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.


Latour and Deleuze’s Nietzsche

Latour frequently identifies the work of William James, Gabriel Tarde, Alfred North Whitehead and Étienne Souriau as the primary intellectual lineage of his ‘modes of existence’ project. However, by his own admission, his exposure to these thinkers came late in his career (see Terence’s blog for various tracings of this). At the time of his formulation of his irreductionist philosophy a different set of conceptual resources and philosophical milieu were available to him.

One key actor within this intellectual lineage (others would be Serres, Lyotard, Marc Auge) is Deleuze, or more particularly the Deleuzian Nietzsche. In his 1962 exposition, Deleuze argues that Nietzsche’s ontology is a monism of forces; it is the interaction of plural forces that forms the basis of the oneness of reality: ‘there is no quantity of reality, all reality is already a quantity of force’ (p.39, all references to the Tomlinson translation). In addition, these forces are affirmative, in the sense that each one expresses only itself, or, as Deleuze puts it, each one says ‘yes’ to itself. Rationality, then, is generated by the interaction of these forces: ‘we will never find the sense of something (of a human, a biological or even a physical phenomenon)’, writes Deleuze, ‘if we do not know the force which appropriates the thing, which exploits it, which takes possession of it or is expressed in it’ (ibid, p.3)—but only because each force furiously affirms its own value, its own being, in the moment of appropriation, exploitation, possession and expression. The polemical basis of Nietzsche’s work, for Deleuze, is directed at anything that would separate force from acting on its own basis, that is, from affirming itself (the primary culprit in this regard being Hegelian dialectic, which confuses this affirmation with a positivity of the real). Deleuze therefore argues that the many antagonistic metaphors in Nietzsche’s writing should be interpreted in light of his pluralist ontology, and not as indications of some sort of psychological aggressivity or inverted ressentiment.


The Deleuzian Nietzsche permeates the pages of Latour’s Irréductions. Fourteen of its one hundred and ninety maxims refer to Nietzsche directly or indirectly. Early reviews immediately noted the resonance, one critic describing it as ‘Latour’s Nietzschean theory of the political nature of all social life’. (Knorr-Cetina, 1985, ‘Germ Warfare’, p.581). Moreover, in his preface to a new edition of the text, published in French in 2001, Latour reiterates the Deleuzian-Nietzschean inflection of his ontology by clarifying a difference between ‘force’ and ‘power’ that he believes has been misunderstood up to then:

Or, c’est à une autre opposition que je m’attache ici: celle entre la force—qui suppose une composition progressive des ressources—et la puissance qui dissimule entièrement les multitudes qui la rendent effective. Il s’agit donc de passer des vertiges de la puissance à la simple et banale positivité des forces. (Latour. 2001, 1984, Pasteur: guerre et paix des microbes, suivi de Irréductions, from the Préface de la nouvelle edition, p.8)

Now, it’s a different opposition that I’m advancing here: one between ‘force’—which implies a progressive composition of resources—and ‘power’, which entirely obscures the multitudes that render it effective. Thus, it’s a matter of passing from the vertigo of power to the simple and banal positivity of forces. (my translation)

In fact, just as Latour’s ontology was first developed at the site of a neuroendocrinology laboratory, it is interesting to note that Nietzsche developed his theory of forces in conjunction with intensive dialogue with the life sciences of his own period (especially Wilhelm Roux’s developmental mechanics, with its idea of the struggle between body parts within an organism) and that Nietzsche himself functioned as an early ethnologist and philosophical visitor of the laboratory.

Latour’s thought is diplomatic, and even ‘ethical’, to the extent that it represents the agency of every one of these ‘forces’ in every event situation in the world. It is precisely this curious ‘ethics’ that he inherits from the Deleuzian Nietzsche. The connection with the mode of existence of [MOR] should be readily apparent.

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.

Publication of Étienne Souriau, ‘The Different Modes of Existence’

I’m pleased to note that my translation (with my colleague, Erik Beranek) of Étienne Souriau’s 1943 book The Different Modes of Existence is now available to purchase. As readers of this blog will know, this book was a crucial influence on Latour’s An Inquiry into Modes of Existence. It is here available in English for the first time.

You can buy the book from Univocal (in the US) or Amazon (in the UK) – as well as from other academic bookstores and distributors.

Do let me know via this site or directly if you have any comments or feedback on the work: I’d be interested to hear.