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THE AMODERNS: THOUGHTS ON AN IMPOSSIBLE PROJECT

A Feature Interview with Bruno Latour

Bruno Latour, Heather Davis

Bruno Latour is a celebrated and seminal figure in Science and Technology Studies. Yet his work, always interdisciplinary and with an eye to the ways in which disciplines cross over, doesn’t stop at the borders of the relationship between knowledge production and undoing the positivist epistemic logic that has defined modern science. His mode of inquiry, enveloped most succinctly and famously in Actor Network Theory (ANT) – a methodology that allows for a thorough exploration of the relational ties between actors of all kinds within a particular situation—has been influential for people across the humanities and arts. Latour’s active collaborations with artists, writers, scientists, and philosophers in numerous publications, curatorial projects, and an opera speak to the breadth and scope of an imaginative mind which seeks to understand the present moment with precision in order to find the cracks and fissures that will move us towards, in his terms, a new peace. Latour’s project of rigorously analyzing the Moderns comes to fruition in his most far-reaching book, An Inquiry into Modes of Existence: An Anthropology of the Moderns (AIME).1 True to its subtitle, this work returns Latour to his roots in anthropology, finding value within the fifteen regimes of truth or modes of existence (a term from Étienne Souriau) that he identifies—including the beings of technology, fiction, politics, law, organization, and passionate interest—to begin to re-constitute the relations of modernization. As he says, “why do we use the ideas of modernity, the modernizing frontier, and the contrast between modern and premodern, before we even apply to those who call themselves civilizers the same methods of investigation that we apply to the ‘others’ – those whom we claim, if not to civilize entirely, then at least to modernize a little?”2 This anthropological project, with strong roots in pragmatist philosophy, is a thorough undoing of the modern divide of the subject and object, showing the ways in which this reduction obscures our relations with each other and the world, even within and for our own espoused values. And it is only by taking stock of our values that we can begin to compose the kinds of politics that will be necessary to move from modernization to ecologization.

The project of AIME is not a philosophic or scientific enterprise, as Latour insists, but one of diplomacy. That is, it is interested in developing the political structures necessary to re-compose what we think of as ‘modernity’, to refuse the global in the name of the globe.3 In order to do this, AIME is not simply a book, but an online platform that allows the reader to cross-reference and move through the materials from the book notes, bibliography, index, glossary and supplementary documentation, and the possibility of uploading content and comments. In addition to this format for exchange, the AIME team has been setting up a series of meetings with practitioners involved in each of the various modes to help make the inquiry more precise and useful, leading to a simulated debate that will coincide with the next meeting of the International Panel on Climate Change in Paris in 2015. In this sense, the book is indeed a provisional report, which is currently in the process of revision, for a larger diplomatic mission. The project enacts its diplomacy, putting forth not simply a series of ideas for the composition of a new collective, but initiating this process through various simulations, meetings, and through the affordances of exchange on the web. It is with the risk of this diplomatic enterprise that the book proposes new modes of relation not only for knowledge, but for the way that knowledge is produced.

I had the immense pleasure of discussing the platform, diplomacy, ecology and political composition with Bruno Latour at his AIME office in Paris on February 4, 2014, who very generously took time away from an incredibly busy schedule to meet with me. What follows is an edited transcript of that conversation.

-Heather Davis

 

I’d like to begin by getting you to describe the project of An Inquiry into Modes of Existence (AIME) as both a book and an online platform, and how it fits into your much larger project connected to modernity and processes of ecologization.

The project of AIME was from the beginning inspired by ecological politics and the environmental movement. But there is preliminary work to be done on what a collective is before you can turn your interests to what is required by Gaia. Of course, the AIME project is only a horizon, it’s a horizon of a possible sovereign – or sovereignty as I developed it in the Gifford Lectures – something that weighs on you in a way that was not the way nature was before. What is the request of Gaia? In AIME the solution is the simpler one. Whatever you describe as ecology, the responsibility largely weighs on those who have invented what we call modernization. This is hard to contest even when modernization is now everywhere, including in India and China and Brazil. So, my argument is quite simple. It is to say, ok, what has happened is modernization. It’s pretty important that we have an idea of what that means, especially because then you can open a negotiation with the other collectives whose responsibility is very minimal, but, whose ways of life and organizing their polity and their cosmos are very important as a resource for us. You cannot enter the world of Eduardo Viveiros de Castro’s American Indian4 without having done this preparatory work because otherwise it will remain a dispute about modernizing or not modernizing. So my attempt in AIME is preparatory to meeting Gaia. It’s to say, when the former modern will finally understand what we have done and also what we are worth – not only flagellating ourselves – we might be able to build other connections with all of the other ways of being, including those in the modern’s own collective. Because there are lots of other ways of being which have never been modern, even inside modernization. Then the question of turning to Gaia becomes interesting. So that’s what the whole project is about.

