Seres at SEP-FEP: Think human language, distinctiveness and responsibility metonymically, not metaphorically

Among the aspects of Serres’ paper that provoked the most animated discussion this morning was his contention, in ‘Information and Thinking’ and elsewhere, that human beings are not the only entities to think. The idea was articulated most powerfully in the snippet of the talk reproduced below:


This thought returned in the final paragraph of the address:

They [material elements] encode, we encode; they count, we count; we speak, they speak.[1]

The thought that exercised some of the panel members in the round-table discussion following the intervention was the way in which ascribing language (and by implication, it seemed to be extrapolated, agency and responsibility) to non-human objects was a metaphor unwarranted by the very clear differences between a human being and (to use Serres’ example from Verne’s cave) a crystal.

This understanding of how Serres is deploying terms like ‘encode’, ‘speak’ and ‘count’ is not the only one available, however, and indeed it is not the one that cuts best with the grain of his arguments. The issue can be clarified by considering the difference between metaphor and metonymy.

The contributions of some panelists seemed to imply that there are only two options available to us: either a ‘flat ontology’ (attributed to Serres) in which there is no way to account for distinctively human responsibility (for the environment, for example), and a human exceptionalism that eschews a flat ontology but legitimates political and social concerns in a way that the flat ontology cannot.

This is not a dichotomy I recognise from my own reading of Serres, and I think that the confusion comes through taking Serres to be speaking metaphorically when in fact he is speaking metonymically.

The (spurious) metaphorical reading of Serres goes something like this: Language simpliciter, language as such, is human language. All other uses of the term ‘language’ are (legitimate or illegitimate) metaphorical extensions of this literal sense of the term. ‘Humans speak’ is not metaphorical; ‘material elements speak’ is. The metaphorical sense here is parasitic on the literal (human) sense; if there is no ‘plain’ sense of what it means to speak, then there can be no metaphorical sense.  We start with human language—or human responsibility—as traditionally understood and then every other instance of the term ‘language’ or ‘responsibility’ must be a metaphorical extension of that first, human sense.  It’s when we think of Serres in this way that he seems to be painting a Romantic, enchanted, Toy Story world in which stones whisper to each other behind our backs and objects come out to play when we are absent.

But I don’t think that reading of Serres is most faithful to what he is seeking to communicate. We get closer to Serres’ thought when we read him as speaking not metaphorically but metonymically, or more precisely synecdochically (I argue this at greater length in a forthcoming article on Serres in SubStance). In arguing that material elements, too, encode, count and speak, he is not seeking to extend the human meanings of these terms to the non-human world. That would indeed–as was rightly pointed out by the panel–be anthropomorphic and anthropocentric.

He is doing something more radical and much less anthropocentric: contesting that there is a literal sense of language that is to be identified with human language in the first place. Rather, for Serres human language is one local and distinctive instance of a phenomenon that is in no way properly human, but that belongs to all entities. Crystals do not speak with syntactic human language (whoever suggested they did? After all, humans do not undergo an existential crisis when we realise that we don’t transmit information in the same way that crystals do, so why would we assume the reverse?), but it is still quite true and not in the least metaphorical for Serres to insist that crystals speak and human beings speak. (In this he is very close indeed to Jean-Luc Nancy’s notion of ‘renvois de sens’ between all entities in the world in L’Adoration).

Serres’ rethinking of language is intended to be a challenge to the privileging of the mode of syntactic language as the paradigm of which all other instance of language are metaphors, not a universalisation of this paradigm. In this sense, it is akin to a Wittgenstinian argument about definitions: when we say ‘language’ we must take it to mean any emission, storage, processing or reception of information, not only what humans do in communicating with words.

Where does this leave human responsibility and human distinctiveness? Smoothed away on some universal ironing board of flat ontology? Not a bit of it. Serres can (and does) retain a notion of human distinctiveness—he is a self-avowed humanist, after all—but it is a distinctiveness traceable to a quantitative difference, not an ontological difference between the human and, say, the crystal.

