Bookending the crisis of modernity: Latour is finishing what Nietzsche mistakenly started

Nietzsche Latour

I’m currently writing the final chapter of The Human Remains, addressing Bruno Latour’s modes of existence project and work on Gaia in relation to Serres, Malabou, Meillassoux and Badiou’s accounts of the human. It’s all hands to the pump and there is little time to expatiate on this blog, but I couldn’t resist quickly drawing attention to one striking Neitzschean resonance in Latour’s We Have Never Been Modern. One passage in NM struck me as reading inescapably like a “translation” (to use that pregnant Latourian term) of Nietzsche’s parable of the madman from Die Fröhliche Wissenschaft, and handily enough this resonance provides a convenient vignette of something larger at stake in Latour’s thought: Nietzsche and Latour stand as bookends to the crisis of modernity. Here are the two passages side by side, Nietzsche first…

Do we hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine decomposition? Gods, too, decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.  How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us?[1]

Haven’t we shed enough tears over the disenchantment of the world? Haven’t we frightened ourselves enough with the poor European who is thrust into a cold soulless cosmos, wandering on an inert planet in a world devoid of meaning? Haven’t we shivered enough before the spectacle of the mechanized proletarian who is subject to the absolute domination of a mechanized capitalism and a Kafkaesque bureaucracy, abandoned smack in the middle of language games, lost in cement and Formica?  Haven’t  we  felt  sorry  enough  for  the  consumer  who  leaves  the driver’s seat of his car only to move to the sofa in the TV room where he is manipulated by the powers of the media and the postindustrialized society?![2]

Nietzsche and the other preachers of the death of God are, according to the Latour of Facing Gaia, cosy “Epicurean tourists” who offer us a meal of disenchantment and meaninglessness, the taste of which is extinguished for Latour by stronger foods, namely Gaia and the anthropocene:

But it is only now, when geostory unfolds, that we realize how cosy it was to preach the ‘death of God,’ to frighten ourselves with the ‘absurdity’ of life, and to delight in the happy task of critique and deconstruction: those who used to enjoy those games remained like epicurean tourists comfortably seated on the shore, safely protected by the ultimate certainty that Nature at least will always be there, offering them a totally indifferent but also a solid, eternal ground. ‘Suave mari magno turbantibus aequora ventis.’ This time: ‘Shipwreck with spectators!’[3]

Latour is finishing what Nietzsche (mistakenly) started, using some of the German’s own stylistic tools to get the job done.

 

[1] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science (1882, 1887) para. 125; Walter Kaufmann ed. (New York: Vintage, 1974), pp.181-82.

[2] Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993)  115.

[3] Bruno Latour, Facing Gaia, 110.

Seres at SEP-FEP: Think human language, distinctiveness and responsibility metonymically, not metaphorically

Among the aspects of Serres’ paper that provoked the most animated discussion this morning was his contention, in ‘Information and Thinking’ and elsewhere, that human beings are not the only entities to think. The idea was articulated most powerfully in the snippet of the talk reproduced below:

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This thought returned in the final paragraph of the address:

They [material elements] encode, we encode; they count, we count; we speak, they speak.[1]

The thought that exercised some of the panel members in the round-table discussion following the intervention was the way in which ascribing language (and by implication, it seemed to be extrapolated, agency and responsibility) to non-human objects was a metaphor unwarranted by the very clear differences between a human being and (to use Serres’ example from Verne’s cave) a crystal.

This understanding of how Serres is deploying terms like ‘encode’, ‘speak’ and ‘count’ is not the only one available, however, and indeed it is not the one that cuts best with the grain of his arguments. The issue can be clarified by considering the difference between metaphor and metonymy.

The contributions of some panelists seemed to imply that there are only two options available to us: either a ‘flat ontology’ (attributed to Serres) in which there is no way to account for distinctively human responsibility (for the environment, for example), and a human exceptionalism that eschews a flat ontology but legitimates political and social concerns in a way that the flat ontology cannot.

This is not a dichotomy I recognise from my own reading of Serres, and I think that the confusion comes through taking Serres to be speaking metaphorically when in fact he is speaking metonymically.

