Stephen Muecke on Souriau

This is a lovely and very well-written piece in the LA Review of Books from Stephen Muecke on Étienne Souriau and the concept of instauration. Well worth a read. Here’s a little extract which will resonate with those studying Latour’s ontology:

Contemplating a literally amorphous world, the existentialist hero turns his gaze inward and gloomily concludes that he has the freedom to choose. In the same situation, Souriau sees a world — or rather worlds — brimming with possible becomings, and will not permit such existentialist detachment. Humans, already implicated, have the responsibility to help other beings on their existential journeys of fulfilment. This responsibility is more practical and procedural than it is the application of any moral principle, because it is experienced differently for different modes of existence.

One minor comment: the work was written during the war and published in 1943, not in 1925 as the article suggests.

Stephen has previously translated this short treatment of Souriau by Latour, which would be the next place to go for anyone interested.

That article is expanded and improved in a long article entitled ‘Le Sphinx de l’oeuvre’, which is translated (along with Souriau’s own work) in the recent publication of The Different Modes of Existence – essential reading for anyone grappling with Latour’s Inquiry into Modes of Existence.


And for French-readers, the best secondary literature at the moment is found here (see my previous post on it here).


Souriau is quite something. At the moment, I’m reading the strange and wonderful book L’ombre de Dieu (1953), which is quite literally unheard of in the English speaking world. It really needs a translation.


The Brexit Crisis

This free Verso publication looks like it will provide a useful discussion over the vexing and chimerical concept of ‘sovereignty’, the very concept that (it seems) lay at the heart of the tragedy of our recent Brexit vote. What a great example of a ‘category mistake’ (in Latourian terms) this was!


Here is the blurb:

Let’s Take Back Control’ was the slogan that won the UK’s EU Referendum. But what did those words mean to campaigners and voters? Control of what was being wrested from whom and why? And in whose interest was this done?

The Brexit Crisis gathers together some of the most insightful and provocative reactions to this moment, from the UK and abroad, examining what happened on the 23 June and what this might mean for the UK and the EU as a whole. It looks at the ruptures, false promises and ingrained racism revealed during the campaign and afterwards. As the UK heads towards the exit, what is to be done?

Authors include: Étienne Balibar, William Davies, Akwugo Emejulu, John R. Gillingham, Peter Hallward, Laleh Khalili, Stathis Kouvelakis, Sam Kriss, Rebecca Omonira-Oyekanmi, Lara Pawson, Wail Qasim, Salvage Editors, Wolfgang Streeck, Antonis Vradis.

HT: Sam Kinsley.

Si scires donum dei

Latour prefaces the Inquiry with the Latin epigraph ‘si scires donum dei’: ‘if you knew the gift of God’

Taken from John 4:10, these words are found in the context of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s Well. Having previously asked her to give him something to drink, Jesus proceeds to say to her: ‘if only you knew the gift of God (εἰ ᾔδεις τὴν δωρεὰν τοῦ Θεοῦ), and who it is that is saying to you, ‘give me a drink’ (δός μοι πεῖν), you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water (ἔδωκεν ἄν σοι ὕδωρ ζῶν)’.

This verse serves by way of tangential commentary on Latour’s presentation of religion as a mode of existence, for at least three reasons.

First, it contrasts two registers of meaning: the woman understands the request literally, in terms of the water provided by the well; what Christ is offering, however, is ‘living water’—whatever this is, it must have an entirely different signification from the literal. This prepares the ground for Latour’s presentation of religion as a mode of rationality that is distinct from the informational [DC] and the referential [REF]. (There is a delicious irony here, though: current evidence suggests that the site of Jacob’s well itself was recognised and honoured by Christians from an early date as a pilgrimage site, thus re-integrating referential modes of connection that were not intended by the original text, for which cf. Finegan, The Archeology of the New Testament: The Life of Jesus and the Beginning of the Early Church, p.36-42).

