The text that follows is that of my talk at the fourth annual Generative Anthropology Summer Conference held at Westminster College in Salt Lake City and Brigham Young University in Provo from June 24 through 26. The talk itself took place at BYU on Friday, June 25.


Of the many esthetic reflections on the modern, perhaps the most subtle is Antoine Compagnon’s Cinq paradoxes de la modernité, which appeared in 1990—remember that date—and whose ultimate perspective is the resigned acceptance of Charles Baudelaire: Paris change! Mais rien dans ma mélancolie / N’a changé. But rather than recording the often less than happy traces of modernity in Western culture, I think our more urgent concern is to define the terms of a positive attitude toward the movement of history, one that gives us the best chance of adapting the “eternal” qualities of the human to the tasks our historical situation assigns to us.

In this respect, the accepted definition of these times as “postmodern” is troublesome. A theatrically self-effacing modesty combines with an enormous arrogance in the idea that we used to be but are no longer modern, having recoiled at the horrors of modernity in the first half of the twentieth century. For me, 1945 isn’t all that long ago; I can still remember celebrating VE Day with my parents in Times Square. For most of you, that is not likely to be the case. Yet our era is still shaped by our reaction to World War II, to the Holocaust and Hiroshima, absolute inhumanity and the possibility of self-annihilation.

For the moment, however, let us turn rather to another date, less significant perhaps, but one that most of us remember better and that has played a major role in some recent reevaluations of history: 1989, the year of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the incipient end of communism as a world-historical movement—not coincidentally also the year of the massacre in Tienanmen Square. I would like to discuss two significant reflections on modernity that take 1989 as their inspiration.

The first is Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man—which I sometimes think I am the “last man” to take seriously—published in 1992 but anticipated in its essential points in a celebrated article that appeared in The National Interest shortly after the events in question. In the strong form of Fukuyama’s thesis, derived from Alexandre Kojève’s reading of Hegel, the end of history took place, not in 1989, but with Hegel’s witnessing of Napoleon’s victory at Jena in 1806. But the impetus for this claim is nonetheless the present:

What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.

Fukuyama bases his progressive notion of modern history on what he calls the Mechanism of natural science, which unlike other human institutions is reliably cumulative. Thus we may equate the “end of history” with a peculiar form of postmodernity, one that is ambivalently Marx’s open-ended “realm of freedom” and, as Fukuyama—really more a Nietzschean than a Hegelian—unfortunately tends to prefer, an endless postmortem in which the “last man” no longer has any inspiring tasks to perform. In a 2002 work, Our Posthuman Future—the title refers to genetic manipulation rather than cyborgs—Fukuyama lightens this bleak vision a bit by suggesting that we should exempt the ever-evolving world of science and technology from the “end of history.”

The idea that human history can end while that of “science” continues puts Fukuyama in diametrical opposition with the author of another significant reaction to 1989: Bruno Latour’s Nous n’avons jamais été modernes, which appeared in 1991. Latour attempts to show that the watershed year of 1989 is not, as Fukuyama affirms, the triumph of “capitalism” over “communism,” but despite appearances, the defeat of both. As a consequence, we are at a very different “end of history” from Fukuyama’s, one that requires we renounce the illusion of being “modern,” a term that, although his analysis is considerably more probing, Latour likewise defines by the presumably irreversible progress of science and technology. Latour’s vision too can be seen both as one of infinite stasis, as suggested by the rather uninspiring term non-modern that we must accept having always been, and at the same time, as a result of this liberation from the false consciousness of being “modern,” a similarly ambivalent “realm of freedom,” one threatened less by boredom than by the emergent problem of ecological sustainability.

Thus our two thinkers find in 1989 diametrically opposed lessons about the symmetry or asymmetry of human interaction, the latter term of which we can sharpen by designating its initiative-taking side by the Peircean (and Katzian) notion of firstness. Fukuyama sees 1989 as a triumph of firstness that ends the illusory symmetry between two “world systems.” The liberal-democratic triumph is irreversible; all future conflicts will be and already are by definition epiphenomenal.

In contrast, Latour sees 1989 as restoring a denied but always latent symmetry, as underlined in his subtitle, essai d’anthropologie symétrique. His provocative, if unsustainable, parallel between the defeat of “socialism” in eastern Europe and what he at first calls the defeat of “capitalism” (replaced after the opening pages by the more modest term “naturalism,” the modernist idea of a nature wholly distinct from the human), a defeat symbolized by a set of “conferences about the global state of the planet” in Paris, London, and Amsterdam, is clearly designed to problematize the West’s asymmetrical Cold War victory. Firstness generates resentment; since its origin humanity has been preoccupied with redistributing the benefits of the former and recycling the energy of the latter. The first glimmers of environmentalism (which long antedate the conferences of 1989) may not spell the end of capitalism, but they fill an inevitable antithetical position in the historical dialectic that Fukuyama sees as closed off—a role that has been occupied more visibly in the past decade by Islamic radicalism.

