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.