French Philosophy Today to join Difficult Atheism on Edinburgh Scholarship Online

French Philosophy Today, New Figures of the Human in Badiou, Meillassoux, Malaobu, Serres and LatourI’ve just learned that French Philosophy Today will shortly join Difficult Atheism on Edinburgh Scholarship Online.

This, I hope, will come as good news to at least some of those who have been in touch with me about the price of the hardback edition.

French Philosophy Today: New figures of the Human, low-res cover

Today I received the first low resolution mock-up of the cover for my new book: French Philosophy Today. New Figures of the Human in Badiou, Meillassoux, Malabou, Serres and Latour. Many thanks to Rebecca Mackenzie and Julien Palast for your wonderful work.

French Philosophy Today. New Figures of the Human in Badiou, Meillassoux, Malabou, Serres and Latour

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.


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.


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”.

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)?