French Philosophy Today paperback now on Amazon pre-order

French Philosophy Today. New Figures of the Human in Badiou, Meillassoux, Malabou, Serres and Latour

I am delighted to announce that the paperback edition of French Philosophy Today is now (finally!) available for pre-order on Amazon. The U.S. site has it at $39.95 and most European sites set the price at around €25. Curiously, amazon.co.uk has the paperback at £150, which I assume is a mistake soon to be corrected.

Here is a series of posts I wrote when the book was first published, summarising its content chapter by chapter.

Michel Serres: From Restricted to General Ecology

New publication: A chapter in French Ecocriticism From the Early Modern Period to the Twenty-First Century, edited by Daniel Finch-Race and Stephanie Posthumus

My project to write a critical introduction to the thought of Michel Serres continues to advance, and one small piece of the extensive Serresian jig-saw puzzle is of course the distinctive way in which he approaches ecological questions. A couple of years ago I was delighted to be approached by Daniel Finch-Race and Stephanie Posthumus to write a chapter on Serres for their edited volume French Ecocriticism From the Early Modern Period to the Twenty-First Century. The volume has just been published by Peter Lang. For anyone interested to read an early draft of my chapter, I have uploaded a version to academia.edu and researchgate.net. If you prefer to download it directly from this site, you can do so here (don’t be fooled by the “cart”, it’s completely free).

 

Abstract:

Michel Serres’s relation to ecocriticism is complex. On the one hand he is a pioneer in the area, anticipating the current fashion for ecological thought by over a decade. On the other hand, however, ‘ecology’ and, a fortiori, ‘eco-criticism’, are singularly infelicitous terms to describe Serres’s thinking if they are taken to indicate that attention should be paid to particular ‘environmental’ concerns. Such local, circumscribed ideas as ‘ecology’ or ‘eco-philosophy’ are, for Serres, in fact one of the causes of our ecological crisis, and as far as he is concerned no progress can be made while such narrow concerns govern our thinking. This chapter intervenes in the ongoing discussion about the relation of Serres to ecology by drawing on some of Serres’s more recent texts on pollution and dwelling, and this fresh material leads us both to affirm and challenge the existing treatments of Serres and ecology. We affirm the insistence on the inextricability in Serres’s approach of two senses of ecology: a broader meaning which refers to the interconnectedness and inextricability of all entities (both natural and cultural, material and ideal) and a narrower sense which evokes classically ‘environmental’ concerns. However, Serres’s recent work leads us to challenge some of the vectors and assumptions of the debate by radicalising the continuity between ‘natural’ and ‘cultural’ phenomena, questioning some of the commonplaces that structure almost all ecological thinking, and arguing that the entire paradigm of ecology as ‘conservation’ and ‘protection’ is bankrupt and self-undermining. After outlining the shape of Serres’s ‘general ecology’ and its opposition to ecology as conservation, this chapter asks what sorts of practises and values a Serresian general ecology can engender when it considers birdsong, advertising, industrial pollution and money to be manifestations of the same drive for appropriation through pollution. A response is given to this question in terms of three key Serresian motifs: the world as fetish, parasitic symbiosis, and global cosmocracy.

 

 

 

French Philosophy Today to join Difficult Atheism on Edinburgh Scholarship Online

French Philosophy Today, New Figures of the Human in Badiou, Meillassoux, Malaobu, Serres and LatourI’ve just learned that French Philosophy Today will shortly join Difficult Atheism on Edinburgh Scholarship Online.

This, I hope, will come as good news to at least some of those who have been in touch with me about the price of the hardback edition.

French Philosophy Today reviewed at NDPR

French Philosophy Today. New Figures of the Human in Badiou, Meillassoux, Malabou, Serres and Latour

French Philosophy Today has just been reviewed over at Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews. Here are some highlights:

Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s famously defined philosophical production as concept creation. If they are correct, then Watkin’s work is not just a scholarly commentary of philosophy but also itself an inventive philosophical work.

