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 Of course, the panorama is now out-of-date because the cityscape has changed greatly in the years since the board was installed.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.