From Flickr, Creative Commons License

Introduction and Index To We Have Never Been Modern by Bruno Latour

I’ve been reading We Have Never Been Modern, a 1991 book by the French thinker Bruno Latour, pictured above. It doesn’t lend itself to my usual treatment, reading and commenting on a chapter or two. Instead, I’m going to try to lay out some of the aspects that seem important enough to merit discussion.

Background

1. It seems to me that we as a nation, and me personally, are caught up in the controversy of the day, and that dominates our conversations. I notice it not just on Twitter and in the media, but in my personal life, talking with friends.

That’s especially true in our political discourse. In the Democratic party, two candidates talk about systemic problems, but nobody focuses on their critiques. Instead, the media and the other candidates focus on details of the specific plans that rise from those critiques. They complain about cost, argue about whether those plans could be turned into law, nit-pick personalities, and say anything to distract from the central critiques. Those responses turn into the controversy of the day, and the two central and powerful critiques are never discussed. We will never know what we think about corruption or about grotesque inequality, because they are not fodder for the controversy of the day.

I hope this book will help get away from short-term thinking and into a larger perspective.

2. I agree with the definition of problems laid out by those two candidates, corruption and obscene inequality. I see them as the expected outcomes of the capitalist system. Capitalism is one part of an even bigger structure in which we find ourselves. The other part is our understanding of ourselves as individuals and as members of society. You will note that in this structure, I have divided the large structure into two parts, a) our conception of ourselves and our role in society, and b) the economy, taken as a proxy for all that isn’t human.

These two systems might seem to be separate, but they are intermixed. Neoliberal capitalism is a product of the philosophical tradition of utilitarianism. It teaches us that the individual is homo economicus, fully defined by individual production and consumption. [1] This is not a subject of discussion in the public sphere, only in backwaters in academia and the occasional blog. Other ways of understanding ourselves as individuals and as members of society are rarely discussed in any serious way outside those backwaters.

I’ve been thinking that we need a framework that places these two systems in a more united perspective. After all, these systems do intermix into an overarching system that generates each on a continuous basis, a system in which both society and the conception of the self evolve over time, all the while affecting each other.

3. In my introduction to the series on The Origins Of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt, I quoted this from Leszek Kolakowski’s book Modernity On Endless Trial:

If we are to believe Hegel – or Collingwood – no age, no civilization, is capable of conceptually identifying itself. This can only be done after its demise, and even then, as we know too well, such an identification is never certain or universally accepted. Both the general morphology of civilizations and the descriptions of their constitutive characteristics are notoriously controversial and heavily loaded with ideological biases, whether they express a need for self-assertion by comparison with the past or a malaise in one’s own cultural environment and the resulting nostalgia for the good times of old. Collingwood suggests that each historical period has a number of basic (“absolute”) presuppositions which it is unable clearly to articulate and which provide a latent inspiration for its explicit values and beliefs, its typical reactions and aspirations. If so, we might try to uncover those presuppositions in the lives of our ancient or medieval ancestors and perhaps build on this basis a ” history of mentalities” (as opposed to the “history of ideas”); but we are in principle prevented from revealing them in our own age, unless, of course, … we are living in the twilight, at the very end of an epoch. P. 3.

Latour tries to answer the question anyway: what does it mean to be “modern”? Arguably we are at the very end of an epoch in human history, now that relentless capitalism has rotted liberal democracies and set the planet on fire. Arguably Latour follows Collingwood’s suggestion of looking back in time to the end of one period, the premodern and the start of this period, the modern.

4. There is little point in these abstractions unless they help us solve a problem. The problem I’m thinking about is approximately this: How should we arrange society so that each of us can flourish as individuals and as social creatures who inhabit the this world with others?

Observations

1. When confronted with a problem, we often try to break it into smaller problems. Then we try to solve those and put the results back together to form a solution. That seems to work pretty well in science, where things cleave in only one or a few ways. It works less well in other areas of life, because there are all sorts of ways to divide social things up, and putting the results back together is an exercise in judgment if not guesswork.

2. I divided society into the economy and the human, because capitalism is so all-emcompassing. This has the virtue of connecting two strands of thought that run through my posts. But there are other ways we could divide it into two parts. One might be nature and society. And there are many more, some more useful than others. We should think about these divisions from the perspective of the use we intend to make of them.

3. I talk about society as if it were a monolith. If we think of society as an umbrella term that encompasses the circumstances of life in the US, it seems so. But everyone experiences those circumstances differently. It’s impossible to take those different experiences into account when we think at this level of abstraction. That doesn’t mean that these different experiences aren’t important, they are. And any hypothesis we might develop should be examined to see if that important factor would make us see things differently.

