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”.

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

 

Rethinking alterity and logocentrism after phenomenology with Serres’s L’Hermaphrodite: Sarrasine sculpteur (1987)

This post is part of the series of draft entries for a Michel Serres dictionary.

Abbreviations:

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 figure of the hermaphrodite: castration as plenitude

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.

Implications

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”.

Draft entry for a Michel Serres Dictionary: Le Système de Leibniz et ses modèles mathématiques (1968)

Le Système de Leibniz was published during the heady anni mirabiles of late 1960s French thought. It appeared in 1968, the same year as Roland Barthes’s short essay ‘The Death of the Author’, one year after Derrida’s Of Grammatology and Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition, and two years after Foucault’s The Order of Things. Like Derrida’s and Deleuze’s volumes Le Système was written as a major doctoral thesis (French doctoral candidates submit a major and a minor thesis), the fruit of research under the supervision of Jean Hyppolite at the Ecole Normale Suprérieure, Rue d’Ulm. Like those other works it stands both as a rich and sinuous study in its own right and also as a radical declaration of philosophical intent from a philosopher elaborating the shapes of thought that will accompany him through his subsequent writings.

The importance of the work can be summarised under three headings. First, it argues for a new reading of Leibniz’s philosophy which highlights the parochialism of previous commentators, offering a system for coming to terms not only Leibniz’s spectacularly diverse œuvre but with the whole of human knowledge. Secondly, it challenges the dominant narrative of modernity that traces a “philosophy of consciousness” from Descartes through Kant to Husserl, replacing it with a more adequate account of the genesis of modern thought. Thirdly, it offers a paradigm for understanding contemporary society which, though still prophetic in 1968, has been progressively vindicated from that time until now. As Serres was writes on the cover blurb, Leibniz is “of our time, he is our predecessor”, and he was later to add that “we are all neo-Leibnizians now” (H4 275).

A new Leibniz

In the late 1960s the world of Leibniz scholarship was dominated by Louis Couturat and Bertrand Russell and Bertrand Russell, for whom Leibniz was to be understood first and foremost as a logician working from a determinable series of axioms. Serres does not argue that this approach is incorrect in its own terms, but that it is insufficient and Procrustean. In fact, his own decisive contribution to Leibniz studies in Le Système is to argue that any attempt whatsoever to gather Leibniz’s thought under the banner of a particular paradigm, discipline or model is reductive and fails to follow the indications and signposts found in that thought itself. Each commentator on Leibniz adopts a limited perspective on his thought, Serres argues, because he or she chooses to enter Leibniz’s thought through only one of its many doors (SdL 26). If we read Leibniz through Leibniz’s work on logic, we should not be surprised that Leibniz emerges as a logician: given the starting point, the destination is inevitable. Serres’s approach seeks to reverse this trend in two ways. First, he sets out to do justice to the diversity of Leibniz’s thought and to resist using any particular disciplinary approach is the “key” to the whole. Secondly, rather than reading Leibniz in terms of the intellectual trends of the day, he attempts to read the modern and contemporary world through and in the light of Leibniz’s system.

In terms of the first of these two aims, it is hard to see how a broad reading of Leibniz’s many different contributions could be anything but reductive. In mathematics alone the philosopher of Leipzig was decisive in the elaboration of differential calculus, binary arithmetic, topology, symbolic logic, and more; he produced enduring contributions to epistemology, theories of theodicy and possible worlds, the philosophy of physics, the philosophy of mind, jurisprudence, geology and history, as well as making pioneering discoveries in cryptography and inventing a calculating machine. Surely any all-encompassing account of such diversity would inevitably to privilege some parts over others and airbrush away any apparent contradictions and incommensurabilities?

Serres’s solution to this considerable problem is to see in Leibniz’s work neither a simple unity nor an unrelated diversity, but as a complex harmony of domains none of which stands over and above the others, each with its own integrity, and with the possibility of local translations from one to the other. Borrowing the language of Vitruvian architectural theory, Serres argues that each commentator provides a scenography (a view from a particular perspective) of Leibniz’s work, whereas in Le Système he is elaborating an ichnography, a geometrical ground plan of the system, projected as from above but not beholden to a single perspective (there is no vanishing point in an ichnographic plan). In the same way that a building cannot be grasped as a whole without moving from perspectival to geometrical representation, so also Leibniz’s system cannot be appreciated as a system until it is abstracted and formalised. The tripartite structure of Le Système reflects this approach. Part I, “Stars”, explores the nature of the points of intersection in the Leibnizian system where various paths and passages between different domains converge to form a star-like nodes. Part II, “schemas”, considers the system as a whole, and the nature of the connections between different stars. Part III, “Points”, is a Leibnizian critique of the modern age’s search for a fixed point of reference.

In seeking to translate from one domain of Leibniz’s thought to another, Serres takes inspiration from Leibniz himself. In fact, the great interest of Leibniz’s thought, he argues, is not in his many discoveries and ideas in isolation but in the way in which he seeks to link them together (SdL 289-90). These links in the Leibnizian system do not create a simple reductive unity but a complex harmony which Serres sums up on more than one occasion with the comment that the model of Leibniz’s system is the system of Leibniz’s models (SdL 37, 52, 321). By “model” (or “paradigm”) Serres means here the content of Leibniz’s thought in a particular domain or discipline (SdL 309-10) such as logic or geometry: the previous commentators elevated one such model to an explanation of Leibniz’s system as a whole. Each of these models contains elements which are structurally analogous to elements in other models, but these analogies only emerge after a work of formalisation and abstraction, and it is the formalised structure shared by each of the models that constitutes Leibniz’s “system”. It would be a mistake to understand this system as a totalising whole. It is not a unity but a complex web of translations from one model to another, inspired by Leibniz’s own work on harmonic tables and understood as a vast multilingual dictionary or encyclopaedia, the entries in which are neither subordinated to one primary entry (Serres calls such a chimerical chief entry an “umbilical discipline”, SdL 250-1), nor unrelated to each other. There is no single hegemonic discourse or domain, and each discipline remains expressive in its own area (SdL 383-4).  As in Leibniz’s theory of monads, each point in the Leibnizian system can be an origin, a link, or an end; each reflects the whole, and each can act as a guide to the system as a whole (SdL 3).

The relation between models is not direct but analogical (SdL 4-5) or isomorphic (SdL 41-3), a principle of variation which reduces neither to absolute identity nor to absolute difference (SdL 59). In fact, for Serres generic diversity walks hand in hand with formal purity in Leibniz’s thought (SdL 41), a theme that will recur later in his own writing and which he expresses in terms of a harmonious relation between the white Pierrot (purity) and the multi-coloured Harlequin (complexity). In the course of Le Système, one example he gives of such an analogical or isomorphic harmony is the notion of the “primitive”, a “‘structure’ which has its faithful models in every region of the encyclopaedia” (SdL 137) including arithmetic, mechanics, language, and colour theory.

As in the case of Vitruvian ichnography, in order to understand the Leibnizian system without reducing it to one of its models it is necessary to adopt the correct formalised point of view, a lesson which Serres learns from Leibniz’s work on conic sections. The elements discovered and formalised by ancient geometry—such as the point, the angle, the circle, the parabola, the ellipse and the hyperbole—each exhibit different properties and seem to obey different laws, until it is discovered that they can be expressed as sections of a cone (SdL 690). The tip of the cone is the point of view from which all the seemingly unrelated shapes show themselves to obey a higher order (SdL 692). In the same way, in Leibniz’s philosophy all the disorder and suffering of the world reveals itself to be part of a greater system when considered from the (to human minds inaccessible) point of view of God.  Serres turns this Leibnizian commitment to the harmonising point of view back on Leibniz’s philosophy itself, and understands his contributions to different areas of human knowledge as so many seemingly unrelated and irreconcilable geometrical elements that can only be seen as part of a system from a particular, formalised point of view. However, in the same way that Leibniz’s God is like a circle whose centre is everywhere in circumference nowhere, the point of view from which everything makes sense is, precisely, everywhere (SdL 251): the whole of Leibniz’s system is contained in each of its models, in each “total part” (SdL 279-80), and there is no need to adopt a transcendent divine standpoint. On a number of occasions throughout the book, Serres sums up this insistence upon harmony in Leibniz’s system with a quotation from his Philosophische Schriften, paraphrasing the inquisition of Harlequin who, having returned from a trip to the moon, is quizzed about the lunar landscape: “we could say, as in the Emperor of the Moon, that in all places and at all times it is exactly as it is here, though it varies in degrees of size and perfection” (SdL 1, 38, 357).

