Bruno Latour’s 1993 We Have Never Been Modern is a neglected masterpiece. Its argument is compressed, the terminology idiosyncratic. Latour is witty, ironic, and funniest when he’s outraged. It’s not an easy book, but it’s worth the effort. As a diagnosis of us “moderns,” it’s more penetrating, and rings truer, than many better-known works.
Charles Taylor’s recent, magisterial, and widely discussed A Secular Age is a convenient example of the story Latour does not tell. Taylor offers a complex account of the “secularization of the modern West,” which involves, among many other things, the retreat of religion from public space and a shift in the experience of religious faith among the faithful. For many modernization theories, the differentiation of spheres is the genius of modernity. Childish primitives that they were (and are), pre-moderns muck everything up. They don’t see that economics isn’t religion, nor power faith, nor science magic until we moderns come along to tidy them up.
Latour acknowledges that “secularization” and “differentiation” are central to modernity’s self-image. Talk to a modern person about his world, and he will tell you that it is divided into various domains. The domains interact with one another, but they cannot, ought not, be confused. Science is a politics-free zone; it is catastrophic when politics gets contaminated by religion; law can be equitable only when religious convictions and political interests are filtered out.
Latour describes this process as “purification.” It’s a delicious little twist, since “purity” is one of the primitive concerns that moderns think we have long since abandoned. Latour argues that, on the contrary, our maps show what we think of as inviolable sacred boundaries around our domains.
But Latour’s thesis is that we have never been modern. This means: Whatever we say about ourselves, the lived topography of our social world has never been as neatly segregated as our maps. An anthropologist who studies modern science, Latour points out that Science is not “made up of” pure scientific ore. Science is funded by governments, which means that scientists must be or have lobbyists. Science produces technologies that are sold on the marketplace, which means that scientists need their patent attorneys and their marketing specialists. Science’s products raise ethical dilemmas, which evoke religious concerns. Latour is not reductionist. He doesn’t think that Science is pure politics or ideology either. Scientific things happen in Science. But in reality, there simply aren’t separate domains that happen to bump into each other now and again. Modern science could not exist at all unless its “pure space” is “contaminated” by politics, economics, law, and religion.
For Latour, “purification” is only the acknowledged half of our world. The other half is a process of “hybridization.” Moderns attempt to make a sharp distinction between nature and society, but everything of historical importance happens in the “middle kingdom” that is both nature and society. Latour illustrates with a list of cutting-edge technologies: “frozen embryos, expert systems, digital machines, sensor-equipped robots, hybrid corn, data banks, psychotropic drugs, whales fitted with radar sounding devices, gene synthesizers, audience analyzers.” This was written in 1993, before anyone imagined an Internet of things.
Modernity both purifies and hybridizes. That’s not what makes modernity unique, though. “Culture” never has existed, and could not exist, as whatever is left over when “nature” has been siphoned off. Instead of a nature/culture divide, what we have is a collection of “nature-cultures,” whether we call them “modern,” “pre-modern,” or “postmodern.” Even the most esoteric forms of high culture are nature-culture hybridswe control sound to make music, manipulate colors and materials to paint, seamlessly combine the physical and the intellectual when writing a poem. Even the most transcendent high culture is always “polluted” by politics, science, ethics, and religion.
What makes modernity unique is its reluctance to admit that it’s doing both. Modern states, and many churches, think that religion and politics are separate, but they can continue in this illusion only because they ignore the religious spirit that animates nationalism, liberalism, and totalitarianism. We moderns think science objective only when we ignore the ambitions of scientists and the politics of the lab, which can be as brutal as the thrust and parry going on in the back halls of Congress.
Why the pretense? Modernity cannot acknowledge hybrids without ceasing to be modern and collapsing back into “pre-modern” indifferentiation. That we cannot do, because if there is a purification lying at the foundation of all purifications, it is the “Great Divide,” the temporal division between “Modern Us” and “Primitive Them.” Even when They live at the same time We do, they aren’t up to Our date. Without the myth of the Great Divide, modernity floats on quicksand, without foundation. We have to keep up appearances, because being modern simply is the pretense that We are not Them.
Latour has harsh things to say about postmodernism, and he’s the furthest thing from a nostalgic anti-modern. He doesn’t offer an agenda for reform. We Have Never Been Modern has a Delphic purpose: Latour wants us to “know ourselves.” It’s a lesson in modesty, that We are not so special after all.