Sunday, 27 October 2013

The Moderns don't exist - an initial review

Phew, I just finished reading An Inquiry Into Modes of Existence.  I've still got a lot to think through and write down but here are some initial reflections.

I feel that my initial criticisms vis-a-vis the Moderns and their incoherence have been entirely vindicated!  Quite simply the Moderns as a 'people' don't exist.  The Moderns are nothing more than the ideal subjects of Modernism - or the avatars of Modernism, if you prefer.  Undoubtedly there are many individuals who approximate the image of the Modern but many of these aren't Western or White.  Latour should stick to 'Modern,' it's sufficient.  Trying to turn this into a pseudo-postcolonial critique only makes things harder to understand.

All the fluff about the decline of the West and Gaia proving to the Moderns that their time is up is really just a lot of rhetorical tinsel.  The 'planetary negotiation,' for all its grandeur and pomposity, is an intellectual debate between students, academics, bloggers, interested amateurs, researchers, para-academics, etc. Presumably there'll be some scientists and lawyers involved too but there's a problem with that: I've read most of Latour's books, a lot of actor-network theory type stuff and quite a bit of philosophy and I found this book difficult to read.  This is an issue.  I really wish I'd read the conclusion at the beginning!  The humour, humility and candidness of the last ten pages was really refreshing but it only highlights how stolid and burdensome much of the rest of the book was to read.  That said, I enjoyed it.  However, I am weird.

The last few pages are also interesting because they anticipate many of the criticisms I made of the book as I was working my way through it.  I'll need to redress some of those at a later date.

All in all, there are some really major problems with some of the modes and some quite serious issues with the project overall, however it is a brilliant book despite all that.  Frustrating most of the time, infuriating sometimes.  Probably 75% or more of the book is based on previously published work, however it is an impressive synthesis of a thirty or so year career.

In short, while he admits that the project is 'idiocy' I think that he's just crazy enough that he might pull it off!

I do think that the religion mode needs to be torn down and begun again.  It tries to do too much and doesn't leave any room for secular personification.  Trying to force non-Christians to adopt Christian language is not only an unrealistic diplomatic proposal but also rather offensive.

The politics mode has potential but needs to be greatly expanded beyond the naive and rather outdated musings of Dewey and Lippmann.  We need to understand representative politics as Latour describes it in relation to other forms (e.g. populism, anarchism) and how non-democratic politics can also be representative.

The separation of The Economy into three modes is at times inspired but is sadly incomplete.  The fact is that capitalism isn't just a series of formatting and calculative practices, it's the very lifeblood of our political world.  At the very least it's a group of extremely wealthy and powerful people who actively and aggressively pursue their own class interests.  Whether or not class is thought in terms of scripts (and I see no reason why it can't be) it needs to be conceptualised and taken seriously rather than left to hang in the thin air of abstraction.

But that's the major problem with all these modes - with the whole project, in fact: it is very difficult to bring these abstractions back down to earth and understand concrete events with them.  The State may be an absurd artefact of the Modern imagination but nation states are the basis of all global politics.  To ignore them is political idealism, plain and simple.  The modes are certainly fecund for thought but they're a long way from being anything that can actually make sense of the world as it actually exists.

Latour's philosophy inhabits a twilight zone.  It's neither really empirical or fully philosophical.  He never really commits to either and ends up producing something inbetween.  Compare it to, say, Plato's Republic.  There's never any danger of that thought experiment being confused with reality.  It's full philosophy - and all the richer and more vivid for it.  Latour's partial empiricism stops him from achieving the same scope and breadth of speculation and then, on the other hand, he's not empirical enough that his thoughts can be easily integrated into the world through those filaments of evidence and experience.

The only way it can possibly work is collaboratively and critically, which is why the project as a whole is really rather inspired.  I'm excited to see what happens next.


  1. what are the shortfalls of Lippmann's side of the debate?

  2. Lippmann is fine as far as he goes, I just don’t see how his ideas are sufficient for an entire political philosophy. It’s clear enough why Latour is interested in Lippmann. Lippmann’s whole concern is how democracy is possible in a fast paced, hyper-complex globalised age (i.e. the 1920s…) where the public in general can’t possibly have even a tiny proportion of the knowledge needed to competently decide all the issues that need deciding. In this situation they seem to be beholden to elites. But then for many issues even the elites struggle to decide. Some issues are simply undecidable. Dewey and Lippmann both turn this conundrum around somewhat and say ‘Okay, so these issues are too complex to be administrated by elites but that doesn’t preclude democracy, it emboldens it. These issues are what make the public necessary, what makes them get involved, what means that they have to be involved. If these issues can’t be decided by elites *technocratically* then they can only be decided *politically*, that is through public involvement.’ And that’s fine but it’s not a political philosophy, it’s just part of one. Latour tries to build a whole world out of just that insight and it isn’t enough. Not even nearly.

  3. gotcha thanks, for some more in-depth engagements with the subject of the roles of experts in democracies check out the work by the author of a very good book The Social Theory of Practices: Tradition, Tacit Knowledge, and Presuppositions, Stephen Turner: