Latour (1993): We Have Never Been Modern

We Have Never Been Modern We Have Never Been Modern by Bruno Latour

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This summary is probably going to be a bit flawed and definitely elides some of Latour’s critical moves. I really enjoyed reading this, and thought it was very insightful.

Latour starts his book with 1989: the fall of the Berlin Wall marked the triumph of capitalism over communism, and conferences on global climate and environment in Paris, London, and Amsterdam showed that our domination of nature was harmful. How do we respond in these times—to, in some ways, the failures of modernism? If liberation from the social (communism’s goal) was a failure, and the domination of nature was a failure, to put it simply, how do we respond? Latour articulates three responses: 1) the anti-modern response, which claims we should no longer attempt to end domination of humans and we must no longer try to dominate nature; 2) the postmodern response, which is skeptical of both of these reactions, “suspended between belief and doubt”; and 3) the modernist response, which “decide[s:] to carry on as if nothing has changed”—a response that “seems hesitant, sometimes even outmoded” (9).

Latour then moves to rearticulate modernism in order to understand it. Modernism, he argues, works through two practices: purification of nonhuman nature and human culture (these two things are seen as separate) and translation, which “creates mixtures between entirely new types of beings, hybrids of nature and culture” (10). Modernism works by keeping these two processes separate. Chapter two chronicles part of the development of modernism, Hobbes’s invention of politics and Boyle’s invention of science (“invention” being my perhaps too simple word to summarize this). Latour argues that these should not be viewed as two separate inventions, but rather as “one, a division of power between the two protagonists, to Hobbes, the politics and to Boyle, the sciences” (25)—the invention of “our modern world” (27).

Latour outlines the paradoxical guarantees of modernism:
1) “even though we construct Nature, Nature is as if we did not construct it”
2) “even though we do not construct Society, Society is as if we did construct it”
3) “Nature and Society must remain absolutely distinct: the work of purification must remain absolutely distinct from the work of mediation” (32)
4) God does not intervene in Nature or Society, but is nevertheless there, personal, and useful (32-33)

Latour concludes that “the modern Constitution allows the expanded proliferation of the hybrids whose existence, whose very possibility, it denies” (34). Thus, modernism and modern critique becomes invincible through its paradoxes (37): it can critique any view and dismiss it as “premodern” by using “the six resources of the modern critique” without admitting that these resources are paradoxical (38).

Latour goes on to argue that “No one has ever been modern” (47) and proposes instead a “nonmodern” (not to be mistaken for antimodern) view that “takes simultaneously into account the moderns’ Constitution and the populations of hybrids that that Constitution rejects and allows to proliferate” (47).

Chapter 3 introduces Latour’s concept of “quasi-objects,” those “strange new hybrids” that the modern Constitution denies exist (51). To just briefly summarize Latour’s arguments in this chapter: we need to stop understanding modernism as some great, revolutionary break from the past; Nature and Society need to be explained together rather than used as explanatory terms (81); we should instead focus on the historicity of quasi-objects (85), which allow us to trace networks (89).

Chapter 4 proposes Latour’s “principle of symmetry” that argues that both Nature and Society need to be explained, but that this “explanation starts from quasi-objects”—that is, we cannot use Nature and Society to explain things; rather, Nature and Society need to be explained through quasi-objects, through networks (95).

In Chapter 5, Latour proposes what we need to keep and what we need to jettison from various thoughts. From modernism, we can keep quite a bit, but we must leave behind the purification of Nature and Society. From “premoderns” we can keep their hybridization and multiplication of nonhumans (132-133). Latour then proposes that we view human as “A weaver of morphisms,” a creator of hybrids or quasi-objects (137). Latour’s discussion of nonmodern focuses largely on his important point, that we focus on hybrids, replacing the modern “clandestine proliferation of hybrids” and instead focus on regulating and agreeing upon certain productions of these hybrids in democratic ways (142).

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One Response to Latour (1993): We Have Never Been Modern

  1. yossale says:

    Thanks! I’m just reading the book now, and I your summary has been very helpful in helping me frame some of its points.

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