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We Have Never Been Modern

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With the rise of science, we moderns believe, the world changed irrevocably, separating us forever from our primitive, premodern ancestors. But if we were to let go of this fond conviction, Bruno Latour asks, what would the world look like? His book, an anthropology of science, shows us how much of modernity is actually a matter of faith.

What does it mean to be modern? What difference does the scientific method make? The difference, Latour explains, is in our careful distinctions between nature and society, between human and thing, distinctions that our benighted ancestors, in their world of alchemy, astrology, and phrenology, never made. But alongside this purifying practice that defines modernity, there exists another seemingly contrary one: the construction of systems that mix politics, science, technology, and nature. The ozone debate is such a hybrid, in Latour’s analysis, as are global warming, deforestation, even the idea of black holes. As these hybrids proliferate, the prospect of keeping nature and culture in their separate mental chambers becomes overwhelming—and rather than try, Latour suggests, we should rethink our distinctions, rethink the definition and constitution of modernity itself. His book offers a new explanation of science that finally recognizes the connections between nature and culture—and so, between our culture and others, past and present.

Nothing short of a reworking of our mental landscape, We Have Never Been Modern blurs the boundaries among science, the humanities, and the social sciences to enhance understanding on all sides. A summation of the work of one of the most influential and provocative interpreters of science, it aims at saving what is good and valuable in modernity and replacing the rest with a broader, fairer, and finer sense of possibility.

168 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1991

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About the author

Bruno Latour

141 books625 followers
Bruno Latour, a philosopher and anthropologist, is the author of Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory, Our Modern Cult of the Factish Gods, An Inquiry into Modes of Existence, and many other books. He curated the ZKM exhibits ICONOCLASH and Making Things Public and coedited the accompanying catalogs, both published by the MIT Press.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 127 reviews
Profile Image for Boria Sax.
Author 32 books67 followers
May 11, 2014
It seems evasive, and even a bit comic, how thinkers in the past century or so, increasingly designate eras with the prefix "post": "post-Christian," "post-Holocaust," "post-industrial," "post-structuralist,"post-modern," "post-humanist," and so on. . . These labels define a period by what it follows rather than what it is, so they do not really describe it at all. According to Latour in We Have Never Been Modern, this is because the fundamental characteristic of modernism has been the a strictly linear conception of time, which is divided up according to revolutionary events and ideas, by which everything is irrevocably changed. Those ruptures between the past and present, in turn, are projections of a similarly abrupt division of the world between the realms of nature, ruled by inexorable laws, and of civilization, determined by human freedom. The breaks with the past are, however, an illusion, since "we have never been modern," and historical changes are neither progressive not irreversible. By drawing on the work of historians, such as Furet, and anthropologists, such as Descola, Latour is able to describe intellectual dynamics with remarkable precision. Despite what I think is may at times be unnecessary obscurity, I have rated the book a five, in recognition of the importance of its thesis.
Profile Image for Marc.
3,068 reviews1,089 followers
September 8, 2022
I have no problem conceding that this rather thin book went a bit over my head. The blurb promised a spectacular new insight into human reality and history. And the bold claim that we only seemingly joined modernism stimulated my curiosity. But Latour writes from out of his own universe, uses quite particular jargon (which he hardly explains) and terminology that differs from what the rest of the intellectual world ordinarily uses (eg he uses the word 'society' for something that almost everyone else would describe as 'culture') and many passages just remained too obscure for me.

And yet: what I did understand, did resonate somehow. I'll try to translate it into my own words: what we understand as modernity (the Enlightened, rational-scientific view of the world) is not a radical break with the foregoing, and it must certainly not be interpreted in terms of progress; on the contrary, it is even a downright wrong view. That is because modernity rests on a radically perceived difference between nature (matter) and culture (society), whilst - according to Latour - both belong to the same realm and can't be divided; the distinction even is clear nonsense. As a consequence, self-proclaimed modernism gives us the illusion that everything it creates is new and different and above all better (an accumulation of knowledge and insights). And thus it throws us into an arrogance that dazzles and it disguises that in fact we are heading for a catastrophe (hence the strong ecological accent in later works by Latour).

I think I do see what Latour means, and maybe he is partially right (but in a much more nuanced way): western modernism indeed makes a clear distinction between nature and culture, and underlying that, also between subject and object, and it claims a universalism and a truthfulness that just isn't realistic. In the past months I read of a lot of books on systems thinking and these have made that clear to me, too. In that respect I can follow his line of thought. And Latour's critique on how we look way too linear and too progressive at history and time really appealed to me; these passages in the book contain fundamentally valuable insights. See my review in my Senseofhistory alias: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...

But I'm not convinced modernism in general makes such a clear break between nature and culture as Latour claims. And the author uses his point of departure to radically deal with everything and everyone within modernism (in fact all -isms are done with, and paradoxically most of all postmodernism, while Latour's view in fact amounts to pure deconstruction and is therefore essentially postmodernist). Moreover, if we follow his claim that the starting point of modernism is a real illusion (that ‘nonsensical’ separation between nature and culture), how then is it possible that we are heading for a (ecological, nuclear ...) catastrophe? The prospect of apocalypse seems to prove that that distinction really did make a difference! It seems to me that Latour got trapped in a thought paradox that he himself constructed.

No, I’d rather prefer the much more constructive approach of systems thinking that in its own way tackles the simplistic aspects of modernism, but at least makes an attempt to formulate meaningful alternatives. But then again, maybe I'm wronging Latour and I just misunderstood him. Anyway, this clearly is a thoughtprovoking booklet!
Profile Image for Sense of History.
387 reviews432 followers
January 8, 2023
In this review, I’m going to limit myself to what Bruno Latour (1947-2022) has to say about the wrong history-vision of modernism (my general review here). According to Latour self-proclaimed modernism uses a an incorrect view of time: too linear, and thus too much in function of completely misguided progressive thinking. For the author this goes back to a false starting point: the artificial separation between nature (materiality) and culture (which he calls society, the world of symbolic representations and social relations). Latour certainly goes too far in his criticism, but what he has to say about looking at time and history does fit in with one of my basic intuitions. Namely that we have to pay attention not to see the present as 'new' and 'different', and certainly not always as 'better'. The image of the irriversible arrow of time, (what has happened, has happened, and cannot be reversed) of course also responds to a basic intuition, but that arrow must not make us blind to a deeper layer of time that is not completely linear, that is never really over, on the contrary: "the past stays, and even returns" (94). Latour correctly writes that the linear view of modernists makes them blind for the power of the past, which always remains immanent in the present. Therefore, there can’t be a clear break. In essence, this is the never-ending discussion about continuity and discontinuity in history.

For Latour, we just have to look at time and history differently. And he doesn’t propose a definitive alternative theory, but only a hypothesis, which must give an impression of what he means: "For example, suppose we group contemporary elements along a spiral rather than a line. We have a future and a past, but the future has the form of a circle expanding in all directions and the past is not exceeded, but taken over, repeated, surrounded, protected, recombined, reinterpreted and redone. Elements that seem distant if we follow the spiral can be very close if we compare the loops. Conversely, very contemporary elements, judging by the line, become very distant if we travel a ray. Such a temporality does not oblige to use the labels 'archaic' or 'advanced' since any cohort of contemporary elements can conjoin elements of all times. In such a context, our actions are finally recognized as polytemporal"(p 102).

