Guest Post: Sylvia Plath, Paul Ricoeur and the language of madness

By Jess Phillips, Honours Candidate in Literary Studies, Monash University

Sylvia Plath’s first and only novel The Bell Jar was published under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas in 1963 and released just weeks before she committed suicide in her London home.[1] The novel is a first-person account of Esther Greenwood, a nineteen-year-old aspiring writer who whilst on a writing internship in New York begins to feel that something is wrong with her. Upon returning home to Boston, she discovers that she hasn’t been accepted for a competitive writing course at university. This news catalyses for Esther several suicide attempts and admissions to psychiatric wards.

What drew me to Plath’s novel was her remarkable use of simile and metaphor to describe and represent Esther’s experience. Her language struck me at times as inconsistent, ambiguous and highly nuanced, yet also strangely precise. Later I discovered this was for good reason. Plath’s vocabulary is derived from lived experience, not divorced from it. Her strenuous efforts at locating verbal equivalents for Esther’s experience point to the limits language has for expressing subjective states of being, whilst revealing nuances and insight into the experience of madness that are often obscured when a scientific understanding is privileged.

So how does Plath use simile in her writing and to what effect? What does her idiosyncratic vocabulary reveal about the experience of madness that a literal discourse such as the language of modern science would obscure? These are but some of the questions my research is exploring.

French Philosopher Paul Ricoeur makes an interesting case for metaphor, not simile as the means through which new knowledge and surprising connections can be brought about through language. In The Rule of Metaphor Ricoeur argues that because metaphor involves implicit comparisons between two terms, because the connections or relations that two terms share are not always obvious, metaphor produces new knowledge about a subject, contradicts reader’s expectations and uncovers hidden relationships. For Ricoeur, “metaphor teaches us something…it contributes to the opening up of a field of reality other than which ordinary language is capable of laying bare.”[2]

While simile is like metaphor in that it too involves relations between two terms, for Ricoeur simile is less complex as it involves a direct or explicit attribution using ‘like’ or ‘as’. He argues that this direct comparison “reduces the dynamism and provocation of inquiry” that metaphor achieves so well.[3] He goes further to state that simile, unlike metaphor, relies on the connections between two terms, being “facts of discourse” or “perceived resemblances,” relations that already exist in our common language usage. [4]  So, he concludes simile does nothing special, nothing to generate new knowledge and insight about a subject.

While I agree with Ricoeur’s claims about metaphor, I feel that he dismisses the creative potential of simile when used to describe and represent subjective experience. In my research into Plath’s writing, I have discovered that contrary to Ricoeur’s claims that leave simile bereft of value, Plath reveals the creative potential of simile; its capacity to produce new knowledge and insight into the lived experience of madness.

Let’s have a look at how Plath achieves the apprehension of new knowledge and connections that at first glance seem purely “facts of discourse.” Upon returning home to Boston, Esther’s sleep begins to be disrupted. After leaving Dr Gordon, her psychiatrist following her first Electro Shock Treatment, she states that she hasn’t slept for twenty-one nights. Feigning sleep one morning until her mother has left for work, she describes her experience of insomnia using simile:

I crawled between the mattress and the padded bedstead and let the mattress fall across me like a tombstone. It felt very dark and very safe under there, but the mattress was not heavy enough. I needed about a tonne more to make me sleep.[5]

The drawing of mattress and tombstone into an explicit comparison using the term ‘like’ reveals new knowledge about Esther’s experience of madness and insomnia. Firstly, let’s look at what the tombstone connotes, that is, at what is implied in ‘tombstone’ in addition to its essential or literal meaning. What are some of the associations we make when we come up against this term?

‘Tombstone’ connotes death, a grave, graveyard and a weathered, heavy and oftentimes illegible memory of a life. One’s first inclination, as was mine, when reading this simile is to conflate tombstone with coffin or earth leading to the dissipation of surprise as this is an obvious connection, a resemblance that already exists within our common language usage.[6]  This relation would make good sense and seem compatible with Esther’s attempts at hauling her mattress over herself. But I sense there are hidden connections here, so let’s go a little deeper.

