In We Have Never Been Modern, published twenty years back, Bruno Latour argued that we fundamentally misunderstand the condition in which we live. This age we’ve called modernity, characterized by careful distinctions between nature and society, human and thing, fact and value, is in reality defined by an overarching hybridity, a defiance of clear delineation, an undermining of the essence of modernization.
Lovely. But, if not modern, then what have we been?
Identifying a positive definition of the project of Western civilization is the goal of Latour’s An Inquiry into Modes of Existence, a newly published book presenting an ongoing, interactive, metaphysical investigation. And, people, this inquiry, this “anthropology of the Moderns,” is neither piece nor walk of cake. The book itself is a challenging work in that destabilizing manner we expect of Latour, and one for which a familiarity with Latour’s earlier output will be of great aid.
AIME begins, in fact, with the rejection of a common misunderstanding of Latour’s perspective on objectivity, a concept at the heart of his field of science studies:
Now, in its early days, in the 1980s, this field was perceived by many scientists as a critique of scientific Certainty—which it was—but also of reliable knowledge—which it most certainly was not. We wanted to understand how—with what instruments, what machinery, what material, historical, anthropological conditions—it was possible to produce objectivity. And of course, without appealing to any transcendent Certainty that would have all at once and without discussion raised up Science with a capital S against public opinion. As we saw it, scientific objectivity was too important to be defended solely by what is known by the umbrella term “RATIONALISM,” a term used too often to bring debate to a halt when an accusation of irrationality is hurled against overly insistent adversaries. Well before questions of ecology came to the forefront of politics, we already suspected that the distinction between the rational and the irrational would not suffice to settle the debates over the components of the COMMON WORLD. As we saw it, the question of the sciences was rather more complicated than that; we sought to investigate the manufacture of objectivity in a new way. And that is why we are always astonished, my colleagues in the history or sociology of the sciences and I, at the hostility of certain researchers toward what they call the “relativism” of our inquiries, whereas we have only been trying to prepare scientists for a finally realistic defense of the objectivity to which we are just as attached as they are—but in a different way.
This is not an academic distinction, and Latour need but genuflect towards the epistemological crisis exacerbating our ecological catastrophe to make that clear. The institution of science, that presumed pillar of modernity, is failing to convince us Moderns of the most dangerous thing we know. Those producing the knowledge of climate change and those on whom corrective action depends exist in different modes.
And so Latour’s project is one of diplomacy, of opening channels between these modes and the dozen others whose conflicts can be so consequential for our very planet. We may not be modern, but without such assuagement we’ll surely be doomed.