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We Have Never Been Modern

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Bruno LatourEdit

Latour (b. 1947) is a French sociologist and anthropolgist, particular in the field of science studies. His thought has heavily influenced the fied of STS (Science, Technology, Society) Studies, and he has been one of the developers of the powerfully influential concept actor-network theory (ANT). His influence can be found in writers such as Mol, Law, Parikka, Haraway and others. He taught at the École des Mines de Paris from `982-2006, and now hold position as Professor and vice-president of research at the Institut d'études politiques de Paris.

While his early work (such as Laboratory Life) has been associated with social constructionist stances, his later diverge to a more symbiotic understanding between science and the social. Latour is considered to be one of the most-cited intellectuals in the humanities/social sciences.

We Have Never Been Modern [French: 1991 | English: 1993]Edit

In the beginning of his book We Have Never Been Modern, Latour asks the reader to consider why we endlessly break apart society and nature in our discussions, “the knowledge of things from power and human politics” (3). Unpacking this tendency of thoughts and organization, Latour suggests that in our disciplines, we are always trying to cross the divide that separates “exact knowledge and the exercise of power” (3) and we require metaphors of translation and networks to make these moves. Critics tend to have 3 methods for understanding the world (naturalization—biofacts; socialization—power; deconstruction—discourse) but networks must be instead understood as simultaneously “real, like nature, narrated, like discourse, and collective, like society” (6).

For Latour, networks are preferred because they are:
more supple than systems
more historical than structure
more empirical than complexity

Latour also refuses any idea that science studies is merely a cultural and political contextualization of science practice, but rather is about the involvement of social contexts and power relations with collectives and objects (collectives being associations of humans and non-humans, i.e. objects and animals; terms like society designate only the human part of a collective, a distinction made by social scientists). “Rhetoric, textual strategies, writing, staging, semiotics—all these are really at stake, but in a new form that has a simultaneous impact on the nature of things and on the social context, while it is not reducible to one or the other” (5).


Latour's book is largely a rumination on the phenomenon of modernity and how to create for ourselves a nonmodern world by ending the divide between social life and natural life. Latour suggests that 1989 was a year that makes it possible to look back and propose this, as both the fall of socialism and the first global summits showed us the error of believing everything is reducible to man or nature can be tamed and mastered through our knowledge of it. Postmodernism is a symptom of modernity's flaws, retaining the structure but dispersing the distinctions. While they are right to practice polytemporality, they "are wrong to retain the framework and to keep on believing in the requirement of continual novelty that modernism demanded" (74). .

Latour explains the structure of modernism as two zones of separated knowledge (humans/nonhumans, social world/natural world) that rely on a method of purification, while immense hybrids exist under the mantle of the human/nonhuman distinction. For moderns, there is no mapping one upon the other; modernity exists because the hybrids are recognized as small, purely intermediaries, and always reducible to the nature/social binary (even though it is the proliferation of these hybrids that allows for the purification model to thrive). However, once we recognize these as clearly related, we cease to be modern. As soon as one outlines the symmetrical space and thereby reestablishes the common understanding that organizes the seperation of natural and political powers, one cease to be modern.

Latour refers to this structure as a set of two paradoxes:

Paradox 1: Nature is not our construction, but rather transcendant, yet society is our construction and is immanent in our action

Paradox 2: Nature is immanent, we construct it in a lab; society is not out construction, it is bio-fact that transcends us.

These two paradoxes produce a Constitution wherein:

1. Nature is as if we didn't construct it, even though we do

2. Society is as if we did construct it, even though we didn't

3. nature and society must remain distinct; any mediation between the two must eventually be process through purification.

Thus, "Everything happens in the middle, everything passes between the two, everything happens by way of mediation, translation and networks, but this space does not exist, it has no place. It is the unthinkable, the unconscious of the moderns" (37). Out of this infinite double speak, and careful negation of its very capacity for existence, modernity (in the mode of colonialism, esp.) becomes impossible to defy. The opposition of Society and Nature is the Great Divide. "As the moderns also extended this Great Divide in time after extending it in space, they felt themselves absolutely free to give up following the ridiculous constrainst of their past which required them to take into account the delicate web of relations between things and people" (39).