In burial, it is not the tombstone that falls across the body or coffin, but dirt, sand and earth. To replace dirt, earth or sand with tombstone in this simile suggests that Esther feels as though she is already dead; she is already buried and the tombstone which would act as a beacon to the living, to denote her position beneath the earth, has fallen across the remains of her body, making the memory of her life to the living world invisible. Therefore, we may conclude that Esther’s subjective experience of insomnia (and by extension of madness) is likened to an invisible death. “I crawled between the mattress and the padded bedstead and let the mattress fall across me like a tombstone,” when examined deeply and patiently says more about Esther’s experience of madness and insomnia and language’s inability to faithfully represent them, than a more literal rendering such as “I feel dead inside,” ever could.

This new knowledge and insight into the lived and felt experience of Esther’s insomnia and of madness is only made possible by the connections Plath generates between tombstone and mattress; connections that are not obvious facts of discourse. And it is simile, not metaphor that makes this new knowledge possible.

While Plath’s writing may unsettle her readers, in the absence of definitive meaning she reveals something very important about language and subjective experience. For Plath, language will always lack the means for expressing the subtle nuances that are highly particular to each one of us. Perhaps the absence of definitive meaning in favour of a multiplicity of meaning unsettles readers because it urges them to re-evaluate the motivations for and implications of attempts at imposing a definitive understanding over what are oftentimes chaotic, enigmatic states. And perhaps contrary to Ricoeur’s rejection of simile, it too is an important tool for conveying these nuances and deepening our vocabulary for expressing the difficult things.


Jess Phillips is an Honours candidate in Literary Studies at Monash University. Her thesis explores the use of metaphor and simile in Sylvia Plath’s novel The Bell Jar to represent and describe the experience of madness.


  1. Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar, (London: Faber and Faber, 1963).
  2. Paul Ricoeur, The Rule of Metaphor (1975), translated by Robert Czerny with Kathleen Mc Laughlin and John Costello, SJ. (Routledge Classics: Oxon, 2003), 174.
  3. Ibid, 29.
  4. Ibid, 29.
  5. Ibid, 29-30.
  6. Plath, The Bell Jar, 118.
  7. Plath, The Bell Jar,
  8. Ricoeur, The Rule of Metaphor, 29-30.

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.


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.


A table showing who is part of the new materialism, and an argument as to why it is not a “turn”

I’m currently writing the introduction to The Human Remains, discussing the figure of the human in the new materialism. I thought I would share the table I drew up of all the thinkers identified as part of the new materialism in different monographs and collected volumes. I have excluded individual journal articles from the list below in order to keep it under a page, and the table also excludes occasional references to the term “new materialism” by writers in the list (Catherine Malabou, for example, uses the term on a number of occasions).

Some of these texts employ the “new materialism” tag explicitly, while others have been included because the themes they identify in contemporary thought overlap substantially with at least some of the main concerns of NM. I was inspired by the table drawn up by Joe Hughes in his review of Ian James’s The New French Philosophy for NDPR.

If you think I’ve missed any important entries, let me know and I’ll update the table. It does not attempt to be exhaustive, but it does attempt to include all the main book-length treatments of the new materialism. The full bibliographical references are given below the table.

new materialist thinkers, ordered alphabetically

Bryant, Levi, Nick Srnicek, and Graham Harman, eds. The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism and Realism. Melbourne:, 2011.

Coole, Diana, and Samantha Frost. New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010.

Crockett, Clayton, B. Keith Putt, and Jeffrey W. Robbins. The Future of Continental Philosophy of Religion. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2014.

Crockett, Clayton, and Jeffrey W. Robbins. Religion, Politics, and the Earth: The New Materialism. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.

Dobrin, Sidney I. Ecology, Writing Theory, and New Media: Writing Ecology. London: Taylor & Francis, 2011.

Dolphijn, Rick, and Iris van der Tuin. New Materialism: Interviews and Cartographies. Ann Arbor, MI: Open Humanities Press, 2012.

Galloway, Alexander R. Les Nouveaux Réalistes. Paris: Editions Léo Scheer, 2012.

Gratton, Peter. Speculative Realism: Problems and Prospects. London: Bloomsbury, 2014.

Hallward, Peter. “The One and the Other: French Philosophy Today.” Angelaki 8, no. 2 (2003).

James, Ian. The New French Philosophy. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2012.

Johnston, Adrian. Prolegomena to Any Future Materialism: The Outcome of Contemporary French Philosophy. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2013.