Second, it introduces the idea of kinesis and motility. The Old Testament and inter-testamental literature envisages that the broken cisterns of Israelite religion (Jeremiah 2:13) will be unblocked by the divine gift of a ‘living water’ that will quicken the people to spiritual life again (Zechariah 14:8; Ezekiel 47:9; 1 Enoch 48:1, 49:1). Augustine explicitly associates the latter with movement and flow, in contrast to the stagnation of the former: ‘water is designated as ‘living’ when it is taken as it flows: this is the kind of water that was in that fountain’ (Augustine, Tractates on the Gospel of John, in NPNF 1, 7:102).This fits with Latour’s definition of religion as a ‘logistical’ process whose rationality is given by the operational ‘flows’ of plural ontological actors.

Third, the verse in its context (the conversation of Jesus with a Samaritan woman) draws attention to the transgression of established gender, social, political, ethnic and religious boundaries in favour of a new community of understanding. As Latour points out time and time again, [REL] is not given in the mode of fundamentalist diktat, but in the mode of first subject-formation, and second community-formation. For the latter, he borrows the imagery of Pentecost from Michel Serres. The encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well is therefore a ‘diplomatic’ encounter, to use his own terminology, insofar as religion is ‘activated’ between two people at that site, then pushed forward into larger group membership (for which, see John 4:39).


Complete series of notes on Latour’s ‘Face à Gaïa’

Here is a list of the various chapters of Face à Gaïa (2015) that I have covered in note-form over recent weeks. Please remember, these are only notes – the rest is up to you! Whilst we wait for the English translation by Catherine Porter, I hope these will prove helpful.

Notes on Face à Gaïa (Lecture 8)

Continuing my posts on Latour’s Face à Gaïa.


Lecture 8: Comment gouverner des territoires (naturels) en lutte ?


The value of simulations:

  • Embodied, practical simulations are useful because they are able to represent and re-enact the compositional processes of science, art and politics: ‘compliquer les modèles du monde et y impliquer ceux qu’ils concernent pour ensuite composer, voilà qui me semble une définition commune aux sciences, aux arts et à la politique’.
  • Within a simulation each actor represents something, but the important thing is that this has to be made explicit (in the same way as Assmann’s translation tables).

In other words, simulations enact the ‘figuration’ of as broad an array of agencies as possible.

The MakeItWork simulation


  • This simulation focused and tried to represent non-conventional ways of occupying space: ‘les diverses manières d’occuper des territoires’.
  • This allowed the simulation to bring into the negotiating room (the ‘interior’) unconventional actors: ‘aux Amandiers, les organisateurs ont décidé de placer toutes les parties à l’intérieur pour qu’il n’y ait plus d’extérieur, et pour qu’on voie les parties prenantes exercer leurs pressions toutes ensemble. Que chacun se batte sous ses propres couleurs’.
  • Once in the room, all these actors were required to work together by ‘showing their hand’ and being ‘explicit’ (cf. Sloterdjik, expliciter) about how they were working: ‘s’opposer aux autres en explicitant sur quel territoire elles se trouvent’.
  • Emergence could certainly take place, but only by explicit (not en douce) operations within the room: ‘elle [une partie] n’aura pas à agir en douce, elle devra se présenter et dire quels sont ses intérêts, quels sont ses buts de guerre, qui sont ses amis et ses ennemis, bref où elle se trouve, qu’est-ce qui permet de l’espacer des autres’.
  • Thus, the negotiation had a conflictual character: ‘alors que Hobbes devait inventer une politique après des décennies d’affreuses guerres civiles, le paradoxe des négociations sur le climat, c’est qu’il faut faire comprendre aux protagonistes qu’ils sont bel et bien en guerre, alors qu’ils se croient en situation de paix’.

