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The Nonmoderns

Posts in this series. The first posts in this series discuss some of the main terms used by Bruno Latour in We Have Never Been Modern. The book defines ours as the age of the Moderns, as contrasted with the Premoderns who came before; that’s the subject of the previous post. In this post I discuss Latour’s view of the conceptual underpinning of the Moderns, and his proposal to amend that constitution for Nonmoderns.

Latour describes the conceptual basis of the moderns by stating what he calls its constitution. The meaning of a constitution is its guarantees. Here are the four guarantees of the modern constitution, taken from figure 5.2, Kindle Loc. 2834:

The first guarantee is that Nature is transcendent, that is, it cannot be affected by us humans. At the same time, it is immanent, in the sense that once we discover something about nature, we can use it as we see fit. The second guarantee is that society is immanent, meaning we create it and can modify it, but at the same time it transcends any individual, and so it is at the same time transcendent. The third guarantee is that nature and society are totally separate things. Neither affects the other. The fourth guarantee is that the Crossed-Out God is present in our hearts for the purpose of deciding on moral issues that confront us, especially when they involve conflicts between society and nature.

Latour says that the hallmark of modernity in action is the combination of the conscious work of purification which proceeds from the third guarantee, and the unacknowledged creation of quasi-objects. That is underwritten by the third guarantee, which essentially says that everything is either culture or nature, society or science. By implication, there is no space for quasi-objects which are combinations of these two separate things.

I won’t go into all of the implications of this set of guarantees, which Latour works out over Chapters 3 and 4. This part of the book shows how pervasive these guarantees are, and how deeply we rely on them in the way we structure our approach to studying both science and nature and the way we create our society. He also discusses the reactions to modernity by the antimoderns and the postmoderns.

The antimoderns firmly believe that the West has rationalized and disenchanted the world, that it has truly peopled the social with cold and rational monsters which saturate all of space, that it has definitively transformed the premodern cosmos into a mechanical interaction of pure matters. But instead of seeing these processes as the modernizers do – as glorious, albeit painful, conquests – the antimoderns see the situation as an unparalleled catastrophe. Except for the plus or minus sign, moderns and antimoderns share all the same convictions. The postmoderns, always perverse, accept the idea that the situation is indeed catastrophic, but they maintain that it is to be acclaimed rather than bemoaned! They claim weakness as their ultimate virtue, as one of them affirms in his own inimitable style: ‘The Vermindung of metaphysics is exercised as Vermindung of the Ge-Stell’ (Vatimo, 1987, p. 184). Kindle Loc. 2475. [1]

The antimoderns are reactionaries. Latour dismisses the postmoderns as useless. [2] Latour calls for us to become nonmoderns, disavowing the Constitution of the Moderns and the anti- and post- criticisms. He proposes a new set of constitutional guarantees.

The point of this new constitution is to make explicit what we are actually doing. The first Nonmodern guarantee recognizes that the form of our society is in part generated by the things we create, including quasi-objects. Scientific inquiries are driven by what we as a society need or would enjoy far more than by scientists seeking knowledge for its own sake. The second Nonmodern Guarantee recalls the first two guarantees of the Modern Constitution, but recognizes that the transcendence of nature and the immanence of society are related.

The third Nonmodern Guarantee tells us that our society and the nature we are studying are a continuous whole with those of out forebears and of other existing and previous nature/cultures. We are not distinct and new, just the same human beings with different and shinier stuff and some cool new ideas. The fourth Nonmodern Guarantee says that the process of hybridization should be democratically controlled. In a nice turn of phrase, Latour refers to this democracy as the Parliament of Things.


The first three Nonmodern Guarantees seem to me to make the processes of society explicit. We use science to create stuff. The processes of science are not some black box, but something we do for a purpose. Each breakthrough leads to exploitation, and it’s the exploitation that leads to quasi-objects. To take an example, the creation of the transistor was a breakthrough, but the exploitation of the breakthrough has recreated our society in fundamental ways.