Latour here expresses something that really touches me and therefore contains a ground of truth. When I was about twenty I read almost the entire oeuvre of the French writer Marguerite Yourcenar, and in her novels she makes that intuitive feeling of polytemporality palpable: not only in her own life, but also in the solidarity with that of others (the Roman emperor Hadrian for example); in our deformed modernity we overlook the fact that every human life, every existence is confronted with almost always the same challenges, and that there is a far greater kinship within humanity (and history) over times and generations. That appealed to me a lot in Yourcenar, and I recognize it now again in Latour.

But at the same time I think it is dangerous to stick to this vision too absolutely. We also have to recognize that times are always different, that contexts change, and - though I guess Latour will fight this - sometimes change fundamentally. The very fact that our modernity (if it really introduced a false view of reality) has brought us to a point where we are capable of destroying every existence on this planet (very quickly in a nuclear war, or a bit slower via climate changing), this insight on its own makes it clear that the image of the irreversible arrow of time is not completely wrong. History and time, it remains a fascinating issue!
Profile Image for Jes.
273 reviews19 followers
October 23, 2014
(Fair warning: I'm writing this review in a bad mood.) Here's how I feel about Latour: but, but, but. I want to love Latour, but I just can't. I find his work interesting and super generative, but it brings me almost no joy or pleasure. He's very clear and easy to follow, but he also writes some of the most unlovely prose ever. (Maybe it's just the translation, but still.) I'm excited to use him in my own work, but sometimes the experience of reading him is like being trapped in a room with a guy who is telling me, in painstaking detail, what his dissertation is about and why nobody has ever had this idea before, ever, in the history of always. I have also always imagined Latour as having a foghorn voice, and when I looked him up on Youtube just now I discovered that it's TRUE, IT'S ALL TRUE. Neither WHNBM nor Reassembling the Social seem to be interested in having a conversation. I also hate theorists who have it all figured out. Blah blah blah blah blah science studies. The best parts of this book were the parts that were most reminiscent of Foucault. Blah blah Latour's unshakeable confidence. Jesus, I need a drink.
Profile Image for Milad Jahani.
26 reviews6 followers
August 17, 2016
نظریه "ما هیچوقت مدرن نبوده‌ایم"( برونو لاتور) بهترین توضیح از شرایط حال حاضر ما انسان‌ها را در بر دارد. این نظریه نشان می‌دهد که دنیا به شکل برگشت ناپذیری تغییر کرده و برای همیشه از مردمان متمدن جدا شده است؛ دنیایی که با پذیرش مفهوم مدرن نتایجی متفاوت از آن را در زیست همگان پدید می آورد. به طور مثال نویسنده در آغاز کتاب با عناوینی که شاید روزانه با آن مواجهیم بحث خود را شروع و از تناقضات زیست مدرن به پیش می راند. عناوینی چون نابودی جنگل‌ها، گرم شدن کره زمین و حتی مباحثاتی چون سیاه چاله که پیوندی نامبارک از نتایج مدرن شدن است.
بنا به اعتقاد لاتور، توجه دقیق مدرن‌ها ( اندیشمندان و متفکران) به جهان هستی و تمایز گذاری بین طبیعت و جامعه، ذهنیت و عینیت، مردم و چیزها در سایه سیاست، علم و تکنولوژی در هم می آمیزد و مفهومی ناواضح از مدرن شدن را ارائه می دهد.
بنا به پیشنهاد لاتور ما باید دوباره به این تمایزات بیندیشیم و پیوندهای میان طبیعت و فرهنگ و انسان مدرن را باز اندیشیم.
میلاد جهانی
Profile Image for Michael.
214 reviews52 followers
January 26, 2010
This summary is probably going to be a bit flawed and definitely elides some of Latour's critical moves. I really enjoyed reading this, and thought it was very insightful.

Latour starts his book with 1989: the fall of the Berlin Wall marked the triumph of capitalism over communism, and conferences on global climate and environment in Paris, London, and Amsterdam showed that our domination of nature was harmful. How do we respond in these times—to, in some ways, the failures of modernism? If liberation from the social (communism's goal) was a failure, and the domination of nature was a failure, to put it simply, how do we respond? Latour articulates three responses: 1) the anti-modern response, which claims we should no longer attempt to end domination of humans and we must no longer try to dominate nature; 2) the postmodern response, which is skeptical of both of these reactions, "suspended between belief and doubt"; and 3) the modernist response, which "decide[s:] to carry on as if nothing has changed"—a response that "seems hesitant, sometimes even outmoded" (9).

Latour then moves to rearticulate modernism in order to understand it. Modernism, he argues, works through two practices: purification of nonhuman nature and human culture (these two things are seen as separate) and translation, which "creates mixtures between entirely new types of beings, hybrids of nature and culture" (10). Modernism works by keeping these two processes separate. Chapter two chronicles part of the development of modernism, Hobbes's invention of politics and Boyle's invention of science ("invention" being my perhaps too simple word to summarize this). Latour argues that these should not be viewed as two separate inventions, but rather as "one, a division of power between the two protagonists, to Hobbes, the politics and to Boyle, the sciences" (25)—the invention of "our modern world" (27).

Latour outlines the paradoxical guarantees of modernism:
1) "even though we construct Nature, Nature is as if we did not construct it"
2) "even though we do not construct Society, Society is as if we did construct it"
3) "Nature and Society must remain absolutely distinct: the work of purification must remain absolutely distinct from the work of mediation" (32)
4) God does not intervene in Nature or Society, but is nevertheless there, personal, and useful (32-33)

Latour concludes that "the modern Constitution allows the expanded proliferation of the hybrids whose existence, whose very possibility, it denies" (34). Thus, modernism and modern critique becomes invincible through its paradoxes (37): it can critique any view and dismiss it as "premodern" by using "the six resources of the modern critique" without admitting that these resources are paradoxical (38).

Latour goes on to argue that "No one has ever been modern" (47) and proposes instead a "nonmodern" (not to be mistaken for antimodern) view that "takes simultaneously into account the moderns' Constitution and the populations of hybrids that that Constitution rejects and allows to proliferate" (47).

Chapter 3 introduces Latour's concept of "quasi-objects," those "strange new hybrids" that the modern Constitution denies exist (51). To just briefly summarize Latour's arguments in this chapter: we need to stop understanding modernism as some great, revolutionary break from the past; Nature and Society need to be explained together rather than used as explanatory terms (81); we should instead focus on the historicity of quasi-objects (85), which allow us to trace networks (89).

Chapter 4 proposes Latour's "principle of symmetry" that argues that both Nature and Society need to be explained, but that this "explanation starts from quasi-objects"—that is, we cannot use Nature and Society to explain things; rather, Nature and Society need to be explained through quasi-objects, through networks (95).

