Latour and the non-space and non-time of Modernity (part 1 of 3)

This is the first of a three part post. Parts 2 and 3 are here.

As far as Latour is concerned, Modernity has implications for our experience of space and time. In fact, Modernity exerts what I sometimes call a “spatio-temporal conditioning effect” upon our lived experience.

This theme in Latour’s writing on Modernity culminates in his description of contemporary Western society as being characterised by ‘utopia’ (the condition of being ‘without space’) and ‘achronia’ (the condition of being ‘without time’).

But first of all, what is the current state of the field in relation to this theme of utopia? What work is it doing in contemporary discourse?

A good place to start is this wonderful book, which is a companion volume to an exhibition held at the New York Public Library:


With reference to the work of twentieth-century theorists such as Ernst Bloch, Zygmunt Bauman and Karl Mannheim, this book shows how the concept of utopia has been positively re-appropriated in recent years, both as a framework for literary and artistic production, and as a tool to relate social theory to social practice and, indeed, praxis. Those working within this trajectory have no interest in utopia understood either as the fortuitous or imagined recovery of a lost earthly paradise or golden age, nor as a future, apocalyptic unveiling and donation of some such space by means of the Providence of God. Rather, they are interested in the idea of utopia as a space that might be achieved by the agency of humanitas and associative politics.

In an article within this volume, Lyman Tower Sargent traces the lineage of this mode of utopic thinking from ancient sources (the Ancient Egyptian Tale of the Eloquent Peasant, Solon, the Lycurgus of Plutarch, the Cryopaedia of Xenophon, Plato’s Republic and Laws), through to the Utopia of Thomas More, from there to Francis Bacon, Giordano Bruno, the Hartlib Circle, the eighteenth-century novel (Defoe, Swift, Johnson) and nineteenth-century science fiction (Wells, Huxley, Orwell), all the way to the progressive social theorists of the twentieth-century mentioned above. The idea of utopia understood in this way is offered to the contemporary reader as both an aspiration and as an objective to actualize in space and in time. As something that is potentially achievable via the co-operative action of humans, utopia is seized upon by these thinkers as something that can contest the static and calcifying drift that they see as inherent to political, economic and religious ideology and system. The concept of utopia thus becomes a tool by which progressive action in the present moment can be stirred up and energized.

Latour’s appropriation of the concept is quite different. I will explore that in my next post.