Posts Tagged ‘Latour’

Pursuing imbroglios and slaying dragons

July 21, 2011

Review #6: Bruno Latour’s We Have Never Been Modern (1991, 1993):

By combining bold declarations, schematic diagrams, and lengthy, circular explanations, Latour methodically builds on the polemical position of his title. Like an intrepid knight, Latour guides his readers through an impenetrable forest of both what it means to be modern and why we have never accomplished this feat. His overarching argument is that we have never been modern because modernity is based on a contradictory logic that is impossible to inhabit. We have never been modern because modernity has never really been achieved, despite our efforts to distinguish ourselves from so-called pre- or non-moderns. He further argues that this failure is for the best, for hidden behind the veil of modernity is an unwieldy construct, a self-effacing hybrid, a two-headed dragon or Leviathan that prevents us from living anything but a mitigated and fractured existence. In the shadow of modernity, Latour explains, Society and Nature are marked off as clearly opposing terrains or kingdoms. As a result, modern subjectivity is forever disconnected from the natural world. Latour’s task is awake us from this imposing slumber.

Latour not only insists this story of modern alienation is bankrupt but it also hinges on a double form of delusion or blindness: we have never been modern because we have never stopped being pre- or non-modern; and we have never been alienated from Nature because Nature, as a state removed from Society, has never existed. Following on Shapin and Schaffer’s 1985 publication, Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle and the experimental life, Latour traces the origins of the modern condition to what he sees as a foundational schism: the eighteenth-century debate between Robert Boyle and Thomas Hobbes over the former’s claims about the air pump as a guarantee of scientific truth. In constructionist fashion, Shapin and Schaffer delineate the socio-historic circumstances that inform both Boyle’s science and Hobbes’ politics to argue that it is impossible to separate these two realms. Latour extends this argument by insisting that these two opposing ways of seeing the world have been amalgamated and incorporated into our modern everyday actions as a ruling principle. In other words, living with this schism, so that we automatically identify things as either belonging to Science or Politics, Nature or Society, Human and Nonhuman, Modern and Pre-modern, is what has made us supposedly modern. To this end, Latour states:

Modernity is often defined in terms of humanism, either as a way of saluting the birth of ‘man’ or as a way of announcing his death. But this habit itself is modern, because it remains asymmetrical. It overlooks the simultaneous birth of ‘nonhumanity’ – things, or objects, or beasts – and the equally strange beginning of a crossed-out God, relegated to the sidelines. Modernity arises first from the conjoined creation of those three entities, and then from the masking of the conjoined birth and the separate treatment of the three communities while, underneath, hybrids continue to multiply as an effect of this separate treatment. The double separation is what we have to reconstruct: the separation between humans and nonhumans on the one hand, and between what happens ‘above’ and what happens ‘below’ on the other. (13)

As this quotation makes evident, modern subjectivity involves constantly juggling conflicting ideas. Thus, our sense of being disconnected and slumbering is compounded by the irony that maintaining this constitutional delusion demands a great deal of psychological work.

Instead of perpetuating this worldview, Latour argues for the recognition of a “Middle Kingdom” (48), a ubiquitous site in which human and nonhuman entities come together to form hybrids or assemblages that are neither solely natural nor cultural, neither solely unnatural nor unsocial. After criticizing a list of modern thinkers from Kant to Habermas and Baudrillard for perpetuating the modernist myth of disconnection, Latour challenges his readers to rethink and reconfigure their worldview. “Are you not fed up,” he asks, “at finding yourselves forever locked into language alone, or imprisoned in social representations alone, as so many social scientists would like you to be? We want to gain access to things themselves, not only to their phenomena. The real is not remote; rather, it is accessible in all the objects mobilized throughout the world” (90). In this call for action, Latour distinguishes his work from the constructionist arguments of science studies and from the deconstructionists and postmodernists of cultural studies.

To bring about this reconfiguration of the modern world Latour argues for what he calls a “Parliament of Things,” which would involve fleshing out the imbroglios or complicated networks that constitute everyday life. “Everything changes,” declare Latour, “when, instead of constantly and exclusively alternating between one pole of the modern dimension and the other, we move down along the nonmodern dimension”(96). What emerges is the active terrain of “assembly” in which “quasi-objects” and “quasi-subjects” come together to form events and artifacts, phenomena that refuse to be reduced to categories of nature or culture and are better described with the neologism “nature-cultures” (96). This onerous task of losing our modern constitution by installing a Parliament of Things is not lessen by that fact that we have never modern. But, as Latour contends, the cracks in modernist edifice have long weakened its hold. For example, the invincible march of progress is hard to coincide with widespread famine and global warming. In contrast to a blind faith in technological advancement, the mandate of the Parliament of Things would be to place the human and the nonhuman on more equal ground so that we could get on with the task of imagining a world beyond the conscripts of the modernity. Referencing his daily newspaper, Latour assures us this process is underway:

The imbroglios and networks that had no place now have the place to themselves. They are the ones that have to represented; it is around them that the Parliament of Things gather henceforth… However, we do not have to create this Parliament out of whole cloth, by calling for yet another revolution. We simply have to ratify what we have always done, provided that we reconsider our past, provided that we understand retrospectively to what extent we have never been modern, and provided we rejoin the two halves of the symbol broken by Hobbes and Boyle (144).

As it works to supplant the bifurcations of modernity, it is reasonable to assume that under the rule of Latour’s Parliament of Things integrations involving scientists and the general public would be encouraged, as would scientific literacy. These democratic goals make Latour’s argument very appealing.

Despite his thoroughness, Latour does not provide concrete examples of how the Parliament of Things could be implemented. What shape would this parliament take? How would things be represented? Who would speak for the atom, the computer chip, or the genome? Inherent to Latour’s argument is the notion that if we trace the networks surrounding individual things far enough, they will begin speaking for themselves (not to reveal intrinsic truths but to open the floor to the copious twists and turns of matter). In light of the Fukushima disaster, a discussion of the imbroglios and networks of nuclear power and radiation poisoning would seem essential. Perhaps Latour’s parliament could take the shape of town hall meetings in which scientists, politicians and laypersons gather to determine public policy and the future of nuclear power. Power plant technicians could walk the public through the intricacies of nuclear fission. Farmers could voice their concerns of dangerous levels of radiation entering the food change. Citizen could be told about precautions they can take in case of radiation leaks. And politicians could review the costs and benefits of maintaining and building new plants. It could be argued that these sorts of discussions have taken place ever since the introduction of power plants. However, my concern is that in their present form these discussions do not appear to sustain interest and nuclear power plants quickly recede into the background so they become incidental parts of urban and rural landscapes. When this happens Latour’s Parliament of Things is recessed or prorogued and we go back to being modern and to our long, delusional slumber.