Michel Serres: A Critical Introduction 1474405738, 9781474405737

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Michel Serres: A Critical Introduction
 1474405738, 9781474405737

Table of contents :
List of Figures and Tables
Acknowledgements
Abbreviations
INTRODUCTION: MICHEL SERRES TODAY
PART I
1. HOW SERRES THINKS: LEIBNIZ, PLATO, DESCARTES
2. SPACE AND TIME
3. SERRES’S STYLE
PART II
4. LANGUAGE
5. OBJECTS
6. ECOLOGY
ENVOI
Bibliography
Index

Citation preview

MICHEL SERRES

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MICHEL SERRES Figures of Thought

Christopher Watkin

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Edinburgh University Press is one of the leading university presses in the UK. We publish academic books and journals in our selected subject areas across the humanities and social sciences, combining cutting-edge scholarship with high editorial and production values to produce academic works of lasting importance. For more information visit our website: edinburghuniversitypress.com

© Christopher Watkin, 2020 Edinburgh University Press Ltd The Tun – Holyrood Road, 12(2f) Jackson’s Entry, Edinburgh EH8 8PJ Typeset in 11/14 Bembo by IDSUK (DataConnection) Ltd, and printed and bound in Great Britain A CIP record for this book is available from the British Library ISBN 978 1 4744 0573 7 (hardback) ISBN 978 1 4744 0575 1 (webready PDF) ISBN 978 1 4744 0574 4 (paperback) ISBN 978 1 4744 0577 5 (epub) The right of Christopher Watkin to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988, and the Copyright and Related Rights Regulations 2003 (SI No. 2498).

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Contents

List of Figures and Tables

vi

Acknowledgements

ix

Abbreviations

x

INTRODUCTION: MICHEL SERRES TODAY

1

PART I 1. HOW SERRES THINKS: LEIBNIZ, PLATO, DESCARTES

35

2. SPACE AND TIME

93

3. SERRES’S STYLE

154

PART II 4. LANGUAGE

213

5. OBJECTS

270

6. ECOLOGY

329

ENVOI

379

Bibliography

410

Index

447

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Figures and Tables

Figures

1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 1.7 1.8 1.9 1.10 1.11 1.12 1.13 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 2.6 2.7 4.1

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Umbilical thinking Truth as separation in Plato Arborescence Vertically arranged lines Radially arranged lines Truth as translation in Serres Successive filters in Descartes’s lines The sacred model of knowledge The Cartesian Universal Opposition by negation Opposition by generalisation Leibniz’s superposed filters The procedural universal emerges asymptotically from the expanding web of relations The classical understanding of space The ramble, Ulysses and the fly ‘Umbilical’ or ‘queen’ disciplines Serres’s alternative to umbilical discourse is federation The classical understanding of time Serres opposes the classical understanding of time by generalising and multiplying it The Baker’s Transformation The false dichotomy of message and noise

39 50 50 51 51 58 64 66 70 72 72 75 84 94 98 110 113 125 133 142 219

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FIGURES AND TABLES 1 vii

4.2 4.3 4.4 4.5 4.6 4.7 4.8 4.9 4.10 4.11 4.12 4.13 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 5.5 5.6 5.7 5.8 5.9 5.10 5.11 6.1 6.2 6.3

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Noise does not obstruct the message, it carries it The false dichotomy of cosmos and chaos Noise is not chaos as opposed to order. Both pure chaos and order are meaningless In modernity, meaning and truth are the binary opposite of noise and falsehood Meaning and existence are found between monotone and white noise Material existence and linguistic meaning are found between monotone and white noise The important distinction in classical thought is between being and nonbeing The important distinction for Serres is between laminar flow and the clinamen Ecomimesis assumes a double imitation The sacred model of language The binary understanding of meaning as either fully present or utterly absent Serres’s gradual scale of meaningfulness The Cartesian object The Bachelardian object The Serresian object Umbilical materialism Code–matter Jane Bennett’s ‘bit of anthropomorphism’ For Serres, humans and non-humans alike receive, process, store and emit information The parasite intervenes in an otherwise perfect line of communication The roles of emitter, receiver and parasite are not fixed The complex, evolving picture of parasitic relations The cascade of hosts, guests and parasites is turned into a self-parasitising ouroboros The double movement of the late modern experience of space For Descartes, active creation and passive createdness are dichotomised In the fetish and world-object, creation and the created are directly proportional

220 223 224 228 229 235 242 242 248 253 259 260 279 282 286 291 293 297 298 301 302 303 303 340 363 367

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6.4 6.5

In the Cartesian/Neolithic paradigm, relations of affiliation determine belonging In cosmocracy, singular identity and general/universal belonging are directly proportional

372 373

Tables

6.1 Umbilicisms, abstractive dichotomies and hybrid concepts E.1 Figures of thought across disciplines

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341 396

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Acknowledgements

Special thanks go to David Webb, who generously provided incisive and constructive comments on every word of an early version of the typescript. I am also grateful to Joanna Hodge for her astute observations. I was humbled by the generosity of everyone who commented on the Introduction when I posted an early version on academia.edu, in particular Terence Blake, Bryan Lueck, Kalle Jonasson and Mark Kelly. Thanks are due to the anonymous reviewers who read the original proposal for this book and first pushed me to write a chapter on Serres’s style. Carol Macdonald at Edinburgh University Press was more than usually patient with me on this project, especially in its protracted final stages when deadlines loomed. This book simply would not exist – and nor would I be the person I am – without my wife Alison: we have made this. Soli deo gloria.

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Abbreviations

Ag AMM ANC At AVN BEC Bi Bio BOP BPP C CEL CMA CN CNems CRS CS CT D DBS DPS DT Ec EgC EHP

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‘Agen. Michel Serres, invité de la rédaction’ Angels: A Modern Myth ‘A New Culture that Suits the World’ Atlas Andromaque, veuve noire ‘Biogée: “En cousine compagnie avec le monde”’ Biogée Biogea The Birth of Physics ‘Le balancier, la pierre philosophale’ Conversations on Science, Culture and Time Carpaccio: les esclaves libérés C’était mieux avant Le Contrat naturel ‘Le Contrat naturel: un entretien avec Michel Serres’ ‘Chacun reçoit des soins de tous’, in À Visage différent Les Cinq sens ‘Science and the Humanities: The Case of Turner’ Détachement Darwin, Bonaparte et le Samaritain ‘Le Droit peut sauver la nature’ ‘Le deuxième Trafalgar’ Éclaircissements ‘Ego Credo’ Luc Abraham, ‘Un entretien avec Michel Serres’

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ABBREVIATIONS 1 xi

EHS EMS ENC EPF ESC ESP FPIC FS FSB FSBW G GB Ge Gen GM GMS H H1 H2 H3 H4 H5 Her HKI HLSP Hom HST IMS In Inc IP IRR JJV JVSH JVSJ LDA LRE LSD LTH

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Éléments d’histoire des sciences Geneviève James, ‘Entretien avec Michel Serres’ ‘« Nous traversons la plus importante mutation depuis la préhistoire! »’ Éloge de la philosophie en langue française Esthétiques sur Carpaccio Écrivains, savants et philosophes font le tour du monde French Philosophers in Conversation, Chapter 3: ‘Michel Serres’ The Five Senses Feux et signaux de brume: Zola ‘Feux et signaux de brume:Virginia Woolf ’s Lighthouse’ Geometry:The Third Book of Foundations Le Gaucher boiteux Genèse Genesis La Guerre mondiale ‘La Garonne de Michel Serres’ Habiter Hermès I: la communication Hermès II: l’interférence Hermès III: la traduction Hermès IV: la distribution Hermès V: le Passage du Nord-Ouest L’Hermaphrodite Hari Kunzru, ‘Michel Serres Interview’ Hermes: Literature, Science, Philosophy Hominescence A History of Scientific Thought ‘Interview Michel Serres’, in Revue Projet 2003 L’Incandescent The Incandescent ‘L’Information et la pensée’ ‘L’Imprévisible reste la règle’ Jouvences sur Jules Verne Jules Verne, la science et l’homme contemporain ‘Jules Verne’s Strange Journeys’ La Légende des anges Le retour éternel Leibniz sans Dieu ‘Le temps humain: de l’évolution créatrice au créateur d’évolution’

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Mal ME MiS MMT MP MS Mus NC NM NP OG P Pan Par Par PC PCDS1 PCDS2 PCDS3 PCDS4 PCDS5 PCDS6 PP Pr PT QH R Ram RCNbnf RCNsf RCNslp RH Ro S S&H SC SL Sol

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Malfeasance Morales espiègles ‘Michel Serres’, in Florian Rötzer, Conversations with French Philosophers ‘Conclusion: My Mother Tongue, My Paternal Languages’ Le Mal propre ‘Modèle et structure’ Musique The Natural Contract Nouvelles du monde La Naissance de la physique dans le texte de Lucrèce Les Origines de la géométrie Le Parasite Pantopie: de Hermès à Petite Poucette The Parasite ‘Paris 1800’, in A History of Scientific Thought ‘Pas que’ Petites Chroniques du dimanche soir, tome 1 Petites Chroniques du dimanche soir, tome 2 Petites Chroniques du dimanche soir, tome 3 Petites Chroniques du dimanche soir, tome 4 Petites Chroniques du dimanche soir, tome 5 Petites Chroniques du dimanche soir, tome 6 Petite poucette ‘Préface’, in Serres and Farouki (eds), Le Trésor. Dictionnaire des sciences ‘Panoptic Theory’ ‘Le temps humain’ Rome: le livre des fondations Rameaux ‘Retour au contrat naturel’ (BNF) ‘Retour au contrat naturel’ (Simon Fraser) ‘Retour au contrat naturel’, in Signons la paix avec la terre Récits d’humanisme Rome:The First Book of Foundations Statues Peter Hallward, ‘The Science of Relations’ ‘Souche catholique: Le catholicisme empêche-t-il de parler’, in Quoi de neuf chez les Cathos? Le Système de Leibniz et ses modèles mathématiques Solitude

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ABBREVIATIONS 1 xiii

SP St T TDC Té TI TK TOC TU VB VSC Y

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‘Sciences et Philosophie: Entretien de Michel Serres avec Pierre Léna’ Statues:The Second Book of Foundations Thumbelina Temps des crises ‘Témoignage’, in À Visage différent Le Tiers-instruit The Troubadour of Knowledge Times of Crisis ‘Temps, usure: feux et signaux de brume’ Variations on the Body Variations sur le corps Yeux

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Introduction: Michel Serres Today

MICHEL SERRES PUBLISHED consistently from the late 1960s until his death on 1 June 2019. He authored over forty-five books on subjects of contemporary importance ranging from the future of humanity to the nature of social relations and ecology, including three French bestsellers.1 Only the tenth philosopher since 1900 to be elected an ‘immortal’ member of the illustrious Académie Française, he has received numerous international prizes and the library of the elite École Normale Supérieure in Lyon bears his name. How curious and tantalising it is, then, that his distinctive and ground-breaking thought remains largely undiscovered by an Anglophone readership. Serres is everywhere and nowhere: despite publishing an average of one or two books every year over the past five decades, and despite appearing regularly on television and co-hosting a national radio programme from 2004 to 2018, he fails to feature in many lists of leading French philosophers or intellectuals and under half his work exists in English translation.2 We will search in vain for a Serresian

1

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Petite Poucette (2012) sold over 300,000 copies in France and Temps des crises (2009) also entered the best-seller lists. In the 1990s Éclaircissements (1992), a series of interviews with Bruno Latour, was also a best-seller. Serres receives extended treatment in very few surveys of recent French thought. Two notable exceptions are Descombes’s Modern French Philosophy, where Serres receives a section entitled ‘What is a structural analysis? (Serres)’ (82–92), and the edited volume Phillips Griffiths, Contemporary French Philosophy, which features Bruno Latour’s essay ‘The Enlightenment without the Critique’ (83–97). Serres is unmentioned in the survey of contemporary thinkers in the October 2006 edition of the Magazine Littéraire, in Montefiore’s Philosophy in France Today (1983), in Kearney’s Modern Movements in European Philosophy (1994), in Teichman and White’s An Introduction to Modern European Philosophy (1995), in Kearney’s The Continental Philosophy Reader (1996), in Sedgwick’s Descartes to Derrida (2001), in Critchley’s Continental Philosophy (2001), in Cutrofello’s Continental Philosophy (2005), in 100 years of European Philosophy Since the Great War edited by Sharpe et al. (2017) and in Solomon and Sherman’s The Blackwell Guide to Continental Philosophy (2008), though curiously ‘The Natural

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school of thinkers, and almost never encounter a gaggle of Serresians alongside the Deleuzians, Foucauldians and Derrideans at the larger academic conferences. The blogosphere is not likely to ferment with Serresian critiques of the latest political decision any time soon. In more ways than one however, Serres is a thinker whose time has now come. To begin with, his radically cross-disciplinary approach and his determination to set all local questions within a global context of sometimes surprising or even scandalising juxtapositions provide a blueprint for navigating today’s complex multinational problems that refuse to be cloistered within disciplinary boundaries. It is ironic, Serres argues, that ‘at the very moment when we need integration, we only have philosophies of difference’ (GM 168).3 The problem is not limited to philosophy, however. Corporations and governments are still divided into ministries and departments, ‘whereas any question whatever today touches the connected whole of their specialities’ (GB 72).4 Problems such as climate change, ecology and unemployment (GB 72) are ‘transversal’ (Sol 17), ‘de-localised’ (H2 33) or a ‘total social fact’ ([‘fait social total’], see H2 25, CN 125–6/NC 78–9, AVN 137, EPF 61, H 57, 140, JVSH 16–17, EHS 344/HST 432, Pan 169), cutting across disciplines and government ministries alike. Such problems are ‘discovered at the intersection of a growing multiplicity of approaches’ (H2 34),5 and they are to be addressed not with local tactics but with global strategies (H2 32–3) and a ‘general mobilisation’ (H2 34). Faced with such problems, we are witnessing ‘the end of the analytic ideal’ (Sol 17)6 and ‘the end

3

4 5 6

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Contract’ does receive a brief mention in the broader Blackwell Companion to Philosophy, edited by Bunnin and Tsui-James (2008). His name appears once in a list of thinkers in the Foreword to Ferry and Renaut’s French Philosophy of the Sixties (1990). He is mentioned in dispatches in Schrift’s Twentieth Century French Philosophy (2006) and in Gutting’s French Philosophy in the Twentieth Century (2012) which groups him with Cavaillès and Canguilhem in a seven-page section that cites only Serres’s Conversations on Science, Culture and Time and frames Serres as a philosopher of the concept rather than of consciousness. Most inexplicably of all, he merits mention on only two pages in the 300-page Continental Philosophy of Science edited by Gutting (2008). Serres’s work remains chronically under translated. Most egregiously, his thesis Le Système de Leibniz remains available only in French. ‘au moment même où nous avons besoin d’intégrales, nous n’avons de philosophies que celles de la différence’. I have adopted in this book what I hope is a sensitive and flexible approach to translation. The original French of most quotations is given in footnotes. Where quotations are very brief and admit of very little translational ambiguity, I have refrained from providing the original French. Translations of block quotations are given in the text, directly above the original French. Occasionally, where a number of brief quotations appear in succession, I have added the French in square brackets after each quotation to save the reader the trouble of finding each individual translation in the notes. ‘alors que n’importe quelle question touche, aujourd’hui, l’ensemble connexe de leurs spécialistes’. ‘découvert à l’intersection d’une multiplicité croissante de voies d’approche’. ‘la fin de l’idéal analytique’.

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INTRODUCTION 1 3

of the era of specialists’ (H2 27).7 Such problems call not for a facile eclecticism of the sort that commonly masquerades under the infinitely malleable banner of ‘interdisciplinarity’, but for an approach that, while ranging over disciplines from mathematics and the hard sciences to literature and visual art, can nevertheless allow each paradigm to speak its own language and follow its own path while still moving between them in non-arbitrary ways that cohere, if not into a philosophical system, then in a cross-disciplinary synthesis. What Serres’s thought offers us is precisely the complementarity of the disparate and the coherent, the variant and the invariant, the same and the different, that today’s transversal problems require. We are seeing, he argues, the birth of a ‘pantology’, a ‘practice of totalities’ [‘pratique des totalités’] and ‘new knowledge of everything’ [‘nouveau savoir du tout’] (H 56). Another reason we may think that Serres’s moment has finally come is that, like Nietzsche’s madman, it has taken time for our intellectual and political culture to catch up with his thought. Indeed, he is notable for the way in which he anticipates problems and trends before they receive widespread critical attention. If, as he holds, ‘to think is to anticipate’ ([‘penser, c’est anticiper’], see Pan 359–74), then he does more than his fair share of thinking. He anticipated by around twenty years the critique of the linguistic philosophies of the 1970s–90s; his work on objects from the 1980s and 1990s is foundational for the recent philosophical resurgence of objects and things, and he embraced and shaped ecological concerns before they became the theoretical fashion they are today. Serres’s prescience is not limited to philosophical trends, however. At the heyday of the Althusserian hegemony at the École Normale Supérieure, Rue d’Ulm, he questioned the Marxist orthodoxy of the primacy of production, convinced that the age dominated by the production of physical goods from raw materials was being eclipsed by one characterised by communication and information transfer, requiring a new paradigm. From our vantage point as cross-platform mediaconsuming internet users, we might concede that Serres was onto something. Nor have all the cheques that Serres has written to the future been cashed yet. His writing anticipates trends that are still gathering pace or are perhaps yet to develop, such as a scientific study of literature that does not make the literary text a handmaiden to extra-literary concerns, and a naturalised sociology that sees social phenomena such as war and the economy as extensions and reworkings of biological, chemical, physical and indeed mathematical patterns. To be sure, there is much in Serres’s writing that still ‘requires time’ and is ‘on its way’. If this uncanny knack for anticipation showed itself once or even twice in Serres’s thought then a miserly spirit could well argue that, like the broken clock

7

‘la fin de l’ère des spécialistes’.

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that tells the correct time twice a day, his prophetic gift could be nothing more than a lucky coincidence. To argue such a case in the face of so many anticipatory successes, however, begins to look like a desperate attempt to avoid the obvious conclusion that Serres’s thought is highly perceptive. Furthermore, each of these anticipations is not an isolated moment in Serres’s writing, as if they each relied on a separate flip of a coin. They are more accurately likened to a series of expertly assembled dominoes falling into one another in a cascade or – to use an illustration from Serres’s beloved game of rugby – a flowing move of interconnecting passes, beautifully orchestrated and resulting in a try. What emerges in – and as – this series of interconnected moments is what Serres calls a ‘global intuition’, a forceful vision,8 a ‘new way of being in the world’9 or ‘a different style of thinking and writing – style as a method of seeing and understanding things’.10 This idea of a Serresian global intuition, a way not merely of thinking but of living, behaving, feeling, desiring and moving in the world, of resonating with the way the world is and with the way it is changing, will be an important guide to our exploration of Serres’s thought in this book, and will help us to see why it is no coincidence that he should anticipate so many recent – and perhaps future – developments in thought and society. Who is Michel Serres?

The Montaignean question ‘qui suis-je?’ [‘who am I?’] is repeated persistently, at times almost obsessively, across the Serresian corpus, occurring twenty times in Récits d’humanisme alone, followed by Le Tiers-instruit (thirteen times), Le Parasite (thirteen times), Le Gaucher boiteux (eleven times) and Carpaccio: les esclaves libérés (nine times), to name only the five books in which it occurs the most.11 His insistent return to this question speaks not only of the importance of the theme of identity in his writing but also of the importance of Serres’s own biography for understanding his thought. In contrast to recent thinkers who would deny or minimise the relevance of their own biographical details in understanding their own or anyone else’s writing, Serres readily admits and embraces the ways in which his thought has been sculpted by the details of his life. This should not surprise us in a thinker for whom, as we shall see time and again in the following chapters, sooner or later everything is related to everything else. To be sure, there is a distinction (philosophy is not reducible to 8

9 10 11

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‘Poets and imaginative prose writers are prophets, not in the sense of foretelling things, but of generating forceful visions’, Abbas, Mapping Michel Serres, 8. Moser, The Encyclopedic Philosophy of Michel Serres, 244. Antonello, ‘Celebrating a Master’, 166. Next come Les Cinq sens (nine), Rameaux (eight), L’Incandescent (eight), Hominescence (six) and Genèse (six).

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biography, or vice versa), but there is also a coherence, almost at times too neat a coherence, between Serres’s life and his writing, as if he retroactively frames every detail of his childhood as a significant portent of what was to come. Michel Serres was born on 1 September 1930, in the city of Agen on the Garonne river in the department of Lot-et-Garonne in south-west France. The story of his birth is an eventful affair: he emerged from the womb with the umbilical cord wrapped three times around his neck (PCDS4 62), a fact he colourfully interprets as bequeathing him a fear of tight spaces to this day (PCDS3 211) and accounting no doubt for his love of mountaineering and the countryside. His father and grandfather both worked as bargees (mariniers) on the Garonne river, dredging and sifting silt to be divided between ‘the black’ (used for tar) and ‘the white’ (which went to make cement) (GMS). The young Serres tells of how he and his brother would wake four or five hours before dawn to shovel sand into ten-ton trucks in what he calls ‘real hard labour, hard, very very hard’ (Pan 25).12 War also marked Serres’s early years: his father was gassed in the Great War, and his mother was the only girl of her cohort in collège to marry because all the possible fiancés died on the battlefields (Sol 44). As for Serres himself, he tells of the time in 1936 when his family gave lodging to guests fleeing the horrors of the Spanish Civil War, and again in 1939 when they took in refugees from the Nazi blitzkrieg (Sol 44). He tells of the violence that broke out at the liberation of France in 1945, when a young Serres had to bury school friends in his première class (aged sixteen years) who killed each other because of their respective allegiance to the pro-German milice or the anti-Nazi résistance during the War (Sol 118–19). In addition to being shaped by these cultural and social events in his youth, Serres also testifies to the lasting impression left on him by the landscape of his beloved Agen. Though not a coastal town, at the time of Serres’s youth Agen was a port (Stendhal took a boat from Agen to Bordeaux, he notes (Ag)) and the river looms large in the life of a young man who calls himself ‘the last survivor of the last tribe of the last bargemen of the Garonne’ (Ag).13 The motif of water, it seems, was destined to play an important role in Serres’s life: I had been born on the water; my family lived off the water. Family history has it that in the great flood of 1930, when my mother was pregnant with me, she was evacuated from our house by boat from the second-story window. Thus, I had been afloat while still in the womb, and not just in amniotic fluid! (Ec 16–17/C 6; see also GMS)14 12 13 14

‘un vrai travail de forçat, dur, très très dur’. ‘le dernier survivant de la dernière tribu des derniers mariniers de Garonne’. ‘j’étais né sur l’eau, ma famille vivait de l’eau; on raconte que ma mère, enceinte de moi, sortit par la fenêtre du premier étage de notre maison, en bateau, pendant la grande inondation de 1930; j’avais donc navigué en prénatal, et pas seulement dans les eaux amniotiques!’

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Serres’s story, then, does not begin with roots or foundations because ‘there are no roots in the river’ (Ag),15 but with floating at the mercy of a swell that both provides his family’s income and periodically threatens to take their lives. The Agen of Serres’s youth was characterised by a double landscape he describes as ‘the upstream mountains and the downstream sea’ (Bi 28/Bio 25, see also Ag),16 on one side the undifferentiated expanse of the flat river and on the other the variegated, undulating, irregular contours of the verdant Pyrenees. It is a contrast that will appear on a number of occasions in his writing, and describe one of the recurring polarities of his thought between blank or white (blanc) universality and motley local colour. Further features of the city also return in Serres’s writing. The club where he fell in love with rugby, Sporting Union Agenais, provides not only an illustration but also an inspiration for his thought on a number of occasions, notably in his description of the quasi-object in The Parasite. Agen is also famous for its bridge over the Canal des Deux Mers, joining the Atlantic to the Mediterranean, and fostering in the young Serres a fascination for bridges and for the figure of the Pontifex (bridge-builder) to which he would repeatedly return, most notably in Esthétiques sur Carpaccio (1975), L’art des ponts (2006) and Carpaccio: les esclaves libérés (2007). It seems that Serres’s schooling also inculcated in him the interdisciplinarity that would characterise his later work. He tells the story of a conversation he had with a priest with whom he translated Greek plays (mainly tragedies, he informs us) in the school holidays: When I passed my first bac – there were two at the time – he asked me what I planned to do and I replied that I was going to read philosophy. At that time there was the choice in the final year of school between two streams: arts, that was called ‘philo’, or maths. ‘Perish the thought!’, said the priest. ‘Because you are good in the arts you will take beginner’s maths.’ I was so surprised that I stammered ‘You are having a laugh, I don’t know the first thing about it!’, and I can still see him now, smiling as he said to me ‘So much the better!’ I followed his command and took the maths option at Agen. (Pan 33–4)17

15 16 17

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‘il n’y en a pas de racine dans le fleuve’. ‘les monts d’amont et la mer d’aval’. ‘Quand j’ai eu mon premier bac – à l’époque, il y en avait deux –, il m’a demandé ce que j’allais faire et je lui ai répondu que j’allais m’inscrire en philo. À l’époque, on avait le choix pour la terminale entre deux filières: terminale lettres, dite « philo », ou terminale maths. « Jamais de la vie! m’a dit le curé. Puisque tu es bon en lettres, tu vas faire math élém. » J’étais tellement surpris que j’ai balbutié: « Vous plaisantez, je n’y connais rien! » et je le vois encore me sourire: « Tant mieux! » J’ai suivi son injonction et fait math élém à Agen.’

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Serres’s upbringing also gave him an interest in and appreciation of manual work, making him feel an outsider to the Parisian elite in a way that he rarely misses an opportunity to mention: ‘I am of the people. My first training is in the trades and techniques of common folk. From when I was very young I visited forgers, saddlers, bricklayers, farm workers, bargemen’ (Pan 24–5).18 Serres almost seems to revel in his outsider status, never quite fitting into the French university system and feeling spurned – a feeling that was fully justified, as we shall see below – because of his cross-disciplinary approach. The time has now come to name the elephant in the room: it is hard to avoid the suspicion that all these biographical details, pregnant as they are with significance for Serres’s intellectual journey, are just a little too neat, like a straight to TV detective drama in which each and every incidental detail in the plot and characterisation is revealed to have been a significant clue to the inevitable dénouement and triumphant unmasking of the villain. So how should we understand Serres’s mise en scène of his childhood? There are, I think, two contrasting readings that are both plausible but that, in their opposition to each other, neatly perform what is at stake for the reader of Serres’s work more broadly. On the one hand there is nothing to stop us dowsing Serres’s childhood stories in a cold bath of hermeneutic suspicion, chalking them up to the same genre of autofiction that saw contemporaries like Marguerite Duras play with the details of her own childhood in order to save various ends of self-presentation. Or we can choose to approach these details not as a retro-engineered suite of justifications inscribing Serres’s life-course with an air of transcendent destiny, but as features which, over time, revealed themselves to have held an importance that was perhaps not noticed at the time, the cumulative effect of which is to reinforce the importance of the body and of landscape in shaping an intellectual career. Serres’s thought is about finding equivalences and isomorphisms, and the implicit similarities he finds between the landscape and bodily labour of his childhood and his subsequent thought are a mise en abyme of what is at stake in that thought as a whole: they do not compel the reader to assent or beat her into submission with their ineluctable necessity, but they do create a case, merely plausible for some and fully persuasive for others, for the interconnectedness of all things, not least biography and writing. So caveat lector: as we pass judgement on Serres’s biography our predispositions as readers are in turn being scrutinised. With this in mind, let us press on. In 1949, with his second baccalaureate in mathematics safely under his belt, Serres entered the Naval Academy at Brest. He briefly continued his study in maths and physics but soon resigned in order to attend the prestigious Parisian 18

‘Je suis du peuple. Ma première formation vient des métiers et techniques du petit peuple: dès le plus jeune âge, j’ai fréquenté des forgerons, des selliers, des maçons, des ouvriers agricoles, des mariniers.’

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Lycée Louis le Grand to study the classe préparatoire aux grandes écoles (CPGE) nicknamed the khâgne, the preparatory course for entry into the elite École Normale Supérieure (ENS). As Serres tells the story, a friend of his and son of a refugee from Paris who stayed in the Serres household during the Second World War made personal representations to the secretary of Louis Le Grand on Serres’s behalf, pleading for a friend from the Naval Academy to be considered for the khâgne: ‘My friend telephoned me to tell me that I was enrolled at Louis le Grand. “But to do what?” I asked him. “To prepare for Normale” he replied. I didn’t even know what Normale was!’ (Pan 38).19 This story portrays Serres as stumbling into Louis Le Grand almost by accident, attending the elite institution without any of the intellectual ambition that usually accompanies such a move. It is not the last time Serres will portray himself as having greatness thrust upon him. Serres’s contemporaries at Louis Le Grand included Pierre Bourdieu, Michel Deguy, Louis Marin, Pierre Nora and notably Jacques Derrida, with whom he became friends and exchanged letters during the holidays.20 Upon entering the ENS in 1952, Serres and Derrida were also among only four students in their year to take the philosophy option,21 and they holidayed together in 1953 at the ski resort of Carroz d’Arâches in Haute-Savoie.22 Nevertheless, if Serres found himself at the heart of the incipient French intellectual elite during this time, he did not share its ideology. When he dared to suggest to the highly influential ENS tutor and Marx scholar Louis Althusser that the age of production was soon to be overtaken by that of communication, he was denounced as a fascist (Pan 124). After passing the national Capés and Agrégation teaching qualifications (in which Serres ranked first and second in the year in the two competitions respectively), in 1956 he joined the French Navy as an officer, serving a three year term which took him to the Suez Canal during the crisis as well as to Djibouti and to Algeria at the time of the Algerian War of Independence. Both the motif of the sea and the language of sailing pervade Serres’s work, from the image of the undivided ocean of knowledge in Hermès II, to the story of escaping a burning ship at the beginning of Les Cinq sens and the figure of the sailor in, among other texts, Hermès II, Hermès IV, Hermès V, Les Cinq sens, Détachement, Nouvelles du monde, Le Contrat naturel and Variations sur le corps.23 19

20 21

22 23

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‘Mon ami m’a téléphoné pour me dire que j’étais inscrit à Louis-le-Grand. « Mais pour faire quoi? lui ai-je dit. Pour préparer Normale », m’a-t-il répondu. Je ne savais même pas ce que c’était Normale!’ Peeters, Derrida, 65. Peeters, Derrida, 63. The other two, Pierre Hassner and Alain Pons, were from the Lycée Henri IV, the other great Parisian feeder school for the Grandes Ecoles. Peeters, Derrida, 65. This latter list is taken from Posthumus, ‘La nature et l’écologie chez Lévi-Strauss, Tournier, Serres’, 113.

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Although he considered his time in the Navy ‘two years of paradise’ (Pan 42), it nevertheless came to an abrupt halt when a crisis of conscience led him to return to academic study in what he later called ‘the main bifurcation of my life’ (Pan 32).24 The crisis was brought about by the same circumstance that had previously caused him to resign from the Naval Academy, namely the development of atomic weapons and their use to destructive effect at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The same mathematical science that Serres was so ardently pursuing, with whose progress he was directly complicit, had made possible the devastating bomb. Serres writes of the bomb as a problem which explodes ‘on every page of my books’, raising questions that science could not answer and driving him to study philosophy. Only philosophy, and at this time for Serres specifically the work of Simone Weil (Ec 33/C 18, Pan 40), could explore and address the moral questions raised by the bomb, and so philosophical study forced itself upon the young Serres. The importance of war and the bomb in Serres’s thought is no youthful fascination: in 1992 he attests ‘Hiroshima remains the sole object of my philosophy’ (Ec 29/C 15–16),25 and in 2014 ‘I am a son of Hiroshima’ (Pan 32; see also PCDS2 57, Sol 45).26 In Rick Dolphijn’s succinct phrase, Hiroshima showed Serres ‘how physics was alienated from nature, how epistemology was alienated from ethics and how man was alienated from the world’.27 Serres returned to academia in 1960 when he accepted a post at the University of Clermont-Ferrand, but his multi-disciplinary background and his resistance to practising philosophy as a philological exercise in excavating the classics meant that he was made to teach outside his specialty. This period saw Serres living between Clermont-Ferrand and the ENS Rue d’Ulm, where he was completing his major thesis. The thesis underwent a number of mutations: it was planned on the subject of algebra, developed in the direction of topology, and ended up taking a more philosophical turn, issuing in the two-volume work Le Système de Leibniz et ses modèles mathématiques (1968). It was at Clermont-Ferrand that Serres became firm friends with Michel Foucault, and in 1968 Foucault recruited Serres, or so he promised, to the philosophy department at the new Centre universitaire expérimental de Vincennes, founded at the height of the 1968 protests as a novel type of freer, more open academic institution. At Vincennes, Serres joined an illustrious faculty including not only Foucault himself but also Alain Badiou, Jacques Rancière and Étienne Balibar,28 though significantly 24 25 26 27 28

‘la principale bifurcation de ma vie’. ‘Hiroshima reste l’unique objet de ma philosophie’. ‘[j]e suis un fils d’Hiroshima’. Dolphijn, ‘The World, the Mat(t)er of Thought’, 132. Although Deleuze arrived at Vincennes after Serres, in 1969, Serres still struck up with Deleuze his closest intellectual friendship, affirming in a 1995 interview that ‘Deleuze was my best friend. I admired him. I loved him’ (HKI).

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Serres was not, as it turned out, appointed as a professor in in the newly founded philosophy department (see Pan 51). His cross-disciplinary training, it seemed, created a barrier of suspicion between Serres and the philosophical counter-establishment just as it had previously with its bourgeois mirror image. Serres’s experience of the events of 1968, like his impression of his home city of Agen, was one of stark a contrast between the excitement of Clermont-Ferrand and the squabbling of Vincennes. At the ‘heavenly’ Clermont-Ferrand ‘there prevailed a sort of lyricism in which we were all basking’ (Pan 49).29 It was there that Serres and colleagues convened the États généraux de l’Université, a national conference to rethink the institution of higher education in France. With a recurrence of the tone of studied insouciance that marked the story of his entry into Louis Le Grand, Serres uses a reflexive verb to remark how ‘I found myself presiding over the sitting’, and quips that ‘There I was, the boss! I had a lot of fun. But I never belonged to any group’ (Pan 57),30 concluding that it was ‘the only time I entered into politics, really’ (Pan 57).31 The contrast could not be more vivid with a Vincennes where ‘the atmosphere was positively violent, and above all more dishonest, more false, with this bunch of grand bourgeois left-wingers posing as revolutionaries’ (Pan 49).32 Serres cuts a lonely figure during this period. Modestly referring to his working class childhood and noting that ‘I no longer broke rocks, and that was already a big relief’, he laments that ‘I have always been very glad to do this job. Apart from the fact that I had no friends in this environment’ (Pan 57–8).33 His own diagnosis of the situation is that he felt more at home with sailors, labourers and farmers than intellectuals: ‘When I got married, for example, I invited all the workers from the family firm’ (Pan 58).34 I have no hesitation in taking Serres at his word here, but it does seem just a little odd for one whose almae matres include Louis le Grand, the ENS and the Sorbonne to protest quite so much about intellectual culture and to insist quite so often that ‘I have always been a “little guy”’ (Pan 58).35 The least we might say here is that Serres is a ‘little guy’ who has the luxury of an audience to hear him characterise himself thus. He casts himself as the protagonist in the 29

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31 32

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‘Durant ces jours à l’université de Clermont, il régnait une sorte de lyrisme dans lequel nous baignions tous.’ ‘je me suis retrouvé président de séance. . . . C’était moi le patron! Je me suis bien amusé. Mais je n’ai jamais appartenu à un groupe quelconque.’ ‘la seule fois où je suis entré en politique, vraiment’. ‘l’ambiance était positivement violente, et surtout plus mensongère, plus fausse, avec cette tripotée de grands bourgeois de gauche posant aux révolutionnaires’. ‘Je ne cassais plus les cailloux, et c’était déjà beaucoup. . . . Non, j’ai toujours été très content de faire ce métier. Sauf que je n’avais pas d’amis dans ce milieu.’ ‘Quand je me suis marié, par exemple, j’ai invité tous les ouvriers de l’entreprise familiale.’ ‘J’ai toujours été un « petit ».’

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hero’s journey, making a virtue of necessity and overcoming slim odds to triumph in the end: ‘Excluded from the system, I opened the Michel Serres boutique. And I have to say that I haven’t come out of it at all badly. In the final analysis, it is an exclusion that has been rather successful for me’ (Pan 363).36 The ‘little’ one made it big after all. It is hard to escape the conclusion that this way of framing the story is at least in part a case of Serres sedulously cultivating his self-image, a narrative equivalent of the studiously unkempt hairstyle he sported in the 1970s and 1980s. Serres’s stay at the University of Vincennes was short-lived (though he lived in Vincennes until his death), and in 1969 he was appointed to a post at l’Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne, which he kept until 2008. Once again, however, he was ‘expelled’ by the philosophy department (ME 23) and taught instead in the history of science, an evidently painful event to which he alludes in the dedication to Rome: With the present book . . . I express my gratitude to the community of historians that welcomed me thirteen years ago when the pressure group then in power expelled me from my former paradise: philosophy. Thereby making my life hard. With this same book, I thank René Girard, who, in similar circumstances, welcomed me, a quasi-refugee, into the hospitable America and who then taught me the true ideas developed here. (Ro unnumbered) Par le livre présent . . ., j’adresse mon remerciement à la communauté des historiens qui m’accueillit, voici treize ans, quand le groupe de pression alors au pouvoir m’expulsa de mon vieux paradis: la philosophie. Ce qui me fit la vie dure. Par le même, je remercie René Girard qui; dans les mêmes circonstances, m’accueillit, quasi réfugié, dans l’hospitalière Amérique, et qui, alors, m’y enseigna les idées vraies ici développées. (R 7)

The American hospitality to which he refers here is his invitation in 1969 to Johns Hopkins University where Girard was a professor from 1957 to 1981. Girard was to move to Stanford University in 1981, followed by Serres who took up a visiting professorship there in 1984.37 The 1980s also saw an up-turn in Serres’s fortunes as a public intellectual. ‘The media darling Michel Serres’38 was now to be seen on 36

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‘Exclu du système, j’ai ouvert la boutique « Michel Serres ». Et je dois dire que je ne m’en suis pas trop mal sorti. Au final, c’est une exclusion qui m’a plutôt bien réussi.’ Before the appointment at Stanford, Serres held visiting professorships at a range of US universities including Johns Hopkins, Buffalo, New York, The University of California Irvine and the University of Austin, Texas (Pan 69). This is a rather free translation of ‘Le très médiatisé philosophe Michel Serres’, from the rather negative review of Serres’s Le Contrat naturel by Lamy, ‘L’écologie sans politique’.