"I am not claiming that the moderns are unaware of what they do, I am simply saying that what they do--innovate on a large scale in the production of hybrids--is possible only because they steadfastly hold to the absolute dichotomy which is itself possible on because they never consider the work of purification and that of mediation together. There is no false consciousness involved, since the moderns are explicit about the two tasks. They have to practice the top and the bottom halves of the modern Constitution. The only thing I add is the relation between those two different sets of practices" (40).

Because the proliferation of hybrids saturates the Constitutional framework of the moderns, moderns become victim of their own success and Latour sees the possibility for dropping the idea of the Constitution. Quasi-objects become possible: "By trying the impossible task of providing social explanations for hard scientific facts--after generations of social scientists had tried either to denounce 'soft' facts or to use hard sciences uncritically--science studies have forced everyone to rethink anew the role of objects in the construction of collectives, thus challenging philosophy" (55).

Time and HistoryEdit

Revolution is an idea invented to "explain the emergence of hybrids that their Constitution simultaneously forbids and allows, and in order to avoid another monster: the notion that things themselves have a history" (70).

"Modernizing progress is thinkable only on condition that all the elements that are contemporary according to the calendar belong to the same time [...] this beautiful order is disturbed once the quasi-objects are seen as mixing up different periods, ontologies or genres. [...] Instead of a fine laminary flow, we will most often get a turbulent flow of whirlpools and rapids" (73). For as Latour writes of our polytemporal experiences with things:

"I may use an electric drill, but I also use a hammer. The former is thirty-five years old, the latter hundreds of thousands. [...] show me an activity that is homogenous from the point of view of the modern time. Some of my genes are 500 million years old, others 3 milliong, others 100,000 years, and by habits range in age from a few days to several thousand years" (75).

Latour suggests that we imagine the things of our contemporary period as a arranged around a spiral, rather than a line, in which future and past form cocentric rings and spokes can move us laterally through this temporal image. And thus, if we can't turn back to traditional experience and we can't believe in the progress of futurity, if "we can move neither forward nor backward" we must displace our attention:

"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 [intensely Foucaltian]. Modernism--like its anti- and post-modern corollaries--was only the provisional results of a selection made by a small number of agents in the name of all. [..] We are not emerging from an obscure past that confused natures and cultures in order to arrive at a future in which the two poles will finally separate cleanly owing to the continual revolution of the present. [...] Modernism never occured. There is no tide, long in rising, that would be flowing again today. There has never been such a tide. We can go on to other things--that is, return to the multiple entities that have always passed in a different way" (76).]

Displacing Our Attention: Toward NonModernityEdit

Latour's new conditions for a "Parliament of Things" involve restoring the mediating role "to all agents, exactly the same world composed of exactly the same entities cease being modern and becomes what it has never ceased to be--that is, nonmodern" (78). Modernity only managed itself by believing its hybrids were mixtures of two pure forms, rather than mediators, actors with "the capacity to translate what they transport, to redefine it, redeploy it, and also to betray it" (81).. The difference is extremely subtle: "We shall no longer explain the onnovations of the air pump by reaching alternately into the two urns of Nature and Society" (81). Finally we can encounter the other side of the story, "how objects construct the subject" (82). The ontology of these mediators has a variable geometry that can envision multiple objects (perhaps Annemarie Mol and John Law draws inspiration from this notion):

"What is a vacuum then? None of these positins. The essence of the vacuum is the trajectory that links them all. In other words, the air's spring has a history. Each of the actants possesses a unique signature in the space deployed in this way. In order to trace them, we do not have to form any hypotheses about the essence of Nature of the essence of Society" (86). Symmetry, then, between the two branches of government, is necessary.

"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 networks 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" (144).

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