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 Of course, the panorama is now out-of-date because the cityscape has changed greatly in the years since the board was installed.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

Response to Alexander Galloway

Here are some brief responses from me to this take on Latour’s political thought:

What does it mean to refer to Latour’s “Political Theology”

Latour has begun to refer to “political theology” in some of his recent writing. He begins his first Gifford lecture, for example, by declaring that “the ideas I will pursue in this lecture series could certainly receive the label of political theology”. But then, in almost the same breath, he goes on to qualify this statement by suggesting that the political theology he has in mind will be “a strange and an unusual one, to be sure”. A similar qualification is offered in other texts. Thus, it seems that there is an idiosyncratic and perhaps even an eccentric dimension to his use of the term. Latour invests the idea of “political theology” with critical significance, but then does not define his understanding of the term relative to a previous writer or critical heritage.

What, then, does it mean to refer to Latour’s “political theology”? In order to shed some light on this question, I wish to bring his work into dialogue with that of German political theorist Carl Schmitt. Readers of Facing Gaia and other recent texts will know that Schmitt is the “shadow line” (to use Conrad’s term) of Latour’s thought. And indeed, at first glance, this seems as good a place as any at which to begin. Schmitt claimed to have introduced the term into contemporary critical discourse, and his name has remained prominently associated with it since that time.[1]

First and foremost, when Schmitt uses the term political theology he is referring to his attempt to describe how theological concepts have been transferred into the social, political and juridical realm. This is what he calls his “sociology of concepts.[2] Schmitt deployed this as a means of critiquing the political situation of his day. Thus, in various texts he attempts to show how contemporary institutions (in particular the nation-state) have been put under stress by non-political forces whose power is legitimised by religion. Schmitt’s understanding of “political theology” as a tool for the critique of modern institutions has been noted and described by many critics.

But an alternative approach to Schmitt’s understanding of “political theology” can also be taken. For although Schmitt does refer to “political theology” as a tool for the critique of modern institutions, he also envisages it as resource that can direct how the political order might be arranged in a different way in the future. This, then, is a positive and constructive understanding of the project of “political theology”. It is based in turn on a reimagining of the phenomenon of religion. Here, religion is conceived not as a negative and neutralizing force, but rather as something that is able to contribute towards the realization of an alternative human society. It should immediately be noted that Schmitt does not have in mind a moralistic or dogmatic definition of religion. To conceive of religion in either of those ways would be to constitute it as a “general norm” that would be supervenient over the political processes of the plural world that Schmitt has previously defined and that he seeks to advocate. Rather, what Schmitt has in mind is the recovery or re-conceptualization of a different mode of religion entirely, one that would be generative of what he calls “political unity and its presence or representation in the world”.[3] That is to say, Schmitt envisages a mode of religion that would legitimise “political”, rather than non-political, forces in the world.

Schmitt’s idea can be illustrated with reference to a short essay he wrote in 1950 entitled ‘Three Possibilities for a Christian Conception of History’. This essay was written in response to a book by the German philosopher Karl Löwith, published the previous year, that had significant influence on debates around modernity and secularization in post-war Germany.[4] Schmitt makes it very clear that he agrees with the main proposals of Löwith’s book. He agrees with Löwith’s definition of modernity as “a mode of secularized Judaism and Christianity” on account of its deployment of eschatological motifs borrowed from religion. He agrees with Löwith’s claim that, in spite of its “positivist belief in progress”, modernity therefore functions with a “philosophy of history” that has already determined the end towards which human society is moving and that this generates a form of “eschatological paralysis” that disables the activity of “politics” in the present moment. But Schmitt then asks a question: “can eschatological faith and historical consciousness coexist?” And, contra Löwith, he answers this question in the affirmative. “There is the possibility of a bridge”, he writes. This is the crucial moment. For Schmitt, what is required for the contemporary political order is not the elimination of religion from the public space. Rather, what is required is the reimagining (or recovery) of “a properly Christian conception of history”. To explain this, Schmitt introduces two figures from Christian theology that he claims are emblematic of what he has in mind: first, Mary, and second, the katechon. These deserve a blog post of their own. But the crucial point to grasp is that, for Schmitt, the “political unity” of human society cannot be conceived apart from religion or, to put it more precisely, apart from the assimilation and creative integration of certain themes from Christian theology.

Although questions about Schmitt’s personal religious background, the status of his religious beliefs during the different phases of his working life, and how the theme of religion functions within his intellectual project as a whole have been frequently addressed, fewer critics have explored his understanding of religion as a constructive force in relation to the political order. And yet, I believe that this represents the very schema that Latour wishes to develop in his own work. Latour has clearly signposted this understanding. In his Gifford Lectures, delivered in 2013, he introduced the terms “Religion One” and “Religion Two”. As he goes on to explain, the first of these, “Religion One”, describes a mode of religion that negates and neutralises the political order of human society. But the second term is quite different. “Religion Two” describes a mode of religion that he claims can support and even guarantee the political order of human society. Just as was the case with Schmitt, then, Latour aims to reimagine (or recover) religion as that which is compatible with the “political”. It is this mode of religion, which Latour goes on to call “religion as a mode of existence” (REL), and its operation within the contemporary public space, that I believe constitutes the “political theology” of Bruno Latour.


[1] Schmitt (2008, 1970), Political Theology II: The Myth of the Closure of any Political Theology, p.35. See also the claim Schmitt made in a letter to a student that “the coining of the term political theology in fact comes from me”, cited in Meier (2011, 1998), The Lesson of Carl Schmitt: Four Chapters on the Distinction between Political Theology and Political Philosophy, p.202, fn.48.

[2] Schmitt (2005a, 1922), Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty, p.22.

[3] Schmitt (2008, 1970), Political Theology II, p.72.

[4] Löwith (2011, 1949), Meaning in History: The Theological Implications of the Philosophy of History. Löwith had actually written a pseudonymous scathing critique of Schmitt’s work in the 1930s, for which see Löwith (1930), ‘Der okkasionelle Dezisionismus von Carl Schmitt’. Schmitt makes no reference to that earlier critique in his 1950 essay.