The Fourth Nonmodern guarantee seems to me to be the most challenging. The founding principle of the US Constitution is the protection of property rights. One of those rights is ingrained in us from birth: I can do whatever I want to with my property. Only grudgingly do we allow laws to restrict that freedom, and not infrequently the Supreme Court strikes down those laws. Let’s examine what I hope is a neutral example: the dramatic increase in the use of liquid soap.

On one hand, liquid soap has benefits. It is easy to use, and possibly more effective than bar soap. It’s easy to replace and clean up in public lavatories, and it encourages and speeds up hand-washing. That’s also the case in medical facilities and kitchens.

On the other hand, liquid soap uses lots of water and one-time plastics. The water has to be purified, then shipped, so there is an increase in the use of fossil fuels for those purposes. One-time use plastics are made out of fossil fuels, have to be moved several times before final production, and then shipped. Then they wind up in waste dumps.

Liquid soap has become the norm for many of us, so much so that bar soap is becoming rare. Fun fact, the bar soap I like, Trader Joe’s Green Tea soap, has disappeared. I don’t think that was a total market choice. I think it was driven by capitalism’s urge to make money. It’s an example of the US way: Lever Brothers and Colgate-Palmolive can do what they want to with their money, including encouraging the use of liquid soap. They don’t have to and don’t care about any of the negative consequences of their actions. They make their decisions based strictly on the amount of money they can make.

The Fourth Nonmodern Guarantee says that we as a society have a right to weigh the positive and negative consequences of the uses of property. That’s a bold claim in the case of liquid soap. It’s a crucial claim in the case of climate change.

[1] I have no idea what that last quote means. I tried to figure it out, but I can’t, and strangely I don’t care.
[2] Here’s a taste:

The postmoderns have sensed the crisis of the moderns and attempted to overcome it; thus they too warrant examination and sorting. It is of course impossible to conserve their irony, their despair, their discouragement, their nihilism, their self-criticism, since all those fine qualities depend on a conception of modernism that modernism itself has never really practised. Kindle Loc. 2687.

21 replies
  1. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Interesting comment about bar soap as an example of the monopolist’s take on consumer choice. In Henry Ford’s version, you can have any color you want as long as it’s black.

    Given the chemicals the big players put in soap, that’s fine. There are chemically safer alternatives, such as Dr. Bronner’s. That’s true of many consumer hygiene products, such as toothpaste and deodorant. (Razors just became more of a monopoly product than they already were, further limiting choice.)

    There’s a caution, though, because the big guys often buy up niche firms, retain their trademarks, but degrade product quality. That’s also true for “organic” foods.

    • bmaz says:

      Wait, I thought the Schick buying Harry’s thing was actually the one antitrust thing the DOJ curiously fought.

    • earlofhuntingdon says:

      You’re right. The FTC sued on Feb. 3rd, trial to start in June.

      I’m surprised, because so many similar anti-competitive acquisitions were waived through – have been waived through since 2005.

      This administration – and neoncons in general – has no problem with monopoly. That suggests something else is going on than the FTC’s concern about reduced competition. The wet shave market, razors in particular, is heavily concentrated and enormously profitable.

      • bmaz says:

        It is pretty much insane. the group that controls Schick, even merged with Harry’s, would control somewhere around 20% of the relevant market. Gillette would still control somewhere around 50%. Gillette is the issue here and they are pissed and have the lobbyists.

    • Eureka says:

      Yep, this whole comment (and Ed on his favorite soap being taken away) are the stories of my life. Anything I like gets discontinued, dangerously modified, and/or bought out.

      The buy outs lead to my own maxim, contra GOP talking points: the biggest threat to “small businesses” is corporations buying them out.

      I shall have to make my own soap shortly, like everything else.

  2. Eureka says:

    A giant LOL and “Cheers” for that Footnote [1]. I don’t know what it means, either — and also do not care.

  3. roberts robot double says:

    I fell in love with Dr. Bronner’s soaps (All-One-God-Faith!) nearly a quarter century ago. Aptly, it comes in both liquid and bar variants. Over this time, I, too, have wondered what is the least environmentally impactful of the two, but it’s certainly beyond my measurement means to know how long a diluted liquid soap (DB’s liquid soaps absolutely *require* dilution) should last verses the equivalent number of bars, whatever that would be.

