Jonathan Ree reviews Bruno Latour’s An Inquiry into Modes of Existence: An Anthropology of the Modernsin the TLS, and along the way sums up some of Latour’s contributions to social science.

Latour’s early work in the anthropology of science, emphasizing the “social construction” of scientific facts, earned him denunciations as a “relativist.” Latour himself protested: “When he spoke of ‘social construction,’ he said, he was not belittling scientific facts, but describing the tortuous processes through which they are established. When he noted the difference between decorous pieties about scientific method and the everyday activities of scientists, he was reporting evidence from the field rather than mounting a nihilistic attack on science itself.”

This opened up an evaluation of modernity itself.

Latour reminded scientists that anthropology itself was a modern discipline, a branch on the family tree of science: “Modernity, he points out, has always been a normative campaign rather than a neutral fact of history, and the ‘modernisation front’ started out as an ambitious project of intellectual slum clearance: a utopian attempt to sweep away ramshackle structures of supposition and wishful thinking and replace them with a solid new edifice of objective scientific knowledge. For the time being, however, whole populations were still in thrall to sorcery and prehistoric ritual, and the new discipline of anthropology was instituted to supply the metropolis with reports from behind enemy lines, documenting the last remnants of ‘primitive culture’ before they disappeared for ever.”

Modernity’s self-image thus “has always depended on a distinction between objective factual knowledge, in which they claim a virtual monopoly, and the emotion-soaked subjective opinions they ascribe to everyone else.” Latour doesn’t buy it: “His years as a philosophy student taught him to think of subjectivity and objectivity as inseparable, like two sides of a sheet of paper, and his practice as an anthropologist revealed a constant interplay between subjects and objects of study.” He is far from despising the achievements of modernity. But “the moderns, he thought, could take pride in their discoveries and innovations, but they should stop presenting themselves as embodiments of pure objectivity, or prefigurations of the future of humanity, and they could not expect to be exempted from the general rules of anthropological method.”

Latour’s new book sketches out fifteen “modes” but these are “not meant to limn the ultimate structure of the universe, or the transcendental forms of experience, but simply to provide a vocabulary for framing even-handed descriptions of different kinds of society, and serve as the basis for a ‘symmetrical anthropology’ freed from any bias towards the moderns.”

None of these modes matches science’s self-image as a “juggernaut of progress,” but that’s because Latour thinks that’s a myth. Science is “more like the agitation of an anthill than the passage of a high-speed train,” Latour writes. But modern science does link up with some of the modes he identifies, specifically with the mode he calls “double click”: “The sectarians of double click are obsessed with what they call ‘straight talk’ - with speaking a muscular language that prides itself on busting taboos, detecting bullshit, and speaking truth to power, implicitly stigmatizing the speech of everyone else as manipulative, insincere, credulous and evasive. They see law as a set of tedious rules and regulations, rather than a condition of civic life, and they fail to recognize the ‘immense hesitation’ at the heart of religion, dismissing it as a collection of discredited hypotheses about the material world and refusing to heed its words of love.”

Straight talk in the “double click” mode has little but contempt for whatever is outside science: “Whenever they look beyond the bounds of science, in short, they see a pandemonium of unreason,” but in this they miss the possibility that “it may be a mirage created by their irrational conviction that they alone have reason on their side.” Double clickers “should slow down and learn to appreciate the diversity of human intelligence, he says; and they should forgo the exhilarating brutality of ‘straight talk’ in favour of the diffident generosity of listening, considering and conversing - in short, of ‘speaking well.’”

Latour’s main point is to resist reduction: “Rtionality is ‘woven from more than one thread’ - is intended not just for the academic seminar, but for the public square; and the public square today is global as never before. Thanks to what Latour describes as the ‘formidable discoveries of modernism,’ we have come to share a world of material interdependence and incessant communication, just at the time when the threat of climate change gives desperate pathos to our common stewardship of the planet. Latour speaks with urgency when he asks us all to set aside the script of secular modernity - to stop insulting each other and learn to pluralize, apologize and ecologize.”

He thinks the stakes are very high. In a very Rosenstockian vein, he concludes that “we must talk to one another or die.”

More on: History, Philosophy

Articles by Peter J. Leithart

Loading...