Rejection of totality

The delegates gathered under the banner: ‘ni Dieu, ni Nature—et donc pas de Maître’. The ‘Maîtres’ (metaphysical principles) they were rejecting included the following:

  • The nation-state.
  • A ‘world government’ that could decide for all.
  • A single, unified concept of ‘Nature’ that could decide all the debates.
  • The unifying power of capitalism in the guise of the ‘Economy’.
  • Indeed, this also meant that they had to reject ‘Gaia’ (at least, Gaia understood as an overarching actor): ‘de ne pas prendre Gaïa pour un Système unifié’.

Another way of saying this is that the simulation was premised on the redundancy of the figure of the ‘Globe’ (as demonstrated in earlier chapters): ‘nous retrouvons ici la figure du Globe dont nous avons appris, conférence après conférence, à quel point elle était non seulement impossible, mais moralement, religieusement, scientifiquement et politiquement délétère’.

Thus, the task was to find an alternative way of representing the actors of this world than that of Totality (the globe): ‘pour retrouver le monde commun—et peut-être aussi le sens (du) commun—, la solution n’est pas de faire appel à la Totalité, qui de toutes façons n’existe pas, mais d’apprendre à représenter différemment le territoire auquel on appartient’.

Politics from above/ politics from below

The simulation allowed two types of politics to come to light:

  1. To defer ‘upwards’: politics defers upwards to an operation of scale, ‘en faisant appel à un principe supérieur commun, à l’État de la Nature’; however, this serves only to ‘dépolitise toute la négociation devenue simple application de règles de distribution’.
  2. To defer ‘downwards’: this enacts the opposite movement, ‘en traitant toutes les parties prenantes à égale niveau de souveraineté’, granting to all entities the right to ‘prendre parti’; this is what alone provides a true and proper politics.

Defintions of space as ‘utopia’ and ‘topos’

In terms of the two forms of politics above:

  1. To defer ‘upwards’ is to defer to a utopia; its movement is ‘utopique, au sens étymologique de ce qui est nulle part’.
  2. To defer ‘downwards’ is to reterritorialise oneself; its movement ‘consiste à se donner un sol’.


The sort of politics that defers ‘upwards’ is a politics of ‘externalisation’, which refers to the bracketing out of agencies, and thus is ‘synonyme exacte’ of ‘la negligence calculée’ that has already been defined (via Serres) as the essence of irreligion.

The utopia/ achronia of the Modern understanding of the natural world

By understanding the things of the natural world according to ‘the laws of nature’, the Moderns assume that these things will work always and forever in the same way.

In doing so, they denude them of the right to act in space and time:

Le problème des questions écologiques, pour employer un terme désuet, c’est qu’elles semblent parler d’objets qui ont été téléchargés dans l’utopie aussi bien que dans l’uchronie. Ni l’eau, ni le sol, ni l’air, ni les vivants, ne sont dans le temps et dans l’espace de ceux qui en font le cadre de leur action.

And, in addition, they impose upon them an operation of scale that comes from the ‘exterior’:

Elles ne peuvent être dictées de l’extérieur simplement parce qu’elles auraient été
‘déterminées objectivement par les Lois de la Nature’.

Planetary boundaries and critical zones

These two terms indicate the sense that we should not be trying to escape to another planet as a means of understanding this one.


The disciplines that Latour suggests instead are ‘geo’ ones, starting with the ‘géo-traçante’; these are ‘cette activité de pistage de l’espace, de parcours des lopins et de traçage de lignes’.


By contrast, 2D maps are the opposite: they limit our ability to visualize new configurations of human and nonhuman agencies, compelling us instead to stick with old forms of representation that (in fact) are not very representative at all, and over which wars are too easily fought:

C’est aussi parce que nous sommes limités à l’imaginaire de ces cartes en deux dimensions, aux frontières délimitées, qui sont bien utiles, comme on le sait, pour ‘faire la guerre’[1] mais fort insuffisantes si l’on veut s’y retrouver dans la géopolitique des territoires en lutte.

So the way of representing the world would be via a ‘geo’-map of some sort, ‘une chose comme une carte géologique avec sa vision en trois dimensions, ses couches multiples encastrées les unes dans les autres, ses dislocations, ses ruptures, ses reptations, toute cette complexité que les géologues ont su maîtriser pour l’histoire longue des sols et des roches, mais dont l’infortunée géopolitique reste dépourvue’.