If Alain Badiou, the first French thinker analyzed in the book, is to be believed, then philosophers are his country’s greatest export. Certainly those who want to keep abreast about what is happening in France today in regards to this export should pick up Watkin’s book.

This book is relevant to anyone who is interested in the scholarly methodology and creative enterprise of syntopically reading multiple philosophical oeuvres together. Watkin’s bibliographic thoroughness and analytic meticulousness is impressive. It appears that he has read almost anything of relevance to the topic. The texts he references include not just philosophical works from various eras, schools and geographies but also works from theology, the humanities, social science, natural sciences and mathematics.

Watkin’s formulations are rigorous and precise. Through his careful reading and evaluation of the texts by the five French philosophers, Watkin introduces an arsenal of new conceptual technologies and divisional schemas for understanding the question of the human.

See here for chapter summaries of the book.

French Philosophy Today: Summary of Chapter 5 – Michel Serres

French Philosophy Today, New Figures of the Human in Badiou, Meillassoux, Malaobu, Serres and LatourThis is the fifth in a series of posts providing short summaries of the chapters in my latest book, French Philosophy Today: New Figures of the Human in Badiou, Meillassoux, Malabou, Serres and Latour. For further chapter summaries, please see here.

With Michel Serres’s universal humanism (Chapter 5) the argument returns to the question of host capacities in order, finally, to go beyond it. Rather than Badiou’s and Meillassoux’s determinate capacity for thought and rather than Malabou’s meta-capacity of plasticity, Serres seeks to elaborate a figure of the human that accommodates both determinate qualities (like Badiou and Meillassoux) and de-differentiation (like Malabou). This is judged to be the most adequate way of dealing with capacities encountered thus far, because it marries singularity and determinacy with genericity and plurality, yielding neither an undifferentiated and abstract notion of humanity nor a diversity of individuals with nothing in common. The second half of the chapter explores how Serres develops further the continuity between epigenetics and hermeneutics which Malabou begins to elaborate in Avant demain. Humanity is best understood, for Serres, as part of the ‘Great Story’ (Grand Récit) of the universe, a story not only about but also told by the natural world in a way that emphasises the continuity between ‘human’ language and ‘nonhuman’ processes. This insistence upon continuity between the human and the nonhuman also positions Serres very differently to Badiou, Meillassoux and Malabou (in her early work), who all continue to assume that humanity inhabits a meaningless and indifferent universe, and continue to maintain that to think otherwise is anthropocentric. The combination of Serres’s Great Story and his introduction of the two figures of multi-coloured Harlequin and all-white Pierrot gives him a multi-modal account of humanity (capacities plus narrative), and this makes the figure of the human that emerges from his work richer, as well as more situated in its landscape and its history, than in the accounts considered in previous chapters. There is, however, a danger that Serres’s Great Story becomes a ‘host story’ for his account of the human, forcing all humans into a single narrative mould in the same way that a host capacity or a host substance routes all discourse about the human through one single characteristic or quality. It is in order to resist this tendency that we turn in the final chapter to Bruno Latour.

In this Sunday’s Age and Sydney Morning Herald I’m quoted talking about robots, consciousness and Descartes

With the publication of my book on contemporary limits and transformations of humanity coming out next month I had the chance this week to talk with John Elder of The Sunday Age about the future possibility of rights for robots. John’s article came out today in The Sunday Age and the Sydney Morning Heraldwith the title “What happens when your robot gets ambitious?

In the course of a stimulating conversation with John I argued that one of the main reasons our society finds the question of robot rights so hard — and so scary — to answer today is that we moderns are still suffering from a Cartesian hangover that makes us to see the world as divided into the two categories of “subjects” (human beings) and “objects” (everything else); we load all agency and power onto the subject side of the equation, with the result that everything non-human is thought to be passive and inert (readers of Latour’s We Have Never Been Modern will find themselves on familiar ground here, as will those versant with Michel Serres’s discussions of subject and object in The Parasite and elsewhere). If robots were to have rights in such a way of thinking, then it would mean that they would have crossed over the subject-object abyss and become “one of us” or even perhaps made “in our image”.