In Chapter 5, Latour proposes what we need to keep and what we need to jettison from various thoughts. From modernism, we can keep quite a bit, but we must leave behind the purification of Nature and Society. From "premoderns" we can keep their hybridization and multiplication of nonhumans (132-133). Latour then proposes that we view human as "A weaver of morphisms," a creator of hybrids or quasi-objects (137). Latour's discussion of nonmodern focuses largely on his important point, that we focus on hybrids, replacing the modern "clandestine proliferation of hybrids" and instead focus on regulating and agreeing upon certain productions of these hybrids in democratic ways (142).
Profile Image for Meghan Fidler.
226 reviews20 followers
October 21, 2011
Moving further than the oft quoted introductory Ozone example, the continuity of Latour's analysis is stunning. Positioning the concept of 'modern' against history, progress, and science. Latour demonstrates this by including the agency of material objects alongside the founding formation of Western Science. Modernity becomes a paradox which was imposed upon colonized peoples around the globe:
“Whatevery they do, Westerners bring history along with them in the hulls of their caravels and their gunboats, in the cylinders of their telescopes and the pistons of their immunizing syringes… In Westerner’s eyes the West, and the West alone, is not a culture, not merely a culture.”
Profile Image for Deep.
36 reviews45 followers
April 7, 2022
We Have Never Been Modern sets out to investigate the production of hybrids and networks. To dismantle given analytical categories like "the social" and "the natural". These categories are brought about by the modernist project of purification, the separation of the world into poles of nature/natural sciences and culture/society/subjectivity. It sees itself as tidying up premodern superstition into rigorous sciences of man or matter. Which pole has primacy is a constant tension - humans are a sum of nerves and chemicals that are at the same time free human subjects, a subjectivity that disappears in the iron cage of society... and so on. Modernity thrives on its own tensions, its diversity allows it to overwhelm all the worlds that came before it. Yet the project is in truth not a work of purification as much as bifurcation. A vast greyzone opens up between the poles, the home of the hybrids or quasi-objects. Where exactly do we place natural gas, a chemical substance deeply interwoven in the political? The further these poles separate from another the vaster this greyzone and the more hybrids proliferate. Latour's project is, let's be clear, not a critique against modernity, nor a claim that modernity does not exist: it's a critique of our inability to recognize what modernity is doing and thus do it intentionally.

I want to make this point clear as it points the reader towards the core philosophical conservatism of Latour's project, a conservatism that is prioritized above his commitment to critique. As a consequence, Latour never dares chase his concepts to the point where they actually produce something substantially new. Rather, all investigation is halted or twisted before they risk turning against the liberal modernist project Latour wants to safeguard. This is not a discovery of my own, Latour explicitly and repeatedly makes this point all on his own. He's happy to appropriate parts of "postmodernists", deconstruction or phenomenology, but prides himself on leaving out anything that could allow totalities to slip back in. There can never be total narratives of history, or substantial historical change for that matter (modernity is only evaluated as better at producing hybrids than the systems that came before), as such grand narratives allow the twin horrors of "socialism and naturalism" or other ideologies that would seek to substantially alter history's stasis - i.e. totalitarianisms.

Therefore: while the book sets out to praise the hybrids and networks Latour is careful to never actually let these interact. Networks are given extension, but never mass; they must glide into each other, but never meet. After all, if a network has mass it has weight. Suddenly we don't have only hybrids and networks but also strata. One network gliding over its contemporaries like a continental shelf; or the overdetermination of a specific situation by multiple networks. If so, we've left the door open for the very totalities Latour seeks to exclude. He does not dare follow through with his own project by rigorously following through how "the social" is constructed, instead relegating it to a problem of false consciousness.

The vision of Latour's Actor-Network Theory found in this book is best described as an atomism without the clinamen. It explicitly rejects any event: the atoms never swerve against each other to form clusters, distances and lines which are traced to form networks; rather, the networks appear to be transcendental categorizations of pre-existing particles falling ceaselessly through the void. All of early modernity can be found in the network around Boyle's apparatuses yet this network can only ever be as light as air; all the parts are presumed to pre-exist it, only gaining their quasi-object status as the network is explicated. Further, the network itself must never become a part of another - affecting or becoming affected by it. For if a network ever gains weight one is not speaking of a timeline organized by the same transhistorical processes of hybridization, only measured in degrees. Instead we've brought back history: pasts and futures, a recognition that the world as it is today isn't all that it could ever be.
Profile Image for Feliks.
496 reviews
August 28, 2019
A sad instance where one of my favorite authors has written a terrible book. Professor Bruno Latour is the famed sociologist who skewered the scientific community with his marvelous expose, 'Laboratory Life'. He's a man to respect and possesses a formidable career. Although I eagerly anticipated this other title of his (it seemed very much to fit my taste) I utterly loathed this work just a few pages into its mouth. Plunging down the gullet and gamboling through the rest of its coarse anatomy, revealed sundry horrors which I shall wisely choose to avoid.

The chief feature which stands out here is the rambling, garrulous nature of the discourse. Seems to be one of those books where a stymied egghead just indulges himself in whatever random, pent-up woolgathering he wants to air to his fellows. It is not at all a measured, stately, well-tempered, or deliberate argument; much more of a 'rant'.

Secondly, it's all rather a 'bait-and-switch'. I had hoped from the title that LaTour would deliver a friendly, accessible, sociological inquiry into the history of human traditions and folklore and social habits; I had hoped it would be concrete and chewy and written in layman's terms. Such was not the case.

It is at all points abstract, belabored, and circuitous; LaTour splashes around in great pools of jargon and specialized nomenclature, lathers up with any references which happen to strike him while bathing. Periodically, he rises to gallop off on his particular favorite hobby-horse, that being the dreadful 'sociology diagram'. Beware of this trait in wild-eyed sociologists, my friends! LaTour is a fiend for these strange arrangements of geometric symbols. They're so bad, they would make John Venn, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Edward Tufte all blush in shame.

But even worse is the contextual data LaTour chooses to support his lurid arguments. To describe to us 'how we are not as modern as we think we are', the author starts the book off with a lengthy sampling of modern newspaper headline clips --to the point where it makes you woozy to continue-- and then, each successive chapter harps on this same theme.

Professor LaTour! Why heap piles of disgusting, grotesque evidence of modernity on the head of the Reader if your argument is to reinforce to us and reassure to us that we are not modernized? It obviates the purpose in reading the book in the first place. You're making us green and bilious.

We are already familiar with AIDs and the giant swirling gyre of plastics in the Pacific and the dangers of GMO and nuclear waste and oil spills and cartels and DNA-splicing and all the garbage in today's news. We turn to your book to counteract these unpleasantries, not to learn more about them.

Marking this title as ABANDONED.
Profile Image for Gijs Huppertz.
72 reviews10 followers
July 6, 2022
Een verdere review schrijf ik nog, maar dit boek was overweldigend en ogen openend. Latour’s afrekening met de post-modernisten, anti-modernisten is gedaan vanuit een unieke inslag. Zijn visie op de verwevenheid van natuur en cultuur lijkt zo logisch en is desondanks zo onderbelicht in de afgelopen eeuwen. Het boek is zeker een titel dat herlezen gaat worden en is zeker een van de beste boeken van dit jaar.
Profile Image for Jonathan.
433 reviews24 followers
May 21, 2017
In "We Have Never Been Modern," Bruno Latour challenges the dualism between nature and culture (0r nature and society), a core component of modern thought.

As he says at the start, if you were to read through a newspaper, you would come across various issues that cannot be neatly categorized into one of these two boxes. Take, for example, the issue of the AIDS virus or global warming. Culture (politics, societal attitudes and beliefs, social relationships, etc., etc.) and nature entwine in various ways and at various scales. Nature and culture are experienced as hybrids, not silos.

Modernism, Latour argues, rests on keeping two processes separate: translation (the creation and understanding of hybrids) and purification (the separation into nature and culture). In other words, nature and culture are understood as distinct things that can then be combined. However, as the examples above demonstrate, we don't experience the world as such. And the more we try to keep nature and culture separate, the more they will inevitably become hybrids.