The future of the nation-state

In reorganizing the distribution of powers the simulation showed what a true politics (in the sense of a nomos) would look like vis-à-vis the nation-state:

  • The nation-state no longer has the political privilege of violence.
  • Politics must now shift to new configurations, including those incorporating Gaia: ‘comment conserver ‘le monopole de la violence physique légitime’ quand il s’agit de la violence géohistorique du climat?

Quelle avancée si l’on pouvait enfin passer des États régnant sans contre-pouvoir sur un sol délimité par des frontières, à un ordre constitutionnel enfin doté du système complexe de contre-pouvoirs exercé par les autres délégations—ces fameux ‘checks and balances’ tant célébrés par les Humains, mais que les Terrestres en sont encore à rechercher?.

Gaian politics

This new form of politics coalesces around Gaia (it is here that differences with the Schmittian politics become most apparent):

  • Gaia does not mimic the old function of the nation-state: ‘contrairement à la Nature, Gaïa ne fait pas irruption pour régner à la place de tous les États forcés de se soumettre à ses lois, mais comme ce qui exige que la souveraineté soit partagée’.
  • Gaia forces us into new political configurations that need defending and justifying: ‘comme Gaïa ne sont ni extérieures, ni indiscutables, elles ne peuvent pas rester indifférente à la politique’.

Nature as religion

The construct ‘Nature’ acted as a religion, insofar as it demanded allegiance as a ‘cult’: ‘tandis que la Nature pouvait régner sur les humains comme un pouvoir religieux auquel il fallait rendre un culte paradoxal, civique et séculier […]’.

Gaia is not religion

By contrast, the state of Gaia is not religious:

  • For example, here is a basic statement: ‘Gaïa ordonnent seulement de partager le pouvoir comme des pouvoirs profanes et non pas religieux’.
  • Thus, we are not moving (in Comptean fashion) from ‘metaphysical God’ to ‘Nature’ to ‘Gaia’: ‘Il est inutile d’espérer une nouvelle translatio imperii qui irait de Dieu à la Nature, puis de la Nature à Gaïa. Aucune ‘loi des trois états’ n’est ici à l’œuvre’.
  • Gaia is strictly limited by this earth: ‘Gaïa se contentent de rappeler les traditions plus modestes d’un corps politique qui reconnaît enfin dans la Terre ce par quoi ce corps assemblé accepte solennellement d’être définitivement borné’.
  • To reintroduce the old ‘God’ of metaphyiscs is to forestall Gaian politics: ‘si vous en faites une divinité totale, vous suranimez et vous dépolitisez tout aussi sûrement’; ‘nous réalisons que nous sommes convoqués par un pouvoir qui est pleinement politique

Whatever [REL] is, then, it must not be religious where Gaia is not.

However, Gaian politics will depend on religion

Having said that, the extent to which we might embrace Gaian politics depends very much on the way in which we inherit religion and which religion it is that we inherit: ‘l’issue de ce combat dépend forcément de la façon dont nous nous rendrons capables d’hériter de la religion’. To put it in more general terms: ‘autour de ces questions passablement obscures de la fin, des buts, de la finitude, de l’infini, du sens, de l’absurde, et ainsi de suite, il y a toujours la question religieuse’.

  1. Secularisation is counter-religious

As we’ve seen before, Latour thinks that ‘secularisation’ is actually a counter-religious function: ‘ce qu’on appelle ‘sécularisation’ n’a fait que reprendre le trait principal des contre-religions—vivre dans la fin des temps—, mais en décalant cette fin des temps dans l’utopie de la modernisation, on comprend que l’accès au terrestre sera rendu impossible’.

  • It lives in ‘the end times’.
  • Thus it functions as a utopia.