The (spurious) metaphorical reading of Serres goes something like this: Language simpliciter, language as such, is human language. All other uses of the term ‘language’ are (legitimate or illegitimate) metaphorical extensions of this literal sense of the term. ‘Humans speak’ is not metaphorical; ‘material elements speak’ is. The metaphorical sense here is parasitic on the literal (human) sense; if there is no ‘plain’ sense of what it means to speak, then there can be no metaphorical sense.  We start with human language—or human responsibility—as traditionally understood and then every other instance of the term ‘language’ or ‘responsibility’ must be a metaphorical extension of that first, human sense.  It’s when we think of Serres in this way that he seems to be painting a Romantic, enchanted, Toy Story world in which stones whisper to each other behind our backs and objects come out to play when we are absent.

But I don’t think that reading of Serres is most faithful to what he is seeking to communicate. We get closer to Serres’ thought when we read him as speaking not metaphorically but metonymically, or more precisely synecdochically (I argue this at greater length in a forthcoming article on Serres in SubStance). In arguing that material elements, too, encode, count and speak, he is not seeking to extend the human meanings of these terms to the non-human world. That would indeed–as was rightly pointed out by the panel–be anthropomorphic and anthropocentric.

He is doing something more radical and much less anthropocentric: contesting that there is a literal sense of language that is to be identified with human language in the first place. Rather, for Serres human language is one local and distinctive instance of a phenomenon that is in no way properly human, but that belongs to all entities. Crystals do not speak with syntactic human language (whoever suggested they did? After all, humans do not undergo an existential crisis when we realise that we don’t transmit information in the same way that crystals do, so why would we assume the reverse?), but it is still quite true and not in the least metaphorical for Serres to insist that crystals speak and human beings speak. (In this he is very close indeed to Jean-Luc Nancy’s notion of ‘renvois de sens’ between all entities in the world in L’Adoration).

Serres’ rethinking of language is intended to be a challenge to the privileging of the mode of syntactic language as the paradigm of which all other instance of language are metaphors, not a universalisation of this paradigm. In this sense, it is akin to a Wittgenstinian argument about definitions: when we say ‘language’ we must take it to mean any emission, storage, processing or reception of information, not only what humans do in communicating with words.

Where does this leave human responsibility and human distinctiveness? Smoothed away on some universal ironing board of flat ontology? Not a bit of it. Serres can (and does) retain a notion of human distinctiveness—he is a self-avowed humanist, after all—but it is a distinctiveness traceable to a quantitative difference, not an ontological difference between the human and, say, the crystal.

There are different sorts of difference, and we must be careful not to fall into the sloppy binary of ‘no difference at all’/’irreducible ontological difference’. Serres’ account is more fine-grained than that. To reconstruct  it quickly (and elaborate it beyond what Serres says himself, to the best of my knowledge of his work):

  1. Both the human and the crystal receive, store, process and emit information.[2] There is no ontological difference.
  2. But there is an indisputable quantitative difference: the amount, variety and complexity of information that I receive, store, process and emit, is many orders of magnitude greater than the crystal (though the crystal can also perform some tasks of information storage, processing and emission better than I can).
  3. This quantitative difference between humans, animals and crystals tips over, in a Hegelian way, into what is to all intents and purposes a qualitative difference: my information processing is so different to a crystal’s that, looked upon in terms of their results, they hardly seem the same thing at all.
  4. This quantitative-qualitative difference does the heavy lifting that ‘human distinctiveness’ is usually called on to schlep: humans bear a peculiar weight of responsibility, not because they are ontologically or at bottom qualitatively unique, but because they are quantitatively (and therefore qualitatively–think Hegel again) set apart within the entities of the world by virtue of HOW they process information and HOW MUCH they process, not THAT they process it.
  5. So we can, after all, draw a line between human speech and crystal speech, and we don’t need to see fairies under every rock (though the post-Baconian fact-value distinction also needs interrogating afresh in the light of Serres’ ontology, and the odd ‘fairy’ here and there might not always be unwarranted).
  6. And the question is not whether there is a line to be drawn, but the nature of that line, and the point at which a difference of quantity tips over into a difference of quality.

[1] Incidentally, note the inversion of order of ‘we’ and ‘they’ in the third element of this ternary rhythm and its subtle reinforcement of the argument being made: Serres is on his game!

[2] If Serres’ account is to be challenged, it is at the point of the adequacy of this information paradigm, not at the point of the denial of distinctive human responsibility. Can the reception, storage, processing and emission of information act as a sufficient (let alone necessary) paradigm for human being in the world (or, for that matter, for crystalline existence)?

Michel Serres, econarratology, and SEP-FEP in Utrecht

Here are some pictures of the stunningly beautiful city and university of Utrecht, where the Society for European Philosophy and Forum for European Philosophy (SEP-FEP) conference is currently being held.

