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  • Forward Into The Past
  • Jim Hicks
Latour, Bruno. We Have Never Been Modern. Trans. Catherine Porter. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1993.
Illich, Ivan. In the Vineyard of the Text. A Commentary to Hugh’s Didascalicon. Chicago: U. of Chicago, 1993.

In his 1985 recension of the debate on postmodernism, Gianni Vattimo suggests that the arguments of each then major figure (Lyotard, Habermas, Rorty) are determined (and undermined) by an illegimate appeal to “the state of things”—some version or other of the postmodern present (Vattimo 105). Whether or not metanarratives have been invalidated, whether the project of modernism is down but not yet out, and whether or not philosophy has lost its role as the unifier and arbiter of knowledge, the question is in some sense the same: where are we now and where do we go from here? Although Vattimo’s own attempt to respond to such questions (which suggests “piety,” “weakness,” and “mourning” as key elements to a truly pomo stance) seems either intentionally perverse or downright funny, his reminder that “condition,” “project,” and “consensus” are each present-tense nouns remains a good place to begin, even in a now much-widened debate. Two recent books which should be of particular interest to readers of Postmodern Culture deliver additional stories about the state of things at present. Clearly not your common or garden variety contributions to this field, both works suggest that the present and future of Western civilization ought to be found in recalling our premodern past.

As an intervention into the contemporary critical fray, the book by Bruno Latour is the more direct. His title, We Have Never Been Modern, would seem to suggest his basic rhetorical strategy: “Stop all the bickering, whining and posturing . . . modernism, postmodernism, modernity, it never happened, it’s all a joke, it never happened.” Such an unfriendly tone, such an obvious attempt to grab the spotlight (and to foreclose the careers of so many, in so many fields), coming from someone other than a sociologist and historian of technoscience, from someone less beloved by those postmodern critics who have already made his acquaintance, from someone who wasn’t speaking, after all, in the name of Science, would no doubt cause only a ripple, passing through the critical pool as an instant of uncomfortable silence, a few heavy, disturbing seconds before the subject is changed. But when Science talks, people listen. When Science talks, we wait for an explanation.

It is, of course, precisely such expectations in regard to science that Bruno Latour has long opposed. In a marvelous series of books, including Laboratory Life (with Steven Woolgar, 1979), Science in Action (1987) and The Pasteurization of France (1988), Latour argues that neither science nor society can be studied in isolation, that both are determined by means of the complex web of translations which join them together. Thus, science, when it does speak, is heard only by subscribers to its network: a favorite analogy of Latour’s is to the termite, whose existence is impossible outside of its tunnels. We Have Never Been Modern is explicitly a work which elaborates such translations (between “the emerging field of science studies” and “the literate public” [ix]), thus marking at most a new deviation in his work. Latour justifies this turn, in part, by telling a story about the present.

That story begins with Latour himself, engaging in the act which he characterizes as “modern man’s form of prayer” (2), i.e. reading our daily paper. The stories that he finds there are familiar: the ozone hole, Professor Gallo’s laboratory, frozen embryos, and others. (If Latour had picked up an American paper, he might have pointed to stories about big business, condoms, guns and bible studies in our public schools, animal rights, pornography and sexual harassment, etc.) Diverse as they are, such stories have in common the manner in which they knot together nature and culture:

A single thread links the most esoteric sciences and the most sordid politics, the most distant sky and some factory in the Lyon suburbs, dangers on a global scale and the impending local elections . . . . The horizons, the stakes, the time frames, the actors—none of these is commensurable...

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