I have now tidied up the video from yesterday’s seminar on “Michel Serres and the Question of Alterity in Recent French Thought” and improved the quality of the audio. Here is the new YouTube version:
If you are planning to follow my live-streamed paper on Michel Serres and alterity on Periscope this coming Tuesday, you might want to download the handout that will be distributed to seminar participants. Here it is:
The handout contains fourteen quotations and two diagrams to which I will refer in the course of the paper.
During the paper itself you can make comments and ask questions here.
Next Tuesday I will be giving a seminar at Deakin Univesity, Melbourne, on Michel Serres’s understanding of alterity. The paper comes from the first chapter of my book on Michel Serres, on which I have been able to do some more work recently. I’m trying to get permission from Deakin to tweet a live video of the seminar, so that if you can’t make it to Burwood but want to hear about Michel Serres and alterity, you can head over to https://twitter.com/DrChrisWatkin, watch it live from anywhere in the world and, if you want, ask questions and make comments via Twitter. It’s an experiment…
“Not More of the Same: Michel Serres and the Question of Alterity in Recent French Thought”
The themes of difference and alterity are commonly thought to characterise French thought in the second half of the twentieth century, with canonical thinkers such as Lévinas, Derrida and, latterly, Nancy elaborating diverse ethical positions that nevertheless each accord a privileged and positive place to otherness. In recent years, however, a new philosophy of sameness has emerged, most prominently in the thought of Alain Badiou, claiming that the ethics of alterity is bankrupt, disingenuous and dangerous, and that it is identity and sameness, not difference and alterity, that are of positive ethical value. In this talk I introduce into this debate the thought of Michel Serres, in the light of which we can see that Badiou shares more in common with his supposed opponents than either he or they are ready to admit. For all that distinguishes Badiou’s position from that of his antagonists, they share the fundamental assumption that either identity or difference should be coded positively, but not both equally. In a move more radical than Badiou’s own intervention, Serres offers a different account, one in which neither sameness nor difference is ethically privileged over the other. Couched in the language of asymmetry, parasitism, inclination and enantiomorphy, Serres’s approach shows us how we can move on from the conflict between identity and alterity to a more scientifically informed and, I argue, more ethically compelling account of the relation between identity and alterity.
This post is part of the series of draft entries for a Michel Serres dictionary.
Conv: Serres and Latour, Conversations on Culture, Science and Time
TI: Serres, Le Tiers instruit
One of Serres’s three book-length engagements with literary authors, l’Hermaphrodite was written significantly later than Jouvences (1974, on Jules Verne) and Feux et signaux de brume (1975, on Emile Zola). According to the thematic bibliography at the end of La Légende des anges it belongs in a group of texts under the rubric “Equilibrium and Foundations”, along with Rome, Statues, Les origines de la géométrie, Détachement, The Natural Contract and The Troubadour of Knowledge. Thematically, its closest cousin in Serres’s oeuvre is Les Cinq sens (1985), from which it picks up and reworks the theme of “mixed bodies”.
The text presents itself as a reading of Balzac’s short story “Sarrasine”, a reading that spirals in and out of the text and ranges over a broad range of textual features including individual words (“Sarrasine”, “Zambinella”), images and themes, to its construction in two halves and even the biography of its author. In the course of his engagement with Balzac’s story, Serres distances himself from prevailing notions of critique and otherness and elaborates an alternative, hermaphroditic understanding of alterity and the Western logos.
Critique, system, algorithm
L’Hermaphrodite is very far from offering a critical reading of Balzac’s short story. In fact, Serres sets his own approach in sharp contradistinction to the norms of academic critique. He has nothing but scorn for what he calls the method of defining, destroying and analysing (83) that exerts a stranglehold over the arts and human sciences, a method whose one modus operandi is to seek out heresy wherever it is to be found (and frequently where it is not) by means of judging a particular text against a pre-existing systematic architecture. For Serres, such critique invents nothing, adds nothing, and achieves nothing. Its atomising method is sectarian, and it grinds its object to powder only to see it run through its analytical fingers. We might see in this rejection of a dividing, opposing atomising engagement with texts an oblique reference to Roland Barthes’s reading of “Sarrasine” in S/Z, with its division of the text into 561 lexemes to be analysed in terms of five codes, and depending as it does on antithesis and distinction. However directly Serres is intending to impugn Barthes, he certainly has in his cross-hairs a figure of the Cartesian geometrical an analytical method at which he has been taking aim since Le Système de Leibniz, and in L’Hermaphrodite Serres makes it his business to offer an alternative to this Cartesianism. In opposition to a moribund, divisive and self-cannibalising academicism which reads the text as a self-contained system, Serres’s own approach is to find in the text an algorithm endlessly capable of generating new meanings beyond itself.