The problem with this view of things, though, is that the two-speed gearbox of subject and object is really not up to the task of parsing out the variegated and complex ways we relate to technology (including robots) today, never mind in the future, and I argue that we need something more sophisticated than the all-or-nothing subject-object dyad if we are to do justice to complex ways in which humans interact with increasingly sophisticated and humanoid robots, as well as with technology more generally.

Hollywood blockbusters aside, it’s not a question of “humans versus robots”, but rather we humans ourselves are irreducibly technological beings: strip away from a human being all the technology and technique (the building of dwellings, cultivation of crops, language, social customs, rituals, religions and symbols, tools, art, complex social groups…) and what you are left with is no longer a human being. As Michel Serres is fond of saying (see YouTube clip below), everyone carrying a laptop today is like Saint Denis walking around with their head under their arm: we outsource significant quantities of our cognitive processing to technology as well as much of our manual work to tools, chemical compounds and engines. That is not some alien technological intrusion into a pristine and untroubled non-technological humanity; it is who, as human beings, we are, who we always have been, and who we will be in the future, no doubt with ever more sophisticated ways of building technology into our existence. Technology in general and robots in particular do not threaten our humanity; without it (and them) we would not be human to begin with.

What about the question of robot consciousness though? Well, it’s certainly an important question, but we make a grave error if we assume that it is the only, or even the salient, question in the public debate about any eventual robot rights. I argue that there’s more to the question of robot rights than whether robots are conscious or not, for the good reason that there is more to human rights than the fact that we humans are conscious. Our finitude and neediness–to take just one set of examples–also irreducibly inform the discourse of human rights, and it is unclear how limiting factors like the need for rest and for recreation, or having a family (or even oneself) to support, would pertain to robots. The cry of the Australian Trades Unions in the 1850s was “8 Hours labour, 8 hours recreation, 8 hours rest”, a demand that reflects not only human consciousness but human finitude and the web of relationships into which human beings are born.

If not consciousness, then what about capacity? Well, if we define robots’ status or access to rights by what they can do (think rationally, use language, beat humans at board games…) then we are, at least implicitly, consenting to making one capacity or a suite of capacities the shibboleth of human rights too, and in the new book I argue that this “capacity approach” is a dangerous position to hold. We shouldn’t make human capacities the gatekeepers of moral equality or of the right to have rights, because exceptions can always be found to whatever capacity is chosen and it is often some of the weakest and most vulnerable who are left outside the circle of human rights if entry is granted on the basis of this or that capacity. On this basis, capacity should not be our yardstick for assessing robot rights either. It is much too blunt an instrument.

The Age--What happens when your robot gets ambitious

Michel Serres’s The Parasite: A Reader’s Guide. 148 page document to download

Christopher Watkin, Michel Serres's The Parasite - A Reader's GuideOver the past few weeks I have been working my way through Michel Serres’s 1980 Le Parasite: a dense, poetic, brilliant text that seeks to tear down and rebuild the way we think about everything. In reading the book I kept a running list of intertexts to which Serres refers, a document that runs to some 148 pages. I have decided to make this Reader’s Guide available to download so that those seeking to grapple with Serres’s forbidding erudition and the proliferation of references and allusions in Le Parasite can have a slightly easier time of it than I did. The document is available here.

Here is an extract from the Introduction:

Michel Serres’s Le Parasite is a foundational text not only for the understanding of Serres’s own imposing and timely thought but also for key debates in contemporary posthumanism, object oriented thought, new materialisms, ecology, ontology and politics.

However, the reader seeking to come to terms with the book faces a three-fold problem. To begin with, Serres dialogues with a forbidding array of intertexts ranging from ancient Greek and Roman literature and philosophy through medieval and early modern French to more recent texts. Without a knowledge of key passages from these intertexts it is simply impossible to appreciate Serres’s argument, an argument which is, itself, quite intentionally parasitic on the texts with which it interacts.

