the rhetoric of instauration: Latour's Modes of Existence, Part 1

I decided to hold of writing further on Latour until I made my way to the end of the first part of the book (about 1/3 of the way through). As I wrote in my earlier post, I find this text deals centrally with issues that concern rhetoricians (not that all rhetoricians will agree with Latour, but I think almost any would see rhetorical matters being addressed here). Latour begins with the networks with which we have long associated his work, but he quickly moves to address concerns that are familiar to those who have followed speculative realism.

Chapter three address correlationism, which Latour calls “correspondence.” He writes

what are usually called the “knowing mind” and the “known object” are not the two extremes to which the chain would be attached: rather they are both products arising from the lengthening and strengthening of the chain. A knowing mind and a known thing are not at all what would be linked through a mysterious viaduct by the activity of knowledge; they are the progressive result of the extension of chains of reference. In fact, if we are so readily inclined to speak of “correspondence” between the two, it is because they both indeed arise from the same operation as the two sides of the same coin. (80-81)

Latour comes to identifying these as two separate modes of existence. Reproduction is the mode by which objects persist, and reference is “the establishment of chains defined by the hiatus between two forms of different natures and whose felicity condition consists in the discovery of a constant that is maintained across these successive abysses” (92). His example is the use of a map to navigate a trail up a mountain. Of course the map isn’t the mountain (the map is not the territory). But if there are strong chains of reference between the map and the mountain (i.e it is a good map), then knowledge has been created that can be employed on a hike. As I see it, the error from Latour’s perspective is to begin with the premise that the subject-object divide is a fundamental ontological rift, when instead they are produced by the same process of reference. Chapter four continues this conversation by addressing the concept of “materialism,” which mistakes the formal qualities of objects established through processes of reference for the substance of reproduction.

These concerns may seem distant from rhetoric, but only because rhetoric has rested upon the premises of modernity that have led us to view our discipline as a strictly cultural, symbolic, and human enterprise. This becomes more clear in chapter four, which deals directly with rhetorical issues. Here Latour returns to a familiar concern in his work, the disconnect between scientific and political discourses. He rehearses the familiar (at least to rhetoricians) history of rhetoric as it is divided from philosophy, science, and Truth through the invention of what Latour calls “straight talk.” However, once we abandon straight talk we return to a rhetorical space where we are obligated to seek out good, strong articulations of the world, which depends in part (as Latour continually reminds in the text) on the people one is addressing.

Part one concludes with this concept of instauration, which I see as a replacement term for “compositionism.” This is a shift in emphasis that rethinks agency as instauration is the act of renewing or restoring (in English), though instauration in French is translated as “foundation” or “establishing.” Latour takes this concept from Souriau (Etienne or Paul, not sure as there aren’t any citations or even a works cited; I guess we are just supposed to know, or maybe it isn’t important). Latour writes, “An artist, Souriau says, is never the creator but always the instaurator of a work that comes to him but that, without him, would never proceed toward existence” (160). And later, “the act of instauration has to provide the opportunity to encounter beings capable of worrying you. Beings whose ontological status is still open but that are nevertheless capable of making you do something, of unsettling you, insist, obliging you to speak well of them” (161).

For me, this notion of instauration is key in understanding the agency of the composer as necessary but not sufficient to the composition. Once we can begin to see the interactions among objects across different modes, we can recognize rhetoric as something that is not strictly human. All objects have the capacity to encounter one another and must take up one another in their own terms (establish chains of reference); we must enunciate one another. At the same time, in those enunciations we are obligated by our encounters with others and we must establish strong chains of reference if we wish our instaurations, our compositions, to be good. Symbolic action is then one particularly powerful means of instauration, but it is a part of these larger nonhuman rhetorical relations. Once one recognizes this, it is no longer sensible to imagine language as standing with subjectivity on the opposite edge of a great divide from the rest of the material world.  It is no longer sensible to imagine that language has an obligation to reveal or represent some hidden formal truth or law underlying a mute materiality. If we can move beyond the modernist fantasy that language should speak some formal truth or justice or foster some pure human agency, then we can get to the more interesting rhetorical task of understanding how rhetorical acts (human and nonhuman, symbolic and nonsymbolic) operate in the establishment of the modern world.