Resources

This is a difficult book, and I am not going to discuss large parts of it in detail. [2] For those interested in a brief overview, I suggest listening to Episode 230 of the podcast Partially Examined Life. It features Lynda Olman, one of the authors of an article based on an interview of Latour (Lynda Walsh in the following citation.) The first pages summarize some of Latour’s thinking. Forum: Bruno Latour on Rhetoric, by Lynda Walsh, Nathaniel A. Rivers, Jenny Rice, Laurie E. Gries, Jennifer L. Bay, Thomas Rickert & Carolyn R. Miller, Rhetoric Society Quarterly, 47:5, 403-462 (2017). It should be available online through your library.

========
[1] The hidden assertion, that the people at the top of society are exempt from this condition, is never mentioned in this discussion, although it is one of the main points made by Philip Mirowski in his book, Never Let A Serious Crisis Go to Waste.

[2] One of the things I won’t discuss is Latour’s attitude towards postmedernists such as Derrida and Lyotard. This is sad because it’s funny and quite rude, and I agree whole-heartedly.

From Flickr, Creative Commons License

image_print
20 replies
  1. skua says:

    “This is sad because it’s funny and quite rude, …”.
    Ed you would have been wicked in sales.

    You got me working.

  2. jaango says:

    My thanks for another of your insightful posts.

    And from my differing standpoint, that being of both Indigenous/Chicano political perspectives, my focus on non-Anglo or non-European-oriented ‘thinking’, I much focus my writing on this Hemisphere’s content and construct that incorporates the Indigenous Creator with its three seminal viewpoints–1) Health, 2) Happiness and 3) Decency Personified and which is a consequential to the variations of the Christian God.

    And with this in mind, over these past 20 years, my current skill set is on my latest book effort–“Demographics: America’s Failures Absent Decency Personified.” Thus, I will be touting this book to the traditional publishing biz $functionaries, given that my earlier books were premised on my self-publishing efforts.

    In closing, how can I ‘convince’ you to look to the future and where ‘demographics’ will toss both “modernism” and “post-modernism” into the trash can of history and where the more capable National Academy of Historians, will determine the viability of the National Foundation/Museum For Criminal Stupidity, solidifies our attention to a well-developed “integrated and assimilated” Future.

  3. rip says:

    Ed – your wonderful pieces are helping me rethink my life-long assumption that capitalism and democracy can co-exist. Perhaps they can but not as defined in our current western cultures.

    I find many strong parallels between your writing and that of Umair Haque. Recently he has distributed many tens of strong articles on his blog at https://eand.co/@umairh.

    • earlofhuntingdon says:

      I think neoliberal capitalism, certainly the American variant, is diametrically opposed to democracy. It equates to one dollar, one vote rather than one person, one vote.

  4. Don Utter says:

    I think Bruno Latour is one of the most important voices alive today.

    He has a short, very readable book that came out last year in English.

    “Down to Earth: Politics in The New Climate Regime” That is a good place to start.

    Here is a review of that book

    “Bruno Latour, the Philosopher of Science Who Changed Art Theory, Explains His New Book on Climate Change
    The author of ‘Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime’ on the Yellow Vest movement and his manifesto for the EU.”

    https://news.artnet.com/art-world/bruno-latour-down-to-earth-1450681

  5. Don Utter says:

    a book review of another Bruno Latour book

    “In Facing Gaia: Eight Lectures on the New Climate Regime, Bruno Latour aims to reintroduce us to our own planet. The Earth emerges as a bizarre and unfamiliar presence, dimly glimpsed but exerting a colossal and uncertain pressure on all our actions. Though its unpredictable effects promise no meaning or redemption, this alien power forces our attention to the immediacy of terrestrial life.”

    WE HAVE NEVER KNOWN MOTHER EARTH
    https://www.publicbooks.org/we-have-never-known-mother-earth/

  6. Mitch Neher says:

    Mr. Walker, I freely confess to being what Bruno Latour calls an anti-fetishist (c/o “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam?”) Even so, I must also confess that Latour appears to be correct at accusing science, in general, and social sciences, in particular, of having fetishized fetishism from the get-go. This strikes me as one of Latour’s more critical insights into why we never became modern rather than merely pretending to be modern.

    The material cultures that so many Western sciences dismissed as fetishizing material objects were actually practicing fairly complicated systems of social relationships–including power relationships–that the Western powers, at the time, felt the need to rend asunder all the better with which to subjugate the various peoples who practiced those cultures.

