Over the next few weeks I will, as time permits, be writing a commentary on Bruno Latour’s wonderful We Have Never Been Modern. In part, this is in preparation for the final release of Graham Harman’s long awaited Prince of Networks. If Graham’s study of Latour is so unique and exciting, then this is because he approaches Latour not as a sociologist, but as a philosopher. In form of reading not unlike Deleuze’s approach to Foucault or to great artists, novelists, and cinema, Harman reveals a highly original– and relevant –philosopher in his own right. Thus, extending the comparison of Graham’s Prince of Networks to Deleuze’s Foucault, Deleuze in his great Foucault book, approaches Foucault’s thought not as a series of historical or sociological analyses of various things such as madness, discipline, the human sciences, etc., but rather as the work of a great philosopher proposing a very new and highly original account of the nature of knowledge. While Deleuze certainly touches on all of Foucault’s great archeological and genealogical studies, it is this question of the nature of knowledge that is at the heart of his book. Likewise, while Graham certainly delves into Latour’s various sociological investigations, his approach to Latour is so unique insofar as he reads Latour primarily as a philosopher proposing a new ontology. In part, I am also writing on Latour as I will be teaching We Have Never Been Modern for the first time and this will help me to prepare for that course.
However, finally, I am undertaking this close reading of We Have Never Been Modern because, with Graham, I think Latour presents a new philosophical epistemology and ontology consistent with a realist position, but which also allows us to retain the best of a critical tradition arising from sociology and Continental linguistic philosophy from the last century. It is sometimes said that you must be doing something right or original if you manage to upset everyone from all different orientations of thought. This is certainly, above all, the case with Latour. Some readers of this blog will recall that, a few months back, I proposed what I called the “Hegemonic Fallacy“. There I wrote that the Hegemonic Fallacy consists in “the reduction of difference to one difference that makes all the difference or one difference that makes the most important difference. This fallacy arises from failing to observe Latour’s Principle and the Principle of Irreduction, thereby ignoring the singularities of the assemblage to which differences from another assemblage are being transported.” A more detailed treatment of this principle can be found here.
Part of what makes Latour so interesting is the way in which he resolutely avoids this fallacy in his way of analyzing the world. This can be seen in section 1.2 of We Have Never Been Modern, where he briefly discusses the perplexity with which is work and the work of other “Science studies” figures has been met. As Latour writes,
…the critics imagine that we are talking about science and technology. Since these are marginal topics, or at best manifestations of pure instrumental and caluclating thought, people who are interested in politics or in souls feel justified in paying no attention. Yet this research does not deal with nature or knowledge, with things-in-themselves, but with the way all these things are tied to our collectives and to subjects. We are talking not about instrumental thought but about the very substance of our societies. (4)
Thus, on the one hand, we have a strange study of science and technology that is not a study of science and technology, but somehow about the fabric of our society. Yet it gets worse.
‘But then surely you’re talking about politics? You’re simply reducing scientific truth to mere political interests, and technical efficiency to mere strategical maneuvers. Here is the second misunderstanding. If the facts do not occupy the simultaneously marginal and sacred place our worship has reserved for them, then it seems that they are immediately reduced to pure local contingency and sterile machinations. Yet sciences studies are talking not about social contexts and the interests of power, but about their involvement with collectives and objects. (ibid.)
In other words, these objects, technologies, and studies, while forming part of the fabric of the social are nonetheless absolutely real and cannot be reduced to politics or strategic maneuvers. Again, the situation becomes more perplexing yet.
‘But if you are not talking about things-in-themselves or about humans-among-themselves, then you must be talking just about discourse, representation, language, texts, rhetorics.’ This is the third misunderstanding. It is true that those who bracket off the external referent– the nature of things — and the speaker –the pragmatic or social context –can talk only about meaning effects and language games. Yet when MacKenzie examines the evolution of internal guidance systems, he is talking about arrangements that can kill us all… [R]hetoric, 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 the one or the other.
