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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.

Discussion

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.

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[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.

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Subject, Quasi-Object, Object

Posts in this series. Bruno Latour uses words in ways that are not always clear. Discussion of unusual usages of words may appear in earlier posts.

We Have Never Been Modern is Bruno Latour’s effort to define the nature of modernity. Latour looks back in time to a point where we can see the beginnings of modernity. [1] The point he chooses is the 1660s, shortly after the end of the English Civil War, when Thomas Hobbes and Robert Boyle had a war of words over their respective conceptions of society and science.

The air pump was a recent invention, and Boyle and his associates spent a lot of time and money improving it. Boyle used the air pump to conduct experiments on air and air pressure. He described the methods and results in a a 1660 book, an early example of the scientific method.

Thomas Hobbes published Leviathan in 1651. The book is usually thought to be the first on political philosophy, an effort to understand the nature and structure of human society as a human construction, not a divine creation. He offers his ideas about the best way to organize society.

Each man wrote on the subjects covered by the other, according to Latour. But eventually people focused on Hobbes as a student of society and ignored his abstruse science. Boyle’s methods became the model for science, and his writings on politics and society were ignored. Nature and society became two separate things. Society doesn’t change the laws of nature, and nature doesn’t impact the structure of society. Society is about people, and science is about things. Latour identifies this as the decisive step to modernity, separating it from previous societies he identifies as premodern.

The distinction between nature and society has endured to the present. The two poles of our thinking are society, culture, people, the state on one hand; and nature, things, objects, on the other. [2] In order to study these separate topics, we are constantly involved in the process of purification, as Latour calls it. Science tries to rid the object of all traces of the subject. People studying society try to erase all traces of objects from their studies.

At the same time, we are engaged in a different process, which Latour variously calls hybridization, mediation, or translation, [3] This is our constant creation of new objects made up of elements of society and nature mixed together. We have made a vast number of these things that don’t fit the two categories of nature and society.

An air pump is a thing, but it talks to people about other things. Not everyone can hear it speak: only specially trained people are able to comprehend the message. Today there are instruments like the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), so vast that they are hard to comprehend, staffed by 17,500 people, using thousands more computers, detectors, and other pieces of equipment. The LHC tells specially trained people things about fundamental particles. The air pump and the LHC are tools to study nature, but they also change us and they change our understanding of nature, and society as well.

Hobbes’ theory helps us understand and work with government and power, but there were entities that exercised power outside the government in his time, including the Church of England, masters, guilds and others. That’s true now, when we have enormous corporations which organize the production and distribution of vast amounts of material goods and services; giant universities; enormous churches; and more.

Latour calls all these objects and entities hybrids or quasi-objects. I understand a quasi-object as a node which focuses the efforts of people and other objects and at the same time changes the people and the other objects and is changed by them. It is something in itself, but its existence and its meaning depend on human action. Here’s an explanation by Levi Bryant:

Quasi-objects are objects that are neither quite natural nor quite social. … [T]hey are operators that draw people together in particular relations as well as drawing people into relations with other nonhuman objects while being irreducible social constructions in the semiotic [and?] in the humanist sense.

Quasi-objects do not fit neatly into either society or nature, but are composites, featuring some of the attributes of each. It’s easy to see how this applies to the Large Hadron Collider. It is the node around which many people gather to work at their projects. Some use it to think about dark matter. Some use it to confirm the existence of the Higgs Particle, some fix the electro-magnets, some run the massive electrical plant that supplies the power, some clean the floors and some watch the budget. There are various kinds of governance, for example, the group that decides who gets to use it, and the group that decides what upgrades to add.

The LHC cannot be understood as a physical object, nor as a social construct. It is a quasi-object.

Discussion

This distinction, between society/culture, science/objects, and quasi-objects is central to an understanding of this book. In future posts I’ll look at some of Latour’s analysis of modernity in terms of these categories. For now, two brief points.

1. One aspect of this distinction seems to be that we understand society through Hobbes’ lens, as organized around human beings and their society. Politics, economics, and other social sciences study parts of society. Each of them focuses on human beings, and ignores the objects with which humans construct society.

We understand science through Boyle’s’ lens, as the investigation of material things. Physics, chemistry, biology, math, all are focused on understanding the rules of operation of the physical world. To do this we isolate the object under study, and erase all traces of human society from it and the process of studying.

Neither of these lenses enable us to come to grips with quasi-objects, because each leaves out important aspects of quasi-objects. As a result, moderns have ignored quasi-objects, allowed them to proliferate, and ignored the consequences of ignoring them. Mostly we simply allow quasi-objects to come into existence with no thinking or planning. Our general rule is that people do stuff, and then we deal with the consequences, pleasant or unpleasant, through law and regulation or through the courts. Two obvious examples: Elon Musk is throwing random satellites into space and no one stops him from clouding our ability to look into the starry night. Southeastern Australia caught fire.

2. As Latour says in Sec. 1.2, “… America before electricity and America after are two different places; ….” In the same way, America with cell phones is a different place than America without cell phones. Those differences are how we recognize a quasi-object.

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[1] I offer a rationale for this approach in the Introduction to this Series.

