In this post, I attempt to build up some interpretive understanding of Latour’s We Have Never Been Modern, which I find interesting but challenging. This is surely an incomplete and simplistic summary; still, I hope it captures some of the main thrust of what Latour is after in the piece.

The first key idea in We Have Never Been Modern is the “modern” Constitution, which Latour thinks is characterized by its dividing-up of “Nature” on the one hand and “Society” on the other. Nature is “transcendent” in the sense of not having been constructed by humans (first guarantee); Society, by contrast, is immanent and constructed and so always retains the freedom and possibility of being reconstructed in new ways (second guarantee). The two become intertwined (Nature is mobilized to stabilize aspects of the social order); however, the “third guarantee” assures the “separation of powers” by drawing a strict line between Nature and Society: societal arrangements can be reconstituted (i.e. through laws) without redefining the natural world, and Nature can be understood/studied (i.e. through science) without impacting the structure of Society. For Latour, this dividing of Society and Nature is begins with Hobbes (society) & Boyle (science) and is what distinguishes modern from premodern thinking.

Unfortunately, there is a paradoxical element at the heart of the modern Constitution. Roughly, the paradox has to do with how the modern Constitution has led to a proliferation of hybrid or quasi-objects — which do not fit neatly into either side of its dualism — while simultaneously insisting that all things be accommodated under its dualistic understanding. What kind of hybrids or quasi-objects does Latour have in mind? Latour refers to things like “frozen embryos, expert systems, digital machines, sensor-equipped robots, hybrid corn, data banks” etc. as well as major societal issues like global warming. These entities are both natural and social, and so we struggle to make sense of them under the modern Constitution that insists on one or the other.

To accommodate the quasi-objects, we need to amend the modern Constitution. Latour would like to accomplish this while retaining what is good about the modern Constitution — namely the production of a transcendent nature and a society of our own making with freedom of maneuver. In short, Latour wants to retain the first two guarantees of the modern Constitution while rejecting the third. How is this supposed to work? Here is what I take as Latour’s key description (140):

Nature’s transcendence, its objectivity, and Society’s immanence, its subjectivity, stem from the work of mediation without depending on their separation, contrary to what the Constitution of the moderns claims. The work of producing a nature or producing a society stems from the durable and irreversible accomplishment of the common work of delegation and translation. At the end of the process, there is indeed a nature that we have not made, and a society that we are free to change; there are indeed indisputable scientific facts, and free citizens, but once they are viewed in a nonmodern light they become the double consequence of a practice that is now visible in its continuity, instead of being, as for the moderns, the remote and opposing causes of an invisible practice that contradicts them.

Roughly, it is a vision that centers the co-production / co-constitution of Nature and Society, thus rejecting the separation of the third guarantee. Contra the moderns, Latour wants us to acknowledge that there is just one stage on which science and governance/politics play out together, and where nature and society are produced together. This is actually how it has always been (nature and society have always been co-produced); but this reality was suppressed/made taboo under the modern Constitution. With the proliferation of quasi-objects, this suppression is no longer viable; hence, under the new constitution we are going to make coproduction explicit and “ratify in public what is already happening” (144).