On (reading) the Inquiry into Modes of Existence


There is a book that I try to read for weeks now. I always read a few pages, then put it back, pick it up again, read, shake my head and put it down again. You would probably not believe it, but this book is Bruno Latour´s “An Inquiry into Modes of Existence. An Anthropology of the Moderns”.

For those who have not touched AIME yet, Latour´s “new” book is not just a book, it is a book + website + collective inquiry, funded by the European Research Council and run by Science Po´s Media Lab. The printed version, the text, is supposed to be mainly a manual, not the report itself. The collective inquiry started somewhere in 2012, being first introduced at Azim Premji University some time before the french publication of the book in September 2012 and the launch of the platform in November 2012. Anglophone readers could join after the publication of Cathrine Porters translation in August 2013, a german translation by Gustav Roßler will be published this July. The project itself, maybe best described in a short piece published in Social Studies of Science, is what could be called a positive version of the, well, negative points made in “We have never been modern”. It is — finally — tackling a problem that accompanied actor-network theory since its beginnings (or at least: since its first movements outside the lab): If everything is made from networks, and “Nothing is, by itself, either reducible or irreducible to anything else”: how to deal with what the moderns have called the differences of regions, spheres, fields, systems like science, law, politics, religion, organization? How can we flatten our approach without loosing our ability to account for the only kind of multiplicity that modernity has accepted, but continuously misunderstood as domains of knowledge? And what do to with what modernity has positioned at the source of knowledge — the self — or its object — matter?

Latour does that — Whitehead, Souriau, James and Tarde in his backpack and ready to dismiss the “Greimas” part of the “ANT is part Garfinkel, part Greimas” definition — by trying to sketch what he calls, borrowing a term from Souriau, “modes of existence”. Like the “regimes of enunciation” that populated earlier writings, especially those on religion and law and that have the same problem as Greimas’ actants, namely that they invoke a textual, discursive, narrative interpretation of what is at stake, modes of existence try to capture what “passes” through the various heterogenous networks that ANT had described. But of course, as in the case of science, the modes are not domains. There is more than passing reference in laboratories and more than politics in parliaments and more than religion in churches. The modes are the multiple forms of being, not essences — or, in Latour´s words, not being-as-being, but being-as-others — that populate the lab, the church, the parliament and that the moderns have crossed specifically and confused with the values they hold dear. The question that runs through the book is: can we find ways to speak with the moderns about what they hold dear without falling back into the traps that the modern constitution has put all over the landscape: the bifurcation of nature, the subject/object distinction, the crossed out god(s)?

As a long time reader of Latour´s work, I find the book both tempting and troubling, making be shift continuously between agreement and the feeling that something is terribly wrong with it. And since the moment I started reading the book, I am trying to find out what it is that produces that oscillation. I first thought it was the tone: the book is written in a very careful and modest, but at the same time educational, sometimes even cavalier style. But the tone, although puzzling at first, surprisingly funny after a few chapters. Then I thought it was the system of 15 modes and I felt the terror of reification and loosing not only the Greimas, but also the Garfinkel side. But no, that is not really the problem, as the inquiry is explicitly provisional. But the feeling that something is wrong remains. My current guess is that it has to do with the both too broad and too narrow definition of “the moderns”: what is said about religion is mostly about catholic christianity; what is said about law is mostly about discretionary adjudication, a very specific form of dealing with legal means in the Conseil D´Etat. The Moderns are at the same time “us”, “rich westerners”, “white moderns” and a species long gong. I guess expect more sensitivity and caution from something that calls itself anthropology. But I am still not sure that is source of my problem reading this book. Have you read it? Are your experiences similar? Thoughts?


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About Jan

Jan studied Sociology, Political Sciences and Computer Science. As a Research Group Leader at the MCTS in Munich he connects Sociological Theory and Science and Technology Studies by working on problems of social structure and infrastructures, human and non-human agency and discourse and material culture.

7 thoughts on “On (reading) the Inquiry into Modes of Existence

  1. Hi, I come from a different field I think…but will try some thoughts!
    It struck me that Latour was attempting a work of huge ambition that whist requiring a lot of technical analysis (and background too?) was also aiming at something literary in the sense that we might be ‘captured’ by the territory he was trying to stake out.
    This is how I understood the line “So let me lead you into this”. He was seeking to narrate an ‘adventure’ rather than to necessarily be the silverback lead. It is a territory to share and to nourish in unison: both to read, and to be read. Perhaps this is the only way that the AIME project might work.
    Although Latour’s style could never be compared to that of Whitehead (so French and so English!!). It was, nevertheless, Whitehead that most often came to my mind – in particular Isabelle Stengers’ brilliant “Thinking with Whitehead” (and of course Latour’s forward to the same).
    For many years Whithead was utterly impenetrable to me (and maybe still is!), and yet he was always a fascination. I was ‘captured’ not only by the density of his writing, but also by characteristics that in any other sense might be called ‘problematic’: Disjointed, obscure, tangential etc.
    Of course Latour would not be aiming at such qualities (not specifically), but I think that he was attempting to make *adequate* descriptions of ideas that sustain many facets; ideas that might capture some “thing” of creative possibility (ongoing). This sounds a very obscure reading I know! But I think that AIME needs to be understood as both a technical undertaking, yes; but also something that ‘evokes’ (in an artistic sense) ie. it requires a ‘capture’ and ‘leap’ of thought much like Stengers emphasises in Whitehead. This would fit quite closely (I think) with what Latour says about a speech act?
    I do share a certain ambivalence; but no work by Latour has intrigued me so much. At least I have returned to it more than any other (maybe because I fail to understand it!).


  2. Philip, Terrance and D.: Yes, I think you are right. I wanted to express my ambivalence, as it it is neither a denial nor an appraisal that flows easy from my fingers.

