Chapter 7: Reinstituting the Beings of Metamorphosis

Author: Terence Blake

The movement of deconstruction of the split between subject and object allied to the pluralisation of ontologies continues. We must now apply this ontological pluralism to the irrational superstitions that are thought to characterise traditional societies. Modernity has been constituted in terms of a battle against the superstitious belief in invisible beings and occult powers. The previous chapters have shown that the Moderns are mistaken about the nature and composition of the visible world. For Latour there is no “visible world”, the very idea is the result of a category mistake. A suspicious symptom from our history is the overwhelming violence that has accompanied the spread of Reason in the world, a sign that we are anxious and frightened about what we nonetheless assert to be devoid of existence.The accusation made by the moderns against other cultures is that of their “irrationality” in their attribution of objective existence to invisible beings. Not existing in the objective world, these beings can only be projections of the human psyche, the true locus of their existence. The only mode of existence that they can have is that of illusions and phantasms. These beings can only be explained in terms of the psychology of the inner world of subjectivity.

Applying our method we must search for material networks that are psychogenic, i.e. engaged in the production of psyches and subjectivities. We may have no positive institution for welcoming invisible beings, but we have an abundance of psycho-techniques and psycho-entertainment to stimulate, care for, or amuse ourselves. Our naïve, folk-psychology, belief is that we do not produce our psyches but rather we possess them. The self is autonomous, independent of networks for its existence. There is no meaning in the external world that is not projected by means of our internal representations. Here, psychoanalysis cannot help us: what is “repressed” is not a part of the psyche that we project, confusing our inner representations with outer entities, but rather the psychogenic networks that endow us with a psyche.

Our error is to attempt to think outside networks, to pay attention only to the “visible” products and to forget the invisible infrastructures. In consequence, we no longer know how (or where) to situate the subject. Certainly not inside, as interiority is not a given, it is manufactured. Our problem is one of attention, we do not notice the networks that engender the psyche. So we must return to the “original experience” of this mode of existence: emotion. Emotion is a form of crisis and transit, where our interiority is in the grip of what feels like an outside force. It invades us, takes possession of us for a certain time and carries us away, transforming our reactions, and then leaves us changed for better or worse.

The modern self is a contradictory relation between the autonomous authentic indvidual subject alone in an objective world devoid of meaning, and the swarm of entities necessary to its fabrication and continual modifications. Caught in a process of avoidance of these outside forces and of denial of their existence, the moderns have produced a vast array of therapeutic arrangements permitting their acknowledgement as inner facts susceptible to various forms of manipulation.

Latour affirms that an ethnopsychiatric approach to therapeutic situations gives us the best insight into the existence of these invisible beings and into the skill needed in dealing with them. We have such a skill constructed over our many contacts with these invisible beings. We know how to deviate and deflect their forces to other targets and gain their energy for going on in life. These beings can transform us, alientaing or inspring us in uncanny ways. They metamorphose themselves too, so this is why they are “invisible”, they do not have the persistence of the beings of reproduction, they do not belong to their régime of visibility and of stability. Thus their scope is not just therapeutic but ontological, foregrounding by means of their own proprties of metamorphosis and invisibility the alteration that characterises being-as-other.


1) ONTOLOGY: Latour’s ontology of forces guided by the goal of a maximum of transformation is close to the Nietzschean ontology of IRREDUCTIONS. Forces, powers, divinities and demons that do not take us as unified persons; metamorphoses, transformations, transmutations and becomings that oblige us to take being as alteration and repetition as difference. This is the language of affects and intensities that was developped by both Deleuze and Lyotard and that was abandonned by both as being too “metaphysical” in the sense of not paying enough attention to the régimes of enunciation.

Latour takes the same semiotic turn as his predecessors but gives it even more importance. He acknowledges the existence of these invisible beings but he does not give them primacy, as Deleuze and Lyotard did at a certain moment. They constitute one mode of existence amongs many, and the pluriverse does not repose on this mode. Latour also subtracts the jargon-filled Freudo-Marxist conceptual field that complicated this ontology and burdened it with a heavy-handed academic style. By renewing our theoretical vocabulary and references Latour has freed us from antiquated connotations and other dogmatic residues of the last century’s philosophical combats.

Yet I would argue that something is lost too. By covering his tracks and disguising if not his influences but his resonances with the preceding generation he makes them less readable and less comprehensible. At the same time he takes even further a movement that Bernard Stiegler regrets in these post-60s thinkers: the abandon of the word (and concept) “ideology”. This abandon, for whatever refined epistemological and ontological reasons, has left us unarmed in the ideological struggle against neoliberalism.

