About a year ago I wrote a post on the idea of ‘symmetrical anthropology’ coined by Bruno Latour. I was critical about the idea of such an anthropology back then. And principally I still am – one can not overcome the colonial attitude at work in researching ‘exotic others’ just by turning the colonial culture itself into the research object. One still didn’t listen to those ‘others’ nor has one put the problematic relationship between anthropology and the colonial project into question. The idea of anthropology itself, studying human beings apart from their self-understanding, just the non-literate, non-reflexive social phenomena that they produce could be seen to be, well, ‘racist’. When Latour proposed to turn the anthropological gaze around, and study the tribe of ‘the Moderns’, I couldn’t fathom how that would solve any of the negative effects modernity has had on relations between peoples.
I found it funny though, and that was why I read We have never been Modern in the nineties. The turning of tables was kind of naughty and potentially promised to realise a deconstruction of anthropology by using it against itself. Recently we are able to judge Latour’s project to the full, as his latest work, Modes of Existence, presents the outcomes of his anthropological research on the Moderns in a rich, full, thick volume. And in a website. As I promised to write a review article this month about the book, I set myself to reading it. And was surprised. I really really like the book. Latour’s anthropology develops into an ontology, or even a metaphysics – deploying the felicity and unfelicity conditions (a concept from speech acts theory) of the modes of existence that are factually recognized by the Moderns. The Moderns really are studied apart from their self-reflections, objectively, which is symbolized in the mysterious narrative figure of a female anthropologist. Latour describes how she tries to get behind their apologetical self-representations, and discover what they really hold to be real.
This kind of anthropology reminded me of a specific kind from the forties, not the more general approach that aims at description, but one that tried to overcome paternalism by reconstructing the ontology of a ‘non-western’ culture – taking it serious just like modernity does itself: the philosophical anthropology of Placide Tempels’ Bantu Philosophy. The idea that culture is grounded in ontology appears to me a very ‘catholic’, say neo-thomist thought. This approach searches to understand or describe not in terms of reductionistic science, nor just in those of self-expressions, but to dig into a layer of being being intelligible by the mind. The layer of the plan, so to say, of the Creator, readable by the schooled thinker. Every culture, in this view, gets dignity allocated to it by being outlined by the ultimate Source. This kind of approach is also present in Modes of Existence. The Moderns are not explained as a phenonemon in social evolution, nor are they taken by their own word, but they are questioned as to their deepest attachments – what they really truly hold to be of value, and thereby take to be real. Thus, Latour, hopes to open negotiation with ‘the Others’ – those the Moderns declared to be other, that is. A negotiation which is urgently needed in order to make a turn from economy to ecology. To negotiate with mother earth (‘Gaia’) before she decides to get rid of us.
Actually Latour goes about his business so seriously, and digs so deep into this cultured ontology of the Moderns, that one cannot not value the book. It makes distinctions you never thought about, it really puts your mind to work, and thereby stimulates the brain like a complex musical composition. After reading you will be able to understand more complex relations. Therefore Modes of Existence is great. It is also funny in the sense of putting those who always observed others in the role of being observed. And it is crazy in its many original ideas like that of the imaginary anthropologist, or the diabolical figure of ‘Double Click’, who aims at promoting the epistemological idolatry of unmediated access to an object.
Still, my old troubles with Latour’s project hold true. He doesn’t investigate the conditions of the negotiations he is aiming at. He doesn’t look into his own belief in the power of metaphysics – although it has become a pragmatist, speech acts kind of metaphysics. He has criticized so called postmodern thinkers for being ‘just critical’ and not doing real work to negotiate a different world. I have always thought that criticism to be unfair, for it is too early to know whether we are already ready to negotiate. Whether ‘we’ moderns are allowed to participate in the negotiation at all, and on what conditions. The real question lies hidden behind the seemingly accidental replacement, by Latour, of ‘the Moderns’ by ‘the Whites’, at the end of the book. Moderns, Westerners, Whites, Colonizers… Has the world been decolonized already? Has the reign of white mythology (made fun of by Latour in the figure of Double Click) already come to an end? Can we do anthropology at all? Should we not first accept the problems that the idea of anthropos has created? What to do with an analysis like the following: ‘To destroy the colonial world means nothing less than demolishing the colonist’s sector, burying it deep within the earth or banishing it from the territory.’ If that is true, what is there for ‘the Moderns’ to negotiate? The ‘warfront’ of modernity, as Latour calls it, then will not disappear but by the final defeat of the moderns. not by telling them that they were never really modern.
The citation in the final section is from The Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon
White Mythology is a paper by Jacques Derrida, discussed here.
Placide Tempels was a Franciscan missionary living in the former Belgian Congo, and his work on the ontology of Bantu’s led to so many discussions about ‘African philosophy’.
Modes of Existence was published in 2013. My review (which is not a longer version of this piece, but a separate article) of it will appear in ESSSAT News and Reviews.