A more adequate modernity

In the third part of Le Système Serres offers a critique of the conventional narrative of modernity, a narrative which traces a philosophy of consciousness from Descartes through Kant to Husserl and beyond. Serres sets up Descartes and Leibniz as the titular heads of two rival accounts of modernity, such that when it comes to Leibniz’s system, “it is necessary, in order to understand its elementary articulations, to adopt point four point to adopt a language opposed to […] Cartesian organisation” (SdL 23-4). Both Descartes and Leibniz are concerned with the question of the fixed point, Serres argues, but in very different ways. For Descartes, the originary cogito and the zero point of Cartesian coordinates serve as such fixed points, providing a foundation for a whole system of knowledge. In contrast to Cartesian thought, Leibniz elaborates a philosophy not of consciousness but of harmony, and not of being but of relation, in which the very idea of the fixed point is inflected through mathematical accounts of the infinite. In this early Leibnizian critique of modernity we can already begin to see Serres’s importance for the rejection of Cartesian modernity in contemporary new materialisms and object oriented thought.

The cogito

The classical account of modern thought begins with the zero point of the cogito, a point which Serres characterises the pitiful scrap of knowledge to which the modern is happy to cling, assured as she is of its foundational solidity (SdL 215). The problem comes when I seek to build upon this zero point by employing the methodical rules of the Cartesian system, for I find that in simply applying a pre-established method I discover nothing at all that was not already contained in it (SdL 215-6). Here we see a striking similarity between Serres’s critique of Descartes and his dismissal of Bertrand Russell’s book on Leibniz: to start with a fixed set of assumptions and axioms is to condemn oneself never to move beyond them, and never to invent: Descartes and those who follow him are prisoners in a labyrinth of their own making (SdL 216) and gods in their own (exceedingly small) kingdom. In a further critique of the Cartesian method Serres argues that, in seeking to demonstrate the validity of the cogito, Descartes goes beyond the geometrical paradigm that he professes to follow. As Serres points out geometry itself admits varying levels of assent beyond the true/false dyad (SdL 132), and is far from being in a position to demonstrate its own axioms. If we were to demand that geometry demonstrate its first principles, as Descartes seems to demand that his own method demonstrate the validity of its starting point, then we would have no geometry at all today (SdL 132, 550).

There is yet a further flaw in the Cartesian method, evident both in the cogito and also in the system of Cartesian coordinates: it relies in the final analysis on the veiled dogmatism of arbitrarily imposing a centre or zero point of all knowledge (in the case of the cogito) and all measurement (in the case of Cartesian coordinates). Why count from here and not there? Why my own thoughts and not some other foundation of knowledge? Descartes cannot escape the fact, Serres insists, that the decision for the cogito itself is situated, the result of a methodological fiat: there is no point of view without a point of view (SdL 669-70).

Whereas Descartes begins with the individual “I”, Leibniz’s monadology is a philosophy of the irreducible relation. In a move which fore-echoes Jean-Luc Nancy’s insistence upon the primordiality of being-with (Mitsein) in Being Singular Plural, Serres argues that the Leibnizian monad is no “granular atom” (SdL 313) from which a multiplicity can subsequently be constructed, but it is both self-sufficient and a reflection of the whole: the monad is a chiasmus between the one and the multiple (SdL 298). Serres’s Leibniz offers us a philosophy of the originary and irreducible “we” and of composition, not of the primacy of the one or the multiple (SdL 295). Unlike Nancy’s singular plural, however, it does so in a way that is not beholden to a modernity the genealogy of which runs back from Heidegger through Kant to Descartes.

Similarly, the monad cannot be reduced to the dichotomy of res cogitans and res existensa; it is a “subject-object” (SdL 789) which does not allow consciousness to be pitted over against the world and which must be understood in terms of pre-established harmony between thought and matter (SdL 506n2). In this exposition of the monad we see the germ of much of Serres’s later ecological thought and his influential notion of the quasi-object and quasi-subject. We also hear a for-echo of Bruno Latour’s critique of the Cartesian subject in We Have Never Been Modern and elsewhere, though Serres’s account in Le Système is broader, more detailed, of greater rigour and more philosophically informed.

Geometry and the infinite

If Serres’s Leibnizian account of modernity cuts the Gordian knot of the one and the many in this way, it also avoids the problems attendant on the modern (and post-modern) preoccupation with the dichotomy of the same and the other, a dichotomy that relies both on the Cartesian methodological preference for the individual res cogitans and also on Descartes’s two-dimensional geometry. Descartes thinks that with the cogito he has found the fixed point upon which to build the whole edifice of knowledge, but his system is inadequate because he builds it according to the narrow paradigm of algebraic geometry (SdL 219). Leibniz does not refute this geometrical paradigm but expands it to include other branches of mathematics. One of the most important problems issuing from Descartes’s decision to base his epistemology on a geometrical paradigm is that it affords him no robust understanding of the infinite. Leibniz’s embrace of the Desarguesian principle that parallel lines meet at an infinitely distant point (SdL 154) allows for a rigorously mathematical approach to understanding how, given only the correct point of view, the seemingly opposite or unrelated can be harmonised. Leibnizian analogy and harmony allow us to think “the pluralism of Sames [des Mêmes] essentially Other [Autres], or of Others essentially the Same” (SdL 152). Leibniz’s mathematical system of harmonies pluralises the Same into Others, and unifies Others into the Same (SdL 152-3) in a way that Descartes’s narrowly geometrical paradigm could never countenance.

The infinite is also crucial in Serres’s Leibnizian argument against Descartes’s conception of the fixed point. Any pair of scales with arms of finite length will have a pivot point at which the scales balance. However, if the arms are infinitely long there is no such balancing point. Or rather, every point would then be the balancing point (SdL 648). Similarly, an infinitely large solid would have both no centre and its centre would be everywhere. We see in this duality a further fore-echo of the Harlequin/Pierrot doublet that will punctuate Serres’s later writing: the ubiquity of the balancing point and the absence of a single balancing point emerge together and are not in opposition to each other. In this way, the concept of the fixed point is utterly transformed when it is thought in terms of the infinite. Pascal well understands the implications of infinity for the thinking of the fixed point in the modern age, Serres argues, and therefore he insists that the human being has no centre. Descartes, on the other hand, fails to discuss it. This is a grave omission on Descartes’s part and one that sets him at the periphery of his era, for the chief question with which the modern age must wrestle is the question of the existence—not the location—of any fixed point (SdL 663).

Doubt, truth, and certainty

Leibniz and Descartes also offer conflicting accounts of truth, doubt and certainty. For his part, Descartes is committed to doubt all things were he finds the least suspicion of uncertainty, and the slightest impurity provokes a hyperbole of rejection (SdL 117-8). One bad apple ruins the whole barrel of truth and so, to avoid the spread of falsehood, the entire contents must be thrown away. Leibniz’s approach to truth is quite the opposite: if there is even the slightest truth at all in an impure mixture of truth and falsehood then it is to be purified and preserved (SdL 119). As Serres points out, there are veins of gold to be found in the sterile rocks of scholasticism, and yes, there is truth even in poetry and the novel. In the insistence that “Leibniz’s is not an analytic mind but a mind that makes combinations” (SdL 66) we can see the inspiration for his own insistence that philosophy is not about analysing but about federating (Mort 53).