Thus it has no immanence/ earth-boundedness

2. The overthrow of the secular cannot come via politics or science alone

The overthrow of the secular cannot be a function of politics or science alone: it must tackle this issue of the counter-religious origin: ‘même si nous parvenions à redonner une place aux sciences et à dynamiser de nouveau la politique, il n’en resterait pas moins que ceux qui ont hérité du modernisme—c’est-à-dire, aujourd’hui, la planète entière dans ce qu’elle a de globalisé ou de mondialisé—se situent dans un temps impossible, celui qui les a pour toujours arraché au passé et lancé dans un futur sans avenir’.

3. Religion must be an element in the new world

This is because religion is also a key component in the progressive composition of the common world, just like politics and science. Thus, the new world will come: ‘en acceptant la finitude : celle de la politique, celle des sciences, mais aussi celle des religions’.

  • This subverts the usual sociological comment that we must ‘leave religions behind us’ in order to make progress.
  • Religion is thus a ‘poison’ (in the guise of ‘counter-religion’), but also and crucially it is the ‘counter-poison’ also.

4. Religion must engage with the other modes to engage this new world

Another way of putting this is that religion is one of the three ingredients in the new common world that must be composed: ‘autrement dit, pouvons nous enchaîner trois humiliations en cascade, celle des sciences, de la politique et de la religion, au lieu de cet amalgame mortifère qui en a mélangé les vertus, mais n’a réussi qu’à nous empoisonner’.

Thus, ‘la religion en se limitant, apprenne à conspirer avec les sciences et la politique, pour redonner un sens à la notion de limite’.

End times

The final appeal of the book is to inhabit apocalypse, not utopia, which means switching from the ‘end of time’ to the ‘time of the end’:

Pouvons-nous réapprendre à vivre dans le temps de la fin, sans pour autant basculer dans l’utopie, celle qui nous a téléchargé dans l’au-delà, aussi bien que celle qui nous a fait manquer l’ici-bas?

The new world

The new world, the common world, that Latour wishes to invoke, then, is a rupture within space-time, not a rupture in space-time (this world seized differently, not another world):

Avant d’être enflée dans de grandioses scènes cosmiques à grand budget, la rupture radicale de l’eschatologie doit être d’abord reconnue dans une tonalité plus légère, plus humble et plus économe. La fin du temps n’est pas le Globe Final qui encercle tous les autres globes, la réponse finale au sens de l’existence; c’est plutôt une nouvelle différence, une nouvelle ligne, tracée à l’intérieur de toutes les autres lignes, qui les traverse partout, et qui donne un autre sens à tous les événements, c’est-à-dire un but, une présence finale et radicale, un achèvement. Non pas un autre monde, mais ce même monde saisi d’une façon radicalement nouvelle.

The wrong way to grasp the apocalypse

What Latour is seeking to avoid, then, is an understanding of these great theological themes as a flight into transcendence and out of this world. In other words, these themes as given by the old ST:

  • Eschaton: as ‘echappée hors du temps, en saut dans l’éternité, dans ce qui ne connaît pas de temps’.
  • Incarnation: as ‘altérée en fuite loin de toute chair vers le royaume désincarné du domaine spirituel du lointain’.
  • Salvation: as ‘tout ce que pour quoi, selon leur propre récit, leur propre Dieu avait fait mourir son propre Fils, à savoir la Terre de Sa Création’.

The Holy Spirit

It is difficult to know exactly what this means, but the (metaphorical?) appeal is finally made to the Holy Spirit as that which can renew the world, but only if it is working in the framework of a Gaian politics, not in the old politics of Nature: ‘le Saint Esprit peut ‘renouveler la surface de la Terre’, mais Il est impuissant quand on le confronte à la Nature sans visage’.

