Reflections on Bruno Latour’s “An Inquiry into Modes of Existence,” Ch. 4: Learning to Make Room

I’m participating in a reading group with about 40 other scholars focusing on Bruno Latour‘s recently published book An Inquiry into Modes of Existence: An Anthropology of the Moderns (2013). This week it is my turn to comment on Ch. 4, which is titled “Learning to Make Room.” I’m going to cross-post my comments here, as well as on the blog we’ve set up for the reading group ( If you want to respond to anything I’ve said here, please do so on the AIME group blog so that all the comments will be assembled in the same place.


Introducing the Beings of Reproduction,
Instituting ‘A Whole New Diplomacy’ 

by Matthew David Segall

   In chapter 4 of his inquiry into modes of existence, Latour begins the difficult task of appropriately enunciating how it came to be that the Moderns, despite having conquered the whole world, still lack the room to deploy the values––legal, moral, fictional, political, economical, spiritual, psychological––that they so cherish. Even the values of physical science became impossible to localize and equip after the entire earth and sky were submerged in an abstract space-time filled by the mathematical motion of matter-energy. Where, it must be asked, is the Mind that measures, calculates, and understands the infinite system of the Universe standing? On whose authority was this Mind granted access to the Ideas at work in Nature? Latour’s inquiry into the modes of existence cannot even begin until after the Cartesian Constitution leading us to repeat such poorly posed questions has been torn to shreds.

There is hope for the values of the Moderns, if only they are willing to give up all the bad habits and confused composites that come along with the “institution of matter” (118). Ecologizing Modernity will require instituting “a whole new diplomacy” (103) adequate to a pluriverse in which neither Nature nor the Mind can be said to exist. The alternative non-Naturalist, non-Idealist Constitution that Latour is trying to enunciate has summoned many modes of existence to the negotiating table. In chapter 4, Latour introduces us in particular to the beings of reproduction [REP]. He also attempts to disamalgamate the poorly formed composite causing a confusion of the beings of reproduction with the immutable mobiles of reference [REP ~ REF]. This confusion is the “double category mistake” through which “the notion of ‘matter’ emerges” (110). Poor Descartes gets blamed for more than his fair share of philosophical damage (we might at least admire his genius before we shame him for his mistakes), but Latour cannot avoid dating the emergence of the idea of matter to his (in)famous meditations. After Descartes, the Modern world “[begins] to believe that the thought of matter describes real things, whereas it is only the way the res cogitans–itself dreamed up–is going to start imagining matter” (110).

Imagine instead that the nascent, still scattered people of Gaia are waking up from Descartes’ dream. Imagine that the flood of Materialism has receded, and that all the faux battles waged by “spiritualists” against “reductionists” have grown quiet for lack of interest. Imagine you are an Earthling once again, returned from outer space to re-inhabit the solid ground of common sense experience. The interlacing ecological complexity of our common sense world of earth and sky, of plants, animals, and persons, makes the mathematizable quantum and relativistic realms of science look like “child’s play” in comparison (120). The world of common sense experience is more unfathomable, more mysterious, than the micro- and macroscopic worlds described by physicists, since, as Latour reminds his readers, the former “has been infinitely less explored than the other!” Latour wants to re-introduce Moderns––a people so obsessed with their theories of matter that they’ve entirely neglected the material practices that make these theories possible––to the beings of reproduction [REP] that, for several centuries now, have been so rudely silenced by the bizarre institution of matter. One of these beings, Gaia––no longer content to remain the unacknowledged background of human history––is now intruding to return the favor by rudely ignoring the Modern pretension to a risk free, double-click Science that might grant total control over a 3+1 dimensional world, as if this world were made of pure “knowability” (112, 121). Such a world would leave no room for life. Luckily, Gaia is no homogeneous substance or geometrical form, but a proliferating ecology of expressive, inventive, and active beings, each of whom, like us, is at risk from moment to moment of disappearing forever should they fail to be articulate, original, or insistent enough to subsist as themselves in an environs swarming with differences (99-101). Latour introduces us to the beings of reproduction [REP] so that the “matter” of materialism, “the most idealist of the products of the mind,” can be de-idealized (106).

