Is Bruno Latour a human being, or is he a God? That’s the question I ask as I flip through the pages of We Have Never Been Modern. Latour seems like a God because the network he describes does not seem to exclude anything. It is similar to a monad, simultaneously the beginning and the end of our universe. Latour created this network through the principle of symmetry, which requires the complete abolition of a priori categories such as “true” and “false,” “Society” and “Nature.” Latour’s argument seems so symmetrical that even purified categories, which are the quintessential anti-networks, are encompassed in his network through some magical maneuver (40). Latour, therefore, thinks he can live without bias, without a priori. In that sense, he is truly God.
But there is one last asymmetry that Latour cannot overcome. This is the asymmetry between ontology and epistemology. In his many books, Latour is excellent with things but terrible with the knowledge of things. He can tell you a good story of how Archimedes mobilized pulleys and ropes, but he cannot tell you what such mobilizations meant to Archimedes, or any other human beings (109-111). Latour, therefore, is superbly superficial. He is only concerned with the appearances of things; his actors, like the lines in his network, have no interior. For him, Archimedes was as smart as a pulley.
Latour will respond that being superficial is exactly what he wants. Only by eliminating epistemology can he treat humans and nonhumans symmetrically. Once the veil of epistemology is peeled away, the reality of ontology comes through. For example, he says of quasi-objects: “They are real, quite real, and we humans have not made them” (89). On the next page, he says: “We want to gain access to things themselves… The real is not remote; rather, it is accessible in all the objects mobilized throughout the world” (90). But what is this “access to things themselves”? Is not that access also a human epistemology? After all, nothing, no matter how real, speaks for itself. A pulley cannot be self-evidently “enrolled” or “mobilized.” These are human terms, not pulley terms. In fact, by saying that the pulley is “enrolled” or “mobilized,” Latour has only imposed a human epistemology on a nonhuman ontology. He pretended as if this did not happen, as if the epistemology he imposed was actually a part of the ontology. But then, he is only confusing epistemology with ontology. Spinoza wrote that the idea of the circle must not be confused with the circle. Marxists have argued that there is no one-to-one correspondence between the production of knowledge and the production of real objects. By breaking away from such conventional wisdom, Latour has fallen prey to the worst type of Hegelian idealism.
The question becomes: if Latour does have a human epistemology, what is it? I argue that it is the epistemology of network. Far from some divine creation, network is in fact a twentieth-century product. Latour lives in a world of railroads, telephones, and computers, all of which shaped his epistemology. The concepts associated with Latour’s network almost all came from mid-century research in cybernetics and information theory. The idea that brains are like computers and computers are like brains, the idea that one can use a universal language to examine all things, the idea that relations among things can be simplified into binary states. These ideas are in no sense divine.
So I argue that Latour is still human. He still has asymmetries, and he still has a human epistemology. This book, as a result, may need a new title. Instead of “We Have Never Been Modern,” the title should be “Latour Has Never Been God.”
Postscripts: A Latourian response may be formulated from the passage on page 119, on which Latour celebrates “a network of distributed intelligence.” He writes: “Reason today has more in common with a cable television network than with Platonic ideas.” I contend that this “reason of the network” is a historicizable epistemology, that this “reason” cannot reduce things and the knowledge of things into the same network.