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” …