Instauration

From Latour’s Inquiry into Modes of Existence, a discussion on the concept of instauration (underlines added by me):

To say that something — a scientific fact, a house, a play, an idol, a group — is “constructed,” is to say at least three different things that we must manage to get across simultaneously — and that neither the formalists nor their critics can hear any longer.

First of all, it is important to stress that we find ourselves in a strange type of doubling or splitting during which the precise source of action is lost. This is what the French expression faire faire — to make (something) happen, to make (someone) do (something) — preserves so preciously. If you make your children do their vacation homework assignments, you do not do them yourselves, and the children won’t do them without you; if you read in your Latin grammar that “Caesar pontem fecit,” you know that the divine Julius himself did not transport the beams that were to span the Rhine, but you also know for certain that his legionnaires would not have transported them without his orders. Every use of the word “construction” thus opens up an enigma as to the author of the construction: when someone acts, others get moving, pass into action. We must not miss this particular pass.

Second, to say of something that it is constructed is to make the direction of the vector of the action uncertain. Balzac is indeed the author of his novels, but he often writes, and one is tempted to believe him, that he has been “carried away by his characters,” who have forced him to put them down on paper. Here we again have the doubling of faire faire, but now the arrow can go in either direction: from the constructor to the constructed or vice versa, from the product to the producer, from the creation to the creator. Like a compass needle stymied by a mass of iron, the vector oscillates constantly, for nothing obliges us to believe Balzac; he may be the victim of an illusion, or he may be telling a big lie by repeating the well-worn cliche? of the Poet inspired by his Muse.

We find the clearest instance of this oscillation pushed to an extreme with marionettes and their operators, since there can be no doubt about the manipulator’s control over what he manipulates: yes, but it so happens that his hand has such autonomy that one is never quite sure about what the puppet “makes” his puppeteer do, and the puppeteer isn’t so sure either. The courts are cluttered with criminals and lawyers, the confessionals with sinners whose “right hand does not know what the left hand is doing.” There is the same uncertainty in the laboratory: it takes time for colleagues to decide at last whether the artificial lab experiment gives the facts enough autonomy for them to exist “on their own” “thanks to” the experimenter’s excellent work. A new oscillation: to receive the Nobel Prize, it is indeed the scientist herself who has acted; but for her to deserve the prize, facts had to have been what made her act, and not just the personal initiative of an individual scientist whose private opinions don’t interest anyone. How can we not oscillate between these two positions?

We can break out of this oscillation by identifying the third and most decisive ingredient of the composite notion of construction. To say of a thing that it is constructed is to introduce a value judgment, not only on the origin of the action — double trouble, as we have just seen — but on the quality of the construction: it is not enough for Balzac to be carried away by his characters, he still has to be well carried away; it is not enough for the experimenter to construct facts through artifices; the facts still have to make him a good experimenter, well situated, at the right moment, and so on. Constructed, yes, of course, but is it well constructed? Every architect, every artist, even every philosopher has known the agony of that scruple; every scientist wakes up at night tormented by this question: “But what if it were merely an artifact?” (In this respect, at least, who doesn’t feel like a scientist?)

Here is an astonishing thing, which proves how hard it is, when one lives among the Moderns, not to be mistaken about oneself: none of these three aspects shows up in the use of the word “construction,” as it is commonly deployed in critical moves.

When someone asks the question “Is it true or is it actually a construction?” the implication is usually “Does that exist independently of any representation?” or, on the contrary, “is it a completely arbitrary product of the imagination of an omnipotent creator who has pulled it out of his own resources?” The doubling of the action? Lost? The oscillation as to the direction of the vector? Gone. The judgment of quality? Out of the question, since all constructions are equivalent. In the final analysis, the term “constructivism” does not even include something that the humblest craftsman, the most modest architect, would have at least recognized in his own achievements: that there is a huge difference between making something well and making it badly! With constructivism used this way, we can understand why the fundamentalists have become crazed with desire for a reality that nothing and no one has constructed.

What is astonishing is that the Moderns all live surrounded by constructions, within the most artificial worlds ever developed. Saturated with images, they are savvy consumers of tons of manufactured products, avid spectators of cultural productions invented from A to Z; they live in huge cities all of whose details have been put in place one by one, and often recently; they are dazzled with admiration for works of imagination. And yet their idea of creation, construction, production, is so strangely bifurcated that they end up claiming they have to choose between the real and the artificial. Anyone who thinks at all like an anthropologist can only remain dumbstruck before this lack of self-knowledge: how have they managed to last until now while being so badly mistaken about their own virtues? If we take the “fundamentalist threat” into account, we have to wonder about their chances of survival.

How can we decant into a different word the three essential aspects I have just listed, which the word “construction” no longer seems to be able to contain? When one wants to modify the connotation of a term, it’s best to change the term. Here I turn to Souriau once more: let us borrow the term INSTAURATION in the sense he gave it.