Latour is not a typical European intellectual, most of whom remain believers in some kind of post-Marxist socialism; nor is the Nietzsche- and Kojève-quoting Fukuyama a typical American political scientist. Yet it remains fair to say that our two thinkers are representative of the old and new worlds. Fukuyama, as an American conservative, has been vaccinated against postwar victimary thinking, which he argues against at great length, if perhaps too optimistically. In contrast, Latour’s constructive variant on the postwar critique of “hegemonic” asymmetry of makes him, no doubt unawares, perhaps the last major victimary thinker and intellectual heir of the Holocaust. The two differ as well in their style. Latour is a resolutely paradoxical thinker—an important and, I think, justified source of his vast popularity—who keeps his reader off balance by his constant complicitous redefinition of “we” as alternatively naïve and wise, good guy and bad guy, dupe of or wise to the myth of modernity, whereas Fukuyama defends his asymmetrical stance with 300 pages of unselfconscious authorial asymmetry.

Reflecting my own hybrid status, my substantive-historical sympathies lie with Fukuyama, but my stylistic-anthropological affinities are with Latour’s richer and more paradoxical vision of the “end of modernity.” I do believe that liberal democracy, the active and successful participation in the global marketplace, coupled eventually with democracy’s recycling of resentments (which Fukuyama places under the Platonic rubric of the thymotic—as opposed to the erotic, desire for recognition rather than pleasure), whether on a national, regional, or someday on a world scale, is the minimal mode of organization—in no sense a steady state!—toward which polities are bound in the long run to tend—although not necessarily with success! But even if this is true when properly understood, how do we produce this understanding? In our “post-millennial” world, the resentments generated by the West, the US, the Jews in general and Israel in particular are not about to go away. Dismissing these resentments as epiphenomenal is, however tempting, a failure of anthropology, a subordination of the human to metaphysical “reason” along the self-satisfied lines of the Enlightenment.

Latour’s definition of modernity is inspired by Steven Shapin & Simon Schaffer’s pioneering 1986 Leviathan and the Air-Pump, which opposes Hobbes’ Leviathan, the first generative analysis of human organization (and not coincidentally the subject of the first chapter of The Scenic Imagination), to Boyle’s contemporaneous air pump, the apparatus that produced the first more or less reliable vacuum and thereby defined the first “laboratory” space. Shapin & Schaffer’s point, sharpened by Latour—who rejects the book’s unexpected last-minute postmodern tilt to Hobbes’ state-approved knowledge over Boyle’s experimentalism—is that, although thinkers have tended to understand the origins of political and scientific modernity in mid-17th century England as separate issues, or at best, parallel ones, Hobbes and Boyle are in fact symmetrical and competing sources of what Latour elaborates in some detail as the Constitution of modernity. Here the rivalry of politics and experimental science is resolved by wholly separating the object-world of the sciences (which acquired its independence in Boyle’s day by soliciting the empirical observations of the “gentlemen” of the Royal Society, the first true “scientific community”) from the subject-world of politics, the world of les hommes entre eux. Latour’s Constitution establishes far more than a simple dichotomy; it sets up “society” and “nature” as transcendent entities, liberating the “subject” to conquer the “object” and produce the vast outpouring of productive energy we call “capitalism,” which Latour characteristically describes as operating through multiple networks and “hybrids” of humans and things, while all the while denying the reality of anything other than the two poles of the human subject and the material object.

As a result of what Latour sees as the twin events of 1989, we can now understand the Constitution of modernity from without in a state of non- but not postmodernity. For Latour rejects along with modernism the nihilist irony of the postmodern as well as the reactionary negativity of the “antimodern.” Renouncing the false albeit highly productive consciousness founded on the dichotomy of subject and object returns us to an authentic awareness of the “non-modern” state that we never really left, a non-dichotomous interpenetrating universe of networks and hybrids defined by the same continuity of subject and object as the “primitive” cultures studied by ethnologists, and which can now be examined through the lens of Latour’s anthropologie symétrique. Under these conditions, the conquests of modernity and even of postmodernity can be recuperated. Thus Latour recognizes the anthropological value of deconstruction:

… we can save deconstruction—but as it no longer has a contrary [i.e., metaphysical “presence”], it becomes constructivism and is no longer bound up with self-destruction (183)

This reversal of deconstructive analysis into the construction of a prior synthesis is in the same spirit as the use we make of Derrida’s concepts of deferral and supplementation in the originary hypothesis.

