Latour—We Have Never Been Modern

We Have Never Been Modern

by Bruno Latour, (Translated by Catherine Porter)

[Latour, Bruno. 1993. We Have Never Been Modern. Translated by Catherine Porter. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.]


  • The act of purification is key to being modern, however, we are increasingly creating and coming up against hybrids. For instance, a discussion of the ozone layer combines science, technology, politics, and nature, blurring the modernist distinctions and continuing the proliferation of quasi-objects.
  • Latour is not arguing that we are entering a new era of hybridization, but instead that we have always created these hybrids and their quasi-objects and have never been “modern” to begin with.
  • Latour hopes to replace what he calls the modern “constitution” with a nonmodern version that does not separate nature and society and brings the genesis of quasi-objects to light (see below).

Purification—making a clear distinction between the ideas of nature (science, non-human, objects) and society (culture, human, subjects)

Hybridization—mixing nature and culture (non-human and human, object and subject)

Quasi-object—the products of hybridization; objects that can influence the social action of subjects (soccer balls, tools, diagrams, etc.)


“The hypothesis of this essay is that the word ‘modern’ designates two sets of entirely different practices which must remain distinct if they are to remain effective, but have recently begun to be confused. The first set of practices, by ‘translation’, creates mixtures between entirely new types of beings, hybrids of nature and culture. The second, by ‘purification’, creates two entirely distinct ontological zones: that of human beings on one hand; that of nonhumans on the other. Without the first set, the practices of purification would be fruitless or pointless. Without thesecond, the work of translation would be slowed down, limited, or evenruled out. The first set corresponds to what I have called networks; the second to what I shall call the modern critical stance” (10-11).


“We can keep the Enlightenment without modernity, provided that we reintegrate the objects of the sciences and technologies into the Constitution, as quasi-objects among many others – objects whose genesis must no longer be clandestine, but must be followed through and through, from the hot events that spawned the objects to the progressive cool-down that transforms them into essences of Nature or Society” (135).


Annotation Summary for: Latour – We Have Never Been Modern

Page 8, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “1.1 The Proliferation of Hybrids”

Page 9, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “If reading the daily paper is modern man’s form of prayer, then it is a very strange man indeed who is doing the praying today while reading about these mixed-up affairs. All of culture and all of nature get churned up again every day.”

Page 10, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “They have cut the Gordian knot with a well-honed sword. The shaft is broken: on the left, they have put knowledge of things; on the right, power and human politics.”

Page 10, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “1.2 Retying the Gordian Knot”

Page 10, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “For lack of better terms, we call ourselves sociologists,historians, economists, political scientists, philosophers or anthropol­ogists. But to these venerable disciplinary labels we always add aqualifier: ‘of science and technology’. Yet our work remains incomprehensible, because it is segmented into three components corresponding to our critics’ habitual categories. They turn it into nature, politics or discourse.”

Page 11, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Yet this research does not deal with nature or knowledge, with things-in­ themselves, but with the way all these things are tied to our collectivesand to subjects. We are talking not about instrumental thought but aboutthe very substance of our societies. ”

Page 11, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “second misunderstanding. science studies aretalking not about the social contexts and the interests of power, butabout their involvement with collectives and objects. ”

Page 12, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Our intellectual life is out of kilter. Epistemology, the social sciences, the sciences of texts – all have their privileged vantage point, provided that they remain separate.”

Page 12, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “1.3 The Crisis of the Critical Stance”

Page 14, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Either it isimpossible to do an anthropological analysis of the modern world – andthen there is every reason to ignore those voices claiming to have ahomeland to offer the sociotechnological networks; or it is possible to doan anthropological analysis of the modern world – but then the verydefinition of the modern world has to be altered. ”

Page 15, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “1.4 1989:The Year of Miracles”

Page 17, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “1.5 What Does it Mean ToBe a Modem?”

Page 17, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “‘Modern’is doubly asymmetrical: it designates a break in the regular passage of time, and it designates a combat in which there are victors and vanquished.”

Page 17, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “we have to rethink the definition of modernity, interpret the symptom of postmoderniry, and understand why we are no longer committed heart and soul to the double task of domination and emancipation.”

Page 17, Stamp (Star (Frame, Red))

Page 17, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “The hypothesis of this essay is that the word ‘modern’designates two sets of entirely different practices which must remain distinct if they are to remain effective, but have recently begun to be confused. The first set of practices, by ‘translation’,creates mixtures between entirely new types of beings, hybrids of nature and culture. The second, by ‘purification’,creates two entirely distinct ontological zones: that of human beings on”

Page 17, Highlight (Yellow): Content: ” ‘translation ‘purification'”

Page 18, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Without the first set, thepractices of purification would be fruitless or pointless. Without thesecond, the work of translation would be slowed down, limited, or evenruled out. The first set corresponds to what I have called networks; thesecond to what I shall call the modern critical stance. ”

Page 18, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “the one hand; that of nonhumans on the other.”

