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.

Souriau

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.

Reference

[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.

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