Later, hopefully, we will publish another version of the book that goes through all the crossings.5 There is one document on our website dedicated to the aims of AIME, and it’s quite amusing because then you see in one synoptic fashion the preparatory work to meet Gaia. The book attempts to change the of view of technology in a way which is not that of mastery, which then allows you to modify the way law is understood, religion is understood, and then you can begin to negotiate with lots of other techniques. But it’s a slightly bizarre project, because it’s asking, in a time of urgency, to think slowly about what we have done.

You have described AIME as a diplomatic project, a project of composition, can you say more about that?

The reason why diplomacy is the metanarrative or metadiscourse of the project is because it’s not science. It’s a diplomatic project about how to compose, in all the senses of the word composition. So, to say that there is a horizon of diplomacy is to say we have to state our agreement or disagreement. We are not just like scientific peers, learning what the world is like. We also want to decide what it is to be together in the world. And that’s of course one of the problems for AIME because the project is not a scientific project, the inquiry is more like an inquest. Even though inquest is a legal term. If you evaluate AIME and it’s judged by peers, it is ridiculous since the thing will explode immediately. That’s what the Americans are doing when they discuss the book, they just say, this guy has not read Hannah Arendt and he speaks about politics, he doesn’t cite Heidegger. Of course, it’s not a scientific project! It’s a diplomatic project where the diplomatic figure is actually the one of one mode, which is the mode of [PRE] or preposition.6 Some people say, oh it’s just philosophy, but it’s a philosophy à la Isabelle Stengers and Donna Haraway, etc., it is a philosophy of composition. It’s a diplomatic philosophy. It’s not a neorealist or neorationalist definition of philosophy. The position is that we won’t be able to face Gaia as long we believe to have been modern. I mean there is no place on earth for us moderns and Gaia. So one of us has to cede. It’s perfectly possible that with geoengineering and remodernization we might actually go one step further and shift the catastrophe to the next century, this is a completely possible scenario. But lets say we succeed in establishing that modernizing has to be re-modernized—this is Ulrich Beck’s argument—it has to be deeply modified. How do we do that? Well we do that by, for the first time, putting on the table the values we think we are beholden to. Then we can open the negotiations, because we don’t mistake our values for our metaphysics, so to speak. This enables us to defend science without defending epistemology, to defend politics without defending Hobbes, and so on and so forth. So, that gives a margin of maneuver. And then when we have re-opened this connection with the collective we can turn and say, well, what we used to call ecology or ecologization now can be a synonym with civilization, maybe a new form of globalization, but in a very, very different form than just an extension of modernism. That’s what I call composition. Of course it’s absurdly big. But the advantage of thinking big here is that you see simultaneously all the problems. And the few people who are interested in the project, that’s what interests them, that you simultaneously, for once, make an inventory of values.

The project is huge, it’s a huge undertaking. At the same time it’s intensely pragmatic in the sense that it has a very specific diplomatic goal. I find this especially interesting at a time when there is so much horizontal political organizing that has emerged as a consolidation of many issues, and not just one particular issue, as we saw with the Occupy movement, for example.

I am delighted to think that AIME can be pragmatic. It’s pragmatist, in philosophy, but pragmatic?

I mean, in the sense of articulating a kind of politics that returns to these questions of values, diplomacy and coherent demands.

Well, I think the question of politics goes in many different directions. We had a meeting in London last Friday with Noortje Marres who works on these questions at Goldsmiths to define [POL], or the being of politics.7 It’s quite an interesting topic. Most of the politics is sub-politics and issue displacement to use Noortje’s expression. But I think it is interesting to use something that is completely outdated—maybe this is what you mean by coherence—a metanarrative. I think metanarratives are indispensable even though everyone says you should not have metanarratives. Given what Gaia requires, you need to ask, are we in nature? No, we are in Gaia, and nature is something else altogether. These narratives make a big difference. Are we on the path to progress? No we are not, we are in something called the Anthropocene. Are we on solid soil, independent from our action? No, we are in something that reacts to the way we act. Are we somewhere where the question of fact and the question of value can be separated? No, because…and so on and so forth. I think that if philosophers don’t do this very simple, very primitive sketch, they aren’t doing their job. And then, of course, once you do this gross overview, there is the question of the inquiry itself. That’s of course a different question; the inquiry has to be done in great detail. But I think there is something to be said in favour of big narratives because there is a danger of abstaining from telling the story of where we are, what we can hope for, where we can go.

