Author: Philip Conway
Given the cursory and familiar nature of the opening chapters I don’t have a great deal to add just yet in terms of commentary but I do have one major criticism. It concerns the definition of ‘The Moderns’ – perhaps the central plank of Latour’s political-philosophical platform.
Latour initially defines ‘the Moderns’ very precisely. In fact I think this is perhaps the clearest statement of what he means by ‘modern’ to date:
“The ‘we’ of [We Have Never Been Modern] 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 [emphasis added], who feel themselves pushed by time’s arrow in such a way that behind them lies an 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.” (8)
(This all requires a degree of prior knowledge of Latour’s work but, given that, it is exceptionally precise.) According to this statement ‘Modern’ cannot be taken as a synonym for Western, Northern, economically developed, etc. The Moderns are a “population of variable geometry that is in search of itself” (8). Modernism is a philosophical, ontological and perhaps ideological condition, not an artefact of geography. This much is crystal clear.
The problem is that Latour fails to abide by his own definition. As soon as he adopts his terminology of ‘diplomacy’ I lose any clear sense of who the ‘we’ is meant to be – or, indeed, the ‘them.’ He repeatedly conflates Modern with Western and European. E.g.:
“[T]he West (Europe, at least, unquestionably) is finally in a situation of relative weakness. No more question of hubris; no more question of repentance. … ‘Occidentals’ will have to be made present in a completely different way, first to themselves, and then to the others. … [I]t is a matter of making ‘diplomatic representations’ in order to renegotiate the new frontiers of self and other.” (17)
On this evidence how are Moderns not a geographically circumscribed people? How is their geometry ‘variable’? All of that seems to go out of the window as soon as Latour tries to lever his abstract philosophy into a more concrete political argument. If ‘Modern’ is not equivalent to ‘European’ or ‘Western’ then why is it Europe/the West that must ‘make representations’ to those geopolitical others that are rising in power and thereby putting Europe/the West in a position of relative weakness?
‘Modern’ can only be legitimately conflated with ‘European’ if (a) all Moderns are Europeans and (b) all Europeans are Moderns. Neither of these things appear to be true – nor does Latour claim that they are exactly but he frequently presumes it.
Who are these ‘others’ that ‘we’ are meant to be negotiating with? This language seems to me to be extremely politically naive. The elites of ‘other,’ non-Western societies are usually very wealthy, privileged and are often Western educated. Like the monarchs and aristocrats of early modern Europe they have more in common with their fellow transnational elites than they do with their ‘own’ people. How is a Western Modern meant to ‘negotiate’ with the representatives of the ‘others’ when these representatives are just non-Western Moderns.
It may possibly be true that Chinese or Indian scientists and engineers have different concepts of science, objectivity and progress than European ones (and given their countries’ relative rise in power their concepts may start to be impressed upon Europeans rather than vice versa; the Occident and Orient may, like the Earth’s magnetic field, begin to flip) but given that vast numbers of them are being trained in European and North American universities this is most definitely not something that can be simply asserted – it’s a completely open question. Are non-Western engineers and scientists (not to mention bureaucrats and politicians) really not ‘modern’? Are their attitudes towards facts and values so very alien? And if they are modern then who is making representations to whom? Surely it must then be the middle classes/elites of these countries making representations to the lower classes/peasants? And if that’s the case why speak in terms of nationally and geographically bounded groups at all?
We already have ‘capitalism with Asian values,’ why not ‘modernism with Asian values’ – a fusion of values? It’s no less plausible. In fact has this not already arrived, hand in hand with capitalism? For all the talk of empiricism Latour simply assumes that the ‘others’ have radically different values. This is problematic not just in the present but also in the past. Science has never been a purely European phenomenon. What about its Arabic, Indian and Chinese roots? Are the ‘others’ only now discovering ‘Modern values’? I find this to be entirely implausible.
