- Maestro Latour
In the overview to An Inquiry into Modes of Existence (aime), Bruno Latour references the 1978 Fellini film Orchestra Rehearsal because it shares a scene in which every instrumentalist is made to feel that his or her instrument is the most essential contribution to the orchestra.1 Building off this analogy, Latour informs his readers that the present book, just like the film, will only work if each and every mode of existence is felt to be the most important and best one. Readers are thus invited to take up the book, qualified as a "provisional report" (486 pages at that!), and together with its digital counterpart (modesofexistence.org) contribute to the collective project of learning to compose a common world.
aime is an admirable project, and it's loaded with twists, pitfalls, dead ends, goose chases, antinomies, and doubt, just as much as it's laden with potential and love (aime). It's difficult to do justice to this project here, so what I offer instead are some general reflections on my engagement with what Latour calls the "diplomatic negotiations" that are necessary in our current time. To do so, I'll generate some of my own provisional "crossings" where two competing values clash; and in doing so, I hope to provide but a small contribution to the contrasts that Latour seeks to elicit.
Orchestration—"The Trials to Come"
At the heart of aime is the attempt to facilitate a negotiation about which values apply to the composition of our common world and how to arrive at these values via diplomacy. Latour has been at work on this [End Page 124] project for well over two decades (since the publication of We Have Never Been Modern at the very least); but with this initiative, he clearly seeks collaborators (alternately referred to as mediators, conveners, contributors, coresearchers, diplomats, others) with whom to share this exercise. This is most visible through the hybrid format of aime, where the "report" (the hardcopy book authored by Latour and published in 2012) is supplemented by the "platform" (the augmented digital website) and a number of phases that involve face-to-face workshops over the ensuing years.
What I find compelling, and yet difficult to discern, is the orchestration of this hybrid apparatus. On the one hand, we clearly have an effort to move away from the (modern) model of single authorship, which would have ideas and work flowing from a single, identifiable source. The network of contributors is one such indication, and as Latour notes, "you can already see why there is no question of my succeeding in this enterprise on my own!"2 The platform is the digital materialization of this desire. On the other hand, I can't help but find aime to have a (modern) structure that is led by a single conductor. It may have many contributors, yes, but it is nevertheless led by maestro Latour. Referring to himself as a "guide" leading the way through "the trials to come," Latour positions himself as Virgil with the reader of the report adopting the role of Dante, safely led and guided toward this auspicious yet unfamiliar terrain.3 I mean for this not to sound critical of Latour (he's a better guide through the trails of modernity than most) but rather to expose what seems to be a trace of modernity in the very composition of this hybrid project.
This is also why I'm intrigued by his mention of Fellini's film. In a different publication, Latour again references this film; and in this portrayal, the orchestra is in the midst of dissolution: "Each member of this orchestra possesses all the others, in so far as each one, on behalf of the whole, suddenly starts giving their opinion on the appropriateness of all the others' behaviour. The conductor becomes desperate, and it is only when a demolition squad starts to break down the walls of the medieval chapel in which they are rehearsing while arguing, that the members of the orchestra, covered in rubble, begin to play 'in unison.'"4 It's only outside pressure (what we might consider critique from outside the walls...