Journey Through the World(s)

July 12, 2016   •   By Stephen Muecke

The Different Modes of Existence

Étienne Souriau

WHAT AM I DOING as I write a review of Étienne Souriau’s The Different Modes of Existence? I am helping, to use Souriau’s own language, to instaure it, to more fully realize its existence, to extend its journey through the world. But what kind of existence does this slightly strange work of philosophy have? To solicit our attention, it has to be more than “just” philosophy — it has to be an oeuvre, a work, something that has started a perilous course of existence, with all the risks of failure. It is not unusual to claim that for philosophy to continue to be itself, it has to make little leaps into the unknown; the same would go for any mode of existence. But the fun part is that they all do it differently.


Étienne Souriau (1892–1979) was professor of aesthetics at the Sorbonne. His work languished, almost nonexistent, for many decades. Somewhat pompous in style and with a haughty display of erudition, this old-style professor’s ideas were overwhelmed by postwar enthusiasm for Alexandre Kojève’s teaching of Hegel, Heidegger’s phenomenology, and the existentialists. After the 1960s, critique came to dominate not only a lot of philosophy, but also most of the humanities and social sciences. Even public institutions like universities were denounced from the left; how were they to know that today’s “neoliberals” would be busy actually dismantling them?

From that turmoil, the famous poststructuralist philosophers crafted more positive styles, especially Michel Foucault with his archaeologies of the archive, and Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, who had not forgotten Souriau. For innovative sociologists, anthropologists, and philosophers, trying to capture what was different about the worlds that sustained a legal process, a scientific experiment, or a work of art, Souriau’s ideas offered something other than, on the one hand, a material world, and on the other, an overarching critical language with which to denounce its failings or deconstruct its false certainties. They began a return to “things on their own terms,” something impossible, for example, in the older critical sociology. Readers of Pierre Bourdieu’s 1966 The Love of Art would not expect to read about the relationship of “love” and “art”; they would find a book about social class, just as they expected. [1]

Bruno Latour has been craftily drawing together various threads of philosophy and social science, and which recently culminated, with considerable international impact, in a work of “philosophical anthropology” on the same topic as this book, and with almost the same title. One important thread is the revival of some early 20th-century philosophers. Isabelle Stengers and Latour took interest in the American pragmatists (A. N. Whitehead, William James, John Dewey) as they, especially Latour, worked toward a new kind of radical empiricism after carrying out various studies of scientific and other institutions under the headings of Science and Technology Studies (STS) and Actor-Network Theory (ANT) with colleagues at the Center for the Sociology of Innovation in Paris. The tradition of pragmatic thought had been long sustained in the United States, especially in the social sciences, but its recent relay through Paris has seen it recomposed and reexported internationally as a new kind of activist philosophy engaging with contemporary problems, especially those related to the “resetting of modernity,” climate change, and the Anthropocene.

Latour, introduced to Souriau by Stengers, fell upon his 1925 work on the modes of existence and quickly published an article that the speculative realists gathered up — another recent branch of radical empiricism. Then, in homage to their forebear, Latour and Stengers came back to write the long introduction to this new edition of the original, included here along with a 1956 article, “On the Mode of Existence of the Work-to-be-Made.”


What was the old professor driving at nearly a century ago that might enable us to focus closely on something like the love of art? Souriau would more accurately express this as the bringing into existence of the work of art. He likes to give examples like the sculptor standing, hammer and chisel in hand, in front of a block of marble. Already the work exists, but only weakly. How so? Souriau asks us to accept that existences, in general, can be fragile, tenuous, yearning to come into being: just as an infant is not born with the fuller existence that will be its adult self, and must undergo all sorts of encouragements and trials to get there, so too with the work of art. After evoking the concept of “the Angel of the work” and not resisting the temptation to “shelter behind the authority of William Blake” with this spiritual conjuration, he goes on more technically to describe the work-to-be-made as having a certain form:

A form accompanied by a halo of hope and wonder, the reflection of which is like an iridescence for us. All of which can clearly be interpreted through a comparison with love. And indeed, if the poet did not already love the poem a little before having written it, if those who think about a future world to be made to come into being, did not, in their dreams of it, find some wonderful presentiment of the presence they are evoking; if, in a word, the wait for the work were amorphous, there would doubtlessly be no creation.

This optimistic tone contrasts strongly with both the anti-art strand of late modernism, which got nowhere for a long while, and its depressing existentialist precursors. 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. Souriau links reality with success, such that the scientist, the lover, or the artist each respond in their own ways to their vocation, and their individual will or mind is backgrounded in favor of a whole assemblage in which humans play a vacillating role.

These existences can be banal or sublime. You might wake, perturbed, to start your working day in the supermarket. You are also trembling in the anticipation of a promising date that evening. You might feel half alive working the checkout, but you chip away at the tasks until in the end, that kind of existence is accomplished. Your working day is done. Then, that evening, you embark with more fervor and less certainty on the instauration of another kind of existence that humans have succeeded and failed at innumerable times: falling in love.

