In his recent An Inquiry into Modes of Existence: An Anthropology of the Moderns (8-9), Bruno Latour gives this pithy summary of the argument of his now-classic We Have Never Been Modern:
“I sought to give a precise meaning to the overly polysemic word ‘modern’ by using as a touchstone the relationship that was beginning to be established in the seventeenth century between two world: that of Nature and that of Society, the world of nonhumans and the world of humans. The ‘we’ of the somewhat grandiloquent title did not designate a specific people or a particular geography, but rather all those who expect Science to keep a radical distance from Politics. All those people, no matter where they were born, who feel themselves pushed by time’s arrow in such a way that behind them lies the archaic past unhappily combining Facts and Values, and before them lies a more or less radiant future in which the distinction between Facts and Values will finally be sharp and clear. . . .
“The modern ideal type is the one who is heading – who was heading – from that past to that future by way of a ‘modernization front’ whose advance could not be stopped. It was thanks to such a pioneering front, such a Frontier, that one could allow oneself to qualify as ‘irrational’ everything that had to be torn away, and as ‘rational’ everything toward which it was necessary to move in order to progress. Thus the Moderns were those who were freeing themselves of attachments to the past in order to advance toward Freedom. In short, who were heading from darkness into light – in Enlightenment. . . . any disruption in the way the sciences were conceived threatened the entire apparatus of modernization. If people began to mix up Facts and Values again, time’s arrow was going to interrupt its flight, hesitate, twist itself around in all directions, and look like a plate of spaghetti – or a nest of vipers.”
When Latour wrote the book, it was already “becoming harder and harder . . . to distinguish facts from values because of the increased intermixing of humans and nonhumans.” Science has been exposed as a political and social practice, an institution, no longer transparently revealing the simple truth of nature. But Latour argued that the modern ideal type was always delusional, because time doesn’t work that way and we don’t just leave behind what is past. Nature and Society, Fact and Value, were always tangled up and modernity functioned only insofar as modernity kept itself in denial about this entanglement.