I want to ask you more about the AIME platform. Can you describe how it came about and how it’s been functioning?

I don’t know what to think of the platform. It was an experiment to shift the way that philosophy is done, from a scientific referential to a diplomatic referential and for that we needed a tool. We can do face to face meetings, but we needed a way to connect these meetings, so a digitally mediated platform seemed to be the way to do it.

In terms of the inquiry, there is a big contradiction between the massive work I did and the price of entry for new inquirers. On the one hand, there are many pages in the vocabulary and documentation columns of the site; on the other, is the call for an open inquiry. So, we overdid a little bit the experimental aspect, realizing in retrospect that you need to have a lot of things in place to have this kind of inquiry. This has nothing to do with the web or the culture of commentaries, wikis, clouds, crowdsourcing, etc. There is a built-in contradiction that we had not fathomed before between asking people to simultaneously contribute and imposing on them a massive preliminary reading. We saw this problem emerge last Friday when people participated in a meeting about the being of [POL] at Goldsmiths. It takes a lot of time to convey to people what I meant by a mode. It’s not about the domain of politics; it’s about qualifying the trajectory of issues. So there is a lot of work and time is running very fast because the money is running out in August. So we basically have a few months left to simulate the gigantic experiment.

And will you actually re-write the book based on these meetings and online contributions?

Yeah, we have a week at the end of July set aside when we will re-write, not the whole book, of course, but the parts that have been pointed out as very weak. Of those who are interested in the being of politics, my formulation was counter-productive. Apparently this notion of a Circle created a lot of difficulty for people who want to follow politics, so I need to develop another metalanguage.8 Is there another way to formulate the thing? Or, completely different ways of experiencing what I’ve pointed at? This part we will re-write. But of course the problem is that the money will run out and people are just beginning to understand what is in the book. It takes time; it’s not an easy argument. So this will just be the beginning and I will have to find other ways to continue the process of discussing, amending, modifying. And after this week of re-writing in July, we will simulate the diplomatic meeting of some sort.

How will you do this?

We don’t know exactly yet. The idea is to bring the diplomatic proposition to some sort of authority.

What kind of authority?

That’s the problem. Not an academic authority, but also an academic one. Not a political authority, but also a political one. We have chosen people who are on the receiving end of the project, so to speak, and who can simulate the chargé d’affaire of a representative of Gaia of some sort. The list is still being made but it will be a great philosophical happening. I need people who are flexible enough to have fun. It’s a role, it’s role-playing. But it’s interesting to imagine the provisional end of an AIME project.

It’s a gigantic project.

The referees, the seven referees who read my application, they all said it would fail, but it had to be funded, first priority. But every one of them said there is no way that it would work. But they had to fund it without even discussing it. They said that the platform would not work, that it is much too big, the diplomatic thing is impossible, et cetera.

And I guess to a certain extent they were right?

Of course they were right! It’s a completely impossible project. Diplomacy is opening an intellectual space that you would never get elsewhere, that is another reason why it is interesting to think diplomatically because if I think in terms of science, that would be ridiculous, because each of the paragraphs of this book would be a lifetime’s worth of work, if I had to prove things like the crossing between [HAB] and [REF], for example.9

Well, that does seem to be the strength of the project, especially the platform, because it is possible to insert the back material, which allows a certain breadth, as well as to indicate a way for the material to cross. How many people have been actively contributing to the project?

We have three thousand people who subscribed to the book, but in terms of contributions, there are not that many because the demands of contributing are quite heavy.

Christophe Leclercq10 : We have received 107 contributions, of which 49 have been published and the rest are in the moderation process.

Donato Ricci11 : Then there is an extensive moderation process; we have a pretty tough revision process. It’s pretty harsh in the sense that people can contribute more or less freely if they understand how to contribute—we know that there are some pitfalls in the way that people can interact on the site—so when people end up submitting a contribution, it is dispatched to the various mediators and then it goes through a process of edits.

Bruno Latour: We have a big editing staff for very few contributors so far.

Christophe Leclercq: We recently did a call for contributions because we are organizing an event in Copenhagen and we asked people to propose a way to contribute via the website or email and that was about one third and two thirds, respectively. It hasn’t been published yet because we are waiting for the event and are fine-tuning the contributions.

Bruno Latour: We will change the way to handle the whole site in a few weeks or months. The digital book so far remains a traditional book, with augmentation, plus contributions which are themselves highly monitored, so it’s designed to limit the numbers of contributors. We are now building another entry into the book, to enable users to read the book through the documents and through the crossing, because the crossings are the real interest of the book. The crossings register what people are scandalized by or protesting against. That’s when you clearly see that there is an empirical truth in the project, when people register their protest. Strangely enough we have not built the whole reading from that, but from a traditional thread through the book, which is called a provisional report. But it weighs on the stomach! It’s very odd anyway, because most people have read the book without having any look at the site.