    The “Ousting Greimas and Garfinkel and reformulating the same sorts of ideas in terms of James and Whitehead seems to constitute both a substantive change and a mere pragmatic translation of results discovered via semiotics.” is part of what I am struggeling with. Not so much the semiotics part – I can live “without” that. But coming from James, Dewey and, later, Putnam (the heroes of my early years in this game) I tend to think Garfinkel´s heritage should not be dismissed. But maybe that is the “dissatisfied sociologist” in me that the Garfinkel reference always found comforting. Garfinkel, in the end, is the classic for those who do not want to canonize the classics.

    Coming back to the modes and the “system” hidden or veiled (is that habit or double click that tricks us here?): I can very easily grasp the first three (not chronologically but systematically): REP, MET, HAB. Yep, that is a very clever move. How can things be? Continuous or transformative. And mostly we do not notice which is which. REL, REF and LAW play ring another bell, but the idea of distinguishing the way they build their “truth machines” (Lynch) is good – although I would guess it is not the pass, the hiatus, but the configuration of “invisibles” (NET/ATT) that assembles these. PRE, TEC, FIC? Hmmm. ORG, MOR? Hmm, Hmm.. But the “hmm” is not a “no”, it is more a “not sure yet”.

    On style again: pedagogical is not the same as educational, I think. For me at least, it seems the book wants to be three things at once: the outcome of a more than 30 year old journey; the starting point of a new inquiry; a modest, but necessary move (“…is not easy to grasp” vs. “one must…”). The combination of the first two makes it not easy accessible: it produces this “we might be able to start over and we can do that on the background of my long experience. So let me lead you into this”, which is sometimes clever, but for me at least not very attractive. Another silverback showing us the way? Gandalf the Grey? Hmm. But that is only the style, I guess.


  3. this “These modes should be used as heuristic devices to sensitize us to plurality, rather than ontologising them into dogmatic instruments for containing and constraining such plurality” seems to be key to me and unfortunately not the way that the AIME project seems to be heading.
    “A main source of our failure to understand is that we do not
    command a clear view of the use of our words
    – Our grammar is lacking in this sort of perspicuity. A perspicuous representation produces just that understanding which consists in ‘seeing connexions’.Hence the importance of finding and inventing
    intermediate cases.The concept of a perspicuous representation is of fundamental significance for us. It earmarks the form of account we give, the way we look at things. (Is this a“Weltanschauung”?) (PI 122) “


  4. I’ve read it twice (since I’ve written an article on it). I found it really hard going the first time but much easier the second. I think Latour believes that he’s written it in a very accessible way but it isn’t, really – it’s considerably less accessible than many of his other books and I wouldn’t want to be a beginner trying to pick this stuff up from scratch, that’s for sure. It’s a bit headscratching at times and not just because all the references are online (though that doesn’t help).

    The oddness of its style is understandable to an extent because it’s trying to be the first word in a conversation, not the last. He doesn’t want to present it all systematically because that would make it seem like it’s a finished entity. However, once you’ve struggled through and managed to figure it out and you look back on it, it does look very much like a systematic philosophy. It’s like it’s hiding from itself.

    It’ll be really interesting to see how these final workshops go in July and how the text gets rewritten. I suppose judgement will have to be reserved until the project is completed.

    To make a judgement from the present standpoint, I think that it contains a huge amount of really useful stuff. Its sheer breadth and ambition deserves the highest praise. Whether it stands up as a whole, as a complete philosophy – that remains to be seen.



  6. I still feel very ambivalent about the book. When I first read it I had in the back of my mind the various pluralists that he does not cite very favorable (including Deleuze and Feyerabend, but also Wittgenstein, Lyotard, and Rorty). The book did not come off well from such a comparison: not so innovative, misrepresenting its predecessors, far more speculative than its empiricist rhetoric would have us believe, idiosyncratic where it makes claims to generality, ontologically evasive. I had a second more favorable reaction when i saw the book attacked from a naturalist position, that seemed dogmatic and naive. Now I feel simply ambivalent, waiting to see if a more satisfying account emerges from Latour’s digital encounters.

    I regret that the order of the book is “pedagogical”, starting from science, and getting to religion only two thirds of the way through the book, in Chapter 11. The autobiographical account makes it clear that the inquiry began with the religious mode, and then the philosophical (curiously not a mode) before moving on to the scientific mode. Giving priority to the pedagogical order over the biographical means that he does not include his own path of individuation inside his system, hiding its singularity under the generalising mask. The ethnographic fable goes in the same direction: if God is dead (ethnographically) then the religious mode has no place in his system construed as descriptive rather than normative.

    Ousting Greimas and Garfinkel and reformulating the same sorts of ideas in terms of James and Whitehead seems to constitute both a substantive change and a mere pragmatic translation of results discovered via semiotics. So we have again the same careful effacement of Latour’s own personal context of discovery in favor of a more impersonal context of justification. But this is precisely what his previous science studies and ANT books taught us to be suspicious of.

    One of the key tools, the concept of “translation”, is now severely limited by the notion of incommensurable felicity conditions. One mode cannot be translated into another, despite the constant translations occurring in the various corresponding domains. The modes seem to have been speculatively selected and abstracted from the empirical domains and so to oscillate between a normative status of constitutive criteria and a rather partisan description (very clear in the case of religion). Such modes, if approached more empirically, are rather one of a number of rival interpretative traditions inside each domain.

    Latour’s critique of the grand bifurcation is in danger of being replaced by a “plurifurcation”, undoing the perspective of pluralism by regrouping the elements of the networks traversing domains into speculatively purified modes. These modes should be used as heuristic devices to sensitize us to plurality, rather than ontologising them into dogmatic instruments for containing and constraining such plurality.


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