Modernism, argues Latour, rests on an assumed simultaneous immanence and transcendence of nature and society: "The critical power of the moderns lies in this double language: they can mobilize Nature at the heart of social relationships, even as they leave Nature infinitely remote from human beings; they are free to make and unmake the society, even as they render its laws ineluctable, necessary and absolute." Modern thought is full of paradoxes that allow them to slide by critique.

Latour's rejection of modernism does not lead him to postmodernism or to a premodernism. Postmodernism, he argues, suffers from its implicit acceptance of many of the premises of modernism. And premodernism rejects the social and natural experimentation that is one of the modern era's great accomplishments. Rather, we should be more open about the hybrids that dominate our world so that we can engage with them more critically.

"We Have Never Been Modern" is short but very dense. Latour sometimes uses charts or graphs to explain his points, but they don't always work, and some of his argumentation gets bogged down in jargon. Frankly, I think it would have been more digestible if he had included a series of bullet points at the end of each section to outline his key points--i.e., revealing the case he is trying to build with each chapter.
Profile Image for Erdem Tasdelen.
71 reviews21 followers
January 10, 2011
Brilliant stuff. Especially enjoyed the manifesto-like language.

Just one thing though - I'm not ENTIRELY convinced that the separation between Nature and Society instituted by modernity is/was so rigid. This is difficult to argue because Latour would actually agree with this point, what with the proliferation of quasi-objects and what not, but what I mean to say is that I think by delineating this separation so persistently he may be PRODUCING the said intention of total separation, which may not have been as strict as he would have us believe (and of course to this he would say I'm falling into the "linguistic trap" of deconstruction, but I'm okay with that much). Or perhaps I think so because since this book was written in 1991 the quasi-objects have proliferated to an unprecented degree, especially with biopolitics and the internet, so maybe I'm taking it for granted that the separation isn't valid.

In any case, this made me think in new ways, and it's just excellent when a book can do that.
Profile Image for Neil.
15 reviews1 follower
April 22, 2013
Latour is attempting to radically redefine an approach to inquiry - ALL inquiry - through describing both a model for reality and a way of investigating that model which aims to resolve several unresolved issues in inquiry. These range from the issues with the subject/object divide in examining reality, the apparent distinctions between "social" and "natural" science, the apparent distinction between "modern" and other social forms, and the question of just how "scientific" knowledge comes into being, not least how it comes to be qualified as "scientific" in contrast to other forms.

Actor-Network Theory - of which this book is a founding text, although Latour absolutely hated everything about the name - was developed in part in response to the problems that arose when the practice of scientists was first examined from a sociological perspective. The resulting conflict, known informally as the Science Wars, stemmed from the apparent incompatibility between viewing science as a sociological practice just like any other, neither more "true" nor more "false" overall, and the claim of science to be able to provide an understanding of reality superior to any other.

In this book, Latour claims that the problem of incompatibility stems not just from epistemological assumptions about what "truth" is, nor from the different practices performed by researchers into "society" and "nature". Instead, it is the very distinction between "society" and "nature" that is the problem. The core of modern thinking stems from this insistence that each of the two realms is completely separate from each other. "Moderns" like ourselves hold ontradictory claims about reality, but the claims are never seen together. Society and the human world is both constructed by people and the product of clear external rules, while nature and the material world is both external and constructd (or manipulated) by humans.

Latour describes the world as it should be seen as neither wholly "society" nor wholly "nature": these distinctions are processed into reality through empirical and observable processes of "purification". Additionally, and unseen by moderns, a whole host of "quasi-objects" - objects that do not fit either the category of "social" or "natural" - are brought into being. Somehow, it's the very fact of ignoring the existence of such quasi-objects that leads to their proliferation in modern society.

Latour proposes that by paying attention to the "quasi-objects", it becomes possible to collapse all the dualisms that have plagued ontology and epistemology. This is because the creation of objects - whether "social", "natural" or "quasi-object" - can be understood now as the actions not just of purification, but of translation and delegation operating all together across objects. Quasi-objects, previously ignored as mere "intermediaries" circulating meaning without changing it, become understood as "mediators", explicitly implicated in the creation of reality through the operations performed in the circulation of "facts" and meaning.

The operation of purification separates objects into categories, while translation creates new objects from the old. Delegation is the ongoing processual act of circulating meaning by which an object remains in existence without an essence. Transcendent meaning circulates among objects, but there is no immanent "essential" meaning created outside of the circulation. What happens instead is that the circulation contingently stabilises, resulting in what appear to be "essential" qualities (like "social" or "natural") of objects, which have the appearance of essences but the capability to modify meaning or be modified in meaning themselves.

Inquiry of any kind can now proceed by tracing the circulations of meaning, seeing how they develop and how they stabilise (or don't stabilise). The advantage of this approach is that social and natural inquiry now need not be viewed as separate realms. Since the division between "society" and "nature" is not inherent but contingent, there is no need to keep them divided. Additionally, the existence of "quasi-objects" - neither completely social nor completely natural - can be taken into account and productively utilised. Finally, the distinction between "modern" knowledge and "primitive" knowledge can be described in terms that aren't ethnocentric: according to Latour, the difference between the knowledge of the moderns and the knowledge of "primitives" is merely that the "networks" by which reality is constituted as meaningful is down to nothing more than the large, more extensive networks active in "modern" nature-societies.

The disadvantages of this approach, besides being highly counter-intuitive, are that in rendering the practices of inquiry into nature and society as commensurate, it appears to me to have robbed both of them of any justification for actually proceeding, without offering a compensating justification. This is most pronounced in the social side of the question. A vital aspect of Latour's philosophy is that all objects are commensurate, humans no less than any other. What this means is that all objects, human or no, are imbued with human-like properties: "action, will, meaning and even speech" (p136). Does this extend to human values like justice? Ethics? Life? How does one speak of the "right to life" of a non-human object?

The natural sciences, as well as those methods of social inquiry that seek to test hypotheses, fair no better. In order to make his framework do its work, Latour denies that that there is any transcendent "truth" outside of its situatedness within the workings of networks of meaning. He claims that "facts" observed in, say, laboratories, have no validity outside of that observation, and it is only through deployment of the equipment by which such observations can be made that such "facts" can be created and accepted as "universal" - by which he means, universal to the extent that they exist within the network deployed to create them.

Scientific knowledge is therefore robbed of its claim to predictability. Situating the "fact" as a creation of a network, which must be deployed in order for the "facts" to exist beyond a single point in the network, begs the question of how and why to "deploy the network" in order to propagate different "facts". It also robs scientific knowledge of its special claim to reliability, but Latour is quite okay with this, as his explicit goal is to show that "scientific" and non-scientific knowledge only differ in how their various networks of delegating mediators are deployed.

Latour ends with a call to reconsider the divide between "society" and "nature" in a way that is cognisant of the "quasi-objects" that have proliferated, and which accepts the nature/society distinction but gains awareness of its contingent rather than essential nature. An approach to inquiry that doesn't unnecessarily or prematurely reduce the area of study to soley "nature", or solely "society", and which takes into account the possibility of an area of reality that doesn't fall neatly into either category, sounds like a useful thing. But I'm far from convinced that the radically symmetrical approach suggested by Latour's ontology of objects in networks is a good one. True, he's managed to offer a plausible-sounding (once you get past the language) model by which inquiry could proceed. But it seems to me that he's done so at the cost of providing any reason why anyone should. There is no answer to ethical or political questions possible. There isn't even an opportunity to discover anything except a contingent, entirely situational and readily modifiable truth.
279 reviews
February 16, 2009
Latours Grundanliegen der Wissenschaftskritik und der Dekonstruktion des "Great Divide" teile ich aus ganzem Herzen. Warum aber dieser fürchterliche Stil, der einerseits den Gestus des ganz großen Wurfes inszeniert und sich andererseits einer unangenehmen "meine Freunde und ich" Rhetorik bedient (ganz schlimm auf S. 9-10)? Entweder ich habe Herrn Latour nicht richtig verstanden (was ja durchaus möglich ist) oder aber er plustert sich auf und tut so als würde er etwas völlig Revolutionäres und Neues denken, wenn er die 'Reinheit' und Autonomie der Begriffe "Natur", "Subjekt", "Gesellschaft" etc. als unmögliches Phantasma anprangert und die Anerkennung einer grundsätzlichen Hybridität fordert.