2) EMOTION: Latour’s phenomenology of the “original experience” that characterises the existence of these invisible forces is rather vague and incomplete, which is perhaps understandable in a book that includes sketches 14 other modes of existence. But it is also one-sided and more than a little arbitrary, emphasising the negative.

As modern subjects we are characterised mainly by the sad affects of anxiety, fear, loneliness and disenchantment in a world devoid of meaning. In our fight against the invisible beings we are once again described negatively in terms of our avoidance of them and denial of their existence, and our violence in disparaging and eradicating their cults in the traditions of the Others.

Latour’s general description of emotions is neutral. He talks of forces that affect us from outside, invade, possess, transform, pass through, and exit. Yet most of his descriptions list negative emotions that require “defensive” words and rituals to protect us against possesssion or devoration. For Latour we need a “skill” to deflect the possession and to benefit from the energy it can transmit. He does allude to the positive experiences of inspiration and romantic passion (but not to “love”, which is reserved for the religious mode), but still finds them dangerous.

A comparison with Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Kelly’s ALL THINGS SHINING may illuminate things here. They too reject the subject-object bifurcation and describe the modern autonomous self in a meaningless world as an illusion based on the denial of ontological agency to emotions (or “moods” in their terminology). Yet more often they describe positive emotions such as joy, wonder, gratitude, love alongside the more negative passions of anger and violence. So the “skill” that they invoke (called by them “metapoiesis“) is not just apotropaic or deflective, it is also peritropaic or inflective. We can allow ourself to be taken up by some emotions, and deflect or walk away from others. We can rise as one in a stadium in enthusiasm at an astonishing exploit, and we can walk away from the hate possessing a racist rally. Latour does not exclude this, but his emphasis is more negative.

3) THERAPY: Latour cites therapeutic arrangements as enclaves that permit a half-hearted acknowledgement of emotions as outside forces participating in the construction of psyches. For him a more ontologically satisfying model is found in the ethnopsychiatry of Tobie Nathan. Other examples can be found: post-jungian analyst James Hillman emphasised that therapy is the place of “soul-making” or the engendering of psyche, and Deleuze and Guattari’s schizoanalysis proposed the idea of the production of subjectivity. It is regrettable that here as elsewhere Latour feels obliged to overdramatise the novelty of his ideas, as if only he and Toby Nathan and a handful of others had managed to elaborate a non-personalistic vision of the psyche and of its fabrication and transformations.

Latour tends to envisage emotions as fairly short-term alterations of subjectivity (except in the case of possession, which may last longer, or “devoration”, which sounds rather permanent), where other thinkers are much more open. Once again, he reserves the more long-term transformations of subjectivity for the religious mode, calling them by a different name, “conversions”. I see no reason for this particular bifurcation (between the beings of metamorphosis and those of religion), and I think it contaminates his phenomenology of the mode of metamorphosis.


10 responses to “Chapter 7: Reinstituting the Beings of Metamorphosis

  1. Thanks, Terence, for this helpful summary and commentary. This was indeed one of the sketchier of AIME‘s chapters. You helped clarify it for me. Like you, I immediately felt a resonance with James Hillman’s pluralist revisioning of Jung’s psychology of the Self. When responding to a paper read by Elanore Mingorelli at the last International Whitehead Conference in Poland on Whitehead’s process-relational account of personal identity, I offered Hillman’s alchemically inspired term “soul-making” as a point of orientation in a post-substance, post-identity ‘process’ psychology. You’re probably right that Latour should have been more explicit about the post-sixties thinkers he is inheriting and thinking with.

  2. Reblogged this on AGENT SWARM and commented:
    My contribution to the reading group on Latour’s AN INQUIRY INTO MODES OF EXISTENCE can be found here: a summary of chapter 7 (“Reinstituting the Beings of Metamorphosis”) plus commentary. This is Latour’s account of the fabrication of psyches, and includes a phenomenology of emotion. I compare this with ALL THINGS SHINING and with James Hillman’s psychology of “soul-making”. Deleuze’s notion of the “production of subjectivity” is also mentioned.

  3. This is the first chapter where things get properly weird! It’s also probably the most obscure chapter in the book. The fact that he spends the whole time talking about psyches and emotions is, I think, somewhat distracting. There’s more to [met] than that.