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the cult flagship arts programme Apostrophes hosted by the iconic Bernard Pivot, which ran from 1975 to 1990. Serres appeared on the show to discuss his publishing successes, notably Les Cinq sens, Le Contrat naturel and Le Tiers-instruit, with one entire episode in 1989 dedicated to Serres and Girard at Stanford.39 If the 1980s was the decade in which Serres was discovered by the French media, then the 1990s saw him collect a series of honours and titles, none more prestigious than his election to the Académie Française in 1990, the forty-strong group of ‘immortals’ of French intellectual culture drawn from the arts, sciences and public life. In 1994 he was appointed as chief scientific advisor to the television channel La Cinquième, though his work for television pre-dates this appointment: along with astrophysicist Pierre Léna he co-wrote and narrated the ten-part television series Tours du monde, tours du ciel, discussing the history of astronomy and cosmology, directed by Robert Pansard-Besson, first broadcast on the channel Arte in 1991. In 1996 he was involved in the production of another series, La Légende des sciences, the twelve episodes of which explore aspects of the history of science. This time Serres worked alongside Pansard-Besson as co-screenwriter and provided the series voiceover. He also made a notable appearance in the documentary La Grande allure (1985) by celebrated Québécois director Pierre Perrault, in which he is filmed having two conversations with the director and scriptwriter Jean Gagné about marine navigation.40 His media career took a further turn in 2004 when he was invited by Michel Polacco, then controller of the national radio station France Info, to take part in a weekly broadcast giving a ‘scientifically and philosophically informed’ view on a theme from the week’s news. Le Sens de l’Info ran from 5 September 2004 for 14 years until 14 July 2018, drawing up to four million weekly listeners.41 On 27 March 2004 Serres opened the Bibliothèque Michel Serres and the Institut Michel Serres at the ENS in Lyon; in 2012 he was the recipient of the Meister Eckhart Prize from the University of Cologne for his work on identity, only the second French thinker after Claude Lévi-Strauss in 2003 to receive the award, and in 2013 he received the Dan David Prize, for cross-disciplinary work contributing to the betterment of society. Why is Serres Not More Prominent in Discussions of Contemporary Thought?

Despite his status as académicien, despite his more than forty-five monographs, his long-term professorship at Stanford and his prestigious international prizes, Serres ‘has as yet failed to find an audience amongst British and North American social 39 40 41

Cazenave, ‘Deux philosophes Français aux Etats-Unis’. For more information, see Savard, Répertoire numérique détaillé. The figure is quoted in Dolphijn, ‘Introduction’, 1.

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theorists’,42 ‘remains underutilised across the social sciences’43 and is yet to ‘acquire the status of his peers’.44 William Paulson once predicted that Serres would attain a fame on a par with that of Barthes or Derrida. Later, he admitted that his prophecy was ‘about as wrong as could be’.45 It is not that Serres does not write enough, for he has metronomically published around one or two books a year for the last two decades. It is not that his books have remained unknown; Petite Poucette and Temps des crises became best-sellers in France, and Les Cinq sens, Le Contrat naturel and Le Tiers-instruit were discussed in prominent national fora including the venerated televisual salon Apostrophes. One explanation for Serres’s relatively anaemic reception is his untimeliness, which is no doubt the philosophical price to pay for his prescience. His Le Système de Leibniz struck an optimistic and only subtly political note at the height of the politically charged events of 1968. Its gradualist and optimistic pronouncements such as ‘the more we advance in knowledge, the more we discover with joy a better world: in fact, the more we constitute it as such’ (SL 389)46 were never likely to find a ready audience among militant revolutionary intellectuals. In Les cinq sens (1985) Serres was writing against the linguistic paradigm at the very moment when the the linguistic turn in French thought was reaching its paroxystic height, maintaining that ‘I fear those who go through life drugged, less than I fear those under the edict of language’ (CS 98/FS 92).47 Le Contrat naturel, pleading for a renewed environmental responsibility and restraint on corporate destruction of the environment, hit the shelves one year after the stock market crash of 1989 and at the beginning of the early 1990s recession in France and the USA, when the appetite for potentially economically harmful ecological arguments was at a low ebb. Like Nietzsche’s madman, Serres repeatedly came too early. There are also additional reasons, more inherent to Serres’s own writing, that may contribute to his lukewarm reception to date both in France and in the Anglophone world. One such factor is that his writing may not be considered ‘critical’ or ‘engaged’ enough by readers who consume philosophy in order to be informed which side of the latest ideological divide they are supposed to be on, why they are correct, and why their enemies are always already deluded or malicious. Serres’s writing rarely (though occasionally) displays the sword-wielding, tub-thumping agonism that characterises this critical tribalism, and he abhors the 42 43 44 45 46

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Brown, ‘Michel Serres’, 1. Tucker, ‘Sense and the Limits of Knowledge’, 149. Brown, ‘The Theatre of Measurement, 218. Paulson, ‘Michel Serres’s Utopia of Language’, 215. ‘plus nous avançons dans les connaissances plus nous découvrons avec joie un monde meilleur: en effet, plus nous le constituons comme tel’. ‘Je crains moins ceux qui vivent sous drogue que ceux qui marchent sous langue.’

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political ‘engagement’ common among many of his peers. In Chapter 1 we shall see that he considers this not as an absence or a weakness of his thought, but a positive choice for Leibnizian federation over Cartesian analysis. Serres’s thinking was, in contrast to many of his contemporaries, not defined by the political events of May 1968 but by the bloody deaths of two World Wars and, supremely, the scientifically hatched atom bombs dropped on the civilians of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. ‘For me’, he warns in Solitude, ‘political decisions were synonymous with mass deaths’ (Sol 119),48 and whether or not readers share his view this equation of grand politics with mass slaughter does make sense of his reluctance to wade into political debates all guns blazing. One further reason why Serres’s work is dismissed particularly in Anglophone circles is that his broad cross-disciplinary interests make for an approach that is thought to be vague and lacking in rigour, showing an unhealthy preference for stylistic peregrinations over careful systematicity. It is easy to peddle a story along these lines. I have experienced the whole of Serres’s oeuvre dismissed to my face because of one misattributed quotation in Le Système de Leibniz, and on another occasion Petite Poucette was dismissed with the hand-waving generality that it is an octogenarian’s fantasy of the internet. These are quick and easy charges to make but, to my mind at least, accusations such as these are so keen to take the speck out of Serres’s eye that they miss the plank in their own, often a plank manifested precisely in looking first for whatever detail might be perceived incorrect in a thinker, rather than seeking to understand the global intuition he or she is offering. The problem here is in the refusal to see, or at least to acknowledge, the federating impetus of Serres’s thought. It is not that he has the last word on anything he says, but that his thought as a whole gains compound persuasiveness with each journey it travels between disparate fields; its power is in its cumulative coherence, not in its treatment of any one theme in isolation. This is why it is quite correct – though a little obtuse – to answer the question ‘Where does Serres write about this or that subject?’ with the response ‘everywhere’. For the same reasons, Serres’s work does not lend itself to swift and self-contained ‘applications’ to discrete social or political questions, and even less to dinner party one-upmanship. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Michel Serres is not a droppable name. The way in which Serres weaves together disparate discourses, subjects and approaches is frequently seen not as a speciality in itself but as the lack of any speciality and a shallow eclecticism: ‘I have never been considered a specialist in any domain, or of any problem’ (Pan 360), he laments.49 To be a specialist in 48 49

‘pour moi, les décisions politiques étaient synonymes de morts en masse’. ‘je n’ai jamais été considéré comme un spécialiste d’aucun domaine ou d’aucun problème’.

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moving between and among problems and domains, it seems, does not count for an academic culture that persists in fighting over the rights to exclusive exploitation of minuscule parcels of intellectual terrain. Serres has suffered from his decision to break the academic convention of staking out an intellectual territory of modest proportions (a strategy that was once archly described to me as writing a monograph on Molière’s underpants), making oneself its undisputed master and then milking it for all one, and for all it, is worth, defending one’s precious territory tooth and nail against the pretensions of any hostile academics who might challenge one’s fiefdom. As we shall see, Serres has a lot to say about those who, having fenced in a piece of land, proclaim ‘This is mine’, and find people naïve enough to believe them, and none of it is complimentary. The breadth of Serres’s work also has the effect, unappealing for some, of taking even the most polymathic reader out of her comfort zone.50 To read Serres is to find oneself, sooner or later, on the outside: the mathematician finds herself an outsider to nineteenth-century literature, if not to recent trends in biology. The literary scholar finds himself on unfamiliar territory with Serres’s use of the technical vocabulary of sailing, or mathematical topology.51 This is only a reason not to read Serres if we demand to dominate our reading matter and then pontificate as experts at the feet of whom all others are forced to sit. To read Serres is not to master Serres, and that is a good thing. We can hear the tone of frustration in Bruno Latour’s question ‘Why in the space of one paragraph, do we find ourselves with the Romans then with Jules Verne then with Indo-Europeans, then, suddenly, launched with the Challenger rocket, before ending up on the bank of the Garonne river?’ (Ec 70/C 43).52 To read Serres is to be confronted with at least some of the vast ocean of knowledge of which we are barely even aware of our ignorance, to be confronted with disciplines which, whatever our speciality, we last studied at school, and this can perhaps be a discomforting experience for those driven by a critical instinct to prove themselves right and everyone else wrong. 50 51

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This point is made in Antonello, ‘Celebrating a Master’, 167. As I wrote this book I began making a list of all the areas and thinkers in which a reader of Serres is challenged to be competent. The no doubt incomplete list ran to a daunting thirty-two items by the time I quietly set it aside in mild despair: Bachelard, Balzac, the Bible, biosemiotics, Bourbaki, Carpaccio, chaos theory, Comte, cybernetics, Deleuze, Descartes, Dumézil, eco-theory, fluid dynamics, Galileo, Girard, Hergé, information theory, La Fontaine, Leibniz, Lucretius, Molière, Monod, non-linear dynamics, theories of the origin of language, topology, geometry, algebra, Rousseau, Jules Verne, Simone Weil and Zola. ‘Pourquoi, au détour d’un paragraphe, se trouve-t-on chez les Romains, puis chez Jules Verne, puis chez les Indo-Européens et, hop! embarqué dans la fusée Challenger, avant de finir sur une rive de la Garonne?’

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Serres regularly confounds his readers and his thought has an ‘unpocketability’ and ‘undockability’53 that wriggles free of all attempts to cloister it. Whereas many theoretical treatises take a central theme and scrutinise it centripetally from a number of different angles, Serres’s books tend to take a motif and then radiate out in lavishly centrifugal diffusions, crossing disciplinary boundaries at will. As Steven Connor points out, it is precisely because Serres does not let his reader settle into a familiar thematic treatment that his work ‘constitutes a thesaurus of possibilities that is much richer than that of other writers who may appear more tractable to our purposes’.54 Another potential obstacle in the way of Serres’s readers, but one that reveals itself to be a fitting and necessary aspect of his approach, is his style, especially from the time of Le Parasite (1980) onwards. The question of Serres’s style will be treated at length in Chapter 3, but no survey of the reasons why Serres has not been more widely received can be complete without a brief mention of his so-called ‘hermetic’55 or ‘poetic’56 mode of writing. According to Alan Murray, ‘for many first-time readers, it is not immediately obvious that what they are dealing with is, in fact, philosophy at all. For example, Serres hardly ever uses philosophical terminology and rarely refers to other philosophers.’57 He passes seamlessly between anecdote, myth, theoretical discourse, literary criticism and fictional narrative, and this means that the ‘concrete proposals’ or ‘practical measures’ for addressing the problems he raises are rarely offered to the reader as low-hanging fruit but must be gleaned not only from what he writes but from the way he writes. His rich mode of discourse also means that his books resist translation ‘due to their complex word play, neologisms and erratic style’,58 perhaps even more than those of Derrida and Deleuze, and unlike Bruno Latour he has never embraced writing in English.59 One more practical issue accounts for the slow take-up of Serres in the Anglophone world: the sluggish rate at which his books are being translated, and the somewhat haphazard order of those translations. The first book to appear in its entirety in English – discounting the composite Hermes: Literature, Science Philosophy (1982) – was The Parasite (1982), followed by Detachment (1989), Rome (1991, retranslated in 2015), Angels: A Modern Myth, Conversations on 53 54 55

56 57 58 59

Connor, ‘The Hard and the Soft’. Connor, ‘The Hard and the Soft’. ‘Or, une des premières choses qui frappent le lecteur lorsqu’il entame son périple dans l’œuvre de Michel Serres, et peu importe par où il commence, est sans aucun doute son hermétisme!’, Gendron, ‘Le Voyage extraordinaire’, 260. Bos calls Serres’s style ‘shamelessly poetic’ in Bos, ‘Nawoord’, 187. Murray, Michel Serres. Pearce, ‘The Five Senses’, 88. Not by a long stretch. In 2013 Serres called for a strike from the English language (see Dubois, ‘Michel Serres’.

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Culture, Science and Time, Genesis and The Natural Contract (all in the annus mirabilis of 1995), The Troubadour of Knowledge (1997), The Birth of Physics (2000, retranslated in 2018), Origins of Geometry (2001, retranslated as Geometry in 2017), The Five Senses (2008), Malfeasance (2011), Variations on the Body (2011), Biogea (2012), Times of Crisis (2013), Thumbelina and Statues (2014), Eyes (2015) and The Incandescent (2018). To be sure, Serres is currently undergoing something of a publishing and critical renaissance, with a monograph and collected volume on his thought appearing within two years of each other60 and the new Bloomsbury Michel Serres and Material Futures series establishing itself, in addition to the book you are currently reading. The most egregious omission from the list of Serres’s books available in translation, of course, is Le Système de Leibniz61 which, like De la grammatologie for Derrida or Différence et répétition for Deleuze, sets key trajectories for almost all Serres’s later thought. The translation of this magnum opus, which is surely now inevitable, will, I predict, mark a step-change in the reception of Serres’s thought. I hope to demonstrate in the chapters that follow why it is the single most crucial text for understanding Serres as a thinker, despite the fact that he transformed and nuanced many of the positions he holds in this early work. Derrida’s and Deleuze’s reception would surely have been different had their seminal theses similarly remained unpublished. It is additionally very hard to understand Serres’s thought without, if not the five volumes of the Hermès series, then at least Hermès II: l’interférence, Hermès IV: la distribution and Hermès V: le Passage du Nord-Ouest, and we await the translation of these volumes with similar impatient expectancy. One final reason why Serres is not more widely read, at least in his own estimation, is that he does not peddle a philosophical brand: I do not have the equivalent of this idea attached to the name of certain philosophers as if it were their treasure: the clinamen for Epicurus, the lump of wax for Descartes, the general will for Rousseau, the flesh for Merleau-Ponty, deconstruction for Derrida, mimetism for René Girard, etc. I have no logo, no brand. But a philosophy does not spread without a logo. (Pan 360–1)62 60

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The two volumes in question are Moser, The Encyclopedic Philosophy of Michel Serres, and Dolphijn, Michel Serres and the Crises of the Contemporary. Although a translation of Le Système de Leibniz was published by Clinamen Press in 2003 under the title The System of Leibniz, copies are virtually impossible to procure and I have never met anyone who has seen one. ‘Je n’ai pas l’équivalent de cette idée qui est attachée au nom de certains philosophes comme leur trouvaille: le clinamen d’Épicure, le morceau de cire de Descartes, la volonté générale de Rousseau, la chair de Merleau-Ponty, la déconstruction de Derrida, le mimétisme de René Girard, etc. Je n’ai pas de logo, pas de marque. Or une philosophie ne se diffuse que si elle a un logo.’

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This is not entirely true: Serres’s quasi-object, parasite and troubadour of knowledge do to some extent have the same currency as Derrida’s deconstruction (a term with which Derrida, for his part, is distinctly uneasy insofar as it is used to characterise his thought as a whole63), and at least the same prominence as Descartes’s wax or Merleau-Ponty’s flesh. What is certainly true is that Serres does not court, and has not received, the same devoted gaggle of disciples that gathers around his more prominent contemporaries. While Derridean, Deleuzian and Foucauldian approaches to everything from architecture to zoology abound and are explored in a steady stream of monographs with titles in which thinker and subject straddle the copula ‘and’, rare indeed is the confessedly ‘Serresian’ reading of a given theme or problem. This is partly Serres’s own doing: his thought resists the off-the-shelf character that garners disciples, and because the topics on which he writes are so diverse his readers form no mobilisable community.64 In an interview with Peter Hallward published in 2003 he argues that ‘[t]here are two kinds of philosopher: there are philosophers who shackle you’ like Hegel and Heidegger whom, once the unsuspecting reader begins to digest their vast output, reel her in and make her their disciple, ‘and philosophers who free you’ (S&H 234–5) like Leibniz, who does not cajole his readers into becoming Leibnizians. Serres has individual and independent readers, not groups of followers. Masataka Ishibashi points out that when we read Serres on Leibniz we customarily do so with the aim of understanding Leibniz, not primarily of understanding Serres better through his reading of Leibniz, and when we read Serres on ecology or the senses we do so with the aim primarily of understanding those topics more adequately, rather than understanding Serres himself: ‘Serres has not been read for himself but according to the interests of each reader. From which there arises a real problem’ for his reception.65 There are, however, encouraging signs for the future of Serres scholarship. His reputation continues to benefit from outstanding standard-bearers such as Marcel Hénaff, Bruno Latour, Christiane Frémont, William Paulson, Steven Connor, David Webb and Stephanie Posthumus to name but a few, and the rate of translation of his important works is gathering pace, with Bloomsbury and Rowman & Littlefield blazing the trail. If optimism is a function of trajectory, then there is every reason to see a bright future for Serres scholarship. 63 64 65

See Derrida, ‘Ponctuations’, 452; ‘The Time of a Thesis’, 44. Antonello, ‘Celebrating a Master’, 167. ‘Serres n’a pas été lu pour lui-même mais selon les intérêts particuliers de chaque lecteur. D’où un vrai problème’, Ishibashi, ‘Entre le Japon et Jules Verne’, 178.

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How (Not) to Write about Michel Serres

Having sketched Serres’s life and the reasons for his patchy reception to date, we now turn to the thorny issue of the approach of this book. By no means the smallest thorn is that there are sufficient indications in Serres’s writing, echoed and amplified in the judgements of some of his readers, that writing a book such as the one you are currently reading is a bad idea per se. Serres’s work, as we have already seen, resists reductive synthesis. Each paragraph sends out axons in multiple directions and we are faced with the unenviable choice of either ignoring some of the important connections or producing a map that is as large as the territory it represents. If Serres’s meaning is in the way that he writes just as much as in what he says, then how can a book that does not write like Serres begin to do justice to his thought? Warnings against such a foolhardy undertaking proliferate in the literature on Serres, occurring with sufficient frequency to make any sensible scholar walk away quietly and try something else. Stephanie Posthumus voices a concern that I suspect everyone who has written on Serres has experienced at one point or another: ‘we often have the impression of advancing against the current, of doing violence to the very nature of the work, when we summarise Serres’s thought’.66 It is quite true, as Niran Abbas warns, that, when it comes to Serres, ‘[b]y excluding the “inessential,” one misses the essential’.67 Steven Connor similarly cautions that Serres’s thought ‘does not seem to allow short-cuts, does not surrender easily to the economy of synecdoche, or permit the parsimony of paraphrase’.68 William Poulson issues one of the starkest warnings against summarising or condensing Serres’s thought: It would even be possible, I think, to create an abstract, conceptual handbook from Serres, a kind of dogmatic, synthetic textbook of ‘Serresean philosophy,’ with an emphasis on the invariant models and the philosophical translations of scientific concepts. Yet although such a handbook strikes me as a real possibility, it is one, I suspect, that no one really devoted to his work could quite want to do.69

These are high stakes indeed: to write a book on Serres’s thought betrays a lack of devotion to Serres. Catch-22. This may not, however, be quite such a bad thing. 66

67 68 69

‘on a souvent l’impression d’avancer à contre-courant, de faire violence à la nature même de l’œuvre, en résumant la pensée de Serres’, Posthumus, ‘La nature et l’écologie chez Lévi-Strauss, Tournier, Serres’, 200. Abbas, ‘Introduction’, 7. Connor, ‘The Hard and the Soft’. Paulson, ‘Swimming The Channel’, 31.

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I come neither to praise Serres nor to bury him, and I write not as one devoted to Serres’s work but as one who is nevertheless convinced that it is fresh, important and chronically underappreciated. I am not a ‘Serresian’, but then again I suspect that Serres himself would not approve if I were. It is also true, of course, that anyone at all who writes on Serres cannot do so without some measure of synthesising and seeking invariance, against which Paulson warns. Indeed, in the same paragraph he dips his toe in this water with the meta-comment that [w]hat matters is less an overarching argument running through a book (though strong and coherent argument there is), but rather the connections being made through continuous interwoven ‘digressions’ that turn out to be the very texture of the writing and thought.70

Despite the admonitions of a chorus of Serres’s readers and commentators I remain convinced that sketching the contours of a ‘Serresian philosophy’ not only has merit but fits well with Serres’s own approach in ways I will explain below, and that if the worst excesses of dogmatism and synthetic reductionism can be avoided, this is not only a valuable but a necessary task if the power and uniqueness of Serres’s thought is to be introduced to more readers in both the Anglophone and Francophone worlds. What Paulson and others are rightly resisting, I think, is a reduction of the cross-disciplinary richness of Serres’s thought to a flat philosophical suite of concepts in relation to which his treatments of literature and science can be dismissed as so many bells and whistles. I share that misgiving, and I offer the account of ‘extensivity’ and ‘exhaustivity’ in Serres’s pluralism (see Chapter 2) as a way to preserve the uniqueness of each disciplinary approach while still allowing them to be brought into relation with each other In ‘undermining the “Serres handbook” option’, Paulson intends that ‘the rich concreteness of his writing thus serves to prevent his texts from becoming instruments of power and control –with all the dangers for loss of intellectual influence that this stance implies’.71 I wonder, though, whether or not that is a Serresian stance to take. To sequester Serres’s writing in a purified temple unsullied by the evils of power and control may unwittingly play into the hands of what I will later call the sacred/profane dichotomy of modernity against which he struggles might and main. For Serres everything is related, and influence, power and control are best addressed not by seeking, per impossibile, to remain

70 71

Paulson, ‘Swimming The Channel’, 31. Paulson, ‘Swimming The Channel’, 31.

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unadulterated by them, but – according to Serres’s argument about pollution in Le Mal propre – by understanding them in a broader context that shows their surprising isomorphic affinities with dynamics with which they are customarily thought to have nothing in common. Perhaps the starkest warning against writing a book about Serres comes from Serres himself, in the introduction to Le Système de Leibniz, where he warns against choosing a single Leibnizian discourse – whether it be logic, the metaphysics of forces, monadic pluralism or theological mysticism – and trying to reduce the rest of Leibniz to it (SL 26–7). And yet, in this chastening warning against writing what Paulson calls a ‘Serres handbook’, we also find a Serresian blueprint for just such an exercise, namely that we can seek to read Serres as Serres himself reads Leibniz. Refusing any single starting point, Serres takes the plurality of Leibnizian discourses itself as his entry into the Leibnizian corpus, seeking to account for how they relate to each other rather than trying to reduce one to another.72 This is the approach to Serres’s own work I attempt in the current volume. I am of the very firm conviction that a book on Serres should not need, or try, to write like Serres. To describe is not the same as to participate, and both have their place. As is the case with every assessment and analysis of a body of work, whether in literature, philosophy or any other field, to read the present volume is not to read Michel Serres. Writing a book that approximated as closely as possible to Serres’s own style would, furthermore, be pointless: just go and read Serres himself. What the prospective reader of Serres does not yet have, however, is a volume that presents and evaluates Serres’s thought systematically, starting with a sustained treatment of Le Système de Leibniz and then following an often winding path through his books on Verne and Zola, through his Hermès series, his foundations trilogy, and through his treatments of language, objects and ecology. That is what the present volume aspires to offer: one path through Serres’s work. There is more than adequate precedent in Serres’s writing itself for the sort of approach this book is taking. The ‘table de manières’ in Jouvences sur Jules Verne demonstrates that Serres acknowledges there are multiple paths through his work, multiple ways to ramble over the landscape of his thought. However, as Steven Connor notes, to choose one pathway is inevitably to open oneself to all of it, for ‘here the local communicates fully with the global and the global wholly inhabits the local’.73

72 73

This is the conclusion reached by Ladrière in his ‘Préface’ to Crahay’s Michel Serres, 14. Connor, ‘The Hard and the Soft’.

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Figures of Thought

With these caveats in place I can now sketch the main contours of the approach to Serres’s work I have adopted in this book. There are two: Serres’s ‘global intuition’ and his ‘figures of thought’. Approaching his thought in terms of these two major aspects is an approach that, I will argue, cuts with the grain of his writing. The term ‘figures of thought’ [‘figures de la pensée’] was a pre-release subtitle for the 2015 Le Gaucher boiteux, eventually published with the changed subtitle ‘power of thought’ [‘puissance de la pensée’].74 In Le Gaucher boiteux Serres treats the idea of figures of thought at some length, identifying them by eight key features that together build a complex and broad picture of the nature and function of figures in Serres’s thought: they are operators, they are present in the natural world, they introduce something new into a situation, they arise and are sustained bodily, not just mentally, they are invented and sustained in literature as well as in nature, they are framed as characters with proper names, they synthesise plural features, and they provide a richness of which abstract concepts are only ever a reductive abstraction. I shall survey these eight points one by one. First, figures are operators.75 Near the beginning of Le Gaucher boiteux Serres promises that ‘this book will describe figures of thought’, and ‘what is thinking if not, at the very least, performing four operations: receiving, emitting, storing and processing information?’ (GB 11).76 So Serres’s first definition of figures of thought is as a series of operations that are performed repeatedly, always in new contexts and on different information. Drawing on the language of his earlier work in Éloge de la philosophie en langue française and elsewhere, this is an understanding of figures

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At the time of writing (May 2019), the original subtitle is still visible on a number of sites, including amazon.fr and livre.fnac.com. ‘Operator’ is the preferred term of those who seek to engage with Serres’s figures of thought. Sydney Lévy argues that in his books Serres ‘has constructed, if not precisely concepts, cognitive “operators” – means of understanding that are at once inter-disciplinary and trans-disciplinary’ (Lévy, ‘An Ecology of Knowledge’, 3), and Antonello insists that ‘“Noise,” “parasite,” “hermaphrodite” are heuristic operators and “philosophical characters”’ (Antonello, ‘Celebrating a Master’, 167) in the same way that metaphors and models are explanatory devices in scientific discourse. However, the term lacks the richness that Serres gives to ‘figure’ in Le Gaucher boiteux. The only contemporary of Serres to use the term ‘figure of thought’, though in a very different sense to Serres himself, is Alain Badiou who, in Conditions, argues that ‘mathematics was for Plato always a singular figure of thought’ (Badiou, Conditions, 109) and in Handbook of Inaesthetics he insists that ‘dance instead integrates space into its essence. It is the only figure of thought to do this’ (Badiou, Handbook of Inaesthetics, 63). Neither of Badiou’s senses are what Serres intends by the term. ‘Ce livre veut et va décrire les figures de pensée. . . . qu’est-ce que penser, sinon, au minimum, effectuer ces quatre opérations: recevoir, émettre, stocker, traiter de l’information?’

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of thought as algorithms, complex functions for producing an infinite variety of outputs from infinite possibilities of inputs. Secondly, figures of thought are a natural phenomenon, not imagined ex nihilo by the philosopher and no mere cultural artefact. They emerge from the ‘Great Story’ of the universe with its bifurcating turns that lead from the emergence of matter through mineral, animal and human life and encompass language, meaning and culture. ‘Life as it evolves’, insists Serres, ‘operates by emergences, by unexpected syntheses. Like the Great Story, it explodes with inventions. It produces figures’ (GB 14).77 So, for example, species of flora and fauna are figures (GB 15), understood as new inventions or branchings in the Great Story that respond and adapt to particular environments. Figures are not limited to a glacial evolutionary timescale however, for ‘the ordinary existence of the animal, vegetal or human body ceaselessly produces such sums, such syntheses, such figures, such emergent novelties’ (GB 28).78 Whatsoever figures may exist, in whatever form and in whatever context, ‘they all emerge from the movement of the Universe, of life, of the body, of cultures, in short of thought’ (GB 178).79 There is, then, a fundamental continuity between the way Serres understands the rhythms of nature and the rhythms of his own thought.80 Thirdly, figures are inventions. They introduce something new into the Great Story of the universe. In Serres’s language, they are ‘ramifications’,81 ‘elements, constellations, plants, animals, nymphs, gods, idols, and their sweet twin sisters, ideas’ (GB 16)82 that cannot be reduced to predictable outworkings of what preceded them. Fourthly, human figures are not always products of the mind but are also formed by and expressed in the body. Serres gives the examples of the tummy roll, the Fosbury flop, the elegant pas de deux and the tender caress (GB 28), and of distinctive ‘ways of holding the body, gestures, postures and movements’ (GB 29).83 Figures transgress the dichotomy of mind and body, sculpting the latter as they occupy the former. 77

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79 80 81

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‘la vie évolutive opère par émergences, par synthèses inattendues. Comme le Grand Récit, elle explose d’inventions. Elle produit des figures.’ ‘l’existence ordinaire du corps, animal, végétal ou humain, produit sans cesse de telles sommes, de telles synthèses, de telles figures, de telles émergentes nouveautés’. ‘[t]ous émergent du mouvement de l’Univers, de la vie, du corps, des cultures, en somme de la pensée’. This affinity will be explored at length in Chapters 4 and 6. The branch [‘rameau’] is the image of deviation or inclination that Serres chooses to describe the turns and twists of the Great Story. See above all Rameaux. ‘éléments, constellations, plantes, bêtes, nymphes, dieux, idoles, et leurs douces sœurs jumelles, les idées’. ‘ports, gestes, postures et mouvements’.

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Fifthly, literature also invents figures equivalent to those of the Great Story, as Serres explains in an important but complex passage sketching the scope of the term: literature . . . invents and draws figures as beautiful as Ulysses, Don Quixote, Don Juan or the Grand Inquisitor, it gives us access to a summation that is analogous to, and a virtual and cognitive synthesis that is the soft equivalent of, those sums and syntheses that the Great Story shows us when hard iron, aluminium or manganese appear, the equivalent of those that evolution brings forth when a gull in the sky, a jaguar on the earth and a manatee in the ocean see the light of day, of those that populate mythologies with fetishes and idols, of those produced by the body as adaptive gestures when it walks, jumps, and runs, equivalent to the laws it discovers when it becomes liquid as it swims and believes it can fly as it jumps, to the figure that brings into the light the miracle of maternity, then to the final gesture, named more softly. la littérature . . . invente et dessine des figures aussi belles que celles d’Ulysse, Don Quichotte, Dom Juan ou le Grand Inquisiteur, elle nous fait accéder à une somme analogue, à une synthèse virtuelle et cognitive, équivalente dans le doux à celles que le Grand Récit nous montre quand paraissent, durs, fer, aluminium ou manganèse, à celles que l’évolution fait émerger quand paraissent à la lumière telle mouette dans les airs, sur la terre le jaguar ou le lamantin dans les mers, à celles qui peuplent les mythologies de fétiches et d’idoles, à celles que le corps produit en gestes adaptés, lorsqu’il marche, saute, court, aux lois qu’il découvre quand il nage en se liquéfiant et saute en croyant qu’il vole, à la figure que fait accéder au jour la miraculeuse maternité, puis au geste final et plus doux de nommer. (GB 41)

Like the figures of the natural world, literary figures are alive in the sense that they can evolve over time, ‘at least in the virtual of an experience that is indispensable to the way our learning metamorphoses’, and so ‘they mimic the world and life, in the sense of recreating them’ (GB 41).84 Nature and culture, body and mind, literature and life are all encompassed in Serres’s transgressive notion of the figure. Sixthly, and following this literary pattern, many of the figures that Serres invents are characters whose names range from the mythological or literary (Hermes, Atlas, Harlequin and Pierrot), to the generic (the parasite, the pontifex, angels) and/or proper (Thumbelina, Bianca Castafiore, Ulysses, Grandpa Grumpy). These characters will be discussed at greater length in Chapter 3, but what is important for our purposes here is that they draw together the general and the individual, 84

‘au moins dans le virtuel d’une expérience indispensable à nos métamorphoses éducatives . . . ils miment le monde et la vie, au sens de la recréation’.

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in one more instance of Serres’s distinctive account of the complementarity of the local and the global. Such figures are superior to abstract ideas in Serres’s eyes not only because they better reflect the figures that are to be found in the natural world which are always ‘individual incarnations’ (GB 47), but also because they better represent the truth of ideas than ideas themselves: a beautiful man or woman is beautiful in a way that the abstract idea of beauty is not, such that ‘this spiralling return of the idea towards the figure can no longer pass for a stupid regression, as if it were an inability to conceptualise, but on the contrary it constitutes cognitive progress, a gain in reality’ (GB 119).85 Serres’s figures, in other words, are not merely descriptive but also performative, not only merely mimetic but also participatory. Seventhly, figures are synthetic. While remaining unique they can draw together and communicate a world: ‘singular, original, unique of its sort, even marginal if you want, and in any case unexpected, a concrete character synthesises a whole world and often brings it into being’ (GB 53).86 Eighthly and finally, these figures are upstream of abstract ideas which ‘come right at the end of a long series of more nourishing figures’ (GB 24).87 Figures are the living, effervescent forms from which abstract concepts are a pale residue. Abstract concepts always arrive late to the party, when figures have been operating pre-theoretically for some time already. Serres’s twin insistence on the natural origin of all figures of thought, and on their (literary or fleshly) incarnation sets them apart from other attempts to label philosophical moves, such as the ‘philosopheme’ evoked by Derrida and others,88 and also the Deleuzian concepts which it is the business of philosophy to create.89 Figures of thought help Serres to establish continuities and isomorphisms across the varied subjects of his many books. The figure of Hermes, for example, stands over Serres’s writing from Hermès I: la communication (1969) until it is replaced by multiple angels in La Légende des anges (1993), undergoing many evolutions and subtly variant incarnations along the way. Figures help Serres’s reader to build a sense of the characteristic Serresian philosophical ‘moves’ or ‘gestures’, without 85

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‘Ce retour en spirale de l’idée vers la figure ne peut plus passer pour une régression sotte, comme une impuissance à conceptualiser, mais constitue, au contraire, un progrès cognitif, un gain de réalité.’ ‘singulier, original, unique en son genre, marginal même si l’on veut, inattendu en tout cas, un personnage concentre, à soi seul, tout un monde, le synthétise et souvent le commence’. ‘ne viennent qu’en petites dernières le long d’une série de figures plus nourricières’. Derrida uses the term ‘philosopheme’ across a number of different texts, sometimes in apposition to ‘philosophical idea’, ‘concept’ or ‘metaphysical concept’ (see, for example, Du droit à la philosophie, Voyoux and ‘La mythologie blanche’). In addition, Theodor Adorno claims that ‘Auschwitz confirmed the Philosopheme of pure identity as death’ (Adorno, Negative Dialectics, 362) and Badiou refers to ‘the philosopheme of the One’ (Badiou, Conditions, 181). See Deleuze and Guattari, What is Philosophy?

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ossifying them into a rigid philosophical system or handbook. Figures, like the characters whose names they take, can be unpredictable, creative and strike up new relationships. I propose to build on this feature of Serres’s thought by drawing out the similarities between moves and gestures that remain disconnected in his own writing, suggesting and naming figures for certain moments of Serres’s thought that risk passing under the radar of all but the most assiduous and capacious reader of his work. Where I have identified figures that are not consistently accorded a name by Serres, I have tried to do so by pressing into service terms which are already present in his writing. In labelling figures of thought I am extending a practice already underway in Serres’s thought, not imposing upon it an alien taxonomy. My aim is twofold: first to make visible the recurring moves in Serres’s writing, moves that might otherwise risk appearing disjointed or opportunistic, and so to provide the reader with a legend for reading the Serresian map; secondly, I aim to navigate some of the north-west passages that connect far-flung corners of the Serresian corpus. An approach that focuses on figures of thought seeks to take seriously Paulson’s warning about a ‘Serres handbook’ while also responding to René Girard’s prescient but problematic injunction in the introduction to Detachment: Future historians of ideas may decide, at some point, that Michel Serres was one of the leading spirits in a revolution that is taking place in our midst at this very moment and is transforming our conception of knowledge. This will happen when the categories are finally created that will make his thought more predictable and classifiable than it is now.90

The spirit of this prediction is, I think, correct, and borne out by the way in which Serres’s work has been received to date. It is notable that where such categories do exist in texts in translation – notably ‘parasite’ and ‘natural contract’ – Serres’s thought has been well and productively received. The prediction is problematic, however, in its detail. It is not predictability and classifiability that Serres’s thought requires, but figures or operators that can help us to navigate through it, and these figures do not need to be created for they already exist; they do not have to be imposed on Serres’s thought, merely brought to its surface. A Global Intuition

Serres’s figures of thought do not exist in isolation from each other but form part of a networked sensibility that he calls a ‘global intuition’. Serres draws on concepts of intuition as self-evidence in Descartes (H1) and as ‘a gushing duration’ [‘durée 90

Girard, ‘Introduction’, viii.