Signifikantes Detail dürfte in diesem Zusammenhang sein, dass er zwar von Canguilhem bis Serres keinen großen Namen der französischen Theoriebewegungen auslässt, aber Foucault mit keinem einzigen Sterbenswörtchen erwähnt. Da wundere ich mich als Foucauldianer schon ein wenig. Nun, das an sich ist kein Verbrechen, aber es wirkt doch ein wenig so, als müsse Latour den großen Feind erst selbst aufbauen, um ihn dann vernichtend zu schlagen.

Viele seiner Hinweise sind sicher wichtig und richtig, doch werde ich den Eindruck nicht los, dass sich hier hinter einem Feuerwerk großer Worte im Grunde recht einfache und simple Forderungen verstecken; Forderungen, die deswegen nicht weniger wichtig oder gerechtfertigt wären, die aber auch wesentlich bescheidener und weniger umständlich hätten ausgedrückt werden können. Und an dem hasserfüllten bashen und dissen der Postmodernen oder, wie Latour sie nennt, Pomos störe ich mich auch etwas. Vielleicht sind dies aber auch einfach Idiosynkrasien einer französischen Streitkultur...

Für mich blieb als Fazit der Wunsch nach mehr Substanz und weniger Show.
Profile Image for Jeremy Allan.
204 reviews38 followers
January 9, 2017
Bruno is a funny one. Half philosopher, half mischief maker, half radio evangelist. Perhaps that last one isn't fair, but as I read this masterpiece, hearing his funny names for concepts and phenomena echo in my brain, I couldn't help imagining Robert Duvall shouting over the radio in The Apostle, even if part of the whole project is to step away from dogma, however scientific. I can't and don't want to do justice to this book. Instead, I'll put it on record that I will be coming back to these ideas for a long while to come, and I'll probably reread this book on multiple occasions, as I seek that state I can only concur should be ours: that of the non-modern.
Profile Image for Jesse.
55 reviews25 followers
February 1, 2022
Some interesting and provocative thoughts on the scientific revolution and its consequences for "modernity". But the idea that "quasi-objects" and "mediators" and "networks" resolve serious philosophical disputes about Subject/Object, Society/Nature, etc., when it seems apparent that they are just a useful metaphor for purpose of doing anthropological studies of the "modern" world, seems unjustified. And I get that this was written in the early 90s, but the whole "end of history", "modernity is dead", "the scientific revolution didn't happen", "the French revolution wasn't a revolution", shtick gets old pretty fast.
Profile Image for Virga.
228 reviews49 followers
February 13, 2022
Modernybės dvilypumas nėra jokia naujiena dabar, bet tada, kai Latouras rašė, dar nebuvo tiek akivaizdus. Naujumas, sąvokų griežtumas, atsiribojimas nuo gamtos, kažkokie gryni žmogaus vaizdiniai - visa tai akivaizdu deklaracijose, bet ne praktikoj. Ne tik dauguma moderniųjų sąvokų yra utopinės, bet ir pats modernumas galioja tik tol, kol jį su visais principais aiškiai schematiškai įsivaizduoji. Bet iki šiol rašomi humanitarų darbai apie ikimodernumą, modernumą, postmodernumą kaip apie skirtingų (veikusių ir gyvavusių) gyvensenų principus, nematant skirtumo tarp sąvokos ir jos įgyvendinimo medžiagoj. Ypač sovietinės modernybės kritikams čia turėtų būti parankinė knyga. Tai knyga gera, kaip vaistas, bet tik tuo ir reikalinga :)
Profile Image for JC.
488 reviews32 followers
May 23, 2023
4.5 stars.

I saw a tweet once that called Latour, pejoratively, Malcolm Gladwell for academics. I have never read Malcolm Gladwell, except for the first chapter of Outliers when I was much younger waiting for my parents to finish shopping at Costco. But I know many Marxists who have lots of disdain for Latour, and I think I get it; he sometimes says annoying things and occasionally makes apparent his anti-Marxism. All this being said, I really enjoy reading Latour. And I really enjoyed reading this book. I'm slightly embarrassed about it, but if I'm honest he's very fun to read. His prose is just very enjoyable, and I love how his mind works, even if I find his political objections to Marxist analysis unconvincing.

The butchered summary of Latour’s argument here is exactly as the title says, we have never been modern in the sense of that hierarchy that characterizes civilization by its capacity to distinguish between nature and culture. Throughout the centuries of so-called modernity, there has never been a successful separation between nature and culture, nor is the subject-object dichotomy ever actualized either. The hole in the ozone layer is Latour’s example of this hybrid between nature and culture.

The Crisis of Latour’s first section/chapter concerns three distinct critical approaches:

“naturalization, socialization and deconstruction. Let us use E.O. Wilson, Pierre Bourdieu, and Jacques Derrida - a bit unfairly - as emblematic figures of these three tacks. When the first speaks of naturalized phenomena, then societies, subjects, and all forms of discourse vanish. When the second speaks of fields of power, then science, technology, texts, and the contents of activities disappear. When the third speaks of truth effects, then to believe in the real existence of brain neurons or power plays would betray enormous naiveté.”

Latour goes on to present his ultimatum in defense of actor network theory:

“Either the networks my colleagues in science studies and I have traced do not really exist, and the critics are quite right to marginalize them or segment them into three distinct sets: facts, power and discourse; or the networks are as we have described them, and they do cross the borders of the great fiefdoms of criticism: they are neither objective nor social, nor are they effects of discourse, even though they are real, and collective, and discursive… Yes, the scientific facts are indeed constructed, but they cannot be reduced to the social dimension because this dimension is populated by objects mobilized to construct it. Yes, those objects are real but they look so much like social actors that they cannot be reduced to the reality 'out there' invented by the philosophers of science. The agent of this double construction - science with society and society with science - emerges out of a set of practices that the notion of deconstruction grasps as badly as possible.”

In the second section, Constitution, Latour rather extensively critiques Shapin and Schaffer’s book for explaining things solely by appealing to social power, in the mode of realpolitik, rather than recognizing the agency and power of objects and Boyle’s capacity to speak on behalf of mute objects that have such power. These are some excerpts on Hobbes and Boyle:

“Far from 'situating Boyle's scientific works in their social context' or showing how politics 'presses in upon' scientific doctrines, they examine how Boyle and Hobbes fought to invent a science, a context, and a demarcation between the two. They are not prepared to explain the content by the context, since neither existed in this new way before Boyle and Hobbes reached their respective goals and settled their differences.

