Bruno. We Have Never Been Modern. Trans. Catherine Porter. Cambridge,
Mass.: Harvard, 1993.
Latour carves through the layers of the "modern" episteme in an effort to
back his argument that we have never been modern. "Moderns," he
contends, have so eagerly pursued the polarization of ideas unto Nature
and Culture (science and the social) that they have rendered the
mediators (in translation, i.e., networks) invisible, concealed,
mere and inconvenient intermediaries. As the two poles diverge,
spanning them becomes exasperating (Hobbes and Boyle are
representative figures here, splitting authority into the civic domain
and the laboratory); Latour wants us to "retrace our steps" and "stop
moving on" (62). Following a propensity for "purification," the
so-called moderns have neglected networks, the imbroglios of
quasi-objects and quasi-subjects, and thereby "drained [the modern world] of its
mysteries" (128). According to Latour, the four bases for modernist critique
allow these conditions to persist: "naturalization, sociologization,
discursivization, and finally the forgetting of Being" (67, 88).
What accumulates is a kind of archeology of contemporary epistemologies
(reminds me of The Order of Things, faintly), and Latour takes to task
not only the moderns, but the antimoderns and the postmoderns
as well. Eventually, after a biting critique of the postmoderns, however,
he points out that all need not be abandoned. Latour wants to
retain and reject selected precepts from the premoderns, moderns, and
postmoderns (reflexivity and desconstruction/constructivism)
While there’s a whole lot more here, Latour ends with a pronouncement on
behalf of things. In the final chapter, "Redistribution," humanism
is recast as "a weaver of morphisms" (137) and "the networks come out of hiding"
(139). With too many hybrids, the network is now stabilized (with objects
like the air pump), and "[a]t last the Middle Kingdom is represented. Natures
and societies are its satellites" (79): "In its confines, the continuity of
the collective is reconfigured. There are no more naked truths, but
there are no more naked citizens, either. The mediators have the
whole space to themselves. The Enlightenment has a dwelling-place at last.
Natures are present, but with their representatives, scientists who speak in
their name. Societies are present, but with the objects that have been
serving as their ballast from time immemorial" (144).
Key terms: nature-culture (7, 41), critical tripartation (7), translation and
purification (10), constitution (14), inert bodies (23), social context (25),
representation (27), modern critique (38), nonmodern and amodern (47),
quasi-objects and quasi-subjects (51), dialectics (55), phenomenologists (58),
polytemporal (74), mediators and intermediaries (77), silent things (83), skein
of networks (120), micro and macro (121), size (113).
"To shuttle back and forth [between nature and culture], we rely on the
notion of translation, or network. More supple than the notion of
system, more historical than the notion of structure, more
empirical than the notion of complexity, the idea of network is
of these interwoven stories" (3).
"Our intellectual life is out of kilter. Epistemology, the social
sciences, the sciences of texts–all have their privileged vantage point,
provided that they remain separate" (5).
"In the eyes of our critics the ozone hole above our heads, the moral law in
our hearts, the autonomous texts, may each be of interest, but only separately.
That a delicate shuttle should have woven together the heavens, industry, texts,
souls, and moral law–this remains uncanny, unthinkable,
"Either we have to disappear, we bearers of bad news, or criticism itself has
to face a crisis because of these networks it cannot swallow" (6).
"The double separation is what we have to reconstruct: the separation between
humans and nonhumans on the one hand, and between what happens
‘above’ and ‘below’ on the other" (13).
"No science can exit from the network of its practice"
"In other words, they are inventing our modern world, a world in which the
representation of things through the intermediary of the laboratory is
forever dissociated from the representation of citizens through
the intermediary of the social contract" (27).
"Here likes the entire modern paradox. If we consider hybrids, we are
dealing only with mixtures of nature and culture; if we consider the work of
purification, we confront a total separation between nature and culture"
"A nonmodern is anyone who takes simultaneously into account the
moderns’ Constitution and the populations of hybrids that that Constitution
rejects and allows to proliferate" (47).
"The antimoderns, like the postmoderns, have accepted their
adversaries’ playing field. Another field–much broader, much less
polemical–has opened up before us: the field of nonmodern worlds.
It is the Middle Kingdom, as vast as China and as little known" (48).
"How did the modern manage to specify and cancel out the work of mediation
both at once? By conceiving of every hybrid as a mixture of two
pure forms" (78).
"In following the pump, do we have to pretend that everything is rhetorical,
or that everything is natural, or that everything is socially constructed, or
that everything is stamped and stocked?" (89).
"By learning of Archimedes’ coup (or rather, Plutarch’s) we identify the
entry point of a new type of nonhuman into the very fabric of the
"The two extremes, local and global, are much less
interesting than the intermediary arrangements that we are calling
"So the strength of the error that the modern world makes about itself
is not understandable, when the two couples of opposition are paired: in the
middle there is nothing thinkable–no collective, no network, no mediation; all
conceptual resources are accumulated at the extremes. We poor subject-objects,
we humble societies-natures, we modest locals-globals, are literally
quartered among ontological regions that define each other mutually but no
longer resemble our practices" (123).