Have we ever been modern?

Reading Bruno Latour, for me, is like deciphering a code. I have to re-read Greek mythology, re-formulate the typical associations to words I create, and start to re-understand the world.  But this is a good thing.  After finishing We Have Never Been Modern just recently, I felt compelled to jot down some notes, quotes, and subsequent thoughts.

Latour’s central thesis is that the modern “project” never existed.  The creation of disciplines and spheres of nature and society, science and politics, only create moderns who practice obscurantism to eclipse the full realization of the hybridity and networked character of the world.

“By all means, they seem to say, let us not mix up knowledge, interest, justice and power. Let us not mix up heaven and earth, the global stage and the local scene, the human and the nonhuman. ‘But these imbroglios do the mixing,’ you’ll say, ‘they weave our world together!’ ‘Act as if they didn’t exist,’ the analysts reply. They have cut the Gordian knot with a well-honed sword. The shaft is broken: on the left, they have put knowledge of things; on the right, power and human politics”. (3)

Speaking to the work of scholars of science studies or science, technology & Society (STS), Latour says:

“Whatever label we use, we are always attempting to retie the Gordian knot by crisscrossing, as often as we have to, the divide that separates exact knowledge and the exercise of power – let us say nature and culture. Hybrids ourselves, installed lopsidedly within scientific institutions, half engineers and half philosophers, ‘tiers instruits’ (Serres, 1991) without having sought the role, we have chosen to follow the imbroglios wherever they take us. To shuttle back and forth, we rely on the notion of translation, or network. More supple than the notion of system, more historical than the notion of structure, more empirical than the notion of complexity, the idea of network is the Ariadne’s thread of these interwoven stories” (3).

Latour explains the work that STS scholars do through interrogating some claims, namely,  positivistic, instrumental science, and that it’s not just about politics, not just about discourse, texts, languages and rhetorics, as many studies of constructionism or critical approaches often do. He explains further that modern thought masks their understanding of the world, of hybrids, using the ideas of naturalization, socialization, or deconstruction, individually.  But its not that easy.

“Yes, the scientific facts are indeed constructed, but they cannot be reduced to the social dimension because this dimension is populated by objects mobilized to construct it. Yes, those objects are real but they look so much like social actors that they cannot be reduced to the reality ‘out there’ invented by the philosophers of science. The agent of this double construction – science with society and society with science – emerges out of a set of practices that the notion of deconstruction grasps as badly as possible. The ozone hole is too social and too narrated to be truly natural; the strategy of industrial firms and heads of state is too full of chemical reactions to be reduced to power and interest; the discourse of the ecosphere is too real and too social to boil down to meaning effects. Is it our fault if the networks are simultaneously real, like nature, narrated, like discourse, and collective, like society? Are we to pursue them while abandoning all the resources of criticism, or are we to abandon them while endorsing the common sense of the critical tripartition? ” (6)

I have been intrigued by the question Latour poses: “what does it mean to be modern?” Modernity, postmodernity, premodernity, ancients all assume some sort of linear development through time, as I see it. Latour discusses this in terms of the “double task of domination and emancipation,” and the two sets of practices and designations to which ‘modern’ points. He points to the first set of practices, ‘translation’,  creates “mixtures between entirely new types of beings, hybrids of nature and culture. The second, by ‘purification’, creates two entirely distinct ontological zones: that of human beings on the one hand; that of nonhumans on the other. Without the first set, the practices of purification would be fruitless or pointless. Without the second, the work of translation would be slowed down, limited, or even ruled out. The first set corresponds to what I have called networks; the second to what I shall call the modern critical stance”  (10-11).

Latour is attempting to unravel the creation of distinctions which abstract our thoughts into separate spheres, either as nature or culture, and posits that there is no such divide, but rather there are hybrids or ‘nature-cultures’ which better describe reality. So the crisis he is teasing out is inherent in Enlightenment thinking, in the ascent to Modernity, and thus it unravels the traditions of science so blessed and heavenly in Western thought and politics. So what then constitutes modern man and things? He refers to the modern constitution in this metaphorical way:  “Just as the constitution of jurists defines the rights and duties of citizens and the State, the working of justice and the transfer of power, so this Constitution – which I shall spell with a capital C to distinguish it from the political ones – defines humans and nonhumans, their properties and their relations, their abilities and their groupings”. (15)

As an illustrious example Latour discusses Shapin & Schaffer’s Leviathan  to exemplify the co-production of science and society: “questions of epistemology are also questions of social order,” he says. Further,  Latour explains that Boyle appealed not to logical (apodeictic) reasoning, but rather to assertions of common opinion (doxa), for gaining legitimacy. The battle between Boyle and Hobbes for claiming a place for science in society was situated in the world such that politics and science were one. Not merely interacting, but co-produced.  Latour explains this also as the birth of modern science, at the break of society and nature: “Instead of seeking to ground his work in logic, mathematics or rhetoric, Boyle relied on a parajuridical metaphor: credible, trustworthy, well-to-do witnesses gathered at the scene of the action can attest to the existence of a fact, the matter of fact, even if they do not know its true nature. So he invented the empirical style that we still use today (Shapin, 1 984)”.  (18).

