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Reviewed by:
  • We Have Never Been Modern
  • T. Hugh Crawford (bio)
Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern. Translated by Catherine Porter. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1993. 157 pp. $29.95.

In “Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism”—an essay that has become the touchstone for discussions of contemporary cultural periodization—Fredric Jameson argues that the “last few years have been marked by an inverted millenarianism, in which premonitions of the future, catastrophic or redemptive, have been replaced by senses of the end of this or that” (Postmodernism [Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1991], p. 1). The attempt to formulate some break with the immediate past is a characteristic of much contemporary theory, and, given the emergence of various theories of the postmodern at the end of our century, this impulse can be tied to anticipation, however inverted, of the coming millennium. One can approach such an ending with joy, trepidation, or downright cynicism, seeking in the new era either a complete rupture with the past or some lines of continuity. Bruno Latour’s We Have Never Been Modern takes the latter strategy, arguing that we are not moving into a radically new age configured by the trappings of postmodern techno-gadgetry and the philosophy of the simulacrum, nor do we have need to remain trapped in the hegemonic structures of the modern era. Instead, this state of affairs can be avoided through the simple recognition that, indeed, we have never been modern: the repertoire of modern critical analysis has always been internally inconsistent if not outright contradictory, and, more importantly, we have always been at home in the nonmodern world, living comfortably with hybrid combinations of natural and social objects/subjects.

Latour developed the basis of this argument through his empirical laboratory studies (Laboratory Life, The Pasteurization of France), where he discovered that nothing particularly different from everyday life takes place within the laboratory. He argues that if there has never been such a thing as scientific reasoning (characterized by the production of sleek, ahuman technological systems and universal natural truths), then we have never actually attained modernity—let alone postmodernity, a concept Latour regards with disdain, noting that it is “a symptom, not a fresh solution” (p. 46) because the postmoderns “accept the total division between the material and technological world on the one hand and the linguistic play of speaking subjects on the other” (p. 61). His position regarding scientific reasoning finds partial support from the strong programme of the Edinburgh school. The principle of symmetry—that scientific successes as well as failures must have social explanations—helped demystify scientific knowledge; however, Latour advocates a generalized principle of symmetry, which requires both a natural and a social explanation for laboratory successes and failures. Indeed, if one were to follow out his program to its conclusion, those distinctions would become impossible to maintain, and we would recognize that we have never been modern.

Latour’s definition of modernity is both simple and profound. He locates its roots in the time of Hobbes and Boyle, using Stephen Shapin and Simon Schaffer’s Leviathan and the Air-Pump as his primary example of (almost successful) [End Page 578] anthropology of science. The modern world emerged when the domain of knowledge was split between knowledge of people (Hobbes and politics) and knowledge of things (Boyle and science): “[The moderns] have cut the Gordian knot with a well-honed sword. The shaft is broken: on the left, they have put knowledge things; on the right, power and human politics” (p. 3). Latour argues that this is an impoverished model: neither natural objects nor social subjects have ever been simply real, social, or discursive. Instead, they are hybrids circulating in networks of translation and mediation while the moderns busily attempt to purify them of their hybrid qualities and locate them on one end or the other of the subject/object pole. From this perspective, current disciplines are both the cause and the symptom of the modern mind, and Latour has written the manifesto for the interdisciplinarians who must stop worrying over metaphysics and practice “infraphysics” (p. 128). In one swift move, the realist/constructivist debate is rendered uninteresting, the...