Compositionism

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Description

Bruno Latour:

'I have chosen to give this manifesto a worthy banner, the word compositionism. Yes, I would like to be able to write “The Compositionist Manifesto” by reverting to an outmoded genre in the grand style of old, beginning with something like: “A specter haunts not only Europe but the world: that of compositionism. All the Powers of the Modernist World have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this specter!”

Even though the word “composition” is a bit too long and windy, what is nice is that it underlines that things have to be put together (Latin 474 new literary history componere) while retaining their heterogeneity. Also, it is connected with composure; it has clear roots in art, painting, music, theater, dance, and thus is associated with choreography and scenography; it is not too far from “compromise” and “compromising,” retaining a certain diplomatic and prudential flavor. Speaking of flavor, it carries with it the pungent but ecologically correct smell of “compost,” itself due to the active “de-composition” of many invisible agents. . . .

Above all, a composition can fail and thus retains what is most important in the notion of constructivism (a label which I could have used as well, had it not been already taken by art history). It thus draws attention away from the irrelevant difference between what is constructed and what is not constructed, toward the crucial difference between what is well or badly constructed, well or badly composed.

What is to be composed may, at any point, be decomposed. In other words, compositionism takes up the task of searching for universality but without believing that this universality is already there, waiting to be unveiled and discovered. It is thus as far from relativism (in the papal sense of the word) as it is from universalism (in the modernist meaning of the world—more on this later). From universalism it takes up the task of building a common world; from relativism, the certainty that this common world has to be built from utterly heterogeneous parts that will never make a whole, but at best a fragile, revisable, and diverse composite material." (http://www.bruno-latour.fr/sites/default/files/120-NLH-GB.pdf)


Discussion

Compositionism as a replacement of critique

Bruno Latour:

"In a first meaning, compositionism could stand as an alternative to critique (I don’t mean a critique of critique but a reuse of critique; not an even more critical critique but rather critique acquired secondhand—so to speak—and put to a different use). To be sure, critique did a wonderful job of debunking prejudices, enlightening nations, and prodding minds, but, as I have argued elsewhere, it “ran out of steam” because it was predicated on the discovery of a true world of realities lying behind “compositionist manifesto” a veil of appearances.

This beautiful staging had the great advantage of creating a huge difference of potential between the world of delusion and the world of reality, thus generating an immense source of productive energy that in a few centuries reshaped the face of the Earth. But it also had the immense drawback of creating a massive gap between what was felt and what was real. Ironically, given the Nietzschean fervor of so many iconoclasts, critique relies on a rear world of the beyond, that is, on a transcendence that is no less transcendent for being fully secular. With critique, you may debunk, reveal, unveil, but only as long as you establish, through this process of creative destruction, a privileged access to the world of reality behind the veils of appearances. Critique, in other words, has all the limits of utopia: it relies on the certainty of the world beyond this world. By contrast, for compositionism, there is no world of beyond. It is all about immanence.

The difference is not moot, because what performs a critique cannot also compose. It is really a mundane question of having the right tools for the right job. With a hammer (or a sledge hammer) in hand you can do a lot of things: break down walls, destroy idols, ridicule prejudices, but you cannot repair, take care, assemble, reassemble, stitch together. It is no more possible to compose with the paraphernalia of critique than it is to cook with a seesaw. Its limitations are greater still, for the hammer of critique can only prevail if, behind the slowly dismantled wall of appearances, is finally revealed the netherworld of reality. But when there is nothing real to be seen behind this destroyed wall, critique suddenly looks like another call to nihilism. What is the use of poking holes in delusions, if nothing more true is revealed beneath?

This is precisely what has happened to postmodernism, which can be defined as another form of modernism, fully equipped with the same iconoclastic tools as the moderns, but without the belief in a real world beyond. No wonder it had no other solution but to break itself to pieces, ending up debunking the debunkers. Critique was meaningful only as long as it was accompanied by the sturdy yet juvenile belief in a real world beyond. Once deprived of this naïve belief in transcendence, critique is no longer able to produce this difference of potential that had literally given it steam. As if the hammer had ricocheted off the wall and smashed the debunkers. And this is why it has been necessary to move from iconoclasm to what I have called iconoclash—namely, the suspension of the critical impulse, the transformation of debunking from a resource (the main resource of intellectual life in the last century, it would seem), to a topic to be carefully studied.

While critics still believe that there is too much belief and too many things standing in the way of reality, compositionists believe that there are enough ruins and that 476 new literary history everything has to be reassembled piece by piece. Which is another way of saying that we don’t wish to have too much to do with the twentieth century: “Let the dead bury their dead.”

In suspending the critical gesture, we begin to understand retrospectively the oddness of the definition of nature to which critique had been wed. It had two surprising features: the discovery, revelation, unveiling of what lay behind the subjective fog of appearances; and what ensured the continuity in space and time of all beings in their inner reality. It has long been realized by science studies, by feminist theory, and, in a much wider way, by all sorts of environmental movements, that this era’s character was precisely not the long-awaited taking into account of nature, but rather the total dissolution of the various notions of nature. In brief, ecology seals the end of nature." (http://www.bruno-latour.fr/sites/default/files/120-NLH-GB.pdf)