On Michel Serres’ Paper at SEP-FEP: Plato, Jules Verne, and the Johannine Counterpoint

There was a great sadness this morning at the conference that Michel Serres’ health has not permitted him to travel to Utrecht in person, but also a deep thankfulness and appreciation that, despite his failing health, he had taken the time to pre-record his address. The discussion that followed his paper (recorded at his house in Vincennes and played to the conference on a series of television screens around the meeting room in St Martin’s Cathedral, pictured below) certainly lacked for nothing in terms of liveliness.

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Serres delivered his address in French, and English translation (entitled ‘Information and Thinking’) was handed round to the delegates.

In the address Serres elaborates upon a theme that punctuates his work from the Hermes series onward: information. It strikes me that Serres’ notion of information and communication circulating between all entities (human, animal, vegetable and mineral) could be interestingly and profitably compared with Jean-Luc Nancy’s notion of ‘renvois de sens’ in L’Adoration. In particular, I wonder whether Serres could (or would want to) include within the ambit of communicative circulation not only all physical entities but also ideas as well, as Nancy does in some of his characteristic lists un/closed with aposiopeses.

In the video address, Serres quoted at length from Jules Verne’s The Star of the South, a passage describing the glittering luminescence of a cave studded with precious stones (I reproduce the quotation in full at the foot of this post, from the Internet Archive version)[1]. The proliferation of precious stones in the Verne passage dovetails nicely of course with Serres’ insistence, in La Distribution (p271) and elsewhere, that nothing distinguishes me, ontologically, from a crystal, since we are both receive, store, process and emit information.

Plato’s sun and Verne’s cave

There was some discussion after the paper about the contrast between the light in Verne’s cave and Plato’s parable of the cave in Republic VII: for Plato the prisoners must leave the cave/the material earth to find the light of the Eidos, whereas for Verne the light is in the cave. Françoise Balibar voiced some concern, if I understood her intervention correctly, about the politics of the Verne passage (the white explorers liberating the black man from the prison of the cave), but there was one crucial reference that, to my eyes at least, was overlooked in the discussion after the paper, and that provides an important context for Serres’ remarks about light and truth. Two paragraphs after the extended Verne quotation, Serres says the following:

“Philosophy loves light, and has turned it into a model of excellent knowledge, especially the splash of daytime sunshine. Sparkling with truth, light is supposed to chase away the darkness of obscurantism. That is an absurd and rather counter-intuitive idea, as we all know that any candle, as weakly as it may shine, immediately pushes back the shadow of the night, while no one has ever seen darkness overcome any source of light.” (CW’s emphasis)

Serres concludes the thought by saying ‘no to the tyranny’ of ‘one unique and totalitarian truth’, the sun in the sky of the Platonic topos ouranios. It seems to me that the latent dialogue partner at this point in Serres’ paper—the interlocutor in the shadows, we might say—is the writer of the fourth gospel, and specifically the first seventeen verses, usually known as the prologue:

1  In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
2  He was in the beginning with God.
3  All things were made through him,
and without him was not any thing made that was made.
4  In him was life, and the life was the light of men.
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
6  There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.
7  He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him.
8  He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light.
9  The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world.
10  He was in the world, and the world was made through him,
yet the world did not know him.
11  He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him.
12  But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name,
he gave the right to become children of God,
13  who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man,
but of God.
14  And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us,
and we have seen his glory,
glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.
15  (John bore witness about him, and cried out,
“This was he of whom I said,
‘He who comes after me ranks before me, because he was before me.'”)
16  For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.
17  For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.

Preliminary note on translation

The Greek translated as ‘overcome’ in verse 5 (‘and the darkness has not overcome it), the verb katalambano, has a semantic range covering ‘take’, ‘seize’, ‘possess’ and ‘apprehend’, (the KJV renders the verse ‘And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not ’). So when Serres says that ‘no-one has ever seen darkness overcome any source of light’, we might also note that there are plenty of examples of ‘darkness’ failing to apprehend or grasp ‘light’. In the context of verses 10 and 11–‘yet the world did not know him’, ‘He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him’–a case could be made that the translation of the katelaben of verse 5 as ‘grasped’ or ‘understood’ cuts more with the grain of the ideas in the surrounding verses than does translating it as ‘overcome’.

