I’m currently working on Michel Serres’ four books on humanism from 2001-2009, in which he seeks to break down the qualitative distinction between the human and the non-human in a fundamental way. In these books and elsewhere he develops what I think it is best to call an ‘econarratology’, though see the qualification of that term below. Here is a draft of the first section of a piece I am working on, where I eventually splice Serres’ econarratology with Ricœur’s work on narrative in order to explore the possibility of an ecological narrative identity.
From Biosemiotics to Econarratology: section 1
From the background noise, nothing follows. Or sometimes. But that’s another story. (‘Exact and Human’ 14)
From the five volumes of his Hermès series (1968-1980) and through to The Natural Contract in 1990, Michel Serres has rooted the origins of human language firmly in the rhythms and calls of the natural world. To date, the Anglophone reception of this pivotal French philosopher’s complex and varied oeuvre has been slender to the point of emaciation, but one area where he has received some small fraction of the attention he deserves is in this elaboration of a theory of semiotic meaning in dialogue with information theory and fluid dynamics. Since 2001 however, Serres has been expanding his account of biosemiotics with four key texts (2001, 2005, 2007, 2009) that move into the area of narratology, developing a new non-anthropocentric humanism in terms of what he calls the ‘Great Story’ (Grand Récit) of the universe.
In developing a narrative of the universe, this new departure begins to show us how the powerful tool of narrative identity can be brought alongside Serres’ existing biosemiotics to challenge and shape the way we understand the ‘non-human’ world. It also affords a way to revitalise the hitherto anthropocentric notion of narrative identity at a moment when solutions to the most important global questions must increasingly surpass the bounds of narrowly human and cultural worlds. This article will argue for using the Serresian Grand Récit as a way to extend narrative identity into the area of ecology, showing how it offers new ways of rethinking the dichotomies of nature and culture and the human and non-human that go beyond deconstruction and asking whether ‘the story of the universe’ can be thought as a subjective or at least a double genitive, told by a universe that does not rely on humans to ventriloquize it. I will then address the objection that the Grand Récit is a totalizing account of history that cuts against the grain of Serres’ own resistance to universal models and metaphors.
The Great Story
Serres’ account of narrative in general will be familiar to readers of his earlier work on Lucretius and the clinamen. In his reading of Lucretius in The Birth of Physics he argues, in information-theoretical terms, that meaning emerges as an aleatory, local deviation in the ‘window’ between two modes of chaos: monotony and white noise (Naissance 181/Birth 146). In the same way, in his later work he understands narrative in terms of the interplay between two elements: a relatively constant line (which in Rameaux he calls the format) and unexpected deviations in that line which he pictures as the kinks and twists of a branch. Like the information-carrying signal that sits on the spectrum between the chaos of monotony and the chaos of white noise, so also the growth of a story takes place under a double tension: the necessity of using pre-established forms in order to communicate in a way that can be understood, and an obligation to rupture, deviate from and remake these forms because simply repeating them would hold no message at all (Récits 154). It is in the tension between format and variation that stories emerge, tracing a continuity, branch-like, through haphazard, contingent and chaotic points (Récits 153).
Like a growing branch, a developing story need have no final end point, predetermined or otherwise (we are a long way here from the Aristotelian mythos, and also from any deconstructive weak messianism) , and though its eventual form may seem to have a certain retrospectively apprehended teleological balance, its growth is a series of contingencies. We must, Serres insists, quell the prophetic instinct to project the end of the story from its beginning as if a single intention held together its disparate parts, and instead force ourselves to think a repetition or rule without finality and without anthropomorphism (Récits 188).