    What I do know is that I wish I could have a permanent container that I can just go fill-up, instead of requiring that I throw away a sophisticated multi-part plastic container each time for the liquid soaps. As well, the bar soaps should be available without any paper wrapper at all, but great care would be required to ensure the soaps remain clean. I’m sure, given appropriate carrots and/or sticks, we could massage our distribution system to allow such ‘filling-up’ of, e.g., Fruity Pebbles as well.

    It seems to me that we could significantly lessen our collective environmental impact by starting with cutting down on all the unnecessary packaging of our products. As a huge Pentel Twist Erase III pencil lover, their three-packs of erasers (just bought three) have horrific packaging:

    Of course, those packaging companies and their supply chains have their own economic inertia that I assume would resist such simplifications.

    “So sick of complacence now…”

    • bmaz says:

      I have had it with you “Robot”. You are now using a fake email to register here slurping this Bronner’s stuff. You Are a loquacious charlatan trolling people in our comment section, and you can get the hell out.

    • bmaz says:

      I warned you. And, no, I am not going to send you an email and jerk around with you. Take your bloated bunk elsewhere.

  4. N.E. Brigand says:

    “The gems all turn into flowers or flames, and you will be warned that all you had (or knew) was dangerous and potent, not really effectively chained, free and wild; no more yours than they were you.” — J. R. R. Tolkien, “On Fairy-stories”

    That was the first thing that came to mind upon reading the discussion of the fourth Nonmodern Guarantee and the problem of property. There’s actually quite a bit in “On Fairy-stories” that relates to the points Latour makes, to judge from the quotes above — but Latour would certainly deem Tolkien an Antimodern. (Tolkien described himself as a “backwater reactionary”.)

    As for the Gianni Vattimo quote, it doesn’t help that there’s apparently a typo: “Vermindung” almost certainly should be “Verwindung”. Knowing that will make it much easier for anyone who wishes to dig into the Italian philosopher’s responses to Nietzsche and Heidegger to tease out what he means. I’m not sure it’s worth the effort, but this would be a place to start:

    • Ed Walker says:

      I actually tried Google Translate on Vermindung without success, so thanks for that. Not surprising that there is a type, since apparently the man’s name is Vattimo, not Vatimo.

  5. vvv says:

    A perhaps mundane but useful aside, watch what “liquid” soaps you use: a friend in the food safety industry advises that gel soaps are next to useless in that they don’t penetrate, and true, thin liquid soaps are the most effective.

  6. Rayne says:

    Hey Ed — one of my favorite soap companies makes a Green Tea bar soap.

    They also make a White Citrus Tea bar soap but I think they may be phasing it out.

    I’m a plain old olive oil and olive-oil-lavender bar soap myself, the kind Pre de Provence sells as well as Savon de Marseille.

    Not crazy about the palm oil blend, that’s bad eco-juju.

    Some day I may try making my own soap — soon, even, as I have a gallon of olive oil which seems a bit off and might only be worth making into soap.

  7. Tom says:

    I buy whatever bar soap is cheapest at the Dollar Store. I’m inclined to think that personal cleanliness is overrated and that we’d all be a lot happier and healthier if we were all a little dirtier. And if I had any friends, they’d probably agree with me.

  8. Eureka says:

    An OT fun diversion/ sense-of-self reclaiming sanity break (I consider things like these to be low-rent companions to, say, that letter Sarah Kendzior told everyone to write to themselves about who they are, what their values are, before the hardening of totalitarianism).

