Skimming through Bruno Latour’s We Have Never Been Modern, I’ve noticed a striking omission. The principle thesis of the book is that modernity involves the “work of purification”, which attempts to clarify (or impose) a sharp and exclusive divide between the natural and the cultural spheres. If we have never been modern, it is because this purification has never been attained, and is probably unattainable. Latour grants ontological priority to the mediations which, in constituting hybrids of nature and culture, ceaselessly undermine this divide. While praising the “modern constitution” for enabling a more massive mobilization and development on both sides than ever before, and hence a more dynamic hybridity between them, he nonetheless warns against the dangerous fixation on purification and disgust for hybridity that characterizes the “moderns”. While this definition of modernity doubtlessly has some traction, it’s not the only one, nor is it the most convincing.
A very different story: According to an at least partially mythologized account (and ironically so), the odyssey of modernity began as early as ancient Greece, when the first philosophers doubly rejected appeals to transcendent authority (a la mythology) in favor of immanent explanation of the world (the birth of science), and the use of argumentation for pathological gain in favor of the pursuit of Truth for its own sake. There is thus a simultaneous break with traditional authority, and with the cynical (in the contemporary sense of the word) opportunism that takes its place. Authority was rejected in the name of a higher ideal, which is not necessarily to say a higher authority. This double break endured centuries of suppression and co-opting at the hands of new authorities, often but not always religious in nature (although usually so in appearance), and while it would occasionally resurface, it had to wait until the Enlightenment for its most pronounced rectification.
The Enlightenment, far from the uniform and essentially unproblematic project whose legacy is so often either praised or denounced, is essentially the articulation of a problem we have yet to adequately solve: how to live without appeals to authority? In Kant, this articulation reaches its apex when the first break totally overlaps with the second, appeals to authority being characterized as essentially pathological insofar as a truly ‘disinterested’ thought would appeal only to its autonomy as rational subject, which is an ideal higher than all pathological interests. Kant was obviously not without his own problems, and the Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment tradition can for the most part be understood as a series of failed, but nonetheless important attempts to work through these problems, and to attain a truly non-pathological autonomy.
The double break can be understood in terms of the schema of premodern – modern – postmodern. Far from historical periods, these three designations refer to the possible consequences of the double break available at any time. Premodern designates the rejection of the first break, in which one recoils into the arms of traditional authority. Postmodernity accepts the first break, but denies the second, rejecting any ideal higher than personal pathological gain as no better than premodern authority. We can therefore see that not only ‘late’, but all capitalism is postmodern, even if not all postmodernity is capitalist (although capitalism is postmodern logic in its highest expression). Modernity, on the other hand, accepts both breaks. In the place of tradition, it advocates an experimental reconstitution of social practices. Yet the standard of evaluation for this experimentation is not simply pathological gain or its formalized sibling, economic growth. Experimentation – in the sense of an uncertain self-determination free from arbitrary impositions by others – must be undertaken for its own sake.
If we have never been modern, it is because we have never been capable of sustaining a social body faithful to both breaks, immune to collapse in one direction or another. And, given the extent to which tradition has been almost totally instrumentalized by capitalist cynicism, this collapse is now uniformly in the direction postmodernity. This doesn’t mean we need to go backward, that we must regress back to modernity to recover now defiled ideals. Modernity is not behind postmodernity, it is above it; we arrive at the latter after having fallen short of the summit, landing battered at the base with a fear of heights. We should remember Lenin’s parable of the mountain climber:
Let us picture to ourselves a man ascending a very high, steep and hitherto unexplored mountain. Let us assume that he has overcome unprecedented difficulties and dangers and has succeeded in reaching a much higher point than any of his predecessors, but still has not reached the summit. He finds himself in a position where it is not only difficult and dangerous to proceed in the direction and along the path he has chosen, but positively impossible. He is forced to turn back, descend, seek another path, longer, perhaps, but one that will enable him to reach the summit. The descent from the height that no one before him has reached proves, perhaps, to be more dangerous and difficult for our imaginary traveller than the ascent—it is easier to slip; it is not so easy to choose a foothold; there is not that exhilaration that one feels in going upwards, straight to the goal, etc. One has to tie a rope round oneself, spend hours with all alpenstock to cut footholds or a projection to which the rope could be tied firmly; one has to move at a snail’s pace, and move downwards, descend, away from the goal; and one does not know where this extremely dangerous and painful descent will end, or whether there is a fairly safe detour by which one can ascend more boldly, more quickly and more directly to the summit.
It would hardly be natural to suppose that a man who had climbed to such an unprecedented height but found himself in such a position did not have his moments of despondency. In all probability these moments would be more numerous, more frequent and harder to bear if he heard the voices of those below, who, through a telescope and from a safe distance, are watching his dangerous descent, which cannot even be described as what the Smena Vekh people call “ascending with the brakes on”; brakes presuppose a well designed and tested vehicle, a well-prepared road and previously tested appliances. In this case, however, there is no vehicle, no road, absolutely nothing that had been tested beforehand.
Despite the understandable resignation that accompanies retreat, failure, and the catastrophe of falling, the mountain remains before us. The condition in which this resignation leaves us – a society more brutal and unequal than any before – is unacceptable. We must continue on toward modernity; postmodernity doesn’t come after modernity, but after we have given up our pursuit of modernity.
Latour’s condemnation of the desire for a purified dichotomy of nature and culture is certainly warranted, but to equate this desire with modernity is at best to overlook the far more significant meaning of this term. Appeals to the authority of the dichotomy, for one, can only be premodern, insofar as it cannot survive critical scrutiny. Yet if we, like Latour, resign ourselves to the play of forces, even if these are generalized beyond those of humanity, it is hard to see where we can derive an ideal capable of withstanding the corrosive power of postmodern cynicism. Modernity is still in our future, or else ruin alone awaits us.