Étienne Souriau, The Different Modes of Existence

An English translation of a book that has been a huge influence on Latour’s Inquiry into Modes of Existence has recently been published: The Different Modes of Existence by Étienne Souriau (1943). With permission, I post here an extract from a lengthy introduction to that book prepared by Isabelle Stengers and Bruno Latour (a piece intriguingly titled ‘The Sphinx of the Work’). It provides a little glimpse into the world of Souriau, populated as it is with strange neologisms (réique), in which existence comes to be in a process of contiguity between subject and object, in the prism of time.

The book itself is available to order here or on amazon.


Great philosophies are difficult only on account of the extreme simplicity of the experience of which they seek to take hold, for which they find in common sense only ready-made concepts. Such is the case with Souriau. His favorite example, to which he returns every time, is that of the work of art, the work in the process of being made or, to use the title of his lecture, as it was subsequently taken up and used by Deleuze, the work to-be-made. This was the crucible in which during the course of his work he continually recast his philosophy; the philosophical capstone of his great corpus. We encounter this experimentia crucis in the 1943 book, and the 1956 lecture in an even more concise form.[1] It first introduces itself in a surprisingly banal guise, almost as a cliché:

A lump of clay on the sculptor’s bench. A réique existence—undeniable, total, accomplished. But nothing yet exists of the aesthetic being, which has still to bloom. Each application of the hands and thumbs, each action of the chisel accomplishes the work. Do not look at the chisel, look at the statue. With each new action of the demiurge, the statue gradually emerges from its limbo. It moves toward existence—toward an existence, which in the end will burst forth in an intense and accomplished, actual presence. It is only insofar as this heap of earth is consecrated to being this work that it is a statue. Existing only weakly, at first, through its distant relation with the final object that gives it its soul, the statue gradually frees itself, takes shape, exists. The sculptor, who at first only senses it, accomplishes it, little by little, with each of the determinations he gives to the clay. When will it be finished? When the convergence is complete, when the physical reality of the material thing meets the spiritual reality of the work to-be-made, and the two coincide perfectly; to such an extent that in both its physical existence and its spiritual existence, the statue now communes intimately with itself, the one existence being the lucid mirror of the other. (cited from the main text, pp.127-128)

We might say that Souriau has provided himself with some ammunition here: the sculptor standing before his lump of clay can serve as the topos par excellence of free creation imposing its form upon shapeless matter. What, then, might be the use of such a classical example? Especially if it serves to recall the ancient Platonic idea of a “spiritual reality” as a model to which the work must conform? Why did Souriau flirt in this way with the possibility of what would be in effect a monumental mis-understanding? Because for him it is the construction of the problem that counts, not the guarantees required by the spirit of the age, the assurance that would have come from being in step with the rejection of the Platonic model. By means of this example he wanted thought to map out for itself an apparently straightforward route by which it would endeavor to distance itself from the various models previously utilized in the history of philosophy, one after the other, in order to render an account of them. It is the banality of the cliché that will cause the originality of the treatment to stand out. He intends to subject his reader to a particularly difficult trial (we can testify to the truth of that!): to travel the entire length of the journey from sketch to work, without having recourse to any of the available models of realization, construction, creation, emergence or planning.


[1] This refers to a lecture delivered by Souriau in 1956 and entitled ‘On the Mode of Existence of the Work to-be-made’, included in the book.

Sloterdijk, ‘In the Shadow of Mount Sinai’, part 3

Continuing some posts on Sloterdijk’s recent text:In the Shadow of Mount Sinai: A Footnote on the Origins and Changing Forms of Total Membership (2016). See posts 1 and 2 above.


So, religion is an essential component of the Sloterdijkian version of Mitsein. Religion is that which provides an immunological envelope that enables humans to survive and flourish. (The contrast with the Girardian sacred is here most evident).

However, as far as Sloterdijk is concerned, there are two different expressions of religion in history that have led to two different modes of Mitsein.

Neither approach is exactly to be lauded: both are premised on systems of control-by-fear. However, they are different in their effects: where the first is a ‘phobocracy’, the second is an ‘auto-phobacracy’ (p.46), and for Sloterdijk the latter is more pernicious in its psychopolitical effect, and leads to more violence.

  1. Syncretistic religion

Syncretistic religion is the standard technique of successful empires throughout history as they have handled defeated and treaty-amalgamated religious groups following a religion that is not their own. Its objective is to secure a peaceable working arrangement amongst sovereign and vassal by means of ‘a liberating amalgamation of foreign worlds of peoples and gods’ (pp.19-20).