The Leibnizian approach to truth applies a series of filters to an initial obscurity, whereas Descartes’s analytic method makes a series of excisions in an original impurity, cutting it back to leave a series of “clear and distinct” ideas. The difference is that, for Descartes, with each new excision the empire and scope of truth becomes smaller, but each new Leibnizian filter maintains a view of the whole but sees it differently (SdL 122-3). Whereas for Descartes truth is single, eternal and universal, for Leibniz it is plural (SdL 120), progressive and local or regional (SdL 123). Whereas Descartes cuts away the obscure to leave a skeletal truth, Leibniz harmonises disorder to find the point of view from which it reveals itself as a higher order. For Descartes, the suppression of error is total and primary; for Leibniz it is progressive and continuous (SdL 130). In other words, Leibniz’s notion of truth rolls forward with the gradualism of evolution, whereas Descartes apes the miracle of ex nihilo creation.

Leibniz crowns and critiques Descartes

Furthermore, Descartes’s understanding of doubt is adversarial and agonistic, for he fancifully imagines an evil genius both cunning and interested enough to seek to deceive him (SdL 221n1). For Leibniz, by contrast, there is no imaginary adversary truth is found not through negation, opposition and antagonism, but through correspondence, complementarities and dualities (SdL 338). For Leibniz “the whole truth is not here or over there, it is in the passage, in the translation, in substitution” (SdL 634-5). Given that the adversarial is itself at issue between Descartes and Leibniz, it is important to grasp that, for Serres, there is no straightforward, adversarial opposition between Descartes and Leibniz themselves (for that would fall back into a Cartesian agonistic conception of truth, and would be quite foreign to Leibniz’s own thought). Rather, Leibniz is figured by Serres both as the greatest culmination, and most piercing critique, of the Cartesian method.

Serres’s complaint is not that Descartes is wrong in what he says, but that he does not follow through sufficiently on his own convictions. When Leibniz broadens Descartes’s geometrical paradigm to embrace other mathematical disciplines, the lessons of methodology gleaned from these additional areas “formalise and crown the Cartesian method as they critique it”, transforming “an impoverished and strict discipline into a region overflowing with riches and novelties” (SdL 281) in a Leibnizian system which Serres does not hesitate to call “baroque”. The contention that Leibniz both completes and critiques the Cartesian method recurs a number of times in Le Système (SdL 215, 232, 281), and this idea of crowning-and-critiquing is in itself an instance of the Leibnizian search for truth through composition and correspondence: insight is gained by broadening and harmonising, not by narrowing and excising, by embracing complexity rather than by seeking a zero point of knowledge shorn of all obscurity. Crowning-and-critiquing is also one of the distinctive moves of Serres’s own thought. It is no reductio ad absurdum (if it were, then it would not be appropriate to describe Leibniz as crowning Descartes, as well as critiquing him), nor necessarily a transcendental critique of the conditions of possibility of a given philosophy. Nor again would it be accurate to describe this move is deconstructive, although it provides a compelling and fruitful alternative to a deconstructive approach. Perhaps the best way to describe it would be as “going the extra mile”, pursuing an insight or a commitment in its own terms beyond the point at which its originator was content to let it rest.

The chain and the web

In a further contrast, truth for Descartes is established in a linear, unidirectional chain of reasoning, beginning always with the cogito. The image appropriate to Leibnizian truth, however, is not the chain but the web (SdL 14), a “tabular space with an infinity of entries” (SdL 1) which can be entered at any point, within which any node (or “star”) can be reached from any other node. Furthermore, there are multiple paths from one node to another, and there is always a route from any point to any other point in the web (SdL 440). For Descartes, knowledge grows like a lengthening line, but for Leibniz and Serres it grows like an expanding circle (SdL 391). Within this context, Descartes’s linear reasoning can be understood as one path within a wider web, and we can see that Leibniz’s system is not opposed to Descartes’s method but contains and exceeds it. The figure of the Leibnizian web regularly recurs through Serres’s subsequent work, and can serve as a shorthand to sum up his entire reading of Leibniz (GB 90). It also has profound implications for Serres’s understanding of space (it is topological), time (it is plural and local) and progress (it is spatial, not temporal, and it is plural), upon which he will elaborate many times in later works.

The Copernican Revolution

As well as elaborating at length upon Leibniz’s difference from Descartes, Serres also touches upon a Leibnizian critique of Kant. Just as Leibniz’s system both crowns and critiques Descartes’s more geometrico with his own more mathematico, he also crowns and critiques Kant. Focusing on the Copernican Revolution of the first Critique, Serres argues that the question of the location of the fixed point (whether the earth or the sun is to be considered to be unmoving) is secondary and derivative compared to the question of whether there is a fixed point at all. Compared to this prior question, the Copernican Revolution is trivial, though to say so is still today considered a “philosophical blasphemy” (SdL 650). For Leibniz himself, every monad is a fixed point, and no monad is the fixed point. There is no single Copernican Revolution (any more than there is a single fixed point), but many local revolutions (SdL 250): our sun will be the earth for another sun (SdL 663), and so on ad infinitum. This means that the Leibnizian web is sufficiently described neither as Ptolemaic nor as Copernican; both Ptolemaic and Copernican moments are necessary to his “centred-decentred” system within which “everything is a centre in its way” (SdL 634). “Copernican Revolution” is a term to describe a moment in a continuing series, not an event that cleaves history in two (SdL 639), and today we need to do to Kant what Kant and Copernicus did to Ptolemy, for if Ptolemy is the Copernicus of the earth, then Copernicus is the Ptolemy of the sun (SdL 633-4).

A foundational work

Le Système de Leibniz is foundational for much of Serres’s later thought and writing. To begin with, the Leibnizian web provides the model for his understanding of contemporary society. Leibniz, Serres claims, is our predecessor: he foresaw not only our mathematics and physical sciences but also our networks of communication and the importance of data in our society (SdL blurb). More than one commentator has noted that Serres’s account of the Leibnizian web constitutes a remarkable adumbration of the World Wide Web, and in a 2011 interview Serres makes the same point (LSD). Like the World Wide Web (as opposed to the “internet”: the material infrastructure supporting it), Leibniz’s system is topological: any point can be adjacent to any other point, and physical distance becomes an irrelevance. Both webs have no centre, no necessary entry point, and no telos. In Serres’s own summary, Leibniz announces our decentred modernity, and shows it to us before it arrives (SdL 810).

Secondly, the Leibnizian insistence upon harmony and translation that sets the stage for Serres’s contention that, despite the claims of Marxism, our society is not best understood as one which fundamentally functions in terms of production and exchange, but in terms of communication and translation (Mort 51).

Thirdly, to recognise Leibniz’s commitment to truth as harmony and systematisation is a lodestar in understanding Serres’s own subsequent thought, for we see in his later writing a marked absence of the adversarial confrontation and self-defence that characterise some academic philosophical prose. Through his argument in Le Système we can see that this rejection of the adversarial on Serres’s part is not a weakness or an unwillingness to engage in political debate, as it has sometimes mistakenly been characterised, but a rigorous consequence of his rejection of a particularly threadbare and geometrical account of modernity and a of passionate commitment to a Leibnizian paradigm.

Fourthly, reading Le Système allows us to lift the bonnet on Serres’s deep commitment to cross-disciplinarity and understand how it, too, is born of rigorous philosophical commitments. Serres’s writings that bring together the arts and the sciences (in books such as Feux et signaux de brume: Zola or La Naissance de la physique dans le texte de Lucrèce), are too often quickly dismissed as vague and unsystematic gestures at crude synthesis by those who understand neither the imposing Leibnizian edifice that stands behind them nor its rejection of the easy equivalences of numerical equality and its insistence upon the arduous work of ichnographical formalisation. As one witty reviewer in the Nouvel Observateur put it, “for those who reproach Michel Serres for mixing apples with oranges [the rather more vivid French phrase is “marrying the carp and the rabbit”], algebra with music, this majestic book will vindicate the propriety of a thought that seeks to conceive simultaneously of the most diverse multiplicities and the unity of a single point.”