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Tomorrow I am to give a paper entitled ‘Michel Serres’ “Great Story”: From Biosemiotics to Econarratology’.

Here is the abstract:

From the five volumes of his Hermès series (1968-1980) and through to The Natural Contract in (French original published in 1990), Michel Serres has argued that the origins of human language are rooted firmly in the rhythms and calls of the natural world, that information theory is derivative of fluid mechanics, and that all life is alike in receiving, processing, storing and emitting information. For Serres, ‘nothing distinguishes me ontologically from a crystal, a plant, an animal, or the order of the world’. This radical lifting of the qualitative barrier between human language and channels of information processing in what was previously called the ‘natural’ world underpins a new account of the human, an account which reveals the dichotomy of nature and culture to be a secondary distinction between many interweaving and ultimately inextricable modes of information processing that differ only in their relative scale.

This detailed and longstanding work in biosemiotics helps provide a powerful theoretical platform for Serres’ more recent project, pursued over the course of four seminal but as yet untranslated texts from 2001-2009 (L’Hominescence, 2001; L’Incandescent, 2005; Rameaux; 2007; Récits d’humanisme, 2009), in which he elaborates a new narrative account of the universe and the place of humanity within it, a narrative which he calls the ‘Great Story’ (‘Grand Récit’). Serres’ econarrative throws down a challenge to develop new ways of thinking beyond the dichotomy ‘nature and culture’ with its attendant notion of a qualitative divide between the human and non-human worlds, exposing the dichotomy as increasingly threadbare and arguing for a new humanism that knows nothing of a qualitative opposition between the natural and the cultural. Serres notes that, at the time when it was still admissible to discuss nature and culture separately, a person might be thought cultured if they had some working knowledge of four thousand years of history, beginning either in Greece or Mesopotamia. With the Great Story we now have fifteen billion years behind us and that, Serres maintains, must change a person’s thinking completely or, to translate him literally, a person who understands her place in the Great Story ‘no longer has the same head’.

In this paper I argue for the importance of Serres’ Great Story in staking out the incipient field of econarratology, a field in which ‘nature’ is not ventriloquized in human language but can, in a non-metaphorical way, tell its own story. I also use Paul Ricœur’s account of narrative identity to expose, and offer a remedy for, a potentially problematic internal inconsistency in Serres’ econarrative, an engagement which opens the way, in return to extend the powerful tool of narrative identity beyond its anthropocentric straitjacket. Serres’ econarrative of the Great Story is not only a timely challenge our assumptions about the uniqueness of human language within the natural world, but also a call to rethink the very categories within which those widely-held assumptions make sense.

Deep Sustainability: Narrative, Religion and Ethics

narrative ecologyDrafting the latter chapters of The Human Remains has given me occasion to think in a sustained way about the possibilities and limits of narrative identity, including how the notion can be employed beyond humanity. In addition to revisiting Paul Ricœur’s work on narrative identity I have been grappling with the way in which Michel Serres extends the capacity for the production of narrative to the non-human world, as well as thinking through how Ricœur’s and Serres’s accounts of narrative might complement and challenge each other.

After some very stimulating conversations with my colleague Kate Rigby about narrative and ecology, I am delighted that we are embarking on a joint research project entitled ‘Deep Sustainability: Narrative, Religion and Ethics’, the aim of which is to develop a new approach to sustainability by integrating theories of narrative identity with ecological and religious thought.

Here is part of the rationale for the project:

The growth of environmental literary and cultural studies (‘ecocriticism’) since the 1990s has certainly been ‘dizzying’,[1] but it is also attracting a chorus of disapproval from some quarters. Faced with the indictment that an ‘ongoing failure to move towards sustainability calls into question the focus of current research and policy’,[2] one vision of its future, provided by its critics, gives a deflationary account of its potential to be truly cross-disciplinary and to generate new insights and approaches to questions of sustainability: ‘if ecocritics cannot articulate just how things stand between humanity and the natural world and the humanities and the natural sciences, then they can at least gain greater clarity about the limitations of ecocriticism itself, along with those of environmental literature, culture, and politics.’’[3] There is, however, an assumption behind this deflationary critique, namely that ecocriticism cannot convincingly articulate the relation between humanity and the natural world, or between the humanities and the natural sciences.

We want to oppose this defeatist story with a new interdisciplinary theoretical approach to ecology called “deep sustainability”, building on recent philosophical work on communication in the non-human world and environmental ethics (including Ricœur and Serres inter alia).