Syncretistic religion functions on a day-to-day level via ‘diplomats’ (p.20), those who are trained to recognise similar functions of divinities underneath the array of different gods that are worshiped across the empire. This diplomatic work is what enables different people groups to approach one another in the form of ‘ecumenism’ (p.20), whilst simultaneously ensuring the maintenance of peace in the empire (p.46). We are here on the same ground as the ‘diplomat’ of modes of existence.

The great innovation of this school of thought lies in the discovery that with inter-culturally sustainable gods, the inner and the outer converge: what one had taken for a foreign god is revealed, upon closer inspection, as a different guise of one’s own deity. (p.20)

This syncretistic process is exactly what is described by Jan Assmann in his ‘translation’ tables and picked up in the wonderful fifth lecture of Latour’s Face à Gaïa.

  1. Boundaried religion

The second form of religion in the world is ‘boundaried religion’, whose objective is to secure its own existence and perpetuation in history via a process of ‘withdrawing to what is its own’ (p.21).

Some of the functions of ‘boundaried religion’ include:

  • It will defend (to the death) the ‘singularity’ of an ‘untranslatable god’ (p.21).
  • It will likely incorporate some kind of ban on images, which is a cynical move intended to withdraw God from the risks of self-justification in the agora (p.22).
  • It will promulgate that idea that to forsake this deity is to ‘go under amid multiplicity’ (p.21), with the corresponding doctrine that ‘whoever mixes themselves is eliminated and whoever translates falls from grace’ (p.23).
  • It is prepared to enter into a ‘great contest’ (p.21), no doubt agonstic, with other ethnic groupings that follow different gods.
  • It demands the total adhesion of its members to the boundaries it stipulates, even to the extent of demanding some kind of total adhesion of being: it reaches for ‘the entire existence of its members’ (p.52).
  • It will likely incorporate some kind of ban on images, which is a cynical move intended to withdraw God from the risks of self-justification in the agora (p.22).

It is no surprise, then, that this second avatar of religion refuses to participate in Assmannian translation tables (p.21).

So far, Sloterdijk’s methodology has held in tact: he has described two forms of religion in terms of the immunological-compositional effects, rather than in specifics of monotheistic doctrine. We are soon to enter into the shadow of Sinai, however.

Sloterdijk, ‘In the Shadow of Mount Sinai’, part 2

In light of the previous post, the objective of Sloterdijk’s text thus becomes: (A) to explain the origin and maintenance of religion in history, (B) such as to demonstrate why some religion has become violent and other religion has not.

Sloterdijk wishes to avoid the following twin explanations in the study of religion:

  • Platonic: world religions are outworkings of ethnic archetypes (p.13).
  • Romantic: world religions are outworkings of ‘spirits of peoples’ (p.13).

In other words, Sloterdijk wants to avoid explanations for the origin and maintenance of religion in history that posit some factor outside of or apart from the agency wielded by the practioners of that religion themselves: thus, he advocates ‘the abandonment of popular concepts based on essentialist or even metaphysical foundations’ (p.16).

By contrast, Sloterdijk will prefer to take a more ethnological or anthropological approach, or what he calls ‘ethnoplastic’ approach. Here, religion is understood as a ‘mechanism’ (p.16) wielded by its own practioners for their own purposes and survival, showcasing their ‘mythopoetic and theopoetic talents’ (p.17). An immunology if you like.

To explain this, Sloterdijk embraces a Durkheimian explanation of religion as a function of living together or being together that he calls ‘group synthesis’ (p.8). This is the Heideggerian Mitsein. He is prepared to accept that religion is not just one way of developing Mitsein, but rather it is the essential way. In fact, there can be no Mitsein without religion. Thus, Sloterdijk acknowledges that religion is an indispensible, primordial building block for hominization and for the stabilisation of all human society.

The assumption of a people existing completely without religion would amount to the paradoxical assertion that there can be stabilized collectives which dispense with all connecting media and do not become acquainted with any symbolic bond, shared history or firm normative commitments (p.9). Such a thing would be logistically impossible.

More to follow.

Sloterdijk, ‘In the Shadow of Mount Sinai’, part 1

Peter Sloterdijk’s recent text, In the Shadow of Mount Sinai: A Footnote on the Origins and Changing Forms of Total Membership (2016), is an important appendix to and even recalibration of much of his previous work on globalising religion, particularly as found in the Spheres trilogy and in God’s Zeal. I’ll be offering a few posts on this interesting new text in the days to follow, with particular reference to Latour’s Face à Gaïa (suggesting as well a somewhat subterranean dialogue with certain ideas of René Girard).


Sloterdijk begins the text by registering complaints that had been made about You Must Change your Life (2013) and God’s Zeal (2009), namely: ‘the allegation that I had indiscriminately ascribed to the monotheistic ‘scriptural religions’ (namely Judaism, Christianity and Islam) an intrinsic or, put differently, an irremovable violent component’ (p.3). The complaint made against Sloterdijk, therefore, and that he here willingly registers, is that he has confused the irenic originary purposes of these religions with their contemporary iterations.

