A Not So Merry-Go-Round

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So as it turns out, according to our dear Mr. Latour, modernity is not exactly…well…it’s just not exactly…or is it…or was it…or will it be?  Come with me on a little merry-go-round ride and see if you don’t end up in a circular dialectic with yourself as well.  In essence, Latour argues that the Western idea of modernity is dependent on a tradition of separation in which we continue to purify nature and culture from the pollution of the other, with Boyle serving as the original champion of nature and Hobbes that of society. 

As a result “we are always attempting to retie the Gordian knot by crisscrossing, as often as we have to, the divide that separates exact knowledge and the exercise of power – let us say nature and culture’ (Latour 1993: 3).  The truth, however, is that nature and culture are codeterminant so by emphasizing their separation as the definition of modernity we effectively eliminate our ability to be modern.

Or do we?  Here I find a fault in Latour’s analysis, but it may be a result of my own cultural understandings.  It seems to me that although the West may not be modern in the essence of this culture/nature bifurcation, the modern tendency to strive for purification has given the West a particular potential for achievement that is out of reach to those cultures that still recognize the “pre-modern” linkage between subject and object.  In essence, it’s as if the knowledge of the interrelatedness between nature and culture fetters these cultures within a bounded understanding of the social and a set understanding of the natural, with the only escape being through the lens of modernity.  Coming from one of these cultures who still recognize the intimate relationship between material and cultural, I find this to be a highly problematic, and somewhat hegemonic, argument.  Oglala’s and Dakota’s are particularly apt at adopting and incorporating new technologies in a philosophically rational manner while maintaining their understanding of the human/nonhuman codetermination.  Are they modern?

A further question would be, if Latour really believes that pre-modern societies were static, what is to be gained by a return?  In fact, what would a return entail?  At the end he writes, “We simply have to ratify what we have always done, provided that we reconsider our past, provided that we understand retrospectively to what extent we have never been modern, and provided we rejoin the two halves of the symbol broken by Hobbes and Boyle (144).”  So in other words we just keep going about our business, but with the understanding that the separation of nature and culture is in error, and yet essential to our current technological and industrial progress?  So we aren’t modern and yet we are dependent on modernity for our status?  And around and around we go.

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