The beauty of Shapin and Schaffer's book stems from their success in unearthing Hobbes's scientific works - which had been neglected by political scientists, because they were embarrassed by the wild mathematical imaginings of their hero - and in rescuing from oblivion Boyle's political theories - which had been neglected by historians of science because they preferred to conceal their hero's organizational efforts. Instead of setting up an asymmetry, instead of distributing science to Boyle and political theory to Hobbes, Shapin and Schaffer outline a rather nice quadrant: Boyle has a science and a political theory; Hobbes has a political theory and a science.

…But by good fortune, they agree on almost everything. They want a king, a Parliament, a docile and unified Church, and they are fervent subscribers to mechanistic philosophy. But even though both are thoroughgoing rationalists, their opinions diverge as to what can be expected from experimentation, from scientific reasoning, from political argument - and above all from the air pump, the real hero of the story.”

At times, Latour’s time as doctoral student in philosophical theology shines through:

For Hobbes, Power is Knowledge, which amounts to saying that there can exist only one Knowledge and only one Power if civil wars are to be brought to an end. This is why the major portion of Leviathan is devoted to an exegesis of the Old and New Testaments. One of the great dangers for civil peace comes from the belief in immaterial bodies such as spirits, phantoms or souls, to which people appeal against the judgements of civil power. Antigone might be dangerous when she proclaims the superiority of piety over Creon's 'reasons of State'; the egalitarians, the Levellers and the Diggers are much more so when they invoke the active powers of matter and the free interpretation of the Bible in order to disobey their legitimate princes. Inert and mechanical matter is as essential to civil peace as a purely symbolic interpretation of the Bible. In both cases, it behoves us to avoid at all costs the possibility that the factions may invoke a higher Entity - Nature or God - which the Sovereign does not fully control.

Latour critiques the contextualists in this way:

“Contextualists start from the principle that a social macro-context exists - England, the dynastic quarrel, Capitalism, Revolution, Merchants, the Church - and that this context in some way influences, forms, reflects, has repercussions for, and exercises pressure on 'ideas about' matter, the air's spring, vacuums, and Torricelli tubes. But they never explain the prior establishment of a link connecting God, the King, Parliament, and some bird suffocating in the transparent closed chamber of a pump whose air is being removed by means of a crank operated by a technician. How can the bird's experience translate, displace, transport, distort all the other con­ troversies, in such a way that those who master the pump also master the King, God, and the entire context?”

“Trained in the framework of the social study of sciences, they seem to accept the limitations imposed by the Edinburgh school: if all questions of epistemology are questions of social order, this is because, when all is said and done, the social context contains as one of its subsets the definition of what counts as good science. Such an asymmetry renders Shapin and Schaffer less well equipped to deconstruct the macro-social context than Nature 'out there'. They seem to believe that a society 'up there' actually exists, and that it accounts for the failure of Hobbes's programme.”

“Our authors are thus 'seeing double' themselves, and walking sideways, criticizing science but swallowing politics as the only valid source of explanation. Now who offers us this asymmetric way of explaining knowledge through power? Hobbes again, with his construction of a monist macro-structure in which knowledge has a place only in support of the social order.”

Now for Latour on the Constitution of the Moderns and its guarantees (a constitution over both humans and nonhumans):

““f we are to understand the final obstacle separating us from an anthropology of science, we have to deconstruct Hobbes's constitutional invention according to which there is such a thing as a macro-society much sturdier and more robust than Nature.”

“As with any Constitution, this one has to be measured by the guarantees it offers. The natural power that Boyle and his many scientific descendants defined in opposition to Hobbes, the power that allows mute objects to speak through the intermediary of loyal and disciplined scientific spokespersons, offers a significant guarantee: it is not men who make Nature; Nature has always existed and has always already been there; we are only discovering its secrets. The political power that Hobbes and his many political descendants define in opposition to Boyle has citizens speak with one voice through the translation and betrayal of a sovereign, who says only what they say. This power offers an equally significant guarantee: human beings, and only human beings, are the ones who construct society and freely determine their own destiny.”

“…these two constitutional guarantees must not be taken separately, as if the first assured the nonhumanity of Nature and the second the humanity of the social sphere. They were created together. They reinforce each other. The first and second guarantees serve as counterweight to one another, as checks and balances. They are nothing but the two branches of a single new government.”

“they add a third constitutional guarantee: there shall exist a complete separation between the natural world (constructed, nevertheless, by man) and the social world (sus­tained, nevertheless, by things); secondly, there shall exist a total separation between the work of hybrids and the work of purification.”

He elsewhere characterizes the third guarantee as:

“Nature and Society must remain absolutely distinct: the work of purification must remain absolutely distinct from the work of mediation.”

That is, both Hobbes and Boyle made great efforts to expunge their respective domains from the other, Hobbes to purify the natural from the social, and Boyle to purify the social from the natural. This is the modern world that is coming into being where the mediation that the laboratory performs to represent things/objects is kept separate from the mediation that the social contract performs to represent citizens/subjects.

The fourth guarantee is the crossed-out God; it settled “the question of God by removing Him for ever from the dual social and natural construction, while leaving Him presentable and usable neverthe­ less. Hobbes's and Boyle's followers succeeded in carrying out this task ­ the former by ridding Nature of any divine presence, the latter by ridding Society of any divine origin. Scientific power 'no longer needed this hypothesis'; as for statesmen, they could fabricate the 'mortal god' of the Leviathan without troubling themselves further about the immortal God whose Scripture was now interpreted only figuratively by the Sovereign. No one is truly modern who does not agree to keep God from interfering with Natural Law as well as with the laws of the Republic. God becomes the crossed-out God of metaphysics, as different from the premodern God of the Christians…”

Finally, for Latour, the paradox of modernity is that actually the total separation between nature and culture never practically holds. We are constantly dealing with hybrids in the normal course of everyday life. Strangely this modern constitution denies the possibility of hybrids (monsters, cyborgs, tricksters) while simultaneously enabling their proliferation. And they are everyone, almost everything is a hybrid for Latour.

In Latour’s third section, Revolution, Latour discuses his notion of quasi-objects, which are the hybrids that lie somewhere between nature and culture. However, this framing produces poles of a dichotomy — an unsatisfying dualism that exists to solve the contradiction that objects are nothing but projections/constructions of human minds and that objects are all that exist and totally determine everything (rendering any form of social construction invisible).

Latour instead suggests that objects co-produce society with humans. They are a part of society, of the social (not just nature). They are also more real, harder, than just mere social constructions.

In the fourth section, Relativism, Latour tells anthropologists to “come home from the tropics” and study both humans and nonhumans simultaneously (who he says share symmetrical capacities for agency) while not making a priori distinctions between Westerners and others:

“Why does the West see itself this way? Why would the West and only the West not be a culture? In order to understand the Great Divide between Us and Them, we have to go back to that other Great Divide between humans and nonhumans that I defined above. In effect, the first is the exportation of the second. We Westerners cannot be one culture among others, since we also mobilize Nature. We do not mobilize an image or a symbolic representation of Nature, the way the other societies do, but Nature as it is, or at least as it is known to the sciences - which remain in the background, unstudied, unstudiable, miraculously con­ flared with Nature itself. Thus at the heart of the question of relativism we find the question of science. If Westerners had been content with trading and conquering, looting and dominating, they would not distinguish themselves radically from other tradespeople and conquerors. But no, they invented science, an activity totally distinct from conquest and trade, politics and morality. Even those who have tried, in the name of cultural relativism, to defend the continuity of cultures without ordering them in a progressive series, and without isolating them in their separate prisons (Levi-Strauss, [1952] 1987), think they can do this only by bringing them as close as possible to the sciences.”