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. If there is something that a sculptor never asks himself, it is this critical question: “Am I the author of the statue, or is the statue its own author?” We recognize here the doubling of the action on the one hand, the oscillation of the vector on the other. But what interests Souriau above all is the third aspect, the one that has to do with the quality, the excellence of the work produced: if the sculptor wakes up in the middle of the night, it is because he still has to let himself do what needs doing, so as to finish the work or fail. Let us recall that the painter of La Belle Noiseuse in Balzac’s short story “The Unknown Masterpiece” had ruined everything in his painting by getting up in the dark and adding one last touch that, alas, the painting didn’t require. You have to go back again and again, but each time you risk losing it all. The responsibility of the masterpiece to come — the expression is also Souriau’s — hangs all the heavier on the shoulders of an artist who has no model, because in such cases you don’t simply pass from power to action. Everything depends on what you are going to do next, and you alone have the competence to do it, and you don’t know how. This, according Souriau, is the riddle of the Sphinx: “Guess, or you’ll be devoured!” You’re not in control, and yet there’s no one else to take charge. It’s enough to make anyone wake up at night in a cold sweat. Anyone who hasn’t felt this terror hasn’t measured the abyss of ignorance at whose edge creation totters.

The notion of instauration in this sense has the advantage that it brings together the three features identified above: the double movement of faire faire; the uncertainty about the direction of the vectors of the action; and the risky search, without a pre-existing model, for the excellence that will result (provisionally) from the action.

But for this notion to have a chance to “take,” and to be invested gradually with the features that the notion of construction ought to have retained, there is one condition: 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, insisting, obliging you to speak well of them on the occasion of branchings where Sphinxes await — and even whole arrays of Sphinxes. Articulable beings to which instauration can add something essential to their autonomous existence. Beings that have their own resources. It is only at this price that the trajectories whose outlines we are beginning to recognize might have a meaning beyond the simply linguistic.

On this account, the statue that awaits “potentially” in the chunk of marble and that the sculptor comes along to liberate cannot satisfy us. Everything would already be in place in advance, and we could only alternate between two bifurcated descriptions: either the sculptor simply follows the figure outlined in detail in advance or else he imposes on the shapeless raw material the destination that he has “freely chosen.” No instauration would then be necessary. No anxiety. No Sphinx would threaten to devour the one who fails to solve the riddle. This ontological status is hardly worthy of a statue, at least not a statue of quality; at most, it would do for molding a set of plaster dwarfs for a garden. No, there have to be beings that escape both these types of resources: “creative imagination” on the one hand, “raw material” on the other. Beings whose continuity, prolongation, extension would come at the cost of a certain number of uncertainties, discontinuities, anxieties, so that we never lose sight of the fact that their instauration could fail if the artist didn’t manage to grasp them according to their own interpretive key, according to the specific riddle that they pose to those on whom they weigh; beings that keep on standing there, uneasy, at the crossing.

As there is no commonly accepted term to designate the trajectories of instauration — Souriau proposes “anaphoric progression”! — I shall introduce a bit of jargon and propose to distinguish BEING-AS-BEING from BEING-AS-OTHER. The first seeks its support in a SUBSTANCE that will ensure its continuity by shifting with a leap into the foundation that will undergird this assurance. To characterize such a leap, we can use the notion of TRANSCENDENCE again, since, in uncertainty, we leave experience behind and turn our eyes toward something that is more solid, more assured, more continuous than experience is. Being rests on being, but beings reside elsewhere. Now the beings that demand instauration do not ensure their continuity in this way. Moreover, they offer no assurance regarding either their origin or their status or their operator. They have to “pay for” their continuity, as we have already seen many times, with discontinuities. They depend not on a substance on which they can rely but on a SUBSISTENCE that they have to seek out at their own risk. To find it, they too have to leap, but their leap has nothing to do with a quest for foundations. They do not head up or down to seat their experience in something more solid; they only move out in front of experience, prolonging its risks while remaining in the same experimental tonality. This is still transcendence, of course, since there is a leap, but it is a small TRANSCENDENCE. In short, a very strange form of IMMANENCE, since it does have to pass through a leap, a hiatus, to obtain its continuity — we could almost say a “trans-descendence,” to signal effectively that far from leaving the situation, this form of transcendence deepens its meaning; it is the only way to prolong the trajectory. …

In fact, this jargon has no other goal but to shed light on the central hypothesis of our inquiry: from being-as-being we can deduce only one type of being about which we might speak in several ways, whereas we are going to try to define how many other forms of alterities a being is capable of traversing in order to continue to exist. While the classic notion of CATEGORY designates different ways of speaking of the same being, we are going to try to find out how many distinct ways a being has to pass through others. Multiplicity is not located in the same place in the two cases. Whereas there were, for Aristotle for example, several manners of speaking about a being, for us all those manners belong to a single mode, that of knowledge of the referential type [REF]. The being itself remains immobile, as being. Everything changes if we have the right really to question the alteration of beings in several keys, authorizing ourselves to speak of being-as-other. If it is right to say, as Tarde does, that “difference proceeds by differing,” there must be several modes of being that ensure their own subsistence by selecting a distinct form of alterity, modes that we can thus encounter only by creating different opportunities for instauration for each one, in order to learn to speak to them in their own language.

What is interesting here is the anthropological consequence of an argument that would otherwise remain overly abstract: why have the Moderns restricted themselves to such a small number of ontological templates whereas in other areas they have caused so many innovations, transformations, revolutions to proliferate? Where does this sort of ontological anemia come from? Beings in the process of instauration: these are precisely what we have trouble finding among the Moderns, and this is why it is so hard for the Moderns to encounter other COLLECTIVES except in the form of “CULTURES.”

…We have seen why: either the Moderns find themselves face to face with obtuse raw materiality, or they have to turn toward representations that reside only in their heads. And what is more, they have to choose between the two: in theory, of course, since in practice they never choose; but this is exactly the split that interests us here: why is what is necessary in practice impossible in theory?