1) The Johannine counterpoint to Republic VII

First, reading Serres’ comments as a latent reference to John’s prologue makes a lot of sense in the context of his quotation from Verne, because in both the Verne passage and the Johannine prologue the light sparkles in the midst of the darkness, not at a solar remove from it. As I argued in From Plato to Postmodernism, the Johannine prologue provides an ‘illuminating’ counterpoint to Republic VII in that the direction of travel is reversed: Plato’s prisoner must leave the darkness and ascend to the light, whereas for John ‘the word became flesh’ and the light descends to ‘shines in the darkness’.

2) The Johannine alternative to totalitarian lumophilia

In addition, John’s détournement of the Greek (Heraclitean, Stoic) logos into the ‘Word’ of the prologue gestures towards a response to Serres’ fears of totalitarianism. In contradistinction to Plato’s eternal, unchanging and ultimately inhuman, unique Sun (the Form of the Good), and in contradistinction to both the Heraclitean and Stoic impersonal logos-principles, John re-writes the logos as a person whose personhood is irreducible to more simple or more fundamental (and inhuman or non-human/infra-human) parts, and he rewrites Truth-as-Form and Truth-As-Law as Truth-as-Divine-Character. This personalisation (not personification, for as Nancy points out in Verbum caro factum, the word BECAME flesh: logos sarx egeneto) of the logos imbues it with all the subtlety, suppleness, wisdom, ipse-identity and dynamic faithfulness of a human character, a character furthermore in which truth/faithfulness can never legitimately be parsed from grace/love, as the prologue repeatedly insists: “glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” (John 1: 14, 17). It is the Johannine distinctive that the arche, the beginning or source of all things, the logos, is an inextricable and irreducible marriage of grace and truth in the dynamism of a personal character that ‘shines in the darkness’, and furthermore it is that this personal, dynamic logos that offers an alternative to Serres’ reading of light-as-truth imagery as necessarily and monolithically ‘totalitarian’.

John does not offer us truth as the Sun, but truth in the Son, and the difference is irreducible.

 

[1]

Dazzled with the light after so long a darkness, Barthes and Cyprien thought at first they were the prey of some ecstatic illusion, so splendid and unexpected was the sight that greeted their eyes.

They were in the center of an immense grotto. The ground was covered with fine sand bespangled with gold. The vault was as high as that of a Gothic cathedral, and stretched away out of sight into the distant darkness. The walls were covered with stalactites of varied hue and wondrous richness, and from them the light of the torches as reflected, flashing back with all the colors of the rainbow, with the glow of a furnace fire and the wealth of the aurora.

Colors of the most dazzling, shapes the most extraordinary, dimensions the most unexpected, distinguished these innumerable crystals. They were not, as in most grottoes, pendants, monotonously similar to each other, but nature had given free scope to fancy, and seemed to have exhausted every combination of tint and effect to which the marvelous brilliancy of the rocks could lend itself.

Blocks of amethyst, walls of sardonyx, masses of rubies, needles of emeralds, colonnades of sapphires deep and slender as forest pines, bergs of aquamarine, whorls of turquoise, mirrors of opal, masses of rose gypsum, and gold-veined lapis lazuli all that the crystal kingdom could offer that was precious and rare and bright and dazzling had served as the materials for this astonishing specimen of architecture; and, further, every form, even of the vegetable kingdom, seemed to have been laid under contribution in the wondrous work. Carpets of mineral mosses soft and velvety as the finest gauze, crystalline trees loaded with flowers and fruits of jewels recalling the fairy gardens of Japanese art, lakes of diamonds, palaces of chalcedony, turrets and minarets of beryl and topaz, rose pile upon pile, and heaped together so many splendors that the eye refused to grasp them. The decomposition of the luminous rays by the thousands of prisms, the showers of brilliancy that flashed and flowed from every side, produced the most astonishing combination of light and color that had ever dazzled the eyes of man.

Other Logics: Alternatives to Formal Logic in the History of Thought and Contemporary Philosophy

Other LogicsA couple of years ago I had the privilege of speaking at Lund university on the subject of Quentin Meillassoux’s treatment of the anthypothetical principle of logic in L’Inexistence divine and elsewhere. Thanks in large part to the persistent hard work of Admir Skodo, the conference papers have been reworked, expanded, and found their way to publication with Brill in a new volume called Other Logics.

