Chapter 6: Correcting a Slight Defect in Construction

Author: Josh Brahinsky

Why the gap between practice and theory? “Why is it so hard to follow experience?” In other words, why do Moderns doubt the referential and reproductive mediations of practice? Simple answer – we confuse our modes.

Construction is hard to imagine positively. Or, at least, in the world of fact, construction outlines the cracks.  The cracks in time Latour calls reproduction, cracks in contact, reference. Latour recognizes the challenge in the name, the word construction, so devoid of philosophical warmth that even naked, without social, its baggage has him revising as composition and now instauration.  For construction is both a sign of ignorance (not-knowledge) and has lost some of its density.  However, for Latour, construction suggests a doubled action (doubled author), uncertain direction (co-constituted trajectories between authors), and a qualitative judgment regarding construction.  Or at least it ought to, he says. Since we have denuded it of these connotations, and have forever tied it to “weak” knowing rather than “strong” being-becoming, Latour offers a new term. Perhaps, he hopes, instaurators instigate, reciprocally, without certainty, always concerned with quality?  Further, it is a concept that invites, and requires, certain respect for the resources, perhaps agency, of the beings that co-participate in this new version of construction.  You/I/We must “encounter beings capable of worrying you… articulable beings… beings that have their own resources.”   Neither raw material nor creative imagination, only grasped successfully in their own interpretive key.(Here, a plea for assistance, for on page 161-2 the being-as-being and being-as-other along with multiple transcendences suggests multiplicity in the passing through rather than the reference, a clarifying of the multiplicity of modes, but also, I suspect an intervention in philosophy that I cannot quite put my finger on – perhaps you can help?)

But more centrally, why the restriction, the “ontological anemia” among moderns?  Why make others into “culture?” Or insist on the hard choice between representation in the mind or raw reality?  Latour replies – see the histories of the fetish, or anti-fetish, of iconoclash?  The claim to a non-manufactured god, to avoid all representation of the spirit is a passion Latour traces through Judeo-Christian tradition to 20th century radicalism and philosophy.   This critique of the “false” belief of others, one Moderns are obligated to undo. “Others believe they make their gods.”

Iconoclash then joins knowledge as “the double source of the double language of the Moderns… We believe that we know.  We know that the others believe.”  As such  “‘We are those who do not construct our Gods’; and ‘We are those who know how to speak literally and not just figuratively.’”  First attack material in favor of (imagined) ideas, then assault ideas in favor of and (imagined) access to material.  Together, this makes, what Latour calls bifurcation – not, he claims false consciousness. Instead, he says, our claim that knowledge is real such that “forms” actually traverse referential chains, is so clearly false, so “contrary to experience,” that it only gains temerity through its fusion with the inverse claim that God is beyond all construction, yet requires our participation.  The “link between these two enthusiasms… produced a single invincible history, and – this is the fascinating part – both are true at once.”  And both are impossible, he says – we can never talk straight nor reach God without reaching.  Therefore, we cannot practice the way we theorize.  And why is this not simple double stupid false consciousness?  Because the difficulty comes from a category mistake – it is the conflagration achieved when two modes of existence meet, mix and create something quite obviously painful.  The “collateral victim of this double accident, is, of course, EXPERIENCE.”  Ouch.

Thus the charity of intercultural respect must be replaced replaced by a self reflexive awareness of cross cultural modes, Moderns need “ontological fattening therapies.”  Therapies of relational empiricism, what some anthropologists call “kinky” ones (Rutherford).

I find ambivalence regarding several elements of this chapter, in particular Latour’s characterization of the reciprocity between knowledge and faith; and his anthropology. Simply put, I find it difficult to think that the moderns are confused. Do they escape experience – this seems a straw vision of the denaturalized modern?  Let us perhaps ask them.  I wonder if those with more religious training can help develop this, but does Latour give Christians a fair shake when he assumes they can’t or won’t pull apart the categories.  Instead, my sense is that there are multiple sophisticated Christian articulations that very clearly delineate the subtle dynamics between God, and the various material channels through which people engage without accepting the simplicity of Latour’s either or. On one hand, it is true that the Pentecostals I work with struggle to find a version of sensory experience that gives God all the agency, and they do reject a description of their practice as training.  They fit Latour’s story, although I see it as a battle over scale in which Pentecostals fight to limit their religious experience to a tightly controlled temporal scale – the immediate spontaneity of speaking in tongues untrained.  On the other hand however, there are multiple logics around the cross or the rosary that have them as material and practiced, yet not fetishized.  In other words, they don’t need to cross modes to make sense – they do already.  Is Latour prepared to grant that?

