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We Have Never Been Modern: Conclusion

Posts in this series. In earlier posts I focused on the parts of We Have Never Been Modern by Bruno Latour that seemed relevant to my discussion of neoliberalism and its discontents. I did not discuss a number of fascinating issues raised by Latour about the state of philosophy today, and I did not exactly describe his overall project. This post will conclude my discussion of this book with two thoughts.

Background

Latour thinks the big problem with modernity is that it enables us to ignore quasi-objects and their impact on us as individuals and as a society. We do this because the tools we use to learn about things are focused on the separation of culture and nature through the work of purification. We assign objects for study to one or the other category, and use the tools we developed to study that domain to look at the problem. Latour thinks these tools are inadequate to study things that are combinations of culture and nature, which he calls quasi-objects.

The Role of Neoliberalism

Latour is worried about the unregulated and misunderstood quasi-objects that have overrun our society. He thinks what he calls the Modern Constitution facilitated the onslaught. He was writing in the early 1990s, as neoliberalism was emerging into our consciousness as the dominant economic structure. It’s not surprising that Latour ignored the important role played by this economic system. We didn’t even have a name for that system when he wrote. Latour’s foresight in recognizing the the problems that would result from failure to control quasi-objects was impressive.

Looking back, I’d argue that a big part of the blame for the failure to control quasi-objects should be assigned to the free-market economists who shilled for the capitalists, ignored any negative consequences of the changes that were underway, and assured everyone that markets were the only solution to any problem that involved the allocation of resources. One obvious example of the contribution of neoliberalism to our current plight is the failure of economists to pay attention to rising inequality and the possibility of domination of the economic and political systems by the richest capitalists and their minions.

As another example of the contribution of neoliberalism, consider the outbreak of the coronavirus COVID-19. We first saw a coronavirus in the SARS epidemic of 2003. The study of the SARS virus ramped up and began to produce results. Then the possibility of an epidemic evaporated, and work slowed to a crawl. Then the new coronavirus, COVID-19 emerged. Now we are forced into a panic-driven research project.

There was no profit in studying the coronavirus family, and therefore there was no reason to think about it during the 16 years since the emergence of SARS. The role of government is to fill that gap, but the neoliberal state is supposed to operate like a business, so government funding dried up. The government was further weakened by the selection of an incompetent and ignorant businessman as President:

“I’m a businessperson. I don’t like having thousands of people around when you don’t need them,” Trump said. “When we need them, we can get them back very quickly.”

This is a perfect example of the consequences of electing fools. But it’s also an indictment of neoliberalism.

The Role of Purification

Latour blames a lot of the problem on the work of purification, the separation of nature from culture. Purification weeds out all aspects of culture when we study the objects of nature, and weeds out all aspects of nature when we study society/culture. Obviously it’s impossible to study a rock or a proton or COVID-19 without isolating it from all other aspects of nature and culture. The work of purification is essential to any formal study of material things. But we seem to think it should be used to study culture, and that we can learn all we need to know about society through specialized tools developed to study canonical societal categories, such as politics or the economy.

The choice of things to be studied, and to some extent the methods of study, are embedded in our social structures. This fact is perhaps less important in the study of nature, but it remains a crucial fact. There are many areas of scientific research that would be valuable. The selection of the things to be studied is a function of culture, not nature. Stupid choices have horrible effects, as the failure to study coronaviruses demonstrates.

The study of culture works the same way. There is some value in looking at specific aspects of culture through closed-off academic study, such as political science, sociology, or economics. We can gain some insights into the workings of our broader culture through these disciplines. But they are not exhaustive of our understanding of culture as a whole, or of society in the broadest sense. For that we need new modes of thinking. In addition, these disciplines ignore the role played by science in the way society operates. This last is the central insight of the Nonmodern Constitution, which I discuss here.

Latour emphatically rejects postmodern thought as a way forward. In this book, he suggests applying the principles of our broadest discipline, anthropology, to our own society. That would be possible if we stripped out the Modern Constitution with its absolute separation between culture and nature and its insistence that we are not like our ancestors and our society is not like theirs in any way.

In later works, he offers a broader method of studying quasi-objects. which is generally known as Actor-Network Theory. He doesn’t like the name, for reasons discussed in this article. For further discussion, check out this Wikipedia entry.

Conclusion

We can no longer ignore the way quasi-objects change us as individuals and as a society. We have to face up to the changes they make in nature, through climate change, piles of waste, and consumption of resources. Latour thinks we need a new kind of intellectual discipline for the study of what he calls collectives, which include all groupings of people and things. I think this is a fascinating idea.

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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.

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

Posts in this series.
Subject, Quasi-Object, Object
Quasi-Objects For Moderns And Premoderns
The Nonmoderns
We have Never Been Modern: Conclusion
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.

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[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.

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