Mullarkey, John. Post-Continental Philosophy. Transversals. edited by Keith Ansell-Pearson London: Continuum, 2006.

Pfeifer, Geoff. The New Materialism: Althusser, Badiou, and Žižek. London: Routledge, 2015.


Here is a passage from the introduction to The Human Remains, sketching why I think it misleading to refer to the new materialism as a “turn”. The extract jumps in towards the end of a reading of Ian James’s The New French Philosophy:

In the final paragraph of the introduction to The New French Philosophy, James makes a brief but very telling remark: “these philoso­phers seek to renew the way in which they think, to transform the manner in which they come to write philosophy itself” (James 2012: 16). In his conclusion James returns to this idea in order to establish a three-fold chain of influence which accounts for the emergence of the new materialism, a chain which leads from a demand, through a technique, to a philosophy. The new materialism, he argues, has heeded a new demand and generated in response to that demand a new technique or techniques, which have in turn produced the philosophy that we now call “new materialism”. The demand is issued by the real:

it can be argued that a transformation in philosophical practice or technique has occurred in response to the necessity of rethinking the real outside of the linguistic paradigm and in response to the necessity of repo­sitioning of the real itself as immanent to the techniques or technicity of thought. […] The task of thought which these philosophers take up, and the demand of thought to which they respond, is one of thinking material immanence and worldly, shared existence. They do so by way of techniques which affirm themselves as resolutely mate­rial. (James 2012: 187,8)

What I find compelling about James’s analysis at this point is that, with the emergence in French thought of what is coming to be called the “new materialism”, we are dealing not only with a new set of thoughts but with a new way of thinking, not just of new philosophy but at least new “technique”, and perhaps a little more as well. There are parallels to be drawn here with the emergence of “postmodernism”, however unwieldy we consider that term to be.

This is why it is misleading to speak of a “turn to the material”. The genus “turn” comes in two prepositional species: the “turn in” and the “turn to”. Perhaps the classic example of the first variant is the “theological turn in French phenomenology”. He we have a relatively consistent (though contested) theoretical framework, namely phenomenology, deployed to investigate new sets of phenomena, namely theological ones. This “turn” is a relatively modest change, and that is why it has courted such controversy. If the theological phenomenologists were claiming to be doing something completely new, departing radically from phenomenology, then the non-theological phenomenologists would not feel the need to enter the lists against them. This sort of “turn in” is an extension of a way of thinking that already exists. Turns “to” cover much the same ground. A technique of thinking that already exists turns to redirect its critical and analytic gaze onto a new subject matter or a new problem. A cursory Google search turns up “the turn to technology in social studies of science”, “the affective turn in philosophy”, the turn to religion in early modern English studies“ and “the turn to community in the arts”. To describe the new materialism in these terms would misunderstand what it is. As James rightly points out, it is not just that something new is being thought about, but that thinking is happening in a new way, with a new technique and a new style.

I would, however, nuance and develop James’s helpful account in two ways. First, the influence of the demand on the technique and the technique on the philosophy should not be thought to be unidirectional. Secondly, I would question the extent to which we can differentiate between a new demand and a new capacity or predisposition to apprehend and respond to a demand. I want to re-frame James’s new demand as what I will call a new “disposition”. Disposition is to technique as technique is to the content of philosophy.

A philosophical disposition includes, to be sure, a new fundamental set of assumptions about the nature of reality, but it articulates and deploys those assumptions as part of a new way of holding oneself in the world and new style of writing which are just as fundamental as the assumptions that take root in their soil. Such a new disposition informs and engenders not only a new set of concepts and ideas, and not just a new set of philosophical questions, themes, and areas of investigation but also, along with them, new rhythms of language and of engagement with the world, along with a demand for a new way and rhythm of reading.

[…at this point in the introduction I work through the notion of “disposition” systematically. I’ll cut to the concluding paragraph…]

What is captured by evoking a new disposition but missed when we refer merely to a new “turn”, “event” or “technique” is that the change we are witnessing with the rise of the new materialism implies and predisposes not only to a way of thinking and writing but to away of holding oneself in the world, and that this in turn brings forth a new world, where “world” is understood as the objects, concerns and ideas that appear to a particular philosophical disposition, and that appear important. It is not only that certain things appear more important than before (that would be a “turn”), nor that certain things appear simpliciter, in the sense that they are now written about when previously they were not considered at all (that would be an “event”), but that a new way of holding oneself in the world brings forth a new set of concerns, objects and ideas that also in turn form and inform that same emerging disposition.

