Optatio Reading Group: Latour’s “Compositionist Manifesto”

“The nuance I want to outline is that between progress and progressive. It is as if we had to move from an idea of inevitable progress to one of tentative and precautionary progression.”

“Compositionism takes up the task of searching for universality but without believing that this universality is already there, waiting to be unveiled and discovered …. 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.” (474)

“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.” (475)


In my reading, Latour makes the case for “compositionism” as an alternative approach to modernist notions of progress. A “compositionist” is one who puts things together from heterogeneous parts; but those parts don’t lose their partness, i.e., they “[retain] their heterogeniety” (474).

Observation is what seems to be called for in this piece, but not observation that presupposes or is agenda driven.  A kind of “searching” without “believing” (474). I wonder if it’s fair to say that Latour’s calling for an inquisitively skeptical stance with an epistemology rooted in composing and decomposing rather than a reactionary (loaded word, I know) critical stance with an epistemology rooted in mysticism and revelation.

Compositionists are reassemblers.  Compositionism searches for the successor to “nature”.

A key distinction Latour makes here is not whether things (like climate science) are constructed or not constructed; rather, the important point is how well or badly something (like climate science) is constructed.  Interesting potential application to composition studies.  I’m reminded of Johnson-Eilola and Selber’s “Plagiarism, Priginality, Assemblage” (2007) piece that argues for a reassessment of one of the most privileged tenets of in writing instruction, namely originality.  Is an essay full of original ideas or not?  That question might be subordinated to the question of whether an essay was composed well or not, irrespective of ideas that may be either original or reappropriated.

Latour continues with an examination of where Modernism finds (and doesn’t find) agency.  ” For purely anthropocentric—that is, political—reasons, naturalists have built their collective to make sure that subjects and objects, culture and nature remain utterly distinct, with only the former having any sort of agency.” (483)  Compositionists call for a more “material … mundane … immanent … realistic … embodied” (484) definition of the material world in order to “compose a common world.” (484)






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