    I wonder what would happen if someone put Bruno Latour and August Wilson in the same room together to discuss the power of death and staking one’s claim upon the power of death.

    On second thought . . . [I have no idea].

    • skua says:

      A wave of cynicism has overtaken me. AIUI.

      The Republican Party power-brokers and visionaries (Bannon) have understood some of what is occurring in the rejectors-of-cosmopolity bubble – they have been consciously working to create that bubble for decades and so are attuned to some of its properties.
      That cohort continue turning the political and social power of those in that bubble towards furthering their aims.

      I’m thinking you do not see a second bubble.
      Here are some qualities that I think the second bubble encloses:
      Confidence that demographics will deliver a cosmopolitan (near-) future.
      Confidence that a bipartisan approach to US politics is a sensible means.
      Confidence in top-down social decision-making.
      Confidence that a reason-based approach will produce better social outcomes.

      Latour AIUI points at the lack of academic description of the rejectors-of-cosmopolity, and the lack of effective relating to those in that bubble by centralist (and left) politicians as showing the existence of another bubble that encloses academics and centralist politicians.

      If you don’t see them (and us) as being in a bubble then how do you explain their obliviousness/ineffectiveness around the (obvious to us) bubble that includes Trumpers?

    • Don Utter says:

      Concerning the two bubbles of unreality.

      Bruno has many times described a fictional flight. In the air, the pilot comes on the intercom and says the Globe of Globalization does not exist. The progress promised in globalization is no longer possible because it would require several earths of resources. Hillary was selling globalization. On the other hand, when the pilot comes on again and says that we cannot return to the land. Cannot return to the safety of borders since soil, water, etc., are not what they were in the past and for sure not now that the population is approaching 8 billion.

      Trump was selling the unreality, the bubble, or return to the past.

      Hillary was was so sure about the future that she would attack her friends as needed

      Once Clinton was in the White House, counter-scheduling mutated from a campaign tactic to a philosophy of governance. At a retreat in the administration’s early days, Bill’s chief political adviser, Hillary Clinton, instructed White House officials how it was going to be done. As Carl Bernstein describes the scene, Hillary announced that the public must be made to understand that Bill was taking them on a “journey” and that he had a “vision” for what the administration was doing, a “story” that distinguished good from evil. The way to dramatize this story, the first lady continued (in Bernstein’s telling), was to pick a fight with supporters.

      You show people what you’re willing to fight for, Hillary said, when you fight your friends—by which, in this context, she clearly meant, When you make them your enemy.

      NAFTA would become the first great test of this theory of the presidency, with Clinton defying not only organized labor but much of his own party in Congress. In one sense, it achieved the desired results. For New Democrats and for much of the press, NAFTA was Clinton’s “finest hour,” his “boldest action,” a deed befitting a real he-man of a president who showed he could stand up to labor and thereby assure the world that he was not a captive of traditional Democratic interests.

      The quotation by Hillary was in 1992 and the text around it is from Thomas Frank’s book “Listen Liberal” The text above is from Frank’s article

      https://www.salon.com/2016/03/14/bill_clintons_odious_presidency_thomas_frank_on_the_real_history_of_the_90s/

  7. blauschwein says:

    I don’t think obscene inequality or corruption is necessarily the product of capitalism – feudalism and totalitarianism are two other isms that come immediately to mind in which corruption and inequality are egregiously present as well. Correlation, in other words, is not causality. Poverty, moreover, is part and parcel of the human condition and has more causes than lack of money, as illustrated by the bankruptcy that soon follows lottery wins. (And lack of money never stopped Trump, nor has a surfeit of it made him rich.) Our politics, and to some extent life, is competitive and frequently adversarial. Reforms, either economic or political, do not change these conditions – they change who’s on which side of the cash register.

    • bmaz says:

      We have warned you repeatedly about your sock puppeting. Are you going to be d4v1d or blauschwein? Pick one or the other, you do NOT get to have both.

  8. skua says:

    Ed, could you write a little more about how your division of the socio-economic structure into “two parts, a) our conception of ourselves and our role in society, and b) the economy, taken as a proxy for all that isn’t human” maps onto Pickering’s take on “Latour’s modernity”?