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jaillissante’] in Bergson (H5 79–80, see also Ec/C, and CS/FS),91 but his notion of a ‘global intuition’ is distinctively his own. In the course of a conversation with Bruno Latour he explains that ‘my goal is not above all to be right but, rather, to produce a global intuition, profound and sensible’ (Ec 170/C 115).92 This compact statement draws together five aspects of Serres’s thought that will shape the approach of this book; let us consider each one in turn. First of all, Serres is seeking to produce not a set of propositions or a system, but an intuition. The examples he gives of such intuitions show them to be possible ways of seeing, experiencing and living in the world. It is a term the effects of which are relatively easy to describe, but hard to define: Do you want to talk about invention? It’s impossible without that dazzling, obscure, and hard-to-define emotion called intuition. Intuition is, of all things in the world, the rarest, but most equally distributed among inventors – be they artists or scientists. Yes, intuition makes the first move and strikes the first blows. (C 99) Voulez-vous parler de l’invention? Comment faire sans invoquer cette émotion fulgurante, obscure et difficile à définir qu’on appelle l’intuition? L’intuition est la chose du monde la plus rare, mais la mieux partagée par les inventeurs, qu’ils soient artistes ou savants. Oui, elle joue – et frappe – les premiers coups. (Ec 148)

Serresian intuition strikes the ‘first blows’ of the creative process in the arts and the inventive process in the sciences; it generates the initial hypothesis that is to be tested, or the initial way of seeing the world that is to be explored. Like Nietzsche’s eternal return (see LRE), an intuition is not something that can exhaustively be explained, because it explains everything else. It need not be instantaneous, but ‘[c]ertain great inventors confess to having received their definitive intuition in a single night, a week, a wonderful year’ (In 99/Inc 52).93 Intuition is also distinct from understanding. For example we can come to an understanding of the vast duration of time since the Big Bang without intuiting it (In 190/Inc 105). An intuition is in an important sense pre-rational, but it is not anti-rational or arbitrary. Indeed, new intuitions can be demanded by new circumstances, such as the 91

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The term ‘global intuition’ is also used by Aron in Introduction to the Philosophy of History. For Aron, ‘we do not need reflection: what we are is revealed to us at each moment by a global intuition made up of multiple sensations’, Aron, Introduction to the Philosophy of History, 56. Whereas Aron’s global intuition is a mode of self-awareness, Serres’s begins with an apprehension of reality and the natural world. ‘Vous me direz, à juste titre, qu’Aristote ne justifie rien et ne constitue pas un argument; et je vous répondrai que mon but n’est pas d’avoir raison à toute force, mais de produire une intuition globale, profonde et sensée.’ ‘Certains grands inventeurs confessent avoir reçu leur intuition définitive en une seule nuit, une semaine, une année admirable.’

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development of non-Euclidean geometry requiring us to understand the world differently (see Rome). Secondly, Serresian intuition is ‘profound and sensible’. Intuition is not exclusively intellectual but ‘[w]hatever the activity you’re involved in, the body remains the medium of intuition, memory, knowing, working and above all invention’ (VSC 31–2/VB 34).94 Intuition is corporeal: not a concept but a sensibility, and not a way of thinking but a way of living in the world. It is also profound and sensible in the sense that it is a pre-theoretical sensitivity to what Serres calls the rhythms and sounds of existence (discussed in Chapter 4) out of which meaning and language emerge. The corporeality and pre-theoretical, pre-linguistic rhythmicality of Serresian global intuition sets it apart from the intellectualising notion of ‘worldview’ and also from Deleuze’s concept of the ‘image of thought’ in Difference and Repetition and elsewhere which, though similarly global in scope, is primarily concerned with questions of reference, truth and representation.95 Intuition, thirdly, is ‘global’. An intuition does not pertain to an isolated phenomenon or a particular problem, but to the nature of experience and of the world as such, and specifically to what must necessarily be: ‘every great change in knowledge, intuition, or relationship to the world, corresponds to a crisis over the concept or reality of necessity’ (CS 294/FS 268).96 As an example of such a concept or reality of necessity we might think of the intuition that space and time are topologically constituted, which Serres describes in the following way: It’s fun, instructive, and has a strong influence on intuition. Once you’ve entered into this kind of thinking you realise how much all of what we’ve said about time up till now abusively simplifies things. (C 58) C’est amusant, instructif et change fortement l’intuition. Une fois que vous êtes entré dans cette manière de penser, vous vous apercevez à quel point tout ce que nous avons dit jusqu’à maintenant sur le temps simplifie abusivement les choses. (Ec 92–3) 94

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‘[q]uelque activité à laquelle on se livre, le corps demeure le support de l’intuition, de la mémoire, du savoir, du travail et surtout de l’invention’. Deleuze’s image of thought has distant affinities with what we call a ‘worldview’, but it is less about what we believe than how we believe everything we believe. It is not a list of doctrines but a set of assumptions about how knowledge works and what counts as ‘truth’. It is our image of thought that ‘determines our goals when we try to think’ (Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, xvi), and that gives us a reason to think in the first place. Our image of thought is ‘implicit, subjective, and preconceptual’ (Deleuze and Guattari, What is Philosophy?, 61); it encompasses our commitments that are so basic we do not even consider them commitments but simply ‘the way things are’ or ‘common sense’. An image of thought therefore precedes and grounds thought as the ‘prolegomena to philosophy’ (Deleuze, Negotiations, 149). Deleuze does not stress the corporeality or the naturalness of an image of thought, as do Serres’s global intuition and figures of thought. ‘tout grand changement de savoir ou d’intuition, de rapport au monde, correspond à une crise sur le concept ou la réalité de la nécessité’.

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An intuition is not something that we experience in the world but a way of looking at and making sense of everything we experience in the world: a how, not a what. Fourthly, Serres is not simply seeking to describe his global intuition, but to produce it in his reader. This is a crucial point, to which we shall return in Chapter 3 on Serres’s style. An intuition requires cultivation, reflection, meditation. It may come in a flash but it takes work to inhabit it. For instance, Serres urges that, in order to intuit the vast time that has elapsed since the Big Bang and its implications for our understanding of ourselves and the world, ‘we have to carry out a theoretical effort as well as an existential one: trying to live and understand the content and stakes of this new ancientness’ (In 190/Inc 105, translation altered).97 It also follows from this desire to produce rather than describe, that Serres’s style of writing will play an important role in inculcating in his reader the rhythms and sensibilities of his global intuition. As we shall see in Chapters 4, 5 and 6, Serres’s texts do not represent his global intuition but participate in it, inviting the reader to participate with them. The accent on production also sets Serres’s global intuition apart from Foucault’s epistemes in The Order of Things and The Archaeology of Knowledge. Whereas Foucault’s démarche is predominantly descriptive and he hesitates to describe the archive of his own historical moment,98 Serres engages in an active construction of a new global intuition based on recent discoveries in the sciences and newly minted philosophical theories. Fifthly, Serres is seeking ‘not above all to be right’. Let it be said loudly and clearly that this does not amount to claiming that he cares nothing for truth. He is saying, rather, that being right or wrong is a status within a particular global intuition of the world, a move within a particular game, less ‘profound and sensible’ than the global intuition that makes sense of it. Being right is a matter of verification; measuring something against an existing standard to see if it conforms. It is of great use, but it creates nothing new. Intuition, by contrast, is about invention: I sometimes think that a work achieves more excellence when it cites fewer proper names. It is naked, defenseless, not lacking knowledge but saturated with second naivety; not intent on being right but ardently reaching toward new intuitions. A university thesis aims at the imitable; a plain and simple work seeks the inimitable. (C 22–3, translation altered) 97

98

‘Nous devons aujourd’hui accomplir un effort théorique aussi bien qu’existentiel: tenter de vivre et de comprendre le contenu et l’enjeu de cette ancienneté nouvelle.’ Foucault readily admits that his own writing depends on ‘conditions and rules of which I am very largely unaware’ (Foucault, The Order of Things, xv), and he affirms that we cannot adequately describe our own archive (i.e. our own historical moment) because we are part of it (Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge, 130).

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Il m’arrive de penser qu’un ouvrage atteint d’autant mieux l’excellence qu’il cite moins de noms propres: nu, sans défense, non point sans savoir mais saturé de naïveté seconde, cherchant peu à avoir raison, mais tendu ardemment vers l’intuition neuve. Une thèse universitaire vise l’imitable, une œuvre tout court cherche l’inimitable. (Ec 39)

Intuitions are responsible for the ‘great inventions’ (Ec 62/C 39) of thought, such as Bergson’s intuition that time is duration, or Galileo’s that the universe is written in the language of mathematics (RH 179, see also R 83/Ro 52). Intuition is not irrational, but it is upstream of rationality, the creative raw material upon which rational calculation sets to work: ‘Intuition initiates and commands, abstraction follows it, and finally proof catches up as best it can, in its pedestrian way, as it is able’ (Ec 104/C 68).99 In the course of this book I will seek to draw out the nature and implications of Serres’s global intuition, relating each local insight or figure of thought to this global, pre- and trans-rational way of living in and understanding the world. In the service of these twin aims of identifying and exploring Serres’s key figures of thought, and of locating them within the global intuition he offers to his reader, this book is divided into two parts of three chapters each. Part I seeks to survey and discuss some of Serres’s main figures of thought by exploring the philosophers with whom he most frequently disagrees and those who shape his thought most deeply (Chapter 1), the distinctive account of space and time yielded by his global intuition (Chapter 2), and the irreducible importance of his style of writing for the communication of his global intuition (Chapter 3). Part II then turns to three salient themes in Serres’s thought which are also important topics in recent and contemporary thought and society, exploring how language (Chapter 4), objects (Chapter 5) and ecology (Chapter 6) function as nodes or junctions that both develop Serres’s figures of thought and set them to work, instantiating his global intuition. I encourage the reader to engage with these chapters not as an unbreakable sequence in which each chapter is considered indispensable reading for the next, but as six ways into, and paths through, Serres’s thought. Across the six chapters I briefly indicate ways in which Serres’s positions both resonate with and depart from contemporaries such as Derrida, Badiou, Deleuze and Foucault, and later thinkers such as Jane Bennett, Catherine Malabou, Bruno Latour, Graham Harman and Jean-Luc Nancy. These encounters with other thinkers are intended as indicative suggestions and not exhaustive treatments; it 99

‘L’intuition commence et commande, l’abstraction la suit et la démonstration, enfin, se débrouille et rattrape, pédestre, comme elle peut.’

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cuts against the grain of Serres’s own writing to engage in interminable comparisons, and it loses much of the freshness of his thought always to be dragging him back and tying him down with minute comparisons. It is my hope that, by letting his work speak for itself, readers from diverse disciplinary backgrounds will find not only comparisons with already familiar thinkers but an inventive, invigorating and challenging global intuition and suite of figures of thought that can generate fresh thinking about subjects both new and old.

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PART I

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How Serres Thinks: Leibniz, Plato, Descar tes

No single word, neither substantive nor verb, no domain or specialty alone characterises, at least for the moment, the nature of my work. I only describe relationships. (Michel Serres, Conversations on Science, Culture and Time)

W

HAT DOES IT MEAN to ‘understand’ a philosopher? As a beleaguered PhD student finding my way in the forest of modern and contemporary French thought I remember what it felt like finally to come to terms with a particular thinker. This sensation almost invariably came at the moment when I began to discern the characteristic ‘moves’ of the philosopher in question, to see the ways in which, time and again, they approached disparate subjects in distinct and recognisable ways, such that I came to be able to predict in a general sense the likely contours of their response to any given question. Not that they became predictable, not that they ceased to surprise me, but nevertheless I was able to fit what I was reading into an emerging understanding of the pattern of their thought. Once I began to understand how a philosopher thought in general, it became easier to understand what he or she thought about any theme in particular. These suggestive metaphors of ‘contours’, ‘patterns’ and ‘moves’, and this distinction between how a philosopher thinks and what she thinks, inform my approach to the thought of Michel Serres in these chapters.1 Indeed, as we shall shortly see they also inform Serres’s own approach to thought in general, a perspective he draws from his deepest and longest-lasting philosophical influence: Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. Other metaphors and images could of course be added, such as

1

The distinction, of course, is a heuristic rather than an absolute one, and we shall see that the ‘how’ and the ‘what’ frequently blend into each other in Serres’s work.

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philosophical ‘gestures’ or ‘operators’.2 In this book I prefer to refer to ‘figures of thought’, which are to philosophy what ‘figures of speech’ are to language. A figure of thought is an identifiable way of thinking that remains isomorphic, though not necessarily identical, across multiple instances of its deployment and across different texts. In this first chapter I propose to examine three case studies with the aim of exploring a range of Serresian figures of thought, seeking also to discern how Serres helps us to think about figures of thought in general. The discussion of Serres’s Leibniz in the first section of the present chapter will begin to sketch and reflect upon some repeated Serresian figures, and then in the subsequent two sections these figures will be developed and refined in relation to two of Serres’s most prominent philosophical antagonists: Plato and Descartes. Two dangers attend such an exercise: reducing Serres to his encounters with other thinkers, and brushing aside those encounters out of some mistaken desire to treat him as a philosophical Melchizedek ‘without beginning of days or end of life’.3 In an attempt to avoid these equally undesirable dangers I will focus, in each encounter, on one principle image or moment: Plato’s cave, Descartes’s line and Leibnizian structure. These local encounters will act as synecdochic windows onto Serres’s thought as a whole, following the guiding principle of his Leibnizianism that ‘we can hope, in a precise case, to discover an image, a paradigm, that serves as a singular and regulatory index to the study as a whole’ (SL 3).4 They will also allow us to reflect on some of the similarities and differences between Serres’s reading of Plato and Descartes and the place of these philosophers in the work of other thinkers such as Derrida, Nancy and Deleuze. This chapter will focus primarily on Serres’s earlier writing, and many of the ideas it develops (the distinction between ‘model’ and ‘structure’, for example), are

2

3 4

The term ‘operator’ is common in the literature on Serres, but it is used with a sense a little different from what I have in mind here. The parasite and the clinamen are ‘operators’ for Serres, in the sense that they operate upon inputs (in these cases pre-existing states of affairs) and produce outputs (changed situations; re-arranged states of affairs). The parasite and the clinamen are not figures of thought in the sense I intend in this book because they are specific to particular texts, describing operations that, in different parts of Serres’s corpus, are accomplished by other operators. I intend here to describe the shape of the intervention performed by the parasite or by the clinamen as it traverses Serres’s thought as a whole, and across the different and distinct guises it takes in different texts. Figures of thought, furthermore, need not be operators, as is the case for what I will call the ‘refusal of umbilical thought’ below. See Heb. 7: 3. ‘on peut espérer, sur un cas précis, découvrir une image, un paradigme, qui serve d’index singulier et régulateur à l’étude d’ensemble’, my translation. All translations from SL and other untranslated Serres texts are my own.

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radically modified in his later work. Nevertheless, these early figures of thought still leave a lasting impression on the later Serres, describing gestures that, though transformed and reframed in his later writing, are never abandoned. Serres and Leibniz

Weighing in at 800 pages and around 300,000 words, Le Système de Leibniz et ses modèles mathématiques is substantially longer than Derrida’s Of Grammatology (230,000 words) and fractionally longer than Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus (290,000). It appeared in 1968,5 the same fabled year as the student riots in Paris and other French cities that nearly brought down the de Gaulle government, and the same year as the publication Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition, one year after Of Grammatology and Barthes’s ‘The Death of the Author’, and two years after Foucault’s The Order of Things. Like Derrida’s and Deleuze’s contemporaneous volumes, Le Système de Leibniz was written as a major doctoral thesis (French doctoral candidates submit a major and a minor thesis), the fruit of research under Serres’s tutor Jean Hyppolite at the École Normale Suprérieure, Rue d’Ulm. It stands both as a rich and sinuous study in its own right and also as a radical declaration of philosophical intent from a thinker who is bringing forth, in nuce, the figures of thought that will accompany him throughout more than five decades of subsequent writing. Leibniz, like Serres himself, is a dauntingly broad thinker. He is the progenitor of calculus, of the binary notation that underpins modern computing, and of set theory. In physics he is a pioneer of mechanics and in biology he is the first ‘ovo-spermist’, arguing that the embryo results from the interaction of sperm and egg. He is a political transnationalist and a father of Europe, a philologist who writes the Lord’s Prayer in over fifty languages, a historian, legal scholar, chemist and musician: a ‘prototype of the universal spirit’ (LSD) and a thinker of relentless interdisciplinarity who leaves even the best-read scholar of his work exhausted and panting for breath. It is all the more disappointing for Serres, therefore, that commentators on Leibniz seem intent on singling out and elevating one aspect of his encyclopaedic oeuvre to the status of a control and frame for all the rest, the one indispensable starting point for all Leibniz study, the royal road to finding Leibniz simpliciter or Leibniz degree zero, or a theme in relation to which the rest of the Leibnizian

5

Jean-Marie Auzias cheekily calls the publication of Le Système ‘perhaps the most interesting event of the year’/‘peut-être l’événement le plus intéressant de cette année’, Auzias, Michel Serres, 15.

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corpus is but a series of variations. Serres laments that each commentator elects a such a single starting point in Leibniz’s vast oeuvre, a choice that determines their reading of that oeuvre in its entirety (SL 26) and that, lo and behold, is later claimed as the one indispensable place from which all true understandings of Leibniz must begin. Serres holds up for special excoriation Bertrand Russell’s A Critical Exposition of the Philosophy of Leibniz, which ‘posits at the outset a short series of axioms and tries to deduce the system’. For Russell, Leibniz is first and foremost a logician, and the rest of his work must be brought under, and judged by, this controlling truth. When Russell encounters the ‘thousand contradictions’ to this immaculate hypothesis in the complexity of Leibniz’s work, he has no hesitation in laying responsibility for such unfortunate and regrettable lapses ‘at Leibniz’s door’ (SL 26 n3), rather than asking whether the problem may not rather lie with his own boutique selection of ‘Leibnizian’ axioms. Would that Leibniz had from the outset been endowed with Russell’s clarity of vision! Though Russell is an egregious offender, Serres identifies this propensity to elevate one aspect of the Leibnizian corpus as the controlling paradigm for the whole as a chronic pathology of Leibniz criticism. There is a propensity for each commentator – surprise surprise – to read Leibniz through his or her own disciplinary speciality, subtly (or not quite so subtly) raising their very own area of expertise to the status of the perfect discourse to which all other areas of inquiry must obediently genuflect. This underwhelmingly procrustean approach is mirrored in commentary after predictable commentary, giving us the ‘logicist’ Leibniz, the Leibniz of the ‘knowing subject’, Leibniz the metaphysician of forces, Leibniz the monadic pluralist, Leibniz the theological mystic and universalist, Leibniz the reconciler of theology and law, Leibniz the progenitor of a new historical vision or Leibniz the mathematician, to name but a few (SL 26–7). This is our first glimpse of a figure of thought against which we shall see Serres battling throughout his oeuvre, and to which we shall frequently return in this and subsequent chapters. Serres will give it multiple names in different texts, but for convenience and consistency of reference we shall call it ‘umbilical thinking’. In Le Système de Leibniz Serres condemns what he calls ‘umbilical disciplines’ that ground and give the irreducible truth of all other discourses. In anatomy the umbilicus is the navel, the fixed, central point through which the foetus is fed. In geometry, it is a now obsolete term describing a focus, or the point on a surface through which all lines of curvature pass. More broadly, both in French and English ‘umbilical’ carries the sense of ‘occupying a central point or position’ (Oxford English Dictionary). If a discourse or way of thinking is

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umbilical it claims to be the single, privileged access to plain, unvarnished truth, which all other discourses distort or falsify to one degree or another. What Serres condemns then, is ‘umbilical’ readings of Leibniz, attempting to account for the variety of his work in terms of one fundamental, unifying discourse which acts as a measure for all others. In a religious register, umbilical thinking is an idolatry or a dogmatism that allows for no compromise; in political terms it is a controlling ideology; in economic terms it is a gold standard or dominant currency in relation to which all other values are calculated (see Figure 1.1).6 The irony, from Serres’s point of view, is that if all these commentaries are taken together they reconstitute Leibniz’s thought quite well (SL 28). The problem, however, is that every commentator insists that his or her own path through Leibniz’s work is necessary and definitive, that their own pocket of order in Leibnizian corpus is the ‘total part’ (pars totalis, in French ‘partie totale’), a privileged metonym or model of a universal Leibnizian order (SL 29).7 Like Armande in Molière’s Les Femmes savantes, each umbilical approach confidently affirms ‘No one will have wit except us or our friends’.8

Figure 1.1 Umbilical thinking 6 7

8

I am grateful to David Webb for some of these examples. For an excellent discussion of the difference between pars pro toto and pars totalis, see Godin, ‘Le tout dans la partie’. ‘Nul n’aura de l’esprit, hors nous et nos amis’, Molière, Les Femmes savantes, III, 2.

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Model and structure

Serres’s own approach to Leibniz is not to privilege any one aspect of, or disciplinary approach within, Leibniz’s thought over the others but to treat them all as ‘simple models’ (SL 85) and to accord to no ‘science princeps’ or ‘first theory’ (SL 138) the right to provide a ‘definitive and completed exposé of [Leibniz’s] systematic totality’ (SL 9 n1).9 In other words, he refuses the umbilical approach. For Serres, the ‘best perspective’ on Leibniz’s thought in any area is not that which forces itself into some more or less arbitrarily chosen disciplinary mould but that which ‘will take account of everything’, preserving ‘the truth of these different points of view’ (SL 78). That is to say, it will not do to flatten out the differences between the areas of Leibniz’s thought as if they were so many inessential ways of expressing one central and unchanging truth, nor will it do to emphasise their distinctiveness to the point where they cease to communicate with each other. Leibniz’s system is, in fact, ‘defined by this possibility of a plurivocal welcoming of all the discourses uttered about it’ (SL 26).10 When we compare the different commentaries, what we find is that ‘each commentator, despite the originality of his analysis, rediscovers the regions privileged by the others, expresses them in his own way and, from there, we can say that they all conspire and agree’ (SL 28).11 In fact, Leibniz repeatedly insists that all of his thought accords and agrees (SL 2). The nature of this agreement holds an important key to understanding not only Serres’s reading of Leibniz but his own thought as well, and he expresses it in terms of the difference between ‘model’ and ‘structure’.12 Each commentary on Leibniz follows a particular a ‘model’13 or disciplinary discourse. Serres defines a ‘model’ as ‘a meaningful content that can fill an empty form. And, given that contents vary, there can be several models for the same form’ (SL 309–10).14 Although the notion of model is valid across disciplines and could be discussed in a juridical, political or biological context (SL 5), Serres chooses to

9

‘il est impossible de privilégier un texte comme exposé définitif et achevé de la totalité systématique’. ‘le système ici est défini par cette possibilité d’accueil plurivoque des discours prononcés sur lui’. 11 ‘chaque commentateur, malgré l’originalité régionale de son analyse, retrouve les régions privilégiées par les autres, les exprime à sa manière; et, derechef, il est possible de dire que tous conspirent et consentent’. 12 ‘Model and structure’ is also the collective title of three half-hour video discussions between Serres and Alain Badiou filmed in 1967–8. Directed by Jean Fléchet in association with the Centre Nationale de Documentation Pédagogique, the extended conversation was intended to be viewed by students taking philosophy as part of their baccalauréat (university entrance exam). 13 Serres sometimes uses the alternative term ‘paradigm’. 14 ‘le modèle est un contenu significatif qui peut éventuellement remplir une forme vide. Et comme ces contenus varient, il peut exister plusieurs modèles pour une seule forme’. 10

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consider mathematical models. Arithmetic, geometry and kinematics are all mathematical models, each with their own ‘dictionary’ for expressing relations between mathematical objects. None of them can exert a controlling influence over the others, but they all verify the others in their mutual correspondence (SL 219).15 A ‘structure’ (or, sometimes, a ‘form’), by contrast, is defined as a set [ensemble] of undefined meaning, . . . grouping elements of any number (the content of the elements being unspecified) and relations, finite in number, the nature of which is undefined, but the function of which is defined in relation to the elements. (SL 4; see also H1 32).16

So in mathematics for example, the elements could be points, numbers, movements in space and so on (MS 19), and the structure common to these elements is a set of relations, transformations or operations (MS 19), not the content of the elements related, transformed or operated upon. Structures are ‘transversal’ (SL 5) and ‘analogical’ (SL 37–8) across any number of different models. Serres also describes the relation between model and structure in architectural terms: Doric columns (models), for example, come in many shapes, materials and sizes, but the rules of their construction (structure) remain constant (SL 57). Serres’s understanding of structure has its origins in Leibniz’s method of analysis situs, an attempt to found and formalise geometry. Leibniz seeks to theorise situation (situs), the relative position of an object to other objects. Analysis situs, then, is about relations between elements, not about the magnitude of those elements.17 For Serres, analysis situs stands in relation to elementary geometry as ‘possible model’ to ‘insufficient model’ (SL 322), or as ‘every language in general’ to ‘the language of mathematics’ (SL 509): analysis situs describes the formal possibilities of relations of which Euclidean geometry is one, but only one, expression. The second major influence on Serres’s notion of structure is the Bourbankian mathematical revolution of the mid-twentieth century. Serres lived through a ‘great 15

16

17

The question of whether mathematics itself is being privileged by Serres in the way he denounces in the ‘umbilical thought’ of others is complex, and will be treated in Chapter 2, in the section entitled ‘Serres’s aspectual pluralism’. ‘c’est un ensemble de Signification non’ définie, groupant des éléments en nombre quelconque (éléments dont on ne spécifie pas le contenu) et des relations, en nombre fini, dont on ne définit pas la nature, mais dont on définit la fonction quant aux éléments’ (H1 32). Stephanie Posthumus helpfully points out that this definition remains substantially constant in Serres’s writing from the essay ‘Structure et importation’ (1971) (H1 21–35) to Hermès IV (1977). See ‘La nature et l’écologie chez Lévi-Strauss, Tournier, Serres’, 74. For a fuller discussion of Leibnizian analysis situs, see de Risi, ‘Analysis situs, the foundations of mathematics, and a geometry of space’.

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revolution’ at the beginning of his career, ‘a change in the universe, the profound transformation of a world’ (Ec 22/C 10), namely the revolution from classical to modern mathematics. The terms in which Serres talks about this mathematical revolution resemble those of a revivalist convert: it was ‘An extraordinary upheaval that changed my entire life’ (Ec 22/C 10) and ‘a bit like changing one’s language’ (FPIC 49–50). What Serres is referring to here is the formalisation of mathematics by the group of mathematicians known under the collective pseudonym Nicolas Bourbaki.18 Bourbakian writings explicitly praise Leibniz for his conception of ‘a universal mathematics . . . already very close to modern ideas’, arguing that ‘in fact he glimpses for the first time the general notion of isomorphy (which he calls “similitude”) and the possibility of identifying isomorphic relations or operations’.19 Serres shares this interest, and explains that when he read Leibniz during this period he saw that ‘he had an extraordinarily contemporary concept of algebra, geometry and topology’, and so ‘I studied Leibniz because I felt that he anticipated this revolution in mathematics’ (FPIC 50; see also S&H 229). Following this Leibnizian intuition, the Bourbaki group set out to rethink the way mathematics understands its objects, moving to a ‘more set-based, more operational and more abstract’ paradigm, with the result that ‘[i]t was possible to see sets of objects all at once, as it were, rather than needing to describe them one by one’ (S&H 229). The hope was that this approach would make it possible to systematise the diverse branches of mathematics. A Bourbakian definition of structure from 1948 is remarkably close to Serres’s own understanding of the term in Le Système de Leibniz, quoted above, and in Hermès I: la communication, even down to its rhythm: We can now clarify what is to be understood, in general terms, by a mathematical structure. The feature common to the various notions ranged under this generic heading is that they all apply to sets of elements, the nature of which is not specified; in order to define a structure, one or more relations involving these elements may be taken . . . it may then be postulated that this or these relations fulfil certain conditions (to be enumerated), which are the axioms of the structure envisaged.20 18

19

20

Serres wrote his minor doctoral thesis under Gaston Bachelard on the difference between algebraic method in Bourbaki and classical mathematics (Ec 21/C 10). ‘une mathématique universelle . . . déjà toute proche des idées modernes. Précisant l’ « accord » dont parlait Descartes, il entrevoit, en effet, pour la première fois la notion générale d’isomorphie (qu’il appelle “similitude”) et la possibilité d’“identifier” des relations ou opérations isomorphes’, Bourbaki, Eléments d’histoire des mathématiques, 36. CW’s translation. Isomorphism (from the Greek iso, equal, and morphe, form) describes equivalent formal relations between two or more sets of elements that may be very different from each other. Le Lionnais, ‘L’architecture des mathématiques’, 40–1. Translation from Descombes, Modern French Philosophy, 85.

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Serres is very clear that mathematics provides the only sound approach to structural analysis because it is the only way to conceive of structure in a rigorously formal way (H1 32), the first to give it a precise and codified sense that introduces something genuinely new into contemporary methods (H1 28), and the only notion of structure that is truly revolutionary (MS 18). In other words, it is the only way to avoid the umbilical move of smuggling in a particular model to play the role of formal structure. Having recourse to formalised mathematics in this way is not for Serres one more instance of umbilical thinking because it does not privilege any particular content over other contents; it describes relations not magnitudes, possible models rather than a sufficient model. What must be avoided at all costs is elevating a determinate model to the level of structure. Serres’s structuralism and linguistic structuralism

Serres differs significantly in his understanding of ‘structure’ from the structuralism of Saussure and Lévi-Strauss dominant in France at the time he was writing Le Système de Leibniz. He refers glowingly to the mathematicians who were ‘structuralists in the algebraic sense – the right sense – of the term’ (Ec 22/C 10).21 This leads François Dosse to suggest that Serres was ‘without doubt the first philosopher to define an explicitly structuralist global programme in the field of philosophy’.22 Similarly, Vincent Descombes considers Serres ‘[t]he only philosopher in France to abide by the structuralist method’. Why? Because ‘the only acceptable definition of structure is the one provided by mathematicians’, and Serres ‘understands structure neither in the architectural sense (an arrangement of the parts whereby “everything holds together”), nor in the organic sense (“everything is linked with everything else” in living forms), but in the mathematical sense’.23 From the point of view of this Bourbakian understanding of structure, the linguistic structuralism dominant in 1960s French theoretical discourse is revealed as umbilical. In the course of his conversations with Alain Badiou in ‘Modèle et structure’, Serres argues that linguistic structuralism elevates one area of inquiry – linguistics – to the status of a ‘supplier of models’ (MS 26) for all other areas of

21 22 23

‘des structuralistes au sens algébrique du terme, c’est-à-dire le bon’. Dosse, History of Structuralism, 89. Descombes, Modern French Philosophy, 85. Once again, mathematical structuralism is not umbilical thinking for Serres because mathematics is not a model; it is an empty and formal mapping of the possibilities of models. It has no content of its own, expressing only formal relations. I undertake an extended discussion of this contention in Chapter 2 (see the section entitled ‘Serres’s aspectual pluralism’).

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study, in a way that fails to respect the specificity of those areas. He takes the example of the analysis of myth and folklore in Russian formalism and French structuralism: Lévi-Strauss, undertaking to analyse myths, thinks it necessary to cut the story, the text of the myth and its variants, into a certain number of structural elements that cannot be broken down further, which he calls, precisely, mythemes. A second operation shows to what extent linguistics is acting here as a model: we also borrow from it the idea of groups of transformation, operations that link the elements thus divided. Taking linguistics as a model, an extreme importance will be accorded, for example, to the notion of oppositional couples, with the result that a myth is only defined in its opposition to all others, exactly like a phoneme is only what it is as a result of relevant traits that allow its articulation in opposition to relevant traits of other phonemes. Lévi-Strauss, procédant à l’analyse des mythes, estime nécessaire de découper le récit, le texte du mythe et des variantes du mythe, en un certain nombre d’éléments structuraux indécomposables, qu’il appelle, précisément, des mythèmes. Une deuxième opération montre à quel point la linguistique fonctionne ici comme modèle: on lui emprunte aussi l’idée de groupes de transformation, d’opérations qui lient les éléments ainsi découpés. Prenant la linguistique pour modèle, on attribuera, par exemple, une extrême importance à la notion de couples d’oppositions qui fait qu’un mythème n’est défini que dans son opposition à tous les autres, exactement comme un phonème n’est tel que par les traits pertinents qui lui permettent de s’articuler en opposition avec les traits pertinents d’autres phonèmes. (MS 26)24

The problems with Lévi-Strauss’s structuralism are hard-wired into its initial decision to study myth and folklore using a linguistic model. From the moment

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Elsewhere, however, Serres nuances his rejection of Lévi-Strauss’s structuralism: To remain clear and precise, we must avoid every deviation and ambiguity when we import the idea of structure from scholarly theories in general into the field of cultural criticism. In Algebra, for example, this idea is shorn of all mystery; when it is imported into the field of ethnology by M. Lévi-Strauss, or into the history of religions by M. Dumézil, it happens with neither twisting nor lack of clarity: their analyses are authentically structural. Pour rester clair et précis, il suffit d’éviter toute déviation et toute ambiguïté lorsqu’on importe l’idée de structure des théories savantes en général au champ de la critique culturelle. En Algèbre, par exemple, cette idée est dénuée de tout mystère; lorsqu’elle est importée dans le champ de l’ethnologie par M. Lévi-Strauss, ou dans celui de l’histoire des religions par M. Dumézil, cela se fait sans torsion ni obscurité: leurs ana lyses sont authentiquement structurales. (H1, 28)

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this decision is taken the die is cast and the results of his inquiry are scripted. Similarly, for Lacan everything hangs on the ‘inaugural assertion’ that ‘the unconscious is structured like a language’ (MS 26). Such inaugural axioms found and pre-program the inquiries they precede, creating a crisis of legitimacy that hangs on the copula ‘like’ (comme): unconsciousness is like a language. It is not a crisis limited to structuralism alone, however. Given that this practice of viewing one domain (for example: psychology) in terms of another (say: linguistics) is so characteristic of modern thought, ‘the legitimacy of importing concepts and models is truly the epistemological question characteristic of modernity’ (MS 26).25 What is distinctive about Serres’s structuralism, then, is that ‘with a given cultural content, whether it be God, a table or a washbasin, an analysis is structural (and is structural only) when it makes this content appear as a model’ (H1 32),26 and therefore necessarily prevents that content from taking the role of a structure. Crucially, the operations and relationships that characterise a structure appear in any number of models, but do not belong to any of them. Serres gives the example of the notion of the ‘primitive’, which he describes as a ‘common analogon’ or a ‘“structure” that has its faithful “models” in all areas of the encyclopaedia’ (SL 137).27 The language of arithmetic has its primitive prime numbers; mechanics has matter and forces; linguistics has, for Leibniz, its notional ‘Adamitic language’; meaning has ‘the Alphabet of human thoughts and the catalogue of primitive notions’ (SL 10);28 colour theory has its primary or primitive colours, and in a formal register we evoke ‘primitive terms’ or ‘primitive elements’. In short, ‘every region thus presents the primitive: a knowledge of irreducible elements that combine to constitute the derivative’ (SL 138).29 Through these transversal structures it becomes clear that ‘each region of the system, distributively, is described as being expressive of the totality’ (SL 3),30 but we should not assume that there is therefore a quick and easy way to read over from one domain to another: prime numbers and matter/force, for example, are not immediately isomorphic, though both are primitive. Serres, indeed, stresses

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‘la légitimité de l’importation des concepts est vraiment la question épistémologique qui caractérise la modernité’. ‘sur un contenu culturel donné, qu’il soit Dieu, table ou cuvette, une analyse est structurale (et n’est structurale que) lorsqu’elle fait apparaître ce contenu comme un modèle’. ‘il est une « structure » qui a ses modèles fidèles en toutes régions de l’encyclopédie . . . il s’agit bien d ’une structure, d’un analogon commun, exprimé (conservé-modulé) en tous lieux’. ‘l’Alphabet des pensées humaines est le catalogue des notions primitives’. ‘[t]oute région présente donc du primitif, savoir des éléments irréductibles entrant en composition pour constituer le dérivatif ’. ‘chaque région du système, distributivement, est décrite comme expressive de la totalité’.

