Summary of the AiME project -An Inquiry into Modes of Existence

Posted: October 24, 2011

An anthropology of the Moderns
The history of modernity is based on the shared feeling that there exists an arrow of time that thrusts forward, thus defining a front line that differentiates an archaic past from a more advanced future —good or bad depending on the versions. This moving frontier is largely based on a certain idea of scientific inquiry which may be summed up by the sentence: “yesterday we were still mixing up our ideas about the world and what the world is really like, tomorrow we will no longer confuse these, we will know for sure the difference between the two”.
The difficulty inherent in this rendering of the modernist experience comes from the surprising fact that what happens in reality is exactly the opposite: the more we move on, the more entangled we become with a greater number of entities which cannot be neatly distinguished between what belongs to society and politics and what belongs to the “natural order” of “matters of fact”. So much so that the arrow of time, instead of leading to emancipation, now goes from more and more entangled matters of concern. The sudden irruption of the word “anthropocene” in public discourse could serve as an emblem of this contradiction: just at the time when literati were talking of “post-humanism”, humans make a surprising come back but in an utterly different role, as a geological force equivalent to those of plate tectonics! Hence the choice summarized by the phrase “between modernizing and ecologizing, one has to choose”.
Such a complete disconnect between two totally opposite versions of the modernist's arrows of time would not be of much consequence if it had not rendered it impossible to understand the other collectives encountered in the course of history. The “others” are of course very differently “other” depending on which version of modernity one chooses to stress. If it is the emancipatory thrust forward, the others appear necessarily archaic since they keep confusing the order of the world with their set of social values. In other words, they appear to those who conquer them as multiple “cultures” while the conquerors possess a “culture”, to be sure, but also an access to one unified “nature”. But the baseline for such a comparative anthropology is entirely different if, instead of the emancipatory master narrative, one were to choose the alternative telling that stresses a history of implication and attachment around multiplied matters of concern: then the “others” stop being totally other and begin to appear as companions in a long history that has collected humans and nonhumans in various assemblages and at various scales. The odd notion of multiple “cultures” disappears along with that of “one nature”. A very different past, a very different future, and a very different comparison between collectives become possible. While the first ideal of modernization is not sustainable because of the denial of entanglement it implies and the spurious exoticism it generates on the others as well as on itself, another project becomes at least thinkable if a more realistic narrative of the modernist project is offered.
But in order to fight all exoticisms, including Occidentalism, one cannot be content with the negative conclusion that “we have never been modern”. Even though such a slogan might be liberating at first, it quickly leads to the nagging question: “then, what the hell have we been?” And this other question raised everywhere by those “we” have attempted to modernize: “What the hell have you been doing instead?” In order to answer those queries positively and not only negatively, it is necessary to start afresh an anthropology of the Moderns. Such an inquiry was started a quarter of a century ago with a dual research program the two lines of which have run in parallel although only one has resulted in publications so far.
The first one, known by the label of actor network theory (ANT), has tried to redescribe each of the central institutions of contemporary societies by following the heterogeneous network of associations that make them up. The successful development of science and technology studies has provided us with a totally different version of what was described before as “the advance of reason”. Similar studies of other domains have followed: law, economics, finance, to name a few. In each case, it has been shown that the grand narrative of modernization does not do justice to the very institutions developed by the Moderns.
And yet, no matter how rewarding has been the following of those heterogeneous networks of associations, no matter how fecund has been the redescription of the central domains of modern societies in term of actor-networks, they have not been able to offer the positive version of modernism that we were looking for. Networks are great to break down the artificial boundaries established between domains, but they fail to qualify adequately what the differences are between different sets of values that could account for the originality of the modernist adventure.
A comparative anthropology not only needs to have a common ground -the notion of actor-network provided that very well- but also requires an instrument to make the differences among collectives emerge anew. This is why, in parallel with the research on networks, another line has been pursued all along to capture not, this time, the heterogeneous associations, but rather the various ways in which those associations were binding entities together.