In a particularly lucid description of constructionism and co-production, Latour explains the essence of Shapin and Schaffer’s text:

‘Les faits sont faits’: ‘Facts are fabricated,’ as Gaston Bachelard would say. But are facts that have been constructed by man artifactual for that reason ? No: for Boyle, just like Hobbes, extends God’s ‘constructivism’to man. God knows things because He creates them (Funkenstein, 1986).We know the nature of the facts because we have developed them in circumstances that are under our complete control. Our weakness becomes a strength, provided that we limit knowledge to the instrumentalized nature of the facts and leave aside the interpretation of causes. Once again, Boyle turns a flaw – we produce only matters of fact that are created in laboratories and have only local value – into a decisive advantage: these facts will never be modified, whatever may happen elsewhere in theory, metaphysics, religion, politics or logic. (18)

Latour points to the importance of non-human actors in his retelling of the Boyle and Hobbes story. By separating science from religion and politics, as Boyle did, separating it from the universal that Hobbes wished for, Boyle created a new network where “universals” could be created. It was in this network that the knowledge was situated, but eventually crossed the boundaries of science.  Further, Latour critiques Shapin and Schaffer for not adequately addressing the “social” context, or what is the object/subject? What is the political context of the time? Latour lays this critique as a dig at the social constructivist tradition in Edinburgh: “Trained in the framework of the social study of sciences, they seem to accept the limitations imposed by the Edinburgh school: if all questions of epistemology are questions of social order, this is because, when all is said and done, the social context contains as one of its subsets the definition of what counts as good science. Such an asymmetry renders Shapin and Schaffer less well equipped to deconstruct the macro-social context than Nature ‘out there’. They seem to believe that a society ‘up there’ actually exists, and that it accounts for the failure of Hobbes’s programme”. (26)

What then are we to do about visioning society as an entity in its own? Are we not doomed to say the the social never existed? The examples of Boyle and Hobbes is used explicitly for its importance to the modern project. For Latour, these historical actors mark the start of the modern world: “Boyle is not simply creating a scientific discourse while Hobbes is doing the same thing for politics; Boyle is creating a political discourse from which politics is to be excluded, while Hobbes is imagining a scientific politics from which experimental science has to be excluded. In other words, they are inventing our modern world, a world in which the representation of things through the intermediary of the laboratory is forever dissociated from the representation of citizens through the intermediary of the social contract (27)….Here lies the entire modern paradox. If we consider hybrids, we are dealing only with mixtures of nature and culture; if we consider the work of purification, we confront a total separation between nature and culture. It is the relation between these two tasks that I am seeking to understand. While both Boyle and Hobbes are meddling in politics and religion and technology and morality and science and law, they are also dividing up the tasks to the extent that the one restricts himself to the science of things and the other to the politics of men”. (30)

Latour seems to be setting up his actor-network theory by critiquing the divides inherently placed in the “modern Constitution”. He is claiming that it renders the work of mediation invisible, it covers up the necessary hybrid nature and the work “down below”.  By making the idea of hybrids unthinkinable or unrepresentable, it allows the expansion and proliferation of hybrids. “By playing three times in a row on the same alternation between transcendence and immanence, the moderns can mobilize Nature, objectify the social, and feel the spiritual presence of God, even while firmly maintaining that Nature escapes us, that Society is our own work, and that God no longer intervenes”. (34)

Another particularly interesting point that Latour makes invokes a critique/praise of Marx.  In this passage, Latour suggests that questioning the Enlightenment aspirations was a mark of understanding the contradictions of the Modern Constitution:

“Marxism realized – and finished off, as was soon to become clear – all the hopes of the first Enlightenment, along with all those of the second. The first distinction between material causality and the illusions of obscurantism, like the second distinction between science and ideology, still remain the two principal sources of modern indignation today, even though our contemporaries can no longer close off discussion in Marxist fashion, and even though their critical capital  as now been disseminated into the hands of millions of small shareholders. Anyone who has never felt this dual power vibrate within, anyone who has never been obsessed by the distinction between rationality and obscurantism, between false ideology and true science, has never been modern (36)…The critical power of the moderns lies in this double language: they can mobilize Nature at the heart of social relationships, even as they leave Nature infinitely remote from human beings; they are free to make and unmake their society, even as they render its laws ineluctable, necessary and absolute” (37).