Balzac’s incipit: liminality and alterity
He begins by noting that “Sarrasine” opens with the narrator on “a spatial and temporal threshold” (65), seated in a window bay at midnight. On his right he sees a dance of death with snow-covered trees, and on his left a Bacchanalian ball with laughter and music. These two contrasting realities meet in his own body: his right leg is cold and still while his left is keeping time with the music. Similarly, midnight is the moment at which two days meet, the moment that belongs to two days at once, at which 2400 is interchangeable with 0000. The relation Serres is exploring with these spatial and temporal motifs is not the absolute alterity of Levinas or Derrida, even in an impure form, and his liminality is not the Kantian limit or the phenomenological horizon but a meeting-and-mingling, a “mixed body” or a mixed salad (une macédoine) that describes a gesture to which Serres will return time and again in this text. The world of Serres’s “Sarrasine” is one in which opposites not only meet but mingle and, as we shall see, exceed the binary of identity and alterity.
The primary figure of such liminality and alterity in the text is the eponymous hermaphrodite. Serres’s title, however, could at first glance appear somewhat misleading: surely Balzac’s Zambinella is not a hermaphrodite but a castrato. The slide from castration to hermaphroditism is deliberate on Serres’s part, however, for his purpose is to rethink the motif of castration in a hermaphroditic way, offering a reading of the trope that stands distinct from its customary connotation of lack. For this new understanding, castration itself is not a moment of loss or exclusion but rather, as Serres puts it, of “the exclusion of exclusion” (81). The phallus is the original division, the cut that separates the genders, and to take away this separation is not a bare loss but a retrogression to an indeterminacy prior to sexuation, prior to any binary division into genders. It is an exclusion of the exclusionary logic of gender, found at the centre of Balzac’s story when the young sculptor carves a phallus on the altar both in a gesture of castration and also as a sacrificial offering (94). Serres reasons that, existing as we do within the system of division and opposition, it is only when exclusion itself is excluded that the original apeiron (indeterminacy) of hermaphroditism can be regained. This is far from castration as impotence, Serres insists, for “certain castrati, far from being impotent, were reputed for their amorous exploits” (Conv 99).
It is in this way that the hermaphrodite is a further development of one of Serres’s most persistent character-concepts: Hermes. Born of a union of Hermes and Aphrodite, Hermaphroditus is both man and woman (as opposed to being neither man nor woman). He is Hermes in all his plenitude, Hermes in excess of Hermes. In what is surely an echo of Albert Camus’s “we must imagine Sisyphus happy” from The Myth of Sisyphus, Serres insists that “we must think of Hermes as full to overflowing” (“il faut concevoir Hermès comblé”, 87-8), as a “mixed body”, a unifier in himself of opposites.
Serres’s hermaphroditic alterity
In L’Hermaphrodite, Serres elaborates a hermaphroditic account of alterity that challenges the orthodoxies of “otherness” bequeathed to French thought through the phenomenological tradition. There are two aspects of this account of alterity that set it apart from simple opposition. The first is that it is not the meeting of two equal and opposite instances, but a welcoming of alterity into one side of the opposition. Serres takes his own (and, he suspects, Balzac’s) left-handedness as an example. The left-handed person is not merely the opposite of the right-hander, but in our right-handed world she has to be somewhat ambidextrous: The left-handed person is a “lateral hermaphrodite” (TI 36) and, rather than merely standing in opposition to right-handedness, she has found a “metastable” (67) relation of the two. Similarly, darkness welcomes light into it, but light does not welcome darkness and, in the same way, the hermaphrodite itself is not, for Serres, a figure of plenitude as opposed to lack, but a figure of the plenitude of plenitude and lack. In one final example, Zambinella and Sarrasine are not simply opposites but Zambinella is both male and female, suggested by the Italian Ambinella, which in Italian can be taken to mean “the two in her” (74): the hermaphrodite.
Serres also explores this hermaphroditic thinking in terms of the relation between the arts. The music of Zambinella’s performances and the statues sculpted by Sarrasine do not represent two straightforwardly opposite or incommensurable art forms. Music is the fluid, wandering art (which can be located neither in the score nor on the plucked string), and sculpture trades in stasis and death, an art born of the ancient embalmer’s craft that transforms being-there into “here lies” (101). In familiar Serresian terms, sculpture is “hard” and music is “soft”, but this does not mean that they are in simple opposition. They are made to accord with each other by the “third man” they both exclude, namely the literary narrative of Balzac’s Sarrasine itself (127): “Sarrasine” is the hermaphrodite born of both music and sculpture. In addition, music itself returns us to a moment before stasis, before the solid definition of the body: music is the apeiron of the arts (129), the only art not to be imprisoned and defined by a “frozen” meaning (140). We might venture here a distinction between subjective and objective hermaphroditism. Left-handedness is a subjective hermaphroditism because the relation between opposites is accomplished in one of the opposing terms, whereas the joining of music and sculpture in “Sarrasine” is an objective hermaphroditism because the narrative is neither the music nor the sculpture that it brings together.