There are different sorts of difference, and we must be careful not to fall into the sloppy binary of ‘no difference at all’/’irreducible ontological difference’. Serres’ account is more fine-grained than that. To reconstruct  it quickly (and elaborate it beyond what Serres says himself, to the best of my knowledge of his work):

  1. Both the human and the crystal receive, store, process and emit information.[2] There is no ontological difference.
  2. But there is an indisputable quantitative difference: the amount, variety and complexity of information that I receive, store, process and emit, is many orders of magnitude greater than the crystal (though the crystal can also perform some tasks of information storage, processing and emission better than I can).
  3. This quantitative difference between humans, animals and crystals tips over, in a Hegelian way, into what is to all intents and purposes a qualitative difference: my information processing is so different to a crystal’s that, looked upon in terms of their results, they hardly seem the same thing at all.
  4. This quantitative-qualitative difference does the heavy lifting that ‘human distinctiveness’ is usually called on to schlep: humans bear a peculiar weight of responsibility, not because they are ontologically or at bottom qualitatively unique, but because they are quantitatively (and therefore qualitatively–think Hegel again) set apart within the entities of the world by virtue of HOW they process information and HOW MUCH they process, not THAT they process it.
  5. So we can, after all, draw a line between human speech and crystal speech, and we don’t need to see fairies under every rock (though the post-Baconian fact-value distinction also needs interrogating afresh in the light of Serres’ ontology, and the odd ‘fairy’ here and there might not always be unwarranted).
  6. And the question is not whether there is a line to be drawn, but the nature of that line, and the point at which a difference of quantity tips over into a difference of quality.

[1] Incidentally, note the inversion of order of ‘we’ and ‘they’ in the third element of this ternary rhythm and its subtle reinforcement of the argument being made: Serres is on his game!

[2] If Serres’ account is to be challenged, it is at the point of the adequacy of this information paradigm, not at the point of the denial of distinctive human responsibility. Can the reception, storage, processing and emission of information act as a sufficient (let alone necessary) paradigm for human being in the world (or, for that matter, for crystalline existence)?

On Michel Serres’ Paper at SEP-FEP: Plato, Jules Verne, and the Johannine Counterpoint

There was a great sadness this morning at the conference that Michel Serres’ health has not permitted him to travel to Utrecht in person, but also a deep thankfulness and appreciation that, despite his failing health, he had taken the time to pre-record his address. The discussion that followed his paper (recorded at his house in Vincennes and played to the conference on a series of television screens around the meeting room in St Martin’s Cathedral, pictured below) certainly lacked for nothing in terms of liveliness.

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Serres delivered his address in French, and English translation (entitled ‘Information and Thinking’) was handed round to the delegates.

In the address Serres elaborates upon a theme that punctuates his work from the Hermes series onward: information. It strikes me that Serres’ notion of information and communication circulating between all entities (human, animal, vegetable and mineral) could be interestingly and profitably compared with Jean-Luc Nancy’s notion of ‘renvois de sens’ in L’Adoration. In particular, I wonder whether Serres could (or would want to) include within the ambit of communicative circulation not only all physical entities but also ideas as well, as Nancy does in some of his characteristic lists un/closed with aposiopeses.

In the video address, Serres quoted at length from Jules Verne’s The Star of the South, a passage describing the glittering luminescence of a cave studded with precious stones (I reproduce the quotation in full at the foot of this post, from the Internet Archive version)[1]. The proliferation of precious stones in the Verne passage dovetails nicely of course with Serres’ insistence, in La Distribution (p271) and elsewhere, that nothing distinguishes me, ontologically, from a crystal, since we are both receive, store, process and emit information.

Plato’s sun and Verne’s cave

There was some discussion after the paper about the contrast between the light in Verne’s cave and Plato’s parable of the cave in Republic VII: for Plato the prisoners must leave the cave/the material earth to find the light of the Eidos, whereas for Verne the light is in the cave. Françoise Balibar voiced some concern, if I understood her intervention correctly, about the politics of the Verne passage (the white explorers liberating the black man from the prison of the cave), but there was one crucial reference that, to my eyes at least, was overlooked in the discussion after the paper, and that provides an important context for Serres’ remarks about light and truth. Two paragraphs after the extended Verne quotation, Serres says the following:

“Philosophy loves light, and has turned it into a model of excellent knowledge, especially the splash of daytime sunshine. Sparkling with truth, light is supposed to chase away the darkness of obscurantism. That is an absurd and rather counter-intuitive idea, as we all know that any candle, as weakly as it may shine, immediately pushes back the shadow of the night, while no one has ever seen darkness overcome any source of light.” (CW’s emphasis)