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that ‘a subterranean relation often circulates through very distant regions; it is not apprehended by intuition, immediate understanding or even discursive knowledge, but it is sometimes grasped by a pure and refined formalism’ (SL 40).31 Finding this subterranean relation is a case of locating the perspective from which ‘the apparent disorder is organised into a real harmony’ (SL 224)32 and seemingly chaotic phenomena can be seen to obey a single law. An important illustration of this principle in Le Système de Leibniz is Kepler’s discovery that celestial orbits are ellipses (SL 654). Until Kepler, classical astronomy laboured under the paradigm of the circle and the sphere, believing it to be the symbol of the perfect and finite geometrical ordering of the world, with its privileged centre point. When existing descriptions of the motions of the planets became untenable, Kepler abandoned the geometry of the sphere in favour of the geometry of the cone, modelling the orbits of the planets as conic sections the most important point of which is not now the centre of the ellipse, but the tip of the cone which stands outside it (SL 655). To find the tip of the cone is to transform the apparent order of planetary orbits understood as circles into a more complex order. It is only when this tip is found that the movement described by the conic section becomes rational and predictable: harmony emerges only when we adopt the correct point of view. Indeed, the circle, which previously – and problematically – provided the organising paradigm of astronomy is now understood as one particular sub-set of conic sections. The notion of a higher synthesis or a more subtle law providing harmony at a higher level of organisation than previously envisaged, first explored in terms of the local isomorphisms between different models and the discovery of conic sections, never leaves Serres’s thought. In the case of finding the isomorphic relations between different models, this principle of finding the correct point of view becomes incremental rather than abrupt: each model has its own principles, and no single operation can describe the totality of relations between all models. Isomorphisms must be worked out from below in particular local contexts, not imposed once and for all from above. With this caveat, the principle that apparent disorder will resolve to harmony if it is considered from the correct point of view is a governing principle both of Leibniz’s theory of harmony and of Serres’s own work. Finally, and to bring us back round to where this discussion began, the distinction between model and structure maps on to Serres’s account of Leibniz’s commentators. 31

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‘[à] travers des régions fort éloignées circule souvent un rapport souterrain, que l’intuition n’atteint pas, ni la connaissance immédiate ni même le savoir discursif, mais que parfois saisit un formalisme pur et affiné’. ‘le désordre apparent s’organise en une harmonie réelle’.

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The problem with existing approaches to Leibniz is that ‘the valorising of certain models has obscured the main concern, which was their common structure’ (SL 85).33 They identify a primitive concept at the centre of one model of Leibniz’s system and their umbilical approach is to think that they have thereby arrived at the epicentre of the system as a whole, the still point around which all its many aspects turn. Instead, they should now seek ‘to understand analogically the totality of these nuclei’ in a ‘lateral interpretation’ that seeks not a single centre but local isomorphisms (SL 139 n1).34 Serres understands Leibniz’s system not under the sway of one local model but as a structure: a set of relations, transformations and operations that can obtain in any number of models, each time unique and each time unpredictable. Serres’s structuralism has profound implications for his thought long after he abandons its vocabulary. He forsakes the language of ‘model’ soon after Le Système de Leibniz, and ‘structure’ makes its last significant appearance in Hermès III: la traduction, before Serres finally makes a decisive break with the distinction between structure and model altogether in favour of the language of clouds and turbulence in Hermès IV: la distribution. Nevertheless, the work done by the structure/ model distinction in his early thought is transformed, but never abandoned.35 At its simplest, this work is predisposing Serres to search for a higher synthesis36 of apparently chaotic phenomena, and to find the complex relations between the seemingly unrelated. Serres and Plato

We now turn to consider Serres’s readings of the two philosophers against whom he most regularly defines his own approach: Plato and Descartes. In both cases we shall see that, just as in our exploration of model and structure above, he is seeking to avoid the umbilical thinking into which he sees his philosophical antagonists slipping. Plato and Descartes are not dismissed as false or even as dangerous, but as incomplete in their account of truth, and therefore gravely mistaken. Their mistake

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‘la valorisation de certains modèles a occulté la visée principale qui était celle de leur structure commune’. ‘Aller du dérivatif au primitif, selon un contenu scientifique assigné, donne une interprétation latérale, qui laisse entière la question du système. Pour la résoudre, il faut faire théorie de tous les transits primitif Æ dérivatif et inversement.’ Stephanie Posthumus provides a painstaking and detailed account of two successive structuralist moments in Serres, culminating in the abandonment of structuralist thinking in Hermès IV: la distribution, in her doctoral thesis ‘La nature et l’écologie chez Lévi-Strauss, Tournier, Serres’, 73–103. Serres’s use of the term ‘synthesis’ does not imply a Hegelian model. His syntheses are composed of analogies and isomorphisms, and they leave each model with its unique and irreducible valency.

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is to take an umbilical approach to knowledge, to elevate one model or case to the status of a paradigm for the whole of truth, just like Russell and the rest of Leibniz’s commentators. Plato: from the cave to the light

Starting with Le Système de Leibniz and continuing throughout his work (see, for example, the recent IP), Serres critiques and rewrites the most influential account of truth and knowledge in the Western tradition: Plato’s allegory of the cave in Republic VII. Plato’s theory of knowledge is, of course, a locus classicus for modern French thinkers, and a discussion of Serres’s Plato will also allow us to indicate both similarities and differences with Derrida’s and Deleuze’s accounts. Unlike Deleuze, Serres’s approach to Plato is not characterised by overturning the privilege of the true copy over the simulacrum, and unlike Derrida it is not characterised by the blurring of the distinction between the sensible and the intelligible in the trace. At its simplest, Serres’s response to Plato is to multiply Plato’s single sun into multiple sources of true knowledge. A discussion of Plato’s cave is no antiquarian undertaking for Serres, for we still live, so to speak, in its shadow. Monotheism, classical science, Louis XIV and the Enlightenment all borrow from Plato in assuming that there is one ‘unique and total sun’ whose light yields a ‘unity of knowledge’ (TI 76–7/TK 42). Critiques of Platonism have come and gone in the Western tradition, but the central affirmation that there is a single source of unified knowledge has not wavered: ‘None of these names, none of these so-called new eras ever changed the regime, always the same, of light, unique and atemporal’ (TI 77/TK 42). In this respect, the West has always been Platonist. Modern thought changes the content of this unitary source of knowledge, but not its nature: we might say that it changes the model, but not the structure. Kant, for example, added to Plato’s ideology of a single solar truth ‘an image of such narcissism that it ought to have worried the wise’ (GB 206).37 At the centre of the world for Kant is the ‘Sun-Subject’ (in French ‘le Moi-Soleil’, a pun on ‘le Roi-Soleil’ – Sun King – epithet of the extravagantly opulent Louis XIV). Serres identifies three nefarious consequences of the persistent adherence to the Platonic idea of the single sun. The first is that the theory of knowledge it governs is static: ‘rotation has won out over translation: orbits are closed, the only variations are around positions of equilibrium’ (EPF 135).38 Order takes precedence over disruptive progress, and development and invention are subordinated to 37 38

‘une image d’un tel narcissisme qu’elle aurait dû inquiéter les sages’. ‘la rotation l’a emporté sur la translation: les orbites sont fermées, il n’y a de variations qu’autour de positions d’équilibre’.

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conservation and reproduction, just as for Deleuze the regime of representation subordinates difference to identity. A second consequence, and a deviation from Deleuze’s accounts of Plato in Difference and Repetition and Logic of Sense, is that for Serres Plato’s single sun is blinding. Pure light does not yield pure knowledge but a ‘dazzling daystar’ [‘astre éblouissant’] (OG 205/G 105) for which ‘too much fire and dazzlement prevent vision and life’ (Ec 223/C 154)39 just as surely as does the penumbral cave. Thirdly, like a children’s game of ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’, Platonic philosophy simplifies the complexities of life, and its adherents ‘come into play in an ideal world of light and dark where there is only one exterior and one interior, only one shadow and one light’ (P 93/Par 69).40 This dichotomy of light and shadow is of the utmost importance for Serres. Plato’s freed captive has to leave the darkness, shadows and illusion of the cave in order to ascend to the pure, blindingly brilliant light of the sun. Serres frames this account, however, as a myth built around a more ancient story in which light and shadow conspire to produce knowledge. In the essay ‘Ce que Thalès a vu au pied des pyramides’ (H2 163–80; ‘What Thales Saw’, HLSP 84–97), he describes how the Milesian philosopher deduced the height of a pyramid by measuring its shadow at the time of day when his own shadow equalled his height, sun and shadow together producing knowledge. Since Plato, however, ‘we have forgotten that the shadow was cast, transported by some supporting device, that it itself transported certain information’ (H2 174/HLSP 92).41 Our Platonic opposition between shadow and light has blinded us to the fact that shadow, too, is a messenger, a carrier of information. The light/darkness binary is indicative of Plato’s thought more broadly, which advances by creating a series of dichotomies that Serres calls ‘filters’ (SL 121), dividing and separating truth from fact, illusion and opinion (see Figure 1.2). This is seen nowhere more clearly than in the account of the divided line which follows the cave allegory in Republic VII. Plato’s filters drive wedges in the chiaroscuro of reality, creating ever finer divisions. Serres notes that such thinking by dichotomies is often represented in a schema of arborescence (SL 121 n1) (see Figure 1.3). However, the seeming left-to-right movement of this arborescent schematic conceals the fact that the method never moves beyond the collection of objects with which it begins (including both visible images and intelligible forms), endlessly dividing the line but never extending it. The arborescent diagram therefore 39

‘trop de feu et d’éblouissement interdisent la vue et la vie’. ‘Elles jouent à ce monde idéal de lumière et d’ombre où il n’y a qu’un extérieur et qu’un intérieur, une ténèbre seulement et seulement une clarté.’ 41 ‘on oubliait, de Thalès à nos jours, qu’elle était portée, transportée par quelque support, quelle transportait elle-même une information’. 40

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Figure 1.2 Truth as separation in Plato

Figure 1.3 Arborescence (from Le Système de Leibniz, p. 121 n1) gives a false impression of progress. The method would better be represented, Serres suggests, as a vertical stack reducing in size as it descends (see Figure 1.4). This vertical figure draws attention to the fact that, as the filters succeed each other, dogma, opinion and illusion are first separated from truth and then discarded, to leave an ever more circumscribed and pure residue of intelligibility.42 This vertical schema is still misleading, however, because the final term (‘D’, in Figure 1.4) is in fact the cumulative effect of all the filters (A, B, C and D), and 42

This analysis is very similar to that of Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition, published in the same year as Le Système de Leibniz. For Deleuze, the main gesture of Plato’s thought is division. See Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, 60.

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Figure 1.4 Vertically arranged lines (from Le Système de Leibniz, p. 121 n1)

Figure 1.5 Radially arranged lines (from Le Système de Leibniz, p. 121 n1)

cannot be separated from them. In view of this, Serres suggests a radial schema as the best visual representation of Plato’s method (where ‘O’ unites the points A, B, C, D . . . from the previous schema) (see Figure 1.5). This paradigm of repeated division forces Plato to separate darkness from light, filtering out the former and seeking an ever more intense and pure account of the latter. The influence of this dichotomous method persists to this day, Serres argues, for all of our theories of knowledge still belong to the light and they all conform to the same Platonic movement ‘from shadow to light, decoding and deciphering, detecting, the movement from the riddle to its solution or from the secret to its disembowelling’ (R 101–2/Ro 65).43 Serres additionally argues that, in perpetuating this dichotomy of darkness and light, the Platonic theory of knowledge is the victim of an unwitting umbilical approach: it lets itself be governed by the model of religious belief: ‘the old rationalists used the same images as their enemies: reason illuminates like belief, and unreason darkens like nonbelief’ (R 97/Ro 62, translation altered).44 By dint of fighting, reason and faith ‘have become twins’ (R 97/Ro 62).45 43

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‘de l’ombre à la clarté, le décodage et le déchiffrement, le dépistage, le mouvement de l’énigme à sa clé ou du secret à son éventrement’. ‘les vieux rationalistes usitaient les mêmes images que leurs ennemis: la raison s’illumine comme la croyance, et la déraison s’obscurcit comme la mécréance’. This is a further parallel to Deleuze’s identification of Plato and theological thought-forms in the ‘dogmatic image of thought’. See Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, 129–67, and Deleuze and Guattari, What is Philosophy?, 35–84.

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The third significant feature of Plato’s cave for Serres – after the single sun and the dichotomy of light and darkness – is that it is kept in exceedingly good repair. What a remarkable cave it is: ‘The flat, even wall is always bright: on it the volume casts a shadow; light creates a shaded area’ (H2 175; HLSP 93).46 This is a spotless cave, a smokeless (H5 106) laboratory of clean lines and clear perspectives of which Le Corbusier himself would have been proud. No prisoner, Serres notes only half jokingly, would see shadows on the wall of a real cave: the smoke would sting their eyes and force them to lie flat (CS 14/FS 17–18). By contrast, Plato’s cave is an unlived-in show home of exquisite cleanliness and generic sterility. It is a cave of dichotomies that break apart what belongs together, creating dust and splinters that are dutifully cleared away with a little dustpan and brush (H5 106). The fourth aspect of Plato’s account to which Serres draws attention is perhaps a little less apparent than the preceding three; it concerns a hidden shadow. There are two obvious shadows in Plato’s cave: the shadow cast on the wall by the object in front of the flames, and the shadow that is the imperfect knowledge of this object (H2 175; HLSP 93). Serres draws our attention, however, to a further shadow ‘of which the two others provide only an image, or a projection, and which is the secret buried deep within the object’ (H2 175; HLSP 93–4, translation altered).47 In other words, the object does not yield itself up exhaustively to comprehension, whether it is contemplated in the cave or outside in the blinding sunlight: there is always a ‘dark side’ or what Serres calls an ‘opaque and black density’ to every object, for ‘the solid, whose surfaces cannot be exhausted by analysis, always conserves a kernel of shadow hidden in the shade of its edges’ (H2 175; HLSP 94).48 Not so, however, for Plato. The Platonic sun does not merely shine on objects; it shines all the way through them. The pure geometrical object is ‘prejudged to be without shadow or secret, it doesn’t conceal anything that exceeds the definition that can be thought about it, existing as ideality, transparent to sight as to thought, theoretically known through and through, seen and known without remainder’

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‘La paroi plane est toujours claire: le volume décrit sur elle l’ombre portée, la lumière écrit sur le solide l’ombre propre.’ ‘Mais il y en a une troisième, dont les deux autres ne sont que l’image ou la projection, et qui est le secret enfoui dans les entrailles du volume.’ ‘le solide, non épuisable par l’analyse de ses faces, conserve toujours, à l’abri, un noyau d’ombre à l’ombre de ses bords’. This insistence on the opacity of the object is reminiscent of recent work in object oriented thought, specifically Graham Harman’s insistence that ‘things withdraw from presence into their dark subterranean reality’ (Harman, Tool-Being, 2). While Harman is distancing himself from Heidegger and Serres from Plato, both are critiquing a certain idolatry of human knowledge that accords it a god’s-eye view not only of, but also through, objects. I return to the question of objects in greater detail in Chapter 5.

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(OG/G 113).49 This is a sun of Plato’s invention. The real sun, the sun of Thales and Ra, the sun that casts shadows, ‘is reduced to the meagre fire of the prisoners of representation’ (H2 176/HLSP 94).50 Plato’s sun that shines outside the cave is a wholly different sun, one that ‘gives off a transcendent light that pierces things and transmits an all-seeing vision’ (H2 176/HLSP 94)51 because it miraculously renders volumes transparent and ‘banishes the interior shadow’ of solidity and opacity. It is the sun of geometry, which utterly exhausts its object by its definition (or so Plato’s theory assumes, though we shall see below that Serres disagrees), rendered transparent to thought as the sun of Platonic intuition dissipates what Serres calls its ‘inner shadow’. Transparent bodies, however, are empty bodies, and perfect penetration by the light of knowledge is bought at the price of a retreat into the idealism of pure geometry which is itself, as far as Serres is concerned, a pale shadow. So as a seeker of knowledge I am faced with a stark choice between two options: ‘either I recognise the object by its shadow, which gives rise to geometry or, better yet, to the idealism of representation, or I allow for a kernel of shadow within the object’ (H2 176/HLSP 94).52 Plato takes the former route, Thales the latter. Serres is quite happy to agree with Plato that this abstract geometric shadow takes the thinker out of this world, blinding her to the nature of lived experience in favour of an unearthly realm of intelligibility. Who, after all, could have believed in antiquity ‘in the existence of a universal law, when no two olive trees twisted in the same way, and when no gust of wind was quite like yesterday’s?’ (CS 239/ FS 267, translation altered).53 The Platonic Idea (eidos) is therefore a fiction, a shadowless idol (eidolon) that exists only in the mind: ‘However pure and abstract we conceive it to be, the idea is no different from the idol. The inevitable realism remains an idealism’ (OG 213/G 112).54 Serres has reached a similar conclusion to Deleuze, but by a different route and therefore with different implications. Whereas Deleuze disrupts the hierarchy of true and false copy, Serres challenges 49

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‘La forme géométrique dit clairement cette difficulté préjugée sans ombre ni secret, elle ne recèle rien qui excède la définition qu’on en peut penser, existant comme idéalité, transparente à la vue comme à la pensée, connue théoriquement de part en part, vue et sue sans résidu.’ ‘est ravalé au feu maigre des prisonniers de la représentation’. ‘Dehors, le nouveau Soleil émet une lumière transcendante qui transperce les choses et transmet une vision passe-muraille.’ ‘ou je reconnais l’objet à son ombre, et voici la géométrie et, mieux encore, l’idéalisme de la représentation; ou j’admets un noyau d’ombre au sein de l’objet’. ‘Qui eût pu croire, au cours de l’Antiquité, à l’existence d’une loi universelle, alors qu’aucun olivier ne se tord pareillement et qu’aucun coup de vent ne ressemble à celui de la veille?’ ‘Aussi pure et abstraite qu’on la conçoive, l’idée, ne se démarque pas de l’idole. Le réalisme inévitable reste un idéalisme.’

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and – as we shall shortly see – multiplies the unique Platonic sun. Unlike Deleuze he does not set the simulacrum free from its subordination to the true copy, nor does he deny that Plato’s sun is a source of true knowledge. He denies, rather, that it is the source of true knowledge. Like Deleuze, Serres understands political stakes to loom large in the Platonic paradigm. Plato’s dichotomy of pure light and shadow can only ever yield a ‘unique and totalitarian’ truth, ‘as hard and without nuance as the midday sun, a star that astrophysics has ended up relegating to the minor rank of yellow dwarf. No to this tyranny; no to yellow dwarfs!’ (GB 204–5).55 As for dualism, ‘[i]t belongs to violence; it belongs to the tribunal, and it belongs to the police. It belongs to those who want to be right’ (R 95–6/Ro 61).56 Plato’s all-penetrating sun is a political object, a ‘power move’ and a ‘stroke of lightning that rips away the veils of shadow’ (H2 177/HLSP 95),57 foreshadowing Descartes’s famously agonistic affirmation that we be ‘masters and possessors’58 of nature. Serres: lights in the cave

Serres rejects Plato’s dichotomy of light and shadow in favour of Thales’s subtle admixture. Whereas Plato’s pure light and blinding sun chase away all shadow,59 Serres prefers ‘a fairly soft and filtered light that allows us better to see things in relief, through the effects of contrast produced by rays and shadows that melt together, that are mixed, nuanced’ (Ec 223/C 153–4).60 In addition to being more productive of knowledge, Serres notes that this model of light and shadow has the merit of being ‘the way we see ordinarily, really, daily – with our bodily eyes, in our concrete surroundings’ (Ec 223/C 154).61 The paradigm of pure light and the Platonic analysis it engenders do not belong on the earth where the atmosphere diffuses and mingles

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‘aussi dure et sans nuance que le Soleil à midi, étoile que l’astrophysique a fini par reléguer au rang mineur de naine jaune. Non à cette tyrannie, non aux nains jaunes!’ ‘Le dualisme est imaginaire, il est de violence, il est de tribunal, et il est de police. Il appartient à ceux qui désirent avoir raison.’ ‘L’histoire ouverte des explicitations infinies est fermée par ce coup de force, par cet éclair qui déchire les voiles d’ombre.’ Descartes, Œuvres de Descartes, vol. VI, 62/The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, vol. I, 142. Serres discusses the play of light and darkness in SL. I reserve my exploration of that discussion for the Descartes section of this chapter, choosing to focus here on the direct references to Platonic sun and shadow in subsequent works. ‘une lueur assez douce et tamisée qui permet de mieux voir les reliefs, par les effets de contraste produits par les rayons et les ombres, fondus, mêlés, nuancés’. ‘Ainsi voyons-nous, ordinairement, réellement, quotidiennement, avec nos yeux de chair, dans notre milieu concret.’

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the sun’s rays. Thus we know where Plato’s cave is located: ‘the clear and distinct knowledge of analysis has its place, on the moon, where the rational and the irrational are clearly separated – minus two hundred degrees on the one side, more than two hundred degrees on the other’ (Ec 223/C 154; see also P 94/Par 69).62 The ‘simple and cruel divisions of error and truth, of science and dreams, of obscurantism and progress’ are exposed as naïve by the shades and transformations of nycthermal63 rhythms and shown to be ‘sown with colours and black’ (TI 77/TK 42). These rhythms mix day and night, engendering ‘a third light’ which is neither pure brilliance nor absolute darkness. The mythical age of Plato’s sun gives way to ‘the age of glimmers’ (TI 77/TK 42). Our knowledge ‘arises from the day and the night, from transparency and opacity, from manifestation and secrecy’, not from the blinding light of a Platonic sun (S 128/St 103–4). It is not simply that knowledge is inextricable from ignorance, light from shadow, however. Serres also insists that knowledge produces shadow in the same way that, later, he will argue that all negentropic order globally increases entropy, and all production creates pollution. Knowledge is not free; it always comes at the cost of shadow and ignorance. It is paid for, in part, by money and energy, as any research scientist burning the midnight oil writing yet another grant application will readily testify. Knowledge is also paid for, however, in ignorance, in ‘the effects of limitation or blindness induced by the decision to set boundaries, the forces that impel to these boundaries, the relations of force, of hatred, of war and strategy between . . . disciplines’ (R 98/Ro 63).64 In this way, knowledge casts a shadow just as surely as a factory bellowing smoke pollutes the atmosphere. Serres figures our knowledge as little pockets of light, dancing like fireflies, each surrounded by ‘a little ring of shadow and blindness’, namely the ignorance with which it must be bought. We are far indeed here from Plato’s majestic, dazzling orb: ‘this is what is left of the ancient lights, what happened to the Greek cave’ (R 99/Ro 64).65 In contrast to the single Platonic sun, Serres repeatedly insists on first a duality and then a plurality of sources of knowledge, not least in cosmology itself. Copernicus placed the sun at the centre of the solar system, but Kepler’s laws of planetary motion state that the elliptical orbits of heavenly bodies have not one but 62

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‘La connaissance claire et distincte de l’analyse a donc son lieu . . . dans la Lune . . . où se séparent nettement le rationnel et l’irrationnel: moins deux cents degrés d’un côté, plus de cent degrés de l’autre.’ Nycthermal: ‘Designating or characterised by a variation that occurs in a period of twenty-four hours, especially corresponding to the contrast between day and night” (OED). ‘les effets de limitation ou d’aveuglement induits par la décision de bornage, les forces qui poussent à ces bornes, les rapports de force, de haine, de guerre et de stratégie entre . . . disciplines’. ‘voici ce qui reste des anciennes lumières, ce qu’il est advenu de la caverne grecque’.

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two centres: the first almost exactly coincides with the location of the sun,66 but there is also ‘a second focus, of which no one ever speaks, as efficacious and necessary as the first, a sort of second black sun’ (TI 69/TK 37).67 This second focus, which Kepler calls ‘empty’, is located on the long axis of the elliptical solar orbit. The more eccentric the ellipse, the further apart are its two foci. The double focus means that, in contrast to Plato’s system, ‘knowledge is offset from the centre and demands the support of secondary black suns’ (TI 74/TK 40, translation altered).68 In moving beyond even this bifocal paradigm, Serres rejects the idea of a single Copernican, heliocentric Revolution which would once and for all transform our knowledge of the heavens from falsehood and obscurity to truth and light. To accept unquestioningly the Copernican Revolution is to fall into umbilical thinking, assuming that the sun is the only heavenly body that can act as a fixed point. What the triumphalism of the Revolution obscures, and what Leibniz makes visible for us, is that each Copernican Revolution corresponds to a twin Ptolemaic revolution (SL 632). For example, taking the sun as a fixed point makes better sense of the solar system, but it is a very parochial victory in our own ‘little canton of the universe’ (SL 663) if we consider that heliocentrism is to the universe what geocentrism is to the solar system, only many orders of magnitude more inadequate. Copernicus’s discovery remains, when all is said and done, ‘a point of view, not the point of view, thus a choice; a better perspective, but a perspective nonetheless’ (SL 633).69 In this respect, ‘Ptolemy is the Copernicus of the earth, and Copernicus the Ptolemy of the sun’ (SL 633, emphasis original).70 Leibniz, therefore, does not see the need to choose between Copernicus and Ptolemy but understands them to be speaking ‘two different languages designating a single meaning’ (SL 634).71 They both, after all, choose one centre, differing only as to the detail of which centre they happen to select. Their approaches are equally characteristic of the classical age and its obsession with finding a fixed point in all the different disciplines of human inquiry (Pan 315–16).72 66

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The first focus is in fact at the centre of gravity of the solar system as a whole. Given that the sun contains 99.9 per cent of the mass of the solar system, it almost exactly coincides with the position of the sun. ‘un second foyer, dont nul ne parle jamais, tout aussi efficace et nécessaire que le premier, une sorte de deuxième soleil noir’. ‘la connaissance s’excentre et réclame l’appui des deuxièmes soleils noirs’. ‘un point de vue, et non le point de vue, donc un choix; une meilleure perspective, mais une perspective tout de même’. ‘Ptolémée est le Copernic de la terre, et Copernic le Ptolémée du soleil’. ‘deux langues différentes désignant un seul sens’. As Serres traces the history of the paradigm of the fixed point in Le Système de Leibniz, it is Pascal in philosophy and Kepler in astronomy who first move from asking where the fixed point is, to asking whether there is such a point at all.

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Rather than relocating the fixed point from one celestial object to another, Serres commends the Leibnizian approach of not negating Copernicus’s Revolution but generalising it to infinity ‘in order to discover that everything is centre in its way’, yielding ‘a world infinitely centred-decentred’ in a system which Serres describes as Ptolemaic–Copernican (SL 634).73 Everywhere is an ‘earth-sun’, variable and unvarying, moving and fixed, distinct and confused. This approach does not deny the Copernican Revolution but fames it as ‘a given profile in a succession of profiles . . . an event in a history, a moment in a succession of combinations’ (SL 639).74 This reframing of the Copernican paradigm not by denying it but by multiplying it is one of Serres’s characteristic figures of thought, and we have already encountered it in his discussion of conic sections. It is a way of destabilising a mode of thinking (for example: assuming orbits to be spherical or assuming that there must be one fixed point in the heavens) not by denying it but by showing it to be one possible instance of a system or set of possibilities that exceeds it. It is a move that seeks to unpick the umbilical thinking of the classical age by taking what it presented as the definitive schema of all truth (in this case: heliocentrism) and re-presenting it as one local case, true as far as it goes but limited in its truth. This Leibnizian Revolution of Copernican Revolutions helps us to see that ‘the central sun is nothing but a marginal star, a yellowish and mediocre dwarf, without true grandeur, in the immense concert of supergiants, red like Betelgeuse or blue like Rigel’ (TI 227/TK 150) (see Figure 1.6).75 The way in which Leibniz multiplies the Copernican Revolution in order to destabilise it has a further consequence: it reverses the priority of order and chaos. For Copernicus, the heliocentric revolution is thought to solve the problem of order: the apparent disorder of the movements of the planets across the heavens is revealed to be, in fact, part of a higher order. Disorder is apparent, order is real, and even the stars are thought to turn slowly around this solar centre (SL 249 n1). The stability of the solar system is secured, but only at the ultimate expense of the stellar system. What is required is a break with this disposition, a break with seeking to find a better, more adequate fixed point in favour of a radical new willingness to question the notion of a fixed point at all, an acknowledgment that ‘real disorder is more

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‘Il suffit alors de généraliser cette loi à l’infini pour découvrir que tout est centre dans son genre, et centre de centres dans un genre supérieur . . . Planifiant un monde infiniment centré-décentré, Leibniz fait système ptolémaïque et copernicien.’ ‘un profil donné dans une suite de profils . . . un événement dans une histoire, un moment dans une suite de combinaisons’. ‘le soleil central n’est qu’une étoile marginale, naine jaunâtre et médiocre, sans vraie grandeur, dans l’immense concert des supergéantes, rouges comme Bételgeuse ou bleues telle Rigel’.

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Figure 1.6 Truth as translation in Serres fundamental than apparent order’ (SL 249 n1).76 As knowledge progresses we should expect Copernican Revolutions multiplied to infinity (SL 663), not in the sense of an ever more adequate single centre of our knowledge, but a more radical challenge to the paradigm of the single fixed point itself, in a proliferation of fixed points to infinity (SL 250). Serres laments that, while this multiplication of fixed points is a disposition already adopted by astrophysics, it is one that has left philosophy behind. Serres gives Leibniz’s multiplication of Copernican Revolutions its own cave allegory to set alongside Plato’s, not a story of escaping the cave to find the light, but of finding a cave full of its own lights. It is drawn from the nineteenth chapter in Jules Verne’s The Vanished Diamond, in which the protagonist Victor Cyprien (in the original French: Cyprien Méré) and his friend Pharamond Barthes are lowered into an underground cavern:77 Dazzled with the light after so long a darkness . . . [the two heroes] 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 centre of an immense grotto. The 76

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Some of Serres’s readers suggest that the primacy of disorder only appears in his work in Hermès IV: la distribution. This quotation from Le Système de Leibniz suggests that it has always been a feature of Serres’s thinking. It is not necessarily in tension with his account of model and structure, only with an account that would see the relationship between model and structure as straightforward. The title L’Etoile du sud has been variously translated The Vanished Diamond, The Star of the South and The Southern Star.

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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 was reflected, flashing back with all the colours of the rainbow, with the glow of a furnace fire and the wealth of the aurora. . . . 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; . . . Further along, an artificial lake, formed of a twenty-metre long diamond, set in the sand, seemed like an arena all ready for the movements of ice skaters. Aerial palaces of chalcedony, turrets and minarets of beryl and topaz, rose pile upon pile, and heaped together so many splendours 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 colour that had ever dazzled the eyes of man.78 Sous le coup de cet éblouissement qui résulte d’un retour subit à la lumière Pharamond Barthès et Cyprien se crurent tout d’abord en proie à une sorte d’hallucination extatique, tant le spectacle qui s’offrit à leurs yeux était à la fois splendide et inattendu. Tous deux se trouvaient au centre d’une grotte immense. Le sol en était couvert d’un sable fin tout pailleté d’or. Sa voûte, aussi haute que celle d’une cathédrale gothique, se perdait dans des profondeurs insondables au regard. Les parois de cette substruction naturelle étaient tapissées de stalactites, d’une variété de tons et d’une richesse inouïes, sur lesquelles le reflet des torches jetait des feux d’arc-en-ciel, mêlés à des embrasements de fournaise, à des radiations d’aurores boréales. . . . Rochers d’améthyste, murailles de sardoine, banquises de rubis, aiguilles d’émeraude, colonnades de saphirs, profondes et élancées comme des forêts de sapins, icebergs d’aigues-marines, girandoles de turquoises, miroirs d’opales, affleurements de gypse rose et de lapis-lazuli aux veines d’or, - tout ce que le règne cristallin peut offrir de plus précieux, de plus rare, de plus limpide, de plus éblouissant avait servi de matériaux à cette surprenante architecture . . . Plus loin, un lac artificiel, formé d’un diamant de vingt mètres de long, enchâssé dans le sable, semblait une arène toute prête pour les ébats des patineurs. Des palais aériens de calcédoine, des kiosques et des clochetons de béryl et de topaze, s’entassaient d’étage en étage jusqu’au point où l’œil, lassé de tant de splendeurs,

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Verne, The Star of the South, 276–7. Translation altered.

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se refusait à les suivre. Enfin, la décomposition des rayons lumineux à travers ces milliers de prismes, les feux d’artifices d’étincelles qui éclataient de toutes parts et retombaient en gerbe, constituaient la plus étonnante symphonie de lumière et de couleur dont le regard de l’homme pût être ébloui.79

There are many important contrasts between Plato’s and Verne’s caves, which help us to appreciate how light, shadow and the cave itself function very differently for Serres compared to their Platonic analogues. We can note at least eleven. 1. Plato’s captive has to leave the cave in order to find the light; Verne invites us to ‘penetrate into a vault so deep that the gaze becomes lost in it as in the starry sky’ (GB 204).80 2. Plato’s allegory ‘sings the glory of a single sun’, whereas for Verne ‘a thousand nocturnal glimmers dazzle the thinker’ (GB 204).81 3. For Plato it is one lone freed captive who finds the sun; Verne has two voyagers experience the cave, their twin lights multiplying the effect of the reflections they experience in its bosom. In the same way that he isolates knowledge to one unique source, Plato (and, as we shall see, Descartes even more acutely), individualises knowledge, isolating the unique knower. Serres’s cave parable pluralises and connects both the sources of knowledge and the collectivity of knowers. 4. Plato’s sun is transcendent, inhuman and overpowering; the torches that light Verne’s cave are manufactured, human and unremarkable. Verne’s cave shows, whether Serres intended it or not, an alternative reading of Nietzsche’s parable of the madman who ‘lights a lantern . . . and shouts I seek God’.82 The madman feverishly laments that we have ‘unchained the earth from its sun’, smashing his own lamp in desparation, it seems, to return to the comforting familiarity of the unique source of light. Verne’s explorers, by contrast, revel in the cave where their little torches are reflected and refracted to infinity. Nietzsche’s madman is still thinking diurnally, in terms of a knowledge without shadows. In Serres’s Vernian cave, we must imagine Nietzsche’s madman happy. 5. Plato has one central sun driving away shadows; Verne has one central shadow and thousands of little suns (see TI 82/TK 46). 6. Plato’s light is of uniform transparency; Verne’s is reflected ‘through these thousands of prisms’ (GB 203) of coloured stones, and resembles a firework display. 79 80 81

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Verne, L’Étoile du Sud, 267–9. Quoted by Serres in GB 202–3, Y 18 and in IP. ‘pénétrer sous une voûte si profonde que le regard s’y perd comme sous celle du ciel étoilé’. ‘[la caverne platonicienne] chante la gloire d’un seul soleil . . ., [dans la caverne de Verne] mille lueurs nocturnes éblouissent le penseur’. Nietzsche, The Gay Science, 119–20.

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7. Plato’s captive has the good fortune to exit the cave at noon, experiencing the shadowless sun of a cloudless day. Verne’s light, by contrast, is described in terms of ‘the chaotic and fluid twinkling of possible glimmers’ which ‘open a thousand and one ways’ (GB 204).83 8. Plato is a daytime thinker, believing in the unity of truth in the same way that the brightness of the proximate sun obscures all other more distant celestial lights. By contrast Verne’s cave, as well as our own thinking, resembles [Plato’s] clarity infinitely less than it resembles the glimmers of the night, where every star shines, monadic, like a diamond, where every galaxy flows like a river of pearls, where every planet, like a mirror, returns in its own way the glimmers that it receives. (GB 205)84

9. In Plato’s allegory there is no reversing the direction of flow: the sun emits light and the earth, including the escaped captive, receives it. For Verne, by contrast, each object in the cave receives, reflects and refracts light from all angles and ‘can become the subject of other objects’ (GB 207). 10. The unidirectionality of Plato’s account maintains a strict distinction, and a clear hierarchy, between the real (the sun) and representation (the shadows on the cave wall). In Verne’s cave, however, ‘I no longer see any difference between the real and representation, because the latter is part of the former’ (GB 207).85 It is not merely the precious stones that participate in what we might call this flattened epistemology, however: Like the two heroes, like everything in the world, like all living things, I am a diamond, in hard and sometimes pure carbon, transparent or granulated, reflecting a thousand times the thousand and one hues of the rainbow which emanate from the multiple things of the world and from people and living things that happen to meet and throng. (GB 207–8)86

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‘ici, mille lueurs nocturnes éblouissent le penseur; ici, les clignotants chaotiques et fluides des lueurs possibles ouvrent mille et une voies’. ‘la pensée ressemble infiniment moins à sa clarté qu’aux lumières de la nuit, où chaque étoile brille, monadique, comme un diamant, où chaque galaxie ruisselle comme une rivière de perles, où toute planète, comme un miroir, renvoie à sa façon les lueurs qu’elle reçoit’. ‘[j]e ne vois plus de différence entre le réel et la représentation, puisque celle-ci fait partie de celui-là’. ‘Comme les deux héros, comme chaque chose du monde, comme tous les vivants, je suis un diamant, en carbone dur et parfois pur, transparent ou granuleux, reflétant mille fois les mille et une teintes de l’arc-en-ciel, émanées des multiples choses du monde et des personnes et vivants de rencontre, en foule.’