The shift from networks to modes of existence

It is this second research program that is now coming to the fore with a book and a digital collaborative platform. Such an inquiry into modes of existence (AIME) feeds on the research on networks, but tries to qualify the mode in which those networks expand.
Even though, to take an example, legal practice is made of many ingredients that come from all sorts of extralegal sources, there is nonetheless a “legal” way to attach them to one another, and it is this peculiar way that legists will try to define when they search for the difference between a “good” and a “bad” judgment. To use the metaphor of speech acts, the felicity and infelicity conditions of legal judgment will be very difficult to find by appealing to a “domain” of law different from the others (since it is so much rife with extralegal ingredients) while those conditions are easier to capture if it is to the connector and not to the domain that attention is paid. It is the search for those connectors that are called modes of extension or “modes of existence” to reuse a term from the French mid century philosophical tradition. 
The principle of the inquiry has been to recognize that there exist several sets of felicity and infelicity conditions the conflicts of which are revealed in many practical instances that can be empirically documented.
For instance, what happens when the felicity conditions used for a scientific judgment are applied to a legal one? The latter is taken as a “lie” since it does not fit the pattern expected from science. But the same is true when a scientific judgment is evaluated by the common sense version of information that requires an unmediated and transparent access to truth, what is called here Double Click: it too is found wanting since scientific data undergo a bewildering number of transformations before being validated. It is fair to say that there is no relation between any of the positivist ideals of science and the experience of science in action.
If you now imagine a table that registers the various conflicts between the different sets of felicity and infelicity conditions revealed by the different extensions of networks, you begin to build a systematic inquiry into the set of values held by the Moderns, a set their grand narrative of the modernizing frontier could not adequately map out.
Such a table registers the set of “category mistakes” one is tempted to make when using a set of truth conditions to evaluate another practice. When the table is sufficiently filled in, especially salient becomes the generalized category mistake of using “Double Click” to lord it over all the modes. It seems that those who define themselves as possessed by rationality have defined reason by the worst possible shibboleth: a transport without transformation, a direct access to truth without any mediation. As a consequence, every practice, by comparison with this ill adjusted standard, becomes a lie: religion, law, fiction, but also, strangely enough, science and technology as well. The paradox is that by considering knowledge as the supreme value, the Moderns have rendered unfathomable the production, maintenance and extension of every one of their most cherished values —including knowledge!— hence the deep obscurity that the Moderns have generated about themselves. Those who constantly speak of enlightenment have obscured the many sources of reason.
Things begin to change, however, as soon as each set of practices is interpreted in its own language and allowed to define truth and falsity according to its own touchstone. This is true first of science, once it is freed from the odd epistemology that had disguised for so long its peculiar set of felicity conditions. And when the referential work of scientific practice is no longer confused with the erratic claims of Double Click, all the other modes, one after the other, begin to be deployed within their own tonality, so to speak. As the inquiry progresses, the view of the modernist project becomes more and more different from the official version offered by this form of exoticism, Occidentalism, that has made impossible until now any comparison with the other collectives because of the the lack of an acceptable baseline.
As long as the Moderns are not able to provide a realistic description of themselves and what their values are, no comparative anthropology is possible. Once they enter into this soul searching effort, it is possible to think of comparative anthropology as a diplomatic enterprise where the former Moderns, to the relief of all the former “others”, are no longer cheating about who they are, what they come from and what they want to achieve. A welcome change of tack just at the moment when they have lost to other collectives the race for modernization and at the very point when the irruption of the “anthropocene”, because of the lack of other planets to spare, renders all the modernizing projects moot anyway... The Earth seems to be already occupied by another entirely different project that some have named Gaia and that no one, so far, seems able to reconcile with the plans made by those who are no longer exactly humans but rather Earthlings...

An unusual procedure: a digital platform

As it stands now, after twenty-five years of painstaking work, the inquiry has defined a dozen or so modes of existence that offer a rather contrasted view of the modernist project once each of them is systemically crossed with all the others. A book to be published in French in September 2012 and in English by Harvard University Press, first digitally in early 2013 and later on paper, will summarize what has been learned so far by this research program.
But it is clear that such an undertaking has no chance of succeeding if pursued by one solitary author. The only way to test the preliminary results is to provide a set up for a collaborative work of collection, correction and emendation. Thanks to a European Research Fund grant we are able to build up such a “thought collective” by equipping it with a tailor-made interface.
This interface has several goals.
The first is to offer through the use of many digital media a different scenography than that used for the written book. Through this undertaking, we want to explore the “future of the book” by providing an alternative scenography that is able to create a meditative atmosphere and to allow many other entries into the various experiences associated with each mode.
The second goal is to offer those who have read the book the supplementary material that is needed to understand and complement the limited set of examples and documents provided by the written form. Here too we are interested in the “future of the scholarly book” by exploring what it means to reinvent notes, bibliography, archives, annexes, illustration, glosses and so on through powerful searches in order to expand the reading experience.
But the most important goal is to help the readers of the book or the future users of the platform become co-inquirers by first asking them to answer the questionnaires that form the groundwork of the project, and, second, by criticizing the questionnaire and modifying the project more and more as the thought collective expands.
To make such an expansion viable, we will rely on a mixture of human and digital encounters. Eight “friends of the inquiry” will monitor diplomatic workshops around topics selected for their importance or for their difficulty. Their propositions will be reentered into the platform and added to the many new materials assembled by the coinquirers. At the end of the process, that is, after August 2014, a new book version of the original inquiry will be published together with the various digital additions. 
This sophisticated platform will be running in mid 2013.
What can you do in the meantime?
You may register on the AIME-inquiry web site so that you make sure to receive all the information about the progress of the project.
You may also participate in the preliminary discussions concerning the digital resources that could help us devise such a thought collective by, for instance, pointing out other such experiments, software, sites and so on.
If you are already well versed in the project, you might want to contribute very early on to the scenographies of the platform by sending our way materials, references, films or any documents either to enrich our documentation or to test the one we have assembled before it is published. 
Christophe Leclercq <>