Finally, the importance of the Leibniz book becomes even greater when we consider its idiom. Unlike Serres’s later writing Le Système is written in conventional academic prose, extensively footnoted and maintaining a close engagement with the writing of Leibniz and others. It therefore provides the underlying and assumed philosophical armature for many of the ideas which, in his later writing, he elaborates and explores in different ways.

 

See also: Descartes, René; Harlequin and Pierrot; Quasi-object; Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm; Modernity; Structure.

Michel Serres app now available on Google Play

I’ve written a little app to aggregate information from around the web (news, Twitter, Youtube, Google Scholar, Google Trends…) on Michel Serres. It’s nothing flash but it allows me quickly to scan various sources to see if there’s anything new on Serres, without having manually to visit plural URLs. It is free to download from the Google Play store.

Google play Serres screenshot

Get it on Google Play

Here’s the blurb:

This simple app brings together the latest news about French philosopher Michel Serres from around the web, along with an online introduction to his thought.

You can browse:

  • the latest news stories to mention Michel Serres
  • the latest tweets featuring the hashtag #MichelSerres
  • the latest youtube videos of Michel Serres
  • the latest Google Scholar citations for Michel Serres
  • the latest Serres-related activity on wordpress.com
  • a Google Trends graph plotting recent web activity for Serres against activity for other
  • living French philosophers: Alain Badiou, Catherine Malabou, Jean-Luc Nancy and
  • Bernard Stiegler

In addition, the app also gives you direct access to:

  • Serres’s amazon.com author page
  • his wikipedia page
  • and an introduction to Serres’s thought available online

Michel Serres has written over 70 books but his important work is still relatively unknown in the English-speaking world, despite being foundational to posthumanism and ecophilosophy and decisive in its contributions to object oriented thought and the new materialisms. If this app can introduce just a few people to Serres’s rich and fecund thought, it will have done its job.
This first release is pretty basic, but I hope to add extra features as time goes by.

Michel Serres Today

Abstract.

This is an expanded version of a paper originally given at the English and Theatre Studies research seminar at Melbourne University in May 2015, and it retains its oral tone. My intention both for the original paper and for this expanded version is to provide a first introduction to the work and thought of Michel Serres. I discuss how Serres’s work has been received in the French-speaking and English-speaking worlds to date, briefly highlight the different areas in which his thought is making a decisive contribution today, and then offer reflections on what it is that characterises his writing as a whole. I finish by examining some of his recent thought in more detail, specifically his recent elaboration of an econarratology around the idea of the “Great Story” of the universe, opening the way, for the first time in history, to develop a truly universal humanism.

 Introduction

This is the start of a project. I am at the beginning of a journey with Serres and in this talk I want to share with you some of what drew me to write a book on him and where my research has led me so far. The first half will be a general introduction to Michel Serres’s thought, which means that it will inevitably be a mile wide and an inch deep. In the second half I will focus on a set of questions that arise in some of Serres’s recent work on humanism. Think of it as a selection of jelly beans followed by a steak. I will try to keep the technical philosophical work in the paper to a minimum and show how Serres can be useful to scholars across the disciplines.

Part A: An Introduction to Michel Serres

Biographical sketch

Michel Serres was born in 1930 in Agen, in the rural Aquitaine region of south-west France. He entered the Ecole Normale Supérieure, that great finishing school for French philosophers, in the same year as Jacques Derrida, and the two corresponded during their time at the ENS. In fact, they went on a skiing holiday together in 1953, during which Derrida met his future wife Marguerite. Derrida and Serres were two of only four students to take philosophy that year, though Serres’s main subject was mathematics. He spent 1956-8 in the French navy, during which time he served in the operation to reopen the Suez canal and in the Algerian war. From 1958-1968 he took up a lecturing post at the university of Clermont-Ferrand, where he was a colleague of Foucault at the time Foucault was working on The Order of Things. During this period he also made a three-part television series with Alain Badiou in 1967, entitled “Model and Structure”. In 1968 he moved to the new experimental university in Vincennes where he was succeeded in 1969 by Gilles Deleuze. He moved to a post at Paris I (Panthéon-Sorbonne) and in 1984 became professor in the Department of French and Italian at Stanford University. In 1990 he was elected as one of the forty members of the Académie Française, the highest honour in French intellectual life. Serres has written over seventy single-authored books, including two recent best sellers in France: Petite Poucette (translated on Thumbelina) on our technological culture, which sold over 100 000 copies in its first year, and Temps des crises (Times of Crisis) on issues relating to the financial crisis of 2008. He continues to publish today at the rate of just over a book a year. For those interested in his bibliography, there is a comprehensive list of publications on my website, as well as a timeline of his life and publications. 

Reception of Serres’s work in France and the English-speaking world

To say that Serres has written over seventy books, his reception has been slight up to date. It is a corpus waiting to be discovered and mined, especially in the English-speaking world. But if we dig below the surface it turns out that the story of his reception is a little more complicated than that. Curiously, his work is cited a great deal without Serres himself being in the philosophical limelight.

Here, for example, is a graph, generated from the corpus of google books, of the number of times Serres and Badiou are mentioned in books in French, published from 1960 to 2008 (the data stops in 2008):

1

And if we look at books published in English, we get this:

2

I make no claims for the statistical rigour of these graphs, and the only points I want to make from them are that 1) since 1960 Serres has been, and continues to be, mentioned by name in more French publications than his much better known contemporary Alain Badiou, and 2) he has been much more adequately received in the French speaking world than in the English (by a factor of roughly 10 to 1 as a percentage of all books published in the language a particular year). Serres largely remains to be discovered by English readers.

If we add in some other contemporary French philosophers we get the following trends for French-language books: 3

And these trends for English language publications: 4

What is striking in the French graph here is that, until around 2006-2007 Serres was far and away the most cited French philosopher still living in 2015, at which point he was just pipped by Jacques Rancière. Over a number of decades he has enjoyed a greater and more sustained citation count than other living French philosophers in Francophone publications, though again this is not yet reflected in the English-speaking world.

One final graph. If we look at Google Trends (i.e. what people are searching for on the web) again we find an interesting result:

5Averaged over the period from 2005 to the present day, internet activity for Michel Serres is higher than for other living French philosophers; only Badiou comes close.

However, despite these consistently high ratings by comparison with other contemporary French thinkers, there are only three existing monograph studies of aspects of Serres’s work (either in English or in French), four volumes of collected essays including one on Serres and Deleuze, and a handful of special issues of journals and journal articles. I think it is safe to say that, thus far, Serres has been somewhat under-received. If he is cited and mentioned so much, why is he not better known? William Paulson, who has written on Serres, offers one possible explanation:

Serres’s writing may be called utopian in that it calls on an audience that may not exist in any place, or that is so dispersed, at any rate, as not to make up one of the identifiable groupings we call cultural communities.”[1]

In other words, the range of subjects and disciplines within which and about which he writes is so broad that all those with an interest do not gather together as a group of “Serresians”. Whereas Serres himself manages to cross disciplinary boundaries, the community of his readers has not shown itself to be so courageous. A related reason for Serres’s slight reception is that his thought covers so great a breadth that it requires any reader to be ready to leave their disciplinary comfort zone if they are to engage with it.[2] It is partly this cross-disciplinarity that draws me to Serres, and I will talk more about it later.  

How is Serres being used today?

The first thing to say here is that Serres is being used more and more. The translation of his books is really taking off now, with Bloomsbury in particular making more and more of his work available in English. There are a number of reasons why Serres’s work is being translated at an increasing pace now, and a number of reasons for thinking that his time has now come. I will point to four contemporary debates that are currently drawing heavily on Serres’s writing.

