Modern Criticism

The critics have developed three distinct approaches to talking about our world: naturalization, socialization and deconstruction. Let us use E.O. Wilson, Pierre Bourdieu, and Jacques Derrida – a bit unfairly – as emblematic figures of these three tasks. When the first speaks of naturalized phenomena, then societies, subjects, and all forms of discourse vanish. When the second speaks of fields of power, then science, technology, texts, and the contents of activities disappear. When the third speaks of truth effects, then to believe in the real existence of brain neurons or power plays would betray enormous naiveté. Each of these forms of criticism is powerful in itself but impossible to combine with the other two….Such a patchwork would be grotesque. Our intellectual life remains recognizable as long as epistemologists, sociologists and deconstructionists remain at arm’s length, the critique of each group feeding on the weaknesses of the other two. We may glorify the sciences, play power games or make fun of the belief in a reality, but we must not mix these three caustic acids (Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern, pp. 5-6)

Latour’s point, as expressed above, is that the critical stance of modernity is characterized by keeping the Big Three of criticism segmented into three distinct sets: facts, power and discourse. This three-way partitioning, according to Latour, establishes the great fiefdoms of criticisms. The weakness of criticism, however, is that it is incapable of swallowing networks. In other words, it is unthinkable to ask any one of the enclaves of criticism to weave together “the heavens, industry, texts, souls and moral law” (p.5).

Fortunately, we are not hopeless in wrestling with this dilemma presented by the critical tripartition of naturalization, sociologizaiton and discursivization. Latour argues that anthropology has always already accustomed us to dealing with the seamless fabric of nature-cultures. As Latour puts it,

Once she has been sent into the field, even the most rationalist ethnographer is perfectly capable of brining together in a single monograph the myths, ethnosciences, genealogies, political forms, techniques, religions, epics and rites of the people she is studying….In works produced by anthropologists abroad, you will not find a single trait that is not simultaneously real, social and narrated (p. 7)

Although this weaving together of the natural, social and discursive has always been dealt with calmly and straightforwardly when anthropology has studied cultures abroad, there seems to be a lack of anthropological treatment of the modern world. To be brief, then, it appears as though anthologists are incapable of studying themselves. Doubtless, this is due to the susceptibility of anthropology implicitly accepting the tripartite separation of Nature, Society and Discourse in the modern world. Latour, on the other hand, roughly describing himself as a social scientists, is fairly effective at disabusing us of this assumption:

The ozone hole is too social and too narrated to be truly natural; the strategy of industrial firms and heads of state is too full of chemical reactions to be reduced to power and interest; the discourse of the ecosphere is too real and too social to boil down to meaning effects. Is it our fault if the networks are simultaneously real, like nature, narrated, like discourse, and collective, like society? (p. 6)


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