We Have Never Been Modern

Congratulations to Bruno Latour for being named the 2021 Kyoto Prize laureate for arts and philosophy. To celebrate, here’s an excerpt from We Have Never Been Modern.

By claiming that the modern Constitution does not permit itself to be understood, by proposing to reveal the practices that allow it to exist, by asserting that the critical mechanism has outlived its usefulness, am I behaving as though we were entering a new era that would follow the era of the moderns? Would I then be, literally, postmodern? Postmodernism is a symptom, not a fresh solution. It lives under the modern Constitution, but it no longer believes in the guarantees the Constitution offers. It senses that something has gone awry in the modern critique, but it is not able to do anything but prolong that critique, though without believing in its foundations (Lyotard, 1979). Instead of moving on to empirical studies of the networks that give meaning to the work of purification it denounces, postmodernism rejects all empirical work as illusory and deceptively scientistic (Baudrillard, 1992). Disappointed rationalists, its adepts indeed sense that modernism is done for, but they continue to accept its way of dividing up time; thus they can divide up eras only in terms of successive revolutions. They feel that they come ‘after’ the moderns, but with the disagreeable sentiment that there is no more ‘after.’ ‘No future’: this is the slogan added to the moderns’ motto ‘No past.’ What remains? Disconnected instants and groundless denunciations, since the postmoderns no longer believe in the reasons that would allow them to denounce and to become indignant.

A different solution appears as soon as we follow both the official Constitution and what it forbids or allows, as soon as we study in detail the work of production of hybrids and the work of elimination of these same hybrids. We then discover that we have never been modern in the sense of the Constitution, and this is why I am not debunking the false consciousness of people who would practice the contrary of what they claim. No one has ever been modern. Modernity has never begun. There has never been a modern world.

The use of the past perfect tense is important here, for it is a matter of a retrospective sentiment, of a rereading of our history. I am not saying that we are entering a new era; on the contrary we no longer have to continue the headlong flight of the post-post-postmodernists; we are no longer obliged to cling to the avant-garde of the avant-garde; we no longer seek to be even cleverer, even more critical, even deeper into the ‘era of suspicion.’ No, instead we discover that we have never begun to enter the modern era. Hence the hint of the ludicrous that always accompanies postmodern thinkers; they claim to come after a time that has not even started!

This retrospective attitude, which deploys instead of unveiling, adds instead of subtracting, fraternizes instead of denouncing, sorts out instead of debunking, I characterize as nonmodern (or amodern). A nonmodern is anyone who takes simultaneously into account the moderns’ Constitution and the population of hybrids that that Constitution rejects and allows to proliferate.



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