Posthumanism

A translation of Serres’s The Parasite was the inaugural volume in the Minnesota University Press “Posthumanities” book series, which billed it as “The foundational work in the area now known as posthuman thought”. In The Parasite Serres argues that human relations are not to be figured in the first instance in terms of mutual exchange but of parasitism. Every relational structure, whether human or non-human, Is parasitical. To suggest that the human is parasitical upon the non-human world strikes a decisive blow to the human non/human dichotomy, reframing the human not as the master and possessor of nature, nor as the Cartesian or phenomenological origin of the world, but as a second thought:

And that is the meaning of the prefix para- in the word parasite: it is on the side, next to, shifted; it is not on the thing, but on its relation. It has relations, as they say, and makes a system of them. It is always mediate and never immediate.[3]

Ecology and the environmental humanities

Serres is also at the forefront of the growing interest in ecophilosophy or the environmental humanities, largely through his 1991 book The Natural Contract. In this important book he insists that we cannot ignore that human interests and the interests of the planet are more intricately intertwined than ever, and that we cannot hope adequately to address the problems that face us today if we consider them if we consider them first and foremost as human issues. How can we hope to address climate change, for example, if we remain within an anthropocentric frame? We must find a way of taking all interests—human and non-human—into account, and Serres’s natural contract is a proposal to achieve this aim. Just as the social contract is an ideal framework for the regulation of human society in which all its members agree to certain norms of respect and behaviour, so the natural contract extends this regulatory ideal to make it adequate to the problems and issues that face us today, many of which surpass the merely human or cultural world. To the objection that the world’s oceans or forests cannot meaningfully enter into any agreement, Serres asks the objector to show him the original signatures on the social contract. The nature of the issues we face today means that we must give the non-human its place at the table.

New materialisms and object-oriented thought

Serres is also foundational reference for the emerging trends of new materialism and object oriented philosophy, partly in his own name and partly through the formative influence he has had on the thought of Bruno Latour.[4] Serres insists on a break with the linguistic philosophy of the late twentieth century, decrying any theory that is empty of objects and deals only in words.[5] A keen mountaineer and ex sailor, Michel Serres’s own sensibility for the natural world runs through his writing; his own philosophy has with the wind in its hair and soil under its finger-nails.

He has exerted a particular influence on object-oriented thought his refusal of the Cartesian subject-object dichotomy and his account of what he calls the quasi-object. One of Serres’s own examples of a quasi-object is the ball in a soccer game. Neither simply natural nor entirely cultural, the ball circulates among the players in a way that makes possible a certain set of social relations. It is misses something important, Serres argues, to characterise the ball as an inert object at the whim of the human subjects in the situation; it shapes and opens possibilities for their actions just as they do for its actions. Other examples of quasi-objects would be the smoking pipe passed from hand to hand and lip to lip, or the coin or note that circulates to facilitate economic relations, or words themselves, without the circulation of which human relations as we know them would be unthinkable.[6] 

Cross-disciplinarity

Finally in this brief survey of ways in which Serres’s thought is being used today (though there are other areas of influence I have no time to mention today), he is influential through the way his work is genuinely cross-disciplinary and bridges the arts, humanities, social sciences and hard sciences. Serres, as I said, was trained as a mathematician and in one interview identifies his discipline as history of science. Unlike some would-be cross-disciplinary thinkers, he has earned his hard scientific chops. But Serres offers us no quick and easy interdisciplinary gesture or a casual nod in its direction. Throughout his career he shows a deep commitment to genuinely cross-disciplinary study.

One image that Serres uses to describe the difficulty of cross-disciplinary study comes from his own naval past and his passion for navigation. It is the North-West passage, that complex course from the Atlantic to the Pacific between Greenland and Canada. It is a true connection, but it is not a linear or straightforward one. 6

It is in terms of this local, painstaking navigation that Serres works through what it means to engage in cross-disciplinary study. Crossing the borders between academic disciplines cannot be simple, off-the-shelf or linear. This only leads to selling out one discipline to the assumptions or the methods of another, which is what all too often passes for interdisciplinary study today. For Serres, by contrast, cross-disciplinary work must be a careful, labyrinthine and bespoke navigation of the local, complex and unique relations between different fields:

The passage is rare and narrow […] From the sciences of man to the exact sciences, or inversely, the path does not cross a homogeneous and empty space. Usually the passage is closed, either by land masses or by ice floes, or perhaps by the fact that one becomes lost. And if the passage is open, it follows a path that is difficult to gauge.[7]

And

Passages exist, I know, I have drawn some of them in certain works using certain operators […]. But I cannot generalize, obstructions are manifest and counter-examples abound.[8]

One quick example of the sort of cross-disciplinary insights Serres seeks to bring to bear in his writing is his discussions of thermodynamics in the nineteenth century in the wake of Sadi Carnot’s discovery of the principles that would later be formalised as the second law of thermodynamics and entropy. Every metaphysics needs its physics, Serres argues, and we can see the principles of thermodynamics through the whole of nineteenth century culture:

Read Carnot starting on page one. Now read Marx, Freud, Zola, Michelet, Nietzsche, Bergson, and so on. The reservoir is actually spoken of everywhere, or if not the reservoir, its equivalent. But it accompanies this equivalent with great regularity. The great encyclopaedia and the library, the earth and primitive fecundity, capital and accumulation, concentration in general, the sea, the prebiotic Soup, the legacies of heredity, the relatively closed topography in which instincts, the id, and the unconscious are brought together. Each particular theoretical motor forms its reservoir, names it, and fills it with what a motor needs. I had an artefact, a constructed object: the motor. Carnot calls it the universal motor. I could not find a word, here it is: reservoir. […] Question : in the last century, who did not reinvent the reservoir?[9]

Serres sees a similar pattern in the twentieth century with information theory and code: the unconscious is structured like a language, the “secret” of life is found in the genetic code, and structuralism and post-structuralism both employ an encode-decode model of language, also taking on information theory’s ideas of noise, indeterminacy and interference.[10] As René Girard says of Serres, “criticism is a generalized physics”.[11]

What are the general characteristics of Serres’s thought?

So those are some of the main ways in which Serres is being deployed today in contemporary debates. My next question is: how are we to characterise his thought? What is its overall shape; what are its characteristic moves? It is a difficult question because 1) he eschews the predictability of repeating the same moves and 2) shape and space are themselves important themes in his thought. Nevertheless, I think there is something useful that can be said in this regard.

1) An encyclopedic method

Grant me for a moment that we might understand philosophy in general, and the history of French philosophy in the last century in particular, as a series of attempts to come to terms with the relation between system and singularity.[12] Let us think of these attempts in terms of two broad tendencies, which I shall call “system philosophies” and “singularity philosophies”. “System philosophies” seek to bring apparently diverse phenomena, objects or ideas under general explanatory concepts, finding the unity hidden behind seeming multiplicity. Where seeming exceptions to such systematisation exist they need to be explained away or incorporated into the system. Examples of this tendency might be Parmenides, the Scholastics, Descartes, Hegel and Sartre: fitting all facts and all phenomena into a comprehensive and overarching matrix and set of categories. The caricature of this philosophy is that it is a top-down imposition: it flies at an altitude of 30 000 feet and shoe-horns individual facts and phenomena into a universal matrix that emerges at such a level of abstraction. This sort of thinking will often seek the universal or the general principle. It is a philosophy of the same.

