An Attempt at a ‘Compositionist Manifesto' is an essay written by Bruno Latour in the genre of a manifesto. It was published in the 2010 edition of the academic journal New Literary History by John Hopkins University Press. Latour’s essay employs a post-critical way of thinking in proposing that composition should replace the practice of critique. His essay was inspired by the common speech of the Communist Manifesto that led Latour to pursue the manifesto as a genre for his own construction. In his attempt to create a 'Compositionist Manifesto', Latour expands on the connotations of the word ‘compose’, in its relation to composure, compromise, and compost to prescribe his own vision of compositionism. Compositionism, according to Latour, “takes up the task of building a common world... built from utterly heterogeneous parts that will never make a whole, but at best a fragile, revisable, and diverse composite material”. The manifesto presupposes an understanding that everything is constructed; there is no debate to whether it is or isn’t constructed but rather on if it is well or badly constructed. Latour disagrees with the premise of Modernism and its concept of ‘nature’ against ‘society’. Rather, Latour offers compositionism and the practice of ‘composing’ the common world as a solution on how to progress the world.
Bruno Latour, in 2017
|Born||22 June 1947|
Beaune, Côte-d'Or, France
|🎓 Alma mater||ORSTOM|
Université de Tours (Ph.D.)
|Notable work||Laboratory Life (1979), Science in Action (1987), We Have Never Been Modern (1991), Politics of Nature (1999)|
|🏅 Awards||Holberg Prize (2013)|
In Latour’s ‘Compositionist Manifesto’, he deliberates on whether the manifesto is an appropriate format for the portrayal of his ideas. Latour concedes that manifestos are an “outmoded genre” because of its conventional purpose “as a war cry for an avant-garde to move even further and faster ahead”, leading progress to where progress would inevitably lead. Despite this, Latour suggests that the form of the manifesto can still be applied once it has shifted from the notion of inevitable progress to one of "tentative and precautionary progression". His choice of the declarative style of the manifesto reflects “a warning, a call to attention, so as to stop going further in the same way as before toward the future.” Using the French language to differentiate future from prospect, Latour argues that the Moderns always had “un futur” (a future), but never a “un avenir” (a prospect). He states that the Modernist notion is to acclaim a past future back, whereas the Compositionist notion is to "turn our back, finally, to our past, and to explore new prospects, what lies ahead, the fate of things to come".
Researchers from the Centre for Research in Digital Education at the University of Edinburgh, presented Latour’s idea of a manifesto as “contingent, open to debate, to change, to re-working as the field itself shifts...” in creating their own manifesto.
On page 473 of An Attempt at a ‘Compositionist Manifesto', Latour reflects on the impossibility of drafting a manifesto without a word ending with an “-ism”, influencing his decision to give his manifesto the “worthy banner” of compositionism. He states that he could have used the label of constructivism to explain his theory, had it not already been taken by art history. Also on page 473, Latour admits: “Even though the word ‘composition’ is a bit too long and windy, what is nice is that it underlines things that have to be put together (Latin componere) while retaining their heterogeneity".
Composition as an alternative to critique
Throughout his work, Latour promotes composition over critique. Latour’s notion of critique is based on Immanuel Kant’s meaning of the word as a general acceptance of the gap between human and nonhuman. Latour states that “what performs a critique cannot also compose”. He argues that critique created the false Modernist binary between a world of appearances and a world of realities.
According to Latour, critique is based on gaining access to a supposed world of reality and truth behind this world of delusion. He states that the practice of critique hinders progress, using a metaphor of critique as a hammer which can break down the wall of appearances, but not necessarily reveal a world of reality beyond With this, Latour rhetorically asks, “What is the use of poking holes in delusions, if nothing truer is revealed beneath?”
At the heart of compositionism, is the denial of the discovery of a world of realities beyond. Instead, it propagates immanence, retrospectively turning inwards, as if there is nothing beyond the object to compare it to. Lecturer in the philosophy of science at the Department of Philosophy of the University of Amsterdam, Lukas Verburgt, considers compositionism as framing a new ontology with the prospect of a new common world.