Indeed, Latour’s insistence on the common basis of modern and premodern societies has fundamental affinities with GA. Latour points out that ethnologists have no trouble seeing the links between the premoderns’ view of nature and their understanding of themselves; it is only in modern times that we claim to access through scientific knowledge an “objective” nature wholly independent of the human. Latour invites us to explore a vertical dimension of human reality positioned orthogonally to the horizontal line joining subject and object, to which the modern Constitution restricts us. If for Kantian philosophy the “phenomenon” is no more than the meeting point of the two ontologically significant positions of subject and object, Latour’s vertical dimension suggests the depth of real-world interactions of thought and matter that characterize both the hybrid subjects (people exercising professional skills) and objects (processed materials and the tools and machines that process them) of the real human world. In a later work, Latour coins for these “hybrid” objects the term factish, a combination of fact and fetish, to which I much prefer his French translation faitiche, whose inaudible difference from fétiche makes it Latour’s différance.

We should appreciate the generativity of Latour’s intuition of the human-as-mediator, not a metaphysical “subject” faced with an “object” but engaged in a constant work of transcendence. Latour presents his attempt to liberate the reader from the myths of modernity under the banner of democracy:

Modernism—and its anti- and postmodern corollaries—was nothing but a selection made by a small number in the name of all. If more of us make use of our ability to select for ourselves the elements that will be part of our time, we will find the freedom of movement that modernism denied us, a freedom that in fact we had never really lost. We didn’t emerge from an obscure past that conflated natures and cultures into a future where the two will finally be cleanly separated thanks to the continual revolution of the present. . . . Modernization has never taken place. (103-104)

Here Latour abstractly but pointedly links modernism to elitism of nation and class, as the ideology of those who use their claim of liberation from the “premodern” as an excuse for oppression. But what separates this from the sterility of the usual victimary critique is that the attitudinal liberation Latour calls for is proliferation rather than redistribution, a worthy example of the sharing of firstness. Nor is it too much of a stretch to read Latour’s post-9/11 exhortation to the West in his 2002 pamphlet War of the worlds to defend itself against its (diplomatically unnamed) enemies as if in a real war (“Westerners, get up on your feet! It’s up to you now to fight for your place in the sun!” [37]) as a demonstration that one may derive an affirmation of firstness from a prior state of symmetry—even if Latour fails to recognize that symmetry is constructed by firstness rather than the other way around.

I think this brief summary suffices to show that there is much to like, to admire, and, particularly for a humanist, to learn from in Latour’s vision of modernity. This is not “French theory,” but no doubt the most original French thought in a generation.

There are, no doubt, a few problems. In insisting on modernity’s false consciousness, Latour creates an impermeable barrier between the different levels of discourse necessary to the functioning of the social order, so that the pragmatic thinking that gets things done in each specialized sector of the modern scientific-politico-industrial system is excluded from the universal purview of the “modern” ideology that is the object of his “symmetrical” critique. For example:

The moderns were not wrong in wanting non-humans [=things] to be objective and societies to be free. The only thing false was their certitude that this double production required the absolute distinction between the two terms and the continual repression of the work of mediation. (192)

Latour has been telling us all along that the “work of mediation” is the real achievement of the modern. What is “repressed” is not the work itself but, presumably, our consciousness of it. Yet he does not demonstrate that the philosophers he cites as expressing the ideology of modernity prevented more practical thinkers from organizing and articulating these mediations, whether or not in terms ideologically compatible with the philosophers; were both groups “believers” in the Constitution of modernity? Nor is it clear how Latour’s proposed revisions to this Constitution would affect the actual operation of these mediations, or lead us to organize them differently. For example, his ideal non-modern “Parliament of Things”:

The mediators occupy the whole space. . . . Natures are present, but with their representatives, the scientists, who speak in their name. Societies are present, but with the objects that have always weighed them down. Let one of the representatives speak of the ozone hole, let another represent the chemical industries of the Rhone-Alps region, a third the workers of that same industry, another the voters of Lyon, a fifth the weather of the polar regions, and another speak in the name of the State, it doesn’t matter, so long as they all are talking about the same thing, about this quasi-object they have all created, this object-discourse-nature-society whose new properties astonish all of us and whose network extends from my refrigerator to the Antarctic via chemistry, law, the State, the economy, and the satellites. (197)