On the other hand we have “singularity philosophies”, which refuse systematisation and denounce over-arching concepts, rejecting the idea that behind apparent diversity lurks a more fundamental unity. These philosophies insist upon singularity and uniqueness: at their most acute, they claim that everything is always already an exception to every universal rule or category to which we might wish to assign it, and to insist on such rules is a violent imposition akin to racial stereotyping. We might think perhaps of Heraclitus, Pascal, Kierkegaard or the Nietzsche who said “I mistrust all systematizers and avoid them. The will to a system is a lack of integrity”.[13] This singularity philosophy emphasises the individuality, the contrariness, the unclassifiable recalcitrance of things. It is not a philosophy of the same but a philosophy of difference, and its rallying cry could be Derrida’s insistence that “every other is altogether other”.[14]

It is interesting to note that these two extremes also account for the factors that lead to philosophical celebrity, for each of them embodies one of the traits that tend to draw a crowd of acolytes round a particular philosopher and make a name for them. On the one hand, system philosophers draw a following by offering a powerful explanatory matrix able to account for what otherwise would be a bewilderingly disparate and confusion melee of phenomena, events and facts. Put somewhat crudely, you always have something clever to say about the evening news because you can explain it – and indeed you can explain everything – in terms of the system offered to you by your favourite system philosopher or philosophers: “well, of course, what’s really going on behind in these events is such and such, but of course most people just don’t realise that. How naïve! Good job we know better.” On the other hand, singularity philosophers build up an enthusiastic following by out-critiquing those who went before them, by out-suspecting all previous suspicion, exposing all previous critical philosophies as incomplete or flawed and thereby proclaiming themselves “more sceptical than thou”, until, inevitably, the philosophy in question is in turn knifed in the back by its successor: “The previous generation thought they were being anti-metaphysical, but what they failed to take into account of course was such and such, which made them by all accounts the last metaphysicians. How naïve! Good job we know better.”

Where does Serres sit in relation to philosophies of system and philosophies of singularity? In truth, he has no interest either in elaborating the system which will yield the truth of everything where before there has been only ideology and confusion, nor in being more critical and sensitive to difference than those who have gone before him. That is perhaps one reason why there is no Serresian school in philosophy full of little Serresians knowingly spouting the soundbites of their master. I think it is a healthy feature of his reception, and long may it continue.

For his own part, Serres charts a middle course between the Scylla of systematisation and the Charybdis of exceptionalism, a course he sums up with the motif of the encyclopedia. First, an encyclopedia ranges over the full extent of human and nonhuman existence, taking in all disciplines. In the same way, Serres’s thought has the ambition of stopping at every port, visiting every city. In one interview he insists that “A philosopher does everything, otherwise he does nothing”.[15] Secondly, in ranging over everything an encyclopedia does not pretend to exhaust anything, or to give a complete account of any subject it treats. Thirdly, an encyclopedia is not a system. It does not impose a matrix of interpretation from above, but each article approaches its subject in its own terms, often by different authors. It brings subjects together not through top-down fiat but in a bottom-up way, drawing local links and cross-references between ideas. It does not impose categories from outside but traces isomorphisms and equivalences from within.[16]

An encyclopedia is adequately characterised neither as a system nor as a generalised exception to systematisation. In Serres’s own words:

Philosophy has the job of federating, of bringing things together. So analysis might be valuable, with its clarity, rigour, precision and so on, but philosophy really has the opposite function, a federating and synthesizing function. I think that the foundation of philosophy is the encyclopaedic, and its goal is synthesis.[17]

Or again, it is the philosopher’s job “to attempt to see on a large scale, to be in full possession of a multiple, and sometimes connected intellection.”[18] In short, Serres’s encyclopedic approach is a way of seeking connections not from the air but by sea. Or again, Serres characterises his own work as an eighteenth century salon, bringing the disciplines together in a conversation that respects the integrity of each, not like a modern university, dividing them and often making them compete with each other.[19] Or, in one final image:

 What I seek to form, to compose, to promote – I can’t quite find the right word – is a synthèse, a confluence not a system, a mobile confluence of fluxes. Turbulences, overlapping cyclones and anticyclones, like on the weather map. Wisps of hay tied in knots. An assembly of relations. Clouds of angels passing.[20]   

2) The decline of the paradigm of consumption and the rise of the paradigm of communication

The second way in which I would like to characterise Serres’s thought today is that he rejects the prevalent paradigm of production and consumption in favour of the paradigm of communication. We might think of this as the great wager of his thought. Back in the 1950s he wagered that structuralism and all the philosophy that would come in its wake went down a wrong track when it reasoned in terms of a paradigm of production and consumption inherited from Marx:

at the end of the war, Marxism held great sway in France, and in Europe. And Marxism taught that the essential, the fundamental infrastructure was the economy and production: I myself thought, from 1955 or 1960 onwards, that production was not important in our society, or that it was becoming much less so, but that what was important was communication, and that we were reaching a culture, or society, in which communication would hold precedence over production.[21]

What does Serres mean when he says that production was becoming less important? He is drawing attention to what he calls the greatest revolution in human society since Neolithic times. Ever since the beginning of the Neolithic around 10 000 BC when humanity settled down and started planting crops, we have been in a culture most of whose members are involved in the production and consumption of primary goods, mainly foodstuffs.  In Switzerland, Germany, France and Italy in the year 1900, 70% of the population worked the land. In the last century, however, that age-old pattern has seen a dramatic change. Today, in the same countries, less than 1% of all workers are involved in agriculture. For Serres, that is the greatest change that we have seen to human society in the last ten millennia, greater than the Renaissance, and greater than the two World Wars.[22]

Most of us today do not work in the production of primary materials; we circulate information. Furthermore, this circulation of information works according to a fundamentally different paradigm from that of production and consumption. Think of it this way (to use an illustration Serres sketches in one of his radio broadcasts): If you grow and harvest wheat and bake bread, and if I pay you five dollars for the loaf you have baked, then you have five dollars and no loaf, and I have a loaf but have lost five dollars. An exchange has taken place, on the basis of a process of production, and you and I find ourselves in a relationship of production, consumption and exchange. But that is not how it works with information. When I give a lecture on a French film or a French philosopher I do not have to forget that information in order for my students to remember it. It is not an exchange but a propagation. It is not a zero sum game. Of course it may be couched within the framework of mechanisms of exchange—the university takes money off the students and gives some of it to me—but that exchange is extrinsic to the propagation of information in the lecture, it is not essential to the nature of communication itself. In their essence, production/exchange and communication/propagation function very differently.

Back in the 1960s Serres wagered that our Western, industrialised society would increasingly be characterised by the propagation of information, not by the exchange of goods. Surely he was right: We have seen a rapid decline in primary industry in the West, of which my own childhood serves as a poignant example. When I was little, at the end of the road where I grew up was the huge Manvers colliery and coking plant. I have only vague memories of the winding towers and chimneys now, but my parents tell me that on some days the wind would blow the smoke and soot up the hill from the coking plant to our house and washing hanging out on the line would gather little black specks. Here is a picture of the Manvers complex from 1980:

7

The coking plant was closed in 1981, and the colliery in 1988. What stands on the site now is, in part, a complex of call centres:

8

 

The same story was repeated all over the coal mining areas of the north of England. The Sheffield steel industry similarly shrank to a small-scale high-end premium operation, while the same period saw the dramatic rise of communication and data processing technology from fixed to mobile phones and computers, for which the paradigm of production is no longer adequate. It is a trend that the complex of technologies we call “the internet” has only accelerated, and which is vividly exemplified in the loosing battles currently being fought by corporations over DRM and the free spread of information. The wager that Serres made in the 1950s is currently being vindicated along the fibres of the internet.

For Serres, Marxism and the philosophies that rely on its insights cannot account for this new reality of our society, because they still assume a paradigm of production and exchange whereas in fact more and more areas of society operate according to a paradigm of communication. It is not that production, consumption and exchange are going to die out—of course not—but that they no longer adequately describe how our society works.

 

That brings to a close the jelly bean part of this talk, seeking to range over Serres’s significance and give a thumbnail sketch of some overall shapes of his thinking. For the rest of my time I want to descend to ground level and look more carefully at one aspect of his ecological thinking.