Latour suggests that a new constitution is necessary, one that is amodern, or nonmodern. It allows for an anthropology of the modern world and its materiality.  The dualism that exists between objects and subjects, nature and society, is problematic, and instead Latour suggests analyzing the world through understanding quasi-objects/subjects.  We can neither concede to the spheres of knowledge creation and power that are the modern epistemologies; nor can we say everything is a product of social relations, of society; nor can we do the same for the “soft” or “hard” social categories. The social studies of science began to unravel this problematic of modernism “[b]y disturbing the dualist pack of cards, [they] revealed the complete asymmetry of the first and second denunciations, and they also revealed – at least negatively – how badly constructed were the social theory as well as the epistemology that went with those denunciations. Society is neither that strong nor that weak; objects are neither that weak nor that strong. The double position of objects and society had to be entirely rethought” (54-55).

For Latour, the basis of the modern critique, in dialectics, for example, reified the modern constitution by operating within it, creating more difficulties in unraveling the boundaries of science and politics, and obfuscating the practices of mediation and translation.  This is an essential argument of Latour: that the proliferation of hybrids created by the Moderns was a necessity for their authority, yet they denied their existence.   “How did the modern manage to specify and cancel out the work of mediation both at once ? By conceiving every hybrid as a mixture of two pure forms. The modern explanations consisted in splitting the mixtures apart in order to extract from them what came from the subject (or the social) and what came from the object. Next they multiplied the intermediaries in order to reconstruct the unity they had broken and wanted none the less to retrieve through blends of pure forms. So these operations of analysis and synthesis always had three aspects: a preliminary purification, a divided separation, and a progressive reblending” (76).

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Time becomes a marker of modernization. Only with modernization, the Modern Constituiton do we seize to link nature and culture as did the pre-moderns or ancients. But for Latour its deeper. We must have never been modern. “The asymmetry between nature and culture then becomes an asymmetry between past and future. The past was the confusion of things and men; the future is what will no longer confuse them. Modernization consists in continually exiting from an obscure age that mingled the needs of society with scientific truth, in order to enter into a new age that will finally distinguish clearly what belongs to a temporal nature and what comes from humans, what depends on things and what belongs to signs (71)… We have never moved either forward or backward. We have always actively sorted out elements belonging to different times. We can still sort. It is the sorting that makes the times, not the times that make the sorting. Modernism – like its anti- and postmodern corollaries – was only the provisional result of a selection made by a small number of agents in the name of all “(76).

Latour explains also that the modern constitution operates in a manner that simultaneously relies on the transcendence and immanence of the two poles of Nature and Society.   He secedes to the position of poles, but explains that “[t]he modern Constitution is therefore correct: there is indeed an abyss between Nature and Society, but this abyss is only a delayed result of stabilization. The only abyss that counts separates the work of mediation from the constitutional formatting, but this abyss becomes – owing to the very proliferation of hybrids – a continuous gradient that we are able to traverse as soon as we become once again what we have never stopped being: nonmoderns” (88).

But what are we to do if not delve into relativism? Real as Nature, narrated as Discourse, collective as Society, existential as Being: such are the quasi-objects that the moderns have caused to proliferate. As such it behoves us to pursue them, while we simply become once more what we have never ceased to be: amoderns” (90).

In the final two chapters, Latour lays out a methodology for understanding the world of hybrids, and presents the amodern Constitution in juxtaposition to the modern one.  The principle of symmetry, he describes, “proposes a slimming treatment for the explanations of errors offered by social scientists. It had become so easy to account for deviation! Society, beliefs, ideology, symbols, the unconscious, madness – everything was so readily available that explanations were becoming obese. But truths? When we lost our facile recourse to epistemological breaks, we soon realized, we who study the sciences, that most of our explanations were not worth much.  Asymmetry organized them all, and simply added insult to injury. Everything changes if the staunch discipline of the principle of symmetry forces us to retain only the causes that could serve both truth and falsehood, belief and knowledge, science and parascience. Those who weighed the winners with one scale and the losers with another, while shouting ‘vae victis!’ (woe to the vanquished), like Brennus, made that discrepancy incomprehensible up to now. When the balance of symmetry is reestablished with precision, the discrepancy that allows us to understand why some win and others lose stands out all the more sharply”(93-94).

