- We Have Never Been Modern
Bruno Latour’s Science in Action (1987) was the most important book on science, technology and their intertwining with society published in the 1980s. Latour argued that by following scientists and engineers around one could see that science, technology, and society were continually coproduced in a process of the reciprocal tuning of facts, theories, machines, human actors, and social relations. This actor-network analysis flew in the face of technological and social determinist perspectives (technological change causes and determines social change, or vice versa). More profoundly, it transcended the dualist understandings that underpin such determinisms, understandings that posit a clean and principled split between the human and the nonhuman and construct independent accounts of each—as, for example, the natural sciences seek to grasp the material world as it exists independently of human beings, or the social sciences seek to speak of a pure realm of the social. The question arises, of course, of why, if nature and society are coproduced, we had to wait for Latour (and his colleague Michel Callon) to tell us this. What explains the grip of human/nonhuman dualism on our imaginations? We Have Never Been Modern is Latour’s admirably brief but also very ambitious answer.
We need, says Latour, to think about the “modern constitution” bequeathed to us in the seventeenth century by people like Robert Boyle and Thomas Hobbes. Boyle and his friends in the Royal Society invented a way of speaking about nature that was (ostensibly at least) independent of the speaker; this was the origin of modern experimental science. Hobbes, at the other pole, found a way of theorizing social and political order in terms of distinctively human conflicts and agreements, independent of material circumstances. Boyle and Hobbes, then, jointly constructed the program for purifying the discourses of nature and society—-expunging from each the traces of the other—-that, for Latour, is definitive of modernity. Of course, the coproduction of nature and society has gone on in modernity just as it always did and always will, but the modern constitution is systematically blind to this. “We have never been modern,” as Latour puts it, but we found a way of thinking that we were. [End Page 257]
Such is the argument that Latour develops in his latest book, and he thus stakes out an original and important position in current debates about modernity, antimodernity, postmodernity, and so on. These debates can only be enriched by Latour’s attention to the practical coupling of the human and the nonhuman, and they can only be enlivened by the thumbnail critiques offered along the way of thinkers as diverse as Kant, Hegel, Bachelard, Habermas, Baudrillard, Lyotard, and Heidegger (all taken to task, and in that order, in the space of a dozen pages in the middle of chapter 3). I therefore both hope and expect that this book will get the attention it deserves. For what it is worth, I am in agreement with much of Latour’s analysis, though, inevitably, certain lines of its development seem open to question. I can mention two.
Latour attributes almost magical properties to the modern constitution, ascribing to it the dynamism of the western scientific and industrial world. His idea is that premodern societies are self-consciously aware of the interrelation of nature and society—-the former often being invoked as the bearer of moral messages for the latter—and that this self-consciousness is paralysing. A human/nonhuman interlock inhibits change either in ideas about nature or in the domain of the social. Only the modernist purification process breaks this constraint, with the results that have become evident in recent centuries. I suspect this argument. Anthropologically it is probably false; societies can exist that care as little as we do (on Latour’s account) about the coupling of the material with the social but that are demonstrably not us—i.e. rationalized and industrialized, technologically dynamic. Further, modernist purification has never exhaustively characterized us. Especially since World War II...