Part B: Serres’s Econarratology

In a series of four recent books on humanity and humanism,[23] Serres makes a threefold claim:

  • now, for the first time in history, we can elaborate a truly universal humanism
  • we can do this by telling the story of humanity as part of a larger narrative of the universe
  • this larger narrative is told not by human beings about the universe but told by the universe about itself

Let’s begin with the first claim: a truly universal humanism. For the first time in history, he argues, we now have the opportunity to do justice to the universality of the term “humanism” because “for the first time in the millennial process of hominization we have the scientific, technical and cognitive means […] to give it a federating and non-exclusive content worthy of its name”.[24]

What he has in mind here is that palaeoanthropology has unearthed partial skeletons, older than any recorded and culturally-specific history, of our earliest human ancestors, the “Lucys”[25] of the east African savannah whose descendants would spread throughout the globe. These discoveries give us a way to trace back the thread of time to a moment before the birth of recorded history and before the emergence of distinctive cultures within that history:

Our wisdom now places Lucy before Pliny the Elder, the bones scattered in the valleys of Chad before Blind Homer and Noah the vine-dresser, and our African Mother and Father before Adam and Eve, before all ancestors venerated in all cultures; it reads the genetic code before the code of Hammurabi. Here it is a question of humanity, and not some evil off-white noise-box [bavard et méchant blanchâtre] despising the scarlet barbarian”[26]

This early record of humanity, he claims, is “written in the encyclopaedic language of all the sciences and […] can be translated into each vernacular language, without partiality or imperialism”.[27] A truly universal humanism must begin with this pre-historic moment.

The second claim is that this story of humanity is part of a larger narrative of the universe, which Serres calls “the Great Story” (le Grand Récit). The structure of this story is an extension of Serres’s earlier work in biosemiotics. 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.[28] 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.[29] It is in the tension between format and variation that stories emerge, tracing a continuity, branch-like, through haphazard, contingent and chaotic points.[30] Like a growing branch, a developing story need have no final end point, predetermined or otherwise (we are a long way with Serres 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.[31]

The Great 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. The second event 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. The third takes us back from biology to astrophysics and to the first formation of material bodies in an infant universe. 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.[32] Finally, 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 possibly 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’.[33]

In passing, I want to draw two important consequences from Serres’s account of humanity as part of the Great Story. First, in Serres’s account humanity derives its identity from its place in the universal narrative, not from any biological or psychological capacity that may or may not mark the ‘difference’ between the human and the non-human, such as intelligence, rationality, language use or bipedalism. This allows Serres’ account refreshingly to avoid the interminable and often dangerous debates around what faculty or capacity might or might not ‘make human beings unique’, along with the liminal cases thrown up by such an approach: the senile, the neonate, and those with severe mental or physical disabilities. Whereas such an account of humanity based on supposedly distinctive human capacities 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, not in the first instance by arguing for its uniqueness.

The second consequence I want to draw here from Serres’s understanding humanity in terms of the Great Story is that it gives us a new understanding of culture. In an interview with Pierre Léna in the 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”.[34] 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 different times: the neo-mammalian neocortex, the paleo-mammalian limbic system and the reptilian basal ganglia.[35] This brings along with it a shift in the notion of narrative itself. What used to be the beginning of ‘history’ (usually thought to be coeval with the invention of written communication some four thousand years ago) is now shown to be the briefest of episodes arriving at the end of a much more ample narrative which, Serres claims, is recounted by the universe itself.

This brings us to the third of Serres’s three claims: the universe is not ventriloquized by humanity but it tells its own story. There is for Serres no imperialist, anthropocentric or animist imposition of human meaning-making and story-telling on the recalcitrant, indifferent or meaningless flux of life, no torturing of a helpless nature on the rack of merciless syntax. The universe, the earth and life know quite well how to tell the story of their own origin and evolution, and when I write I share in and draw upon the same resources.[36] We see here a marked difference from Badiou, Meillassoux and Malabou, all of whom (Meillassoux and Malabou explicitly) hold that the universe is indifferent to human concerns and that to ascribe to it human categories of meaning is an anthropocentric error. Serres’s position here in fact cuts against the grain of the great majority of the “linguistic philosophy” that held sway in the generation previous to Meillassoux, Badiou and Malabou, and against the grain of most modern thinking since Descartes. For Serres there is no substance dualism, no Camusian absurd, no Kantian noumenon, and as far as Serres is concerned it is no more anthropocentric to claim that the universe is meaningful than it is to claim that Romeo and Juliet is meaningful: they both participate in the same universal dynamic of growth and deviation. For Serres there is no such thing as brute, indifferent matter. The world tells its own story and all we need do is find the ears to hear it. As Steven Connor puts it, “coding, information, writing, goes all the way down, and all the way back”.[37]

It could be objected that claiming the world tells its own story is more cosmetic than substantial, because however far the Story may stretch back in time it still needs to be told through human investigation and in human language, and is still therefore a story told by humans and for humans which happens to ventriloquize the non-human. However, this objection assumes that human language emerges ex nihilo in the Great Story, which is precisely what Serres contests. In the same way that, in The Birth of Physics, Genesis and The Parasite he insists that semiotics are natural, so also in his elaboration of the Great Story he argues that narrative is an inherent feature of the “natural” universe, of the universe of natal events. There is no qualitative difference between the story of evolution and the story of the Odyssey: they both enact, each in their own mode, the processing, ordering and communication of information in an interplay between format and deviation.[38]

Serres had previously made the argument that all life (and beyond: Serres includes crystals) receives, processes, stores and emits information: “nothing distinguishes me ontologically from a crystal, a plant, an animal, or the order of the world”.[39] In the four books exploring the humanism of the Great Story he merely expands this biosemiotic analysis to encompass his new econarratology, describing this expansion with an image from aeronautics:

A four-stage rocket launches the birth of language, the emergence of the ego and the dawn of narrative which, in telling their story, forms and creates them but forgets their origin: first it bursts forth from heat towards white noise; from this brouhaha to the first signals; then from these to feeble melodies; finally from these to the first vowels… Noise, call, song, music voice… come before the basic form of enunciation, before the language of story.[40]

The world does not mutely wait for the advent of humanity in order to tell its story; things speak for themselves, write by themselves and write about themselves, performatively speaking their autobiography, or “autoecography”: “The universe, the Earth and life know how to tell the story of their origin, of their evolution, the contingent bifurcations of their development and sometimes let us glimpse the time of their disappearance. An immense story emanates from the world.”[41]

We get close to the heart of the matter, I believe, if realise that Serres’s metaphors are in fact synecdoches: he is not speaking of one thing in terms of a second, ostensibly unrelated thing but speaking of a whole in terms of one of its parts. One of Serres’ characteristic moves, and we see it here in his defence of metaphorical language, is to invert the order of our thinking so that elements we previously considered to be in a horizontal, metaphorical relation are in fact seen to be nested in a synecdoche. In the example we are presently considering, if we object that the rhythms of nature cannot properly be classed as a story in anything other than an anthropomorphising metaphor, Serres might reply that, rather than trying and failing to force the rhythms and events of the world into a mode of storytelling modelled on human syntactic prose (which would merely constrain them to become an ungainly extension of Aristotelian narrative) we should rather realise that the varieties of human storytelling are themselves already one local expression of a broader phenomenon which they neither exhaust nor inaugurate:

Must I find stories or confessions in the inertia of the living? When I write my own stories and confessions, do I realise that, as a fractal fragment of the universe, I am imitating galaxies, the planet, masses of molecules, radioactive particles, the bellowing of a dear or the vain unfurling of a peacock’s plumage?[42]

In other words, the idea that nature tells its own story is not an unwarranted metaphor; on the contrary, “storytelling” understood as a human cultural practice is already a synecdochic expression of a much more widespread natural phenomenon. When I write, I write like the light, like a crystal or like a stream; I tell my story like the world. A frequently cited phrase from Serres’ The Birth of Physics has until now always been translated as “History is a physics and not the other way round. Language is first in the body”.[43] However, this translation collapses the multivalence of the French histoire, and the sentence could equally run “Story is a physics…”. In fact, both senses of “histoire” are at play in Serres’ discussion of negentropy in The Birth of Physics.