Page 18, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “So long as we consider these two practices of translation and purification separately, we are truly modern As soon as we direct our attention simultaneously to the work of purification and the work of hybridiza­ tion, we immediately stop being wholly modern, and our future begins to change.”

Page 18, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “At the same time we stop having been modern, because webecome retrospectively aware that the two sets of practices have alwaysalready been at work in the historical period that is ending. Our pastbegins to change. ”

Page 19, Underline (Magenta): Content: “Nietzsche said that the big problems were like cold baths: you have to get out as fast as you got in.”

Page 20, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “2.1 The Modem Constitution”

Page 21, Underline (Red): Content: “Philippe Descola”

Page 22, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “2.2 Boyle and His Objects”

Page 22, Underline (Red): Content: “(Shapin and Schaffer,”

Page 25, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “2.3 Hobbes and His Subjects”

Page 27, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “2.4 The Mediation ofthe Laboratory”

Page 29, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “1.5 The Testimonyof Nonhumans”

Page 31, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “2.6 The Double Artifact ofthe Laboratory and the Leviathan”

Page 32, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Shapin and Schaffer seem to accept the limitations imposed by the Edinburgh school: if all questions of epistemology are questions of social order, this is because, when all is said and done, the social context contains as one of its subsets the”

Page 33, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “definition of what counts as good science.”

Page 33, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Such an asymmetry renders Shapin and Schaffer less well equipped to deconstruct the macro-social context than Nature ‘out there’.”

Page 33, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “They seem to believe that a society ‘up there’ actually exists, and that it accounts for the failure of Hobbes’s programme. Or – more precisely – they do not manage to settle the question, cancelling out in their conclusion what they had demonstrated in Chapter 7, and cancelling out their own argument yet again in the very last sentence of the book:”

Page 33, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “No, Hobbes was wrong. Howcould he have been right, when he was the one who invented the monist society in which Knowledge and Power are one and the same thing?”

Page 33, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Yes, ‘knowledge, as much as the State, is the product of human actions’, but that is precisely why Boyle’s political invention is much more refined than Hobbes’ssociology of science.”

Page 34, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “2.7 Scientific Representation and Political Representation”

Page 36, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “2.8 The Constitutional Guarantees of the Moderns”

Page 37, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “a significant guarantee: it is not men who make Nature; Nature has always existed and has always already been there; we are only discovering its secrets.”

Page 37, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “an equally significant guarantee: human beings, and only human beings, are the ones who construct society and freelydetermine their own destiny.”

Page 38, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “they add a third constitutionalguarantee: there shall exist a complete separation between the naturalworld (constructed, nevertheless, by man) and the social world (sus­tained, nevertheless, by things); secondly, there shall exist a totalseparation between the work of hybrids and the work of purification.”

Page 39, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “2.9 The Fourth Guarantee: The Crossed-out God”

Page 40, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Modern men and women could thus be atheists even while remaining religious. They could invade the material world and freely re-create the social world, but without experiencing the feelingof an orphaned demiurge abandoned by all.”

Page 40, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Spirituality invented: the all-powerful God could descend into men’s heart of hearts without intervening in any way in their external affairs.”

Page 41, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “the modern Constitution allows theexpanded proliferation of the hybrids whose existence, whose verypossibility, it denies. ”

Page 42, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “2.10 The Power ofthe Modem Critique”

Page 44, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “2.11 The Invincibility of the Modems”

Page 44, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Ifyou criticize them by saying thatNature is a world constructed by human hands, they will show you thatit is transcendent, that science is a mere intermediary allowing access toNature, and that they keep their hands off. If you tell them that we are free and that our destiny is in our own hands, they will tell you thatSociety is transcendent and its laws infinitely surpass us. If you objectthat they are being duplicitous, they will show you that they never confuse the Laws of Nature with imprescriptible human freedom. If you believe them and direct your attention elsewhere, they will take advantage of this to transfer thousands of objects from Nature into the social body while procuring for this body the solidity of natural things. Ifyou turn round suddenly, as in the children’sgame ‘Mother,may I?’, theywill freeze, looking innocent, as if they hadn’t budged: here, on the left, are things themselves; there, on the right, is the free society of speaking, thinking subjects, values and of signs.”

