Bruno Latour: We Have Never Been Modern

[Readings] (08.29.08, 4:48 pm)


The overarching thesis is that the divide between nature and man, as proclaimed by modernism, is artificial and never existed. This divide enabled both science and humanities to make claims for the absolute truth. Concealed by this divide was the emergence of hybrids “quasi-objects” that blurred the lines between human and nature.

The intention of this is to re-examine the role and past of hybrids, and find a new relationship between science and culture. Essentially, to humanize science, and make humanities more scientific.


Chapter 1: Crisis

Latour opens by looking at the explosion of meaning systems that can be exposed by looking at a magazine. The magazine mixes science and politics and crosses many domains. “All of culture and all of nature get churned up again every day.” This issue stems from an enormous density of connections, where the myriad ways in which science and culture affect each other are exposed, leading a curious observer down the rabbit hole of connections.

Latour seems to be claiming that while this confluence of factors is so densely connected, knowledge is separated from power and politics. There is some sort of perceived divide between the two. Latour mentions a number of writers who have expounded on how technology shapes society, (MacKenzie on guidance systems, Michel Callon on fuel cells, Thomas Hughes on the incandescent lamp, etc.). Latour is trying to find that these relations are more than merely science or politics. The claim seems to be that a culture before a technology and after are very different. And that, despite the connections provided by magazines, the larger connections remain invisible.

Latour is concerned with the feasability of this sort of technological-cultural criticism. He wants to determine whether it is possible to effectively perform this analysis at all or not. His claim is that networks are elusive for deeper anthropological problems.

Latour describes the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and compares it with the first conferences on global ecology. Both socialism and capitalism began with the best intentions (to abolish man’s exploitation of man, and to reorient man’s exploitation of man to an exploitation of nature, respectively), but both paths have gone to such extremes that they turned in on themselves. It then becomes a question over what path to take next. The “antimodern” approach is to no longer dominate nature. The postmodern approach is indecisive and incomplete, while others aim to continue and push towards the modern anyway.

The idea of “modern” is hazy and difficult to define, but it is evocative. Latour’s idea is to define modern by identifying two characteristics. One is the practice of translation, which creates hybrids of nature and culture. The second practice is purification, which aims to isolate meanings and create distinct ontological zones. Translation corresponds to the development of networks, while purification enables criticism.

Reading Info:
Author/EditorLatour, Bruno
TitleWe Have Never Been Modern
Tagsdms, postmodernism
LookupGoogle Scholar, Google Books, Amazon

No Comments »

No comments yet.

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.