Even the so-called “inert” entities of the inorganic world forcefully insist and express themselves. The concept of “force” that has proven so irreplaceable to physicists in their study of microscopic particles and far away galaxies is, we should remember, a concept that emerges from and gains its meaning only by continual reference to experience, to our feelings of attraction or repulsion, of being forced, in one way or another, by the insistent presence of an other. As Schelling, speaking to the Newtonian scientist, wrote in his Ideas for a Philosophy of Nature (1803),

“you can in no way make intelligible what a force might be independent of you. For force as such makes itself known only to your feeling. Yet feeling alone gives you no objective concepts. At the same time you make objective use of those forces. For you explain the movement of celestial bodies–universal gravitation–by forces of attraction and maintain that in this…you have [a physical ground of explanation for] these phenomena” (transl. by Harris and Heath, CUP, 1988, p. 18).

In point of fact, experience can grant us no such physical principles, if by “physical” it is meant that which exists “outside” experience, in the so-called “external world” of mute matter in motion. All our scientific knowledge of distant quasars and black holes hits its mark, not because the Mind has correctly represented the formal essences of Nature, but because our organism (equipped with its world-wide network of geometrical notations, telescopes, satellites, computers, and well-trained peers) has succeeding in translating the lines of force at work outside itself into the feelings of life at work within itself. All our knowledge, no matter how abstract, must make its final appeal in the courtroom of experience, since the court of Reason, having disavowed the the facts of feeling involved in all its acts of knowing, has as a result been cut off from its only means of concrete relation to reality. If everything were submerged in abstract “space-time/matter-energy,” science could never follow the threads of experience, could never arrive at the immanence of a truly de-idealized material (106).

It is not entirely clear at this point if Latour is willing to follow Schelling and Whitehead all the way to a full-blown panexperiential ontology. But what is obvious is that the beings of reproduction [REP], whether physical “lines of force” or biological “lineages,” do not mutely persist like undead zombies: to keep on existing as material existents, they must loudly insist that their values matter. Else they risk extinction. There is no “blind necessity” maintaining the substance of these beings. They can never rest inertly in a simultaneous sameness, nor can they succeed at succession through mere inertial momentum. The beings of reproduction must continually re-produce themselves by passing into and through others, taking little leaps to cross the hiatuses punctuating this world at every twist and turn of its becoming. These tiny transcendences force beings to risk passing through each other in order to remain in existence as themselves: “To obtain being, otherness is required. Sameness is purchased, as it were, at the price of alterations” (110).

When Science forgets the beings of reproduction [REP] by confusing them with its own mode of existence [REF], the formal knowledge produced and employed by it begins to seem as though it dropped into the minds of scientists from heaven. Luckily, the careful practice of scientific abstraction can easily be shown to be a concrete job at every step (110). The material universe referenced [REF] by Modern Science is not made up of objective facts that might speak for themselves and so put an end to every human debate (119). Rather, scientific knowledge “is the labor of a whole chain of proof workers, from those whose hands are black with dirt to those whose hands are white with chalk” (110). Science is a local practice, after all. Its knowledge [REF] is relative to the subsistence [REP] of its networks. Scientists––including their “languages, bodies, ideas, and institutions” (102)––are beings of reproduction [REP] contingently composed and recomposed from moment to moment by the same lineages and lines of force they pretend to study as “matter” whenever it appears “outside” themselves. We need not fear the eternal silence of infinite space, nor the mute mindlessness of inert matter. No, we have never been Modern, we have never lived in a geometrical space, and “this whole matter of matter has to have remained just a simple mind game” (117). We can imagine another, more coherent world: a world that leaves us room not only to think, but to breathe, to live. If we grow sensitive again to the multitude of earthly existents within and around us–to the swarming differences articulating the face of Gaia–maybe we can annunciate an ecological alternative to Modernity before it is too late, before the “grave events” (122) already expected of the coming century ramify so severely that the adventure of civilization has its unacknowledged ground pulled out from beneath its feet. Perhaps Hegel was partially right: after several thousand years of self-negation, human history has reached its end. But it has ended only so the Moderns (or the people who come after them) might reawaken to the multi-billion year geostory they have been sleepwalking through.

So, can we follow Latour’s diagnosis of the “sort of coherent madness” (115) motivating Modernity’s mistaken amalgamations and bifurcations? Are we ready to give up the Mind of Science, with its universal Knowledge and its obedient Nature, in exchange for the far messier pluriversal practices of the well-equipped sciences? Are we willing to welcome the lively beings of reproduction back to the negotiating table, or must we continue to drown out their multiplex voices in a Flood of res extensa-cogitans (112)? Are we ready yet to grasp the modes of existence, not as different representations of the same underlying reality (that discovered and described by Science), but as uniquely enacted realities, each in their own right?


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