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.