Serres concludes the thought by saying ‘no to the tyranny’ of ‘one unique and totalitarian truth’, the sun in the sky of the Platonic topos ouranios. It seems to me that the latent dialogue partner at this point in Serres’ paper—the interlocutor in the shadows, we might say—is the writer of the fourth gospel, and specifically the first seventeen verses, usually known as the prologue:

1  In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
2  He was in the beginning with God.
3  All things were made through him,
and without him was not any thing made that was made.
4  In him was life, and the life was the light of men.
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
6  There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.
7  He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him.
8  He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light.
9  The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world.
10  He was in the world, and the world was made through him,
yet the world did not know him.
11  He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him.
12  But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name,
he gave the right to become children of God,
13  who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man,
but of God.
14  And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us,
and we have seen his glory,
glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.
15  (John bore witness about him, and cried out,
“This was he of whom I said,
‘He who comes after me ranks before me, because he was before me.'”)
16  For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.
17  For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.

Preliminary note on translation

The Greek translated as ‘overcome’ in verse 5 (‘and the darkness has not overcome it), the verb katalambano, has a semantic range covering ‘take’, ‘seize’, ‘possess’ and ‘apprehend’, (the KJV renders the verse ‘And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not ’). So when Serres says that ‘no-one has ever seen darkness overcome any source of light’, we might also note that there are plenty of examples of ‘darkness’ failing to apprehend or grasp ‘light’. In the context of verses 10 and 11–‘yet the world did not know him’, ‘He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him’–a case could be made that the translation of the katelaben of verse 5 as ‘grasped’ or ‘understood’ cuts more with the grain of the ideas in the surrounding verses than does translating it as ‘overcome’.

1) The Johannine counterpoint to Republic VII

First, reading Serres’ comments as a latent reference to John’s prologue makes a lot of sense in the context of his quotation from Verne, because in both the Verne passage and the Johannine prologue the light sparkles in the midst of the darkness, not at a solar remove from it. As I argued in From Plato to Postmodernism, the Johannine prologue provides an ‘illuminating’ counterpoint to Republic VII in that the direction of travel is reversed: Plato’s prisoner must leave the darkness and ascend to the light, whereas for John ‘the word became flesh’ and the light descends to ‘shines in the darkness’.

2) The Johannine alternative to totalitarian lumophilia

In addition, John’s détournement of the Greek (Heraclitean, Stoic) logos into the ‘Word’ of the prologue gestures towards a response to Serres’ fears of totalitarianism. In contradistinction to Plato’s eternal, unchanging and ultimately inhuman, unique Sun (the Form of the Good), and in contradistinction to both the Heraclitean and Stoic impersonal logos-principles, John re-writes the logos as a person whose personhood is irreducible to more simple or more fundamental (and inhuman or non-human/infra-human) parts, and he rewrites Truth-as-Form and Truth-As-Law as Truth-as-Divine-Character. This personalisation (not personification, for as Nancy points out in Verbum caro factum, the word BECAME flesh: logos sarx egeneto) of the logos imbues it with all the subtlety, suppleness, wisdom, ipse-identity and dynamic faithfulness of a human character, a character furthermore in which truth/faithfulness can never legitimately be parsed from grace/love, as the prologue repeatedly insists: “glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” (John 1: 14, 17). It is the Johannine distinctive that the arche, the beginning or source of all things, the logos, is an inextricable and irreducible marriage of grace and truth in the dynamism of a personal character that ‘shines in the darkness’, and furthermore it is that this personal, dynamic logos that offers an alternative to Serres’ reading of light-as-truth imagery as necessarily and monolithically ‘totalitarian’.

John does not offer us truth as the Sun, but truth in the Son, and the difference is irreducible.



Dazzled with the light after so long a darkness, Barthes and Cyprien thought at first they were the prey of some ecstatic illusion, so splendid and unexpected was the sight that greeted their eyes.

They were in the center of an immense grotto. The ground was covered with fine sand bespangled with gold. The vault was as high as that of a Gothic cathedral, and stretched away out of sight into the distant darkness. The walls were covered with stalactites of varied hue and wondrous richness, and from them the light of the torches as reflected, flashing back with all the colors of the rainbow, with the glow of a furnace fire and the wealth of the aurora.