Here is the abstract of the original paper I gave in Lund, called “Proving the Principle of Logic: Quentin Meillassoux, Jean-Luc Nancy and the anhypothetical”:

The question of whether logic itself is susceptible of proof, and of what form any proof of logic would take, has occupied philosophical minds from Plato to our own day. Both Plato and Aristotle make mention of a principle of dialectic that is anhypothetical, not itself relying on hypotheses or the dialectic it would seek to found. The challenge of demonstrating an anhypothetical principle of logic is taken up by the contemporary French thinker Quentin Meillassoux who, rejecting Plato and building on Aristotle, offers an indirect proof of his assertion that ‘only contingency is necessary’. In this paper I read Meillassoux through Jean-Luc Nancy’s meditations on love to argue that, bold as Meillassoux’s proposal is, he can in fact be shown to prove quite the opposite of what he intends, though more important than this failure is what it reveals of the rich and productive interplay between love and logic themselves. This is not a paper arguing for love against logic, or even love at the limits of logic, but for the recognition of a love that is inextricable from logic and yet can never straightforwardly become its object.

And here is the blurb for the book:

Other Logics: Alternatives to Formal Logic in the History of Thought and Contemporary Philosophy challenges the widespread idea of formal logic as inherently monolithic, universal, and ahistorical. Written by both leading and up-and-coming scholars, and edited by Admir Skodo, Other Logics offers a wide variety of historical and philosophical alternatives to this idea, all arguing that logic is a historical, concrete, and multi-dimensional phenomenon. To name a few examples, Frank Ankersmit lays down a representationalist logic, Alessandra Tanesini forcefully argues for the possibility of logical aliens, Christopher Watkin analyzes how leading contemporary French philosophers view the idea of logic, and Aaron Wendland unearths Heidegger’s critique of formal logic. In Other Logicsreaders will find provocative interventions in a highly contested field in contemporary philosophy.
Contributors include: Frank Ankersmit, Christopher Watkin, Giuseppina D’Oro, Alessandra Tanesini, Admir Skodo, Aaron Wendland, Ervik Cejvan, Anders Kraal, Christopher Fear, Karim Dharamsi, Johan Modée, and Thord Svensson.

Brief comparative remarks on love in Bruno Latour’s Jubiler and Jean-Luc Nancy’s L’Adoration

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In Jubiler ou les tourments de la parole religieuse (Rejoice, or the Torments of Religious Speech), Latour’s attempt to re-think religious discourse in the face of the double-click fantasy is drawn out of a consideration of lovers’ discourse, and it bears an interesting resemblance to Jean-Luc Nancy’s treatment of love in L’Adoration.

Both texts give a prominent place to language in their treatment religion or the divine. Both texts draw on the lexicon of love in seeking to understand language. And both take a detour via love to help them re-think religious ideas and language for today.

Latour’s basic distinction is between language as information and language as relation.

  • Whereas double-click knowledge seeks to establish states of affairs once and for all, the lovers’ ‘I love you’ cannot be spoken one time only. Lest we be in any doubt, Latour reminds us that, to the dewy-eyed question ‘do you love me?’, it is not sufficient to reply  ‘I refer you to my earlier answer’. The question is not a demand for information (Jubiler 30-1). Conversely, you can tell someone you love them perfectly well without repeating the phrase ‘I love you’.
  • Also, whereas information can be repeated verbatim, the ‘I love you’ cannot simply be quoted; it must be uttered each time in a fresh way (Jubiler 84). With echoes of André Breton’s poem ‘Toujours pour la première fois’, Latour insists that the lovers’ discourse must always be spoken for the first time, in the present (Jubiler 86).

The lovers, caught in what looks remarkably like a deconstructive double bind—they cannot reinvent grammar with every utterance but neither can they remain silent—add to their protestations of love a ‘je ne sais quoi’ that fills the hackneyed phrase once more with authenticity (Jubiler 93). Lovers’ discourse and religious language alike are not to be judged on the decrepitude of the words they employ, but on the way in which those words provide a conduit for the energy that can distance or draw close, kill or save (Jubiler 94).

To keep this post from turning into an essay, I will tease out some commonalities between Latour and Nancy through focusing on two brief passages, one from Jubiler and one from L’Adoration.