Page 44, Highlight (Cyan): Content: ” Everything happens in the middle, everything passes between the two, everything happens by way ofmediation, translation and networks, but this space does not exist, it hasno place. I”

Page 45, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “2.12 What the Constitution Clarifies and What It Obscures”

Page 45, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Yet the modern world has never happened, in the sense that it has never functioned according to the rules of its official Constitution alone:”

Page 49, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “2.1J The End of Denunciation”

Page 52, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “2.14 We Have Never BeenModem”

Page 52, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “I now have a choice: either I believe in the complete separation betweenthe two halves of the modern Constitution, or I study both what thisConstitution allows and what it forbids, what it clarifies and what itobfuscates. Either I defend the work of purification – and I myself serveas a purifier and a vigilant guardian of the Constitution – or else I studyboth the work of mediation and that of purification – but I then cease tobe wholly modern.”

Page 53, Highlight (Cyan): Content: ” No one has ever been modern. Modernity has never begun. Therehas never been a modern world. ”

Page 53, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “I am not saying that we are entering a new era; on the contrary we no longer have to continue the headlong flight of the posr-post-postmodernisrs, we are no longer obliged to cling to the avant­ garde of the avant-garde; we no longer seek to be even cleverer, even more critical, even deeper into the ‘era of suspicion’. No, instead wediscover that we have never begun to enter the modern era.”

Page 53, Highlight (Cyan): Content: ” Anonmodern is anyone who moderns’ Constitution and takes simultaneously the populations of into account thehybrids that thatConstitution rejects and allows to proliferate. ”

Page 53, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Constitution explained everything, but only by leaving out what was in the middle.”

Page 53, Highlight (Cyan): Content: ” hybrids, monsters – what Donna Haraway calls’cyborgs’ and ‘tricksters’ (Haraway, 1991) whose explanation itabandons­are just about everything; they compose not only our own collectives but also the others, illegitimately called premodern. ”

Page 53, Underline (Red): Content: “Donna Haraway”

Page 54, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Another field – much broader, much less polemical­ has opened up before us: the field of nonmodern worlds. It is the Middle Kingdom,”

Page 54, Highlight (Yellow): Content: “Middle Kingdom,”

Page 55, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “3.1 The Modems, Victims of Their Own Success”

Page 56, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Perhaps the modern framework could have held up a little while longer if its very development had not established a short circuit between Nature on the one hand and human masses on the other.”

Page 56, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “The diagnosis of the crisis with which I began this essay is now”

Page 57, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “quite clear: the proliferation of hybrids has saturated the constitutionalframework of the moderns. ”

Page 57, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “3.2 What Is a Quasi-Object?”

Page 57, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “these strange new hybrids”

Page 57, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “we had to wait for science studies in order to define what, following Michel Serres (1987), I shall call quasi-objects, quasi-subjects.”

Page 57, Underline (Red): Content: “Michel Serres”

Page 61, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “3.3 Philosophies Stretched Over the Yawning Gap”

Page 65, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “3.4 The Endof Ends”

Page 66, Underline (Red): Content: “Jiirgen Habermas”

Page 68, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “It is the double contradiction that is modern, the contradiction between the two constitutional guarantees of Nature and Society on the one hand, and between the practice ofpurification and the practice ofmediation on the other.”

Page 68, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “3.5 Semiotic Turns”

Page 71, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “3.6 Who Has Forgotten Being?”

Page 73, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Past l.7 The Beginning of the Past”

Page 76, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “3.8 The Revolutionary Miracle”

Page 78, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “3.9 The Endofthe Passing Past”

Page 80, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “3.10 Triage and Multiple Times”

Page 82, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “3.11 A Copernican Counter-revolution”

Page 85, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “3.12 From Intermediaries to Mediators”

Page 88, Typewriter (Red): Comment: Page 82?

Page 90, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “3.14 Variable Ontologies”

Page 90, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “As soon as we grant historicity to all the actors so that we canaccommodate the proliferation of quasi-objects, Nature and Society haveno more existence than West and East. They become convenient andrelative reference points that moderns use to differentiate intermediaries,some of which are called ‘natural’and others ‘social’,while still othersare termed ‘purely natural’ and others ‘purelysocial’, and yet others areconsidered ‘notonly’natural ‘butalso’ a little bit social. ”

Page 93, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “3.15 Connecting the Four Modern Repertoires”

