An Inquiry into Modes of Existence

In awarding Bruno Latour the 2021 Kyoto Prize for arts and philosophy, the Inamori Foundation said he has “revolutionized the conventional view of science” and “his philosophy re-examines ‘modernity’ based on the dualism of nature and society.” Below is an excerpt from An Inquiry into Modes of Existence.

For more than twenty years, scientific and technological controversies have proliferated in number and scope, eventually reaching the climate itself. Since geologists are beginning to use the term “Anthropocene” to designate the era of Earth’s history that follows the Holocene, this will be a convenient term to use from here on to sum up the meaning of an era that extends from the scientific and industrial revolutions to the present day. If geologists themselves, rather stolid and serious types, see humanity as a force of the same amplitude as volcanoes or even of plate tectonics, one thing is now certain: we have no hope whatsoever — no more hope in the future than we had in the past — of seeing a definitive distinction between Science and Politics.

As a result, the touchstone that served to distinguish past from present, to sketch out the modernization front that was ready to encompass the planet by offering an identity to those who felt “modern,” has lost all its efficacy. It is now before Gaia that we are summoned to appear: Gaia, the odd, doubly composite figure made up of science and mythology used by certain specialists to designate the Earth that surrounds us and that we surround, the Möbius strip of which we form both the inside and the outside, the truly global Globe that threatens us even as we threaten it. If I wanted to dramatize — perhaps overdramatize — the ambience of my investigative project, I would say that it seeks to register the aftershocks of the modernization front just as the confrontation with Gaia appears imminent.

It is as though the Moderns (I use the capitalized form to designate this population of variable geometry that is in search of itself) had up to now defined values that they had somehow sheltered in shaky institutions conceived on the fly in response to the demands of the modernization front while continuing to defer the question of how they themselves were going to last. They had a future, but they were not concerned with what was to come — or rather, what was coming. What is coming? What is it that is arriving unexpectedly, something they seem not to have anticipated? “Gaia,” the “Anthropocene” era, the precise name hardly matters, something in any case that has deprived them forever of the fundamental distinction between Nature and Society by means of which they were establishing their system of coordinates, one step at a time. Starting from this event, everything has become more complicated for them. “Tomorrow,” those who have stopped being resolutely modern murmur, “we’re going to have to take into account even more entanglements involving beings that will conflate the order of Nature with the order of Society; tomorrow even more than yesterday we’re going to feel ourselves bound by an even greater number of constraints imposed by ever more numerous and more diverse beings.” From this point on, the past has an altered form, since it is no more archaic that what lies ahead. As for the future, it has been shattered to bits. We shall no longer be able to emancipate ourselves the way we could before. An entirely new situation: behind us, attachments; ahead of us, ever more attachments. Suspension of the “modernization front.” End of emancipation as the only possible destiny. And what is worse: “we” no longer know who we are, nor of course where we are, we who had believed we were modern…End of modernization. End of story. Time to start over.

Is there another system of coordinates that can replace the one we have lost, now that the modernist parenthesis is closing? This is the enterprise that I have been doggedly pursuing, alongside other endeavors, for a quarter of a century, and that I would like to share and extend through this book and its accompanying digital apparatus. I believe that it is actually possible to complement the starkly negative title We Have Never Been Modern with a positive version of the same assertion. If we have never been modern, then what has happened to us? What are we to inherit? Who have we been? Who are we going to become? With whom must we be connected? Where do we find ourselves situated from now on? These are all questions of historical and comparative anthropology that we cannot begin to approach without a thorough inquiry into the famous modernity that is in the process of shutting down.