He proposes a new principle of symmetry that starts explanations from quasi-objects that lie between the nature and society poles. And then, in his fifth section, Redistribution, he proposes a nonmodern constitution that makes place for these hybrids. That is making space for these quasi-objects to act, speak, and be represented:

“Epistemo­logists wondered about scientific realism and the faithfulness of science to things; political scientists wondered about the representative system and the relative faithfulness of elected officials and spokespersons. All had in common a hatred of intermediaries and a desire for an immediate world, emptied of its mediators. All thought that this was the price of faithful representation, without ever understanding that the solution to their problem lay in the other branch of government.
In the course of this essay, I have shown what happened once science studies re-examined such a division of labour…

There are not two problems of representation, just one. There are not two branches, only one, whose products can be distinguished only late in the game, and after being examined together. Scientists appear to be betraying external reality only because they are constructing their societies and their natures at the same time. The Sovereign appears to be betraying his constituents only because he is churning together both citizens and the enormous mass of nonhumans that allow the Leviathan to hold up.”

“Let one of the representatives talk, for instance, about the ozone hole, another represent the Monsanto chemical industry, a third the workers of the same chemical industry, another the voters of New Hampshire, a fifth the meteorology of the polar regions; let still another speak in the name of the State; what does it matter, so long as they are all talking about the same thing, about a quasi-object they have all created, the object-discourse-nature-society whose new properties astound us all and whose network extends from my refrigerator to the Antarctic by way of chemistry, law, the State, the economy, and satellites.”
769 reviews14 followers
September 1, 2012
Latour thoroughly goes over the still-present problems that modernity introduced into Western society, and somewhat less thoroughly proposes a solution. It's a short book, at around 145 p of main text, but it's remarkably dense, and despite the very welcome summaries and charts, will probably require careful reading and perhaps rereading. Latour argues, for example, that modernism depends on dichotomies such as nature and society, subject and object, and the more we insist on the division between them, the more things stuck in the middle--quasi-objects, as he calls them--proliferate. We spend too much time on purifying concepts, and not enough time on mediating their hybrid forms. He spends a particularly long time on comparing social approaches and scientific approaches in the secondary chapter, through a comparison of Boyle and Hobbes, and long discussions on the concept of the air pump. There's also a very in-depth criticism of the humanities' tendency to constantly declare itself in a state of revolution, and in the process attacks some very cherished beliefs of semiotics, deconstruction, and Heideggerian Being. I came to Latour from some readings on Object Oriented Ontology, and in his demolishing of the other methods--on reasonably sound grounds--I can see why they favored him. The difference, however, is that for Latour, the solution to the failures of the previous attempts is to focus more on the networks and connections, a proposition most OOOists reject in favor of considering further the object. My personal problem with the book is that it is guilty of the same fault of many such "theory debunking" books of this type: it spends the majority of its pages on explaining just why the old methods fail, much less time on the details of the new method, and nothing at all demonstrating this new method in action. Too many theory books call for the abandoning of the old without really taking up anything new--Latour's book avoids that pitfall, in that it explicitly addresses what we can take and use from modernism, but I still would have liked to see what a "nonmodern" approach to a subject looked like.
Profile Image for Данило Судин.
492 reviews178 followers
May 14, 2015
Попри те, що попередню книгу Бруно Латура я прочитав швидко і захоплено (Наука в действии. Следуя за учеными и инженерами внутри общества), цю я чит��в довго - понад 7 місяців. Звісно, з перервами, але останні 50 сторінок довелося "домучувати". Основна причина: замість говорити про світ, яким він є, автор починає пропонувати реформу - суспільства і науки водночас. Від таких проектів стає трошки нудно, бо це вже інтелектуальні фантазії авторів, які часто є цікавими для самих лише авторів.

Втім, книжка цікава і варта уваги: Бруно Латур пояснює особливості модерності як сприйняття природи та суспільства, розмежування їх. Відтак, це пояснює сприйняття Заходом решти світу в ХІХ ст., самих себе (точніше, св��го минулого та теперішнього), і науковцями реальності. Фактично, в цій праці Латур просто дає більше узагальнення тих проблем, про які йому йшлося в Наука в действии. Следуя за учеными и инженерами внутри общества: виходить на більш абстрактний рівень.

І за це можна навіть йому пробачити французьку пишномовність. Адже, хоч Латур і критикує постмодерністів, в цій книзі він до них уподібнюється багатослів’ям, яке аж ніяк не є доречним.
Profile Image for Melissa.
37 reviews2 followers
April 25, 2013
Apparently, we have never been modern ... but how we're different from Middle Ages European society, or anything else for that matter, is unclear. Latour never offers alternative categories. It feels more like he goes back and forth on the matter: we're somewhat modern, we think we're modern, we're not modern, but we act modern ... I don't even know how to put it. His writing is very convoluted and he waffles between arguments, even while there are very interesting ideas throughout the book about nature and objects and the relationship between people, nature-objects, etc.

The book starts out feeling a little indulgent in that it feels like a personal reaction to Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer, with Latour setting off to contradict their very useful analysis of the production of knowledge in the debates between Hobbes and Boyle. After spending two or three chapters responding to LEVIATHAN AND THE AIR-PUMP, he goes on to analyze other topics but they are increasingly more confusing and ungrounded. He includes diagrams intended to enlighten readers, but sometimes they are enlightening on their own, other times just as confusing especially in the context in which they are included. I wondered if it was instead worth 1 star, but this book is a bit of a classic of sorts, and Latour's work is valued very much in the social sciences, but I prefer reading his book with Woolgar than this small but confusing text.
Profile Image for Justin Abraham.
52 reviews43 followers
March 6, 2016
"Show me an activity that is homogeneous from the point of view of the modern time. Some of my genes are 500 million years old, others 3 million, others 100,000 years, and my habits range from a few days to several thousand years... 'We are exchangers and brewers of time'. It is this exchange that defines us, not the calendar flow that the moderns has constructed for us" (75).

"We have never moved either forward or backward. We have always actively sorted out elements belonging to different time. We can still sort. It is the sorting that makes the times, not the times that make the sorting. Modernism.... was only the provisional result of a selection made by a small number of agents... If there are more of us who regain the capacity to do our own sorting of the elements that belong to our time, we will rediscover the freedom of movement that modernism denied us - a freedom that, in fact, we have never really lost. We are not emerging from an obscure past that confused natures and cultures in order to arrive at a future in which the two poles will finally separate cleanly owing to the continual revolution of the present... We can go on to other things - that is, return to the multiple entities that have always passed in a different way" (76)
Profile Image for Andre Simonsen.
213 reviews47 followers
August 29, 2016
As premissas e argumentos que o o autor deste livro utiliza estão tão errados - mas tão errados! - que se ele fosse um astronauta tentando pousar sua nave em Plutão acabaria pousando no Sol e explodindo.

O livro é lotado de linguagem obscurantista e pretensiosa, non sequiturs, erros dos mais diversos tipos e conclusões irracionais.

Comecei a escrever um review corrigindo todos os erros que eu encontrava enquanto lia o livro, mas a quantidade enorme deles me fez desistir da empreitada na página 30. Felizmente o Sokal já corrigiu a maioria no "Imposturas Intelectuais"*. Quem sabe um dia eu crie a paciência necessária.

Este foi um dos primeiros livros que me deixou irritado com o fato de "papel aceitar tudo" e as pessoas simplesmente poderem escrever as besteiras que quiserem**.