Page 93, Highlight (Cyan): Content: ” The moderns have developed four different repertoires, which they see as incompatible, toaccommodate the proliferation of quasi-objects. The first deals with theexternal reality of a nature of which we are not masters, which exists outside ourselves and has neither our passions nor our desires, eventhough we are capable of mobilizing and constructing it. The seconddeals with the social bond, with what attaches human beings to oneanother, with the passions and desires that move us, with the personifiedforces that structure society – a society that surpasses us all, even thoughit is of our own making. The third deals with signification and meaning,with the actants that make up the stories we tell ourselves, with theordeals they undergo, with the adventures they live through, with thetropes and genres that organize them, with the great narratives thatdominate us infinitely, even though they are at the same time merely textsand discourses. The fourth, finally, speaks of Being and deconstructswhat we invariably forget when we concern ourselves with beings alone,even though the presence of Being is distributed among beings, coextensive with their very existence, their very historicity.”

Page 94, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Of quasi-objects,shall simply say that they trace networks. ”

Page 94, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “quasi-subjects, we”

Page 95, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Real as Nature, narrated as Discourse, collective as Society, existentialas Being: such are the quasi-objects that the moderns have caused toproliferate. As such it behoves us to pursue them, while we simplybecome once more what we have never ceased to be: amoderns.”

Page 135, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “5.1 The ImpossibleModernization”

Page 135, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “bloodshed, had a clear objective. Modernizing by force and finally made it possible to distinguish between the laws of external nature and the conventions of society. The conquerors undertook this partition everywhere, consigning hybrids either to the domain of objects or to that of society. The process of partitioning was accompanied by a coherent and continuous front of radical revolutions in science, technology, administration, economy and religion, a veritable bulldozer operation behind which the past disappeared for ever, but in front of which, at least, the future opened up.”

Page 137, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “5.2 Final Examinations”

Page 138, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “How can size, exploration, proliferation be”

Page 139, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “maintained while the hybrids are made explicit? Yet this is precisely the amalgam I am looking for: to retain the production ofa nature and ofa society that allow changes in size through the creation of an external truth and a subject of law, but without neglecting the co-production of sciences and societies.”

Page 140, Highlight (Cyan): Content: ” We cankeep the Enlightenment without modernity, provided that we reintegratethe objects of the sciences and technologies into the Constitution, asquasi-objects among many others – objects whose genesis must no longerbe clandestine, but must be followed through and through, from the hotevents that spawned the objects to the progressive cool-down thattransforms them into essences of Nature or Society.”

Page 141, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “5.3 Humanism Redistributed”

Page 143, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “5.4 The Nonmodern Constitutio”

Page 146, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “NonmodemConstitution 1st guarantee: nonseparability of the common production of societies and natures. 2ndguarantee: continuous following of the production of Nature, which is objective, and the production of Society, which is free. In the last analysis, there is indeed a transcendence of Nature and an immanence of Society, but the two are not separated. 3rdguarantee: freedom is redefined as a capacity to sort the combinations of hybrids that no longer depend on a homogeneous temporal flow. 4th guarantee: the production of hybrids, by becoming explicit and collective, becomes the object of an enlarged democracy that regulates or slows down its cadence.”

Page 146, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “ModemConstitution 1st guarantee: Nature is transcendent but mobilizable (immanent). 2ndguarantee: Society is immanent but it infinitely surpasses us (transcendent) 3rdguarantee: Nature and Society are totally distinct, and the work of purification bears no relation to the work of mediation. 4th guarantee: the crossed-out God is totally absent but ensures arbitration between the two branches of government.”

Page 147, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “5.5 The Parliament of Things”

Page 147, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “We want the meticulous sorting of quasi-objects to become possible – nolonger unofficially and under the table, but officially and in broaddaylight.”

Page 147, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Yes, we are indeed the heirs of the Enlightenment, whose asymmetrical rationality is just not broad enough for us. Boyle’s descendants had defined a parliament of mutes, the laboratory, where scientists, mere intermediaries, spoke all by themselves in the name of things. What did these representatives say? Nothing but what the things would have said on their own, had they only been able to speak. Outside the laboratory,”

Page 148, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Hobbes’s descendants had defined the Republic in which naked citizens, unable to speak all at once, arranged to have themselves represented by one of their number, the Sovereign, a simple intermediary and spokes­ person. What did this representative say? Nothing but what the citizens would have said had they all been able to speak at the same time.”

Page 148, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “There are not two problems ofrepresentation, just one. There are not two branches, only one, whoseproducts can be distinguished only late in the game, and after beingexamined together. ”

Page 151, Underline (Red): Content: “Althusser, Louis (1992), L’auenirdure longtemps, Paris: Stock.”

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