Though Latour clearly has more than rhetoric on his mind, this is where the next two-thirds of the book is headed.


10 thoughts on “the rhetoric of instauration: Latour's Modes of Existence, Part 1

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  1. Note for “instauration” on the AIME site: “To establish, build, construct – make a bridge, a book, or a statue – is not simply to intensify an existence that is initially weak. It’s to carry each stone and place it on another, to write one page after another (…) But this growing existence is made, we can see, of a double modality that finally comes together, in the unity of a sole being progressively invented in the labouring process. Often there is no warning: up to a certain point the finished work is always a novelty, discovery, or surprise. So that’s what I was looking for! That’s what I was meant to make! Joie ou déception, récompense ou châtiment des essais ou des erreurs, des efforts, des jugements justes ou faux. Nullement donc un simple épanouissement ou une simple intensification d’existence”.

    It’s a quote from: Les différents modes d’existence. Suivi de “l’Oeuvre à faire” (précédé d’une introduction “Le sphinx de l’oeuvre” par Isabelle Stengers et Bruno Latour. Paris: PUF, 2009. No page number is given, but I found it on 109. The first word “establish” translates “instaurer” in the original. I have no idea why the translation suddenly lapses into French, so here is my translation: “Joy or disappointment, reward or punishment for trials and errors, for efforts, for right or wrong judgements. Thus in no way a simple flourishing or a simple intensification of existence”.


    1. Thanks Terrence. So it really does seem that instauration is a replacement for compositionism. I am also reminded here of Blanchot’s use of Orpheus in that there’s this moment of insouciance where one turns away from one’s work and it becomes it’s own thing (or at least that’s how I remember Blanchot; it’s been years).


      1. I think that Blanchot argues that Orpheus was right to turn back and look, and so “lose” her, because he did not really want to know her in the day, but in her nocturnal being. This nocturnal Eurydice is present in the song by being absent. I think this is also a Latourian point. Bringing Eurydice into the day would be translating her into double-click. To love someone or to create a song you must lose them as diurnal double-click objects, and lose yourself as a double-click object too. Only then can you apprehend lovingly or poetically or religiously or politically, etc. That is why Blanchot declares that Orpheus was already “dispersed” (as he was later to be torn in pieces by the maenads) when he left the day to go down into Hades. Similarly, leaving behind the single vision of double-click ontology we are dispersed over multiple modes of existence.


      2. I think the term “instauration” replaces “construtivism” (commonly associated to the “social”), but not “compositionism”, as this has a different meaning. A note from the AIME site states: “Linked to compromise and also to “compost”, the word composition defines very accurately the project of AIME because it takes up every notion that had been too quickly universalized (and for this reason had become narrowly ethnocentric). The new basis is that of a comparative anthropology made possible because the idea of a composition is an alternative to the modernizing front. What should be universalized to reach a common world may be composed, step by step. This is the justification of a diplomatic approach.”


      3. Thanks Alyne. At one point in the “Compositionist Manifesto,” Latour indicates that he selects the term because the term constructivism has too many negative associations. So perhaps we might think of both compositionism and instauration has replacements for constructivism. As a rhetorician, I might be inclined to think of instauration as focusing on heuresis (invention) while compositionism is more about taxis (arrangement); this would reflect this notes emphasis on connecting composition with diplomacy (if we think about where considerations of audience might arise).


  2. More on instauration from the AIME site: “This is the important term proposed by Souriau for exiting the impasses of constructivism and its roots in a Subject-Object choice (who is the creator, the artist or the work?). He proposes a definition in terms of a path of instauration, or anaphora, to designate the trajectory whose result (not its cause) will be, eventually (albeit provisionally), and if everything works as it should, both a creator and a work. But these two results, as is the case with the known object and the knowing subject, with regard to reference, arrive afterwards and should not be assumed beforehand. If this were the case we would lose, precisely, the experience of what they do or, more exactly, the beings they host” and

    “Constructivism does not allow for differentiation between what is well made and poorly made because all the effects of construction are also constructed. This is not the case with instauration, however, which can easily fail because it requires the collaboration of
    beings that we accompany, help, push, express, facilitate or actually bring into being. All of this can fail to work”.


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