The project seeks to answer the following question: “How can a new approach to sustainability, informed by contemporary philosophical and religious perspectives, transform the field of ecocriticism and provide a new model for public engagement with ecological questions?”

 

 

[1] Dana Phillips, ‘Ecocriticism’s Hard Problems (Its Ironies, Too)’, American Literary History 25:2 (2013) 455.

[2] Fischer, Joern et al., ‘Mind the Sustainability Gap,’ Trends in Ecology and Evolution 22:12 (2007) 621.

[3] Phillips, ‘Ecocriticism’s Hard Problems’ 457.

Current Research: The Human Remains

Leonardo skullI am currently working on a book provisionally entitled The Human Remains: French Philosophy in the Image of God. The first part of the book looks at the ways in which the imago dei motif is explicitly taken up in contemporary French thought. The second, longer part takes debates from the philosophical reception of the imago dei motif and uses them to provide a fresh comparative reading of contemporary French philosophical anthropology in its humanist, post-humanist, neuroscientific and ecological guises. Chapters discuss Catherine Malabou, Paul Ricoeur and Jean-Pierre Changeux, Alain Badiou and Jacques Rancière, Jean-Luc Nancy, Jean-Luc Marion and Michel Serres. The book’s thesis is that the human persists in contemporary thought, however radically altered its trace might be from traditional philosophical understandings. In order to argue that point it shows how reading contemporary thought through the lens of the imago dei motif helps us see how very different accounts of the human can be made to talk to and critique one another.

Michel Serres–from Biosemiotics to Econarratology

SerresI’m currently working on Michel Serres’ four books on humanism from 2001-2009, in which he seeks to break down the qualitative distinction between the human and the non-human in a fundamental way. In these books and elsewhere he develops what I think it is best to call an ‘econarratology’, though see the qualification of that term below. Here is a draft of the first section of a piece I am working on, where I eventually splice Serres’ econarratology with Ricœur’s work on narrative in order to explore the possibility of an ecological narrative identity.

 

From Biosemiotics to Econarratology: section 1

From the background noise, nothing  follows. Or sometimes. But that’s another story. (‘Exact and Human’ 14)

 

 

From the five volumes of his Hermès series (1968-1980) and through to The Natural Contract in 1990, Michel Serres has rooted the origins of human language firmly in the rhythms and calls of the natural world.[1] To date, the Anglophone reception of this pivotal French philosopher’s complex and varied oeuvre has been slender to the point of emaciation, but one area where he has received some small fraction of the attention he deserves is in this elaboration of a theory of semiotic meaning in dialogue with information theory and fluid dynamics.[2] Since 2001 however, Serres has been expanding his account of biosemiotics[3] with four key texts (2001, 2005, 2007, 2009) that move into the area of narratology, developing a new non-anthropocentric humanism in terms of what he calls the ‘Great Story’ (Grand Récit) of the universe.

 

In developing a narrative of the universe, this new departure begins to show us how the powerful tool of narrative identity can be brought alongside Serres’ existing biosemiotics to challenge and shape the way we understand the ‘non-human’ world. It also affords a way to revitalise the hitherto anthropocentric notion of narrative identity at a moment when solutions to the most important global questions must increasingly surpass the bounds of narrowly human and cultural worlds. This article will argue for using the Serresian Grand Récit as a way to extend narrative identity into the area of ecology, showing how it offers new ways of rethinking the dichotomies of nature and culture and the human and non-human that go beyond deconstruction and asking whether ‘the story of the universe’ can be thought as a subjective or at least a double genitive, told by a universe that does not rely on humans to ventriloquize it. I will then address the objection that the Grand Récit is a totalizing account of history that cuts against the grain of Serres’ own resistance to universal models and metaphors.

 

 

The Great Story

 

Serres’ account of narrative in general will be familiar to readers of his earlier work on Lucretius and the clinamen. In his reading of Lucretius in The Birth of Physics he argues, in information-theoretical terms, that meaning emerges as an aleatory, local deviation in the ‘window’ between two modes of chaos: monotony and white noise (Naissance 181/Birth 146). In the same way, in his later work he understands narrative in terms of the interplay between two elements: a relatively constant line (which in Rameaux he calls the format) and unexpected deviations in that line which he pictures as the kinks and twists of a branch. Like the information-carrying signal that sits on the spectrum between the chaos of monotony and the chaos of white noise, so also the growth of a story takes place under a double tension: the necessity of using pre-established forms in order to communicate in a way that can be understood, and an obligation to rupture, deviate from and remake these forms because simply repeating them would hold no message at all (Récits 154). It is in the tension between format and variation that stories emerge, tracing a continuity, branch-like, through haphazard, contingent and chaotic points (Récits 153).

