You can’t have it both ways

A further thought from Latour’s We Have Never Been Modern.

He spends considerable time exposing the clever way so-called modern thinkers both undermine nature and reify it. On the one hand, they are quick to denounce religious activities as being the projections of humans on nature rather than inherent in nature itself. On the other, they maintain that certain features of human society are ‘natural’ and therefore, unassailable. (Latour calls this the “double denunciation.”) (51-53)

In the first denunciation, objects count for nothing; they are just there to be used as the white screen on to which society projects its cinema. But in the second, they are so powerful that they shape the human society, while the social construction of the sciences that have produced them remains invisible. 53

It’s a clever trick and one can see it on display in contemporary culture. Two examples will suffice.

1. We are told both that sexuality is fluid and that genders are social constructs. On the other hand, we’re told that certain people are ‘born’ one way or the other. 
2. We read the reports that men are programmed by evolution to disperse their sperm as far and as widely as possible and that males are naturally more aggressive. Meanwhile we discourage sperm-spreading sex (use protection!) and encourage college men to attend seminars on taming their masculinity. 

And both of these points illustrate one of Latour’s broader points. He begins the book by pointing out that in spite of modernity’s supposed interest in segregating the spheres of science, politics, and ethics, “hybrid” issues (Latour’s term) proliferate. There is no tidy separation science and ethics or science and society. Grand social and political movements are being made in the areas highlighted above alternately appealing to science to shape the policy or the politics to fund the science.

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