Though stories are lived prospectively as contingent they are recounted retrospectively as what Serres calls a quasi-necessity, and it is as such a retrospective, necessary-seeming narration that he introduces us in Rameaux to his fullest explanation of the Great Story. The Story is told by Serres retrospectively as a series of four major and contingent bifurcations in the branch that leads to human beings, four events each more ancient than the last. The first event already takes us back millions of years to the appearance on the planet of homo sapiens, and gives us a representative sense of Serres’ staccato, aleatory narration as he introduces us to
the quadruman who invented bipedal walking, made fire, left Africa, arrived in Australia and then Alaska via the Aleutian Islands, who cut and polished stone, hunted mammoth, boldly sailed the Atlantic, with its floating and fractured ice-floes, from South-West France to the Americas, domesticated the dog, reared sheep and cattle, cultivated corn and barley, interbred pigeons and apple trees, ferociously stoned the bodies of kings to build multiple pyramids, forbade human sacrifice, discovered universal attraction and noncommutative geometry, wrote The Divine Comedy, Don Quichotte and The Essays…, composed Le Tombeau de Couperin (Rameaux 113-4).
The definition of humanity, for Serres, is a narrative definition, weaving through lists of contingent and unpredictable events. As such, it is an open definition, always ready to turn the page and begin a new chapter, and not restricted to a static declaration of what might constitute human nature. Humanity derives its identity from its place in the Great Story, not by virtue of a biological or psychological particularity that may or may not mark the ‘difference’ between the human and the non-human, such as rationality or bipedalism. The move from an biosemiotics to an econarratology here allows Serres’ account refreshingly to avoid the interminable and often dangerous debates around what faculty or capacity ‘makes humans unique’. Whereas such an approach advances by drawing more or less unsubstantiated divisions and erecting castles of hierarchy on the shifting sands of our current biological and psychological understanding, Serres’ narrative approach identifies the human by drawing it ever further into a story it shares with the rest of the universe.
The second event of Serres’ Great Story is the emergence of life on earth, from the first RNA with the capability to duplicate itself, through the three billion years when bacteria were the dominant life-form, to the explosion of multi-cellular organisms recorded in the Burgess shale and the huge proliferation of orders, families, genera and species. ‘How should we define life?’, Serres asks, answering that it is ‘by this story of new, contingent and unpredictable events from the point of view before they happen, but formatted into an almost necessary chain of events when we trace it backwards from ourselves’ (Rameaux 114). The third event takes us back from biology to astrophysics and to the first formation of material bodies in a young universe, expanding and cooling. When it reaches a certain temperature the ionisation that prevented certain particles forming nuclei ceases, and matter begins to become concentrated into galaxies separated by a quasi-void (Rameaux 115). The fourth and most distant event is the birth of the universe itself, the origin of origins.
Properly speaking, these different stages in the story do not form a succession, as if each needed to stop for the next to begin. The universe is still cooling; the earth is still developing and new planets forming; life on earth, and quite probably elsewhere, is still diversifying and proliferating, and human beings are still evolving. It is better not to think of a succession of chapters (and this is where Serres’ image of the branch is potentially misleading) but one story told by four voices in counterpoint, each successively joining the collective narrative at a specific moment. What unites these four voices for Serres is the idea of ‘nature’, understood etymologically as that which is born, that which marks a temporal distinction, a ‘before’ and an ‘after’. Nature is ‘a story of new-born events, contingent and unpredictable’ (Rameaux 115-6).
In an interview with Pierre Léna in the recent Cahier de l’Herne dedicated to his work, Serres draws two immediate consequences from understanding humanity in terms of the Great Story. First, it gives us a new sense of culture. Traditionally, a person would be thought cultured if they had some working knowledge of four thousand years of history, beginning either in Greece or Mesopotamia; when someone discovers fifteen billion years behind him he must change his thinking completely or, to translate Serres literally, ‘he no longer has the same head’ (Serres and Léna 55). This idea that humanity, when considered as part of the Great Story, no longer has the same head is true literally as well as figuratively. Serres repeats often that different areas of the human brain evolved at varying times: the neommamalian neocortex, the paleomammalian limbic system and the reptilian basal ganglia (Picq, Serres and Vincent 90; Hallward and Serres 233; Incandescent 23). The second immediate consequence of understanding humanity as part of the Great Story is a shift in the notion of narrative itself. What used to be the beginning of ‘history’ dated from the dawn of writing some four thousand years ago now becomes a minute final sliver of a much more ample narrative which, Serres claims, is recounted by the universe itself. It is to this claim that we now turn.