Really? Even though you are very clear in the introduction that this book is just the print version of a much larger project?

I don’t follow everything now, because lots of people are discussing it, but I have not seen one discussion where people allude to any document in the text and say, maybe he’s wrong here, but look at the documentation on the documentation page. The book is written as a book, if not, it would be a lie. There is a review in the Times Literary Supplement,12 a very positive review, where the guy obviously has no interest in the platform, erased the philosophy and the anthropology, and is only interested in the pluralism. This is normal. There are lots of ways for people to read books. I have written many books and I have learned that you cannot control their reception. But the platform in the end might have been more actively used if it were not for the traditional format of the book. We wanted to produce too many contradictory things. We wanted to provide a digital equivalent of a quiet reading, so we didn’t want to have anything flashy on the website, it was important that is was like this. And we succeeded there, but what we have not found is a way to get from the crossing to the documents and then maybe, but not necessarily, to the text. We are still under the empire of the text. It’s also my generation; I’m not a digitally native person, so all the funky things we had imagined at the beginning were weighed down by the difficulty of having a book. And, everything had to be invented from scratch, and then we were delayed. We might finally arrive at the project just as the project is finishing. So, we are making another application for having a free product, so that people can use it independently of the book.

What would the product be?

Publishing software. It’s a great way to publish a thesis, which is hard to do now. With this platform you can publish any document, plus the contributions.

Many of the problems that you’ve experienced in relationship to the project mirror the problems of diplomacy or composition, in a political sense, because you have to be able to articulate a position, but once your position is articulated, you’re automatically foreclosing or excluding particular kinds of engagements and arguments.

We tried to avoid the commentarium, the blogosphere, the débat d’idées. And we wanted co-documentation, but we don’t want just illustration either.

How have your face-to-face meetings gone? What is their role in the project?

We had six in the first year. We were just testing how to do it so it was not that rewarding. But what was interesting was that in all the cases there were practitioners, and not only academics. It is also one of the aims and difficulties of the project, of course, which is to interest people who are not necessarily equipped with academic language and who are interested because it gives them other ways to engage with, or registers for, their practice. The meeting of [ATT] went very well because it was with marketers, entrepreneurs, people who know that we are attached to things. But this attachment is difficult to describe. There we were in a good position. [ORG] was more difficult because there is a gigantic amount of management literature, but the key issue is an actor-network issue, which is the fact that there is no overall scheme, that you have to see the script and that’s what politics is about, that the scripts should never be allowed to disappear from view. There needs to be a way to talk about a local organization, which is of course one thing that disappears when you talk about capitalism. That’s very difficult, very, very difficult because ninety-nine percent of social sciences are about the fact that there are individuals in something bigger. And there’s nothing. It can’t be done. People want the big picture and people talk about society and the individual, the question of how to reconcile individual action comes up and then you mobilize Bourdieu and then it’s finished. So, to trace the movement of organization is immensely difficult.

Economy is also extremely tough. It’s not the mathematization of the economy, because everybody can see through that, it’s the very basics of the field of economy, we don’t have an alternative tool to re-describe it. So, of course, my colleagues in science studies did a magnificent job, people like Timothy Mitchell, and other sources that I cite at length in the book, but there is not even the beginning of a common sense about it. And this book is common sense, potentially. Very potentially!

We have a meeting next week on mind/body, and the reaction from people is that the dualism is stifling. That’s the reaction, even if they don’t understand, they see. If I imagine our mind/body, I see that there are dozens of other ways of being an agent that don’t correspond to this divide. We had a one-week meeting on the being of fiction with four artists, they were elated to see that you can talk about the ontology of beings of fiction, [FIC]. The idea is to make a way to talk about truth and falsity without immediately having to say, yes, of course, but it’s not objective. There are lots of other ways to understand fiction.

We will have a meeting on law [LAW] with Kyle McGee who is re-describing the whole legal system, basically the argument is that you don’t have to be cynical, that you don’t have to immediately be squeezed into saying that law is about formalism and it is about manipulation. Cynicism is of course one of the ways in which legal philosophers think about their own work. There is another book by Adam Miller and he wrote an outstanding book, which is extraordinarily moving to me because he realized, once again, that it is only when you are freed from God that we can at last be religious.13 I read his book with great emotion. But certainly this proposition is very important, that we respect what the beings of religion request from you. It’s easy to say it’s transcendental, but the beings of religion have their own specificity, and they can be there, respected, at their place. I can respect the being that addressed me without immediately having to frame it as a subject or object, to make it real or imaginary. That’s why I still believe in the project even though it’s, of course, mad.