Il existerait donc une forme d’énonciation origi­nale qui parlerait du présent, de la présence défini­tive, de l’achèvement, de l’accomplissement des temps, et qui, parce qu’elle en parle au présent, devrait toujours se décaler pour compenser l’inévi­table glissement de l’instant vers le passé ; une forme de parole qui aurait pour seule caractéris­tique de constituer ceux à qui elle s’adresse comme étant proches et sauvés ; un genre de véhicule qui différerait absolument de ceux que nous avons par ailleurs développés pour accéder au lointain, pour maîtriser les informations sur le monde. (Jubiler 140)

There exists, then, a sort of original enunciation that speaks of the present, of definitive presence, of completion, of the end of the ages and which, because it speaks of these things in the present, should always be declared again in order to make up for the inevitable slippage of the present instant into the past; a form of speech whose sole characteristic is to constitute those it addresses as close by and saved; a sort of vehicle that differs absolutely from those we have developed to reach distant places, to manage information about the world. (my translation)

Adoratio : la parole adressée. Oratio : parole solennelle, parole avant tout tenue, tension de la voix, de la bouche et de tout le corps parlant. Parole dont le contenu est inséparable voire indis­cernable de l’adresse. Langage soutenu qui se distingue de sermo, langage ordinaire. Prière, invocation, adresse, appel, adjuration, imploration, célébration, dédicace, salutation. Et plus exacte­ment, non pas l’un ou l’autre de ces registres, mais une composi­tion de tous ensemble. Et d’abord, ou pour finir, un salut. Oui, le simple « salut ! » participe de l’adoration. Lorsque Derrida écrit ou plutôt lorsqu’il lance, et de toute sa force : « salut ! – un salut sans salvation », il indique ceci : la parole adressée, l’adresse qui ne contient presque rien de plus qu’elle-même, porte recon­naissance, affirmation de l’existence de l’autre. Cela seul, sans relève ni sublimation dans un ordre supérieur de sens ou de dignité : car cette existence se suffit, elle est « sauve » par elle-même, sans avoir à sortir du monde. (L’Adoration 28-9)

Adoratio: the word as it is addressed. Oratio: a solemn word, a word above all held (out), a tension in the voice, the mouth and the whole speaking body. A word whose content is inseparable or indiscernible from its address. A formal language that is different from the sermo of ordinary language. Prayer, invocation, address, call, adjuration, imploring, celebration, dedication, salutation. More precisely, not one or the other of these registers but a coming together of them all. And first of all, or to finish, a greeting/salvation. Yes, the simple ‘hi!’ participates in adoration. When Derrida writes—or rather when he lets out with all his might—“salut!—a salutation without salvation” he points out that the addressed word, the address that contains almost nothing more than itself, carries the recognition, affirmation and existence of the other. That is all it does, without replacement or sublimation to a higher order of meaning or dignity: because this existence is sufficient to itself, it is “safe” in itself, without needing to leave the world. (my translation)

For both Nancy and Latour here there is a sort of original enunciation, a first word or first speaking-towards, that does not convey information but carries or recognises a relationship. For both thinkers this originary word is an address (Latour uses the language of address on Jubiler 65-6), and for both this address is phatic, like saying ‘hi!’ (see Jubiler 39-40); it does not convey determinate information and its only function is to constitute those it addresses as near and saved. Both Nancy and Latour evoke this word using the language of salvation and proximity. Finally, both Latour and Nancy have recourse to the language of love in order to explain how this originary word functions.

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It would be too easy to push these comparisons too far. Latour’s approach is, of course, empirical, seeking conditions of in/felicity, while Nancy is elaborating an ontology of the singular plural. Latour seems most concerned with erotic or at least romantic love, while Nancy spends most time talking about agapic love (though he maintains that the different loves cannot ultimately be untangled). Even with this and other necessary caveats duly noted, however, the resonance between the two accounts is noteworthy.

Latour later frames his ‘original enunciation’ in terms of attributes preceding the substance. Once there is presence it is a secondary matter what name to give it; once one has the attributes it is a secondary matter to what substance to ascribe them (Jubiler 152). (Latour also uses the rhythm/melody distinction in this context: see previous post on Jubiler). To schematise rather too quickly, Latour’s attributes/substance distinction in this context bears a strong resemblance on first blush to sense and signification in Nancy’s thinking. Substance and signification are both determinate; attributes and sense cannot be captured in one determinate meaning. Signification and substance are reductions or derivative of sense and attributes respectively.

This recent interest in the discourse of love (in addition we might note love as a truth condition in Badiou’s work, and his De L’Amour/In Praise of Love) sits in a context of sustained reflection in twentieth century French thought on the philosophical implications of love (to mention just two of the most important texts: Roland Barthes’ Fragments d’un discours amoureux/A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments and André Breton’s l’Amour fou/Mad Love, to which Badiou refers at some length in his seminars). It is a theme that continues to entertain a sometimes subterranean conversation with the Christian tradition (primarily through Paul, Augustine and Kierkegaard) on this theme central to Christian ontology, epistemology and ethics.