Thursday, April 22, 2010

Haven't we already been nonmodern?

Being modern, argues Bruno Latour in We Have Never Been Modern (1993, Harvard Univ. Press), involves drawing a sharp distinction between “nature” and “culture,” through a process of “purification” that separates everything into one or the other of these categories. It also involves breaking with the past: “Modernization consists in continually exiting from an obscure age that mingled the needs of society with scientific truth, in order to enter into a new age that will finally distinguish clearly what belongs to atemporal nature and what comes from humans, what depends on things and what belongs to signs” (p. 71).

But hold on a moment--who actually advocates that kind of a sharp division between nature and culture, without acknowledging that human beings and their cultures are themselves a part of the natural order of things? As the 1991 Love and Rockets song, “No New Tale to Tell,” said: “You cannot go against nature / because when you do / go against nature / it’s part of nature, too.” Trying to divide the contents of the universe into a sharp dichotomy often yields a fuzzy edge, if not outright paradox. While Latour is right to object to such a sharp distinction (or separation) and to argue for a recognition that much of the world consists of “hybrids” that include natural and cultural aspects (true of both material objects and ideas), I’m not convinced that he’s correctly diagnosed a genuine malady when he writes that “Moderns ... refuse to conceptualize quasi-objects as such. In their eyes, hybrids present the horror that must be avoided at all costs by a ceaseless, even maniacal purification” (p. 112).

Latour writes that anthropologists do not study modern cultures in the manner that they study premodern cultures. For premoderns, an ethnographer will generate “a single narrative that weaves together the way people regard the heavens and their ancestors, the way they build houses and the way they grow yams or manioc or rice, the way they construct their government and their cosmology,” but that this is not done for modern societies because “our fabric is no longer seamless” (p. 7). True, but the real problem for such ethnography is not that we don’t have such a unified picture of the world (and we don’t) but that we have massive complexity and specialization--a complexity which Latour implicitly recognizes (pp. 100-101) but doesn’t draw out as a reason.

The argument that Latour makes in the book builds upon this initial division of nature and culture by the process of “purification” with a second division between “works of purification” and “works of translation,” “translation” being a four-step process of his advocated framework of actor-network theory that he actually doesn’t discuss much in this book. He proposes that the “modern constitution” contains “works of translation”--networks of hybrid quasi-objects--as a hidden and unrecognized layer that needs to be made explicit in order to be “nonmodern” (p. 138) or “amodern” (p. 90) and avoid the paradoxes of modernity (or other problems of anti-modernity, pre-modernity, and post-modernity).

His attempt to draw the big picture is interesting and often frustrating, as when he makes unargued-for claims that appear to be false, e.g., “as concepts, ‘local’ and ‘global’ work well for surfaces and geometry, but very badly for networks and topology’” (p. 119); “the West may believe that universal gravitation is universal even in the absence of any instrument, any calculation, any decoding, any laboratory ... but these are respectable beliefs that comparative anthropology is no longer obliged to share” (p. 120; also p. 24); speaking of “time” being reversible where he apparently means “change” or perhaps “progress” (p. 73); his putting “universality” and “rationality” on a list of values of moderns to be rejected (p. 135). I’m not sure how it makes sense to deny the possibility of universal generalizations while putting forth a proposed framework for the understanding of everything.

My favorite parts of the book were his recounting of Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer’s Leviathan and the Air Pump (pp. 15-29) and his critique of that project, and his summary of objections to postmodernism (p. 90). Latour is correct, I think, in his critique that those who try to explain the results of science solely in terms of social factors are making a mistake that privileges “social” over “natural” in the same way that attempting to explain them without any regard to social factors privileges “natural” over “social.” He writes to the postmodernists (p. 90):

“Are you not fed up 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 their phenomena. The real is not remote; rather, it is accessible in all the objects mobilized throughout the world. Doesn’t external reality abound right here among us?”

In a commentary on this post, Gretchen G. observed that we do regularly engage in the process of "purification" about our concepts and attitudes towards propositions in order to make day-to-day decisions--and I think she's right.  We do regard things as scientific or not scientific, plausible or not plausible, true or false, even while we recognize that there may be fuzzy edges and indeterminate cases.  And we tend not to like the fuzzy cases, and to want to put them into one category or the other.  In some cases, this may be merely an epistemological problem of our human (and Humean) predicament where there is a fact of the matter; in others, our very categories may themselves be fuzzy and not fit reality ("carve nature at its joints").

[A slightly different version of the above was written for my Human and Social Dimensions of Science and Technology core seminar. Thanks to Gretchen G. for her comments.  An entertaining critique of Latour's earlier book Science in Action is Olga Amsterdamska's "Surely You're Joking, Monsieur Latour!", Science, Technology, and Human Values vol. 15, no. 4 (1990): 495-504.]

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