The change of paradigm from the metaphorical to the synecdochic is also a challenge to anthropocentrism. To see eco-narratives as a metaphorical extension of human storytelling is to assume that human storytelling as the non-metaphorical yardstick by which all other putative narratives must be measured. But to see human storytelling as a synecdoche of a much broader phenomenon is, as Serres remarks, to decentre narrative with relation to the human at the moment when nature wrests from us our claim to an exclusivity of language use.[44]

In conclusion, Serres’ econarratology allows us to think the universe not simply as a blank canvas for the quintessentially human practice of storytelling, but as the narrator of its own story. This means that, just as narrative identity allows us to think human identity beyond the possession of determinate capacities (like language or rationality) and beyond the limit of the human and the non-human, so also Serres’s ecological narrative identity frees us from having (falsely) to identify the universe as an inert and passive collection objects inviting human manipulation and exploitation, and a blank canvas waiting to be daubed with our ex nihilo human meanings.

This paradigm shift has the power to enrich the dialogue between the arts and the sciences at a moment when the global issues that face us are increasingly irreducible to the human scale, and to expand the study of narrative identity beyond its customary anthropocentric limits. In his insistence upon the Great Story of the universe, I would argue that Serres has indeed presented the study of humanity across the human and natural sciences with a valuable tool and a productive way of thinking.

 

NOTES

[1] William Paulson, “Michel Serres’s Utopia of Language”, Configurations 8:2 (2000) 217-8.

[2] This point is made by Pierpaolo Antonello when he argues that “Any academic who engages herself with Serres’s thought is then required to be a hybrid, to exceed the boundary of any established profession or discipline, to become an outsider.” Pierpaolo Antonello, “Celebrating a Master: Michel Serres”, Configurations 8:2 (2000) 167.

[3] Michel Serres, The Parasite, trans. Lawrence R. Schehr (Minneapolis, MN: University Of Minnesota Press, 2007) 38-9.

[4] See in particular Michel Serres and Bruno Latour. Conversations on Culture, Science and Time, trans. Roxanne Lapidus (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1995).

[5] Michel Serres, “Panoptic Theory,” in Thomas M. Kavanagh (ed.), The Limits of Theory (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1989) 28-9.

[6]Michel Serres, Rameaux (Paris: Editions le Pommier, 2004) 158.

[7] Serres, Hermès V, 18. Quoted on Harari and Bell, “Journal à plusieurs voies” xi.

[8] Serres, Hermès V, 23-4. Quoted on Harari and Bell, “Journal à plusieurs voies” xiii.

[9] Michel Serres, La Distribution: Hermès IV (Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1977) 60-1. Quoted in English translation at Josué v. Harari and David F. Bell, “Journal à plusieurs voies”, inMichel Serres, Hermes: Literature, Science, Philosophy (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982) xix.

[10] Harari and Bell, “Journal à plusieurs voies” xxiii.

[11] “Serres’s major interest is the parallel development of scientific, philosophical, and literary trends. In a very simplified manner, one might say that Serres always runs counter to the prevalent notion of the two cultures -scientific and humanistic-between which no communication is possible. In Serres’s view ‘criticism is a generalized physics,’ and whether knowledge is written in philosophical, literary, or scientific language it nevertheless articulates a common set of problems that transcends academic disciplines and artificial boundaries.” Harari and Bell, “Journal à plusieurs voies” xi.

[12] Not the many and the one or the singular and the universal.

[13] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Anti-Christ, Ecce Homo, Twilight of the Idols: And Other Writings, ed. by Aaron Ridley, Judith Norman (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005) 159.

[14] This phrase recurs a number of times in Derrida’s writing. See for example Jacques Derrida, Without Alibi, trans. Peggy Kamuf (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002) 126.

[15] Michel Serres and Marie-Claude Martin, “Entretien: «Un philosophe fait tout, sinon il ne fait rien ».” Le Temps, 9 April 2011. http://www.letemps.ch/Page/Uuid/599bd724-6220-11e0-9818-ce393cc5d9d9/Michel_Serres_Un_philosophe_fait_tout_sinon_il_ne_fait_rien. Last accessed April 2015.

[16] This point is made on Harari and Bell, “Journal à plusieurs voies” xxxvi.

[17] Michel Serres and Raoul Mortley. “Chapter III. Michel Serres”, In French Philosophers in Conversation (ePublications@bond, 1991) 53. http://epublications.bond.edu.au/french_philosophers/4/. Last accessed May 2015.

[18] Michel Serres, Hermès V: le Passage du Nord-ouest (Paris : Editions de Minuit, 1980) 24. Quoted on Harari and Bell, “Journal à plusieurs voies” 13.

[19] Serres and Mortley, “Chapter III. Michel Serres” 59.

[20] Michel Serres and Bruno Latour, Conversations on Culture, Science and Time, trans. Roxanne Lapidus (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1995) 122.

[21] Serres and Mortley, “Chapter III. Michel Serres” 51.

[22] The figures are quoted in Serres and Martin, “Entretien: «Un philosophe fait tout, sinon il ne fait rien »”.

[23] Michel Serres, Hominescence (Paris: Editions Le Pommier, 2001); L’Incandescent (Paris: Editions le Pommier, 2003); Rameaux (Paris: Editions le Pommier, 2004); Récits d’humanisme (Paris: Editions le Pommier, 2006).

[24] Serres, Hominescence 171-2. All translations of French texts as yet unpublished in English are the author’s.

[25] “Lucy” is the name given to the partial skeleton (about 40% complete) of a 3.2 million year old australopithecus afarensis discovered in Ethiopia by palaeontologist Donald C. Johanson in 1974. Until 2009, Lucy was the oldest substantial human ancestor skeleton yet discovered.

[26] Serres, L’Incandescent 196.

[27] Serres, L’Incandescent 32.

[28] Michel Serres, La Naissance de la physique dans le texte de Lucrèce: fleuves et turbulences (Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1977) 181/The Birth of Physics, trans. Jack Hawkes (Manchester: Clinamen Press, 2000) 146.

[29] Serres, Récits d’humanisme 154.

[30] Serres, Récits d’humanisme 153.

[31] Serres, Récits d’humanisme 188.

[32] Serres, Rameaux 115.

[33] Serres, Rameaux 115-6.

[34] Michel Serres and Pierre Léna, “Sciences et philosophie (entretien)”, In François L’Yvonnet and Christiane Frémont (eds.), Cahier de l’Herne Michel Serres, (Paris: Éditions de l’Herne, 2010) 55.

[35] See Pascal Picq, Michel Serres and Jean-Didier Vincent, Qu’est-ce que l’homme? (Paris: Les Editions du Pommier, 1999) 90; Peter Hallward and Michel Serres, “The Science of Relations: An Interview”, Angelaki: Journal of the Theoretical Humanities 8:2 (2003): 233; Serres, LIncandescent 23.

[36] Serres, Récits d’humanisme 80.

[37] Steven Connor, “Michel Serres: The Hard and the Soft”, A Paper Given at The Centre for Modern Studies, University of York 26 November 2009, 22. http://stevenconnor.com/hardsoft/hardsoft.pdf.

[38] Serres, Rameaux 178.

[39] Michel Serres, La Distribution: Hermès IV (Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1977) 271/Hermes: Literature, Science, Philosophy 83.

[40] Serres, Récits d’humanisme 49-50.

[41] Serres, Récits d’humanisme 80.

[42] Serres, Récits d’humanisme 80.

[43] Serres, La Naissance de la physique 186/The Birth of Physics 150.

[44] Serres, Récits d’humanisme 80.