 

Like a growing branch, a developing story need have no final end point, predetermined or otherwise (we are a long way here from the Aristotelian mythos, and also from any deconstructive weak messianism) , and though its eventual form may seem to have a certain retrospectively apprehended teleological balance, its growth is a series of contingencies. We must, Serres insists, quell the prophetic instinct to project the end of the story from its beginning as if a single intention held together its disparate parts, and instead force ourselves to think a repetition or rule without finality and without anthropomorphism (Récits 188).

 

Though stories are lived prospectively as contingent they are recounted retrospectively as what Serres calls a quasi-necessity, and it is as such a retrospective, necessary-seeming narration that he introduces us in Rameaux to his fullest explanation of the Great Story. The Story is told by Serres retrospectively as a series of four major and contingent bifurcations in the branch that leads to human beings, four events each more ancient than the last. The first event already takes us back millions of years to the appearance on the planet of homo sapiens, and gives us a representative sense of Serres’ staccato, aleatory narration as he introduces us to

 

the quadruman who invented bipedal walking, made fire, left Africa, arrived in Australia and then Alaska via the Aleutian Islands, who cut and polished stone, hunted mammoth, boldly sailed the Atlantic, with its floating and fractured ice-floes, from South-West France to the Americas, domesticated the dog, reared sheep and cattle, cultivated corn and barley, interbred pigeons and apple trees, ferociously stoned the bodies of kings to build multiple pyramids, forbade human sacrifice, discovered universal attraction and noncommutative geometry, wrote The Divine Comedy, Don Quichotte and The Essays…, composed Le Tombeau de Couperin (Rameaux 113-4).[4]

 

The definition of humanity, for Serres, is a narrative definition, weaving through lists of contingent and unpredictable events. As such, it is an open definition, always ready to turn the page and begin a new chapter, and not restricted to a static declaration of what might constitute human nature. Humanity derives its identity from its place in the Great Story, not by virtue of a biological or psychological particularity that may or may not mark the ‘difference’ between the human and the non-human, such as rationality or bipedalism. The move from an biosemiotics to an econarratology here allows Serres’ account refreshingly to avoid the interminable and often dangerous debates around what faculty or capacity ‘makes humans unique’. Whereas such an approach advances by drawing more or less unsubstantiated divisions and erecting castles of hierarchy on the shifting sands of our current biological and psychological understanding, Serres’ narrative approach identifies the human by drawing it ever further into a story it shares with the rest of the universe.

 

The second event of Serres’ Great Story is the emergence of life on earth, from the first RNA with the capability to duplicate itself, through the three billion years when bacteria were the dominant life-form, to the explosion of multi-cellular organisms recorded in the Burgess shale and the huge proliferation of orders, families, genera and species. ‘How should we define life?’, Serres asks, answering that it is ‘by this story of new, contingent and unpredictable events from the point of view before they happen, but formatted into an almost necessary chain of events when we trace it backwards from ourselves’ (Rameaux 114). The third event takes us back from biology to astrophysics and to the first formation of material bodies in a young universe, expanding and cooling. When it reaches a certain temperature the ionisation that prevented certain particles forming nuclei ceases, and matter begins to become concentrated into galaxies separated by a quasi-void (Rameaux 115). The fourth and most distant event is the birth of the universe itself, the origin of origins.

 

Properly speaking, these different stages in the story do not form a succession, as if each needed to stop for the next to begin. The universe is still cooling; the earth is still developing and new planets forming; life on earth, and quite probably elsewhere, is still diversifying and proliferating, and human beings are still evolving. It is better not to think of a succession of chapters (and this is where Serres’ image of the branch is potentially misleading) but one story told by four voices in counterpoint, each successively joining the collective narrative at a specific moment. What unites these four voices for Serres is the idea of ‘nature’, understood etymologically as that which is born, that which marks a temporal distinction, a ‘before’ and an ‘after’. Nature is ‘a story of new-born events, contingent and unpredictable’ (Rameaux 115-6).

