A few days ago I got my hands on Latour’s “On the Modern Cult of the Factish Gods,” and, overall, I thoroughly enjoyed it. Around the time when I picked it up, I had been following a discussion/debate over at Larval Subjects (here) Knowledge Ecology (here) pitting myth against ideology (that’s how I read it in any case). And, it struck me, that Latour’s ‘factish’ may well be what the discussion on myth and ideology needs to help it get beyond some of its apparent blockages.
Myth, it seems to me, could be described, broadly, as operating as fetish: a created, artifactual (mysterious?) entity to which powers and meaning are attributed and which in turn comes to influence patterns of social relations, despite its obvious origin in the hands of humans. Ideology, on the other hand operates as a self-validating system of ‘facts’, where claims to truth and objectivity prevail. In this sense, ideology (as that which has sought to replace myth with truth/reason) is an Enlightenment (and, therefore, modern) construct. As Latour’s extensive work examining scientific practice has revealed, however, facts, very much like fetishes, are produced by humans too. Subsequently, severed from the conditions of their production, they enter into circulation in society and become entangled in the production of new facts and new social realities.
Latour reveals the anti-fetishists’ naieve belief in belief that drives their disgust at the fetish-worshipers and their fetishes, which are so obviously (to them) irrational and sacrilegious. With their own (modern) form of rationality propped up on two fundamental splits – between subject and object on the one hand and between theory and practice on the other – the moderns are able to smudge over the profound contradictions inherent in their own ‘facts’. Latour also ensures we don’t forget that the root of the word ‘fact’ is from latin facere = to make. Based on this, he proposes the ‘factish’ as a term that combines fetishes and facts and permits a symmetrical comparative anthropology of the moderns and the non-moderns by revealing the underlying structure of their respective ‘factishes’.
Treating myth and ideology as non-modern and modern factishes respectively, it appears that although both are human-made, the traces of the work of human hands/minds in producing ideology are erased. Myth (from the Ramayana to King Arthur or the Communist Manifesto) operates as an evidently human-made story that seeks to convey something that must be deciphered, while ideology simply tries to hide its own artificiality with claims to ‘facts’. At the same time, the boundary need not be clear cut. Myth and ideology can intersect – and this is perhaps where the two risk becoming most virulent (as evidenced in much of the religious right, from some forms of Christianity in the US to some forms of Hinduism in India, etc., etc.). Critical theory has worked systematically to expose both myth and, subsequently, ideology, the former for its naievety, the latter for it’s insidiousness in perpetuating systems of exploitation. To the extent that each shapes social practices, beliefs, relationships, identities, assemblages, etc., each is seriously implicated in the differential distribution of powers within a society. So why not just smash myth and ideology to pieces?
Latour’s work leads us on a different path from one of simply trying to smash – i.e. eliminate – either myth or ideology (our own or anyone else’s). After all, where will those pieces go? The smashing of either (facts or fetishes, myths or ideologies), he shows us, is always followed by the construction of new ones that operate in ever more elaborate and complex ways, circulating through society and weaving new patterns of relationships as they do so. This is not something that we can ever get away from. Rather, we must strive to get better at acknowledging that splitting reality into myths and ideologies is much like splitting reality into fetishes and facts when what we are really dealing with are factishes: an endless stream of them that we keep reconstructing (in new guises) such that they keep returning, in new forms, to exercise their transformative powers – because of us and over us.
Only once we are able to come to terms with the ambiguous, paradoxical, constructed and autonomous powers of factishes, to grant them an independent ontological status, are we in a position to do the hard work of composing a new cosmopolitical order; one that does justice to the way the entities we create and encounter are born, circulate, weave the cosmos together and die – only to re-emerge, patched together, in a new guise, a new fusion of co-creaetion between humans and the cosmos. Learning to recognise the contradictions between our theories and our practices may well be a first step toward overcoming the blunders induced by both myth and ideology (while recognising that we can never quite be free from either). Another may be addressing the division of the world into subjects on the one hand objects on the other, a point I will explore in a subsequent post.