More thoughts on the spatio-temporal shifts of Modernity

Last week we looked at some of the spatio-temporal shifts that Latour understands as having occurred in Modernity, and the new form of space-time that Latour’s philosophy encourages us to embrace as an alternative. I’ve said before that a useful summary of Latour’s whole system would be something like: what kind of space and what kind of time do you inhabit?

We had a look at one of his diagrams:

Voegelin 3

Do go back to the original post for full explanation. But remember the basic point: in Modernity, the flow of time (represented by the blue arrow) is always understood as having been disrupted by an event of rupture that has already taken place (represented by first yellow vertical cut on the left). This is the moment that is familiar to all readers of Latour’s work: the moment of bifurcation, the ‘original sin’ that colours everything that follows.

This vertical cut can be ‘religious’ in nature or ‘secular’ in nature, it doesn’t matter. Both are equally artificial and equally pernicious. In the case of the former, the spatio-temporal cut may have taken place in an event called ‘the Incarnation’; in the case of the latter,the spatio-temporal cut may have taken place in an event called ‘the Scientific Revolution’, the ‘Enlightenment’, or whatever. The point is that in each case the vertical cut smuggles in an artificial ‘deity’ that does not arrive as a function of ‘progressive composition of the common world’. Such a ‘deity’ is ‘not of this world’ and therefore irrational (non-veridicted, to use the nomenclature of AIME). This is precisely the deity that Latour is critiquing. The deity of [REL], whatever that might be, will certainly not have to do with this spatio-temporal cut. He/ she/ it will be something completely different, something arising from within the logistics of a nonmodern, pluralist configuration of space-time.

Those criticising [REL] for ‘smuggling in’ religion to an otherwise impeccably pluralist system must be careful not to criticise it for handling a deity that, in fact, it wants nothing to do with.

Re-reading Face à Gaïa over the weekend, I came across this quotation which might help. It draws a comparison between those who are convoked by the deity ‘Science’ and those who are convoked by the deity ‘God’, when both these deities are irrational (these are the phenomena of Nature One and Religion One for those familiar with Latour’s 2013 Gifford Lectures):

[…] ces deux peuples partagent cette idée qu’une rupture radicale a eu lieu dans un passé plus ou moins proche. Rupture qui les a propulsé dans une histoire totalement nouvelle que les uns l’appellent celle de la Lumière, les autres, au pluriel, celle des Lumières. L’important, c’est qu’ils se situent tous les deux dans le temps qui succède à une rupture radicale—Révélation ou Révolution.

[…] these two people have in common the idea that a radical rupture has taken place in the more or less recent past. A rupture that has propelled them into an entirely different history, called by one of them ‘the Light’, by another ‘the Enlightenment’. The important point is that both of them find themselves in a time after a radical rupture – Revelation or Revolution. (Latour, Face à Gaïa, Chapter 6).

The idea of ‘rupture’ goes back to one of the earlier stages of Latour’s career, that is, his polemic against the tradition of épistémologie historique as represented by Pierre Duhem, Alexandre Koyré, Jean Cavaillès, Gaston Bachelard and Georges Canguilhem.[1]  It was in this tradition that Latour first identified the epistemological move of a ‘rupture’, emblematic of which is the Bachelardian rupture épistémologique.[2] That all comes in Latour’s early work in STS. His intellectual journey really does have the most remarkable consistency.


[1]   For a useful historical overview of épistémologie historique, including analysis of how the movement spread beyond French intellectual life, cf. Bontems, Vincent, (2006), ‘L’actualité de l’épistémologie historique’ in Revue d’histoire des sciences Vol. 59, No. 2, pp.137-147.

[2]   For additional context, cf. Lecourt, Dominique, (2002), L’épistémologie historique de Gaston Bachelard (Paris: Vrin), esp. pp.78-82.


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