Somewhere or other I came across the comment that according to Latour the most popular book is the best book and the most popular theory is the true theory. This represents a profound misunderstanding of what Latour is getting at with his concept of trials of strength. Remember that for Latour something is real if it is resistant. Reality, for Latour– and I’m still trying to figure out where I come down on this –consists of gradients of resistance. Some things have a high degree of resistance, some do not and are easily toppled or shattered.

In order to understand what Latour is getting at with his concept of “trials of strength”, it’s worthwhile to first begin with nonhuman examples because these examples are less normatively charged. If the evocation of nonhuman examples is warranted, then this is because Latour takes himself to be presented a generalized ontology in Irreductions that holds equally for human and nonhuman actors. When I was young, I loved to build things. I built all sorts of things. Tree forts, bridges, etc., etc., etc. A bridge built across a creek– where the creek is fifteen or twenty feet across –poses special issues where a trial of strength among forces is concerned. This is especially the case of the creek floods every Spring when the ice thaws. There are two primary gradients of resistance with which the wood and design of the bridge must struggle: On the one hand, there is the force of gravity. On the other hand, there is the force of the flowing water. In its turn, the wood itself is a force, generating a gradient of resistance for the water.

Now one way of engineering a bridge, especially for a twelve year old child that knows little about principles of engineering, is simply to nail plywood across two parallel 2″x2″ boards or studs and then lay this platform across the creek. There are two problems with this strategy (which is the first strategy other children in the neighborhood adopted when building a bridge across the creek). First, this strategy will not prove particularly effective in standing up against the force of gravity. When you walk across such a bridge it will bow downward in the middle, perhaps breaking or dipping underneath the flowing water of the creek.

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The more significant problem is that when the creek floods during rainstorms or the Spring thaw, the bridge will be carried away by the turbulent waters and likely destroyed. Indeed, this is what prompted Sean and I to build a new bridge. Our strategy in this trial of strength was different. First we bored holes in two twelve inch in circumference logs. Then we posted long, strong posts in these two logs. In this way we fashioned for ourselves very heavy and sturdy hammers. We used these hammers to drive 2″x2″ pilings into the bed of the creek at intervals of every four feet, parallel to one another. We then connected these pilings by 2″x2″ studs, perpendicular or across the pilings in the style of Stonehenge. This added extra resistance to the pilings. We then attached all these pilings to one another with boards along parallel lines three feet above the water, attaching all the supports to one another and to either shore of the creek. Across these pilings we nailed 2″x2″ boards at 1/4″ intervals as a surface to walk on.

This assemblage or construction was particularly effective because it could prevail in trials of strength over gravity by virtue of the supports driven into the bed of the creek and because it could prevail in trials of strength over the Spring thaw and rains by virtue of the fact that it was secured deep in the creek bed and by virtue of being raised well above the water allowing the water to easily pass underneath and around the supports without sweeping the bridge away. And indeed, when I had the opportunity to visit the home of my childhood once again five years ago, that bridge was still there, after about twenty years. So far it has been highly successful in trials of strength.

I have chosen the example of a nonhuman actor to illustrate the concepts of gradients of resistance, force, and trials of strength is a question of construction and how things hang together, not a question of might makes right, or popularity makes true. Trials of strength are questions of work, structure, and endurance. It is a question of how things are built. This is not construction in the sense of “social construction”, but quite literally is genuine construction, genuine building, genuine relations among forces.

Returning to the issues of literature and theories, it is not the popularity of a work of literature or a theory that defines its reality. Take a mathematical theorem. There might be only a handful of people in the entire world capable of proving or understanding the theorem. There might only be only a few people in the entire world that know the theorem exists. However, the theorem is no less real for all this. Like the bridge, the reality of the theorem, its gradient of resistance, is not a function of whether or not people actually use it, but of how well it stands up and how well it is able to endure. It is a question of how well the bridge is able to marshal forces in the course of its ongoing adventure. Similarly, a well formed mathematical theorem is an extremely strong entity that is very difficult to take apart. Once the theorem has been built there is a tight relationship between the premises and the solution that requires a great deal of work or labor to undo if, in fact, it can be undone at all.

So too in the case of a theory. It is not the agreement of many people that makes a theory a strong actor. Rather, like the pilings driven into the bed of the creek, the supports placed across these pilings, the nails, the planks, and so on, the strength of a theory is a function of the experimental evidence, the nonhuman actors, a theory is capable of enlisting to resist forces that would demolish the endo-consistency of the theory. Take the example of Einstein. Einstein’s theory of general relativity imagined an object that no one had ever yet conceived: black holes. Although relativity successfully explained and predicted many phenomena that had been vexing scientists, it wasn’t until the seventies– if memory serves me correctly –that we began discovering actual black holes. The observation of black holes through the curvature of light in their vicinity as well as the acceleration of stars in their vicinity strengthened the theory of relativity tremendously. The ability to predict an entity that no one had never before conceived or observed and then find it was like adding a diagonal plank between the pilings (triangles and angles being one of the strongest forms of support in engineering) of the bridge, increasing its resistance to gravity and the pressure of water even more. At this point, Einstein’s theory of general relativity is so strong that despite the fact that 96% of the matter needed to explain the speed of stars on the outer arms of galaxies is missing, we are still loath to surrender the theory of general relativity. This strength is not a function of many people agreeing with it– it is a comparable handful of people in the world that fully understand it –but of all the nonhuman actors the theory has been able to enlist to strengthen it, rendering it highly resistant to alternative theories.

Finally the case is similar in literature. The thesis that the best selling novel is the best novel fails to attend to the manner in which endurance is one of the crucial dimensions of reality or strength. To be sure, most people prefer Dean R. Kuntz to Joyce (and especially Joyce’s later works). However, the comparative popularity of Dean R. Kuntz compared to Finnegan’s Wake is not what establishes the reality of the object. Kuntz’ novel Intensity, while perhaps enjoyable, has very little staying power and very easily passes out of existence. However, when speaking of works like Homer’s Illiad, Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, we are talking of works that are like a well built bridge, somehow clearly carrying traces of the historical setting out of which they emerged but also having the capacity to transcendent that historical setting, to resonate like two strings of a guitar against one another producing differences in other historical settings, never, somehow, becoming cliches in the way that Kuntz’ mustached Scotch drinking heroes seem to immediately embody the cliche of the Reagan era, faux-sophisticate 80s man that loses our interest when this time passes. There is something here about how the language holds together, the thought holds together, the themes hold together, that give these works high gradients of resistance to dissolution. Indeed, it is the resistance we encounter in reading the work, the difficulty of navigating them, the richness of their multi-stratified and resonating diverse meanings that functions as an index of their strength or their ability to resonate in multiple changing historical settings like the cone of Bergson’s memory without losing their originality. They are like the art of pantomime, in a strange way, where the good pantomime manages to extract the pure event of a particular action from its causal context such that it becomes capable of appearing in any context as a singularity. The greatness of these works, their strength, does not lie in the attitudes people have towards it– like coffee one has to learn how to read Joyce and at first it is painful –but rather in the sturdiness of the construction that allows it to endure.

I suspect that part of the reason people arrive at the conclusion that trials of strength is equivalent to the claim that the most popular is the real, the true, and the good, lies in the confusion of the real with attitudes people have towards the real. However, this would be correlationism. It is not our attitude towards a thing that makes it real. Category theory is no less real because only a handful of people only know it exists. Its reality lies in its endo-consistency, not the exo-relation between us and that endo-consistency.