The objective of this new text, then, will be to understand in a more integral way the link between religion and violence.

To do so (bearing in mind the complaints made against him), Sloterdijk agrees to shift his methodology somewhat. First of all, he will forgo the potentially polemical discourse of ‘monotheisms’. Why? Because Sloterdijk now sees that ‘monotheism’ is not actually very useful as a heuristic concept and, indeed, should be rejected: the religion that breeds violence (and that needs to be diagnosed in this text) is not concerned with defending ‘the numerical word one’, so much as with ensuring a ‘non-mixing contract and non-translation oath’ (p.23). What will be analysed in this text, then, are the boundarying forces that exist between people-ground and people-group. With this shift to a purer form of immanence, then, we can immediately see that we’re in the real of the Schmittian political theology espoused by Latour in his own recent work.

And so, instead of analysis in terms of ‘monotheisms’, Sloterdijk proposes instead the greater clarity offered by the concept of ‘zeal’. This shifted methodology allows a slightly different formulation of the link between religion and violence: it enables him instead ‘to focus on the phenomenon of zealous and potentially violently manifested motivation with reference to certain religious norms without addressing again the logical construction of the one-God faith’ (pp.4-5).

Thus, the phenomenon that is diagnosed as causing religious violence is broadened from ‘monotheism’ (without further nuance) to the way in which religious zealots construct a system for themselves that breeds violence. This diagnosis is in the realm of spherology/ immunology. Sloterdijk describes this new object of analysis in the following formula: it is ‘the form and the intensity of the absorption of faith practisers by the system of norms to which they subordinate their existence’ (p.6).

More to follow.

Some thoughts on [HAB]

Contrary to what is sometimes claimed, AIME manifests a great deal of sensitivity towards diachronicity. It recognises, for example, that a category mistake between two or more modes may have manifested itself as useful and even appropriate at a particular moment in history.

Of course, the general trajectory in which category mistakes take us is pernicious, whether these are found in science, psychology, religion, or whatever:

It is only gradually, and through the shock waves that reverberate in each of the histories proper to each mode, that we find ourselves lamenting, three centuries later, the simultaneous loss of the sciences, subjects, and gods. (An Inquiry into Modes of Existence, p.260)

(In fact, Latour refers to category mistakes in general as ‘malign inversions’, a term taken from the work of Ivan Illich, denoting the threshold above which some good actually ends up creating more bad than it set out to remove in the first place).

And yet still: with malign inversions, we can at least say that there has been history. That history has to be taken into account. And indeed, the value of such historical awareness, perhaps, is that it enables the inquirer to see that the Moderns, even when their trajectory has been pockmarked by category mistakes, have nevertheless not been entirely hamstrung. They have managed to carry on regardless. Or, to put it another way, in spite of the heritage, they have managed not to lapse into total irrationality, by means of applying to themselves ‘an apparent continuity of action’ (Inquiry, p.261; all subsequent references are to the chapter in [HAB] in the Inquiry).

This continuity of action is what is ensured by [HAB].

I was reminded of [HAB] today by someone mentioning it briefly on Twitter. I’d forgotten about it, to be honest. Maybe that’s the point: after all, ‘forgetting’ is central to its logistical operation.

And yet, as Latour himself says, [HAB] is a mode of existence that we neglect or take for granted at our peril:

It is the most important, the most widespread, the most indispensable of the modes of existence, the one that takes up 99% of our lives, the one without which we could not exist, obsessed as we would be with avoiding category mistakes. The one that allows us to define the courses of action that we have learned to follow through the notion of association networks [NET]. (Inquiry, p.262)

Let’s look at its logistical specification. The function of [HAB] is something like the following:

  • It does not ‘forget’ a [PRE].
  • And yet, it ‘omits’ or ‘veils’ it (p. 264), in such a way that prepositional hiatuses get ‘smoothed over’ (p. 266), such that what remains in the functioning of a habitual activity is merely a ‘memory’ (p.266) of them, not necessarily a constant foregrounding.
  • But crucially, all along it is lithe enough to ‘retrieve’ a [PRE] at any point, should that retrieval be required for a ‘restart’ of the mode in question, for whatever reason (p.267).

So if [PRE] is what signals the trajectory, [HAB] is the dynamic that gets us walking through that trajectory according to the initial direction; this forward-movement is key, for it is not that [HAB] indicates blind or brutish capitulation to a pre-determined leader, but more a rapid or efficient following of where we were going anyway.

So we now have to recognize two different senses in the notion of category mistake: being mistaken about the mode on the one hand and on the other limiting ourselves to the search for the right mode without advancing toward what it indicates. (p.265)

But what is the rationality (or veridiction) of [HAB] per se? And how has it been treated philosophically?