Further, I find his linking the two enthusiasms fascinating and fun, but I need more to truly tie them – perhaps I should reread We Have Never Been Modern?  In other words, I am not arguing against linkage, but rather, I don’t see how, certainly not in this text. His story reminds me of Gauchet and others who read Judeo-Christianity as the roots of Modernity in ways that often seem ahistorical. If the two (knowledge/material – god/immaterial) are so reciprocal why did they emerge as dominant thousands of years apart? Did they? And then what is it that holds them together, where is the glue, or least the stories that convince me of glue, so I can believe they are mutually necessary?  I want more actual anthropology.

As may be apparent, this reply relies on my work on cultivation and sensory aptitude among Pentecostals.  Pentecostals carefully nourish a sensorium, which includes body logics, doctrine, politics, ethos and more – a well developed set of articulations.  This complexity has me wondering about the density or the thickness of Latour’s modes.  There’s clearly some sensory, practical, physical elements, yet they seem to hinge on logic.  Further, religion seems for denser than reference.  Are they both modes in the same sense?  Is equating them a category mistake? And the thickest of modes in his tale might be the intersection at the heart of the modern.  But this one is pulled apart, a God trick offers a cleaner view? Perhaps it does?  Or, perhaps entanglement gives purchase?

Like other modal thinkers (Whitehead, Deleuze, Wittgenstein, even (at times) Foucault) Latour provides cross cultural relational things (modes) that coexist, compete, and cooperate, but rarely do we see them dissipate completely or emerge from another.  What of the cultivation of a mode of existence?  Where do they come from?  How do they persist?  How do they emerge?  How big are they?   How small?  What makes reference akin to religion akin to politics and reproduction?  How do these compare with the other modal visions I mention above?  What is the relationship to episteme/ paradigm?  Are modes coevolving epistemes?

So, the purpose of these modes: 1) to open spaces for multiple logics?  (They are obviously not incommensurable so is the translation, encounter, entanglement his space for agency?  Where is Latour’s sense of the undetermined?  Who are the agents?  At what scale is he imagining motion? – i.e. his politics is collective, what isn’t collective?  Are there individual subjects somehow autonomous, or cut autonomous for a moment? Cut collective?) 2) To develop a self critical lens that allows us to access to Gaia?  In other words, to disentangle the Modern so we can refashion it.  3)?? What other purposes does it serve?

Hope these questions inspire something from you all.


7 responses to “Chapter 6: Correcting a Slight Defect in Construction

  1. Pingback: Chapter 6: Correcting a Slight Defect in Construction | AGENT SWARM

  2. hey Josh, pardon the tangent but was wondering what, if anything, you make of Tonya Lurhmann’s work on hearing/imagining gods and how it may or may not fit in with the various extended-mind-ing research projects.

    • hiya – i love her stuff, tanya was on my committee for the QE and I use her lots – it is psychological anthropology and so i blend it with a more political lens, but i think the basic idea of cultivating minds and bodies makes perfect sense – thanks for the link

      • thanks for the reply, I would think that in so much as part of what is habituated/enacted in these extended-mind-ing socialization processes is a sense of authority(and all the other usual totemic and taboo suspects) that such an anthropology can’t help but to be political, no?

  3. I wonder how radical a departure instauration (the heart of this chapter) is from construction. It’s certainly useful to have another word to use, to depart from the many, many misuses and missteps of ‘construction.’ However, how radically different is instauration from construction on a conceptual level? Isn’t it just kind of a ‘strong constructivism’ – a constructivism that allows the created to radically perturb the creator, rendering uncertain the direction of the trajectory?

    Well, I really like the description of instauration I find in this chapter. As a very, very amateur musician I find that the experience of improvisation is very much reflected in this concept. I am continually surprised by the sounds that result from the musical instrument in my hands but only because I continually seek out this surprise. Some days I sit down and every chord and melody sounds grey and dry, like I’ve heard every thing before. These are uncreative days, days when I have to do something different to kick myself out of that rut. Sometimes this might be as simple as changing to a different tuning or even just picking up another instrument. Every guitarist knows that each instrument has its own personality, that each one spurs you to create differently (or this is what we tell ourselves when we need to justify having so many instruments!).