I then go on in the introduction to relate my notion of “disposition” to ideas from Jean-Luc Nancy and other thinkers.


Next week I plan to press on with re-drafting the first chapter, which deals with Jean-Pierre Changeux and Paul Ricœur’s respective readings of Spinoza in What Makes us Think? and elsewhere.

Paul Ricœur: Philosophy must have a foot outside philosophy, and must not end its dialogue with science

Je crois que la philosophie doit avoir un pied hors de la philosophie ; si on cesse ce dialogue avec les sciences, on produit alors une philosophie de la philosophie qui est répétitive d’elle-même, et prend par là même conscience de sa vanité.

Paul Ricœur, ‘De la volonté à l’acte. Un entretien de Paul Ricœur avec Carlos Oliveira’, in Christian Bouchindhomme and Rainer Rochlitz (eds.), Temps et récit de Paul Ricœur en débat (Paris : Editions du Cerf, 1990) 23.

Update on current books: _The Human Remains_ and _Humanity After God_

Photograph: Durham University/PA

Photograph: Durham University/PA

Since giving a brief sketch of my current research project in January 2014, the focus of The Human Remains has tightened and developed. I have moved the material on the imago dei motif out of this book and into a new project in which I want to look at eikon and mimesis, image and imitation, as twin figures of the human in the Western tradition, teasing out the theological implications of both, as well as their relation to each other. The project will draw heavily on Quentin Meillassoux and Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, inter alia. The tentative title of this book is Humanity After God.

That leaves The Human Remains with a more focused argument about the complexities of situating the human, along with its attendant notions of dignity and equality, in the landscape of contemporary French thought. THR will have chapters on Jean-Pierre Changeux, Catherine Malabou, Alain Badiou, Jacques Rancière, Jean-Luc Nancy, Paul Ricoeur and Michel Serres.

Ex uno plures!

Paul Ricoeur and the Autonomy of Philosophy: A Reappraisal

RicoeurMy article “Ricœur and the Autonomy of Philosophy: A Reappraisal” has just been published online in Philosophy Today. Abstract: Paul Ricœur repeatedly maintained that his philosophical reflection was autonomous from theological influence. Those who seek to contest this view have hitherto sought to deny the autonomy of philosophy from theology, but this article makes a more radical argument: not that philosophy is not autonomous, but that autonomy is not philosophical. According to Ricoeur’s own understanding of the structure of philosophical systems, the very notion of autonomy to which philosophy makes claim can only be thought as a theological notion. The argument has two parts. First, philosophy is theological in its own structure, and secondly, the relation between philosophy and theology can only be thought theologically.

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.

The Pantasm: Heraclitus, Michel Serres, and the Changeux-Ricœur exchange. On naming the human

The Heraclitean panta

HeraclitusIn Plato’s Cratylus, Heraclitus is quoted as holding that ‘πάντα χωρεῖ’ (panta chōrei, everything changes), a reality he sees symbolised in the element of fire:

All things are an exchange for fire, and fire for all things, as goods for gold and gold for goods. (Heraclitus, Fragment 22 in the  Diels-Kranz collection of Presocratic sources.)

This ‘everything changes’ or the more usual ‘all is flux’ is familiar to us as one of pre-Socratic attempts to discern a principle (ἀρχή, archē) underlying, uniting and explaining all of reality (for Thales it was water; for Anaximander, the indefinite; for Anaximenes, air).

Pantasm: everything is x

Contemporary thought continues to struggle with this figure of the panta, seeking to route our understanding of being through one particular element or discourse. It is a tendency that does not only rear its head in relation to being, however. I have been struck recently by a similar panta in descriptions and definitions of what makes human beings human, and (which for many thinkers amounts to the same thing) what sets humans apart from other animals.

