We have never been modern

Bruno Latour started out as a sociologist of science. In his late twenties, after receiving his doctorate from the University of Tours, he had observed endocrinological research in California as a sort of ethnologist in the laboratory of future Nobel laureate Roger Guillemin and came to the conclusion that truth and facts are not discovered, but manufactured. The lab emerged as a place where facts are formed using reputation, bureaucracy, bids, machines, third-party funds, arguments and conflict. The scientific publication makes the history of finding facts invisible, here facts are always the result of “logical” investigative steps.

In contrast, in 1979, Latour and his colleague Stephen Woolgar demonstrated how strongly social factors determine research in “Laboratory Life” with the discovery of a substance that triggers the production of the hormone thyrotropin. They meticulously reconstructed which decisions were made in the search for this substance, which paths were taken and which were not. Even in the lab, rhetoric is constantly used to negotiate, even if it’s not fixed, what’s evidence, what’s a good test, what’s the point. This often led to the conclusion that science is no different from the bazaar, in parliament or in the courtroom. That the statement that “everything is a construct” wants to be taken seriously and that sociological research claims to say something that is true has often gone unnoticed. Latour, who in 1982 received a professorship at the renowned technical college “Ècole Nationale Supérieure des Mines”, continued his work with a book on the influence of Louis Pasteur in France and in 1993 with a fascinating study of the “Berlin key”, that invention is a double-bited object that always keeps the front doors closed at night and always open during the day. Technology reigns here between subject and object, which cannot be placed on either side.

Then followed Latour’s increasingly strong attacks on a social philosophy that also attributed the quality of actors. Society and nature, as he proclaimed in 1995 in ‘We have never been modern’, cannot be separated, and therefore neither are the pre-modern and the modern. In 1998 he called for a “Parliament of Things” under ecological auspices, but without being able to explain who is able to speak on behalf of the Alps, the coasts and the bees as human persons with their own interests. Yet his statements found resonance in the environmental movement and he himself published extensively on climate policy and recently even an ‘earthly manifesto’. He concluded by recalling his origins as the child of a family of winegrowers in Beaune, Burgundy, and that Europe is a province in world historical terms – which is the best of this continent. Do not exaggerate with modernity was Latour’s motto. He died in Paris at the age of 75.

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