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11. In Plato’s account the unity of truth triumphs over the diversity of illusion and opinion. Verne’s cave, by contrast, is a concord of diversity and harmony. On the one hand every imaginable precious stone seems to be present in abundance, and yet the overall effect is described not as a bedazzling cacophony but as a symphony. Serres offers us, then, a systematic rewriting of Plato’s cave allegory through an allegory of his own, borrowed from Jules Verne, in which Plato’s single, all-seeing sun becomes a play of coloured reflections from multiple hand-held torches. Serres’s reading of Plato has much in common with Deleuze’s and Derrida’s, while also manifesting some significant differences. All three thinkers disrupt the single Platonic sun, the unique and self-identical source of knowledge. Derrida does so by arguing that the illusion of self-presence and immediacy are effects of the condition of différance. In Difference and Repetition, Deleuze subverts the hierarchy of the good copy over the simulacrum by generalising the latter, revealing the unity of the Platonic sun and its ‘good’ copies to have been an effect of difference all along such that there are no ‘true’87 copies in Plato’s sense at all. Both Derrida and Deleuze, then, deny Platonic truth by, each in their own way, subordinating Platonic identity to difference. Serres subverts the hierarchy with an opposite move, not by generalising the simulacrum but by multiplying the sun. This is not a reversal of the priority of difference and identity but a move that affirms the Platonic account of identity as far as it goes, reframing it as one local instance of a system that exceeds it, one model of a more complex structure. If the danger for Derrida is logocentrism and if for Deleuze it is identity, then for Serres it is umbilical thinking: taking the model for the structure of which it is one expression. Serres does not refuse the primacy of identity by subordinating it to difference as Derrida and Deleuze do, but he insists that identity and difference, variation and invariance, be understood as mutually complementary and equiprimordial. Serres does not overturn Platonism; he reveals it to be umbilical and he subsumes it under a more subtle law and a higher synthesis. For Serres, no model is the privileged source of all knowledge (in other words: there is no umbilical model), but – as we saw in the discussion of structure and model above – all models are isomorphic with each other and from their complex analogical correspondences there emerges a structure that unites them in, not despite, their differences. For Serres, knowledge is true not by virtue of its vertical correspondence to a single solar paradigm but through its lateral translatability from one form to another. For

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Plato, one model is taken to be the structure. For Deleuze and Derrida, there is no structure. For Serres, decentralised structure emerges as the cumulative, local, bespoke correspondences between different models. Serres and Descartes

Although he has precious little time for Plato’s single sun and the corresponding dichotomy between light and shadow, Descartes is an even more regular antagonist in the pages of Serres’s writing. It is rare for him to mention his antagonists at all, preferring to allude to their thought obliquely. Descartes, exceptionally, is referred to by name with a remarkable regularity, leaving us in no doubt that Serres reserves a special disapprobation for Cartesian thought. In fact, the present chapter does not afford sufficient space to detail even Serres’s main objections to Cartesianism and a series of running battles with Descartes will be a recurring theme in this volume. Chapter 2 will engage at length with Serres’s critique of Descartes’s understanding of space, Chapter 5 will show why Serres rejects Descartes’s account of subject and object, and Chapter 6 will explore why Descartes is one of the principal antagonists in Serres’s ecological writing. In the present chapter, however, our main preoccupation will be with Descartes’s method: how he thinks. Descartes: the geometry of the line

We can summarise Serres’s account of Descartes’s method under two related headings: Descartes’s analytical method and the Cartesian understanding of the universal. The method of analysis

The first feature of Descartes’s method that attracts Serres’s attention is, as was the case with Plato, his application of successive ‘filters’ to strip away from the object of study anything that is obscure, confused or inadequate, in order to leave only a pristine intuitive truth that can serve as the starting point of the Cartesian method. Like Plato, Descartes rejects any mixture, and his epistemological filters serve to divide and ‘decombine’88 the original manifold of experience into ever smaller purified essences (SL 122–3) (see Figure 1.7). 88

Serres uses ‘décombiner”, very rare in French, appearing in none of the major dictionaries. Both ‘discombine’ and ‘uncombine’ have entries in the OED, so ‘decombine’ reflects the neologistic flavour of Serres’s word choice.

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Figure 1.7 Successive filters in Descartes’s lines (from Le Système de Leibniz, p. 122) As with Plato, Serres discerns a religious bent in Descartes’s successive filtering. The desire to expel from thought all impurity in order to arrive at indubitable, intuitive knowledge is reminiscent of the line drawn around the ancient temple, separating the sacred space within from the profane world outside. Indeed, the sacred is nothing other than a templum, an enclosed space (ESC 14–15), and the profane is ‘eliminated’ or expelled beyond the limen or boundary (OG 46/G xl). Serres’s evocation of expulsion here is important: what may appear as a simple purification or cleansing if we only pay attention to the sacred precinct of the temple must be understood, in its wider context, not as a transformation but a displacement, merely moving impurity from inside to outside the sacred domain. To purify one space is to pollute another: negentropy, once more, is only ever a local phenomenon, and it always comes at a cost. For Serres, Descartes’s successive analytical filters of truth evoke the act of enclosing a city within its walls, specifically the pomerium, the legal and religious boundary of the city of Rome, the history of which is drenched in blood: ‘the plowshare founded the first Rome when Romulus killed his twin at the bottom of the furrow. The same blade serves to delimit space, to cut the earth and to slit the throat of his sacrificed brother’ (OG 46/G xl).89 As this analogy with the 89

‘le soc de la charrue fonda la Rome première, quand, au creux du sillon, Romulus tua son jumeau’.

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foundation of Rome shows, Descartes’s method does not originate with him. He may be a particularly aggressive modern proponent of analytical throat-slitting, but ‘the invention of an empty local space’ purified of complexity, razed of previous features and inhabitants and ripe for occupation is ‘[t]he oldest work of the human world’ (OG 48/G xlii).90 It is a work that interrupts the ‘previous equilibrium . . . woven from fine differences, in intersecting networks linking heterogeneous and complex multiplicities’ in order to produce its sanctified, blank homogeneity (OG 48/G xlii).91 In addition to throat-slitting, Serres likens the analytical method to an arson attack. On a number of occasions he compares Descartes’s method to ‘the action of a man who sets his house on fire in order to hear the noise the rats make in the attic at night’ (P 21/Par 12).92 In other words, in order utterly to purify the house of knowledge he hyperbolically doubts everything, even those things on which he relies most intimately, stopping at nothing to drive away the parasitic rats in the attic and even setting fire to his own house in order to drive out the unwanted visitors and purify the edifice of knowledge, not realising that it is this very edifice that he is torching. Seeking a new creation of knowledge ex nihilo,93 Descartes succeeds only in initiating a blazing apocalypse. The second feature of Descartes’s method that attracts Serres’s attention is its insistence that truth and falsehood are singular, and exist in an absolute dichotomy. Like Plato before him, Descartes identifies certainty about clear and distinct ideas as the only true knowledge (H1 137–8); like Plato, truth and falsehood for Descartes are mutually exclusive: truth must admit of no admixture of confusion or doubt, however homeopathic the dose (SL 127). Finally, truth and falsehood together are exhaustive of all possibilities. Thirdly, the combination of an application of successive filters and an indefatigable refusal to mix truth and falsehood means that what is left within Descartes’s razed pomerium is a ‘zero of knowledge’ [‘zéro du connaître’] that may well be ‘most certain’ but is also ‘paltry’ [‘piètre’] and a ‘derisory minimum of science’ [‘minimum dérisoire de science’] (SL 215). Chasing away with a religious zeal all mixture, all impurity, all parasites, Descartes is left with a blank extension [‘étendue’] of which he can certainly be master and possessor, but all he possesses is reduced to featureless virgin wax (P 242/Par 180). 90 91

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‘Le plus vieux travail du monde humain’. ‘L’équilibre antérieur se tissait de différences fines, en réseaux croisés liant des multiplicités hétérogènes et complexes.’ ‘Quelqu’un a comparé l’entreprise cartésienne à l’action de cet homme qui met le feu à sa maison pour entendre, la nuit, les rats dans son grenier.’ Serres alludes to the ‘major religious tone’ [‘tonalité religieuse majeure’] of Descartes’s method in P 241.

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Fourthly and finally, having created an apocalyptic tabula rasa through eliminating all impurity, Descartes’s method poses one single, fixed, infinitesimally small starting point: the famous cogito. Descartes is an epistemological geocentrist insofar as, like Ptolemy, he chooses as the fixed point the closest candidate to hand, understanding it as the centre of everything. He differs from Ptolemy, however, in that his fixed point, and the sacred domain around it, are understood to be mobile in space. Descartes’s ‘methodological triumph’, both in his geometry and in the cogito, is to have shown that, at least in principle, any point can ‘play the role’ of the fixed point (H1 194). Serres insists, crucially, that we understand the cogito as only one half of Descartes’s starting point, the other half being the purified, delimited and sacred pomerium within which the cogito exists. Let us not forget, after all, that Descartes experiences his epistemological epiphany while locked away in his ‘stove’ or ‘heated room’,94 and that this controlled space – purged of all conversation, communication or interruption, as well as of all weather and all movement – is not incidental to his insight (H2 138). He creates the illusion of a firm foundation for knowledge by staking out his own sacred and purified domain, choosing a privileged point and drawing boundaries in a ‘disguised dogmatism’ which may well congratulate itself on having found ‘the anchor point and the unsurpassable region’, but which has in reality succeeded only in appointing itself to sit on the throne of a god whose little kingdom is an empty room (SL 253). Serres wryly notes that Descartes’s death was brought on by a journey to Sweden (CS 280/FS 256) (see Figure 1.8).

Figure 1.8 The sacred model of knowledge 94

In French ‘poêle’, a term that can also designate a cloth draped over a coffin. See (last accessed 14 August 2019).

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Descartes’s sacralising gesture simplifies space. For the pagan, all ground is sacred and, therefore, charged with significance. For Christianity, Serres argues, the sacred becomes localised: the ‘Holy Land’ that was the object of the crusaders’ fervour was a circumscribed area. Protestant Christianity shrinks the sacred further: now the holy place is the celestial city, ‘raised up, separated, lost for ever’, and the space around us is ‘uniform, homogeneous, isotropic, equivalent’ (H 206). Cartesian space is this profane residue after the departure of the sacred, a simplified, flat, predictable space without sacrality, without meaning. The space within the pomerium, then, is consecrated in a very particular way. It is a space of sacred secularity, a secular temple where what is expelled outside is all the pious sacrality that would encumber its mathematisable extension. The cogito, along with the thin atmosphere of the pomerium in which alone it can exist, do not only simplify space; they also simplify the self. The cogito filters and eliminates the faculties of imagination, memory or emotion to leave a supposedly pure thinking (OG 42–3/G xxxvii) with the same throat-slitting, house-burning mania as Descartes’s attempt to eliminate doubt. This is, once more, an instance of umbilical thinking. It extracts ‘the thinking thing’ from the ‘mixed, tiger-striped, blended, zebra-striped, harlequin, composite’ duration of life (OG 42/G xxxvii),95 elevating its criterion of certainty to the status of a single paradigm through which all that is deemed true, all that is let within the sacred bounds of the pomerium, must genuflect in order to pass. In The Parasite Serres pictures this forced conformity as a little ticket office: At the little gate, a population passes by, element by element. One by one. In Greek, this was called catena, ‘the chain.’ These long chains of simple and easy reasons suppose a gate, first of all. They pass through, link after link, for choice, rejection, acceptance: trial. The gate can be, must be, maximally narrow. (Par 152–3) A la petite porte du guichet, une population passe, élément par élément. Un par un. En grec, cela se dit catena, la chaîne. Ces longues chaînes de raisons toutes simples et faciles supposent, d’abord, un guichet. Elles y passent, maillon après maillon, pour choix, rejet, acceptation: épreuve. Le guichet peut être, doit être maximalement étroit. (P 203)

Requiring of all knowledge that it pass through this small ticket office of a cogito, furthermore, is not a politically innocent move. It creates rarity by subjecting knowledge to stringent controls, the epistemological equivalent of subjecting the 95

‘mêlées, tigrées, nuées, zébrées, arlequines, composites’.

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masses to a guillotine controlled by an elite (P 203/Par 153), and thus offering a response to La Boétie’s paradox of how so many can be ruled by so few. The cogito–pomerium doublet, furthermore, initiates a predetermined method which, in its inflexibility, never invented anything (SL 215–16). Armed with his method, Descartes already knows the outcome of his search for truth: Suppose you are cooking. In your cookbooks are recipes for cakes, roasts etc. These recipes point out a method: ‘take the eggs, the salt, the flour and make a dish’. The method assumes that this dish was already made earlier and is thus known. So, having a method is also already knowing the outcome. . . . A method is good to learn, to form oneself or to teach. But not to discover, to find or to invent. (ANC 172)

What Descartes is seeking to achieve through this strict regulation of truth, Serres notes, is a position invulnerable to attack (H1 134). This is indicative of Cartesian thought as a whole: it is a pugilistic method constantly on a war footing against doubt, but also against the nature of which we must become the masters and possessors. One of the Cartesian images to which Serres most frequently refers is the straight path which the Discourse on Method extols as the surest route to knowledge: My second maxim was that of being as firm and decisive in my actions as I could, and to follow even the most doubtful opinions, once I had adopted them, with no less constancy than if they had been quite certain. In this respect I would be imitating a traveller who, upon finding himself lost in a forest, should not wander about turning this way or that, and still less stay in one place, but should keep walking as straight as he can in one direction, never changing it for slight reasons even if mere chance made him choose it in the first place; for in this way, even if he does not go exactly where he wishes, he will at least end up in a place where he is likely to be better off than in the middle of a forest.96

Serres’s principal concern with this forest analogy is that Descartes has clearly never tried it: Has he ever attempted it? In order to define the said line, two points are necessary: this tree, for example, and another one further away. Run to it. Starting from its trunk, begin again and go towards a third. But no reference point guarantees that, between the first and the second straight line, an infinitesimal angle will not appear. 96

Cottingham, René Descartes, 32.

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Repeat this as many times as necessary, with the result that you run the mighty risk of going round in circles and becoming ever more lost. The second method is as little serviceable as the first: it is not only useless but it leads inexorably to wandering. A-t-il jamais essayé? Pour définir ladite ligne, il faut deux points: cet arbre, par exemple, et l’autre, plus loin. Courez-y. À partir de son tronc, recommencez vers un troisième. Or, aucun repère n’assure qu’entre la première et la seconde ligne droite un angle infime n’apparaîtra pas. Et ainsi autant de fois. De sorte que vous avez un risque puissant de tourner en rond ou de vous égarer plus encore. La seconde méthode sert aussi peu que la première: non seule ment inutile, mais conduisant vers l’égarement, inextricablement. (H 95)

Descartes, in short, seeks to start with a fixed principle in mind (walk in a straight line out of the woods), to which he remains faithful come what may. Such a method may work well enough in an aseptic, flat space of extension, but is hopeless in the world in which we happen to live. No one sails that way (H 95) and no one succeeds in flying to the moon in a rocket that way (CS 298/FS 270–1); both require thousands of corrections and accommodations en route, responding to changes in current and atmosphere and constantly rectifying miscalculations.97 The Cartesian universal

The culmination of Descartes’s analytical method and insistence on the single straight path of reasoning is a particular understanding of the universal. The Cartesian universal is particularly problematic for Serres, for four reasons. First of all it is blank, devoid of any content. It is the universal that the Hebrew people discovered only after wandering in the desert (CS 239/FS 267), a homogeneous, featureless space without any differentiation or content. It is a universal that razes all identifiable features, separates all mixtures, severs all connections: it is bought at the cost of an abstraction that detaches it from the density and complexity of lived experience, retreating into its poêle and leaving behind the real world altogether. 97

Here we see the influence of Gaston Bachelard on Serres’s thought. For Bachelard, ‘the scientific spirit is essentially a rectification of knowledge, a broadening of the framework of knowledge. It judges its past and condemns it. Its structure is the awareness of its historical faults.’ See Bachelard, The New Scientific Spirit, 172. [‘l’esprit scientifique est essentiellement une rectification du savoir, un élargissement des cadres de la connaissance. Il juge son passé historique en le condamnant. Sa structure est la conscience de ses fautes historiques.’ Bachelard, Le nouvel esprit scientifique, 173.] I am grateful to David Webb for pointing out the similarity between Serres and Bachelard on this point. For a fuller analysis of Serres’s affinity with, and difference from, Bachelard, see Chapter 5.

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Secondly, the Cartesian universal is also constitutively agonistic, ‘the projection, into the rational, of the violent situation of the Master and the Colonist’ (H1 197).98 In a passage reminiscent of Foucault’s History of Madness, Serres argues that the Cartesian universal makes savages, heretics and slaves of the mad, the unthought, the insensible, the unthinkable and the unconscious; it chases the insane into the sea of irrationality, burns witches, Jews and the occasional astronomer, represses the imagination, dominates dreams, eliminates error and refuses the plurality of cultures with a zeal akin to those ‘white hordes’ who, at the same time and across the ocean, were putting Incas, Aztecs and Algonquians to the sword. It proclaims the territory of thought terra nullius and then colonises it with negation, murder and a policy of scorched earth such that, ‘in the peaceful home of the universal man, the skeletons are in the cupboards’ (H1 197) (see Figure 1.9).99 Note here that Serres is at pains to see the whole picture of the modern project, not only its pristine and purified universal space but the divisions that need to be cut and the mixtures that need to be separated in order to create that space. Those who think the universal are simply those who happened to win the last war, and ‘nothing new under the sun’ is spoken that by those who do not want to be eclipsed (CS 282/FS 257). Thirdly, Descartes’s universal is ‘declarative’, following the pattern established by Greek geometry in seeking to establish and articulate the general and constant laws governing local phenomena (EPF 230). The declarative tradition – or tradition of ‘reason’ as understood by Plato, Descartes, Kant and Hegel – insists that brightness

Figure 1.9 The Cartesian Universal 98

99

‘le projet d’universalité est une projection dans le rationnel de la situation violente de Maître et de Colon’. ‘dans la maison tranquille de l’homme universel, les squelettes sont dans les placards’.

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(lumière) and clarity of reason ‘come from its declarative nature (in the literal sense: clear like a clarion), first sonorous like speech and then dazzling the gaze and the mind’ (Pr xiïi–xiv).100 In the preface to Éloge de la philosophie en langue française Serres illustrates the distinction between this declarative and the alternative ‘procedural’ thought (to be discussed below) in terms of the difference between books and dictionaries. Bibles, scrolls, treatises and novels are declarative: their aim is to say something, to deliver a what. A dictionary, by contrast, is procedural: it says nothing in particular, but shows what makes it possible to say anything whatever, setting forth the how of the what. The declarative text follows an order internal to the content it intends to communicate, but the procedural dictionary follows an order imposed on it from outside. The content of the declarative book is real and local; the content of the procedural dictionary is possible and global (see Pr xii–xiii). Fourthly, the modern idea of the universal is, once more, umbilical, or as Serres puts it ‘a presumption of generality’ and a case of ‘the particular forcing entry into the universal’ (NP 121–2/BOP 96, translation altered).101 It is to be understood, along with most of the modern paradigm, as a grab for power. Given that the very nature of declaration is specific and local, any attempt to attain the universal or the general will always ride roughshod over singular or outlying cases; the declarative universal cannot deal with singularity (EPF 230). This is a further reason it must operate in an artificially created, razed, purified and homogeneous space. Descartes’s method forges a link between the local and the global, but it does so only to frame the global as an ‘inflated local’ (CS 338–9/FS 308; see also Ge 122/Gen 72), a singular that spread itself out (CS 282/FS 257) and ‘a part that took the place of the whole’ (Ge 122/Gen 72).102 It achieves its purchase on the world by choosing one constraint or variable and disregarding all others, confusing linear thinking with reason as such (CS 292/FS 266). Serres: the algorithm of the web

In contrast to Descartes’s analytical method, straight line and declarative universal, Serres favours a Leibnizian combinatorial approach, the image of the web103 and 100

101

102 103

‘viennent de sa nature déclarative (au sens littéral: clair comme le clairon), sonore d’abord comme la parole, puis éclatante au regard et à l’esprit’. ‘Ce que nous prenons pour l’instauration de la Science, à la Renaissance ou n ’importe quand, n’était qu’une voie Vers l’universel ou qu’une présomption de généralité. Sans doute simplement une prise de pouvoir, si le pouvoir n’est autre chose que l’effraction du particulier dans l’universel.’ ‘une partie qui prit la place du tout’. Like the structure/model distinction, the image of the web declines in significance in Serres’s thought after H4, but the principle and the distinction which it exemplifies do not. For a detailed discussion of the image of the web in Serres’s thought over time, see Posthumus, ‘La nature et l’écologie chez Lévi-Strauss, Tournier, Serres’, 189–200.

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the procedural universal. Lest we miss the point of Serres’s antipathy to Descartes, however, it is of crucial importance to stress at the outset that he does not see Descartes and Leibniz as being in straightforward opposition to each other. In Le Système de Leibniz he argues that ‘Leibniz crowns and completes the Cartesian method in refusing its requisites’ (SL 232),104 taking what is ostensibly a universal principle and resituating it as one premise among many. In Serres’s own dense and lapidary formula, Leibniz’s attitude to Descartes’s system is that ‘he is opposed to it or generalises it’ (SL 23–4).105 To oppose by negation is to deny what was affirmed, but to oppose by generalisation is to show that what was affirmed is one instance of a broader reality it does not contain, like Kepler’s rejection of Ptolemy’s circles in favour of conic sections (see Figures 1.10 and 1.11).

Figure 1.10 Opposition by negation

Figure 1.11 Opposition by generalisation 104 105

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‘Leibniz couronne et accomplit la méthode cartésienne en refusant ses réquisits.’ ‘il s’y oppose ou le généralise’.

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This leads to some confusion for the reader new to Serres’s Leibniz, and new to Serres himself. At moments in Le Système de Leibniz Serres seems to be pitting Descartes and Leibniz against each other as implacable antagonists, and at other times he paints Leibniz as the one who brings the Cartesian method to full flowering. It is the notion of umbilical thinking that allows us to see how these two seemingly mutually exclusive discourses together describe Leibniz’s complex relationship to Descartes. What we shall see throughout this section is that Leibniz (and Serres’s approach more broadly) is to Descartes as Verne’s cave of many lights is to Plato’s single light: Leibniz does not refuse Descartes’s method but multiplies it, showing Cartesian thought to be umbilical, one model among many that can be comprehended in a higher synthesis. The method of combination

In conformity with the relationship briefly described above, Leibniz both opposes and generalises Cartesian analysis: ‘To be sure, Leibniz conserves the ideal of analytic separation . . . but he adds to it the technique of composition in general’ (SL 230).106 Whereas Descartes’s analytical method seeks always to draw distinctions, Leibniz proceeds in a ‘spirit of combination’ (SL 66), seeking to federate rather than divide. This profoundly shapes Serres’s understanding of philosophy: 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. (FPIC 53)

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’ (H5 24).107 Leibniz does not reject the ideal of Cartesian analysis in favour of his own combinatory approach, but ‘conserves’ it and ‘joins’ it to his technique of composition (SL 230). Whereas Descartes applies a succession of ever more stringent filters in order to arrive at a pure intuition, Leibniz’s combinatory approach interests itself in mixing the elements which Descartes separates: when the adequate is indistinguishable from the inadequate, their combination forms the ‘distinct’; when the distinct becomes lost in the indistinct, their mixture forms the ‘clear’ (SL 123). In this way, Leibniz’s De Arte Combinatoria identifies ‘laws of combination’ that 106

107

‘Leibniz conserve, certes, l’idéal de la décomposition analytique . . . mais il y joint la technique de composition en général.’ Serres, Hermès V, 24, quoted in Harari and Bell, ‘Introduction’, 13.

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allow him to travel from right to left across the successive filters through which Descartes’s Meditationes move from left to right. For Descartes, to think is to analyse, to divide, but for Leibniz and Serres after him, to think is to federate, to trace relations. Rather than seeing relations as operations or transformations subordinated to the fixed entities upon which they operate, this Leibnizian approach encourages us to see those entities themselves as effects of operations and transformations: ‘Relation precedes being; there you have my philosophy in a word’ (Hom 321; see also P 99/Par 73).108 Serres has no hesitation in describing his thought in terms of a primacy of relations: No single word, neither substantive nor verb, no domain or specialty alone characterises, at least for the moment, the nature of my work. I only describe relationships. For the moment, let’s be content with saying it’s ‘a general theory of relations’. (Ec 186/C 127; see also Inc 116)109

These relations, furthermore, are not merely generic but connote federation and isomorphism; they are not primarily relations of antagonism or conflict, but relations of topological isomorphism. In direct contrast to Cartesian analysis, Serres wishes ‘for the advent of a desmology, a discourse of ties, ligaments, ligatures’ (R 103/Ro 67),110 a thought under the banner not of cuts and divisions but of knots and folds, in which knowledge grows not through interminable analysis but through overlapping strands casting shadows on each other: ‘I wish that the gnoseological value of the operation of knotting, of folding would be recognised’ (R 103/Ro 67).111 As Serres succinctly puts it in Le Gaucher boiteux, ‘Federating, thinking: same difference!’ (GB 226).112 Leibniz’s focus on the laws of combination yields a very different conception of truth to that of Descartes. Whereas Cartesian truth is single, universal and posited once for all in the cogito, Leibniz’s system allows for plural truths. Leibniz is for Serres a pluralist thinker (SL 230). Truths are plural because each successive filter has its own ‘true’ and ‘false’: The clear is ‘a certain true’ of obscurity’s false (V1 and F1 respectively on Figure 1.12). The indistinct is then ‘a certain false’ (F2) of the preceding true (V1), and so on. 108 109

110 111 112

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‘La relation précède l’être; voilà bien le mot de ma philosophie.’ ‘Aucun mot unique, ni substantif ni verbe, nul domaine ni spécialité ne caractérise, à soi seul, au moins pour le moment, la nature de mon travail. Je ne décris que des relations. Jusqu’à maintenant contentons-nous de dire: théorie générale des relations.’ ‘Je souhaite l’avènement d’une desmologie, discours des liens, des ligaments, des ligatures.’ ‘Je désire qu’on reconnaisse la valeur gnoséologique de l’opération de nouer, de l’opération de plier.’ ‘Fédérer, penser, même combat!’

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Figure 1.12 Leibniz’s superposed filters (from Le Système de Leibniz, p. 123) This results in an understanding of doubt very different from the Cartesian variety. For the Descartes who seeks one unified, single, pure truth, to doubt is to give oneself an adversary in the game [‘un adversaire de jeu’], an evil genius whose extreme powers and deviousness dictate the extent of hyperbolic doubt. For Leibniz, by contrast, to doubt is to give oneself a playing field [‘un espace de jeu’], a domain of possibilities, of relative clarities and obscurities. To doubt is to have a choice, and we have a choice between various possible models of the world (SL 233), whether that be between geometrical models of the same object or between discourses and disciplines that act as models with the power of explanation. When faced with this sort of ‘distributive doubt’, the aim is not to make a choice between the various ‘partial visions chosen elsewhere and by others’, for this would merely repeat Cartesian umbilical thinking. Nor is it to remain paralysed in an interminable undecidability or perfectly balanced between all possible choices like Buridan’s ass, nor again to cut the Gordian knot with an arbitrary decision. In contrast to all of these inadequate responses, the Leibnizian method consists in ‘despairing of a single order’ (SL 30) and embarking on a search for the structure that brings the models into isomorphic relation, the ‘formation of an integral region where the thinkable proliferates, elevation to a universal law of harmony’ (SL 283).113 113

‘formation d’une région intégrale où pullule le pensable, élévation à une loi universelle d’harmonie’.

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Truths for Leibniz are also plural in that they inhere in diverse models and theoretical discourses, each with its own integrity. For Leibniz there is no ‘umbilical discipline’ (SL 251) in the methodological encyclopaedia, no first entry to be read before all others. Whereas Cartesian thought is determined by the prefix ‘pre-’, establishing the axiom of indubitability as the prolegomenon to finding any truth whatsoever, and beginning with the single, luminously self-sufficient truth ‘I am thinking therefore I exist’, Leibniz’s philosophy is under the operator of the prefix ‘pan-’, tracing links and searching out relations between different disciplines and discourses (see SL 519–28). A powerful figure of the plurality of truths for Serres in Le Système de Leibniz is the image of the web or network [‘réseau’], which he contrasts to the Cartesian straight path. Logic, Serres argues, does not extend like a straight line but ‘develops along several routes at the same time’, progressing not along a single path according to a univocal, deductive and irreversible chain, but ‘by a composition of terms arranged in different directions, a composition that grows like a tissue, invading domain after domain like expanding rings in water’ (SL 391),114 each new crossing or composition finding new models and carefully, painstakingly, falteringly relating them to other models. A combinatory approach makes reason a multilinear affair. This approach makes of Descartes’s one-dimensional line a two-dimensional network, expressed not in a single line of reasoning or in a dialectic movement, but in tables, grids and diagrams, thereby also increasing its complexity: the same elements can be composed in many ways. What Leibniz is offering us is not a rejection of unilinearity but ‘an audacious generalisation of unilinear thought’ (SL 391).115 Serres is at pains to stress that this does not make Leibniz’s combinatory approach less rigorous than Cartesian analysis. Quite to the contrary, Leibniz’s multilinear reasoning is more rigorous than Cartesian deduction because ‘instead of having the ultimately subjective guardrail of evidence, it is guaranteed by the objective bearings that come from the combinatorics’ (SL 391).116 Descartes’s is a philosophy of consciousness, and therefore (despite his controversial appeal to a beneficent deity) prey to the vicissitudes of subjective impressions, whereas Leibniz offers us a philosophy of the concept.117 114

115 116

117

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‘par une composition de termes arrangés dans différentes directions, composition qui s’élargit comme un tissu, et qui envahit domaine après domaine, comme les propagations d’un cercle dans l’eau’. ‘une généralisation audacieuse de la pensée unilinéaire’. ‘au lieu d’avoir le garde-fou finalement subjectif de l’évidence, il est garanti par les marques objectives issues de la combinatoire’. The distinction between philosophers of consciousness and philosophers of the concept is influentially made by Cavaillès in ‘On Logic and the Theory of Science’, 409. Serres refers explicitly to Descartes’s ‘point of view of consciousness’ and Leibniz’s reliance on the concept in H1 9. Further on in Hermès I, Serres contrasts Descartes’s ‘philosophy of consciousness’ to Leibniz’s ‘encyclopaedism’ (H1 153).

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In favouring the image of the web118 over the Cartesian straight line, Serres is once more performing his characteristic move of opposing or generalising (equally ‘opposing and generalising’ and ‘opposing by generalising’; see SL 23–4). He does not reject the idea of the Cartesian line out of hand but pluralises it to the point that multiple straight lines cohere into a web and become something very different to the Cartesian single path. Using architectural language, Serres argues that Descartes offers us a scenographic approach, a view from one particular perspective (that of the cogito), and adhering to one particular model (hyperbolic doubt leading to ever more fine-grained distinctions in search of the truth). Leibniz, by contrast, seeks to offer us an ichnography (SL 29), a plan of the whole not as it would be apprehended by the naked eye and not on a perspective plane but as an abstract, formalised schema. An ichnography is not the opposite of a scenography but a representation of the formal relations that can be apprehended in any number of scenographic models. Serres’s algorithmic universal

In addition to the sharp contrast between Cartesian analysis and Leibnizian combination, there is also an illuminating set of differences between Cartesian and Leibnizian universals. We saw above that the Cartesian universal, along with that of the classical age it epitomises, assumes that individual phenomena are instantiations of general, universal laws under which they can be losslessly subsumed and in terms of which alone they can be comprehended. The passage from the local to the universal is therefore, for the Cartesian, relatively straightforward: one must simply find and declare these laws, as illustrated in the case of the axioms of geometry. It will by now not come as a surprise to learn that Serres does not simply refute this Cartesian universal but opposes it by generalising it, reframing it as one local variant or model of a broader, more complex structure.119 Whereas Descartes is a ‘monist’ when it comes to mathematical models, deriving his notion of the universal from the discipline of geometry alone and concomitantly considering geometry to be ‘the pole of the mathematical universe’ (SL 219),120 Leibniz, by contrast, is a ‘pluralist’ (SL 230) who resists the umbilical approach of privileging any single model of mathematics over all others. Whereas 118

119 120

Stephanie Posthumus has shown in admirable detail how, in Hermès III, the web becomes seen as a symbol of indistinct and cloud-like power for Serres, and disorder becomes more important to him than order. The image of the web is overtaken by cyclones, storms and clouds (see Posthumus, ‘La nature et l’écologie chez Lévi-Strauss, Tournier, Serres’, 194–5), only to be rehabilitated in Hermès V as ‘la graphie d’un système complexe’ (H5 52). This point is made in relation the universal in Hénaff, ‘Of Stones, Angels and Humans’, 181–2. ‘le pôle de l’univers mathématique’.

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Descartes’s strong adherence to a single model leads to dogmatism, the enormous plurality of possible relations between different models helps Leibniz to do justice to the infinite differentiation of the real: ‘to each labyrinth its own Ariadne’s thread’ (SL 119–20).121 The Leibnizian approach also has a way of relating the local to the global, but it is not through subsuming local phenomena under universal, static laws. Leibniz, and Serres after him, approach the universal through, and in, the singular. In order to understand this account of the universal we need to consider the algorithmic geometry that Serres contrasts to Descartes’s geometric paradigm. Algorithm occupies an important place in Serres’s thought. It plays a role not dissimilar to the ‘structure’ of Le Système, but acts less as a transcendental condition of isomorphism and more as a procedural operator that generates local instances of order without any necessary sense of a pre-existing grand unity. In a further instance of ‘opposing by generalising’, Serres introduces the motif of algorithm by pluralising the origins of geometry. The story is most clearly told in Serres’s third book of foundations: Les Origines de la géométrie (1993), a title translated into English simply as Geometry. His main historical contention is that geometry in fact has two origins, one well known in ancient Greece originating with Thales and developing through Pythagoras, Euclid and Archimedes, and a more ancient, less well known origin in ancient Egypt and Babylon. These two origins of geometry provide two very different methods. The Greek tradition of geometry, it will be remembered from the discussion of Descartes above, is declarative in its method. The method of algorithmic thought, by contrast, is procedural. For long centuries, in the Greek legacy algorithmic thought was obscured and eventually forgotten behind ‘the gigantic Greek construction’ of Euclidean geometry (EPF 223, 232–3; see also G 241/OG 136), until in the seventeenth century Pascal and Leibniz rekindled interest in this alternative way of reasoning with their calculus, Leibniz’s On the Combinatorial Art, harmonic triangle and invention of binary code, and Pascal’s triangle, and calculating machines pioneered by both Pascal and Leibniz (EPF 229, see also PP 75). What all these have in common is that, rather than demonstrating from axioms, they calculate – or perform series of operations on – inputs in order to transform them into outputs or results. Serres describes this rediscovery of the procedural method, long buried under the Greek origin of geometry, in rapturous terms: in this empty and new space, the entire classical age of the seventeenth century suddenly bursts forth and joyously leaps about. Like Pascal and others, Leibniz discovers 121

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‘à chaque labyrinthe son fil d’Ariane’.

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America, I mean a new world in which, unlike the traditional one, everything is to be seen, found, constructed and populated, without institutional objects, without already occupied niches defended tooth and nail. (G 136) dans cet espace vide et neuf, tout l’âge classique fait irruption et gambade joyeusement. il Comme Pascal et d’autres, Leibniz découvre l’Amérique, je veux dire, un nouveau monde où, à la différence du traditionnel, tout est à voir, trouver, construire et peupler, sans obstacles institutionnels, sans niches déjà occupées défendues becs et ongles. (OG 242)

From this point on, the two mathematics are locked in a bitter battle. On the one side geometry – pure, deductive, dealing in demonstrations – mocks the unworthy, everyday calculations of algorithmic thought. From the Greeks to Descartes, ‘the geometers constantly scorn these practices that are barely good enough for merchants and that, in the Middle Ages, were called logistics and algorism’ (EPF 232).122 Leaving calculation to the guilds, geometry demonstrates from its lofty, abstract seat of superiority. On the other side, Pascal and Leibniz laud ‘local and rapid, subtle’ algorithms over ‘deductive, abstract and stiff’ demonstrations (EPF 232). For the declarative method, light is that which immediately brings absolute clarity. For the procedural method, the distinguishing quality of light is that it moves at great speed (PP 46; Pan 84–5; Ram 185; Her 86). The final chapter in the story of algorithmic and geometric thinking sees the algorithm ‘fully triumphant’ (EPF 233) in the recent emergence, blossoming and dominance of the computer age. In 1936 Alan Turing invented the concept of a machine for simulating algorithms. Its input is a paper or cardboard strip of potentially limitless length, divided into cells each of which can either be blank or contain one symbol (for instance: 0 or 1). The machine can perform operations on the cells, such as replacing a blank cell with a 0 or a 1, or moving one cell to the left or right. Turing’s machine precipitated what Serres calls the ‘information revolution’ leading to the modern computer. This revolution is as significant for Serres’s thought as the Bourbakian formalisation of mathematics, such that in a 2003 interview with Peter Hallward he states ‘I am a child of Bourbaki and Turing’ (S&H 230). In the age of computers, long-exiled algorithmic thinking returns in triumph and ‘occupies the place and even threatens the abstract mathematics that came from the Greeks’ (Her 86).123 122

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‘les géomètres méprisent constamment ces pratiques tout justes bonnes pour les marchands et qu’on appelait au Moyen Age logistique et algorisme’. ‘occupe la place et menace même la mathématique abstraite issue des Grecs’.

