Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Reflections on An Inquiry into Modes of Existence as an experiment in the digital humanities

In the last week of July this year, I had the good fortune of attending the concluding workshops of Bruno Latour's An Inquiry into Modes of Existence project. I've written several posts on and deriving from this in the past; however, I've not really reflected on the event itself as an experiment ‒ which is what it was; an experiment in the digital humanities. (See also this by Consuelo Vasquez.)

We were to play a 'Serious Game' ‒ that is, to test, trial and interrogate the 'Report' (i.e. the AIME book) produced by Latour as his 'Anthropology of the Moderns.' However, we were not at liberty to simply set about 'critiquing.' The attendees were divided into several roundtables that worked independently on politics, religion, economy, nature and diplomacy, respectively. Each table was to, first of all, review and synthesise the many contributions submitted to the project website. By the end of the week, we had to collectively write a 'Specbook' containing our indispensable values and requirements that would inform, first, the public seminar to be held the following week in which the chargés d'affaires (Barbara Cassin, Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, Annemarie Mol, Dipesh Chakrabarty, Deborah Danowski, Peter Weibel, Simon Schaffer, Clive Hamilton) would, each in their own way, begin to edge towards 'facing Gaia'; and, secondly, the eventual rewriting of the Report. At the end of each day, there was a plenary session where the groups came together and debated their findings.

At this point I should mention my own struggles ‒ travails, as we say in English... ‒ with having only the most rudimentary grasp of the French language. The roundtable on politics was held primarily in English (and this is were I spent the first part of the week); however, the plenary sessions were almost entirely in French (and with perfect justification since I was the only non-French speaker in attendance!). Although I was greatly aided by the interpretations of Cormac O'Keefe and Stephen Muecke, the most immediate consequences of this linguistic disjuncture were that (a) my head hurt a lot and (b) whenever I opened my mouth I ran the very serious risk of making a fool of myself, having only understood about 10% of what was going on. (Sure enough, that happened. However, I more or less got through the week in one piece!)

But back to the point. The thing that strikes me most about the way all this worked, retrospectively, is the very partial realisation of the 'game' aspect. Certainly, this was never going to be a run-of-the-mill academic workshop since we were playing a 'Serious Game' under quite unconventional conditions. However, it was not quite a 'role playing game' (something like a Model United Nations) either since there was no clearly defined narrative nor prescribed characters. As 'gamers' we were surely playing characters ‒ but those characters were, seemingly, ourselves.

The whole format of the event was consequently approached from an array (perhaps, at times, a disarray) of perspectives. At times it seemed as though every participant had their own idea of what was going on (though this may have been an impression imposed by my aforementioned linguistic marginality). This was liberating inasmuch as it permitted the event to evolve ‒ diverging, converging and improvising ‒ as it progressed. However, this freedom was by no means uncurtailed. The plenary session effectively acted as a 'sovereign voice' that stamped down on this or that, approving or denying certain lines of conjecture.

In other words, it was never completely clear what the rules were but it was occasionally made very clear what they were not. This is how the experiment was able to hang so loosely without falling apart altogether. (Schmitt, and so on...)

These occasionally crossed purposes, and the practical misalignments that resulted, came to a head particularly in the discussions of diplomacy (a roundtable that I participated in towards the end of the week). Every table was under instruction to 'deflate' its subject matter, and to do so both simultaneously and symmetrically. A deflated politics without a correspondingly humilous economy would be neoliberal; a deflated religion without its matching politics would be a cold and aggressive secularism, and so on. The diplomacy table interpreted its remit as covering both anthropology and philosophy. It then, and this was certainly the overwhelming judgement, inflated these institutions to a degree earning the label 'Kantian.' This really didn't go down well. The balloon burst.

Upon reflection, I think that the whole experiment may have worked better if it had been more of a 'role playing game' and, in that sense, more intensively fictionalised. Some attendees (myself included) were, at times, labouring under the misapprehension that we (the attendees) were ourselves 'diplomats.' It seems to me now that we should have thought of ourselves as, at most, attachés. We were doing nothing more than preparing briefing papers based upon our own, partial, naive perspectives (plus the electronic augmentations afforded by the contribution-collecting website), towards a negotiation that would be decidedly 'above our pay-grade.' The 'middle ground' was indeed the issue but it was not we who would go there.

Nevertheless, it was enormously refreshing and exciting to participate in an intellectual exercise that broke the usual conference/workshop format where various researchers assemble, read their pre-written papers, eat, drink and then fly back to wherever it is they came from. If this experiment seeds more creativity in the manners and modes by which ideas get debated and texts get drafted then it will have been a success for that alone.

However, on that point, a final difficulty sticks in my mind in particular: the difficulty of speaking under a condition of the suspension of 'true belief.' In other words, in order to participate in a game one does not act solely on the basis of one's own sense of self but, rather, upon the instructions received, the roles given or taken up. One must speak from a subject position that is not 'oneself' but is already the result of the displacement that necessarily occurs in anticipation of negotiation.

This happened, I think, only fleetingly and inconsistently. The participant to have adopted such a pose most explicitly was the chargé d'affaires Simon Schaffer,   who made a point of embodying a diplomatic persona and thus not 'saying what he really thinks.' While there were many personae flying about the place, I'm not convinced that the specific form of detachment necessary for the diplomatic game was widely achieved ‒ at least not as widely as it could have been. Indeed, some clung to their 'true beliefs' with a passion.

To be 'detached' with regard to any firm, pre-given ground but not, for that reason, 'disinterested' ‒ such discursive techniques are still to a large extent awaiting if not their invention then certainly their adoption.

And this brings me back to my previous remarks: the experiment only partially broke free of the conventions and standards of existing academic discursive formats. At times the 'game' relapsed into something much more closely resembling a conventional 'conference' or 'workshop' than, I think, was intended. The gravitational pull of engrained habits remained too strong and the deterritorialisation effected by the territorialising motions of the 'rules of the game' was too weak precisely because the rules themselves were too weakly specified. Truly leaving the orbit of arbitrary convention would, however counter-intuitively, have required a stronger and more arbitrary imposition of a counter-convention for the purposes of the game. Stronger, more challenging rules, roles and narratives would have meant a greater pull towards dissociating 'true belief' from speech-action and would, therefore, have established a more diplomatic event, a more thoroughly and impressively prepared 'middle ground.'

That said, I count myself very fortunate to have played a part in this experience ‒ perplexed, furrow-faced, pain-brained onlooker though I so often was!


  1. Vassilis Kollias5 December 2014 at 17:49

    "we had to collectively write a 'Specbook' containing our indispensable values and requirements"

    Although I have heard about it I have not managed to ecer see the "Specbooks" that were fianlly produced. Do you know the relevant site?

  2. I know that one section of it (the section on Nature) is going to be published in the Environmental Humanities journal next year. I'm sure that the rest will be made publicly available too but I don't think anything has been posted online yet. Last I heard the sections had only just been translated. I'll be sure to post the link on here if/when it's made available.