Assad, Maria L. “From Order to Chaos: Michel Serres’s Field Models.” SubStance 20, no. 2 (1991): 33-43.
———. “Portrait of a Nonlinear Dynamical System: The Discourse of Michel Serres.” SubStance 22, no. 2/3 (1993): 141-52.
Bell, David F. “Communication: Euphoria, Dysphoria.” SubStance 26, no. 2 (1997): 81-95.
Bensaude-Vincent, Bernadette. ‘Michel Serres, historien des sciences.’ In L’Yvonnet, François, and Christiane Frémont (eds.), Cahier De L’Herne Michel Serres. Paris: Editions de l’Herne, 2010. 37-46.
Brown, Steven D. “Michel Serres: Science, Translation and the Logic of the Parasite.” Theory, Culture & Society 19, no. 3 (2002): 1-27.
Frémont, Christiane. ‘Philosophie pour le temps présent.’ In L’Yvonnet, François, and Christiane Frémont (eds.), Cahier De L’Herne Michel Serres. Paris: Editions de l’Herne, 2010. 17-35.
Hallward, Peter, and Michel Serres. “The Science of Relations: An Interview.” Angelaki 8, no. 2 (2003): 227-38.
Harris, Paul A. “The Itinerant Theorist: Nature and Knowledge/Ecology and Topology in Michel Serres.” SubStance 26, no. 2 (1997): 37-58.
Hayles, N. Katherine. “Two Voices, One Channel: Equivocation in Michel Serres.” SubStance 17, no. 3 (1988): 3-12.
Hénaff, Marcel. ‘Temps des hommes, temps du monde: Michel Serres et les bifurcations du Grand Récit’. In L’Yvonnet, François, and Christiane Frémont (eds.), Cahier De L’Herne Michel Serres. Paris: Editions de l’Herne, 2010. 75-86.
Herzogenrath, Bernd, ed. Time and History in Deleuze and Serres. London: Continuum, 2012.
Kant, Immanuel. Critique of the Power of Judgment. The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Immanuel Kant. Edited by Paul Guyer and Eric Matthews Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
Kull, Kalevi. ‘Foundations for ecosemiotic deep ecology’. In Peil, Tiina (ed.), The Space of Culture – the Place of Nature in Estonia and Beyond. Tartu: Tartu University Press, 2011. 69–75.
Latour, Bruno. “The Enlightenment without the Critique: A Word on Michel Serres’ Philosophy.” Royal Institute of Philosophy Lecture Series 21 (1987): 83-97.
Lévy, Sydney. “Introduction: An Ecology of Knowledge: Michel Serres.” SubStance 26, no. 2 (1997): 3-5.
MacIntyre, Alasdair. After Virtue. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984.
Morton, Timothy. “Ecology as Text, Text as Ecology.” The Oxford Literary Review 32, no. 1 (2010): 1-17.
Hallward, Peter, and Michel Serres. “The Science of Relations: An Interview.” Angelaki: Journal of the Theoretical Humanities 8, no. 2 (2003): 227-38.
Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. The Visible and the Invisible: Followed by Working Notes. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1968.
Paulson, William. ‘Autour du Grand Récit: Michel Serres, philosophe du siècle.’ In L’Yvonnet, François, and Christiane Frémont (eds.), Cahier De L’Herne Michel Serres. Paris: Editions de l’Herne, 2010. 228-235.
Picq, Pascal, Michel Serres, and Jean-Didier Vincent. Qu’est-ce que l’homme? Paris: Les Editions du Pommier, 1999.