Compositionism as an alternative to Modernism 
Verburgt notes that Latour’s An Attempt at a ‘Compositionist Manifesto’ can be perceived as a combination of his works, We Have Never Been Modern and Politics of Nature. This is because he extends his characterisation of the Modernist as the Great Divider, separating the world into two sectors, that of nature (non-human matters, lacking meaning) and society (human, embodying meaning). Latour describes this separation between the natural and the political, the scientific and the social, as the "Modernist Constitution". That is, where only human matters (culture and society) embody agency and generate meaning, whereas non-human matters (nature) are meaningless and succumb to the effects of human matters.
Compositionism, according to Latour, disregards the Modernist Constitution. Latour’s vision reflects an anthropomorphic world view in equating non-human entities to human entities. On page 484 of An Attempt at a ‘Compositionist Manifesto’, Latour argues: “We need to have a much more material, much more mundane, much more immanent, much more realistic, much more embodied definition of the material world if we wish to compose the common world".
Whilst the Modernist notion regarded politics and culture as matters of human concern that could be discussed, science and nature were perceived as indisputable facts. Latour states that for the compositionist, immanence and truth are desired together, that “there is nothing beyond dispute”. The solution to achieve closure, Latour suggests, is through the slow process of composition and compromise, taking into account both the practices of politics and rituals of science.
Creating networks through the act of composition
Latour explains the importance of networks between human and nonhuman entities in An Attempt at a ‘Compositionist Manifesto’. He describes that limiting agency to human subjectivity is archaic and dangerous Latour states the Naturalist view is to only give agency to culture and subject rather than nature and object. He denies that agency can only be exercised in the human domain of culture, believing that it is embodied in the nonhuman domain of nature too. In his view, “the proliferation of agencies is precisely what does not introduce any difference between humans and nonhumans”. He suggests the increase of disputability, augmented by scientific and technological controversies, has led to scientists, activists, and politicians alike acknowledging the agency of the nonhuman world. Compositionism, gives continuity and agency to all the elements and entities within the common world, both human and nonhuman, which Latour presents as the best way to progress in the world.
Bruno Latour’s essay, An Attempt at a ‘Compositionist Manifesto’ was written whilst he was a Professor at Sciences Po, Paris as demonstrated on page 488 of his work. In his endnote, Latour states that the paper was first written on the occasion of the reception of the Kulturpreis presented by the University of Munich on February 9, 2010. The essay has been released on Bruno Latour’s website with a link to the 2010, Volume 41, Number 3 edition of the academic journal New Literary History by John Hopkins University Press, where it is officially published.
An Attempt at a ‘Compositionist Manifesto’ has received attention from various academics and students.
Researchers from the Centre for Research in Digital Education at the University of Edinburgh, cite An Attempt at a ‘Compositionist Manifesto’ as an influence for creating their own ‘Manifesto for Teaching Online’ in 2011. They use it to demonstrate why the medium of a manifesto is still relevant in the 21st century. The authors agree with Latour’s idea of the transformative purpose of a manifesto as “a ‘call to attention’ rather than a call to arms”.
Additionally, the Compositionist Manifesto has also influenced the creation of ‘A Manifesto for Abundant Futures’, published by the Annals of the Association of American Geographers in 2015. The authors reveal how Latour’s work inspired their choice of medium of “the manifesto as a declarative format”. However, they critiqued Latour’s work, suggesting that “compositionism needs more political signposts or it risks becoming another future-oriented invocation of terra nullius.” Further, the authors reveal that Latour risks treating Western thought as a universal frame of reference, excluding the presence of radically different ontologies. They state it is necessary to pursue strategies of composing that promote ways of living together with radical difference.