De qualquer jeito, vale a leitura apenas para saber o que se está criticando em primeira mão.

*Que eu preciso tomar vergonha na cara e ler inteiro!
**Pelo menos é fácil corrigir e melhor que a alternativa delas não poderem fazer isto (o melhor jeito de corrigir discursos ruins é ter mais discursos, não censura)
Profile Image for blank.
47 reviews1 follower
June 26, 2020
Ok, I actually am more displeased as I sit and think about this 'intellectual hellscape' Latour insists on thrusting the reader into. The only way I can describe it is that some people are intent on arguing with a table. The table exists, fulfills its table duties in its total table role, and here we have somebody caterwauling A TABLE, denouncing it into nonexistence and insisting on the Truth because of some proof that the table is in fact a table and thus worthy of absolute annihilation because of its tableness. If in fact the intellectual sphere is a hellscape, I want to make a commitment not to ululate at tables but to challenge just those people who take issue with tables. This is where my normalizing morality begins and ends, precisely where one denigrates a table.

"I call this transcendence that lacks a contrary 'delegation'. The utterance, or the delegation, or the sending of a message or a messenger, makes it possible to remain in presence - that is, to exist. . . . literally a pass, in the sense of this term as used in ball games. . . . The world of meaning and the world of being are one and the same world, that of translation, substitution, delegation, passing. . . . Anthropology has been built on the basis of science, or on the basis of society, or on the basis of language; it always alternated between universalism and cultural relativism, and in the end it may have taught us as little about 'Them' as about 'Us'."

You certainly won't be able to call me a Latourean, but We Have Never Been Modern does present some valuable insights into an arbitrary and ambiguous mental/intellectual landscape perhaps populated by the 'Us vs. Them'. However, my present sensibilities understand it as violently reductionist at times. In spite of it's presumed third-person statūtūre, it is just as critical as much of the postmodernism that is held in contempt. I think the entire idea could have been reduced from the 145 pages of writing to perhaps 40 or 50--and would have been better off because of it.

Relationism would have been a decent concept had it been ethnocentric, but no, God forbid I prefer my culture. . .

In any case, it is a very interesting idea, this transcendence-immanence paradox . . . and I'm happy to have encountered it by way of the 'productive forces' issuing credible and substantive replies (Bennett and Harman, among many others). From the way I see it, and I am excited to explore the idea further, actor-network theory has been coopted by capitalist liberalism such that this 'morality' Latour so holds high is deflected to the innermost being and thus absent from Being altogether. Again, the perpetuation and advocation of a 'mere change of mental composition' seems the fault of all philosophy, but charitously I will maintain that it is not without some value.
333 reviews19 followers
October 13, 2018
What does Latour have against postmodernism? His sleight of hand is as follows: if modernity is representative of progress and therefore of the Future, postmodernity, coming after, would be... the end of things, nothingness. Latour offers a new word, amodern, maybe because the term postmodern had already been proposed elsewhere. He goes to the point to say that we have never been modern. Then, should we just scrap all those works on "modernity" and '"postmodernity" just to accept that "amodernity"? Was modernity erroneously defined? This is just circular argumentation, playing semantics. All the interesting arguments advanced by Latour (and there are many) could well be included in "postmodernism" (since the world already existed, why create a new one), by altering it, enriching it with solutions (see quote below).

He writes: "We do have a future and a past, but the future takes the form of a circle expanding in all directions, and the past is not surpassed but revisited, repeated, surrounded, protected, recombined, reinterpreted and reshuffled. Elements that appear remote if we follow the spiral may turn out to be quite nearby if we compare loops. Conversely, elements that are quite contemporary, if we judge by the line, become quite remote if we traverse a spoke. Such a temporality does not oblige us to use the labels 'archaic' or 'advanced', since every cohort of contemporary elements may bring together elements from all times. In such a framework, our actions are recognized at last as polytemporal."

I very much agree but why not integrate that in so-called postmodernism, the name of the current phase of reassessment of the world? (which, I believe, already suggests to take into account all the complexity of the world). The word "amodernism" would be fine with me if Latour did not spend most of his book trying to debunk the other terms (yes he talks also about antimodernism).
Profile Image for Matt.
363 reviews8 followers
December 12, 2022
This book was challenging and took me a long time to read. It is also very important, as it is one of the places where Latour lays the groundwork for his actor-network theory. To be honest though, I wonder if you really need to read this or if you can get away with reading someone else's synthesis of Latour, the way that most people do with other theorists like Lacan and Derrida. There is a certain amount of artfulness in the prose (although I can't speak for the original French as I read the English translation), but it is also somewhat meandering and has that "early 90s hip theory" style that verges on unreadable at times (*cough* I'm looking at you Judith Butler... *cough*) If you are really interested in actor-network theory, you will probably be better off reading one of his later books where he fleshes it out more fully.

The text is a classic of that type of French theory that offers a grand intellectual-historical narrative based on a claim that seems absurd at first. Latour contends that the idea of modernism arose from two opposing events: the birth of modern science (in the avatar of Robert Boyle), which enshrined Nature as a distant, objective other; and the birth of modern politics / social science (in the avatar of Thomas Hobbes), which coined the idea of a democratic Society, in which all of the world and its inhabitants can be understood as subject to human will and understanding. These two regimes are mutually exclusive and yet also require the other one as a foil. At the same time, we live in a world of hybrids or quasi-objects which straddle these two fields (this is all the more so in the 30+ years since the book's publication. Just think of your smart phone.) After establishing these premises, Latour is able to offer some new insights into our world and its epistemology and sociology. I found the section on science studies particularly interesting. Latour himself can be grouped among the philosophers of science, but he reserves some pretty excoriating critique for those philosophers of science who attempt to argue that science is social construction whole cloth (perhaps these are straw men, though? The only other philosopher of science who I know is and she seems to jive pretty well with Latour). The objects of science are obviously open to human error, but they are also something which exists at least in part beyond the grasp of the social. Thus, we must cease to think of the world in such antropocentric ways and grant some modicum of personhood (for lack of a better word) to the objects of science and technology. I wonder what Latour would think about the personhood of corporations that has arisen from our late capitalist dystopia? He certainly has written about this, but I haven't bothered to google it. In any event, he offers a new dialectic in which we must consider not just the way that society determines meaning and the natural, but also the way in which nature itself and all of those things which can be created and deduced from nature can determine society. In many respects, we have failed to rise to Latour's challenge since the time of the book's publication.

Another highlight of the book is Latour's takedown of the post-modernists. After he has pulled back the curtain of modernism to reveal that it is simply a particular type of epistemological regime, the then reveals that the post-modernists were on the one hand correct--their search for the fundamental contradictions of western metaphysics was itself a confirmation of the very epistemological regime that Latour lays bare--but on the other hand, the post-modernists take modernism too seriously. When one sees how much of the modernist program actually a smoke and mirrors operation is, then perhaps one need not dedicate oneself to its eulogization. We gain nothing by searching for a lost, idealized past or lamenting the loss of an unobtainable, idealized future. Instead we must continue to examine and better understand the world around us, and it is full of quasi-objects that we have learned to ignore.
16 reviews
April 13, 2023
Latour heeft het begrepen, nu moeten wij hem nog begrijpen. Dat laatste heeft mij wel 6 maanden gekost
Profile Image for Boka.
59 reviews6 followers
May 28, 2023
it is a book. or is it?
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