    Creation often results from mistakes – when it’s not a mistake per se it’s usually at least unintended. This is particularly noticeable when recording music. My favourite musical practice is live looping – that is, when you have a recording apparatus controlled with a foot pedal so that you can record musical passages ‘on the fly’ and play over them, manipulate them in real time and so on. The best confluences of rhythm and frequency are unexpected; sometimes they’re unexpectable. But, with looping, unexpected confluences do not simply happen and pass – they are there to be reacted to, they provoke a reaction and they do. It’s a highly instaurative experience, a very dynamic and exciting way of creating sound.

    As I said, I am a very, very amateur musician. As my technical skills improve my creative capacities expand accordingly. However, I do not aspire to technical mastery – that way lies shred metal and jazz fusion. I want to be a little bit incompetent, always. The good news is that I always will be! Because while technical competence greatly expands both what can be played and, even more importantly, reduces the ‘distance’ between ‘hearing’ what you want to play and actually playing it, too much technical competence, it seems to me, renders that translation all too easy and kills the creative possibility of accidents – or, rather, if a musician becomes so magnificently technically accomplished that the gap between thinking and playing effectively disappears then they need to find new ways of scaring themselves, of perturbing the creative experience. And the best musicians do, in fact. The worst musicians are those for whom thought and sound become practically fused and they revel in this fact, they enjoy the absence of surprise, the monotony of the return of the same without difference.

    So, that’s a bit of a stream of consciousness but hopefully it makes a point. Now, back to my question: is this all that much more than a strong constructivism? I think that it is. Not having to carry the baggage of that word is liberating in itself. And then construction always, to my mind, implies architecture to some degree. Architecture (and thus construction) has its place, of course. When building a house one wants to *control* the accidents, to hem them into an acceptably minuscule margin of error. If an improvisation breaks down it is no tragedy – a good musician can save all but the most egregious breakdowns and transform them into something else (that is breakdowns within the music [fic]; a power cut or a beer covered laptop is a breakdown that only a technician [tec] can resolve!). This doesn’t apply to house building – there the proper response of something falling apart is often to consult one’s lawyer in order to determine responsibility [law]!! Yes, the deconstruction of architecture can only be a prelude to its reconstruction – and the mere inevitability of the undecidable heart of the structure in this case is nothing to be celebrated, not when you have several tonnes of roof over your head! Instauration also avoids this legacy – the unthinking celebration of fragility. Perhaps instauration also has a place in architecture, then.

    I’m decided as to one thing: instauration is a good concept. I’m undecided as to whether this should straightforwardly replace construction, whether it should supplement it or whether they can intermingle more intimately. Clearly there is a difference between the musician qua improviser and the architect. But there are architects of music, of course. It is not a question of domains but of practices and of orientations towards indeterminacy and surprise [MET]. Is Hans Zimmer an architect or a musician? Both, surely. And much more besides.

    I’m going to give up on tying these thoughts into a bundle. It seems appropriate that I do not! I think they have enough about them to be sent into the world and resist crumbling under the gaze of others. And that is the proper test of instauration – can I be a proud father/mother?

    Damn, maybe that is a neat conclusion. Okay, I’ll throw it off course again by ending this thought in mid senten

    • At the award for most pretentious comment goes to … !

    • From AIME, “Constructivism does not allow for differentiation between what is well made and poorly made because all the effects of construction are also constructed. This is not the case with instauration, however, which can easily fail because it requires the collaboration of beings that we accompany, help, push, express, facilitate or actually bring into being. All of this can fail to work.”

      With regards to this explanation, I saw Latour differentiate constructivism with instauration to its performativity or to support felicity conditions for a particular mode. A trial in performing a music is quite common in a jam session, but if we displace a jam session to an opera performance, the audience might not like it. By proposing instauration, Latour provides an exit point from constructivism that is ignorant to the idea of well made and poorly made. A jam session might be ‘well made’ for particular audience, but not through displacement.

      Latour uses the example of the painter of La Belle Noiseuse where the painter woke up during the night and in darkness adds something that the painting does not require. But in what modality this requirement is qualified? In this sense, instauration follows strong constructivism where it “allows the created to radically perturb the creator” and adding uncertainty to the trajectory. However, this definition is not sufficient to capture the qualification of the idea of created/creator. Or in other words, instauration is a situated strong constructivism.

      Talking about situatedness reminds me on Haraway, although she focuses on practice, while Latour takes a philosophical stand point.

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