Anthropology, Latour (and Callon) suggest needs to absorb the principle of generalized symmetry, which has to do with the position of the researcher, such that she can follow the attribution of both human (society) and non-human (nature) properties; or in other words, the anthropologist must deal with quasi-objects to understand nature and society.  One cannot “use external reality to explain society, or to use power games to account for what shapes external reality…{nor should he} alternate natural realism and sociological realism by using ‘not only’ Nature ‘but also’ Society…then comparative anthropology becomes possible, if not easy. It compares natures-cultures” (96).

Through a process of purification, and perpetrated in an external narrative, the West presents itself as those who have finally distinguished between the world of facts and the world of values, the world of materiality and the world of spirituality, and the world of objectivity and the world of subjectivity.    In the laboratory, in practice, there is an ever expanding integration of facts and value, which is the internal narrative.  How can the West live like this? Is this modernization? It is definitely the separation between Us and Them, as Latour states.  He explains further: “It is the transcendence of science – conflated with Nature – that makes it possible to relativize all cultures, theirs and ours alike – with the one caveat, of course, that it is precisely our culture, not theirs, that is constructed through biology, electronic microscopes and telecommunication networks . . . . The abyss that was to supposed to be narrowing opens up again”(98).

So then, how do we study the values of practices through actions? Latour suggests using the phrase “mode(s) of existence”  (this talk is great), which gets again to the notion of understanding the world through a symmetrical anthropology. ” But the very notion of culture is an artifact created by bracketing Nature off. Cultures – different or universal – do not exist, any more than Nature does. There are only natures-cultures, and these offer the only possible basis for comparison. As soon as we take practices of mediation as well as practices of purification into account, we discover that the moderns do not separate humans from nonhumans any more than the ‘others’ totally superimpose signs and things” (104).

Latour is attempting to do away with relativism, to solve the issue that problematizes an amodern/nonmodern stance.  In doing so he acknowledges the difficulty and extends that collectives (of humans and nonhumans in symmetrical anthropology) can be different in size and have different scopes for mobilization. “Modern knowledge and power are different not in that they would escape at last the tyranny of the social, but in that they add many more hybrids in order to recompose the social /ink and extend its scale… At each turn in the spiral, a new translation of quasi-objects gives new impetus to the redefinition of the social body, of subjects and objects alike. Sciences and technologies, for ‘Us’, do not reflect society any more than Nature reflects social structures for ‘Them’. No one is fiddling with mirrors. It is a matter of constructing collectives themselves on scales that grow larger and larger. There are indeed differences, but they are differences in size. There are no differences in nature – still less in culture” (109)Latour is bringing together science and politics through hybrids connected in relations, in networks, never to be relativized or granted transcendent or immanent status. He plays with the local/global dialectic to illustrate this as well as to explain ways of studying the world through actor-networks, by obsessing with the connection, with the mediations, and moving away from meta-physics from studying from above or below:  “Where are we, then ? Where do we land ? As long as we keep asking that question, we are unmistakably in the modern world, obsessed with the construction of one immanence [immanere: to reside in] or the deconstruction of another. We still remain – to use the old word – within metaphysics. Now by traversing these networks, we do not come to rest in anything particularly homogeneous. We remain, rather, within an infra-physics. Are we immanent, then, one force among others, texts among other texts, one society among other societies, being among beings ? (128)” Latour is explaining the equivalence of agents and actors, humans and non-humans in networks, but also redefining the locus on anthropological investigation: to nature-cultures, object-subjects, and their relations. This is how he supposes we can surpass relativism. He says, deliberating on symmetrical anthropology, “If on the contrary, we compare the translation work of collectives, we make symmetrical anthropology possible, and we dispel the false problems of absolute relativism. But we also deprive ourselves of the resources developed by the moderns: the Social, Nature, Discourse – not to mention the crossed-out God. This is the ultimate difficulty of relativism : now that comparison has become possible, in what common space do all collectives, producers of natures and societies, find themselves equally immersed ?” (126) This question needs an answer. Latour suggests that a “relativist relativism – or, to put it more elegantly, relationism –  relationism… will become one of the essential resources for relating the collectives that will no longer be targets for modernization. Relationism will serve as an organon for planetary negotiations over the relative universals that we are groping to construct” (114).