    What’s important to note, first of all, is that [met] belongs in the ‘first group’ of modes, along with [rep] and [hab]. This is very significant. The third group [rel], [pol], [law] is the quasi-subject group – the group of modes that pertains specifically to subjectification. Although [met] gives us ‘psyches’ it does not pertain exclusively to subjects. As part of the first group it is among the most general and most metaphysical of the modes.

    Latour isn’t especially clear on this point but somewhere in the book (I don’t have the page to hand) he says that when a gene mutates this is a [met-rep] crossing. He also says in the technology chapter that when a new innovation is extracted from a being of reproduction via a technological ruse of some kind then this is an instance of metamorphosis, too.

    This is what the vocabulary section of the website says about [met]: it is “what we encounter whenever we address the manner in which existents are transformed or transform in order to subsist.” That is a completely general principle. It seems that organisms cannot subsist by [rep] alone because they also need the mutations of [met]. That is a bit confusing but that seems to be the claim.

    Latour’s rambling through the occult in this chapter is a little occult itself. The examples he gives do little to elucidate his claims, if anything they bury them in a fog. Like some of the other modes, particularly [rel], Latour argues the mode through its iteration par excellence rather than giving it an abstract identity that would be cognisable as a particular concept. This is quite frustrating as it obscures what’s really going on at the level of the philosophical system. But what I’m quite sure of is that psychogenic transformations are only one particular case of [met] and that it has to be understood in partnership with [rep] and [hab] as comprising not the ‘base’ or the ‘foundation’ of the other modes but as comprising part of the infrastructure that the other modes will tend to pass by most often. Far from [met] being particular to psyches as such it may be the most general and omnipresent of the modes.

  4. Latour’s movement is to get away from the abstraction of the subject-object division and to come back to both historical and individual experience. Only then can he come back to more “cosmological” concerns. He makes it clear towards the end of the chapter we may consider that psychogenic metamorphosis is only one part of the [met] mode of existence: “Everything can, everything must, become something else” (203). So he elevates it to a cosmogenic principle on a par with [rep]. However this is only a speculative “hypothesis” inspired by the cosmological status that other collectives give to these beings. At the end he descends to modern subjectivity, our experience of emotions, and our interaction with invisible existents.

    • Yes, I take your point. This is a frustrating element of his argument. He keeps insisting that this is a metaphysical system and yet he, frankly, seems to chicken out of articulating it as such. The system only makes sense as a system if [met] is understood alongside [rep] and [hab] and yet this relationship is granted just a few lines in the whole book – if you blinked you’d miss it and think that [met] was purely to do with psyches. It’s like he’s giving us not a system but a jigsaw puzzle. Which is fine but why keep telling us that it’s a system?

      I suppose his aim is, by way of this contradiction, to force us to reconstruct the system ourselves, thus to arrive at our own versions of it, thus to be engaged in the whole diplomacy project (sneaky!). However, that only works if people *are* engaged by the dissembly and not alienated by it. And who are the few brave, bookish souls who will be drawn in by such a conceptual challenge? Not the multitudes that the diplomatic project is supposed to engage – certainly not the technologists, scientists, lawyers and so on. Who has the time? Or the inclination? Okay, me for one, but I’m weird.

      I don’t begrudge a speculative philosopher his obscurity – that is his poetic license – but it cannot be tolerated in a ‘diplomat.’ What delegate to a summit wouldn’t take evasiveness as a sign of hostility and unreasonableness? A real diplomat may not want to ‘show her hand’ too soon but nor does she lack candour.

      I think I see the underlying strategy in all of this… but is it a good one?

  5. Latour calls it “empirical metaphysics” and I see this movement everywhere in the book. Starting off from some supposedly historical and social generalities he descends to the “original experience” (empiricism), the privileged or paradigmatic example. Doing the phenomenology of this lets him extract the form of veridiction (with its felicity conditions) and lets him raise it to a mode of existence. This lets him descend again to experience, but this time finding the beings in question all through experience, and not just limited to the paradigm case. In theory the phenomenology has primacy, yet the book is a speculative reconceptualisation of experience. So the nice methodological sequence from experience to speculation and back to experience seems, at least some of the time, a fable hiding a different sequence where the speculation selects and characterises the experience that it will later, in the fable, seem merely to generalise. His talk of “empiricism”, some of the time, serves to cover over these methodological problems rather than resolving them.

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