[2] The subject-object distinction has been a fixture of philosophy since the ancient Greeks. I read Latour to say that premoderns did not use that distinction, leaving it to academic speculation where it belongs.

[3] These words have a technical meaning, to which I may return in a later post.

Culture and Neoliberalism

My last series summarizes the state of my neoliberalism project. It turns out that I have mostly focused on the economics of neoliberalism. Another aspect of the project was to learn how we as a society got caught up in neoliberalism. None of the work I’ve done so far has given me much of an answer to that, let alone the question of how we get out of this mess.

That part was relatively straightforward. I had a basic understanding of how to read and learn about neoliberalism. I have a background in dealing with the actual economy; I knew most of the mainstream economic ideas from College where I took several courses; and from continued readings over the years; and I’m reasonably fluent in college-level math. When it comes to culture as a field of study I’m pretty much at ground zero, and to tell the truth, I was surprised to see the emphasis on culture in Critical Theory. So, this will be a different kind of reading.

I’m going to start with Pierre Bourdieu, a French Sociologist of the second half of the 20th Century. Bourdieu and Foucault are perhaps the best known French thinkers of that period today, as existentialism and indeed most straight philosophy have fallen out of intellectual favor. Their kind of thinking is not that common in the US; we don’t exactly have an intellectual class, and we never really valued the life of the mind. We have a lot of experts and a lot of smart and well-trained people, but they are rooted in specific fields, and the number who think usefully beyond their areas is small. Historically, the intellectual was a recognized class in France, and even today many French politicians aspire to the title. Can you imagine a US politician who wants to be thought of that way? We elect regular folk just bursting with common sense, which probably explains something about our inability to solve problems.

But there is another factor: David Brooks. I read parts of Brooks’ New York Times column regularly as a check on my own ambitions. One common form of column is “I read this article and it proves conservatives like me are right and liberals are killing society.” Here’s a lovely example of High Brooksism. I think wants to say that neoliberalism is a bad theory because it emphasizes the isolated individual and rejects communal and social values, but he can’t because neoliberalism is at the heart of conservativism. Too bad, because it would enable him to criticize Republicans and most Democrats, and it would move him outside the boundaries of “both sides do it” and into an open policy space. But, as he says, people over 56 years old like him are clueless, so we get this absurd conclusion from the incoherent mess above it:

Congressional Republicans think a successful tax bill will thwart populism. Mainstream Democrats think the alienation problem will go away if we redistribute the crumbs a bit more widely. Washington policy wonks build technocratic sand castles that keep getting swept away in the cultural tides.

I absolutely don’t want to be like Brooks with his unmoored rationalizations and his pretense of intellectualism. My goal is to see what other people think and try to make sense of it. To that end, I think someone who sees things from a perspective outside my own culture will give me more distance, as was the case with my earlier readings.

I first heard of Bourdieu some time ago, I don’t remember where or when, but the gist was that his book Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste was a must-read. Now I want to read it, because some of the issues around taste seem important in the US, where all our choices seem to define us. But as with Critical Theory, I’m going to start with an overview of Bourdieu to learn some of his basic concepts. So, the next book is David Swartz’s Culture and Power: The Sociology of Pierre Bourdieu. I’ve started it, and it seems very readable.

I have a couple of basic thoughts to start with, and we’ll see if they hold up.

1. I’m pretty sure that culture isn’t the outcome of the economy, as might be the point of early Critical Theory. It seems likely that people’s natural creativity just pours out. I read The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby by Tom Wolfe years ago, and came away with the idea that the people in that car culture, just like the surfers, the anti-war groups, and the disco dancers in Saturday Night Fever were happily living in the shadows of the economy, not straining for success in the broader world, but creating their own milieu with what was at hand. Of course, corporate culture sucked the life out of those cultures, or they died on their own, but the impulse to use the conditions of life in new and inventive ways never dries up. We can watch the process as gaming culture grows up and gets turned into an ESPN sport. I’m sure the kids will be moving on, leaving the olds farther out of touch.

2, When I was growing up, there was this trope about lowbrow, middle-brow and high-brow taste. We have plenty of classifications of people today: tribalists, angry white people, Evangelicals, Berniecrats; personality types like INTJ, and authoritarian submissives; and of course all the marketing categories, like these in Wikipedia. These characterizations feel ad hoc and instrumental, and no matter how fine the segments are, they hardly seem adequate to the complexities of most of the people I have ever met. But we can’t think clearly about a population of 320 million without categories, so some kind of classification seems important.

3. The first book about psychology I read was I’m OK, You’re OK, by Thomas Anthony Harris. I thought I knew something when I was done. Then I read some Freud, Jung, Adler and other actual psychologists (badly, I should add), and realized I had been sucked into a pop psych book. It wasn’t useless, but close. I want to avoid that. More pointedly, I don’t want a system. I think we all come in in the middle, including the Frankfurt School and Bourdieu and Foucault, and try to figure things out as best we can. What I’m looking for is some sort of starting framework that can be used and evaluated and reformed, over and over until it needs replacement by a better framework.

What I don’t want is sloppy, disjointed and internally inconsistent thinking, theories unconnected to data, or random collections of data interpreted ideologically. And no thought leaders, whatever the hell they are. And no David Brooks.