Epistemology, the social sciences, the sciences of texts– all have their privileged vantage point, provided that they remain separate. If the creatures we are pursuing cross all three spaces, we are no longer understood. (5)
Naturalization, socialization, and deconstruction-semiotics, Latour proposes, without one of these approaches overdetermining the others or being that which functions as the condition for all the rest. The thesis of modernity, Latour argues, is that of a strict division between the human world and the natural world. The natural world is governed by its own principles, completely separate from the human world composed of subjects, power, language, the social, etc. Yet everywhere we look, Latour observes, we find hybrids, networks, relating these things together in one continuous fabric. Hence the lower portion of Latour’s diagram to the left, where beneath these two pure worlds of nature and culture, we instead have zigzagging and intersecting lines connecting all of these elements together. As Latour writes in the beautiful opening paragraph of We Have Never Been Modern,
On page four of my daily newspaper, I learn that the measurements taken above the Antarctic are not good this year: the hole in the ozone layer is growing ominously larger. Reading on, I turn from upper-atmosphere chemists to Chief Executive Officers of Atochem and Monsanto, companies that are modifying their assembly lines in order to replace the innocent chlorofluorocarbons, accused of crimes against the ecosphere. A few paragraphs later, I come across heads of state of major industrialized countries who are getting involved with chemistry, refrigerators, aerosols and inert gases. But at the end of the article, I discover that the meteorologists don’t agree with the chemists; their talking about cyclical fluctuations unrelated to human activity. So now the industrialists don’t know what to do. The heads of state are also holding back. Shouldn’t we wait? Is it already too late? Towards the bottom of the page, Third Would countries and ecologists add their grain of salt and talk about international treaties, moratoriums, the rights of future generations, and the right to development. (1)
“Once again”, Latour writes, “heads of state, chemists, biologists, desparate patients and industrialists find themselves caught up in a single uncertain story mixing biology and society.” All of these things are tied together in networks that cannot be neatly separated and where we cannot claim that there is one world of nature completely independent of politics and another world of culture where these questions of the political and the social emerge. However, in making this claim, Latour is not making the claim that the natural world is a product of the human or that it cannot exist apart from the human. It too is real, but is also woven in with our social networks. Latour will go so far as to argue that nonhuman objects are actually actors in our social networks or in collectives that contain both humans and nonhumans. I’ll discuss this in greater detail in my next post.
Latour’s thesis, then, is that we cannot neatly separate the questions of epistemology, discourse analysis, and sociology, compartmentalizing them and maintaining their purity. Philosophy, for example, is not simply a set of questions and texts, but is also instutitions tied to the politics of the state, the discipline of human bodies, connected to a broader culture and material world, etc., etc., etc. For this reason, Latour proposes to approach the analysis of modernity from the standpoint of anthropology. For unlike sociology that tries to neatly separate the social from, say, the natural, or discourse analysis that brackets the referent, or naturalism that tries to bracket the social and linguistic, ethnography, according to Latour, has always understood that these things form a tightly woven fabric. As Latour writes,
This [situation of hybrids] would be a hopeless dilemma had anthropology not accustomed us to dealing calmly and straightforwardly with the seamless fabric of what I call ‘nature-culture’, since it is a bit more and a bit less than a culture. Once she has been sent into the field, even the most rationalist ethnographer is perfectly capable of bringing together in a single monograph the myths, ethnosciences, genealogies, political forms, techniques, religions, epics and rites of the people she is studying. Sender her off to study the Arapesh or the Achuar, the Koreans or the Chinese, and you will get a single narrative that weaves together the way people regard the heavens and their ancestors, the way they build houses and the way they grow yams or manioc or rice, the way they construct their government and their cosmology. In works produced by anthropologists abroad, you will not find a single trait that is not simultaneously real, social and narrated. (7)
Latour’s scandal is to approach our culture through this sort of anthropological lens, rejecting the thesis that modernity constitutes a break where such networks and intermixing do not apply to us.