We often will assume that a habit is irrational, because it seems to represent an act of supine ‘following’, rather than of active ‘innovation’ (the ‘speed of thought’ promoted by Deleuze, perhaps). But, in fact, habit has its own rationality. And this idiosyncratic rationality is precisely to ensure this ‘following’ does indeed take place (p.266). What we need, then, are more ‘philosophers of habit’ (p.266), serious thinkers who could re-dignify and re-pristine the quality of habit as a function of lived experience. Félix Ravaisson-Mollien might be one notable exception (to which we might add several of the early Church and medieval mystics, perhaps).

The philosophical integrity and practical usefulness of [HAB], then, will be defined by whether it is grasped in its felicity or in its infelicity conditions:

  • [HAB] grasped according to its felicity conditions: these would be habits that enable us to live, but which nevertheless keep us skilful, attentive and alert, and keep the engine of our lives ready for a ‘manual restart’ whenever one should be necessary.
  • [HAB] grasped according to its infelicity conditions: these would be habits that make us more obtuse, that promote merely mechanical gestures or routine obeisance. The infelicity condition of [HAB] is akin to spam: messages that are rootless, without addresser or addressee, destined for the trash (p.269).

So what is the macro-contribution of [HAB] within the context of the Inquiry?

I think one thing is that it provides us with a new take on the story of the Moderns. Without [HAB], the bifurcated epistemology of the Moderns is normatively described in that most familiar of Latourian tropes, namely, the confusion of knowing subject/ known object at [REF:REP]. But with the entrance of [HAB] as a category of modal thought, a more charitable explanation of the story of the Moderns can be offered: the Moderns have simply confused [HAB]. They have drunk the liquor of [HAB], succumbing to its intoxicating power to render implicit the vast majority of courses of action. And yet they have over-indulged, now finding themselves too dozy to activate the manual restart that is also with the gift of [HAB], but which requires sober hands to grasp.

Consequently, when we complain that the Moderns do not know how to account for their own riches, we are not trying to extend the critical question, the Socratic question, to their entire anthropology: we are asking, proposing, suggesting that they no longer raise that question, so that all the other keys can be made explicit, each according to its mode. (Inquiry, p.273)

That, I think, is why we need to wake up a little to the quality of [HAB] and investigate its harmonic potential in association with modes such as [REF], [POL], [LAW] (I think of the recent re-interpretation in English law of the ‘joint enterprise’ means of conviction in a criminal case, for example) – but most of all [REL].

And I say that, as I’ve just come out from a service of Evensong, for the nth time of my life. Did [HAB] sustain me?



In light of the analysis offered by Terence Blake, here and in many other posts, regarding the anxiety of influence under which Latour might seem to operate, the following can only ever be a banal observation. But here it is anyway: if anyone was to ask me to delineate Latour’s intellectual heritage in one media-friendly sound-bite, I would probably go for the four S’s: Serres, Souriau, Sloterdijk, Schmitt. Such a formula is redolent of the pointless truncations required of social media exchanges. Clearly, these four have not been bed-fellows from the very beginning of Latour’s journey (with the exception of Serres). And yet, even if the latter three are more recent encounters, I might at least claim that these four donate conceptual cross-hairs or straie that are essential to an understanding of Latour’s entire system of thought, not least in its recent iteration (in the case of Serres, agency; in the case of Souriau, instauration; in the case of Sloterdijk, monogeism; in the case of Schmitt, political theology). (In fact, if you wanted a more contumacious soundbite answer to the original question about Latour’s intellectual heritage, how about the three D’s: Deleuze, Dagognet, Derrida. But that’s another post).

To that end, I was pleased to read this recent guide to Sloterdijk’s work. There seems to be a proliferation of these quick-guides on the market these days. But I’ve enjoyed others in this series. And Couture’s is a very helpful one indeed, I think, especially given how hard it is for a non-German speaker to access Sloterdijk’s thought in its entirety at this moment in time.


Couture provides a diachronic exploration of Sloterdijk’s thought as it morphs through psychopolitics to anthropotechnics to spherology, whilst simultaneously tracing back these myriad (and apparently disparate) refractions to a singular and highly coherent world-view prism. His explanatory descriptions are at times is highly imaginative in their own right, notably the vehicle tour of the foam-globe-bubble museum at the end of chapter 3 (which reminded me of the bubble cars in Jurassic World).


For non-German speakers, this book also provides useful quotations from and insights into not-yet-translated works such as Im selben Boot: Versuch über die Hyperpolitik and, of course, Schäume.

Highly recommended!


Some quick thoughts on laïcité

Some tweets on the mythological function of the concept of the ‘secular’: