Latour, Space and Time (part 5)

Here is the most recent in my series of posts on the ideas of space and time in Bruno’s work. Here is the last one. Or you might want to start from the beginning and work forward.

In some of his most recent work Latour has used his ideas about space and time to develop a deconstructive reading of certain motifs that are prevalent within contemporary discourse. These include the motifs of “progress” and “the progressive”, the motifs of “secularism” and “the secular”, and the motifs of “globalization” and “the global”. Latour claims that these motifs effectively function as slogans: they express the self-perception of contemporary western society and convey some of its most cherished values. His argument, however, is that they actually perpetuate (what I have called) “the spatio-temporal conditioning effect” identified above, an effect that itself has a quasi-religious underpinning. Thus, motifs that are often embraced enthusiastically and uncritically within contemporary western society can be revealed as encoding a covert form of religion or religiosity that undermines their own status and intended function.

The first motif I wish to address is that of “progress”. Latour points out the importance of this motif within the self-consciousness of contemporary western society. It is related to perceived advances in science, technology, culture or material wealth, and is often represented by slogans proclaiming “the onward march” or “the frontier spirit” of human knowledge in its quest for increasing mastery over the world it inhabits.

For Latour, however, the idea of progress is not neutral. The assumption that history will move forward in a certain direction implies an understanding of time that is linear and predictable. This in turn is premised on postulating a moment of rupture that has previously taken place in human history: a time after which humans came to master the progress of history in its essential form . This is the emancipation narrative of “modernity”. By positing the transcendent epistemological categories of “Nature”, “Society”, “the Second Nature” and so on, themselves undergirded by the meta-category of “the crossed-out God”, modernity perceives itself as having broken with a pre-enlightened past. Once, the story of humanity was framed in relation to a plural, contingent world that was by no means under the mastery of humans. But now, the history of modern people is conceived as proceeding on a different trajectory. The “laws of nature”, the “laws of social existence” and the “law of market forces” have been revealed. Modern people proceed on the basis that the future will entail nothing more than the progressive disclosure of reality according to these laws. Of course, the journey may be uneven. But the ultimate destination is known. Thus, as well as positing its own trajectory of progress in relation to a pre-enlightened past, modernity also functions in relation to a future state of affairs or end-state that is conceived to have been brought into the time of the present. This facilitates the idea that the progressive flow of human history has been in some way raised above the impact of events in the world that might lead to an unpredictable or contingent end. Echoing the terminology of Fukuyama and others, then, “the end of history” is proclaimed within modernity. But for Latour this phrase has problematic connotations. It refers to an artificial experience of time. A flow of history that was once tied to a contingent ontology of actors and events has now become formatted by categories that fix its progression in a controlled and predictable order.

Thus, for Latour, modernity is characterised by:

[…] ce thème étrange que l’histoire serait déjà finie, qu’il existerait une rupture totale et radicale qui aurait définitivement brûlé nos vaisseaux derrière nous. (my trans. “[…] this strange idea that history should be already finished, that a total and radical rupture should have taken place that definitively burnt bridges with what was behind us”, Latour, Face a Gaia, French, p.220.

Representing these ideas visually, the conceptualization of history within modernity can be depicted as follows:


Latour thereby gives us a sort of bastardised, religious aetiology of progress. The progressive identity of modernity is held in place by means of two assertions about historical time. The first of these looks backwards and is a bastardised expression of “incarnation”. To be modern is to have broken with a pre-enlightened past whose rationality was associated with the contingent and unpredictable conditions of the immanent world. The second looks forwards and is a bastardised expression of eschatology. To be modern is to function in accordance with laws about the world that are fixed, external and immutable, analogous to the knowledge of God that is to be revealed at the end of time itself, that is, in the eschaton. In between these two historical buttresses, modernity is held in a spatio-temporal grid where the “slight surprise of action” associated with the logistical movements of actors in the present moment is replaced by a trajectory that, in its essential form, has already been set. History can be conceived as moving forward in a controlled and predictable order. It is this celebratory narrative of progress that Latour exposes as a myth.

To summarise, then, Latour’s deconstructive reading of the idea of progress and its relation to historical time is best understood in relation to his writing on religion. Looking backwards, the historical rupture that lies behind the emancipation narrative of modernity is equivalent in form to the Christian doctrine of the incarnation. Both posit an interruption within history that establishes an entirely new historical timeline for those that follow in its wake. And looking forwards, the confidence modern people are able to place in the future trajectory of history is a function of the Gnostic appropriation of an eschatological motif. Thus, for Latour, the progressive identity of contemporary western society has the form of a religious ideology that promises to its adherents a proleptic assurance about their own place in the flow of history and its ultimate triumph in the eschaton.

Latour, Space and Time (part 4)

This continues my series of posts on Bruno Latour’s understanding of space and time. The previous can be found here.

The influence of Leibniz on Latour’s thought is evident here, insofar as space and time are understood as expressing some relation between entities (or monads) in the world (see especially this very interesting article of 2012, where he provides a contemporary philosophical re-statement of Leibniz’s “monadology”, via Tarde).

More importantly, however, I believe that Latour’s philosophical observations about space and time are indebted to the work of the late Michel Serres.


There is a complex intellectual (and personal) relationship between these two that is beyond the scope of my argument here. For one commentator, Serres is nothing less than the “inventor of Bruno Latour” (cited in Bingham & Thrift (2000), ‘Some New Instructions for Travellers: The Geography of Bruno Latour and Michel Serres’). Latour himself is more ambivalent. The relationship is charted in this early essay and in the dialogue he himself pursued with Serres in the mid 1990s, which highlights points of agreement and disagreement between them.


Serres builds upon his own reading of Leibniz (he wrote his major doctoral thesis on Leibniz under the supervision of Jean Hyppolite at the École Normale Suprérieure, Rue d’Ulm, which was published in 1968 as Le Système de Leibniz et ses modèles mathématiques, as well as on contemporary research in the fields of thermodynamics and complexity theory, to provide an analysis of space and time as “non-laminar”. According to Serres, space and time must be understood as being subject to the contingent flows and turbulences generated by the movements of actors in the world. This means that space and time “cannot be thought of as a parameter adding something to a system from the outside” (cited in Prigogine & Stengers, Order out of Chaos: Man’s New Dialogue with Nature, 1984, p.10). Serres critiques post-Enlightenment modes of thought that treat space and time as an external “grid” within which reality itself is fixed and circumscribed. In his Hermès series of books, published during the 1970s, he depicts how different loci of human experience have found themselves plotted on precisely such a spatio-temporal grid:

The Euclidean house, the street and its network, the open and closed garden, the church or the enclosed spaces of the sacred, the school and its spatial varieties containing fixed points, and the complex ensemble of flow-charts, those of language, of the factory, of the family, of the political party, and so on. (in Serres (1983), ‘Language and Space: From Oedipus to Zola’, pp.44–45)

Here and elsewhere in his work, Serres is drawing attention to how many of the representative institutions of contemporary society, whether social, cultural, political, educational or religious, perpetuate an experience of space and time in this way. The self-organising potential of a multiplicity becomes over-codified by a grid that is external to itself. Serres attributes this over-codification to the residual theological idea of transcendence, since it equates to a spatio-temporal framework that is imposed from above upon the immanent world. “This thesis has always seemed to me to be quasi-religious in form”, as Serres puts it in Eclaircissements.

Serres’ work provides a lens through which to understand Latour’s ideas. Both diagnose contemporary western societies as experiencing space and time in an artificial and dislocated way. For both, this can be traced to a religious thematic. And as a corrective, both seek to articulate a spatio-temporal framework that is aligned to and representative of an ontology of actors and events in the world:

Both Serres and Latour have sought to replace space and time with all the figures that have been stripped away by an idea of abstract division, by concentrating instead on movement, on process, on the constant hum of the world as different elements of it are brought into relation with one another, often in new styles and unconsidered combinations. (Bingham & Thrift (2000), ‘Some New Instructions for Travellers: The Geography of Bruno Latour and Michel Serres’, p.291)

Taking his cue from Serres, Latour interrogates assumptions about space and time within modernity that are codified by this thematic, a thematic that Latour will go further than Serres in describing as “religious”.

In the next posts, I will show how this provides the basis for an analysis of various motifs that are prevalent within the ideology of contemporary western society. First of all, the motif of “progress” …

Latour, Space and Time (part 3)

I’m mid-way through a series of posts exploring the themes of space and time in the work of Bruno Latour (see here for the previous post). Soon, I’d like to make the case for the relevance of a religious thematic. But before getting on to that let’s continue to lay the groundwork for Latour’s understanding of (what I have called) the spatio-temporal conditioning effect of “modernity”. I’ve defined this as a form of epistemological paralysis is imposed upon on the present, such that the dynamic flow of activity that constitutes life itself is prematurely unified and shut down. This is the spatio-temporal framework that, for Latour, is characteristic of all “modern” existence. It contrasts with the authentic mode of experience of space-time that derives from an actor-network ontology.

In a number of texts from the middle-phase of his career, Latour uses the term “freeze-framing” to describe this effect. He borrows the term from photography, where it refers to the capture of a materially and historically dynamic real-world situation in a single, still image. A photographic capture will provide only a partial representation of the event in progress. Moreover, what it depicts will necessarily be determined by the position of the one taking the photograph, that is, by angle of view, depth of field, compositional framing, and so on. As Latour deploys the term, freeze-framing is thus understood as an artificial delimitation of the spatial and temporal flow it seeks to represent.

The idea of freeze-framing is illustrated in a little-known but very interesting book published by Latour in French in 1998 entitled Paris: Ville Invisible.


This books takes the form of a photographic essay. It opens with the author on the roof-top of the Samaritaine building at the rue de la Monnaie in Paris, which has a central location in the city and offers a wide view built environmental spread out in all directions below. To aid tourists, a ceramic board has been installed pointing out the major landmarks that can be seen from this spot, including their radial distances from the point where the viewer is standing. Of course, the panorama is now out-of-date because the cityscape has changed greatly in the years since the board was installed. Latour uses this a metaphor for the totalizing epistemological categories of modernity. While the roof-top location certainly gives the sense that “c’est un panorama qui nous permet, comme on dit, d’ « embrasser la ville d’un seul coup d’œil »” (my translation: “it is a panorama that enables us, as they say, to capture the city in a single glance”), the complex life of the city below exceeds the capacity of one viewer, situated in one place and at one moment of time, to capture and contain it in a meaningful way. An authentic portrayal would require the viewer to come down from the roof and to immerse him or herself in the flows and movements of actors at street-level, which is the complex, immanent life of the city. (The depiction of reality by a series of parallel images is a constant theme of interest for Latour. It is beyond doubt that Deleuze’s two books on cinematic images are important precursors in this regard. However, neither text has been referenced by Latour anywhere in his published corpus to date).

Another important early text in which Latour explores his ideas about space and time is a lecture he delivered at a conference in Neuchâtel, Switzerland in 1996 entitled “Trains of Thought: Piaget, Formalism and the Fifth Dimension”. This is one of my favourite of all his articles and, I think, would repay greater attention as something of a “key” to his whole ontology. In it, Latour proposes a thought-experiment. He invites us to consider two travellers undertaking a journey from one location to another. The resonance with Einstein’s thought-experiment, the so-called “twin paradox”, is intentional. The first traveller is faced with rough terrain (the example Latour selects is a jungle). She has to hack her way through tangled foliage, negotiating at every step with external forces (vegetation, sunlight, temperature, water supply, and so on), each of which offers resistance to her progress. The second traveller, by contrast, undertakes the same journey via TGV, speeding through the landscape in a sealed carriage. The point is that space and time are experienced differently by these two travellers. Latour points out that this difference corresponds to the extent of their immersion in the material world and to the nature of their contact with other actors, both human and nonhuman, who may serve to interrupt or hinder their progress. As he puts it, the difference of experience between the two travellers “comes from the number of others one has to take into account, and from the nature of those that are encountered” (ibid, p.3).

The experience of modernity corresponds to the experience of the second traveller: modernity causes its inhabitants to be removed from the space of trials between actors and, in doing so, provides human subjects with an artificial experience of the world as it really is.

These texts provide a foundation for Latour’s broader philosophical observations about space and time. The core argument he proposes, as expressed in his earlier work Science in Action, is as follows:

Space and time cannot be thought of as existing independently as an unshakeable frame of reference inside which events and places occur. (Science in Action, 1987), p.228.

If space and time do not exist independently of an ontology of actors and events, then it must be the case that they are “a consequence of the ways in which bodies relate to one another” (Trains of Thought, p.174).

Since Latour defines “modernity” as an epistemological regime that is supervenient over this ontology, it follows that human subjects inhabiting “modernity” will experience a spatio-temporal conditioning effect upon their lived experience.

Latour, Space and Time (part 2)

To get a good take on the question introduced in the previous post, we must first back up and find our bearings.

Latour’s interest in the concepts of space and time derives from the earliest part of his career, that is, from the research project he carried out in Roger Guillemin’s laboratory in the 1970s. The epistemology of science he developed at that time can be represented in terms of the “materiality” and “historicity” of a scientific fact (Laboratory Life, p.77). It narrates the way in which different actors functioning within the environment of a scientific laboratory move in relation to one another, such that through their interactions in space and time a reality larger than themselves is gradually constructed.

Latour illustrates this by means of close analysis of the work being carried out by Guillemin’s team on the hormone TRF, which was the research question they were pursuing at the time. In the bench area of the laboratory, two or more chemical agents are brought into reaction with each other. This is a site in which actors engage in a trial with one another. It makes use of a particular experimental apparatus. The outcome of this trial, which might take the form of a reading or data-point, is then transitioned to a different part of the laboratory. The scientists who occupy this new space are seated on desks: they interpret the reading in the context of other experimental trials and write it up in the form of (what Latour calls) “a literary inscription” (ibid, p.45). The reading, which was initially generated by a trial between actors in another part of the room entirely, has been translated from a material to an abstract form in the course of its movement through space and time. From there, its “journey” continues beyond the four walls of the laboratory. It is incorporated into a journal article or book. This in turn becomes widely distributed and reviewed, all of which constitute new trials that put it to the test. Or it may contribute to the development of a new pharmaceutical product: this in turn brings to bear a series of new trials, since the discovery first made in the laboratory is now being tested in real-life applications. Latour therefore presents an epistemology of science in terms of the composition of a “matter of fact” in spatial and temporal movements. As they pursue a journey through space and time, scientific discoveries bear the imprint of all the trials they have engaged with along the way; their stability is guaranteed as long as they can continue to “call upon the support of all the actors they have enlisted to their cause” (ibid, p.39).

In Laboratory Life, Latour provides a visual map of these movements as he identified them as taking place within Guillemin’s laboratory:


The flow of arrows into and around the laboratory space over time index what Latour calls “the movement of facticity” that he claims is characteristic of all scientific discovery (ibid, p.97).

For Latour, space and time are therefore “the cradle of being” out of which rationality itself emerges (The Pasteurisation of France, p.82).

“Modernity”, by contrast, can be understood as an epistemological regime that simplifies, abrogates or conceals these spatio-temporal movements by means of its appeal to an abstract realm of transcendence that lies outside space and time. For example, if a scientific fact is assumed to inhere in “the realm of nature”, then it is presented as if it has “come out of nowhere”, and as if it has no “historicity” or “historical reference”. “Modernity” functions by removing the spatio-temporal constitution of any claim to meaning or truth, such that “it rids itself of all determinants of place and time, and of all reference to its producers and the production process” (Laboratory Life, p.176). This is what I will call the spatio-temporal conditioning effect of “modernity”.

See here for the next post.



Latour, Space and Time (part 1)

For Latour, “modernity” imposes (what I will call) a spatio-temporal conditioning effect upon its inhabitants. To be “modern” is to find oneself inhabiting material space and historical time in a way that is artificial and dislocated from reality, that is, from ontology properly understood.

What exactly is this effect? Its most negative function, as Latour discerns it, is to leverage upon the present a sense of closure and stability that properly belongs to a non-specified future. Thus, a form of epistemological paralysis is imposed upon on the present, closing down the dynamic flow of activity that constitutes the productive domain of the political. This de-politicization of the public space can be discerned everywhere within the institutions of contemporary western society and is Latour’s core diagnosis of the crises that are currently afflicting the west (Trump and Brexit foremost amongst them).

That Latour is interested in exploring ideas of space and time, and their relation to lived experience, has been noted before in the critical literature. (See for example Nowotny (1994), Time: The Modern and Postmodern Experience, p.79 ff.; Pickering (1995), The Mangle of Practice: Time, Agency, and Science, p.3; Schmidgen (2012), ‘The Materiality of Things? Bruno Latour, Charles Péguy and the History of Science’). However, what I would like to suggest is that Latour’s understanding of the spatio-temporal constitution of “modernity” has to do with his understanding of transcendence, and hence that the idea is one that is productively addressed with reference to his writing on religion.

In a series of posts over the next few days, I will seek to advance and defend this idea. These posts represent a further attempt on my behalf to make the case for the fundamentally religious orientation of Latour’s work.

See here for the next post.