The scientist, in her laboratory, is not discovering things that are just waiting for her to put her hand on them. She is instauring factual, scientific existences by carefully setting up the right experimental apparatuses for the problem and material in question, risking failure. Then she has to pay attention in the right way, and if the facts seem to emerge, she immediately calls on competent colleagues for verification. The reality now exists by virtue of the success of the experiment, and it is sustained by real or virtual repeatability.

Souriau asserts that the table in front of him at the Sorbonne as he gives his lecture “has still just barely begun to take shape when I think of the spiritual accomplishments that it is lacking,” despite its physical solidity. The table can be further promoted in its virtual “intellectual accomplishments” — all the “human, historical, economic and social cultural meanings of a table at the Sorbonne!” — if there is a “mind that thinks itself capable of embracing, of bearing the accomplished, intellectual existence of this table, of opening the way for that accomplishment, of making an effort towards the promotion, in this sense, of an object’s existence.”

And such tables have also been instaured artistically, a different kind of work, and work it indeed is — so few philosophers specify the labor or the learning involved in bringing existences about, for Immanuel Kant they are all in the mind. But, I digress. Here is the artist:

Let us imagine the table treated with the intimate and almost interior style of which Vermeer held the secret; or such as it would appear as a prop in a Colloquium of Philosophers painted by a Titian or a Rembrandt. Or let us conjure it up in the dazzling destitution or the cryptic forthrightness that a Van Gogh displays somewhat savagely in his representation of some chair or some table in a small bedroom in Arles. These would certainly be instances of the promotion of existence. In such cases the artist is spiritually responsible for beings that as yet have no soul — that have only physical existence, plain and simple. He discovers what this thing was still lacking in that direction. The accomplishment that he confers upon it is the authentic accomplishment of a being that only occupied the place reserved for it, so to speak, in the physical mode of existence, while still remain poor [pauvre à faire] in other modes of existence. And it remains so to the extent that even if the woodworker has made this table, physically, it is still to-be-made to the extent that it implicates the artist or the philosopher.

Aesthetic beings, works of art, are crafted in and by assemblages that are distinct from those arrangements that help scientific knowledge along (or spiritual life, or the law, or whatever other mode of existence). A novel “takes shape” or the image of Mickey Mouse “gels” and “captures” the imagination of the public, but not before a lot of work is put into the technical and institutional means for the dissemination of this being. Once Mickey Mouse is “out there” and has achieved the kind of immortality only available to fictional beings, he is very hard to unmake, because his existence is cradled in networks of devotion. One can thus see why properly instaured beings cannot be called “representations” or “mere constructions” that could be deconstructed on a whim. Construction is always in terms of some other reality that comes in on a search and destroy mission, so to speak, trying to take over, as in the love of art really being an effect of class structure (but only if you are in the know). Another example would be someone who, convinced they are traumatized by a strict religious upbringing, pays a shrink to rebuild a secular existence for them.

This is the value of the key concept of instauration: it can’t go backward, and this has much to do with the quality of the work being produced. If the artist can see the whole work in advance of its accomplishment, he may as well be making a copy of something, as Latour relates in his book, An Inquiry into Modes of Existence:

[…] [I]f 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.


As I move toward the conclusion of this review that has tried to breathe life into the old philosopher of the Sorbonne, poor old guy, in his conservative suits (not hip for any of the soixanthuitards, except the hippest, Deleuze), I want to reflect on just how valuable I have found this concept of instauration, as it sets up the specifications for each of an open set of modes of existence. There is no point of instauration without plural ontologies, because it depends on refusing the notion of the one objective reality being opposed to human subjectivity, a familiar opposition structuring phenomenological thought. Not only does the right mix of things have to be in place for an instauration, but there is also dedicated human labor, taking the risk of spoiling the work before it is accomplished.

Much contemporary art, I might suggest, is perfectly well installed in galleries but not well instaured. Commodities as they are, they are displayed, sold, and the walls restocked. The real instauration might be an inventive business model that works well with these art items as its raw material. But I don’t want to labor the familiar art versus commerce debate, as if the touch of the commercial inevitably spoils art. It is rather that all the effort has been put into the business model, and good luck to it. Sometimes a work of art, in these circumstances, shines in its own right. But well-instaured art, as we chance upon it in the bohemian or avant-garde margins of the mainstream, has solicited all the dedication of the artist involved, all of their love, and its discovers a public that materializes in order to realize this accomplishment.


Stephen Muecke teaches in the Environmental Humanities program at the University of New South Wales, Australia.


[1] See Antoine Hennion, “From ANT to Pragmatism: A Journey undertaken with Bruno Latour at the CSI,New Literary History (forthcoming).