fetishes, which had turned their creators into creatures. A mysterious effect that paradoxically puts their mind at rest but also links them to one another. The voices of fetish divinities are just human inner voices; but less individual voices than the voice of their society itself. Hence, anti‐fetishism is nothing but a denial of the others.

The empty world of the modern is in fact full of non‐humans factishes, hidden actants (a major concept of Actor Network Theory or ANT) who would not say their names. In order that this deception can work, it is required that theoretical life and practical life be separated. Segregate object and subject if you do not want the fetishes to lose their mysterious powers related to their nature of external and necessary truth as well as free and arbitrary construction. Such a divide is yet totally ignored in practical life as science studies have shown. This implies that this divide have to be imposed on theoretical life in order to clarify the matter of knowing if this power comes from the objects or the actors.

Why hiding such an origin? Because, through their ontological trick, factishes enable us to protect ourselves by transferring our fears elsewhere, what latour (2010) calls “transfears”. Thanks to these broken‐up idols and to the belief in naïve belief, we can transfear and thus innovate without risk, without feeling responsible for any danger. Other will have to deal with the consequences and this partial unaccountability offers the advantage of exploration, thanks to our own factishes: ancestors, traditions, lineages without which we could not live. Our practices are thus revealing the constitution of our identities and factishes are a modus operandi (but one could also argue for a modus vivendi). Factishes are a pointer to our obsession with mastery and control, something unreachable without our factishes, able to do things that neither they nor us are, in fact, able to master: they help when we are overtaken by events.

In the end, latour (2010) argues, the alternative is not living without master or without mastery, but not to confuse living without mastery and living without ties. Abolishing the distinction between the object and subject pole of our artefacts could heal us, as ethno‐psychiatry does, by providing us with mediations that gather us together. In Latour's view, we have just to sort out those ties which are redeeming from those which kill in order to progressively construct a common world through this political process.

A one can right away understand, the final tone of the book is optimistic though simplistic and not especially new. It seems to me that Latour's concepts are mostly new bottles but not new wines, even if it tastes good with the new packaging sometimes. Most interesting remarks are to be found in footnotes and his use of ethno‐psychiatry, though a really promising avenue, is just too quick and almost anecdotal; for Latour, its clinical aspects are nothing but re‐socializing people by conferring them a new imposed identity. The overall subject of the book which seems to be about legitimacy, the sacred, “instauration”, social ties, beliefs, culture and politics clearly points to the anthropological concept of institution, a concept that is unfortunately never directly addressed by latour (2010). His criticism about what we could call (in Herbert Simon's own terms) “a separation between facts and values” is Latour's own humanistic political standpoint and an attempt to topple the categories, we commonly use to characterize our world and our activities in it.

latour (2010) seems to be rediscovering “negative heuristics”, a concept developed by Imre Lakatos in order to explain science activities. These heuristics are a protective belt for theoretical hypotheses (forms of belief explicitly recognised as being unproven beliefs) that the scientist need in order that he can carry out his practical researches. This parallel is not mentioned by Latour. One could also think about Chris Argyris classical distinction between “espoused theory” and “theory in use” and his “defensive routines” to clarify the same matter as Latour's. In his attempt to build only on his own concepts, Latour seems to be widely ignorant of many other researches, something not really surprising for a text which lies between the essay and the (soft) pamphlet. That is nonetheless a serious limitation.

The symmetrical anthropology advocated by Latour (2010) is nothing else but anthropology without ethnocentrism, something taken for granted by Anthropology since the end of previous millennium […] Besides, objects will never act by themselves (being considered as “actants”) but through the use and representations that these artefacts suggest to their human users. The latter alone are actors, even though their actions are strongly mediated by, influenced by and applied through these “non‐humans”, and despite the fact that the situation creates a number of loose or strong possible connections. You can call this a “network”, but this is something to be explained and not only to be described, as ANT so often does. The non‐humans (and the new special category of factishes) do not have necessarily a variable ontology but, being mediating artefacts, we bestow upon them variable ontologies according to our needs, according to the interactions we are trying to bring about through them. With this understanding, we cannot but agree with Latour when he says that artifice and artefacts are friends to reality and not foe, a classical promethean idea.

The void made by the requirements of (narrow) reason and the destruction of fetishes which leads to the populating of our modern world by factishes, is just an institutional void caused by abolishing the sacred, severing at the same time the social links that tied people together. Anthropology and sociology have claimed for some time now that the rise of individualism and the faith in a personal locus of control, due to belief in reason, may be a well‐suited explanation of this. Furthermore, if artefacts are interesting, it is no news for classical anthropology since one of its sub‐disciplines, namely technology, is devoted to them. These fabricated (or transformed) objects are carriers or vectors of human's relationships to their world, of their beliefs, their sense and sensibility, their reasons, “good reasons” as would Raymond Boudon say. Therefore, human (individual and social) reality is a construction, at least always to some extent, what Kant's philosophy pointed out centuries ago. Finally, coming across the institution and culture when looking at human practice, including their productions and objects, fetishes and icons, is no surprise for the anthropologist who has learnt for some time that he should analyze societies without having them perish in the process by destroying their beliefs, even the belief in reason.

In the end, latour (2010) still brings something useful and new to a vast number of (modern) people: their own productions are not only theirs but are linked to the fate of their society. Our practices and productions are supported and supportive of political stances, even this special bunch of activities that is called “science” is never really neutral. Neither is probably Latour's claim for more collective fate, a claim which seems too to be culturally biased as Mary Douglas would have surely pointed out […]

Related articles