That position is very diplomatic.

It’s part of diplomacy, my beings are there, respected, which doesn’t mean that yours have to disappear. But it’s true that modernist history has dictated that if I respect these beings, those have to disappear. And that’s the interest of the project. It’s not yet visible in the contribution, because it’s only when you work face-to-face with people that the links between modes becomes clear. So far people check the accuracy of their own respective domain. But what I’m interested in is when people say “ah, if you say that about law, then when you get into politics you can say something else about politics, and if you say that about politics, you can get that from science.” And that tick, tick, tick, tick, is where the project will really be understood. And that’s a diplomatic thing. Of course it’s weak on every point, but if you can say what beings of religion are requesting that from you, that gives a lot of places for me to keep valuing things in religion. I’m not interested in religion per se, but I am very interested in the being of preposition [PRE]. This formulation is not truth-based, because it’s completely impossible to have all those beings simultaneously there. That’s why diplomacy is important. It’s not a conversation under the name of generality, it is not about Hegel, it’s not a coherent view and it’s not where everything is levelled through language games. There are truth conditions which are very precise and that have a real ontology. This is why I still think the project is worthwhile.


  1. Bruno Latour, An Inquiry into Modes of Existence: An Anthropology of the Moderns (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2013) The digital platform can be found here: www.modesofexistence.org/inquiry. The research has received funding from the European Research Council under the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2013) / ERC Grant ‘IDEAS’ 2010 n° 269567. 

  2. Bruno Latour, “Biography of an Inquiry: On a book about modes of existence,” Social Studies of Science 43, no. 2 (2013): 289. 

  3. Latour calls for this move at the end of his lecture “The Affects of Capitalism,” presented at the Royal Danish Academy Lectures in the Humanities and Social Sciences in Copenhagen on February 26, 2014. 

  4. See Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, From the enemy’s point of view: humanity and divinity in an Amazonian society (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992). 

  5. The crossings can be found here: www.modesofexistence.org/crossings. 

  6. [PRE] is defined as that which “…is necessary in the inquiry since it allows us to go back to the interpretive keys which allow us to prepare for what comes after: in the [NET] mode, which describes networks, it allows for the definition of the minimal metalanguage necessary for the deployment of modes.” http://www.modesofexistence.org/ime/en/voc/1473 

  7. Latour wrote a report that summarizes the meetings and the difficulties that were encountered, which can be read on AIME’s website here: http://www.modesofexistence.org/a-brief-report-on-the-pol-meeting-in-london-by-bl/. 

  8. The political Circle is understood within AIME as the relation of being able to constitute an ‘us’ or ‘we’. Latour says, “In order to follow a trajectory so unique and so despised as that which corresponds to politics ([POL]), we have given the term Circle a capital letter to give it the sense of a constrained movement (the ‘curved speech’) which, by its continuous reprise, is capable, if it is maintained, of defining an autonomous, free and willing group whose members feel able to say “us/we” and to belong to the same ensemble.” http://www.modesofexistence.org/ime/en/voc/166. 

  9. On the website, the preliminary response to this question of the crossing between [HAB] and [REF] is: “As with all [REF] crossings, this one is particularly important since it is via the tension between the paving of inscriptions necessary for setting up chains of reference and the virtual disappearance of all these intermediaries that the idea of information and access to remote beings is established. Here, however, habit plays the decisive role since it is the setups of skills that make these sequences possible and, at the same time, allow them to be smoothed out in order to grasp only the extremities of chains of reference: the knowing mind and the known thing. Because of this smoothing out, the scientific ‘kitchen’ disappears completely and gives the impression that the paving of inscriptions is possible without any (apparent) continuity solutions; it is this crossing that science studies has intensified, in grasping science as a practice, through the central idea of ‘tacit knowledge.’” http://www.modesofexistence.org/ime/en/voc/793. 

  10. Christophe Leclercq is project manager of the AIME project 

  11. Donato Ricci specializes in the visual display of digital data for the AIME project. 

  12. Jonathan Rée, “From straight talk to speaking well,” Times Literary Supplement 5780, January 10, 2014, p. 7. 

  13. Adam S. Miller, Speculative Grace: Bruno Latour and Object-Oriented Theology (New York: Fordhman University Press, 2013). 


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Image: L'Enquête sur les modes d'existence: use anthropologie des Modernes.
Copyright: Bruno Latour