Colors of the most dazzling, shapes the most extraordinary, dimensions the most unexpected, distinguished these innumerable crystals. They were not, as in most grottoes, pendants, monotonously similar to each other, but nature had given free scope to fancy, and seemed to have exhausted every combination of tint and effect to which the marvelous brilliancy of the rocks could lend itself.

Blocks of amethyst, walls of sardonyx, masses of rubies, needles of emeralds, colonnades of sapphires deep and slender as forest pines, bergs of aquamarine, whorls of turquoise, mirrors of opal, masses of rose gypsum, and gold-veined lapis lazuli all that the crystal kingdom could offer that was precious and rare and bright and dazzling had served as the materials for this astonishing specimen of architecture; and, further, every form, even of the vegetable kingdom, seemed to have been laid under contribution in the wondrous work. Carpets of mineral mosses soft and velvety as the finest gauze, crystalline trees loaded with flowers and fruits of jewels recalling the fairy gardens of Japanese art, lakes of diamonds, palaces of chalcedony, turrets and minarets of beryl and topaz, rose pile upon pile, and heaped together so many splendors that the eye refused to grasp them. The decomposition of the luminous rays by the thousands of prisms, the showers of brilliancy that flashed and flowed from every side, produced the most astonishing combination of light and color that had ever dazzled the eyes of man.

Michel Serres, econarratology, and SEP-FEP in Utrecht

Here are some pictures of the stunningly beautiful city and university of Utrecht, where the Society for European Philosophy and Forum for European Philosophy (SEP-FEP) conference is currently being held.

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Tomorrow I am to give a paper entitled ‘Michel Serres’ “Great Story”: From Biosemiotics to Econarratology’.

Here is the abstract:

From the five volumes of his Hermès series (1968-1980) and through to The Natural Contract in (French original published in 1990), Michel Serres has argued that the origins of human language are rooted firmly in the rhythms and calls of the natural world, that information theory is derivative of fluid mechanics, and that all life is alike in receiving, processing, storing and emitting information. For Serres, ‘nothing distinguishes me ontologically from a crystal, a plant, an animal, or the order of the world’. This radical lifting of the qualitative barrier between human language and channels of information processing in what was previously called the ‘natural’ world underpins a new account of the human, an account which reveals the dichotomy of nature and culture to be a secondary distinction between many interweaving and ultimately inextricable modes of information processing that differ only in their relative scale.

This detailed and longstanding work in biosemiotics helps provide a powerful theoretical platform for Serres’ more recent project, pursued over the course of four seminal but as yet untranslated texts from 2001-2009 (L’Hominescence, 2001; L’Incandescent, 2005; Rameaux; 2007; Récits d’humanisme, 2009), in which he elaborates a new narrative account of the universe and the place of humanity within it, a narrative which he calls the ‘Great Story’ (‘Grand Récit’). Serres’ econarrative throws down a challenge to develop new ways of thinking beyond the dichotomy ‘nature and culture’ with its attendant notion of a qualitative divide between the human and non-human worlds, exposing the dichotomy as increasingly threadbare and arguing for a new humanism that knows nothing of a qualitative opposition between the natural and the cultural. Serres notes that, at the time when it was still admissible to discuss nature and culture separately, a person might be thought cultured if they had some working knowledge of four thousand years of history, beginning either in Greece or Mesopotamia. With the Great Story we now have fifteen billion years behind us and that, Serres maintains, must change a person’s thinking completely or, to translate him literally, a person who understands her place in the Great Story ‘no longer has the same head’.

In this paper I argue for the importance of Serres’ Great Story in staking out the incipient field of econarratology, a field in which ‘nature’ is not ventriloquized in human language but can, in a non-metaphorical way, tell its own story. I also use Paul Ricœur’s account of narrative identity to expose, and offer a remedy for, a potentially problematic internal inconsistency in Serres’ econarrative, an engagement which opens the way, in return to extend the powerful tool of narrative identity beyond its anthropocentric straitjacket. Serres’ econarrative of the Great Story is not only a timely challenge our assumptions about the uniqueness of human language within the natural world, but also a call to rethink the very categories within which those widely-held assumptions make sense.