The Heraclitean panta
In 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
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.