We Have Never Been [Anything]

Risalatul Hukmi
Risalatul Hukmi
Post-Nietzschean free thinker

Modernism should never be understood as a description of reality. Modernism is a corpus of thought in which an ideal is created as a horizon. Therefore, the mismatch between values ​​and facts never frustrates the ideal value itself.

Bruno Latour was not the first in criticising of modernity. Postmodernists, who were first started by Nietzsche, had given a number of critical accounts of the project of modernism. Yet, it is only Latour who boldly stated that we have never really become modern. The question is, in what ways have we never been modern?

The Critique of The Modern Constitution

There are four guarantees, according to Latour (1993: 139), which fail to be fulfilled by the modern Constitution: 1) guarantee of the transcendent dimension of Nature by making it distinct from the fabric of society; 2) the immanent dimension of the Society by rendering citizens completely free to reconstruct it artificially; 3) guarantee the separation of those powers; 4) guarantee that the crossed-out God enables to stabilize the asymmetrical mechanism.

Of the four guarantees given by the modern Constitution, according to Latour, the third guarantee is the most important to be suppressed because such separation has never really happened in practice. Based on his anthropological studies of laboratory life, Latour concluded that the production of scientific facts always presupposes the presence of various aspects (hybrids); human and non-human. However, such facts are never openly presented as part of scientific production for the sake of objectivity. In this sense, Latour then considers that the modern Constitution is merely an effort to organize the world, rather than a conscientious description of what actually happens in practice (Blok and Jensen, 2011: 62-63).

With this in mind, we can then understand what Latour really meant by “we have never been modern”. Modern Constitution, for Latour, is merely a principle of scientific work. “This is why,” Latour said, “I am not debunking the false consciousness of people who would practice the contrary of what they claim, [because] no one has ever been modern, modernity has ever begun, there has never been a modern world (Latour, 1993: 46-47).”

The Nonmodern Constitution: An Eclectic Approach?

It is in a similar vein to postmodernism to claim that the modern Constitution failed, however, Latour bluntly refused to be called a postmodernist. In Latour’s view, postmodernism is a symptom that still lives in the shadow of the modern Constitution, they (postmodernists) only no longer believe in the guarantees offered by modernism. The mistake of postmodernists, according to Latour, is their rejection of all empirical work and regard it as a scientific illusion (Latour, 1993: 46).

It is precisely at this point that Latour takes a completely different attitude from postmodernists. That the modern Constitution had failed to fulfil what they claimed, Latour did not immediately reject all guarantees offered as postmodernists. Latour finally received the first two guarantees; Nature’s transcendence and Society’s immanence, as a result of mediation work. Latour believes that there is a nature that we have not made, and a society that we are free to change. “There are indeed indisputable scientific facts,” said Latour, “and free citizens, but once they are viewed in a non-modern light they become the double consequence of a practice that is now visible in its continuity, instead of being (Latour, 1993: 140).”

Instead of accepting postmodern and premodern as a solution to the failure of the modern Constitution, Latour prefers to take part of those which are still considered useful to formulate what he later called the nonmodern Constitution. First, what is maintained from moderns: long networks, size, experimentation, relative universal, final separation between objective nature and free society. Second, what is maintained from premoderns: non-separability of things, transcendence without a conflict, multiplication of nonhumans, and temporality by intensity. Finally, what is maintained from postmoderns: multiple times, constructivism, reflexivity, and denaturalization (Latour, 1993: 135).

A Theoretical Extrapolation

Assume that Latour is not a postmodernist as he stressed, but the approach and framework he used cannot be denied based on postmodernism ideas. Even the use of anthropology as a scalpel in his operation of modern science is merely a kind of atavism of what Foucault has done through his archaeology of knowledge. After all, the final conclusion is not much different: science is about power relations.

However, the problem in Latour’s thinking is not on the basis of the theory and approach he used, but his rushed claim to declare that “we have never been modern”. I assume that his arbitrary conclusion, if not a solely intellectual acrobat, arises because Latour mistakenly sees modernity as a description of reality. Instead of seeing it as a horizon that presupposes a process of becoming, he sees it as a concept that has a complete reference in itself.

This way of thinking, indeed, has broad implications that may be very problematic. The separation of Nature and Society in modernism, I argue, is a merely methodological consequence that demands clear and distinct categories for the value of true knowledge. If we reject a Constitution solely because the unfulfillment of the ideal value in the first place, then we can say “we have never been [anything]; liberal, Muslim, religious, etc.” Even we can also state that we have never been human after all. Isn’t that right? []


Blok, Anders and Torben E. Jensen. (2011). Bruno Latour: Hybrid thoughts in hybrid world. New York: Routledge. Latour, Bruno. (1993). We Have Never Been Modern. New York: Harvard University Press.

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