In the notes for my book on humanism, antihumanism and posthumanism, this move has taken the name ‘pantasm’. The epithets we customarily employ to qualify the human are implicit pantasms, locating humanness as such in one particular aspect of human existence, more often than not an innate human capacity that, it is thought, underwrites and/or justifies human uniqueness. The assumption is that everything essential to the human is, or can be reduced to, this one capacity. It may be our wisdom (homo sapiens), our rational principle (ζῷον λόγον ἔχον, zoon logon echon), our sociality (ζῷον πολιτικόν, zoon politikon), our creativity (homo faber), our capacity for play (homo ludens) or any number of other epithets used by the hard sciences, social sciences and arts alike.

Another different but related aspect of this pantasmatic thinking is the attempt to privilege one account for the human, one discourse about the human being, above all others as giving privileged access to understanding the human as such. For example: although we as humans participate in many overlapping spheres of existence (mathematical, physical, biological, economic, social, religious…), each with their own discourses, the claim might be made that the discourse of (to take one among many possible examples) neuroscience can give us access not to one aspect of humanity but to the human as such, humanity unqualified, the human simpliciter, in a way that grounds all of the spheres of our existence and in terms of which they can all, ultimately, be exhaustively described and understood.

There are weak and strong versions of this pantasmatic thinking. In its weak form the claim is that one discourse is privileged above the others in accounting for the human as such, and other discourses are better viewed in relation to it and informed by it. In its strong form, the claim is that one particular discourse can exhaustively account for the human as such, and all other discourses can sooner or later be reduced to it.

Michel Serres and pantasmatic thinking


One problem with this pantasmatic thinking, both in terms of epithets for the human and in terms of privileged discourses to account for the human, is the risk of a Procrustean reduction of complexity in the attempt to shoehorn the human simpliciter into this or that pantasmatic account. Elements or aspects of human life and human experience that do not fit the privileged account are either ignored or explained away in terms that fail to do them justice in their own terms.

In the case of epithets of the human, this risks calling into question the humanity of those who lack sufficiently—or lack at all—the particular marker or ‘host property’ of humanity privileged by a particular epithet. Humans are the rational animal? What, then, of those who, through birth, accident or old age, are “reduced” to the mental functioning of an “animal”? What of those who seem to display more rationality than others? Answers exist to these questions, of course, but they are frequently far from convincing and constitute special pleading for an approach that seems flawed from the outset.


This past week I have been enjoying Michel Serres’ Hominescence, a magisterial romp through what he calls the ‘big story’ (‘grand récit’, not to be confused with Lyotard’s ‘metanarrative’, also ‘grand récit’, in The Postmodern Condition) of human development, from the beginnings of the universe through the birth of agriculture and the domestication of animals to what he calls the contemporary homo universalis, with the capacity for the first time to bring about change on a global (ecological and cultural) scale.

In Hominescence, Serres rehearses a complex dance with pantasmatic thinking. Early on he identifies the (Galileian) mathematisation of nature as ‘the greatest contemporary discovery’. Galileo showed that the natural world is written in the language of mathematics, but with the discovery of DNA we have now gone further and established that life itself is written in algorithms (Hominescence 95).

Later in the book, in evoking a chain of mathematisers including Leibniz, Buffon, Mendel, Darwin, Turing and Perrette, he makes the claim that ‘all is number’:

Everything, here, comes back to the digital. Everything is number: from the necessity of laws which are measured, weighed, calculated according to a range of possible combinations and filtered through constraints of all sorts, up to the original and contingent uniqueness of living things, individually nameable by an exclusive code: everything is number. (197) [Tout est nombre : de la nécessité des lois mesurées, pesées, chiffrées à l’éventail combinatoire des possibles et à leur filtrage par contraintes de tous ordres, jusqu’à l’unicité originale et contin­gente du vivant, individuellement nommable par un code exclusif; tout est nombre.]

Serres’ claim that ‘everything is number’ pushes us to clarify a distinction between two meanings of ‘everything’, only one of which is pantasmatic. The non-pantasmatic way to read ‘tout est nombre’ is as a claim that there is no object, experience or event that cannot be understood digitally, but that this digital understanding does not monopolise anything it touches and should not a priori be considered the privileged discourse for accessing any object, experience or event simpliciter. The ‘everything’, in this case, is an ‘everything without distinction’. There is nothing that mathematics cannot touch, but it does not exhaust anything it touches.