Ricœur, Paul. The Course of Recognition, translated by David Pellauer. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005.
———. Oneself As Another, translated by Kathleen Blamey. London: University of Chicago Press, 1992.
———. Time and Narrative 1, translated by Kathleen McLaughlin and David Pellauer. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1984.
Salazar, Philippe-Joseph. “Michel Serres or the Turbulence of Interpretation.” Journal of Literary Studies 5, no. 1 (1989): 46-54.
Schechtman, Marya. The Constitution of Selves. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996.
Serres, Michel. “Exact and Human.” SubStance 6, no. 21 (1979): 9-19.
———. Hermes: Literature, Science, Philosophy. Edited by Josué V. Harari and David F. Bell Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982.
———. La Communication: Hermès I. Paris Editions de Minuit, 1968.
———. La Distribution, Hermès IV. Paris: Les Editions de Minuit, 1977.
———. La Naissance De La Physique Dans Le Texte De Lucrèce: Fleuves Et Turbulences. Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1977.
———. La Traduction: Hermès III. Paris: Editions du Minuit, 1974.
———. Le Contrat Naturel. Paris: Editions François Bourin, 1990.
———. Le Parasite. Paris: Grasset, 1980.
———. Le Passage du nord-ouest: Hermès V. Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1980.
———. L’Hominescence. Paris: Editions Le Pommier, 2001.
———. L’Incandescent. Paris: Livre de Poche, 2005.
———. L’interférence: Hermès II. Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1972.
———. Rameaux. Paris: Editions le Pommier, 2007.
———. Récits d’humanisme. Paris: Editions le Pommier, 2009.
Serres, Michel, Henri Atlan, Roland Omnes, Georges Charpak, Olivier Mongin, Jean-Pierre Dupuy, and Monique Canto-Sperber. Les Limites de l’humain. Lausanne: Editions d’Age d’Homme, 2003.
Serres, Michel, and Bruno Latour. Eclaircissements : Cinq Entretiens Avec Bruno Latour. Paris: F. Bourin, 1992.
Serres, Michel, and Pierre Léna. Sciences et philosophie (entretien). In L’Yvonnet, François, and Christiane Frémont (eds.), Cahier De L’Herne Michel Serres. Paris: Editions de l’Herne, 2010. 47-55.
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Webb, David. “Michel Serres on Lucretius.” Angelaki: Journal of the Theoretical Humanities 11, no. 3 (2006): 125-36.
 See especially the chapter of Distribution entitled ‘L’origine du langage’ (pp. 259-272), The Birth of Physics, The Parasite, Genesis and The Natural Contract.
 Much of this discussion has taken place in the pages of SubStance. A special issue of the journal in 1997 (26:2) entitled ‘Michel Serres: An Ecology of Knowledge’ included relevant contributions by Bell, Harris, and Lévy. In other numbers of SubStance, Assad (1991 and 1993) and Hayles deal with issues related to Serres’ biosemiotics. Elsewhere, Brown, Latour, Salazar and Webb continue the discussion.
 A distinction is commonly made between the terms ‘biosemiotics’ and ‘ecosemiotics’, where the former is taken to refer to semiotic processes in and between living organisms and their environments, and the second to refer to human communication about living organisms and their environments (Kull 2011). The distinction is inadequate in Serres’ case for two reasons. First, he extends his semiotic theory beyond the biological to the ‘non-living’ world, and secondly he sees no qualitative distinction between communication among non-human elements in an environment and human communication about environments. In order to avoid the misapprehension that Serres’ narratology is restricted to the living world, I have preferred the prefix eco- over bio- in describing his Great Story. I have kept bio- for his previous work on semiotics in order to avoid the impression that he is talking primarily about human language. I am grateful to Kate Rigby for pointing out this important distinction.
 All translations of French texts as yet unpublished in English are my own.