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Serres’s account of the origins of geometry does not reject or even deconstruct the Platonic logos and the related Cartesian demand that knowledge be certain; it opposes it by generalising it. The Western tradition, he argues in L’Hermaphrodite, has laboured for two millennia under two related but distinct logoi. There is the Greek geometric logos, ‘formed by abstract and theoretical mathematics, deduced from principles and sculpted by non-contradiction into an axiomatic pyramid’ (Her 85).124 The second logos dominant in Western history is of Judeo-Christian origin, ‘formed by Solomon’s principle, revisited at the beginning of John’s Gospel: nothing new under the sun; in the beginning were the Light and the Word’ (Her 85).125 The problem with both these logoi, as far as Serres is concerned, is that they exclude all that is not in conformity with their axioms and principles, with their Light and Word. What algorithms offer us is a mathematics and a logos that are ‘more supple, more gluey [agglutinants] and positive’, proceeding not by division and exclusion but by federation and combination (Her 85). Read in the context of Serres’s third, algorithmic logos, Derrida’s own critique of the Western logos in Of Grammatology and elsewhere appears as umbilical. Like Descartes, Derrida mistakes the species for the genus: he takes one possible logos (in fact he rolls the geometric and Judeo-Christian logoi into one), considers it as exhaustive of all possible logoi and, on that basis, proceeds to deconstruct it. Serres, by contrast, ‘opposes or generalises’ the Platonic logos by setting it in the context of an older, faster, subtler, more productive algorithmic logos. Where Derrida deconstructs, Serres opposes by generalising. The local and the global

Finally in this chapter, Serres’s algorithmic approach also yields a new understanding of the relationship between the local and the global, the singular and the universal. Indeed, Serres affirms that an attempt to reconcile the universal and the singular has ‘always provided the horizon for my own work’ (S&H 230). One of the pioneers in this area is, once more, Leibniz, who ‘spent his entire life trying to unite a very abstract kind of work to a great monadic singularity, trying to grasp the latter by the former’ (S&H 230). Following the move we have seen performed a number of times already in this chapter, Serres’s approach to Descartes’s subsumption of particulars under universal laws is not to dismiss it out of hand but

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‘formé par la mathématique abstraite et théorique, déduite de principes et sculptée en pyramide axiomatique par la non- contradiction’. ‘formé par le principe de Salomon, revu dans le début de l’Évangile selon saint Jean: rien de nouveau sous le Soleil; au commencement la Lumière du Verbe’.

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to oppose it by generalising it. More precisely, ‘[t]here is indeed a route from the local to the global, it is, precisely, the Cartesian route, with its chain of relations and proportions’, but ‘it is only one route among other possibilities’ (H5 71).126 Whereas declarative thought such as Descartes’s seeks to reach the global and the universal only in an axiomatic, determinate and abstract way, Leibnizian procedural thought is incremental, possible and concrete. Exploring each of these differences in turn will allow us to appreciate the unique contribution Serres’s thought can make to current debates. First, procedural thought approaches the global and the universal incrementally, not axiomatically. The philosophy of the prefix ‘pre-’ must establish its axioms from the outset, whereas the philosophy characterised by the prefix ‘pan-’ has freedom to move from example to example, gradually but inexorably establishing a larger and larger view of the complex relations linking all examples to each other. Procedural thought does not seek to accomplish everything in one abracadabresque axiomatic salto mortale, but advances little by little, ‘avails itself of procedures step by step and disperses itself into a thousand tiny problems’ (EPF 234).127 The Cartesian method, by contrast, claims ‘to count on winning the whole war by a massive strategy of truth’ (SL 133) and, wanting everything, it risks finishing with nothing. This does not prevent procedural thought from having universal scope, but it builds up its universality as it has need, as Serres illustrates with the example of jurisprudence: Algorithmic reason can even evoke, in principle, a universal jurisprudence without any need for laws: indeed, it builds itself case by case and little by little, moving from the local the global, without invading the universe all at once, like law does. a raison algorithmique peut même évoquer, en principe, une jurisprudence universelle sans qu’il soit besoin de lois: elle se construit en effet cas par cas et de proche en proche, en passant du local au global, sans envahir d’un coup l’univers comme le fait la loi. (EPF 218)

Our knowledge is neither that of gods nor of stones, Serres remarks, drawing attention to how the Cartesian two-speed gearbox of ‘truth’ and ‘falsehood’ and insistence on the criterion of certainty turn epistemology into what we might, following the pattern of onto-theology, call episto-theology. Leibniz, by contrast, 126

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‘Du local au global il y a bien un chemin, le chemin cartésien justement, par chaîne de rapports et de proportions, mais ce n’est qu’un chemin parmi d’autres possibles.’ ‘se sert de procédures pas à pas et se disperse en mille petits problèmes’.

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locates human knowledge between the two extremes of this Cartesian radicalism, and his ars progrediendi (technique of moving forward) allows us to think in terms of degrees of truth and to advance gradually and progressively (SL 127–8). It can ‘supply useful tools’, even when it ‘offers no understanding of the whole object’ (EPF 230).128 Purity and clarity are the terminus ad quem of Leibniz’s combinatory method; they are the terminus a quo of Descartes’s analysis. Secondly, procedural thought is global and possible, not local and real. It is free of determinate content, and it prescribes operations, not magnitudes. The algorithmic order of the dictionary is practical, conventional and plural; the order of the declarative text is unitary, organised according to ‘temporal succession, announcement, suspense, movements of induction or deduction, the confrontation of dialogue’ (Pr xii–xiii).129 The procedural text shows what it is possible to say, without saying anything in particular; the declarative text leaps from the local to the global by universalising its own approach in an umbilical gesture. Thirdly, procedural thought is concrete, not abstract. It does not descend upon its object from the distant heights of universal axioms, but (as its etymology indicates) walks alongside it: ‘remaining close to its Latin root, the old French verb “procéder” signified walking one step at a time, but eventually designated an action and the method or “procedure” to execute it’ (Pr xii).130 This may seem to be in contradiction with the previous point: how can procedural thought be both possible and concrete, whereas declarative thought is real but abstract? The answer lies in the difference between what we might call the architecture and the application of the two approaches. Procedural thought is global and possible in its architecture because it does not derive from any particular model; it is concrete in its application because it performs operations on particular objects, not on abstract models. Algorithmic thought works directly on the world itself, and seeks to ‘enter into the details of the singular’ (EPF 230). Declarative thought, by contrast, is real but abstract. It is real in its architecture in that it derives its approach from a determinate model of thinking, not from the possible combinations inherent in all modes of thinking. It is abstract in its application because it operates within the rarefied pomerium of pure extension, a space which exists only in the philosopher’s fancy.

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‘Cette mathématique procédurale . . . fournit des outils efficaces, même quand elle ne donne pas à comprendre la globalité de l’objet.’ ‘suite temporelle, annonce, suspens, mouvement d’induction ou de déduction, affrontement d’un dialogue’. ‘proche de son ancêtre latin, le vieux verbe français “procéder” signifiait marcher pas à pas, mais a fini par désigner une action et la méthode ou “procédé” pour l’exécuter’.

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As opposed to the Cartesian concept, procedural thought does not discount or smooth over any singularities, but includes ‘the connection, welcoming and inclusion of all the other places, however small they are’ (At 151).131 The difference this makes is ‘gigantic’ (Pan 355). First of all, in not relying on a suite of concepts abstracted from singular or individual objects, it is radically non-dualist. Secondly, procedural thinking ‘restores dignity to the knowledge of description as well as of the individual’ (PP 46/T 43, translation altered);132 the individual is no longer treated as inferior to the general, the singular to the universal, because there is no longer the dichotomy between singular and universal that geometric abstraction maintains. This algorithmic insistence on the dignity of singularity is a major influence on Serres’s view of his own thought: ‘My whole philosophy is there: there are no concepts; there are examples and events, that is all’ (Pan 84).133 On a number of occasions Serres illustrates the incremental and concrete aspects of the algorithmic approach to the universal with the example of the Google search algorithm. Rather than dropping the universal from the sky and crushing everything on which it lands, the search engine crawls painstakingly through concrete example after concrete example, finding a way of ‘weaving together’ local and global such that, in procedural thought ‘singularities trek towards the universal along algorithmic paths’ (EPF 256–7; see also ESP 84).134 Before the rise of algorithmic search, if I wanted to learn about (to use the various examples Serres employs), the scorpion (Pan 84), the hip (PP 72–3), beauty (PP 45) or the circle (Pan 354–5), I would first have recourse to the concept, the abstract generality seeking to define the class of objects in question. In the umbrella-concept (concept-valise) of the circle, to all intents and purposes infinitely large, I could place all the round objects in the world. Now, however, a computer is able to present to me images of any and every type of round object. Now as a medical student I do not study ‘the hip’ as a generalised concept but a magnetic resonance image (MRI) of the left hip of an eighty-year-old male; I study individual examples which, cumulatively, have generic reach (PP 72). With algorithmic thought, ‘individual singularity has become the centre of thought, taking the place of the concept’ (Pan 354–5),135 and procedural thinking produces ‘a synthesis . . . of the universal and the individual’ (EPF 239) (see Figure 1.13).136

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‘passe . . . par la connexion, l’accueil et l’inclusion de tous les autres [lieux], aussi petits soient-ils’. ‘redonne dignité aux savoirs de la description et de l’individuel’. ‘Toute ma philosophie est là: il n’y a pas de concepts, il y a des exemples et des événements, c’est tout.’ ‘les singularités courent en randonnée vers l’universel, le long de chemins algorithmiques’. ‘c’est la singularité individuelle qui devient le centre de la pensée, prenant la place du concept’. ‘[u]n synthèse . . . de l’universel et de l’individu’.

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Figure 1.13 The procedural universal emerges asymptotically from the expanding web of relations Procedural thought thus avoids two equally undesirable extremes. On the one hand it resists the Cartesian temptation to ‘the aesthetic error of submitting everything to a law’, and on the other hand it avoids ‘the symmetrical error of being satisfied with fragments’ (CS 262/FS 239).137 Both of these positions are not only mistaken but boring, and Serres prefers ‘a tension between the local and the global, the nearby and the far-off, the story and the rule, the uniqueness of the word and the unanalysable pluralism of the senses’ (CS 232/FS 239).138 In this he is different from those other members of his generation, Derrida and Levinas prominent among them, who resist the subsumption of difference under unifying laws by stressing the incommensurability of singularities under the rubric ‘every other is wholly other’.139 One of the most enduring motifs of the complementarity of the local and the global in Serres’s work is drawn from a point in Leibniz’s Philosophische Schriften where he quotes Nolant de Fatouville’s Commedia dell’Arte play Arlequin, Empereur de la lune (Harlequin: Emperor of the Moon, 1693). Serres tells the story most fully in the preface to The Troubadour of Knowledge. Upon returning from his journey to the moon, the multi-coloured Harlequin addresses a learned assembly 137

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‘Connaissez l’erreur esthétique de tout soumettre à une loi . . . Evitez l’erreur symétrique de vous complaire dans le fragment.’ ‘une tension entre local et global, voisin et lointain, récit et règle, l’unicité du verbe et le pluralisme inanalysable des sens’. See, for example, Derrida, The Gift of Death, 82–117.

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eager to hear news of the strange world he has encountered, but the report they receive comes as a great disappointment. He tells his nonplussed audience that ‘everywhere everything is just as it is here, identical in every way to what one can see ordinarily on the terraqueous globe. Except that the degrees of grandeur and beauty change’ (TI 11/TK xiii),140 or more succinctly that the lunar world, ‘is just like here, everywhere and always’, only ‘with varying degrees of size and perfection’ (SL 1).141 What an anti-climax for those who were itching to hear of the exotic, the unheard-of, the Other. As the scene continues, Harlequin is forced by his disgruntled audience to divest himself of his multi-coloured coat that, in its rich diversity of fabrics, seems to give the lie to his assertion of general uniformity. He removes his outer coat only to disclose another multi-coloured garment underneath, which he in turn divests to reveal another and so on, peeling off layer after layer and eventually stripping down to his naked and tattooed body, ‘more a medley of colours than skin’ (TI 14/TK xv)142 and no less variegated than his coats. Harlequin also reveals that he is androgynous, one who ‘mixes genders so that it is impossible to locate the vicinities, the places, or borders where the sexes stop and begin’ (TI 15/TK xvi).143 In fact, he embodies the joining of a litany of dichotomies: the right and the left, the high and the low, but also the angel and the beast, the vain, modest, or vengeful victor and the humble or repugnant victim, the inert and the living, the miserable and the very rich, the complete idiot and the vivacious fool, the genius and the imbecile, the master and the slave, the emperor and the clown. (TK xvi) la droite et la gauche, la haute et la basse, mais aussi l’ange et la bête, le vainqueur vaniteux, modeste ou vengeur et l’humble ou répugnante victime, l’inerte et le vivant, le misérable et le richissime, le plat sot et le fou vif, le génie et l’imbécile, le maître et l’esclave, l’empereur et le paillasse. (TI 15)

After many of the audience have left in disappointment and consternation, and with the remainder talking with their backs to the now naked Harlequin, one of their number suddenly turns to look back and exclaims in amazement ‘Pierrot! Pierrot! . . . Pierrot Lunaire!’ (TI 17/TK xvii). All-white, universal 140

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‘tout est partout comme ici, en tout identique à ce qu’on peut voir à l’ordinaire sur le globe terraqué. Sauf que changent les degrés, de grandeur et de beauté’. Quoted by Serres from Leibniz, Die philosophischen Schriften von G. W. Lezbniz, VI, 548. ‘le bariolage bien plus que la peau’. ‘L’androgyne nu mélange les genres sans qu’on puisse repérer les voisinages, lieux ou bords où s’arrêtent et commencent les sexes.’

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and blank Pierrot stands in the place of the multi-coloured, singular, chaotic and local Harlequin. The scene ends with the audience wondering ‘How can the thousand hues of an odd medley of colours be reduced to their white summation?’ (TI 17/TK xvii).144 Serres’s point is a chromatic one: blank, universal white is not composed of an absence of colour but of all local, determinate colours; the universal and global are arrived at not by jumping out of the local in a puff of abstraction, but by multiplying local instances and seeking carefully to relate them to each other. Harlequin and Pierrot are not enemies, and universality is not won at the cost of eliminating specificity but, on the contrary, by multiplying it. The global for Serres is incremental, asymptotically approached or, in the words of Marcel Hénaff, ‘the global does not pre-exist the local; it is the ensemble of their relations’.145 For Serres we do not reach the global by abstracting from or transcending the local, but by multiplying ‘as much as possible singular cases, varieties and degrees, before we discover the invariant of the variation’ (SL 559).146 More than one commentator has taken issue with Serres’s reconciliation of Harlequin and Pierrot and his double affirmation of the global and the local. Peter Hallward, in his 2003 interview with Serres, identifies ‘two dominant tendencies in your philosophy, which I sometimes find difficult to reconcile’, namely a ‘“particularising” aspect, so to speak, which insists on the . . . the irreducible labour of navigating a path between the various obstacles that we face in the “forest” of thought’ while ‘on the other hand, you often refer to holistic totalities that sometimes resemble absolute principles of sorts’ (S&H 231–2). This idea of there being two ultimately irreconcilable tendencies in Serres’s thought is taken up at greater length by N. Katherine Hayles, who argues that ‘[a]t times Serres seems to be tuned in to this world, emphasizing the fragmentary, turbulent nature of a universe in flux’ but ‘when he pushes toward a globalizing theory that would encompass this flux, he is in the paradoxical position of trying to extrapolate a general theory from paradigms that imply there are no general theories’. Her conclusion is that ‘different voices compete within the channel of Serres’s writing’, and he equivocates on the priority of the general and the fragmentary.147 Bruno Latour voices similar doubts about the relationship between Serres’s insistence on synthesis and the disruption characteristic of Serresian figures like Hermes and the parasite (Ec 129–38, 158–63/C 86–92, 107–10). 144 145 146

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‘Comment les mille couleurs du bariolage peuvent-elles se résoudre dans leur somme blanche?’ Hénaff, ‘Des pierres, des anges et des hommes’, 83. CW’s translation. ‘autant qu’il se peut les cas singuliers, les variétés et les degrés avant de découvrir l’invariant de la variation’. Hayles, ‘Two Voices’, 3.

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Are these objections valid? What might we say in Serres’s defence? In her essay ‘Translating Ecocriticism’, Stephanie Posthumus rallies to Serres’s cause by arguing that Hayles’ and Latour’s objections are ‘rooted in a postmodernism that rejects any possible passage from the local to the global’.148 This defence of Serres is fundamentally correct; these critiques seem to assume a Cartesian framework according to which universality must necessarily be in conflict with singularity, pluralism with monism, that generality must be violent in the Derridean sense and/or totalising in the Levinasian or Lyotardian sense, and that Pierrot must negate rather than fulfil Harlequin. What these critiques have not allowed themselves to contemplate is a ‘structure’ that is no straightforward synthesis of the ‘models’ it federates, or an algorithmic universal that emerges from among the concrete, the fragmentary and the singular, not to subsume or devalue them but to ‘crown’ them. Conclusion: So How Does Serres Think?

The aim of this chapter has been to sketch not what Serres says on this or that topic, but how he thinks about all topics: the characteristic intellectual moves he makes, or his signature ‘figures of thought’. We can discern three distinctive and pervasive figures of thought that characterise the Serres we have encountered so far: the refusal of umbilical thinking, opposing by generalising, and the complementarity of the local and the global which, for ease of reference, we shall call the Harlequin–Pierrot figure. Refusal of umbilical thinking

Umbilical thought, as we have seen, seeks to ‘explain through reducing a system to a local region, . . . reducing to a single language the theory itself of all the possible passages from any one language to another’ (H1 80).149 It is a move that is made in an attempt to simplify and dominate the complex, inter-related, mixed real: Temporal power cultivates and manages its ‘real’ by reducing it to a singular figure: everything is military or militant; everything is religious or dogmatic; everything is economic; and, today, everything is media-friendly and a spectacle . . . I no longer understand totalitarianism as anything other than these diverse reductions.

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Posthumus, ‘Translating Ecocriticism’. ‘expliquer par réduction d’un système à une région locale, . . . réduire à une seule langue la théorie même de tous les passages possibles d’une langue quelconque à une autre’.

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It only succeeds in establishing itself as such a totalitarianism, however, if it can embed the idea that the partial model of reality from which it emerges is in fact coterminous with the real (GM 102–3): everything is fundamentally political; everything is fundamentally economic; everything is fundamentally biological. Umbilical thinking is not simply taking a part for the whole, because a model is not a part of the structure but an expression of the structure. Each attempted umbilical paradigm is a bid for power, whether primarily political or intellectual, and it propagates the myth that ‘the power relationships or the rival parties that attack or defend this reduction are the drivers of History’ (GM 101).150 It is always a martial move because it requires the drawing up of partitions and limits, the creation of rival claims, in order that it may emerge victorious. It is driven by an intellectual libido dominandi: ‘Every theory would like to hold the facts, all the facts, in its hand, in its own hand, unique: omnia in unum’ (R 321/Ro 218).151 In Malfeasance, Serres describes this lust for dominance in terms of appropriating space: each discipline wants to urinate on all the others to mark them as part of its own territory. We first saw this move in relation to model and structure: readers of Leibniz have a habit of taking one disciplinary expression of Leibniz’s thought – say his logic – and elevating it to the status of the lens through which all his work must be read, and the degree zero or pure expression of Leibnizianism to which all other areas of Leibniz’s thought approximate more or less adequately. Structure itself is not umbilical because it is not one expression of Leibniz’s thought among others but a formalised, ‘empty’ account of the isomorphically related moves that characterise his thinking in any model whatsoever. There remains, despite all this, a question mark over whether Serres’s own thought is umbilical. The question centres around the nature of the formal itself. Does not formalism belong paradigmatically to mathematics, ‘the subject in which we never know what we are talking about, nor whether what we are saying is true’?152 Pending an extended

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‘le rapport de forces ou la concurrence qui attaquent ou défendent cette réduction engendrent l’Histoire’. ‘Chaque théorie voudrait tenir les faits, tous les faits, dans sa main, dans sa main propre, unique: omnia in unum.’ Russell, ‘Recent Work on the Principles of Mathematics’, 84.

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treatment of this question in Chapter 2 (in the section entitled ‘Serres’s aspectual pluralism’), we can note here that, even if it does, then formalisation does not reduce the many to the one in the way that the umbilical paradigms discussed in this chapter do. Formalisation is a way of finding isomorphisms, not of refusing them in the name of one umbilical determinate discourse. We have also seen that, from Serres’s point of view, both Plato and Descartes practice umbilical thinking. Plato takes one single sun to be the only sun, and Cartesian thought, for its part, works on the principle that its particular way of finding truth – through a tabula rasa of complexity, an indubitable starting point and a single, straight chain of reasons – is the only possible way. Serres wants nothing to do with such totalitarian approaches: No solution constitutes the only solution: neither a particular religion, nor a particular politics, nor a particular science. The only hope remains that science can learn a tolerant wisdom that the other instances of power were never really able to learn and prevent a united, madly logical, rationally tragic world. (TK 122) Aucune solution ne constitue la seule solution: ni telle religion, ni telle politique, ni telle science. Le seul espoir reste que cette dernière puisse apprendre une sagesse tolérante que les autres instances n’ont jamais su vraiment apprendre et nous évite un monde uni, follement logique, rationnellement tragique. (TI 188)

In view of this refusal of umbilical thought it is easy to see why Serres has been considered pluralist, even relativist. But any such appellation risks traducing his thinking if it does not take account of the particular nature of the relationship between model and structure. Plural models are not ‘pluralist’ in any flat sense, any more than a Leibnizian commitment to federation makes Serres’s thought monist. His refusal of umbilical thinking is not equivalent to Lyotard’s waging war on totality. It is not a rejection of totality at all, in fact, but of a particular, umbilical sort of totality. Opposing by generalising

In addition to the refusal of umbilical thought, a further distinctive Serresian figure of thought that has emerged in this chapter is opposing by generalising. If umbilical thinking axiomatically inflates the local to the status of the universal, then opposing by generalising federates the local ever more comprehensively to approach the universal asymptotically. It is a mode of engagement that does not critique or deconstruct, but nevertheless ends by destabilising. In conversation

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with Bruno Latour, Serres implores ‘I consider exclusion as the blackest action of history, and even of humanity. No, let us not eliminate; on the contrary, let us include’ (Ec 194/C 132, translation altered),153 and in Rome he affirms that ‘I believe it’s possible to think without excluding’ (R 104/Ro 67).154 Opposing by generalising shows that it is also possible to critique and subvert without excluding, without a negative moment. An old Irish folktale can help us to see how. In the folktale Young Tom catches a leprechaun, who is thereby obliged to reveal the tree in the forest under which a great hoard of gold is buried. Tom marks the spot by tying a ribbon round the tree, and the leprechaun promises not to remove the ribbon before Tom arrives back with his spade and wagon to take away the gold. When Tom returns, he finds that every tree in the forest now has an identical ribbon, and the leprechaun has vanished. In a similar way, opposing by multiplying subverts without polemics, without negation, without dialectics. Serres holds that Russell’s account of Leibniz the logician, for example, is not false. What is false is the negative moment in the claim itself, namely that the logical Leibniz is Leibniz simpliciter, and that everything else Leibniz says can be plotted in relation to the polar north of his logic. Serres, then, does not reject Russell’s Leibniz but generalises it, showing it to be one possible model of a Leibnizian structure of thought. Kepler’s conic sections do not reject out of hand cosmic theories based on spheres and circular movements, but show the circle to be one particular instance of a much broader set of ellipses, parabolas and hyperbolas. Once again, Serres does not deny that Plato’s sun shines and illuminates, but he argues that it is ‘nothing but a marginal star’ (TI 227/TK 150). Similarly, he escapes the constraint of Descartes’s chain not by breaking it but by multiplying it (SL 16–17): ‘reason is a singular case in a random draw, a singularity among others’ (H5 14).155 The Platonic sun and the Cartesian line are not mistaken ideas, just insufficient insofar as they are assumed umbilically to exhaust all possibilities. Serres’s is a subversion without critique. ‘Opposing by generalising’ reveals a purported structure to be, in fact, a model. In each of these cases, Serres’s strategy is not to tear down, deconstruct, overturn or frustrate, but to tie a ribbon round every tree in the forest, subverting any claim to pre-eminence as effectively as would a critical demolition. It is also a democratising move. It prevents there being ‘one discourse to rule them all’, to which all others must defer. 153

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‘L’exclusion me paraît l’acte le plus noir de l’histoire et même de l’hominité. Non, n’éliminons pas, bien au contraire, incluons.’ ‘Je crois qu’il est possible de penser sans exclure.’ ‘raison est un cas singulier dans un tirage au sort, une singularité parmi d’autres’.

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Derrida deconstructs the Platonic logos, and Deleuze overturns Platonism, but Serres opposes Plato by generalising the sun, opposes Descartes by generalising the straight line of reasoning, and opposes the geometric logos by insisting on the algorithmic logos. This leaves him in a significantly different position to his two contemporaries, though all three resist Platonic and Cartesian thought. Serres’s opposing by generalising is distinct because it retains a strong commitment to totality and the global. In refusing to subsume everything under a single law it does not take refuge in the fragment (CS 262/FS 239) but equally embraces both the local and the global, which leads us to the third major figure of thought discussed in this chapter. Harlequin–Pierrot: the complementarity of the local and the global

The third characteristic figure of thought we have encountered in this chapter is exemplified in Serres’s procedural universal. Rather than opposing the local to the global, the singular to the universal, Serres propounds an incremental universal woven together from a super-fast shuttling between concrete examples as exemplified in the Google search algorithm. Multi-coloured local Harlequin is no longer the opposite of all-white universal Pierrot, but his very condition of possibility, in the same way that polychromatic white light is formed from combining all the wavelengths on the colour spectrum. In a marked contrast both to the Platonic and Cartesian thought that subsume difference and nuance under broad, universal concepts, and also in contrast to Derrida’s thought that privileges singularity and understands determinate universality as violent, Serres’s account sees peace break out between the singular and the universal, which are now seen as complementary. Far from being opposed to each other, the local and the global are seen to be directly proportional. This is assimilable neither to a Hegelian dialectic nor to the principle of non-contradiction; it stands in relation to these established forms as new way of understanding the relation between the local and the global. Algorithmic thought constructs singularities from the web of relations between which the universal emerges (Ram 191). This feature of Serres’s thought shares some affinities with Deleuze and Guattari’s ‘PLURALISM = MONISM’.156 Both positions maintain a sense of the whole that does not come at the expense of local difference: both Serres and Deleuze and Guattari give accounts of the global and the local as complementary. But there are also significant differences. Serres’s position is not monist; his unity and universality

156

Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 20.

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are won through painstaking local navigations establishing relations between particular entities and disciplines, not through an axiomatic assertion or anhypothetical necessity for the clamour of being to be raised by a single voice. Serres achieves universality not by speaking in a single voice, as Deleuze and Guattari claim, but by federating multiple voices with none emerging as original or dominant. Compared to Serres’s incremental, concrete, emergent universality, Deleuze and Guattari’s insistence on a single voice looks to have much in common with the Cartesian method of universality by fiat. In subsequent chapters we shall see these three fundamental Serresian figures of thought refined, expanded and deployed in new areas. In one form or another, however, they will be our guides throughout all our remaining explorations.

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2

Space and Time

IN CHAPTER 1 WE began to explore the figures of thought that characterise Serres’s writing: his rejection of umbilical thinking, opposing by generalising, and the ‘Harlequin/Pierrot’ move: the complementarity of the local and the global. In the present chapter we begin to see how these figures of thought are expressed, refined and challenged through how he thinks about specific problems, namely space and time. Indeed, we shall see that the distinctive ways in which Serres understands space and time will themselves also act as figures of thought, profoundly shaping his interventions into questions of language, objects and ecology to be discussed in the latter three chapters of this book. In exploring Serres’s account of space and time this chapter also develops more of a sense of Serres’s view of the world. As he says of the movement from space as Cartesian extension to space as Leibnizian topology, ‘what becomes outdated here is, to be sure, a vision of the world, or rather what we thought was a condition of this vision. So it is not immodest to see there a completely new world’ (H5 75).1 Serres resists the language of worldview in relation to his own thought, doubtless because it is too rationalistic and abstract a notion, insufficiently material, insufficiently sensory. He prefers to characterise his own enterprise in the following terms: ‘my goal is not above all to be right but, rather, to produce a global intuition, profound and sensible’ (Ec 170/C 115).2 Serres’s accounts of space and time are key elements of this global intuition, this Serresian outlook, ethos or sensibility. To grasp how he understands space and time is to be ushered into his world. 1

2

‘Ce qui devient caduc ici est bien une vision du monde, ou mieux, ce que nous croyions condition à cette vision. Il n’est donc pas immodeste de voir là un monde tout neuf.’ ‘mon but n’est pas d’avoir raison à toute force, mais de produire une intuition globale, profonde et sensée’.

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The Classical Understanding of Space

Serres defines his own understanding of space in contrast to the account introduced into Western thought by Euclid and which reaches its purest formulation in the post-Newtonian but pre-industrial classical age, epitomised in Cartesian extension. The dominant understanding of space in the classical age conceives it as infinite, undifferentiated, universal and blank. It is infinite because the fixed axes of its coordinate system extend indefinitely. It is undifferentiated because those axes extend on a perfectly flat plane and know no impediment or warping so that space ‘remains the same in all directions’ (H1 194).3 It is universal because its system of coordinates allows for no qualitative differences: space is homogeneous and is everywhere governed by the same unchanging laws (EPF 171–2). And finally it is blank because it ‘extirpates . . . all that might still dare to reappear: touch, colour, the sensible’ (OG 52/G xlv),4 purifying extension of any and all notable features and creating something ‘calm and white’ (ESC 43), something ‘quite new’ (H5 22), the empty flatness that Serres calls a desert (see H5 76–8) or the ideal substance of virgin wax (OG 52/G xlv) (see Figure 2.1). Serres’s first problem with space as infinite, undifferentiated, universal, blank extension is that it does not exist. It is ‘a philosophical artefact . . . a cultural crystallisation, a product of history’ (H5 67–8).5 Euclidean space, the space of builders and architects, is never in fact experienced but rather retrofitted, an epistemological truth

Figure 2.1 The classical understanding of space 3 4

5

‘Le sujet habite un domaine infini qui reste le même dans toutes les directions.’ ‘le philosophe extirpe . . . tout ce qui pourrait risquer encore d’y réapparaître – le tact, la couleur, le sensible’. ‘un artéfact philosophique . . . une cristallisation culturelle, une production de l’histoire’.

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imposed upon history (H2 51). Crucial to Serres’s rejection of this classical account of space are also its political and theological implications. It is far from an innocent invention because it facilitates an agenda of conquest and domination, making of the whole world not merely a tabula rasa but also a terra nullius ripe for possession and exploitation. Cartesian space is appropriate for a certain physics, but when it tries to establish itself as the umbilical or degree zero concept of space it becomes ‘universally inflated, like all imperialisms’ (H5 73).6 Additionally, this account of space is nothing less than a ‘secularised religion’ (EPF 126) and a ‘theological relic’ (H5 74), a secular varnish on a theological notion of eternity with the role of God the Father played by determinism and that of his son by Isaac Newton. The cast of characters has changed but the script is still written by theology. The purity of Cartesian space is a ‘cleaned place’ that retains a ‘major religious tonality’ in its inscription into the logic of the sacred and the profane (OG 52/G xlv). This cleansing itself draws from a religious grammar: it is the apocalypse, foreshadowed for Serres in the ‘first deluge’ of Gen. 1 where we see ‘the primordial operation that does away with everything, without ark or any other remainder’ (OG 54/G xlvii),7 leaving the sovereign Cartesian subject to play the role of the Spirit of God hovering over the waters, preparing for a fresh creation. Newton formed the universal space of science in the image of the God of his day, and the idea that everything happens in one universal space is ‘what is left of God for us’ in our day, with the result that ‘[t]he most atheist among men thus use a theology’ (R 230/Ro 156).8 To believe in such a space, given that it is a pure philosophical invention, cannot be anything but an article of faith (H5 68). Serres’s Account of Space

Following the pattern traced in Chapter 1, Serres opposes Cartesian space by generalising it. He is quite happy to affirm that space is ‘locally Euclidean’, but it is a grave mistake to extrapolate from this truism that all space conforms to the Euclidean pattern (H5 71); that would be an umbilical expansion or homothetic transformation of a local fragment. Only recently, with the discovery of non-Euclidean geometries, as well as the equipotency of the transfinite and the folds of topology, have we become aware that the pure light of the Euclidean system obscured the complexities of its origin, the dazzling shaft of metric space blinding us to the beams and joists of his geometry (GB 101–2; see also NM 127). 6 7 8

‘universellement gonflé, comme tout impérialisme’. ‘la primordiale opération qui supprime tout, sans aucune arche ni autre reste’. ‘Les plus athées d’entre les hommes manient ainsi une théologie.’

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Landscape

Put at its simplest, for Serres we do not live in one universal, homogeneous space but in, or at the intersection of, multiple spaces (H2 151; GB 239). The space into which we are plunged is ‘never simple, rarely isotropic, homogeneous, connected’, but is ‘saturated, on the contrary, with singularities, umbilical points, tears, hiatuses’ (FSB 166)9 such as black holes and gamma-ray bursts (SP 48) that distort regular Cartesian dimensions.10 In such a post-Laplacean space it is impossible to derive everything from Newton’s laws, and we are faced instead with ‘a leafy landscape, a sky full of unexpected, singular, monstrous objects that are sometimes resistant to theories’ (SP 48).11 Serres’s collective term for these multiple spaces, these singularities and tears, is ‘landscape’ (paysage): ‘There isn’t a single space, but rather a landscape. A landscape is a mosaic of spaces and not a set of objects placed in a common space’ (R 155/Ro 229).12 Landscape is to the universal, blank space what the web is to the chain in Le Système de Leibniz (DBS 178), not its negation but its crowning and completion as part of a subtler mosaic of plural spaces (see DBS 179). The term ‘landscape’ recognises that our complex world is a ‘sumptuous disorder’ (SP 51) resistant to exhaustive theorising and to the systematicity and inviolable laws of Newton, Lagrange, Laplace and Poincaré (SP 48). Landscape is never blank and flat; it is populated with flora and fauna. It disorients or guides those who inhabit it (in the case of the sea or the beach), dehydrates them (the Bedouin in the desert) or kills them (the mountaineer on the ridge, RH 136). Landscape is not the theoretical object of an ideal observer but a necessary condition of our survival; it haunts us as we live in it and are exposed to it (RH 137). To move from the paradigm of Cartesian space to that of landscape is to stop treating nature as a décor and a treasure, and start understanding it as a symbiote (RH 138).13 In a section of Éloge de la philosophie en langue française entitled ‘Discours d’une autre méthode: apparition du paysage’ [‘Discourse on Another Method: The Appearance of Landscape’], Serres directly contrasts Rousseau’s walker from Les Rêveries du promeneur solitaire (Reveries of a Solitary Walker) with the Cartesian

9

10 11

12

13

‘L’espace, ici, où ceci à lieu, n’est jamais simple, rarement isotrope, homogène, connexe. Je vois très peu de contre-exemples. Saturé, au contraire, de singularités, d’ombilics, de déchirures, d’hiatus.’ Serres claims to have received a list of 150 such singularities from Pierre Léna. ‘un paysage feuillu, un ciel rempli d’objets inattendus, singuliers, monstrueux, résistants parfois aux théories’. ‘Il n’y a pas un seul espace, mais un paysage. Un paysage est une mosaïque d’espaces, et non pas un ensemble d’objets posés dans un espace commun.’ This idea of symbiosis will be explored at length in Chapters 5 and 6.

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methodical chain. In the chapter entitled ‘Fifth Walk’ Rousseau remembers an outing on St Peter’s island (a peninsula at the foot of the Jura Mountains in Switzerland) in a way that, for Serres, ‘inverts the Discourse on Method, but announces similar rules’ (EPF 144).14 The walker expresses the admirably Cartesian desire to ‘describe all the plants of the island, without leaving any out’ (EPF 144),15 and to divide the island into little squares in order to systematise his progress. This, however, is where the similarity with Descartes ends, for in order to proceed in a Cartesian straight line in this wooded landscape the walker would have to embark on a project of deforestation. Instead, Jean-Jacques circulates round the island in a ramble (randonnée) that, in introducing him to all its varieties of flora, lets those same plants continue to grow undisturbed. How is this possible? By seeking not to dominate the landscape but to let oneself be led by its contours: will gives way to celebration, emptiness to plenitude, the geometer to the collector of plants, the map to the grinning countryside, the smooth space to the multiple and pleasant environment, and finally the straight path to the braids, curls and tracery of the most complete visit possible. la volonté laisse place à la réjouissance, le vide au plein, le géomètre à qui herborise, le plan au paysage riant, l’espace lisse à l’environnement multiple et agréable, enfin le chemin droit aux ganses, boucles et entrelacs de la visite la plus complète possible. (EPF 145)

This ramble is an anti-method, not because it denies all method (which would in fact still affirm method in the breach), but because it generalises and multiplies the Cartesian methodical straight line to the extent that it becomes functionally indiscernible from aleatory movement.16 The ramble follows a procedural, not a declarative method because – like the moon-bound rocket we encountered in Chapter 1 – its route is decided not by a precise itinerary set out in advance but by a constant series of corrections and rectifications issuing from ongoing calculations (EPF 163). This motif of the ramble is one of a sequence of images Serres uses to express the contingent, aleatory, free passage through and across a landscape that, while

14 15 16

‘inverse . . . en quelque façon le Discours de la méthode, mais énonce de semblables règles’. ‘décrire toutes les plantes de l’île, sans en omettre une seule’. Randonnée, Serres notes, shares an etymology with the English ‘random’ (EPF 14), and in French it originally appeared in the semantic field of hunting, describing the pursuit of a stag or hind in its desperate, winding and unpredictable attempt to evade the hounds (CS 284/FS 259).