An assistant professor of English at Saint Louis University, Paul Lynch, wrote a scholarly article, ‘Composition's New Thing: Bruno Latour and the Apocalyptic Turn’, with his thesis based off the Compositionist’s rejection of critique in pursuit of progress.
A journal article published by the University of Minnesota Press in 2012, draws on Latour's notion of composition in encouraging creative construction within digital humanities.
- Bruno Latour
- Similar works by Bruno Latour, 'Politics of Nature' and 'We Have Never Been Modern'
- "An Attempt at a Compositionist Manifesto | Anagram Books". Anagram Books. 2017.
- Latour, 2010, p. 474
- Bruno Latour, preface to Thinking with Whitehead: A Free and Wild Creation of Concepts, by Isabelle Stengers, trans. Michael Chase (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2011), x.
- "Professor Bruno Latour's Lecture on Politics and Religion: A Reading of Eric Voegelin: Bruno Latour's lecture on politics and religion". 27 July 2015. Retrieved 15 March 2018.
- Latour, 2010, p. 473
- Collard, R. C., Dempsey, J., & Sundberg, J., 2015, p. 323
- Latour, 2010, p.486
- Bayne and Ross, 2016, p.127
- Latour, 2010, p. 473-474
- Latour, 2010, p.488, endnote 8
- Latour, 2010, p. 475
- Mijland, 2013, p. 17
- Verburgt, Lukas (2010). "Radical (Work-Out) Pragmatism: Latour's Compositionist Manifesto".
- Latour, 2010, p.483
- Latour, 2010, p.484
- Latour, 2010, p.478
- Latour, 2010, p.485
- Latour, 2010, p. 488
- Collard et. al, 2015, p. 325
- Collard et. al, 2015, p. 326
- Lynch, 2012
- Bianco, 2012
- An Attempt at a Compositionist Manifesto | Anagram Books. (2017). Retrieved from http://www.anagrambooks.com/an-attempt-at-a-compositionist-manifesto
- Bayne, S., & Ross, J. (2016). Manifesto Redux: Making a teaching philosophy from networked learning research. In Proceedings of the 10th international conference on networked learning (pp. 120-128).
- Bianco, J. (2012). This Digital Humanities Which Is Not One. In Gold M. (Ed.), Debates in the Digital Humanities (pp. 96-112). University of Minnesota Press. Retrieved from https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5749/j.ctttv8hq
- Collard, R. C., Dempsey, J., & Sundberg, J. (2015). A manifesto for abundant futures. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 105(2), 322-330.
- Harper, A. (2014). What is Compositionism? [Blog]. Retrieved from https://alyssadharper.weebly.com/blog/what-is-compositionism
- Jnunzia. (2015). Reaction to “An Attempt at a ‘Compositionist Manifesto'” by Bruno Latour [Blog]. Retrieved from https://jenawrt205blog.wordpress.com/2015/10/19/reaction-to-an-attempt-at-a-compositionist-manifesto-by-bruno-latour/
- Latour, B. (2010). An Attempt at a "Compositionist Manifesto". New Literary History, 41(3), 471-490. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/40983881
- Latour, B. (2010). Steps Toward the Writing of a Compositionist Manifesto. Retrieved from http://www.bruno-latour.fr/node/140
- Lynch, P. (2012). Composition's New Thing: Bruno Latour and the Apocalyptic Turn. College English, 74(5), 458-476. Retrieved from https://www.jstor.org/stable/23212925
- Mijland, B. (2013). Bruno Latour's Political Ecology. Retrieved from https://repository.uvh.nl/uvh/bitstream/handle/11439/106/Master%20Thesis%20Mijland%20FINAL%20Version%20LQ.pdf?sequence=1
- Verburgt, L. (2010). Radical (Work-Out) Pragmatism: Latour’s Compositionist Manifesto [Blog]. Retrieved from https://lukasverburgt.wordpress.com/2010/08/19/radical-pragmatism-latours-compositionist-manifesto/
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