Monday 28 October 2013

We have never been Moderns

There’s a really interesting interview with Latour on his website that I hadn’t read until now. It’s with some art curator. Anyway, the interesting thing is that he acknowledges that the ‘non-moderns’ are now modernising:
…we have very little idea about what the modernists will inherit when they abandon their idea of having been the bearer of rationality. We have very few inklings, and the reason why is that, in the meantimes, which was unexpected when I wrote this book, all of the others are modernizing in the most blatantly modernist unrepentant way: the Chinese, the Indians, the Indonesians. So actually, it’s interesting that you are doing an exhibition on animism, because it’s the spirit of the time, the Zeitgeist. It’s like ‘Iconoclash.’ Suddenly, the Europeans realize that, wait a minute, maybe we made a big mistake in attributing animism to the others. What happens if we have been animists, and in what way were we? Since we have agencies everywhere, we mix the agencies, we made a whole series of transformations about the agent, we added wings, and we took the souls out, and sometimes the opposite. We did all sorts of very, very strange things, and we turned to the others, who are no longer others, and what did they do? Well they modernized without any worry... (emphases added)
So, let’s get this straight. The non-Moderns, the ‘former others,’ the ‘Resteners’ as I called them, are now modernising but that doesn’t make them ‘Moderns.’ No, they are imitating the Westerners, the Moderns, the Whites (all these terms are interchangeable) in extending the modernisation front but this doesn’t make them Moderns themselves – this population remains as pure as the driven snow. They are adopting all the practices of the Moderns but somehow they are still essentially other to the Moderns (even though they are ‘formerly other’), with essentially other values that will need to be 'negotiated' with.

This makes the Moderns themselves begin to look less like a population defined by ‘a variable geometry,’ as Latour puts it in AIME, and a racialised, spatially regionalised, essentialised group. Whether or not he means it like this (I assume he’d deny it), these seem to me to be the necessary consequences of what he’s saying.

My critique at the start of the AIME reading group looks better and better, if I do say so myself! Yes, this is just an interview but it seems very clear and plain to me here that Latour believes that the Moderns do exist, that they are more than avatars of modernism, that they are a meaningful, somewhat geographically definable population on the stage of world history. When he says that the West is declining relative to the East and that this fact demands a kind of ontological diplomacy because Western values can no longer be taken for granted – this isn’t just an abstract, philosophical kind of diplomacy he’s talking about. It is that but it isn’t just that. It's also an overarching political call for Europeans to 'make representations' to the Chinese, Indians, Indonesians, etc. who are now becoming 'our' geopolitical equals and, therefore, our politico-ontological equals also.

And everything I wrote before still applies, in that case.  This really is the Achilles' heel of the whole 'political' project.