The second, pantasmatic understanding also includes this ‘everything without distinction’, but it goes further, to say that the digital is the only (strong pantasm) or privileged (weak pantasm) discourse to give direct access to what it discusses. This is not only ‘everything without distinction’ but, in addition, ‘everything without remainder’.

Serres seems to come close to this second, pantasmatic understanding in his discussion of his own name. In a section of Hominescence entitled ‘Ego. Who signs these pages?’  he dismisses the capacity of any aspect of what he calls his ‘belonging’ (appartenance) to name him adequately. The name on his identity card does not designate a singularity but replaces that singularity with a series of ‘belongings’: family name, given name, sex, date and place of birth… (Hominescence 103). In a lecture entitled ‘L’Homme nouveau’ (‘The New Man’), this sort of ‘belonging’ is contrasted with ‘identity’: my identity cannot be reduced to the various classes to which I belong, he argues:

Who am I? Me. Everything else, including what the civil service requires me to write on my identity card, describes the groups to which I belong. If you confuse belonging with identity you commit a logical error which may be grave or harmless, but you risk a deadly error: the racism that consists in reducing a person to one of these collectivities. [Dans  un  ouvrage  précédent,  j’écrivais  :  mon  identité  ne  se  réduit  point  à  mes  appartenances.  Ne m’appelez  donc  point  vieillard,  mâle  ou  écrivain,  rangez-moi  plutôt  dans  tel  sous  ensemble,  groupant respectivement âge, sexe ou métier. Au-delà de ces implications, qui suis-je ? Moi. Tout le reste, y compris ce  que  l’administration  m’oblige  à  écrire  sur  ma  carte  dite  d’identité,  désigne  des  groupes  auxquels j’appartiens. Si vous confondez appartenance et identité, vous commettez une erreur logique, lourde ou bénigne, selon ; mais vous risquez une faute meurtrière, le racisme, qui consiste, justement, à réduire une personne à l’un de ses collectifs.]

However, in Hominescence Serres does identify one discourse that names him adequately: his genetic code, proclaiming ‘that is my name’ (‘voilà mon nom’):

For the first time this is my true name, the code that corresponds so well to my body that it constituted it, and no other code corresponds to it. […] Yes, all things are numbers. The real is a product of this exact coding. (104) [pour la première fois, il s’agit de mon vrai nom, du code qui correspond si bien à mon corps, qu’il le constitua et qu’aucun autre ne lui correspond. […] Oui, toutes choses sont nombres. Le réel provient de ce codage exact.]

This claim that his genetic code can designate him adequately is puzzling on a number of levels. First of all, later in the book he makes the observation that identical twins have the same genetic code. Secondly, he addresses elsewhere in Hominescence the issue of whether the cloning of human beings would result in an identity crisis, and concludes (for some fascinating reasons having to do with theology and Pauline universalism) that it would not. So genetic code is not a rigid designator for the ‘me’ of Michel Serres, despite it being the one code he is happy to call ‘my name’.

Elsewhere, Serres seems to take a resolutely non-pantasmatic view of the human being. In his contribution to the slim volume Qu’est-ce que l’humain? He laments the tendency of twentieth century thought to account for the human in terms of a handful of privileged discourses (he singles out ethnology, sociology and psychoanalysis) to the exclusion of the hard sciences. The nineteenth century saw the birth of the human sciences; the twentieth saw their flourishing; the twenty-first will reunite them with the hard sciences, not in one meta-discourse but in a mutually informing web: ‘I have written Hominescence and L’Incandescent to make fluid bonds between the nodes of this new network’, he claims (Qu’est-ce que l’humain? 75) [J’ai écrit Hominescence et L’Incandescent pour souder fluidement les nœuds de ce nouveau réseau.].

In Hominescence Serres does, in the end, fasten upon a definition of the human, but he chooses a definition that seeks to decouple humanity as such from any determinate pantasmatic qualification. He claims that we can now, for the first time, answer humanism’s age-old question ‘what is the human being?’: we are ‘the animal that refuses to know who it is, because all its richness consists precisely in not knowing it’ (Hominescence 78). Other animals, ‘brute beasts and fixed plants’, he claims, are what they are, they have a definite being, but since the emergence of homo habilis humanity has been exempt from such a fixed identity. In an adumbration of Bruno Latour’s Modes of Existence project, he suggests that humans do not have being, but modes of existence:

No, being does not concern us. Being, perhaps, concerns animals, plants, mushrooms and bacteria, sand and lakes, fire and rock, the air and the clouds scudding along with the wind, though we cannot verify it. We do not exist as beings (comme étants) or as having being (comme êtres), but as modes. (79) [Non, être ne nous concerne pas. Être, peut-être, concerne les bêtes, les plantes, champignons et bactéries, sables et lacs, feu et roche, l’air et les nuages courant dans le lit du vent, encore que nous ne puissions pas le vérifier. Nous n’existons ni comme étants ni comme êtres, mais comme des modes.]