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remaining unsystematic, nevertheless issues in a comprehensive knowledge or inventory. Elsewhere he evokes the flight path of a wasp, bee or fly, and the journey of Ulysses back to Ithaca.17 The fly,18 which Serres concedes he spent a little too long observing during the dreary school lessons of his youth, follows an ‘interrupted path, broken, drawn at random at every halt’, tracing ‘chaotic and Brownian jumps’ that would have sent shivers down Descartes’s impeccably straight spine (R 110/Ro 71).19 Unlike Descartes’s rectilinear method the fly’s trajectory is unpredictable, constantly surprising (see Figure 2.2). Ulysses, for his part, is a reluctant rambler (randonneur). A Cartesian at heart, once the Trojan War is at an end he seeks the quickest straight-line journey back to his beloved Penelope (CS 286/FS 260–1), but his voyage turns out to embrace a most circuitous and haphazard route which Serres likens to the Hebrew Exodus, that other epic ancient deviation which went from Egypt to Canaan (a journey of around eleven days), via forty years wandering in the desert of Sinai. Ulysses’ exodic journey, like the fly’s trajectory, is punctuated with periods of relative order and stability, but also contains moments when he is becoming more distant

Figure 2.2 The ramble, Ulysses and the fly 17

18

19

The motif of Ariadne’s thread fulfils a similar function in Serres’s thought, and appears as early as SL, where he notes that it is ‘doubtless the most repeated in all Leibniz’s work’ (SL 8 n1). It recurs regularly in Serres’s work (notably in Rome, Statues, The Five Senses and Genesis), but is never elaborated at great length. Serres on occasion calls this airborne insect a wasp (guêpe), sometimes a fly (mouche), sometimes a bee (abeille) and sometimes all three at once. ‘mon espoir est le chemin coupé, cassé, tiré au sort en toute station, de la guêpe. . . . Non, je ne crains pas le saut chaotique et brownien de la guêpe.’

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from his desired destination, framed in a haphazard sequence of contingencies. This is not because Ulysses becomes distracted or navigates poorly; it turns out that the nonlinear route he takes is precisely the most expedited means to return to Penelope as soon as possible, when we take account of the singular climatic conditions and broader circumstances in which he finds himself. If he attempts to travel in a straight line he will be shipwrecked (CS 291/FS 265). Topology

Landscape may be variegated and irregular, but it does not provide a sufficient account of the way in which Serres subverts Cartesian extension and establishes his own account of space, and therefore also his own ‘global intuition’. For that, we need to turn to topology, ‘[t]he study of geometrical properties and spatial relations unaffected by the continuous change of shape or size of figures’ (OED). More colloquially, topology is known as ‘rubber-sheet geometry’, a way of understanding space in which forms can be stretched, pulled, folded and squeezed in topological transformations, without changing their descriptions. A common example of topological description is a coffee cup. A Euclidean description of the cup would describe features such as the dimensions and shape of the handle, the circumference of the rim and the depth of the bowl. This definition fixes the elements of the cup in rigid relation to each other: if the handle, for example, were to move to the bottom of the cup, a different Euclidean description would be required. A topological description of the same cup, by contrast, would ignore the fixed positions of handle, rim and bowl, describing instead a set of formal relations between surfaces and holes. In fact, this topological description of a coffee mug would be identical to the description of any form with one hole, including a doughnut and, it is sometimes claimed, a human being.20 Each of these forms is a topological torus, containing the same number of surfaces and holes, and one can be transformed into the other without ripping, puncturing or gluing. Topology, then, describes ‘not places as such, contained and containing, defined, delimited, in relief, thus metric or measurable, but rapports and relations of vicinity, proximity, remoteness, adherence or accumulation, in other words positions’ (At 71).21 Topology can describe what something is next to, underneath

20

21

The comparison to the human being is made by O’Connell, ‘Topology Explained’. The roughand-ready nature of the human being comparison has been widely noted. ‘non les lieux comme tels, contenus et contenants, définis, délimités, découpés, donc métriques ou mesurables, mais les rapports et relations de voisinage, de proximité, d’éloignement, d’adhérence ou d’accumulation, autrement dit les positions’.

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or surrounded by, but not where it is in an absolute sense. In other words, topology describes a space of prepositions: ‘inside’ (enclosures), ‘outside’ (openings) and ‘between’ (intervals), ‘towards’, ‘in front’ and ‘behind’ (direction), ‘near’, ‘on’, ‘against’, ‘after’, ‘touching’ (proximity and adherence), ‘among’ (plunging) (At 71). Insofar as prepositions also describe relative positions, topology is a science of relations. Topology also provides Serres with an account of transformations, explaining how points that were formerly distant can become near or vice versa, how the inside can become outside, top become bottom and front become back while an overall topological structure remains unchanged. Topology refuses to think of space as a universal container according to the Euclidean or Newtonian paradigm (EPF 248), but sees it as a series of transformable localities. In thus accounting for transformations over time it is ‘geometry plus time’,22 giving geometry an irreducibly temporal dimension. Topology, like Bourbakian structuralism, is procedural, describing a series of transformations and isomorphisms rather than a set of fixed positions: it is a structuralism of space. It ‘opens the bolt’ that established Euclidean, Cartesian space as the one, universal paradigm and ‘global milieu’, and ‘radically pluralises the traditional uniqueness of this a priori form’ (H5 72–3).23 In a way consistent with his profound pedagogical gift, Serres takes the complex field of topology and presents some of its key features to his reader through an everyday analogy: the handkerchief. This analogy first appears in Feux et signaux de brume, in a discussion of Octave Mouret’s department store in Zola’s Au Bonheur des dames (The Ladies’ Delight). The department store is organised as a series of connections and non-connections, folds and ruptures, a system homeomorphic with the new capitalist paradigm of stocks and reservoirs. In conversation with Bruno Latour, Serres elaborates further on this textile motif: If you take a handkerchief and spread it out in order to iron it, you can see in it certain fixed distances and proximities. If you sketch a circle in one area, you can mark out nearby points and measure far-off distances. Then take the same handkerchief and crumple it, by putting it in your pocket. Two distant points suddenly are close, even superimposed. If, further, you tear it in certain places, two points that were close can become very distant. The science of nearness and rifts is called topology, while the science of stable and well-defined distances is called metrical geometry. (C 60)

22 23

Connor, . ‘Elle ouvre le verrou qui tenait ensemble, dans et par cette forme, le pur et le métrique, les variétés diverses et le milieu global où elles semblaient serties, elle pluralise radicalement l’unicité traditionnelle de cette forme a priori.’

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Si vous prenez un mouchoir et que vous l’étaliez pour le repasser, vous pouvez définir sur lui des distances et des proximités fixes. Autour d’une petite roue ronde que vous dessinez au voisinage d’un lieu, vous pouvez marquer des points proches et mesurer, au contraire, des distances lointaines. Prenez ensuite le même mouchoir et chiffonnez-le, en le mettant dans votre poche: deux points très éloignés se trouvent tout à coup voisins, superposés même; et si, de plus, vous le déchirez en de certains endroits, deux points très rapprochés peuvent s’éloigner beaucoup. On appelle topologie cette science des voisinages et des déchirures, et géométrie métrique la science des distances bien définies et stables. (Ec 92–3)

The fold, for Serres, is a ‘topological atom’ and an ‘infinitesimal germ of form’,24 the textile equivalent of the Lucretian clinamen. His development of the motif of the fold cannot but call to mind resonances with Deleuze’s The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque.25 Serres writes approvingly of Deleuze’s text in Atlas, arguing that from Leibniz onwards ‘everything is folding, as Gilles Deleuze has rightly put it’ (At 49).26 He returns to Deleuze in Éloge de la philosophie en langue française, referring to him approvingly as the ‘landscape geographer’ [‘géographe paysager’] of A Thousand Plateaus (EPF 213) and a ‘dressmaker’ or geologist of The Fold, and suggesting that he, more than anyone else, understands the chaotic and fractal world that Serres is labouring so intensely to comprehend. Deleuze, for his part, makes several references to Serres in his writing, almost all positive. In The Fold he engages with Le Système de Leibniz and draws on the themes of the one and the multiple,27 Leibnizian superimposed filters28 and Serres’s account of Pascal’s harmonic triangle.29 The one unambiguously negative reference to Serres comes in the same text, where Deleuze disagrees over whether, for Leibniz, a monad can contain the ultimate reason of the world.30 The spatial revolution

It would be a mistake to think that topology functions for Serres as a theoretical paradigm with little practical heft. Every metaphysics, he insists, rests on a physics, 24 25

26 27 28 29 30

Connor, ‘Topologies’, Anglistik. Also . This comparison is a frequent move in the secondary literature on Serres’s topology. See, for example, Wolfe, ‘Bring the Noise’, xvii–xviii; Connor, ; Assad, ‘Ulyssean Trajectories’, 88. ‘tout est pli et Gilles Deleuze a raison de le dire de lui [Leibniz]’. Deleuze, Le Pli, 173/The Fold, 145. Deleuze, Le Pli, 104 n2/The Fold, 178 n3. Deleuze, Le Pli, 176 n16/The Fold, 190 n17. Deleuze, Le Pli, 68 n20/The Fold, 172 n20.

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and so ‘if we change space, our behaviours also have to change, along with our productions, our institutions, and finally our thought’ (GB 152).31 From his writing from the mid-1990s onwards Serres has been claiming that ‘it used to be an abstract science, but topology describes the space of our habitat in the most concrete way imaginable’ (Hom 293).32 From the beginning of agriculture in the Neolithic period (when nomadic groups began to settle in geographically fixed communities) until the late twentieth century, almost all human beings belonged to a particular place. If we wished to send a message to someone, either at home or at work, we had to find their physical address, identifying them with a particular location (Hom 257). Distances were calculated, many places remained inaccessible to us, and the world had need of postmen, envoys, sheepdogs, messengers, sailors and cosmonauts (GB 152). In short, we understood ourselves as living in Euclidean or Cartesian space. As we move into the twenty-first century, however, ‘we no longer live, in fact, in the same way’ (At 12).33 I can make a telephone call to the opposite side of the world; images streamed live from around the world no longer surprise me; I can collaborate with colleagues on five continents in real time, without having to take a step outside my office (At 12). Where does this collaboration take place? Here? There? Somewhere in the middle? No, it exists in a space that cannot be described geometrically, only topologically: ‘The old questions of place: where are we speaking, you and me, where do our messages go through . . . seem to melt away and scatter, as if a new time were organising another space’ (At 12).34 My primary address – whether it be a mobile telephone number, an email address or a social media account – is no longer geometrical; it exists in the topological space of the World Wide Web in which physical distances (say, between different servers) are rendered trivial and in which any point can be brought ‘close’ to any other. As for my postal address, it receives little more than junk mail, the majority of important communication arriving electronically. We now live in a space of immediate proximity, in which those most distant from us can instantly become our neighbours (GB 152). This is why the language of ‘web’ itself is misleading: images of a spider’s web or a fishing net suggest fixed nodes extended in space, some closer than others. The space of the World Wide Web, by contrast, is ‘a space without measurable distance’ (Hom 293), a space of 31

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‘si nous changeons d’espace, doivent aussi changer nos conduites, nos productions, nos institutions, enfin notre pensée’. ‘Science jadis abstraite, la topologie décrit le plus concrètement du monde l’espace de notre habitat.’ ‘nous n’habitons plus, en effet, de la même façon’. ‘Les anciennes questions de lieu: où parlons-nous, vous et moi, par où passent nos messages . . . semblent se fondre et se répandre, comme si un nouveau temps organisait un autre espace.’

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topological relations and folds, not of absolute dimensions. Serres warns us not to fall into the trap of claiming that the web shortens distances. Walking, donkeys, horses, planes and rockets shorten distances; the web annuls them (H 135). We have not simply changed address; we have changed space. More precisely, we have opposed Cartesian space by multiplying the spatialities of our existence. This spatial revolution has also changed our experience of being in the world: ‘We haunt a topological space without distances, rather than the old Euclidian or Cartesian expanse that could be located metrically by a network of coordinates’ (MP 91/Mal 67; see also GB 242).35 The Neolithic was the age of local stockpiling, of concentration, of great libraries, warehouses and museums, and therefore also the age of restricted access to these local stockpiles, controlled by privileged elites (CMA 61–2). Our new age, by contrast, is the age of distribution (Hom 257), when knowledge no longer has an address (In 223/Inc 130). When I (as a minority world citizen with a web-enabled device) have access to (practically) all the information I might need wherever I am, whenever I want it, geographically static institutions such as libraries and universities no longer carry the same prestige they once held. What matters now, more than isolated nodes stockpiling goods or information, are the roads (both virtual and material) between them, what Serres calls the ‘rues de Richelieu’ (At 143–4), translated as ‘Richlieu roads’ but also literally as ‘roads of Rich-places’, named after a road in Paris connecting the stock exchange to the Louvre Museum via the site of the old National Library. Rather than the antiquated, immured institutions of the Neolithic, Serres hails the rise of ‘extitutions’ (At 195–6), groups of people distant in geometric space but united in virtual, topological space and in need of no building to house them. The implications of the spatial revolution extend to anthropology. One of the main consequences of the recent multiplication of space is that the Heideggerian notion of Dasein, being-there, now looks achingly out of date. Being-there is the ‘brief anthropological interval’ appropriate for the Neolithic age, but when we leave the Neolithic, as we are now in the process of doing, our concept of being must also change (At 193). In our new topological existence, ‘there’ is precisely where we are not, or rather we are ‘there without being there’ (At 184), both there and not there. Being-there is not directly contradicted; like Ptolemy’s circles, Plato’s sun and Descartes’s line it is opposed by being generalised: ‘being-there expands’ (At 12).36 In Biogea, Serres clarifies that we are not now out-there as opposed to being-there, but both at the same time (Bi 49/Bio 49–50): our new conditions of 35

36

‘Nous hantons un espace topologique, sans distances, plutôt que la vieille étendue, euclidienne ou cartésienne, métriquement repérable par un réseau de coordonnées.’ ‘l’être là s’expanse’.

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existence oppose being-there not by rejecting it but by multiplying it.37 Now ‘there is no contradiction between the fact that I am here and at the same time elsewhere’ (At 81),38 and I can also be ‘there’ at the same time as someone else. This undermines that other artefact of the Neolithic, the law of the excluded middle which dictates that I must be either ‘there’ or ‘not there’, but cannot be both, or neither (see At 81). Leaving behind our being-there we are embracing not a new mode of being but a new transformation of our oldest, pre-Neolithic roots: the ‘being out there’ (être hors là)39 of our first, nomadic ancestors who, ‘exiled, and henceforth without a niche, . . . were shut out of the garden’ (At 193).40 Like accursed Cain destined to be ‘be a restless wanderer on the earth’ (Gen. 4: 14), our mode of being now is to roam, to rove, to ramble. If being-there is out of date because we are no longer simply ‘there’, then it is equally surpassed in that ‘we are not even beings’ (At 187).41 What Serres means is that we can, at will, leave ourselves. We think, act, work and speak to exteriorise ourselves in our devices, through our technology, outsourcing or ‘pouring out’

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This hint in Biogée goes a long way to allaying Connor’s concern in ‘Topologies’ () that Serres is arguing that we have left behind metrical space and linear time altogether. In pushing back against what he sees as Serres’s hasty conclusion, Connor hierarchises linear and topological time: ‘Can the thought of the eddy, the crumple or the fold be possible otherwise than as local resistances to a global law of uniform passage from one state to another?’ For Connor, linear time is the ‘global law’, and topological time a ‘resistance’ to it. I think this is going too far, and assumes the standpoint of the subject; it assumes a position outside Plato’s cave. Whether linear or topological time is primary is a matter of perspective, a matter of where we stand, which cuts much more with the grain of Serres’s Leibnizian move of opposing by generalising and with (as we shall see below) his own ‘aspectual’ account of relations than either Connor’s reconstruction of Serres or his own refutation of that reconstruction. Serres is not quite ‘dispensing with the background assumption of the irreversible elapse of time’, but he is dispensing with the assumption that the irreversible lapse of time is always a background assumption. Linear time to be sure makes sense of the foldings of topological time, but the reverse is also true: linear time becomes what it is only in contradistinction to topological time. To claim that topological time needs linear time to be intelligible does not lead to the conclusion – as Connor seems to think it does – that linear time is primary. For Serres, time is both linear and topological. For Connor, time is always first linear, and then perhaps also topological. In other words, Connor erects linear time as a degree zero against which all time is measured: an umbilical account of time. ‘il n’y [a] aucune contradiction entre le fait que je sois ici et en même temps ailleurs’. The translator of ‘être hors là’ must make the decision between ‘out-there’ and ‘outside-there’. There are reasons to favour either possibility. I have favoured the less specific option for two reasons. First, because French has a word meaning, specifically, ‘outside’ (dehors), and it is not used by Serres here. Secondly, because ‘outside’ risks giving the impression that being-out-there still operates in terms of geometrical understanding of inside and outside, which fundamentally contradicts Serres’s topological paradigm. ‘Exilés, sans niche désormais, nous fûmes exclus du jardin.’ ‘non seulement, nous ne sommes pas souvent là, mais nous ne sommes même pas des êtres’.

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our body’s functions in a virtual space that leaves us not the subject of our world but thrown outside and before ourselves, the object of the virtual world (At 187).42 In a world of beings-there, Homo sapiens sapiens has always been – and is now more than ever – the being-out-there. Synchronic Relations

The ways in which Serres thinks about space provide him with a distinctive account of relations, particularly the synchronic relations between different disciplines and discourses of knowledge. His insistence on multiple spaces, on landscape, and on topology help to shape one of his most profound and wide-ranging contributions to the intellectual culture of our day. The term most frequently used in the secondary literature to describe this contribution is ‘pluralism’,43 a term that Serres uses much more often in relation to Leibniz than to describe his own thought. The most sustained references to Serres’s own ‘pluralism’ come in Hermès II: L’interférence, where he opposes it to the idea of an umbilical discipline: We must not hesitate in saying that there is no queen-science, that there can be no hierarchy from simplicity to complication, and so it is urgent to found a pluralist epistemology, developing a full spectrum from logic and science to linguistics and sociology of science. And it is precisely in this way that science is unified or systematic, and not under the haughty eye of a discipline seated atop the hierarchy by divine right. It is a unity that emerges from multiple points of view, each one enjoying roughly the same power of generality as the others. It is a unity of circulation, a pluralist epistemology, and a philosophy of transport that ruins every dogmatism once and for all. Il ne faut pas hésiter à dire qu’il n’y a pas de science-reine, qu’il ne saurait exister de hiérarchie de la simplicité à la complication, de sorte qu’il est urgent de fonder une épistémologie pluraliste, développant un spectre complet, de la logique et de la science à la linguistique et à la sociologie de la science.

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This is a theme to which we shall return in Chapter 5. ‘Hors là’ is also an echo of Maupassant’s poem ‘Le Horla’, to which Serres repeatedly refers in Atlas. Indeed, in an unusual move for Serres he adds a footnote on the first page of the ‘Etre hors là’ chapter, which reads ‘The following pages require prior reading of “Le Horla”, the short story by Guy de Maupassant’ [‘Les pages qui suivent demandent que l’on ait lu d’abord le Horla, brève nouvelle, par Guy de Maupassant’] (At 61). See, for example, Assad, ‘Ulyssean Trajectories’, 87; Crahay, Michel Serres et la mutation du cogito, 69–84; Brown, ‘Natural Writing’, 185; Delcò, Morphologies, 39 n47; Posthumus, ‘La nature et l’écologie chez Lévi-Strauss, Tournier, Serres’, 239.

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Et c’est justement à ce bénéfice que la science est unitaire ou systématique, et non sous l’œil hautain d’une discipline posée, de droit divin, au haut d’une hiérarchie; unité visée d’une multiplicité de points de vue, dont chacun jouit sensiblement de la même puissance de généralité que les autres. L’unité de circulation, l’épistémologie pluraliste, la philosophie du transport, ruinent sans-retour tout dogmatisme. (H2 12)

The term is not restricted to his early writing, however. In an interview conducted in 2011 and first published in 2014 he says of ‘Foucault and others’ that, ‘in upending the order of things they have preserved the binary, dualist intellectual structure of their predecessors. As for me, I am not a dualist, I am a pluralist. Multiplicities are what I search for’ (Pan 100).44 Serres’s sparse use of the term is in part a consequence, no doubt, of his aversion for philosophical labels in general, but there are also at least two specific problems with referring to Serres’s thought as a ‘pluralism’. The first is that it confuses Serres’s approach with the Leibnizian pluralism on which it draws but from which it decisively breaks, on at least four counts. First, Leibnizian pluralism is idealist; Serres’s is materialist. Secondly, Leibnizian pluralism relies on a ‘pre-established harmony’ between monads which Serres discusses in Le Système de Leibniz but never adopts as his own (see, for example, SL 60). Thirdly, Leibniz is much readier to talk of a ‘system’ of correspondences than is Serres who, as we have seen, rejects ‘system’ in favour of ‘landscape’. Fourthly and finally, there are hotly debated questions about Leibniz’s pluralism that are neither Serres’s concern nor ours here. The second problem with referring to Serres’s thought as ‘pluralist’ is that pluralism risks implying a much more fragmented account of knowledge than we find in Serres’s isomorphisms and analogies, and in his equal commitment to variation and invariance, to stability and flux, to the local and the global. One way to head off these confusions is to prefix Serres’s pluralism with an adjective, both to distinguish his position from that of Leibniz, and to emphasise the fact that plural discourses are for Serres by no means unrelated or fragmented. I propose the adjective ‘aspectual’, which emphasises how each discourse or disciplinary approach affords one aspect, or one view, of a particular situation, following Serres’s evocation of the ‘full spectrum’ and the ‘unity that emerges from multiple points of view’ in Hermès II: l’interférence (H2 12). Although Serres does not use the terms ‘aspectual’ or ‘aspectualism’ in his writing, he does describe his own thinking as ‘analogistic’, a term he borrows from Philippe Descola for whom analogism is one for the four elementary ontologies or schemata 44

‘[e]n renversant l’ordre des choses, ils ont maintenu la structure intellectuelle binaire, dualiste, de leurs prédécesseurs. Moi, je ne suis pas dualiste, je suis pluraliste. Ce sont les multiplicités que je cherche.’

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that help us make sense of what we experience in the world (the other three being animism, totemism and naturalism).45 Each of Descola’s three ontologies is a view of the world entire unto itself; it can account for everything there is, and so Serres finds in Descola ‘the equivalent in the human sciences of what I had found in Leibniz or in Comte for the exact sciences’ (Pan 278),46 a non-antagonistic plurality of approaches. While the modern West limits itself to the naturalistic mode alone, Serres finds a particular affinity with analogism: all my life I have been constructing a philosophy that puts me in the tribe of the analogists . . . I live in analogism as if it were a paradise that fills me with joy. With no equivocation, all the books I have written join me to this team. (ESP 72; see also Pan 361)47

His most sustained reflection on analogism is to be found in Écrivains, savants et philosophes font le tour du monde. In a chapter entitled ‘Moi, monade analogiste’ [‘I, Monadic Analogist’, ESP 71–97] he describes the analogist as an inveterate federator who labours under the ‘obligation ceaselessly to work on arranging and composing, thus to look for thousands and thousands of relations that can bridge these differences’ (ESP 72).48 For the analogist, everything that exists is different from everything else, and so ‘he exhausts himself discovering the possible relations in this disparate disorder’ (ESP 10; see also Pan 279),49 following the algorithmic shuttling between instances and examples that characterises Serres’s procedural universal. Analogism therefore approaches the world as ‘disparates awaiting relations’ (ESP 75),50 a fluctuating web of relations, as opposed to the rigid hierarchy of umbilical thinking. The apogee of this world of disparate, fluctuating relations is the World Wide Web, where ‘on this atomised ocean of bits and pixels, each monadic individual can express itself, set up its blog, draw its face, develop its knowledge, navigate in concert with other monadic individuals’ (ESP 83–4).51 Like Verne’s cave, the world of the analogist is a ‘tissu 45 46

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See Descola, Par-delà nature et culture, 98; Beyond Nature and Culture, 101–2. ‘l’équivalent pour les sciences humaines de ce que j’avais trouvé chez Leibniz ou chez Auguste Comte pour les sciences exactes’. ‘j’ai construit toute ma vie une philosophie qui me rangerait dans la tribu des analogistes . . . j’habite l’analogisme comme un paradis qui me comble de joie. Sans nulle équivoque, tous les livres que j’écrivis me réunissent à cette équipe.’ ‘obligation de travailler sans cesse à la composition, de chercher donc mille et mille relations propres à ponter ces différences’. ‘il s’épuise à découvrir des relations possibles dans ce disparate en désordre’. ‘disparates en attente de relations’. ‘sur cet océan atomisé de bits et de pixels, chaque individu-monade peut s’exprimer lui-même, y placer son blog, y dessiner son visage, y développer son savoir, y naviguer de conserve avec d’autres monades-individus’.

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moiré’ [‘shimmering tissue’] that is ‘constellé de singularités’ [‘spangled with singularities’], which for Serres is ‘this painting that I have been attempting to paint for five decades’ (ESP 73).52 Among the analogistic thinkers whom Serres references, Leibniz unsurprisingly occupies a place of prominence. First of all, there exist for Leibniz only monadic singularities, ‘all different and lacking door or window, devoid of any link between them’ (ESP 76),53 and it is the divine understanding that provides the universal harmony which is the Pierrot-like concomitant to the Harlequin’s coat of disparate monads. Leibnizian analogism, Serres clarifies in La Guerre mondiale, is a synonym for his pluralism (GM 146). While the naturalist – such as Descartes – holds that the real is rational, and his reason saturates and exhausts reality, the analogists by contrast – among whom Leibniz is primus inter pares – affirms that ‘if the real is relational, connected, religious, there can be links (re-ligare) of all sorts towards the real’ (ESP 82).54 Analogism, then, is opposed to umbilicism; there is no single queen discipline, no umbilical discourse that can exhaustively describe reality. While Serres finds a particular affinity with analogism, he does not limit his approach to this paradigm. He chuckles that The Natural Contract was condemned as animist and also fetishist, that when he speaks of science Serres is – like everyone else – naturalist, and that he joins Leibniz in espousing an analogistic pluralism: ‘I assume these four options to be multivalent. Yes, I keep them together’ (GM 146).55 In ‘Feux et signaux de brume: Virginia Woolf’s Lighthouse’ he goes further, affirming that ‘[a]mong these four ways, I will choose, at my leisure, the one I need’ (FSBW 130). What, then, should we call the Serresian approach that embraces all four of Descola’s ontologies as circumstance dictates? It is unnecessarily confusing simply to call it ‘pluralism’, given that Serres identifies Leibnizian pluralism with one of the four ontologies, namely analogism. In order to avoid this confusion, I propose to call Serres’s pan-ontological approach ‘aspectualism’.56 52 53 54

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‘ce tableau que depuis cinq décennies j’essaie de peindre’. ‘toutes différentes et sans porte ni fenêtre, privées de tout lien entre elles’. ‘[s]i le réel est relationnel, relié, religieux, il peut y avoir des liaisons (re-ligare) de tous ordres à travers le réel’. ‘J ’assume la multivalence de ces quatre options. Oui, je les soutiens ensemble.’ In Quoi de neuf chez les Cathos Serres describes an approach which embraces all Descola’s ontologies as ‘Catholic’: ‘Catholicisme égale animisme plus totémisme plus analogisme plus paganisme plus polythéisme plus monothéisme et ainsi de suite’ (SC 25–6). I have chosen in the current volume to adopt ‘aspectualism’ rather than ‘Catholicism’ to describe Serres’s approach in order to avoid the misunderstanding that would assume Serres is adopting a confessional position. Roman Catholicism for Serres is an instance of what I am calling aspectualism, not its source. Aspectualism is the genus; Catholicism is the species.

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It is important for the concept of aspectualism that each aspect is both comprehensive (in that an object can be seen in its entirety, from top to bottom and from left to right) and partial (only one side, one perspective, of the entire object is seen). In addition, objects can appear very different indeed when viewed under different aspects (think of a knitting needle or a doughnut, for example). It is for these reasons that I will refer to Serres’s ‘aspectual pluralism’, or even to his ‘aspectualism’ for short. While this is not a term that Serres himself uses, it serves as a shorthand summary of his approach and supplements his account of his own position by providing a name for an important figure of thought that would otherwise remain nameless and therefore invisible. Aspectualism is Serres’s response to the problem of the umbilical: a way to relate plural discourses in a way that prevents any one discourse exerting control over the others. Umbilical disciplines

The notion of umbilical thinking was introduced in Chapter 1 as a way to describe how Plato, Descartes and Leibniz’s commentators all privilege a single point of access to truth. The parts of Serres’s writing that most fully develop this theme relate to the plurality of disciplinary discourses. An ‘umbilical discipline’ (SL 251) is one that sets itself up as a ‘queen-science’, ‘reference-science’ (in H2) or ‘pole of knowledge’ (H2 142–3), or, a ‘theory of theories’ that acts as a fixed point of reference or ground zero of all knowledge (see H2 20), and a ‘model in the Platonic sense, regulating and furnishing an ideal of the method in general’ (H2 142).57 Such a choice forecloses any possibility of translation between regions of knowledge, because each region must first be referred to the queen discipline from which they are all derivations. Every regional epistemology with a well-formed language is thus a prisoner of its region (H2 11) (see Figure 2.3). Like Deleuze’s majoritarian position, a queen-science appears twice in the count of sciences, once as itself, local and dependent on the concepts and references of its region, and a second time as the ultimate truth to which all other regions approximate more or less adequately, independent of all regional concepts. If there were such a queen-science, it would offer a divine point of view (H2 36, 157). The desire for an umbilical discipline is always a theological move, an attempt to occupy the place of Absolute Knowledge left vacant by the God of monotheism, and like the absent deity, the illusion of universal knowledge engenders that of universal power (H5 129).

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‘modèle, au sens platonicien, régulatrice et idéal de la méthode en général’.

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Figure 2.3 ‘Umbilical’ or ‘queen’ disciplines The opposition to any queen-science has immediate political resonances for Serres: ‘all knowledges are of equal value, none outweighs the others: the same rule applies to people as to what they know’ (At 180–1).58 It is just as unacceptable for Serres to have one queen-science as it is to have one queen. It is a logic of ‘empire and appropriation’ between a series of ‘elective objects’, imperial disciplines chosen for unarticulated reasons and held to be the degree zero of knowledge and the yardstick for all other knowledge claims. This is a move that Serres strongly resists: ‘by virtue of what does this or that part of knowledge arrogate to itself that right to speak of all the others?’ (H5 123).59 The propensity to treat disciplines umbilically abounds for Serres within both society and academia. In the modern period the space of absolute knowledge was occupied by the hard sciences: there was thought to be nothing outside the sciences, no problem for which the optimum and ultimate solution was not a scientific one. Only science was thought to be universal, because only science was thought to deliver the laws of the universe itself through truths that can be verified at all latitudes. By comparison, all other discourses and disciplines were considered local, subjective and subordinate (H5 127–8). As for practitioners of the arts, they were reduced to the ephemeral and inconsequential status of vaudeville entertainers (Ec 46/C 28). The human sciences, for their part, have been just as guilty of vaunting themselves as umbilical. From the moment of their birth in the nineteenth century

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‘tous les savoirs se valent, aucun ne l’emporte sur les autres: même règle pour les hommes que pour ce qu’ils savent’. ‘au nom de quoi telle ou telle partie du savoir s’arrogerait le droit de parler de toutes les autres?’

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‘these humans sciences have begun to occupy the space of the whole encyclopaedia’ (H5 124).60 If the natural sciences reigned supreme from the Renaissance to Ernest Renan (1823–92), then in the twentieth century the human sciences began to question them, to critique them. Society’s heroes were no longer the physicist and the biologist but the economist and the historian. These newborn human sciences began to invade other areas of the encyclopaedia, writing sociologies of chemistry and economics of physics: the natural sciences were thought to be local, but the human sciences vaunted themselves as the new universal. If it was the hubris of the natural sciences to think themselves the masters and possessors of nature, then the human sciences, following the same model, thought themselves the masters and possessors of humanity (H5 124). Employing a homely image, Serres warns that ‘many human sciences, their own porches cluttered with debris, carefully sweep the threshold of the other sciences, where there has been little filth in a long time’ (H5 123).61 Serres’s verdict is emphatic: no single paradigm or discourse should impose itself as a first or final authority, either from the natural or the human sciences (H5 153). He struggles to find words harsh enough to castigate the ‘imperialistic’ commentaries that trot out a recognised metalanguage, applying it to yet another question or domain and using it as ‘a single key to open all doors and windows . . . a passkey that was psychoanalytical or Marxist or semiotic, and so on’ (Ec 137/C 91–2),62 often supported by an academic publicity campaign. Serres’s aspectual pluralism

To understand Serres’s aspectualism it is certainly necessary to begin with the rejection of any queen discipline, but there is much more to his position than this refusal. He makes the stronger case that there is no hierarchy at all between disciplines and their discourses. The more ‘fundamental’ or ‘simple’ discourses, of which mathematics is the most fundamental of all and recognised as the universal language of chemistry, economics and sociology, have no more right to sit atop a hierarchy than any other disciplines (H2 26), because each region can ‘in its own way, be a pole for another or several others, and vice versa’ (H2 143),63 without

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‘lesdites sciences humaines, elles ont commencé à occuper l’espace de l’encyclopédie’. ‘Bien des sciences humaines, dont le porche est encombré de décombres, balaient soigneusement le seuil des autres sciences, où l’ordure est rare depuis des lustres.’ ‘une seule clef pour ouvrir toutes les portes et fenêtres: le passe-partout psychanalytique, marxiste, sémiotique, et ainsi de suite’. ‘selon et selon, être pôle pour une autre ou plusieurs, et réciproquement’.

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any necessary order of precedence. The encyclopaedia of knowledge, in other words, is topological, described in terms of relations and transformations and not in terms of absolute positions. Thus far, Serres’s approach to understanding the relationship between disciplines seems relatively straightforward: there is no ‘pre-’ or ‘meta-’ discipline. Nevertheless, he does reserve a unique role for philosophy as the discipline that seeks out passages between disciplines: ‘it’s the role of philosophy to search for and construct the bond, the bridge, the rapport between reason, exerted in the exact sciences, and the other type of reason, exerted in the human sciences’ (MiS 88). Among all the topologically related disciplinary discourses, philosophy is the discipline that is not a discipline: the philosopher must lend all his strength to not be from a place, whether physical, social or ideal, must put all his care into trying to avoid every specialty, must put his passion into not being from a group. . . . He listens with what I’ve called equality of intensity; he can try to speak a multiple-voiced language. He is the man of the multiple; he tries to think the multiple. (Ro 211) Le philosophe, donc, doit bander ses forces à n’être pas d’un lieu, physique, social, idéal, doit placer tout son soin à tenter d’éviter toute spécialité, doit mettre sa passion à n’être pas d’un groupe. . . . Il écoute en ce que j’ai nommé l’égalité d’intensité, il peut tenter de parler une langue à multiples voix. Il est l’homme du multiple, il tente de penser le multiple. (R 310)

Time and again, Serres insists that philosophy has this unique role of federating disciplines and opening passages between them (see H1 70; Ec 185/C 126; EMS 790; FPIC 59; S&H 229; GB 73). It must go everywhere, touch upon everything. In this conception, philosophy is not before other regions as an ur-discipline or above them as a meta-discipline, but it is between them, as an inter-discipline, a fly or a rambler weaving paths from one discipline to another (see Figure 2.4). Serres also reserves a special place for mathematics, not as a privileged region but once again in terms of the passage between regions.64 In order to travel from one

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In The Natural Contract he also suggests that science has this role: ‘Like philosophy long ago, science is finally thinking universally, both keeping and losing all the divisions that historically created its power and efficacy’ (NC 89) [‘Comme la philosophie jadis, la science pense enfin universellement, garde et perd, parce qu’elle tente de les associer, tous les découpages qui firent historiquement sa puissance et son efficacité’ (CN 139)]. It seems reasonable to suggest that, at least in principle, each discipline can play this federating or Hermes role.

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Figure 2.4 Serres’s alternative to umbilical discourse is federation region to another, a concept must be ‘of a formal purity’ (H2 54). This Bourbakian principle leads Serres to ascribe to formalised mathematics a particular universality: ‘Can mathematical universality withdraw from all regionality, no longer camouflaging itself behind a culture? Yes, strictly speaking’ (H2 192; see also ESP 86).65 This formalisation isolates the moves, the gestures, the figures of thought operating in one area, and traces how those gestures are analogously performed in very different areas of the encyclopaedia. In other words, like philosophy mathematics is ‘a supple analogistic language’, tracing relations between elements: ‘mathematics’ major and repeated operation consists in finding homotheties, equalities, isomorphies’ (ESP 86).66 As Sydney Lévy rightly notes, ‘what crosses the disciplinary wall is not of the order of the “declarative,” but of the order of the “procedural,” something like an “algorithm”’.67 It follows that mathematical discourses, as the most formal, play a special role not as a region of knowledge, but because they account for the communication between regions. So the question must be raised: does Serres, despite himself, fall into the umbilical paradigm when he privileges philosophy or mathematics in this way? After all, these disciplines do occupy a special role in his account of interdisciplinary topological relations. The answer, I think, is a cautious but not definitive ‘no’. Philosophy and mathematics, as they are deployed here, are not one model among 65

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‘L’universel mathématique peut-il se retirer de toute régionalité, ne plus se camoufler derrière une culture? Oui, en toute rigueur.’ ‘La mathématique lance une langue analogiste souple, pure et transparente pour un monde analogiste, ensemencé de singularités comme elle. . . . l’opération majeure et répétée des mathématiques . . . consiste à trouver des homothéties, égalités, isomorphies.’ Lévy, ‘An Ecology of Knowledge’, 4.