    Via a popehat quote tweet:



    1. Skipped school
    2. Broken a bone
    3. Fired a gun
    4. Done drugs
    5. Been in a limo
    6. Gotten a tattoo
    7. Ridden a horse
    8. Sung karaoke
    9. Gotten a ticket
    10. Been arrested
    11. Gone zip lining
    12. Been on TV
    13. Been on a cruise
    14. Gotten a piercing
    15. Smoked
    16. Met a celeb
    17. Been skydiving
    18. Had a 1 night stand
    19. Skinny dipped
    20. Been drunk

    • Eureka says:

      At first, I strenuously objected to “been on a cruise” — keep your norovirus &c, thanks — but then I remember some booze cruises, and they certainly count.

      Not until hours later do I recall also having gone on about a million lake cruises for various events over the years. (Took a bit to de-corporatize / re-broaden the meaning of “cruise”, I suppose.)

      Some of the list items are great for rooting one back into old social fabrics.

      Total: four-ish

    • Alaska Reader says:

      Never have I ever 5, 6, 8, 11, 13, 14, 16, 17, and 18.
      So, 9 points tells me I’ll never understand other people’s value systems.
      Shouldn’t we be testing for something tangible, like honesty and integrity, maybe?

      • Eureka says:

        Well that’s the thing — some of these list items superficially might mean one thing but could just indicate “stuff that’s around in American life” at a given point in time, with the significance being more personal. Like never seeking out karaoke, but passing through — and the machines were all over — and being pulled over to sing along with a friend. Or maybe someone loved karaoke, and sang their heart out every other Thursday. Maybe an office full of social workers had a karaoke ritual to recharge for the next week.

        No big deal or value judgements on anything, just a way to perhaps cue different times and relationships, and fortify the self with memory, in a jagged or unpredictable way, during this harrowing and destabilizing era.

        “Values and integrity” might show up for some folks for some items on that list. But those things are certainly the fodder for more structured, serious pursuits like that letter to oneself that Kendzior recommended writing.

  9. jaango says:

    The Indigenous Post Moderns…

    As an Indigenous person, …a Chicano…and a military vet, Post Moderns will come to be seen as Progressive Nationalists and thusly, the political combat between the Progressive Nationalists versus the Christian Nationalists, effectively demonstrates that today’s Modernists and the Prior-Modernists, are missing in action when it comes to our future. And of a future that challenges this presumptive Christian Nationalists will be the Progessives and in the form of the collective of 18 million military vets that will be leading the way.

    As such, the backbone of these Christian Nationalists consist of the following:

    *opposes public assistance to the poor as a matter of principle—unless the money passes through church coffers;
    *opposes environmentalism and, as a matter of theology, denies the science that human contributions to greenhouse gases causes global warning;
    *opposes gun regulation;
    *supports strong national borders;
    *favors the privatization of schools;
    *favors a gender hierarchy in both the home and church, with women being submissive to men;
    *favors the use of corporal punishment when discipling children;
    *favors government deregulation of business and minimal workers rights; and
    *favors capitalism and property rights.

    Now, need more be said when the “pending” demographics, adds a circumference to politics that is readily dismissed by our media mavens?

    • Rayne says:

      jaango, you don’t need to preface your comments with your identity or ask “does more need to be said?” You’ve been commenting here since 2009. Regulars here know you. Please be more concise because many readers use mobile devices; long comments are a nuisance.

      I’ll argue that you’re making a group which doesn’t exist — progressives can’t be nationalists or they’re not progressives. Limiting social justice to persons identified by nation is not social justice.

      As for Christian nationalism, I believe you’re conflating a subset of white nationalism — evangelical and fundamentalist Christians — with white nationalists.

      Clearly more needs to be said.

  10. Mosswings says:

    My head just exploded.

    If the distinction between Modern and Nonmodern is that Nonmoderns accept limits to Rationalism and the unfettered exploitation of Nature and humans (the First Nations idea of “consider your actions’ effect upon the 7th generation to come”), then Nonmodernism is another way of describing a Rationalist worldview that practices better accounting. There is nothing to my mind that is inherently good or evil about Rationalist or Scientific philosophy and their resulting economies as long as those philosophies remain humble. As was spoken generations ago, there is no such thing as absolute freedom; as we now know to our existential pain, there is no such thing as a monetarily quantifiable “free market”. A Godhead is not required to understand or to enforce this.

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