 

In an interview with Pierre Léna in the recent Cahier de l’Herne dedicated to his work, Serres draws two immediate consequences from understanding humanity in terms of the Great Story. First, it gives us a new sense of culture. Traditionally, a person would be thought cultured if they had some working knowledge of four thousand years of history, beginning either in Greece or Mesopotamia; when someone discovers fifteen billion years behind him he must change his thinking completely or, to translate Serres literally, ‘he no longer has the same head’ (Serres and Léna 55). This idea that humanity, when considered as part of the Great Story, no longer has the same head is true literally as well as figuratively. Serres repeats often that different areas of the human brain evolved at varying times: the neommamalian neocortex, the paleomammalian limbic system and the reptilian basal ganglia (Picq, Serres and Vincent 90; Hallward and Serres 233; Incandescent 23). The second immediate consequence of understanding humanity as part of the Great Story is a shift in the notion of narrative itself. What used to be the beginning of ‘history’ dated from the dawn of writing some four thousand years ago now becomes a minute final sliver of a much more ample narrative which, Serres claims, is recounted by the universe itself. It is to this claim that we now turn.

 

[…]

 

Bibliography

 

Assad, Maria L. “From Order to Chaos: Michel Serres’s Field Models.” SubStance 20, no. 2 (1991): 33-43.

———. “Portrait of a Nonlinear Dynamical System: The Discourse of Michel Serres.” SubStance 22, no. 2/3 (1993): 141-52.

Bell, David F. “Communication: Euphoria, Dysphoria.” SubStance 26, no. 2 (1997): 81-95.

Bensaude-Vincent, Bernadette. ‘Michel Serres, historien des sciences.’ In L’Yvonnet, François, and Christiane Frémont (eds.), Cahier De L’Herne Michel Serres. Paris: Editions de l’Herne, 2010. 37-46.

Brown, Steven D. “Michel Serres: Science, Translation and the Logic of the Parasite.” Theory, Culture & Society 19, no. 3 (2002): 1-27.

Frémont, Christiane. ‘Philosophie pour le temps présent.’ In L’Yvonnet, François, and Christiane Frémont (eds.), Cahier De L’Herne Michel Serres. Paris: Editions de l’Herne, 2010. 17-35.

Hallward, Peter, and Michel Serres. “The Science of Relations: An Interview.” Angelaki 8, no. 2 (2003): 227-38.

Harris, Paul A. “The Itinerant Theorist: Nature and Knowledge/Ecology and Topology in Michel Serres.” SubStance 26, no. 2 (1997): 37-58.

Hayles, N. Katherine. “Two Voices, One Channel: Equivocation in Michel Serres.” SubStance 17, no. 3 (1988): 3-12.

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Herzogenrath, Bernd, ed. Time and History in Deleuze and Serres. London: Continuum, 2012.

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Ricœur, Paul. The Course of Recognition, translated by David Pellauer. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005.

———. Oneself As Another, translated by Kathleen Blamey. London: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

———. Time and Narrative 1, translated by Kathleen McLaughlin and David Pellauer. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1984.

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Webb, David. “Michel Serres on Lucretius.” Angelaki: Journal of the Theoretical Humanities 11, no. 3 (2006): 125-36.

 


[1] See especially the chapter of Distribution entitled ‘L’origine du langage’ (pp. 259-272), The Birth of Physics, The Parasite, Genesis and The Natural Contract.

[2] Much of this discussion has taken place in the pages of SubStance. A special issue of the journal in 1997 (26:2) entitled ‘Michel Serres: An Ecology of Knowledge’ included relevant contributions by Bell, Harris, and Lévy. In other numbers of SubStance, Assad (1991 and 1993) and Hayles deal with issues related to Serres’ biosemiotics. Elsewhere, Brown, Latour, Salazar and Webb continue the discussion.

[3] A distinction is commonly made between the terms ‘biosemiotics’ and ‘ecosemiotics’, where the former is taken to refer to semiotic processes in and between living organisms and their environments, and the second to refer to human communication about living organisms and their environments (Kull 2011). The distinction is inadequate in Serres’ case for two reasons. First, he extends his semiotic theory beyond the biological to the ‘non-living’ world, and secondly he sees no qualitative distinction between communication among non-human elements in an environment and human communication about environments. In order to avoid the misapprehension that Serres’ narratology is restricted to the living world, I have preferred the prefix eco- over bio- in describing his Great Story. I have kept bio- for his previous work on semiotics in order to avoid the impression that he is talking primarily about human language. I am grateful to Kate Rigby for pointing out this important distinction.

[4] All translations of French texts as yet unpublished in English are my own.