Bad theology

Theology goes wrong not when it addresses its theological themes (God, etc), but when it addresses them according to ‘Nature’, that is, in the guise of ‘Religion One’:

Comme il est étrange que les théologiens qui combattent le matérialisme, aient mis si longtemps à comprendre que ce sont eux qui ont construit, à travers les siècles, un véritable Culte de la Nature, c’est- à-dire la recherche d’une entité extérieure, immuable, universelle et indiscutable, par contraste avec le récit changeant, local, intriqué et discutable que nous autres Terriens habitons. Pour sauver le trésor de la Foi, ils l’avaient abandonné à l’Éternité.

Laudato Si


Latour was nearly in despair in seeing an understanding of religion in this way until he came across the encyclical:

  • It re-unites politics, science, religion (cf. chapter 6, where Toulmin had argued that 1610 saw their separation): ‘en rattachant enfin l’écologie avec la politique et sans mépriser pour autant les sciences’.
  • It enacts the new mode of conversion, which is not towards separation but rather towards composition: ‘serait-ce possible, me disais-je en lisant l’appel du Pape François à la conversion, que l’intrusion du Gaïa puisse nous rendre proches de tous les dieux?’.

The future

All is open, everything to play for.

New world

The new world that is to be found will not be via ‘expansion’ (Columbus, etc), but by ‘intensity’ (understanding better the earth we live on, not finding a new one): ‘il s’agit toujours de l’espace, de la terre, de découverte, mais c’est la découverte d’une Terre nouvelle considérée, si je peux dire, dans son intensité et non plus dans son extension’.












[1]   This is an allusion to the celebrated essay: Yves Lacoste, ‘La géographie, ça sert, d’abord, à faire la guerre’, 1982 (fn. 283).

The Form and Style of ‘Rejoicing’

Following exchanges with the excellent and insightful Michael Flower, and with full acknowledgment of his insights, here are some quick thoughts on the form and style of Rejoicing, or the Torments of Religious Speech.


More than anywhere else, Latour foregrounds the textuality of this book. It consists of largely unbroken, unmarked narrative. There are only six white-space breaks in the text—on page 1 and then not until p. 118 and 120 and then very near the end on pages 166, 172 and 174 (the final page), as Michael points out. There are curious shifts in authorial stance, from ‘I’ to ‘we’. Is there a shift here between Latour as investigator and investigated, Latour as philosopher and Latour as ethnographic subject? Or do these indicate performative authorial stances? We recall Latour’s remarks at the beginning of ‘Thou Shalt Not Take the Lord’s Name in Vain’, where he muses on the different forms of address that can performatively convoke different modes of existence in the audience (‘dear colleagues’, referential; ‘dear comrades’; political; ‘dear brothers and sisters’; religious).

It might be interesting to compare to some of the other classics of spiritual biography (if that is what Rejoicing is), the obvious one being Confessions, where Augustine carefully enacts a progressive structure, chapter by chapter, that mimics the neo-platonic journey of the soul to God as the One. Here, by contrast, everything points to circularity and repetition – an enactment of the very mechanism of reprise, perhaps? These are not didactic confessions, it seems, but the rolling around of confused agonies of the soul (‘torments’ – what a strong word that is!), confused, we assume, because of the confusion exerted upon this value by Modernity.

One thing we can be sure of is that in the original French edition (2003, was it?) the text actually began on the front cover and spilled over to the rear. I understand this was at Bruno’s insistence (although it has not been replicated in subsequent editions). Attached is the only (small) photo I can find of it on Google Image. Why so? I can’t help but think it might relate to one of the great unacknowledged influences on his life, namely Derrida, who of course dismissed transcendence with the claim ‘il n’y a pas de hors-texte’. Although that statement is usually rendered ‘there is nothing outside the text’, ‘hors-texte’ actually refers to a preface or cover-plate of a book, that is, something that sits outside the main narrative and authorises or explains it from the outside precisely because it is outside the text. Of course, Derrida wants to deconstruct that authority position. Latour, brilliantly, simply adds it in to the flow of immanent meaning: there is nothing outside networks, we might say. Or, if the God of the Bible wishes to engage in revelation, it will not be in excess of the flows of religious meaning that are composed from within the common world.