And what of Europe itself? Perhaps as a British person it is easy for me to doubt whether Europe is a meaningful entity – our political climate tends to be rather sceptical of ‘the Continent.’ However, Latour not only assumes that ‘Europe’ is a meaningful entity but makes it the master signifier for the ‘us’ that he wishes to summon as a public through the ‘issue’ of his project. He takes Europe to be more or less given and established; an obvious and uncontentious referent. In his essay ‘Reflections on Etienne Souriau’s Les différents modes d’existence’ Latour uses the phrase “European ontology” to describe his modes project:
“… the project of philosophical anthropology that I pursue entertains the idea, which one must admit is pretty crazy, of a ‘European ontology’. It is as if we said to other cultures (though we know they are no longer cultures), if we said to the ‘former others’: ‘Here are the contrasts we thought we were able to figure out in the course of our history, which was supposed to be the history of modernization. Now it’s your turn, you others, to define the contrasts that you have extracted, and the values to which you are so attached that without them you too would die.’” (16)
The circumscription of the project as peculiarly ‘European’ seems to derive from a kind of post-colonialist desire to avoid universalism and ‘speaking for the Other’ (he regularly mentions the politicising effect his fieldwork in Africa during the 1960s had on him, e.g. p.8). Latour doesn’t want to imply that his modes are being handed down from on high, explaining away the lives and times of all people, everywhere. So, he calls it a ‘European ontology’ in order to hem it in and limit it. As a European he feels qualified to identify the ontology pertaining to Europeans but not to anyone else. Fair enough. However, that decision is utterly inconsistent with his claim that Moderns are not a people and are not geographically delimited – not ‘defined by their birth.’
Despite the pretension to ‘empiricism,’ all of these claims vis-à-vis who’s modern and who’s not are simply stated as fact without any apparent awareness that evidentiary justification might be necessary. It seems to me that Latour is so desperate to avoid ‘speaking for the other’ that he actually does speak for the other by exoticising it, by ignoring the ways in which non-Europeans (a) are often quite like Europeans, (b) have often spent time being living and being educated in Europe and (c) have, in one way or another, contributed to those institutions broadly claimed to be ‘European.’ In other words, Europeans and non-Europeans have a shared history as well as a shared future.
This ‘us’ is as questionable as the ‘them’ – so who is meant to be ‘negotiating,’ and how?
Okay, of course Latour doesn’t mean ‘negotiate’ literally. He doesn’t mean that Cameron, Merkel, Hollande, etc. need to sit down with Xi Jinping, Mukherjee, Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, etc. and hash out what the acceptable philosophical positions for the world will be, henceforth! This ‘conversation’ is much broader, longer term and more abstract than anything like that. But Latour has previously held up literally diplomatic endeavours such as the Kyoto Protocol as evidence of this coming ecological politics (e.g. WHNBM, Politics of Nature and particularly his essay ‘War of the Worlds, What About Peace?’). And, despite the complexity, fuzziness and informality of this ‘negotiation,’ it still appears that it must necessarily be a negotiation between elites. Just because it isn’t going to be a formal, literal diplomatic endeavour like some giant 21st Century Congress of Westphalia doesn’t mean that the conversation can conceivably be anything other than an elite-to-elite dialogue. How much negotiation can occur between the common people of, say, Britain and Saudi Arabia? Even if we don’t take ‘negotiation’ too literally it’s difficult to see what kind of conceptual interlocution these populations can have – it must occur via political, scientific, corporate and religious representatives (and so we’re back to the fact of elites).
This discursive elitism clearly presupposes and thus requires a concept of class, not necessarily in a Marxist sense but some concept of class – and of plutocracy. The exclusively geopolitical (and, dare I say it, rather modernist) concepts that Latour hijacks in order to narrate his grand, epic tale of ‘Moderns vs. Others’ aren’t fit for purpose. The social fissures that fall along modern/non-modern lines are as likely to be defined by class and level of education as by ‘culture’ or nationality.
Class, elites, actual political structures – these are subjects that Latour has studiously avoided throughout his career but that come back to haunt him as soon as he tries to turn his philosophy loose in the real, concrete world. All in all, Latour’s philosophy seems to be politically hamstrung from the start. Its flat, un-nuanced, two-dimensional naivety with regard to the structures of political life as they actually exist around the world is at odds with the concepts he places at the very heart of his project.
Of course, I could be made to eat my words as later chapters develop the argument but I doubt it. As I said before, this book is very much a continuation of Latour’s previous work and this has been a major weak point since at least We Have Been Modern.
I must say that I have enjoyed the book so far and I find much of it to be exciting, thought provoking and agreeable – however, it also has some serious problems right at its heart.