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Books

That Irreducible Diversity of Reality

Enquête sur les modes d’existence. Une anthropologie des modernes English translation : An Inquiry into Modes of Existence, Harvard University Press, Cambridge (MA), 2013

Born in 1947, Bruno Latour was a philosophy agrégé who subsequently became involved in anthropology. He worked in Africa and taught in the United States before returning to France where he is known – and rather kept at arm’s length – as a critic of ‘modernity’. Latour was invited to give the prestigious Gifford Lectures in Edinburgh in 2013 all the same.

 

 

What made Latour famous was a book entitled Nous n’avons jamais été modernes (La Découverte, 1991; new edition 1997, English translation: We Have Never been Modern, Simon and Schuster-Harvard University Press 1993) in which he argued that scientific objectivity is an illusion (if not a fraud) when it claims to have the monopoly on rationality and defines history as an inexorable progress that splits social life into secularized, professionalised and incommunicable spheres. He demonstrated this by applying anthropology’s methods to research and its ‘environment’. A ‘scientific fact’ appears to be the result of a series of ‘translations’ (teamwork in a laboratory backed up by planning, equipment and materials, grants or subsidies both before and after, communication in the form of articles and conferences etc.) that brings to the surface the network in which such fact acquires a meaning and stabilizes. Hence the ‘actor-network’ theory in which elements of differing natures interact without obeying any unitary logic that may function as their matrix and therefore impose itself as an ultimate truth.

 

 

In this new book, Bruno Latour recognises the limitations of his approach. He does not disown it but finds it still too systematic – too ‘modern’ – and therefore proposes another, more flexible and more open to the irreducible diversity of reality, that allows dialogue instead of imposing submission on a non-religious dogma. It is acceptance of the diversity of simultaneous ‘modes of existence’, each of which presents a more or less autonomous way of being in the world or ‘regime of truth’. Latour identifies fifteen such regimes that, without necessarily excluding each other (so he reassures us) and without being ‘wholly good’ or ‘wholly bad’, range from art to technology, passing through habit, morality, religion and what he curiously calls ‘double click’, in which a direct language that tolerates only one, incontestable interpretation is obsessively cultivated.

 

 

Compared to the 1968 activist that he confesses to having been, the author acknowledges that he now nurtures a genuine respect for institutions. If they can be seen as oppressive, their historical and practical foundations exempt us from seeking radically abstract bases that could inspire a (potentially lethal) fundamentalist intransigence. Nevertheless, he does not believe that it is honestly possible (or sensible, for that matter) to do without metaphysics, either. Nor does he hide the fact that he has been and remains a Catholic, even if what he sometimes hears in church irritates him just as much as the scorn that the ‘moderns’ have for every kind of religion (see Jubiler, ou les tourments de la parole religieuse, La Découverte, 2002, English translation: Rejoicing: Or the Torments of Religious Speech, Polity Press, 2013).

 

 

He has been accused of holding positions that are pluralist and, therefore, relativist. He defends himself by emphasising that the plurality of ‘modes of existence’ is not an ideology. His book does not present itself as the mature fruit of a professorial reflection that only imbeciles could not absorb but, rather, as an invitation to contribute: a dedicated website (www.modesofexistence.org) gathers comments and suggestions as to how to follow up on the book. He neither sees nor hopes for salvation in the twenty-first century if not through a conversation between the ‘modes of existence’, conducted in the form of what he calls a ‘diplomacy’ to be put into practice. For believers of every confession, whom the media culture (dominant only in Western Europe) represents a priori as has-been nostalgists or retrograde obscurantists, this may perhaps be a means both of mutual recognition and of restoring the respect that they believe themselves entitled to.

 

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