The second problem for the reader is that, although both the original French and subsequent English translation of Le Parasite contain a list of intertexts as an appendix bearing the title “Histoires, animaux” (“Stories, animals”), the list is incomplete. Thirdly, and to compound the problem, Serres does not systematically mention the particular text with which he is interacting at any given point, nor indeed that he is interacting with a particular text at all. It is left to the reader to pick up the allusions and interactions for herself. The English translation provides footnotes to some but not all of these references, but the reader is nevertheless left to track down the intertexts and read the relevant passages. This leaves a great deal of work to do in order to access and appreciate the brilliant and important moves that Serres is making in Le Parasite.

This Reader’s Guide has been prepared to save some – perhaps most – of that extra effort. The reader will find herein not only a comprehensive list of Serres’s intertexts but also both French and English versions of the key passages with which he interacts. Each passage given below is accompanied by references to the pages of the French (Grasset, 1980) and English (Minnesota Press, 2007) editions of Le Parasite where Serres alludes to the passage in question or mentions it directly.

A diagrammatic snapshot of French philosophy from Magazine Littéraire, September 1977

Today I was given a copy of this edition of the Magazine Littéraire from September 1977 (thank you Philip).

Magazine littéraire - vingt ans de philosophie en France

Its centrefold is a diagram seeking to represent flows of influence between contemporary philosophers. The table provides a fascinating snapshot…

  • Marx is top and centre, flanked by Freud and Nietzsche.
  • Influences are split between the two poles of ancient Greece and German idealism.
  • No Beauvoir (no women at all!), no Camus. Merleau-Ponty and Sartre are supposed to have influenced each other (there is no way of representing mutual antipathy here, though a diagram of philosophical rivalries would be a fascinating project for someone…).
  • The generation of the 1960s-1980s includes Axelos, Althusser, Desanti, Serres, Foucault, Deleuze, Lyotard, Derrida and Barthes.
  • The latest generation to be represented reads like the betting card of a punter who backs a winner one time out of every two: Balibar, Lecourt, Glucksmann, Dollé, Benoist, Jambet-and-Lardreau, Lévy. The nouveaux philosophes really were the next big thing.
  • Derrida is given no relation to Husserl or Nietzsche; only Saussure and Heidegger figure in his line of descent.
  • No Badiou at this time, of course, and no Rancière.

inter-influences de la philosophie contemporaine

Michel Serres is situated squarely as a philosopher of science, his major influences being Bachelard, Canguilhem and Lévi-Strauss. This is reflected in the article on him in the volume, which insists that philosophical reflection on scientific practice “has a new and essential place in France”.

French Philosophy Today: New figures of the Human, low-res cover

Today I received the first low resolution mock-up of the cover for my new book: French Philosophy Today. New Figures of the Human in Badiou, Meillassoux, Malabou, Serres and Latour. Many thanks to Rebecca Mackenzie and Julien Palast for your wonderful work.

French Philosophy Today. New Figures of the Human in Badiou, Meillassoux, Malabou, Serres and Latour

My article on Michel Serres, Biosemiotics and the “Great Story” of the Universe published in SubStance

My article “Michel Serres’ Great Story: From Biosemiotics to Econarratology” has just been published in SubStance. It is available from institutions with a subscription to Project Muse here.

Abstract:

In four key but as yet untranslated texts from 2001-2009, Michel Serres builds on his earlier biosemiotics with an econarratology he calls the ‘Great Story’ (Grand Récit) of our universe. Serres’ econarratology throws down a challenge to develop new ways of thinking the relation between nature and culture and between the human and the non-human. It also allows us to extend the powerful tool of narrative identity beyond its anthropocentric straitjacket into the area of ecology, but this requires a supplement from Paul Ricœur’s work on narrative to save it from a problematic internal inconsistency.
Watkin,MSBiosemioticsFirstPage