Originally posted: Sat, 02 Aug 2003 12:25:58
We Have Never Been Modern
by Bruno Latour
Okay, a short review this evening. Latour describes postmodernism: "I have not found words ugly enough to designate this intellectual movement -- or rather, this intellectual immobility through which humans and nonhumans are left to drift. I call it 'hyper-incommensurability'" (p.61). He lets postmodernists have it with both barrels in this engaging book, saying that there is always "a hint of the ludicrous" in the postmodernists' pronouncements (p.47) and -- in the unkindest cut -- that postmodernists are more naive than modernists (p.131)! Of course, there's plenty of this to go around. "Dialectics ... feigns to overcome [the divide between nature and society] by loops amd spirals and other complex acrobatic figures" (p.55). Constructivism? Latour says it's impossible to be convinced by a constructivist argument for more than three minutes. Nobody escapes the hit list. I, of course, find this all immensely enjoyable.
This book is a mediation on modernism, what it is, how it came about, and what has happened to it. In typical fashion, Latour conceives of modernism in terms of a political arrangement -- a constitution with checks and balances that allow modernists to separate Nature and Society while surreptitiously joining them with hybrids. But that constitution is falling apart as the poles are forced farther from each other. Latour calls for a new constitution modeled on the modernist one but making up for its defects.
We have never been modern is a good read and a genuinely thought-provoking book. But, like Marc Berg (or was it Mike Lynch?), I long for the empirical work Latour did in The Pasteurization of France or Science in action.
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