Yes, but who is going to organize this “parliament”? How will it make and enforce its decisions? Latour’s compelling portrait of our vast network of techno-econo-political interactions only makes the need for clearly defined political authority all the more evident. (I don’t have time to discuss Latour’s attempt to deal with these questions in his 1999 Politiques de la nature, which goes into great detail while remaining in a wholly abstract universe. The book begins, “Que faire de l’écologie politique? Rien. Que faire? De l’écologie politique!” [What should we do about ecological politics? Nothing. What should we do? Ecological politics!])

More fundamentally, Latour’s refusal to dissociate the human and the “non-human” is reminiscent of Rousseau’s (as opposed to Hobbes’) state of nature, where man is not yet cut off from natural goodness by the social vice of amour-propre. As someone familiar with the practice of working scientists, Latour sees the continuity between their solicitation of the natural world and the mimetic practices of traditional culture as more fundamental than the discontinuity defined by the “modern.” But in reproaching the moderns with refusing to recognize the complicity of humans and non-humans, Latour fails to recognize that our relationship to things is transcendentally mediated from the beginning by the scene of representation.

Latour’s conceptual universe has no place for the scenic structure defined by the asymmetry of periphery and center. His arsenal lacks the fundamental scenic notion of deferral, and as a consequence, that of firstness through which the initiative of deferral is carried out. An indication of the decentered nature of his anthropology is the preference for Gabriel Tarde’s theory of imitation over Durkheim’s centralized model of social cohesion, reflected in Latour’s co-authored 2009 booklet The Science of Passionate Interests, an English translation of an introduction to Tarde’s “economic anthropology.” Tarde’s understanding of imitation lacks the key element shared by Durkheim, Girard, and GA. For these, human imitation originates around a center, whereas Tarde sees only that everyone imitates everyone else. As Bergson’s predecessor in the chair of Modern Philosophy at the Collège de France, Tarde is an ancestor of Deleuze’s rhizome more than of GA’s originary scene.

Yet ultimately I think it is more important to point out that Latour’s concrete analyses, whether of Pasteur’s struggles against spontaneous generation or Joliot-Curie’s prewar attempts to create a French A-bomb, display a refined sense of scenicity and of scenic productivity. Latour does not theorize the scene but his descriptions of scientific activity break down the interactions of his networks into series of scenes, more or less consequential, more or less dramatic.

We can express both the historical truth of Fukuyama’s thesis and the limitations of his presentation of it by observing that the most dangerous thing about our “global” economy is precisely that there are really no alternatives. Not only are modern scientific knowledge and its constructions without alternatives among “non-Western” cultures, there is really no such thing as a “non-Western” culture. Even the most backward societies depend on modern industrial countries for armaments and medicines, cell phones and plastic jugs. The world’s less successful societies all seek, subject to their various cultural constraints, the same goals as the West: the application of modern techniques to the production of prosperity and health. The nonstate forces of radical Islam are only an apparent exception; happy to exploit Western technology when it suits its ends, jihadism is best defined not by its announced goal of creating a worldwide caliphate but as a resentful reaction against a “West” it dreams from within of destroying rather than replacing from without.

Latour’s turn to the non-modern is conceivable only within the context of the modern social order. The “developing” world, whatever the varieties of its cultures, offers no alternative visions of nature, let alone modes of relating subject and object, to challenge the structures of modernity and its global marketplace. Its resentments of the “hegemonic” West, justified or not, are wholly ethical. Whether or not participation in the economic market at the highest level need be accompanied by the political marketplace of “liberal democracy”—China is clearly the main test case here—it is impossible to deny the “modern” economic dynamic of all societies, Western and non-Western, democratic or not. There are everywhere only local variants of the “networks” and “hybrids” in which Latour quite rightly locates the key activities of modern industrial societies.

Hence whether we understand “nature” in the modern-naturalist sense or the non-modern-ecological sense, we remain in the orbit of the global “Western” Hobbes-Boyle scientific-industrial complex. Postwar Europe’s “white guilt,” what Pascal Bruckner calls its “penitence” for its sometimes bloody attempts to impose its form of modernity on the rest of the world, does not extend to modern science or in any concrete sense even to the market system, despite the persistent disdain it inspires among most European intellectuals. Nor does the ecological turn of recent years that is so central to Latour’s thinking signal a return to “premodern” values. On the contrary, the “developing” world, which has always been characterized less by the romantic notion of symbiotic concern for nature than by a fortunately limited capacity to destroy it, has no use for such things as carbon allowances except insofar as they can be used to extract subsidies from the West.

