This Is Progress? Research Time, 27/02/2014

The core of the Utopias project lies in the human relationship with time. It’s not about a categorical statement of the relationship itself, but how we conceive of our temporality. In this, Bruno Latour actually provides a central thesis, because We Have Never Been Modern considers a central element of so-called Modernity as an era of human history to be a conception of temporality that is bound up with progress.

Bruno Latour makes an argument. I do not know if he
Progress is an essential part of the rhetoric of modernity as a human epoch. This isn’t a result of a conceptual argument about modernity, but begins from simply looking at what people wrote and believed in Europe and America’s secular intellectual communities. Human history itself was conceived as a progressive drive, which Latour cites the poet Charles Péguy describing with the metaphor of time itself as a savings bank. The future will always be better than the past, goes this vision, as human science and technology improves the condition of our species and world. Any attempt to return to the past fetishizes archaism on this conception of temporality, because the march of time is a continual march of improvement. So goes the philosophical analysis of the rhetoric of progress that developed from the European Enlightenment period.

If you look back at the writings of intellectuals and influential people from the 18th to the 20th century, this rhetoric of progress appears everywhere. Latour gives a fascinating analysis of the concept of progress: it implies that every moment, or at least every point in time where a present can be divided from a past, where you can make even the most minor epochal distinction, contains a revolution. Latour, I think as part of his own rhetorical tendency, describes this as the creation of the past. 

Of course, this is not in a literal ontological sense of creating the past, but creating a particular relationship of present humanity with its history. Every technological shift brings about an improvement in the human condition, such that a return to the previous era would be a categorical loss. Before the Scientific Revolution, we lived in the Dark Ages; before the French Revolution,* we lived in chains. This was a place to which we should not return. This is the concept of time and human temporality that Latour says is the essence of Western secular Modernity, and it’s a concept that would make a fantastic framework of analysis (one of many) for the Utopias project.

* Or the American Revolution, or the Communist Revolution, or any other of your preference.

Although Latour writes of Western society as if it had made uniform social growth regarding these problems, such cultural uniformity is always an illusion. Any diagnosis of a particular problem of thought will never apply without exception to a society. Let me give you an example. Latour writes as if this conception of progressive time no longer applies to our society. He argues for this, in part, by briefly constructing a narrative of major streams of philosophy in France over the 20th century that illustrates a growing critique of the traditional value of progress from within the conceptual conditions of Modernity: he includes phenomenology, Heidegger’s mourning of Being, semiotics, Habermas’ theory of communicative discourse, and the despairing nihilism of the paradigm postmodernists Jean-Francois Lyotard and Jean Beaudrillard.

Latour’s book itself, coming out in France in 1991, would have begun an epoch of positive critique of the structure of Modernity that could achieve creative steps to think without the narrative of inevitable progress or the irredeemable collapse of progress. But in 1992, Luc Ferry’s The New Ecological Order was released. This book amounts to a culturally conservative critique of the ideas Latour would pursue in The Politics of Nature a decade early. 

"Your Honour, I call the plaintiffs to the stand."
In 1999, the original French-language version of this latter book described a model of politics that included nonhuman creatures as a means of approaching our global ecological crises. But Ferry had already argued in his own book that any attempt to include nonhumans in political procedures would destroy human freedom by subordinating our concerns to those of animals and plants. He introduced his book with reference to a Medieval canon law by which human farmers would sometimes have to pay restitution to rats, allowing them to eat some of their crops as compromises over territory disputes in their fields. Yes, it was pure rhetoric, but it was rhetoric that Latour had already said in 1991 would no longer be believable: referring back to a time before a particular democratic revolution, in this case against the legal power of the Church in daily life, as a Dark Age to which we would be horrified to return. Just a year after Latour declared it impossible, a major intellectual of his own country argued against environmentalist principles in the name of preserving a rationalist vision of progress.

I think it’s always a danger in philosophy of losing your arguments simply because we trade in universal statements. Whenever someone argues that society had reached a particular point that makes some particular perspective impossible to think, such a supposedly impossible thought will appear to criticize you.

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