    Pickering, Andrew. Review of We Have Never Been Modern. Modernism/modernity, vol. 1 no. 3, 1994, p. 257-258.;
    We need, says Latour, to think about the “modern constitution” bequeathed to us in the seventeenth century by people like Robert Boyle and Thomas Hobbes. Boyle and his friends in the Royal Society invented a way of speaking about nature that was (ostensibly at least) independent of the speaker; this was the origin of modern experimental science. Hobbes, at the other pole, found a way of theorizing social and political order in terms of distinctively human conflicts and agreements, independent of material circumstances. Boyle and Hobbes, then, jointly constructed the program for purifying the discourses of nature and society—-expunging from each the traces of the other—-that, for Latour, is definitive of modernity.

    What I end up with by combining your division with Pickering’s formulation, is that our socio-economic structure will understood by modernists as being formed of two pure, completely separate elements;
    1. products of nature, natural laws and material circumstance (capitalism), and
    2. an understanding of what individuals are, how they relate to each-other, how groups of people relate to each-other, the forms that conflicts and agreements between individuals and within society take, and what value the outcomes of those agreements and conflicts have (neoliberalism?).

    • Ed Walker says:

      Sure. 1. The point of my division into these two parts is to separate capitalism from the individual. The end game of neoliberal capitalism is to treat everything a subject to the market. That includes all things natural, especially land, labor and money, to use Polanyi’s categories of fictional commodities. Labor means people, human beings, as I discuss in my series on The Great Transformation. Neoliberalism teaches us a single view of the human as producer and consumer. Those two functions fully describe each individual and their relation to society.

      If all humans were homo economicus, we might have that single structure. But we know that not all humans are so described by neoliberals. The apex of society, the rich and powerful, are more than homo economicus, they are fully agents. There is nothing special about them other than wealth and power. Therefore we know that all of us are more than homo economicus. We have at least the potential to be agents in our own lives. And that is the point of my distinction. It separates the the neoliberal definition of the economy from the human.

      2. The description you give of Latour’s division is the one he uses in the book. I wanted to use some other division to show that society can be cleaved in different ways, and to show the link between my prior work and this piece. We always use distinctions this way: some are useful for one purpose and not another.

      3. In future posts, I will take up Latour’s distinction in more detail. It’s a critical point.

      I hope that helps.

  9. Eureka says:

    Yes, and how dehumanizing must it be in this context to be viewed as having no economic value (e.g. some folks who are disabled), or to have one’s economic — and therefore ‘human’ — value removed?

    I thought of your post, Ed, while reading SPLC’s latest on Stephen Miller’s emails with Breitbart. There’s a good chunk on how the racists now thoroughly reject the economic value argument for Dreamers and other immigrants. Consistent with what you note, within that piece one does not find problematizing of Homo economicus in the first place (though perhaps the writer cited does go there).

    Miller Dismisses DACA in Emails, Mirroring Anti-Immigrant Extremists’ Views | Southern Poverty Law Center
    https://www.splcenter.org/hatewatch/2020/01/14/miller-dismisses-daca-emails-mirroring-anti-immigrant-extremists-views

    The GOP’s point is to recognize (while themselves creating, otherwise reifying) an existential caricature of some people with the (correct) assumption that it produces their votes. In that way, the allegedly scared lower- and middle- class white (men) maybe _think_ they are given (or promised) power and value beyond H. econ.*, like their richer brethren. Fear-mongering, sadly, is a highly instrumental though pragmatic approach (what gets called the ‘bad pragmatism’). Of course many dems don’t discuss this because they leverage the reciprocal instrumentality. The duality is escalating so fiercely that I have a hard time coming up with #4 fodder (meaning actionable), if only because it seems we are all so starved of basics that we are chasing away worst fears at this point.

    Dare to dream indeed.

    *For these and other reasons, I fail to see why most Trump voters would not also vote for the two candidates you refer to, were they truly exposed to their ideas.

    • Eureka says:

      Before departing, I might as well add that I’ve left “the impractical” unsaid here, and that is the correlation and contrast between, roughly, matrilineal-matrilocal descent and better social conditions for all of society’s members versus patrilineal-patrilocal (or neo-local, like ours, largely, _now_) and limited liberties. I’ve commented on this before with a basic cross-cultural reference (Linda Stone- forget book title ATM). It’s as strong a relationship, I would say, as when, e.g., EoH notes a fundamental incompatibility between democracy and capitalism. Indeed, you can’t unwend the economics and lineage-control in western history.

      Control the women, control the world.

      • Eureka says:

        One more thought — some present-day (well before Trump upended Middle East policy) Kurdish societies might provide good fodder for more harmonic democratic and social role organization. Don’t recall right now where I read good stuff on that.

Comments are closed.