It is because, nuances aside, modernity is the status of the present that both our authors deal with it as spokesmen for a particular ethical stance, and implicitly address themselves to a Western rather than universal audience. Although Fukuyama presents the end of history as a global fait accompli, the rhetoric of his book, which begins with a chapter entitled “Our Pessimism,” exhorts his reader to maintain faith in liberal-democratic values, as if anticipating the complex of Western demoralization and Islamic aggression that would shortly follow the triumph of 1989. Latour, in contrast, openly espouses a duty to his Western reader to promulgate a non-modern ethic that will permit the West to abolish its asymmetry with the Rest, bringing together all the humans who never really separated themselves from the non-humans in a potentially less conflictive, not to say, utopian marketplace of universal mediation.

In the light of the originary hypothesis, theorizing about modernity is necessarily paradoxical; what we claim as essential in the human present is ipso facto claimed for all time and consequently loses its historical specificity. Read from the standpoint of originary anthropology, Fukuyama’s historical asymmetry becomes anthropological symmetry. For to accept the “post-historical” status of liberal democracy as the ultimate revelation of the human condition is to recognize that this condition has always already existed in principle as the trace of the exchange of signs and things in the originary event.

Unlike Fukuyama, Latour is aware of the paradoxical nature of the historical liberation he is promoting; the “realm of freedom” is to be found not in following the modernist forward movement of history but in turning back from it to what I would call an inchoate form of originary anthropology. Latour would liberate us from the “disenchantment” of modernity by showing that modern and pre-modern societies have fundamentally the same relationship to the sacred.

Although most of his readers don’t seem to notice, Latour returns insistently to the question of religion. I don’t have time here to discuss his fascinating personal meditation Jubiler, ou les tourments de la parole religieuse, written on the occasion of the new millennium, but already in Nous n’avons jamais… one of the beneficial effects of renouncing our spurious modernity is that:

… the barred [= “watchmaker”] God, in this new [non-modern] Constitution, finds himself liberated from the undignified position he had been forced to occupy[.] The question of God is reopened and the non-moderns no longer need try to generalize the improbable metaphysics of the moderns who forced them to believe in “belief” [the reduction of God to the subject of metaphysical propositions] (194)

The conclusion of “Sur le culte moderne des dieux faitiches” (originally published in 1996) is more specific :

We need no longer oppose the disenchanted world, virtual, absent, deterritorialized, to another, richer, more intimate, more compact and more complete, that of the primitive—who in any case never lived in the fetal quietude of our dreams of good savages. (75)

GA shares Latour’s anthropological universalism, if not his utopianism—itself more performative than substantive. We know that language and the human world it creates are themselves “religious” phenomena. No doubt we also know that it will not suffice for the West to renounce its mythical superiority over the pre-modern Rest for the latter’s resentments to be assuaged. Nonetheless, Latour’s rehabilitation of the sacred is of great relevance to our times. Both the current “asymmetric” crisis with Islam as well as any future “symmetrical” one with China will provide the West with plenty of opportunity to renew its acquaintance with religion. One thing we can say with certainty is that societies that lack the religious cohesion to reproduce themselves, as many European peoples appear to do today, will give way to those that do. We need not envisage sophisticated atheist intellectuals converting to Mormonism or Islam. The children produced by the latter will fill the places of the missing children of the former, and it is in their hands that the fate of “secularization” will lie.

All debates about modernity are really about the firstness of Western civilization, the litanies of guilt for which have, I dare say, become as unproductive as they are tiresome. Thus I think the most useful way to read both our authors is as defenders of this firstness, provided it be understood in both cases not as a static assertion of superiority but as a potential gift to humanity as a whole. To discover or invent anything, someone must go first, but the true value of the discovery is realized only when it has been shared with others. Rightly understood, Latour’s non-modern symmetry is as much a Western gift to the global universe as Fukuyama’s liberal democracy.

Someone might point out that the Hebrews who discovered / invented the One God and subsequently shared Him with humanity have continued to suffer for it at the hands of legions, crusaders, Nazis, jihadis, and Helen Thomas. Firstness arouses resentment; it did then, and it does now. Our job as representatives of this firstness is to circulate its benefits as widely as possible while avoiding the contagion of the Other’s resentment: a modest ethic for the eternal present of human modernity.