on 27 February 2001
For those readers familiar with Science in Action, Bruno Latour may not at first strike one as the ideal candidate to sort out the most pressing philosophical issues about human cultures. But that is exactly what this slim, easy to follow volume does: it sorts them out. Latour posits that our "modern" society (and this is taken as Western and/or industrialized society) is based upon a series of paradoxes whereby both nature and society are "constructed" (by humans) and at the same time "transcendent." This contradiction enables us to, among other things, appropriate huge chunks of the natural into the social without giving it so much as a thought because the "modern constitution" of our thought effectively prevents it. Nature can both intervene in society (e.g. by being transformed into manufactured items) and remain distinct, pristinely "natural." Through a series of carefully argued comparisons and contrasts between the "modern consistution," the "non-modern constitution," and (of course) the "postmodern constitution" Latour offers a way for Western society to achieve a responsible relationship to nature and society through a reconsideration of the affects of, for example, the implementation of a new technology on both the natural and the social. The many graphic illustrations and charts serve to provide visual explanations for his argument. I never would have ventured into this text without them. Regardless of your background or ideological leanings, be prepared to be challenged by We Have Never Been Modern in two areas. First, Latour is not shy about employing specific terms where he deems necessary, and that is absolutely everywhere. Many of the neologisms I have found quite helpful, but the reader's attention must never waver when they are trotted out. Furthermore, you should be prepared to follow Latour wherever he may list, in particular into the history of the vacuum pump. The second major area of challenge is in the nature of his solution to the modern quandary, what he terms "The parliament of things." This arrangement of otherwise distinct and dispersed voices from and about the same "quasi-object" will require major compromises all around. It is hard enough to give a voice to indigenous populations, Latour wishes to enlist others (even scientists!) to speak on behalf of the trees. The price is hefty, but well worth the money, the wait and the effort of what, in the main, is an exhilirating read.
on 17 December 1997
For this reader, Bruno Latour's book is one of the most ambitious, original, and important reformulations of social theory since 1989. It is getting lots of attention among scholars, and deserves a wider public. The press reviews here don't do this book justice.
Latour, for those of you who don't know him, has been at the forefront of the emerging field of "science studies", the history and sociology of science, for the past 15 years. He's also a rather bizarre fellow. His "Aramis" is a book of real sociology that is told in the form of a novel, in which the metro car of a failed Parisian public transportation project becomes one of a series of narrators. In "We Have Never Been Modern," he conscisely summarizes the theoretical basis of his work, and stakes out ground that is genuinely new. The book should excite humanisitic academics, scientists, and intellectually adventurous people from all walks of life with a taste for theory.
The thesis -- the basis for the "we have never been modern" part -- is that the "great divide" between nature and human, subject and object, science and society, was never real. Instead, he says, this subject/object divide was the great dirty fiction of the "modern" world.
To give you the gist of the argument as briefly as possible: the separation of nature and human, that has marked Western intellectual life since the 17th century, allowed both science and the humanities to make their own claims for absolute truth. This divide was the basis for our image of "modern western man."
But these claims hid the fact that "hybrids" were springing up all the while. Modernity also spawned technological "quasi-objects" that blur the line between the natural and the human. The tremendous multiplication of these "quasi-objects" (Latour's neologism)in our times has finally forced us to the point where we are at a startling conclusion: the divorce of man from nature never really took place.
What we thought of as scientific Western man was never real. Latour wants us, the generation left with the consequences of this revelation, to exhume this past of hybridity, and seek out a new relationship between nature and culture. In short, he wants to both humanize science and render the humanities more scientific.
This brief bastardization does not do justice to the work. Latour elegantly and convincingly lays out his thesis, and the results are dazzling and compelling. He's also sharp and witty, and fans of the like of Baudrillard and Derrida will see their idols tossed about a bit.
On the other hand, the book is immensely ambitious in its theoretical claims, and has a tendency to pretend that complex and difficult ideas are obvious truth. One wonders at times if he is practicing the French intellectual's habit of making our heads spin for the sheer thrill of watching the confusion. But he's not, and most readers, I think, will finish the book that Latour is ultimately both a sensible man and a humane one.
As a graduate student in the humanities, I know that this book is getting a growing audience in academia. I hope that some non-academic visitors to amazon.com (especially science buffs who enjoy the likes of Steven Pinker and Daniel Dennet) will treat themselves to this intellectual adventure. It's a truly original book, not much over 100 pages, reasonably priced, and well worth the experience.