The Social  is no different than Nature in this respect; it gets treated the same, and it must be understood as a agent in a network. Power, Class, Authority, Domination, etc, cannot be given transcendental or immanent values, they mustn’t. It is an essential flaw that Latour describes in radical political philosophies. In creating enemies that are endowed with the power legitimated to them through the critique! In Latourian fashion, then, we can ascribe agency to the oppressed in the face of authority and domination through understanding its context and contingency,one in which it is granted authority through some sort of “decontextualized rationality”.

“The myth of the soulless, agentless bureauracy, like that of the pure and perfect marketplace, offers the mirror-image of the myth of universal scientific laws. Instead of the continual progression of an inquiry, the moderns have imposed an ontological difference as radical as the sixteenth-century differentiation between the supralunar worlds that knew neither change nor uncertainty. (The same physicists had a good laugh with Galileo at that ontological distinction – but then they rushed to reestablish it in order to protect the laws of physics from social corruption ! )… An organization, a market, an institution, are not supralunar objects made of a different matter from our poor local sublunar relations (Cambrosio et al. 1990). The only difference stems from the fact that they are made up of hybrids and have to mobilize a great number of objects for their description. The capitalism of Karl Marx or Fernand Braudel is not the total capitalism of the Marxists (Braudel, 1 98 5 ) . It is a skein of somewhat longer networks that rather inadequately embrace a world on the basis of points that become centres of profit and calculation. … One can follow the growth of an organization in its entirety without ever changing levels and without ever discovering ‘decontextualized’ rationality. The very size of a totalitarian State is obtained only by the construction of a network of statistics and calculations, of offices and inquiries, which in no way corresponds to the fantastic topography of the total State (Desrosieres, 1 990) ….  (121) 

Our misdeeds can be compared to our access to Nature: we must not exaggerate their causes even as we measure their effects, for that exaggeration itself would be the cause of greater crimes. Every totalization, even if it is critical, helps totalitarianism. We need not add total domination to real domination. Let us not add power to force. We need not grant total imperialism to real imperialism. We need not add absolute deterritorialization to capitalism, which is also quite real enough (Deleuze and Guattari, [ 1 972] 1 983). Similarly, we do not need to credit scientific truth and technological efficacity with transcendence, also total, and rationality, also absolute. With misdeeds as with domination, with capitalisms as with sciences, what we need to understand is the ordinary dimension : the small causes and their large effects (Arendt, 1 963 ; Mayer, 1 98 8 ) . (125)

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For me, this is good enough. I appreciate his exuberant critique, but his dedication towards a new constitution of amoderns, a new symmetrical anthropology, delves into a place that feels obscure. I’m sure this is precisely because of Modernity!  I am disciplined to the disciplines of science, and relegated my culture to the sphere society, distinct from one another. I am not sure I have a better answer than Latour though, my critique is one of moving foward, of application of actor-networks or a “new Constitution” or with symmetrical anthropology. It is however, insightful to start from a new place, with a new constitution to better understand the messy world we live in, one that often fields as obdurate as it does malleable, as static and fixed as it does dynamic and fluid.  His “Parliament of Things” perhaps provides the best answer:

“In its confines, the continuity of the collective is reconfigured. There are no more naked truths, but there are no more naked citizens, either. The mediators have the whole space to themselves. The Enlightenment has a dwelling-place at last. Natures are present, but with their representatives, scientists who speak in their name. Societies are present, but with the objects that have been serving as their ballast from time immemorial. Let one of the representatives talk, for instance, about the ozone hole, another represent the Monsanto chemical industry, a third the workers of the same chemical industry, another the voters of New Hampshire, a fifth the meteorology of the polar regions; let still another speak in the name of the State; what does it matter, so long as they are all talking about the same thing, about a quasi-object they have all created, the object-discourse-nature-society whose new properties astound us all and whose network extends from my refrigerator to the Antarctic by way of chemistry, law, the State, the economy, and satellites. The imbroglios and networks that had no place now have the whole place to themselves. They are the ones that have to be represented; it is around them that the Parliament of Things gathers henceforth. ‘It was the stone rejected by the builders that became the keystone’ (Mark 1 2 : 1 0 ) . However, we do not have t o create this Parliament out o f whole cloth, by calling for yet another revolution. We simply have to ratify what we have always done, provided that we reconsider our past, provided that we understand retrospectively to what extent we have never been modern, and provided that we rejoin the two halves of the symbol broken by Hobbes and Boyle as a sign of recognition. Half of our politics is constructed in science and technology. The other half of Nature is constructed in societies. Let us patch the two back together, and the political task can begin again. (144).


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  1. chris

    I’m a new Latour devotee- loved Reassembling the social. I’ll send ti to you.

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