Here, it is not the possession of any particular determinate capacity that designates the human, but the lack of any stable or fixed capacity. The question of whether this negative capacity, this capacity to change identity, runs into the same problems as the fixed determinants Serres uses it to replace is moot, and I intend to work it through in the humanism book. My point in this present post is that these modes of existence, I am increasingly convinced, should not be cannibalized by each other or subordinated in a ‘one mode to rule them all’ pantasm.

Ricœur and Changeux: neuronal man

What makes us think

A similar point is made by Paul Ricœur in his exchanges with neuroscientist Jean-Pierre Changeux in What Makes us Think?. Ricœur takes exception to the move he sees exemplified in the title of Changeux’ Neuronal Man, qualifying ‘man’, a general, phenomenological term, with the specific and determinate objective qualifier ‘neuronal’. In the language I am developing for the humanism book, Ricœur accuses Changeux of operating a pantasm. The body-object (corps-objet) can act as a ‘substrate’ for understanding the lived body (corps-vécu), Ricœur argues, but it should not be allowed to qualify the human as such.

This is a quintessentially Ricoeurian move, resonating with his insistence on the polysemy of being, the necessity of a series of ‘long detours’ in understanding the self, and his engagement with incommensurable scales of value through his readings of Michael Walzer’s Spheres of Justice and Luc Boltanski and Laurent Thévenot’s On Justification: Economies of Worth (De la justification: les économies de la grandeur). The stakes, for Ricœur, are to resist pantasmatic thinking and yet not end up with the paralysis of incommensurable fragmentation. A similar concern, although pursued with a different approach, is also central to Jean-Luc Nancy’s project.

Paul Ricoeur in Dialogue with Theology and Religious Studies

Flyer PRicoeur1In September I will have the great pleasure of taking part in a symposium at the University of Lund, Sweden, entitled “Paul Ricœur in Dialogue with Theology and Religious Studies.” In addition to looking forward to hearing what is set to be a fantastic array of papers, I hope to be able to contribute something to the discussion on the question of theology and philosophical systems as such. The more I look at the question of “theological” themes in contemporary thought, the more uneasy I become about the extent to which theological lingo can be fought over in quite a superficial way. What determines, for example, whether employing the term “miracle” merits a diagnosis of theological thinking, and at what point exactly does thinking become theological anyway? Just how miraculous must a miracle be before it tips over into the non-philosophical? And why do we tend to assume that the theological has to begin precisely where the philosophical stops? Flyer PRicoeur2While such questions may well be interesting I’m not convinced they are terribly fruitful–won’t a miracle always end up being just what we define a miracle to be?–and so I want to use the opportunity of the Lund symposium to explore not discrete moments or motifs within a given philosophical system but the question of the relation to theology of philosophical systems as such. My jumping-off point will be two terrific essays by Ricœur, ‘Hope and the structure of philosophical systems’ (in Figuring the Sacred), and ‘Irrationality and the plurality of philosophical systems’. The aim is to find a more robust and satisfying way of thinking about “theology” and “philosophy” than the approach which repeatedly beats the bounds between them. I hope this will also allow me to reprise a theme from my last visit to Lund, when I cast doubt on Meillassoux’s claim to have demonstrated, finally, the anhypothetical principle of philosophy. Finally, the paper will also pick up on a line of thought I developed in Difficult Atheism in relation to Jean-Luc Nancy when he claims that

There is at the heart of every great philosophy (and this could be the measure of its greatness), a mystery concerning God or the gods. This is in no way to say that this mystery is the heart of the philosophy that bears it. It certainly is not; but it is placed in that heart, even though it has no place there. (Nancy, ‘Of divine places’ 129, translation altered)

Poster PRicoeur1