Saturday, February 21, 2009

Bruno Latour: We Have Never Been Modern

Taken from written by Robert Cook

We have never been modern is the first of Latour's books that I have read. While familiar with the name, and possessing a working knowledge of where his practice is located – somewhere around and between science studies, the philosophy of science, anthropology and sociology (the indeterminateness of this is, in part, the subject of his book)—he was outside the glamorous mainstream of French thought as it filtered through backwoods like Australia. Given that Latour is mostly antagonistic to what we know as French structural and post-structural philosophy (who he argues, rightly, has been too rigidly focused on the social in isolation from the material), it is no surprise he was not widely popular when our Antipodean embrace of French thinking's meaning over matter shtick was at its apogee. It was, therefore, in the spirit of belated intellectual expansiveness that I tackled this short book. It definitely won't be the last I read of his work.

But when I say tackled , I mean it: it was a struggle; this book was incredibly difficult to read. Ten pages per sitting was more than enough. This was not to do with unnecessarily dense or abstruse prose, but because of the originality (to me) of his argument and its formal structure. Within these pages is evidence of a mind who is re-thinking our orthodox assumptions of modernity and all that goes along with that (and there is so much). And this re-thinking kept gathering mass and momentum like a snowball barreling down an Alpine peak. As such, there were no moments to breathe and take in the view, to recap. Nonetheless, the mass and force of Latour's words—that feels, appropriately, like physics made literary—adds up to a fine rhetorical essay style1. There were times when it felt like it was a highly intellectual version of spoken word poetry. And its velocity was taking me places I hadn't thought possible. That was precisely its difficulty for me, that of so rapidly shedding after the other, the lines of narrative that we in the arts use as lazy shorthand each and every day of our working lives were being turned over and around.

The title is jolt enough: We have never been modern. Latour gets to that radical statement with a reflection on the condition of his own profession – ‘whatever label we use, we are always attempting to retie the Gordian knot by crisscrossing, as often as we have to, the divide that separates exact knowledge and the exercise of power – let us say nature and culture' (Latour 1993: 3). It is a form of science-studies that does more than simply socially contextualise science, or ‘sciencify' social forces. By focusing on the notion of networks, it seeks to move in and out and across all disciplines to discover their interconnectedness. Yet there is something in the way that our modern constitution has been devised that makes this forever difficult: it is because we have separated out nature and culture. The worlds of the laboratory and the worlds of ideology are fundamentally divided. This divide is the basis for our modernity.

To examine this idea, and its historical roots, Latour looks at Shapin and Schaffer's (1985) study of Thomas Hobbes and Robert Boyle's mid-seventeenth century constructions of science and politics. For verification of what was a scientific fact, Hobbes appealed to a single, abstract, social power, while Boyle appealed to observation of natural events (as fashioned in the lab). This difference was the basis for a split between the social and the natural that formed the base of modernity. Importantly for Latour, Shapin and Schaffer hone in on the significance of Boyle's air-pump apparatus within this separation, noting that social truth is actually indivisible from the material basis of scientific experimentation. From this Latour is able to argue that the separation of nature and culture, is a fiction, that there exist many quasi-objects and hybrids that sit between both, it is just that we have so defined our world as to delimit any real view of them. As he writes: ‘As soon as one outlines the symmetrical space and thereby re-establishes the common understanding that organizes the separation of natural and political powers, one ceases to be modern' (Latour 1993: 13).

The realization of this has many effects, one of which is to allow is for anthropology to ‘come back from the tropics', and start its work on ourselves. It is to see the networks that tie the natural and the cultural together. This is no mere professional border expansionism though. Instead, it is about how we currently live—indifferent to nature (because we are somehow above it), caught in the endgames of post modern disenchantment, and the left-over compulsion to push forward with avant-garde novelties as we wait for the next big thing that will bind us and give our lives and cultural practices meaning.

This is, of course, the most glib of summaries, missing all the compelling nuances of Latour's vision and program. It must stand as shorthand, however, so we can at least touch on the obvious question within this journal: how might Latour's propositions apply to craft? Very, very generally, it could be that by employing a kind of complex anthropology—instead of the usual bright and eager journalistic boosterism that dominates most writing and that fails to consider the real connections between stuff and context—we might start to see how craft functions as a hybrid object between nature and culture. Through this we might determine the ways that craft itself has never been modern, that it has always been at the cusp of the undoing of the modern, and at the start of something else; it is just that our idea of what constitutes the modern is prey to the blind-spots that the separation of nature and culture have caused, so we have never even noticed this. Or if we have intuited it, we have not understood its potentially radical significance2. Indeed, the fact that craft deals with matter and its possibilities and limits in a sometimes tense relationship to the exhibition context (dominated by art and its own ways of negotiating the nature-culture divide) may make it the ideal case-study for anyone wanting to push Latour's ideas by analyzing the ‘exact knowledge' of the studio in concert with the ideologies of the exhibition space and market-place and literary discourse.

It is quite possible that these ideas have already been the subject of several dozen PhDs already. Yet even if this is the case, they have not managed to make their way to our broader consciousness, which is why Latour seems so difficult; we are used to bracketing off the material from the ideological, even in the practices that most bring them together. What Latour offers, therefore, is the possibility of a new language and new techniques of inquiry to guide and bring together making and thinking. Who knows maybe this language may make craft writing relevant to makers, as well as make making relevant to thinkers, from a range of fields. It will not be easy, but it is (coincidentally?) perfectly in-keeping with what this journal is about.


1The reason for this might be explained when he writes ‘Nietzsche said that the big problems were like cold baths: you have to get out as fast as you got in' (Latour 1993: 12)

2Perhaps this is more the case. Broadly, craft writing has not struggled to move from matter to ideology, but has found it hard to move back again and complete the circle in any rigorous way. This is because the social pole is still the most valued. You can almost feel the relief when the studio is left behind for the peaks of interpretative speculation and discursive contextualisation. I am as guilty of this approach as anyone.


Bruno Latour We Have Never Been Modern (translated by Catherine Porter) Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1993

Shapin, Steven and Schaffer, Simon Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle and the experimental life , Princeton University Press: Princeton, New Jersey, 1985


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  2. And after all this is the 21st century and its not purely modern and it would be a failure in grasping reality to polarize and dissmiss all the actual and contemporary complexities of the times we live. Difficult sometimes also interesting and diversified, some minds find it hard to expand.