Bruno Latour’s Inquiry into Modes of Existence AIME

The ambitious project of an ethnology of the Moderns that has previously been known as Actor-Network Theory has entered a new phase. The industrious ANT has ceased following the actors through the tedious empirical underbrush and is now AIME-ing high. If not for the stars then at least for a vantage point from which the comparative anthropologist is able to describe the Moderns in such a way that they can find themselves in the description as well as permitting the pre-moderns, non-moderns, and anti-moderns to discover mutual concerns. The purpose is to bring the battling parties in the War of the Worlds, the Clash of Civilizations back to the negotiating table with some hope of success. This is what Gaia wants, global cooperative action on the basis of mutual understanding. There is otherwise no chance of healing the Earth’s wounds and overcoming the ecological threat.

Under the title of An Inquiry into Modes of Existence (AIME Latour offers an interpretation of Modernity in which the apologetic universalism of Enlightenment, Critique, Science, Technology, Progress, and Democracy that has left the post-colonial world alienated, angry, and without a vision for the future is replaced by a revised and more diplomatic interpretation of Modernity. Instead of demanding the non-moderns to choose between science or superstition, civilization or barbarism, the Moderns – so Latour’s proposal – have reached a self-understanding in which “beings” of all sorts and not merely subjects and objects can inhabit the world. Ontological pluralism now lends cultural pluralism a helping hand. There are many different kinds of beings, not just matter and minds, but beings with strange names like REF, REP, REL, MET, HAB, FIC, TEC, NET, PRE, ORG, LAW, POL, DC, …, 15 in all at present with the prospect of more, since the AIME project is “open source,” that is, all are invited to BYOB (bring your own beings).

If you have become fed up and impatient with post-modern critique, systems theory, and even the fashionable talk about networks, and if you had been wondering Where does it go from here?, What is the next big thing in philosophy?, then this is it. There is no more daring, more novel, more rewarding enterprise at this juncture in the realm of thought than the inquiry into modes of existence. Indeed, there is room for everyone!

Nonetheless those who have grown to love ANT will wonder what has been left behind now that we have moved on to AIME. To speak of modes of existence seems to leave the real ontological question open. What do all the different “modes” of existence have in common? What legitimates, grounds, and unites speaking of beings in different ways? If the word “being” is not a mere equivocation and ontology a farce, what makes out the Being of  the many different beings that now populate the collective?

In ANT this question was answered by the principle of irreduction (“nothing is, by itself, either reducible or irreducible to anything else” (The Pasteurization of France, 158). No entity could exist either completely isolated or completely subsumed under another. To be, according to this principle, is to be associated to an “other” through action. To be means to be an “actor” in the very broad sense of a mediator, that is, a maker of associations. Being is always being “as” other, that is, via or through the other. Existence by means of associations can be termed “networking.” The world consists of actor-networks and nothing else. For ANT there are no distinct and mutually exclusive ontological domains such as mind and matter, nature and society, God and the world, subjects or objects; all are united – even if until recently they refused to acknowledge this fact – in the one collective. Of course there are different “kinds” of networks. There are legal networks, scientific networks, educational, political, religious, and artistic networks, but these mingle with each other, interweave, and cross each other in so many different translations, associations, and mediations that it seems enough just to follow the actors and fill out the descriptions. It is not necessary, as Luhmann did, to make of these various networks into semi-autonomous social systems, each with its own code, its own form of communication, its constitutive boundaries seperating it from the “environment.” ANT dispelled the conundrums and contradictions of the “modern constitution” and set us free to see what experience presents. Why should we AIME for something higher or something other than the richness of associations in the collective? Why should we consign the actor-networks to only one mode of existence, NET, and set out to discover many other modes? If there are other modes of existence, do they not exist as networking? Do they not exist by virtue of associations? Does Being suddenly mean something other than irreduction?

From the perspective of ANT, when informants spoke about “lines of force” or “lineages” in physics or biology this was understood as a mediation, a translation, a way of networking; and in the next breath the same informants also spoke about legal means, the inspiring beauty of a theory and so on. When the ANT now takes AIME at ontological pluralism, these mediations suddenly start looking like the old domains or even Luhmanns social systems coming back and trying to set up house again on the ruins of modernity. What do “lines of force” demarcate if not that which we used to call physical nature? What do “lineages” mean if not what used to be known as organic systems independent of mindful translations, of any chains of references, references that now find themselves in the mode of REF, which suddenly begins looking a bit like mind, language, a symbolic domain? This is the part where the moderns will find themselves reflected in the interpretation of the anthropologist. By adding the mode of PRE (prepositions – a concept barrowed from James’ radical empiricism), it is the differences and not the similarities in the ways in which associations are made and networking is done that come to the fore.  These differences are “values” that the Moderns cherish; values that the Moderns missed in ANT’s vision of the War of the Worlds in which the strongest and longest network wins out in the end.

It would surely be a mistake to think that through AIME Modernity has arisen from the ashes like the phoenix with perhaps some new and more colorful feathers, but still the old form. The work of the ANT has been too thorough, the set of category mistakes that founded modernity are exposed and dethroned. AIME summarizes and clarifies this work. It will be interesting to follow AIME and see where it leads us. How many new and unheard of beings will join the collective and with every new member bring with it a new chance of healing Gaia.