Myth, ideology and factishes

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.

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About andreling

collaborative explorer-activist working for inter-subjective improvement in the quality of life on planet earth
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8 Responses to Myth, ideology and factishes

  1. Pingback: Intra-being on Factishes, Cosmopolitics « Knowledge Ecology

  2. Strav12 says:

    To which I would add that it may benefit philosophy to get away from the epistemology-ontology divide and consider the role of the psychological drive – in whatever way you want to formulate that drive. That the creation of factishes as you describe them are a psychological response to the terror of our inexplicable existence and, more profoundly, our mortality. So drives of pleasure, meaning and fulfilment get taken over by drives of denying, halting or inverting the fact that we cannot escape death. Sounds a little Existential-Epicurean, but without getting stuck in one psychology or another, there may be a place for a philosophical consideration of psychological drives that spawn factishes as a defence.

  3. Does separating ideology and myth even as two forms of factishes undo the symmetry that Latour is proposing?

  4. Pingback: Coming Appearances and Other News « Larval Subjects .

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  7. andreling says:

    @ Strav12: It seems to me that there is certainly something that leads to the production of factishes and that it has something to do with not just our psychological natures but also the nature of the cosmos. I think that, regardless of what has kept us in existence so long, from where we stand today, we have little choice except to construct factishes. More importantly, this need not be looked at as a problem because factishes are what help us hold things together and organise our relationship with the cosmos. What matters, instead, is how we construct our factishes and how honest (sincere) we are about them.

    @ Jeremy: Good question. My sense is that the concept of factish is what allows us to put different forms of artefact (e.g. fetishes & facts, myths & ideologies) that have different modes (and stories) of production on the same footing so that we can interrogate them both in a symmetrical manner. As a result of this, we would no longer need to pit myth against ideology but rather consider the subtle differences in the modes of each. The questions we must then answer for each are: what do they do? how do they work? to what are they committed? what arrangements or assemblages do they uphold or dismantle? So, in the end, I do not think it undoes the symmetry since the symmetry is not to say that both are the same but that we now have a common language for talking about both without positing one as primitive and the other as Enlightened.

  8. Word. Thanks so much for this. A whole different world of philosophy is implied in Latour’s analysis here. I mean, the impulse to smash other people’s stuff is not necessary, but many contemporary thinkers see it that way.

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