Hermaphroditic alterity is further developed in Serres’s brief treatment of the motif of logos. Like Derrida, he discerns and describes a propensity for exclusion and division in the Greek and Biblical logoi (85), but unlike Derrida’s deconstruction of logocentrism from within he discerns an alternative, “more supple, more gelatinous [agglutinant] and positive” (85) logos in Arab thought, in the Renaissance and, most significantly for Serres’s wider thought, in Leibniz. It is not a logos of the system but of the hidden formalism of the algorithm; not a closed net of meanings but a radial web of correspondences. What is more, Serres argues, this alternative, Leibnizian logos is the logos appropriate for a culture of information and electronic data transfer, not the old Greek logos of light but a new logos of speed: the logos of our computer age.
The nature of this “gelatinous” logos is most fully explained in L’Hermaphrodite through Serres’s evocation of enantiomorphy, which is also the second aspect by which hermaphroditic alterity is distinguished it from simple opposition. Two structural forms are enantiomorphic when they mirror each other but are not identical (for example: the left and right hands); they are symmetrical, but not congruent. Enantiomorphy, therefore, resolves neither, in the final analysis, to identity nor to alterity, nor again to a mixture of the two. Two enantiomorphic structures are at the same time quite opposite and quite identical (74), and the “same” and “other” have become twins (71). The logic of antithesis and the lexicon of identity and difference are wholly inadequate to describe this hermaphroditic alterity.
Serres also seeks to move away from the (Greek) logos by insisting on the centrality of the body in his notion of alterity. In the opening passage of “Sarrasine” it is in the narrator’s body that life and death, heat and cold, movement and stasis meet, and Serres stresses the body’s pre-linguistic signification in a way that mirrors the way he considers music in relation to the other arts. The body gives us “meaning before language” (75), a meaning that understands and incorporates everything carnally, before the cuts and incisions of the geometric logos. The body does not know its limits, either internally between its organs or externally with the world, and we all retain a trace of an original corporeal mixture (129). Carnal sense (in which we may permit ourselves to hear echoes of Merleau-Ponty’s logos endiathetos from Prose of the World and the incrusted meanings of flesh from The Visible and the Invisible) is hermaphroditic.
Enantiomorphy also allows Serres to rehabilitate totality, a notion which has fallen into desuetude and has been all too easily equated with totalitarianism by phenomenological thought. Serres, by contrast, does not resile from insisting that the hermaphrodite is a figure of inclusive totality (47). Thought according to the Greek system-logos, totality is a violent closure and a false claim to have exhausted the complexity of singularity that needs to be resisted or deconstructed, but according to Leibniz’s algorithm-logos it is not a foreclosure of meaning but an opening to relation, the promise that the most opposed phenomena can be understood enantiomorphically.
With his notion of hermaphroditic alterity, Serres splits the horns of the same/other dyad, offering an alternative account to Derrida’s construction of Western logocentrism, his insistence that “every other is wholly other”, and his deconstruction of oppositions from within. Whereas, for Derrida, the limit or parergon is undecidably both inside and outside that which it demarcates, for Serres the (carnal) pre-linguistic logos is an apeiron that births not binary oppositions but enantiomorphic relations. Serres’s hermaphroditic alterity also stands in contrast to the way in which the discourse of alterity is customarily deployed in debates within and between “equality feminism” and “difference feminism”, and his rethinking of the castrate not as a figure of lack but of plenitude is particularly suggestive in the context of those feminist discourses influenced by Freud’s ideas.
Significantly, if we follow Serres’s account then positions such as Derrida’s and those of difference and equality feminisms alike are, prima facie, complicit with that which they seek to reject, for an analysis that starts with antithesis arrives inexorably at castration, but one that starts with enantiomorphy leads to the hermaphrodite and inclusion (86). The former, resting on the Greek system-logos, is a philosophy of Babel; the latter, stemming from Leibniz’s algorithm-logos a philosophy of Pentecost (78) and universal compatibility. It is the latter dynamic that Serres finds at work in Balzac’s “Sarrasine”.