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others but the means of translating between models. To seek analogies between disciplines is not a discipline but a gesture that connects disciplines; to seek to discern formal equivalence between discourses is not to privilege one discourse, though it is to privilege one way of relating discourses over other possible ways. What is at stake in Serres’s strategic use of philosophy and mathematics is the very legitimacy of the move from model to structure itself. Are the analogies between disciplines discovered by philosophy, or created and scripted by Serres’s approach? These questions have their parallels in the writing of Jacques Derrida and Jean-Luc Nancy, and it will be instructive to examine them in relation to each other. Serres’s affirmation that the only model is the lack of a determinate model (formalising mathematics), and the only universal discipline is the discipline that effaces itself in order to draw links between all other disciplines (philosophy), is analogous to – though of course not identical with – Derrida’s ‘x without x’: God without God, or messianicity without messianism.68 It also shares a subversion of determinacy with Nancy’s rejection of any positive basis for political community in race, nation or class, in favour of ‘the community of those who have nothing in common’, making shared incommensurability the (un-)ground of being-together.69 Nancy, Derrida and Serres all share here a certain formalism, a rejection of determinate content while retaining the gestures or formal moves associated with that content. Where Serres differs from Derrida and Nancy is that his own formalism is procedural: philosophy’s shuttling between disciplines is algorithmic, a fly-like aleatory course seeking out isomorphisms that go further than Nancy’s affirmation of incommensurability would allow. Whereas for Nancy what is ‘in common’ is only incommensurability itself, Serres explores particular analogies between disciplines, for example those between the writings of Zola and Verne and the science of their time, which will be discussed below. Serres’s procedural, asymptotic approach also means that he resists the declarative finality of Derrida’s ‘x without x’. For Serres there is no ‘without’, no structure without model, just a procedural set of transformations and relations that painstakingly move between models. In contrast to both Derrida’s and Nancy’s refusals of determinacy, Serres’s formalism is a formalism of transformations and relations. Each regional language is parallel with all others, and endlessly translatable into any other (SL 533, 772). To do so is not violent, and it does not violate the uniqueness of each discipline. There is no zero sum game for Serres between singularity and plurality. And, unlike for Nancy, it is not only singularity itself that is plural. What distinguishes Serres’s approach from Derrida’s and Nancy’s more than anything in this respect 68 69

See my discussion of the ‘x without x’ motif in Derrida, 47–53. See my discussions of Nancy’s ‘in-common’ in Difficult Atheism, 44–5, 185, 217–21.

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is his insistence on the central importance of specific, local relations. In a way that once more befits the topological paradigm, it is relations that are primary, the ‘pure movement of translating one language into another . . . the pure possibility of exchange, of transfer, without a first or final reference, the pure possibility of inter-ference’ (H2 37).70 In The Five Senses Serres illustrates this point with the image of a ferret running between regions: ‘this swift movement or multiplication, not the discipline, becomes the object of thought’ (CS 337/FS 331).71 Each region comprises ‘a starry crossroads that leads distributively to all others’ (SL 28).72 This is what Serres means by L’interférence, the title of the second volume of his Hermès series: ‘“interference” must be read as “inter-reference”’ (H2 157).73 Epistemology, as the study of a single norm and a foundation, is dead; what remains is inter-regionality, the study not of foundations but of translations, intersections and interceptions (H2 10): today ‘the vocation of epistemology is to describe how concepts are transported’ (H2 157).74 These transportations, for Serres, are specific, unlike for example the returns [‘renvois’] of spacing in Nancy’s Adoration that pass between all singulars and praise the infinite sense of the other.75 For Serres’s insistence on the complementarity of the local and the global in the Harlequin/Pierrot figure, determinacy is not the enemy of infinity or universality; in fact they are directly proportional. Serres does not maintain that every other is wholly other, or that singulars are incommensurable, but rather ‘considers every region, whatever it is, as same and as other’ (H2 148).76 The success of Serres’s aspectualism hangs to a large degree on whether the distinction can hold between philosophy-as-model and philosophy-as-communicationbetween-models, between mathematics-as-model and mathematics-as-formalisation, or between foundations and translations. It is not, in my estimation, a question that admits of a yes/no answer. In the same way that Derrida judges Nancy’s deconstruction of Christianity to be perpetually at risk of collapsing into a Christian hyperbole,77 so also Serres’s claim that philosophy can act as a Hermes-discipline, searching out links between all other discourses without itself becoming imperialistic, is constantly on the brink of falling back into the very totalitarianism it is elaborately seeking to

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‘pur mouvement de traduction d’un langage dans un autre . . . la pure possibilité d’échange, de transfert, sans référence première ou finale, la pure possibilité d’inter-férence’. ‘cette course ou multiplication devient l’objet de la pensée, non la discipline’. ‘un carrefour étoilé qui mène distributivement à tous les autres’. ‘Il faut lire interférence, comme inter-référence’. ‘la vocation de l’épistémologie est de décrire les transports de concepts’. See L’Adoration, 22, and my discussion of the ‘renvoi’ in Chapter 2 of Difficult Atheism. ‘considère toute région, quelle qu’elle soit, comme même et comme autre’. Derrida, Le Toucher, Jean-Luc Nancy, 249; On Touching – Jean-Luc Nancy, 220.

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avoid. The only way to prevent it from doing so would be to guarantee philosophy’s non-imperialistic position from a place outside the encyclopaedia which would, by that same token, itself become an imperialistically umbilical gesture. Another problem for Serres’s aspectualism is the priority he seems routinely to accord to the natural sciences over the human sciences and the arts. For example, the frequent affirmations that ‘biology is a physics’ (NP 218/BOP 178), ‘the science of man is a physics’ ( JJV 14), that ‘(literary) criticism is a physics’ ( JJV 74, 76; JVSH 146–7)78 or a chemistry or an optics ( JJV 185) are seldom reversed. Most emphatically of all, ‘[h]istory is a physics, and not the other way around. Language is first of all in bodies’ (NP 186/BOP 150).79 Advances in the sciences and in mathematics, not least among which is formalisation itself, seem for Serres to sit upstream of literature and the arts. This is a position largely unchallenged in the secondary literature. For example, David F. Bell and Josué V. Harari are correct to point out the extent of Serres’s articulations between disciplines, but their list of examples suggests that the resonance only ever originates in the sciences and manifests itself in literature, never the reverse: Carnot’s machine appears in Turner’s paintings or in the second chapter of Bergson’s Creative Evolution; Descartes’s Metaphysical Meditations surfaces in La Fontaine’s fable ‘The Wolf and the Lamb,’ Lagrange’s and Laplace’s mechanics and geometry in Auguste Comte’s positivism, the passage from disorder to declination in the ‘invention’ of the compass by Panurge; Marcel Mauss’s ethnology emerges in Don Juan’s language of seduction.80

Do the arts and humanities, then, have no influence at all on the sciences? Might Don Juan emerge in the writing of Mauss, or Turner appear in Carnot? We have already seen Serres insisting that ‘each region can, in its own way, be a pole for another or several others, and vice versa’ (H2 143),81 and elsewhere he insists that literature can inform physics just as much as physics literature, and the confluence of disciplines should be thought of as a salon where everyone informs everyone else (CS 366–7/FS 331). So what might it look like for the humanities to be a pole for the sciences? There are a number of often overlooked counter-examples to scientific precedence in Serres’s work. There is, for example, the symmetrical formulation ‘physics 78

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The phrase, as Serres points out ( JVHC 146–7) comes from Spinoza’s Theologico-Political Treatise (Israel and Silverthorne, Spinoza). ‘L’histoire est une physique et non l’inverse. Le langage est d’abord dans les corps.’ Harari and Bell, ‘Introduction’, xxxvii. ‘selon et selon, être pôle pour une autre ou plusieurs, et réciproquement’.

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is an interpretation of nature, and the interpretation of texts is a physics’ ( JJV 234; see also FSB 32).82 There is the ‘Great Story’ that emerges in his work of the early 2000s, using an approach from literary studies and narratology to understand the hard sciences: ‘I have thought for a long time that the detail of narrative illuminates more, and better, than the mediation of the concept; the more we gain experience with age, the more our admiration for literature grows’ (GM 20).83 Or there is the obvious example: how Serres insists that Lucretius elaborates in De rerum natura (The Nature of Things) an ‘authentic physics’ ( JVSH 141), before the existence of the physics of fluid dynamics. There is his affirmation, in the course of a discussion about electrostatics as a model of understanding Socrates, Freud and Jules Verne, that ‘I am not explaining Verne by Freud; I am explaining Freud by the electricity of Verne. It’s so much more amusing, and what’s more, truer’ (JVSJ 184). Perhaps a more precise way of framing what is at stake here is that the ‘physics’ to which metaphysics or literary criticism is likened is not physics as a model, as one region of knowledge, but physics as an instantiation of a set of formal moves, ways of relating and figures of thought, of which metaphysics is another instantiation. There is something in physics deeper than physics,84 such that the physics of the affirmation ‘metaphysics is a physics’ is always already more than physics simpliciter. This is another instance of the figure of opposing by generalising: physics is one instance of a set of moves that it instantiates, but which it neither originates nor owns; physics is one model of a structure that exceeds it. North-west passages, not simple correspondences

Having explained the complex role of philosophy and mathematics as non-umbilical and yet universal disciplines for Serres, we are now in a position to explore his aspectual pluralism more broadly. First of all, different disciplines are related not as distinct islands, with unambiguous frontiers neatly dividing one from another, but like oceans that not even Alexander’s sword can divide: distinct enough that we can in most cases reliably discern, for example, when we are in the Indian and when 82 83

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‘La physique est une interprétation de la nature et l’interprétation des textes est une physique.’ ‘Je pense depuis longtemps que le détail du récit éclaire plus et mieux que la médiation du concept; plus l’expérience advient avec l’âge, plus l’admiration pour la littérature croît.’ It is interesting, in this respect, to note that cosmologist Lee Smolin is now embracing a model of scientific explanation based on narrative rather than fixed law, because laws evolve and the best one can do is trace series of events and the laws that account for their relations. See Unger and Smolin, The Singular Universe and the Reality of Time. I am grateful to David Webb for pointing out this affinity with Serres’s approach. This is another move we find in Nancy who, in Adoration, claims that there is something in Christianity deeper than Christianity itself, for which God is only the ‘front man’, L’Adoration, 31–2.

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in the Pacific Ocean, but such that no one can say exactly where the border lies between them and which water particles belong to which ocean (Ec 190/C 130):85 ‘the sea joins what continents separate’ ( JVSH 43).86 Serres’s image of knowledge as an ocean might lead us to think that moving from one discourse to another is as simple a matter as sailing across an unobstructed expanse of water, but this could not be further from the truth. Passing from one disciplinary domain to another is likened to navigating ‘the infamous North-West passage’ (H5 15), that notoriously difficult and hazardous sea route connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, which ‘opens, closes, twists across the immense, fractal arctic archipelago, along an extravagantly complicated maze of gulfs, channels, basins, and sounds, between Baffin Bay and Banks Island’ (H5 15).87 We should not expect to be able to discern the isomorphic structures between two or more models at first blush, any more than we can set a course through the North-West Passage and simply follow it to its completion without correction along the way, or any more than it is immediately apparent that a doughnut is topologically isomorphic with a coffee mug. Each navigation from one domain of knowledge to another is local and unique. Icebergs move, ice floes break, grow and shrink, sometimes blocking the passage altogether; currents reverse, flowing now more slowly, now faster; shallows and land masses frustrate navigation (see H5 15, 18). This makes each journey a maritime ‘ramble’ [‘randonnée’], a bespoke and unique endeavour that responds to what it finds along the way, rather than setting its course once and for all at the outset: ‘Passages exist, I know, I have drawn some of them in certain works using certain operators. . . . But I cannot generalise, obstructions are manifest and counter-examples abound’ (H5 24).88 Interdisciplinarity as Serres understands it is always made to measure, never off the peg: there is no single blueprint, no transferable pattern or global law that can be extracted from any successful navigation of the ever-changing North-West Passage (H5 18). Another implication of Serres’s North-West Passage image is that the crossing interferes with the sailors’ sense of direction and orientation. In other words, 85

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The image, as Serres acknowledges, is a recurring metaphor of Leibniz’s. See, for example, Leibniz, Opuscules et fragments inédits: ‘The whole body of science can be viewed as an ocean, which is everywhere continuous, and without interruption or partition, even though men distinguish in it parts, to which they give names for their own use.’ ‘la mer réunit ce que les continents séparent’. ‘s’ouvre, se ferme, se tord, à travers l’immense archipel arctique fractal, le long d’un dédale follement compliqué de golfes et chenaux, de bassins et détroits, entre le territoire de Baffin et la terre de Banks’. In Atlas Serres makes similar arguments in relation to crossing from France to Japan (see At 24). ‘Des passages existent, j’en sais, j’en ai rangés, en de certaines œuvres, par de certains opérateurs. . . . Mais je ne puis généraliser, les obstructions sont manifestes et les contre-exemples nombreux.’

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it is impossible to bring to a particular crossing a pre-established sense of space that remains untouched by the experience of making the crossing itself. Mirages appear; earth, water and air blend into one another, as do flakes, fog and floes; distances appear by turns short and long (H5 15–16). Similarly, tracing passages between diverse disciplines changes the shape of knowledge as such: ‘the part concerns the whole’ (H2 25) or, more precisely, ‘each new connection reverberates everywhere, and requires everywhere an epistemological adjustment’ (H2 35–6).89 For example, new theories of ‘information’, of ‘model’ and ‘structure’, change the meaning of areas as diverse as novel-writing and economics (H2 70–1). Searching out the isomorphisms between thermodynamics and literature alters not only their perceived proximity but one’s understanding of the very notion of a discipline or area of knowledge. Epistemological space becomes topological or, as Serres will later say in The Birth of Physics, ‘putting two theses together’ makes them ‘vibrate, through synthesis, ambiguity, paradox, or the undecidable’ (NP 200/BOP 162, translation altered).90 Extensive, not exhaustive

Even the subtle maritime analogy of the North-West Passage has its limits, however. No domain of knowledge remains cloistered within its boundaries like an ocean on a map; each one ranges over everything that can be said. Within each domain or ‘regional epistemology’ there circulates an autonomous type of truth which does not rely on or refer to the ‘higher’ truth of any umbilical discipline. In Serres’s terms, ‘In this coherent but open world, each province is a world and has its world, such that epistemology (which is dead insofar as it claims to be exterior) pluralises and relativises itself, in the very interior of the system’ (H2 31–2).91 Each regional system has, or at least tends towards, a reflexive closure (H2 158). Each regional language ‘can say everything’ (SL 553), is ‘expressive of the totality of the true’ (SL 772), and in each individual the universal is written (SL 523). Like a Leibnizian monad, each model functions as if no other world existed; it is sufficient in itself without requiring a dictionary to translate it into another: mathematics does not require history, and law does not require mathematics, and each model enjoys a ‘universal encroachment’ (SL 520). Let us refer to this totality by saying 89 90

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‘chaque nouvelle connexion retentit partout, et exige partout un rattrapage épistémologique’. ‘oh met les deux thèses ensemble pour les faire vibrer par la synthèse, l’ambiguïté, le paradoxe ou l’indécidable’. ‘Dans ce monde cohérent mais ouvert, chaque province est un monde et a son monde, de sorte que l’épistémologie (morte, en tant qu’elle se veut, extérieure) se pluralise et se relativise, à l’intérieur même, du système.’

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that each region is ‘extensive’: it extends over the whole of what can be known; there is nothing about which it has nothing to say. This is not as the result of some monadic pre-established harmony, but because the ‘totality of the true’ is understood in terms of the topological transformations and relations in which every local discourse participates. So each region is extensive: it has something to say about everything; it is a world. But no region says all that there is to say about anything; no region can encompass the world (see SL 383–4) or set itself up as an umbilical discipline. Let us say that no discipline or region is ‘exhaustive’. This has two senses. First, no discipline provides the unique zero degree discourse of all truth, in relation to which all other discourses are metaphorical. Secondly, even in the absence of an umbilical discipline, and however much is said, no region is ever complete or finalised: ‘there is an infinity of apples in the basket’ (SL 550), as well as a functionally endless number of baskets. Not only can no discourse say everything about everything, no discourse can say everything about anything. In Le Système de Leibniz Serres offers a series of examples of such extensive-butnot-exhaustive worlds. Panpsychism is true in the sense that ‘the set of souls forms, first, a full world that is dense in itself to infinity, and secondly that develops independently, as if there were no other world’ (SL 519–20).92 Panpsychism is false, however, in the sense that ‘there are not only souls, there is primary and secondary matter’ (SL 519–20).93 Similarly, the world is panmechanistic because ‘the set of automata forms a world that is dense in itself and separate, obeying its own laws, as if there were no other world’, but it is not panmechanistic because there are not only automata but also many other things besides (SL 520).94 The world is and is not panlogistic, is and is not pan-economic, is and is not pan-psychoanalytic, and so on. In each case, the ‘is’ refers to the discourse’s extensive nature, and the ‘is not’ to its non-exhaustive nature. An image to which Serres returns regularly to describe his intention in moving between regions is speaking in several voices (see Ec 289/C 201; R 309/Ro 209; CS 332/FS 303; CN 170/NC 109; Ge 157/Gen 95–6; JVSH 17–18; Mus 131–2) . He directly contrasts this disciplinary glossolalia to the umbilical practice of ‘projecting one language onto another’ and describes it as a state of being ‘lost, without place, right in the very middle of the North-west Passage . . . without

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‘l’ensemble des âmes forme un monde plein, d’une part, et dense en soi-même jusqu’à l’infini, et, d’autre part, se développant dans l’indépendance, comme s’il n’y avait pas d’autre monde’. ‘il n’y a pas seulement des âmes, il y a de la matière, première et seconde’. ‘l’ensemble des automates forme un monde dense en soi-même et séparé, obéissant à des lois autochtones, comme s’il n’y avait pas d’autre monde’.

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speciality, in the fairly wide desert between the exact sciences and the social sciences, outside the very exactly divided space of classification’ (R 309/Ro 209).95 This echoes his preference for a palimpsest or parallelism of regions of knowledge over a territorialising paradigm where each discipline presides over its own exclusive canton. Multiple voices layer on top of each other, their sound carrying across artificially demarcated boundaries such that, when reading one of Serres’s books, ‘[t]he reader has the impression that there are several authors’ ( JVSH 18).96 It is the reader who embraces this multiple authorship who has come to understand the uniqueness of Serres’s work. Zola and Verne

To understand the contours of Serres’s aspectualism more concretely, let us consider two of his most fully elaborated accounts of the crossovers and borrowings between different disciplines, Jouvences sur Jules Verne (1974) and Feux et signaux de brume: Zola (1975). In these volumes he traces at length the scientific affinities that shape Verne’s and Zola’s writing respectively, but it would be mistaken to consider these two cases as unusual, or as exceptions to the general rule that ‘a little literature takes us away from science, and much literature brings us back to science. A little science takes us away from literature, and much science brings us back’ (P 284/Par 211, translation altered; see also FSB 12).97 The notion of isomorphisms is important to understanding the way Serres finds affinities between Zola, Verne and the science of their age. When he explores such affinities, what he most emphatically does not have in mind is the science that Zola and Verne explicitly describe. Zola’s biology and genetics are dismissed as ‘abominably false’ and a veil for ‘pure ideology’ ( JVSH 104); as for Verne, he is condemned as offering his readers an already outdated science (JVSH 125–6) and his scientific conclusions are candidly dismissed as ‘boring’ ( JVSH 107). What Serres has in mind is a more structural, procedural affinity between science and literature, the fact that ‘certain of [Verne’s] stories are structured like scientific inventions’ ( JVSH 107),98 or that ‘the theses, the method and the epistemology 95

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‘Non, je ne projette pas une langue sur l’autre, une physique sur l’histoire, une science exacte sur une science humaine, je tente seulement de parler à plusieurs voix. Je tente de penser la multiplicité dans sa différence et ses fluctuations. Je suis perdu, sans lieu, au beau milieu du passage du Nord-Ouest . . . sans spécialité, dans le désert assez large entre sciences exactes et sciences humaines, hors de l’espace très exactement partagé de la classification.’ ‘Le lecteur a l’impression qu’il y a plusieurs auteurs.’ ‘Peu de littérature éloigne de la science, et beaucoup y ramène. Peu de science éloigne de la littérature, et beaucoup y ramène.’ ‘certains de ses récits [Verne] se structurent comme des inventions scientifiques’.

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that I discover [in Zola] are faithful to the best – to what we judge to be the best – in the work labelled scientific in this period’ (FSB 39).99 More specifically, Serres seeks to understand the structure of Verne’s and Zola’s writing in terms of the reservoirs and motors, circulation and stocks of energy characteristic of nineteenthcentury thermodynamics: Little by little written or spoken language becomes an energy like any other, and narrative becomes a trivial motor. Hence we find repeated translation of cardinal categories: difference, closure, supplement, and so forth all the way through to dissemination, a concept precisely foreseen by the second principle of thermodynamics. Peu à peu, enfin, le langage, écrit ou parlé, devient une énergie comme une autre, et le récit moteur trivial. D’où la traduction, itérée, des catégories cardinales: différence, clôture, supplément, et ainsi de suite, jusqu’à la dissémination, exactement prévue par le second principe. (FSB 65)

Serres, then, describes the structure of Verne’s novel The Survivors of the Chancellor as isomorphic with the forces acting on its eponymous square-rigged three-master. This will be a counter-intuitive comparison for many but it is crucial to understanding Serres’s account of isomorphism so it is worth quoting his explanation at length: Think how a sailing boat functions. It is nothing but an immense web of forces balanced – always unbalanced, always re-established – between the set of vectors applied to each point of the sail and the ballast and keel that resist them. Think why a ship rolls and pitches. Because of a balance of forces – always unbalanced, always re-established – between Archimedes’ force and the weight of the cargo, with changes in the point of application of the force and the resorting torque. Thus every voyage aboard the threemaster The Chancellor is merely the open-ended application of two or three principles of physics. I maintain that Verne’s story is exactly this same voyage. The Chancellor functions like the Chancellor, the novel like the vessel. Thus I understand for the first time this singular word so over-used in criticism: to function. It is all about finding the motor, and it is really a question of a motor, I do not understand it in an abstract or imaginary way. Imaginez comment fonctionne un navire sous voiles. Il n’est qu’un immense réseau d’équilibres de forces, toujours rompu, toujours repris, entre l’ensemble des vecteurs 99

‘les thèses, la méthode et l’épistémologie que je découvre ici [in Zola] sont fidèles à ce qu’il y a de meilleur, à ce que nous jugeons le meilleur, dans les travaux dits scientifiques de ce temps’.

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appliqués à chaque point vélique et ceux qui leur résistent, par le lest et la quille. Imaginez pourquoi un vaisseau roule et tangue. Par un équilibre de forces, toujours rompu, toujours repris, entre la force d’Archimède et le poids de la charge, avec changement de point d’application et couple de rappel. Ainsi tout voyage à bord du trois-mâts Chancellor n’est-il que la reprise indéfinie de deux ou trois propositions de statique. Je dis que le récit de Verne est exactement ce voyage. Le Chancellor fonctionne comme le Chancellor, le roman comme le vaisseau. Ainsi je comprends pour la première fois ce mot singulier si aveuglément usité par la critique: fonctionner. Le tout est de trouver le moteur, et qu’il s’agisse réellement d’un moteur, j’entends non abstrait ni imaginaire. ( JJV 107)

The balance of forces that explains the rolling and pitching of The Survivors of the Chancellor has its isomorphic equivalent in the balance of narrative laws that propel the plot of The Survivors of the Chancellor. This insistence that Verne’s novel is isomorphic with the thermodynamic theory of his day is not an arbitrary or contingent comparison for Serres, but rather a local example of a broader principle that the scientific and cultural production of any given age inform each other. So, for example, ‘the classical novel had the same story and history [histoire] as the physics of this period . . . without subordination, of course’ ( JJV 241).100 The classical novel, like classical physics, is ‘determinist, determined. A hierarchical system. A closed story. . . . Homogeneous, appraisable at all points, regulated locally just as it is globally, furnished with a boundary, a limit, defined everywhere in the same way. Yes, quantifiable’ ( JJV 241).101 Throughout the history of literature, and each time corresponding to the science of the age, ‘you will thus find writing structured as chains, as webs, as optical equipment, as mechanical or astronomical systems, as simple machines, as electrical assemblages, bridges, condensers, as falling bodies or a falling leaf, as a motor, and so on’ ( JJV 241).102 It is in this vein that Serres describes Zola’s Rougon-Macquart cycle as an ‘epic of entropy’, an unparalleled testimony to ‘crushing, waste, scattering, loss, the irreversible ebbing away towards death-and-disorder; degeneration, exhaustion,

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‘le roman classique avait la même histoire que la physique de cet âge . . . Sans subordination, bien sûr.’ ‘déterministe, déterminé. Système à hiérarchie. Récit fermé. . . . Homogène, évaluable en tous points, réglé localement comme il l’est globalement, muni d’un bord, d’une limite, définis partout de la même façon. Oui, quantifiable.’ ‘[v]ous trouverez donc des écrits structurés comme des chaînes, comme des réseaux, comme des équipages optiques, comme des systèmes mécaniques ou astronomiques, comme des machines simples, comme des ensembles électriques, des ponts, des condensateurs, comme la chute des corps ou celle d’une feuille, comme un moteur, et ainsi de suite’.

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disintegration’ (FSB 78),103 and ‘a complete programme of responses’ to the thermodynamic problem of circulation (FSB 228). Serres is at pains to point out – and it is a crucial point in coming to terms with his approach – that when he insists that we must find the motor of Verne’s novel, ‘it is really a question of a motor, I do not understand it in an abstract or imaginary way’ ( JJV 107).104 But surely, the reader may well object, there is no ‘real motor’ in The Survivors of the Chancellor. What we have are words on a page, not combustion chambers, pistons and fuel. Surely, the increasingly frustrated reader will retort, Serres is taking poetic licence and stretching it to breaking point in his attempt to press home the idea that Verne’s novel is structured like a motor. We may be quite ready to grant that The Survivors of the Chancellor is a metaphorical motor, a literary figure of a motor, but surely not a real motor. In the face of such readerly scepticism Serres remains implacable. It is a real motor, as much a motor as the motor in my car. It is not a metaphor. To assume we must indulge Serres a little hyperbole when he claims that Verne’s novel is a ‘real’ motor is to misunderstand his whole project, reading him like a warmedover version of the Cartesianism he labours might and main to oppose by generalising. The question we must ask is: in the context of what ‘global intuition’ does this insistence make sense? We should understand it, I think, in terms of the ‘something in x deeper than x’ described above in relation to physics. The ‘literal’ motor inside my car is not the degree zero of meaning to which all other ‘figurative’ motors are more or less adequate approximations, requiring a greater or lesser poetic licence. This would be to return to umbilical logic: one region of knowledge, one model – in this case the mechanical – rules over and provides the final yardstick for all the others. Instead, what follows from Serres’s aspectualism is that the ‘literal’ motor in my car is one among many models of a structure that it does not own. There is something in the ‘literal’ motor deeper than its pistons and chambers, which it instantiates but which it does not control, and which is equally instantiated in The Survivors of the Chancellor. In other words, Serres’s claim is not that there is a direct correspondence between Verne’s and Zola’s writing on the one hand and scientific theories on the other, but that the two are topologically homeomorphic (FSB 189), sharing formal ‘gestures’,105 structures or figures of thought that can be instantiated in all areas

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‘l’écrasement, le gaspillage, la dissémination, la perte, l’irréversible jusant vers la mort-désordre; la déchéance, l’épuisement, la dégénérescence’. ‘qu’il s’agisse réellement d’un moteur, j’entends non abstrait ni imaginaire’. ‘in following in the tracks of the elements of the genome, he mimics the exact gesture of the scientists who will describe them’ (TK 55–6).

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of the encyclopaedia. At this structural, formal level, the hot and cold reservoirs of Carnot’s engine become ‘two poles, two sources, two spatial positions, call them what you will, common nouns or proper names, theses, eponymous individuals or groups, even pronouns at a pinch’ (FSB 85),106 that can be labelled with many different terms. There is no literal ‘engine’, no model that can usurp the place of the structure it instantiates. The Classical Understanding of Time

Serres’s account of time follows the same contours as his treatment of space: it is defined in contradistinction to a narrow Cartesianism, it is topological, and it is multiple. Like Cartesian space, Cartesian time is unique, neatly book-ended ‘between an identifiable origin and a final promise’ (EPF 171),107 forming a single linear narrative from inception to perfection. Serres describes it as a ‘grandiose opera’ (EPF 171–2) that crowds out more local, habitable and concrete times with its lavish mise en scène. This ideology of the single ‘origin’ collects a complex criss-crossing of temporalities as if in a basin, reducing their flow to one simple chronological stream (OG 56/G xlix). The dogma of succession then traces this single stream through distinct, successive states, in principle exhaustively determinable if the initial conditions are known (EPF 130). This stream is not only single, it is also irreversible and rectilinear: the flow of classical time does not veer or divert (see H1 96) and it is epitomised in the characteristic symbol of the clock, as seen in Huyghens, Malebranche, Voltaire or Newton’s God (FSB 209). Finally, Cartesian time is teleological, flowing inexorably to one (and only one) end. Like the corresponding classical concept of space, this account of time is geometrical: its dominant metaphor is the straight line between two points. As such it is umbilical; in privileging the geometrical paradigm Descartes has ‘deduced a philosophy from one singular and local region of the encyclopaedia’ (EPF 51) (see Figure 2.5).108

Figure 2.5 The classical understanding of time 106

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‘deux pôles, deux sources, deux positions spatiales, appelez ces choses comme vous l’entendez, noms communs ou noms propres, thèses, individus ou groupes éponymes, pronoms à la rigueur’. ‘entre une origine repérable et une promesse finale’. ‘induit une philosophie d’une région singulière et locale de l’encyclopédie’.

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Linear time, like uniform space, has immediate political stakes. First of all, it fosters a disdain for the past: We go from generalizations to discoveries, leaving behind us a trail of errors finally corrected – like a cloud of ink from a squid. ‘Whew! We’ve finally arrived at the truth.’ It can never be demonstrated whether this idea of time is true or false. (C 48–9) nous allons de généralisations en découvertes, de sorte que nous laissons derrière nous, comme le nuage d’encre des seiches, une traînée d’erreurs enfin corrigées. Ouf! nous sommes enfin entrés dans le vrai. On ne pourra jamais démontrer si cette idée du temps est fausse ou vraie. (Ec 76)

In his own pithy formulation, Serres describes this disdain for the past as a temporal geocentrism, narcissistically placing ourselves not at the spatial centre of the solar system but ‘at the summit, on the cutting edge, at the state-of-the-art of development’. This elegant and splendidly convenient ruse guarantees that, without the tiresome need for thought or self-questioning, ‘we are always right, for the simple, banal, and naive reason that we are living in the present moment’ (Ec 77/C 48–9).109 As Alan Murray points out, we do not think twice about equating ‘out-of-date’ and ‘antiquated’ with ‘false’, or of allying ‘cutting-edge’ and ‘innovative’ (or even the tautological ‘innovative new’!) with ‘better’.110 This is nothing more, and nothing other, than a temporal colonialism (see OG 187/G 93). Serres understands linear time, as Steven Connor points out, to be founded on and sustained by a violence that is ‘formed out of the monotonous rhythm of argument, contradiction and murder’, suppressing more complex and subtle temporalities in favour of its own totalitarianism.111 The modern ‘Galilean moment’

Classical linear temporality can only conceive the new as a destruction of the past. Linear time demands a founding violence, an apocalyptic tabula rasa of pre-existing complexity which stands as the temporal equivalent of Descartes’s purification of space within his sacred pomerium: ‘The first person who, having enclosed a piece of land or a field, took it into his head to exclude everything in it’ and, we might add, found others simple enough to believe him, ‘was the true founder of the following 109

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‘Du coup, nous avons toujours raison, pour la simple, banale et naïve raison que nous vivons au moment présent.’ See Murray, Michel Serres: A Brief Introduction. Connor, .

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historical era’ (OG 49/G xliii).112 This apocalypse of temporal complexity is most often justified by spinning a likely yarn about the weakness and inadequacy of the past. Each generation is obliged to kill the father, to present the tradition as ‘the erased layer of a palimpsest’ (H1 86 n7),113 and establish itself on the grave of its forebears, a well-worn tale of ritual violence all too characteristic of the academic as well as the wider world (see H5 145). Allowing himself to speak more bluntly in conversation with Latour, Serres condemns those who, like Descartes and Kant in philosophy, or Galileo, Pasteur and Lavoisier in the sciences, ‘divide everything into “before me, and then after my works”’, engaging in a ‘self-promoting mania’ that belongs, if anywhere, in the world of advertising (Ec 211/C 145). So the story is told, for example, of how the pure light of the Greek logos triumphed over a shadowy and benighted muthos in a glorious epistemological schism.114 For Serres, however, ‘the theory expressed by shadows remains in the shadows’ (H2 172),115 for ‘[t]his history by schisms or revolutions, which is more repetitive than any other, creates a screen that is so opaque and dark that we don’t even see our veritable archaisms’ (Ec 202/C 138).116 There is no originary miracle, other than the miracle, performed by the university, of manufacturing ex nihilo a fault line in history (NP 55/BOP 41). Serres further identifies this fetish for historical breaks as a ‘quasi-religious’ impulse that ‘supposes that between long-lost times and the new era there is some advent, some birth of a new time’ (Ec 76/C 48):117 We recognise, I believe, ideologies, religious or otherwise, by their use of the calendar as a dramatic device: before or after the birth of Christ, before or after the foundation of Rome or the first year of the Republic, before or after the establishment of the positivist doctrine, before or after the Galilean revolution. Nothing will ever again be as it was. Here is the metaphysical age; there is the positivist age. (BOP 3)

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‘Le premier qui, ayant enclos un terrain ou un champ, s’avisa d’exclure tout ce qui s’y trouvait fut le vrai fondateur de l’ère historique suivante.’ ‘la couche effacée d’un palimpseste’. The notion of the ‘epistemological break’, though associated with Gaston Bachelard, is not an exhaustive account of his view of time. Bachelard also promoted temporal and rational pluralism over against linearity and the mania for unity, grounds. The best known contemporary proponent of the epistemological break is Alain Badiou. See, for example, Conditions, and my discussion of Badiou’s account of the matheme’s break with the mytheme in Difficult Atheism. ‘La théorie exprimée par les ombres reste à l’ombre.’ ‘Cette histoire par coupures ou révolutions, la plus répétitive de toutes, chez nous, fait un écran si opaque et noir que nous ne voyons même point nos véritables archaïsmes.’ ‘Cette thèse m’a toujours paru de l’ordre de la religion: entre un archaïsme perdu et l’ère nouvelle, il y a un événement, la naissance d’un nouveau temps.’

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On reconnaît, je crois, les idéologies, religieuses ou autres, à leur pathétique du calendrier: avant ou après la naissance du Christ, avant ou après la fondation de Rome ou l’année zéro de la république; avant ou après l’instauration du catéchisme positiviste, avant ou après la coupure galiléenne. Rien ne sera plus jamais comme avant. Il y a l’âge métaphysique, il y a l’âge positif. (NP 9)

Western thought is addicted to such ‘Galilean moments’ (see NP 11/BOP 5), but the irony is that the mantra ‘make it new’, as Ezra Pound well knew, repeats the oldest move in the cultural playbook: So-called modernity presumes that there was a revolution that changed a certain state of affairs, making way for a new era, right? But this idea or manoeuvre – this gesture – has been repeated so often in our history that one wonders if Western thought has ever ceased starting over again, automatically, like a reflex, since its beginnings. At least since Adam and Eve were driven from the Garden of Eden – they had to start again from scratch. (C 144) Ladite modernité suppose qu’il exista une révolution, qui changea tel état de choses pour laisser la place à une nouvelle ère, n’est-ce pas? Or cette idée ou ce geste se répétèrent si souvent dans notre histoire qu’on peut se demander si la pensée occidentale n’a cessé de le recommencer, comme un réflexe automatique, depuis son origine. Au moins depuis que les premiers parents furent chassés du paradis terrestre: il leur a fallu repartir de zéro . . . (Ec 210)

There is nothing quite so old as the gesture of making new. Serres’s dismissal of the ideology of this ‘Galilean moment’ (NP 11/BOP 5) is close but significantly different to rejections of ‘before’ and ‘after’ logic in Jacques Derrida and Jean-Luc Nancy. Derrida’s account of the origin in Introduction à l’Origine de la Géométrie de Husserl,118 problematises the absolute and simple distinction between the ‘before’ and ‘after’ of the origin in a move that he will later repeat many times, for example in ‘Declarations of Independence’ and Force of Law. Serres goes beyond Derrida’s deconstruction of origins, however. Serres and Derrida both disagree with Husserl’s evocation of ‘the most original sense according to which Geometry was born one day and from then on remained present as a millenary tradition’.119 The 118

119

Derrida’s Introduction à l’Origine de la Géométrie de Husserl was published fifteen years before Serres’s own Les Origines de la géométrie (1993). Serres’s volume can be read in part as a response to Derrida’s, of which he was aware and quoting as early as Le Système de Leibniz (SL 712 n1). ‘le sens le plus originaire selon lequel la Géométrie est née un jour et dès lors est restée présente comme tradition millénaire’, Husserl, L’Origine de la géométrie, 175, quoted in H1 86 n7. CW’s translation.

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way in which they critique Husserl’s Greek miracle, however, is significantly different. Derrida’s deconstruction of the ‘before’ and ‘after’ (or of anything else for that matter) relies on the persistence of these terms. In affirming that ‘the originary absolute . . . is only present in being constantly deferred and delayed’,120 he remains reliant on the terms of the before and after, albeit now deconstructed. Another way of putting this is that deconstruction is parasitic; it requires a division to deconstruct. Similarly, Nancy denounces the ‘Christmas projection’ in Dis-Enclosure: The Deconstruction of Christianity, according to which there is ‘a pure and simple birth of Christianity, which one fine day comes along and changes everything’.121 For Nancy, it is in repeating this ‘Christmas projection’ that our tradition remains Christian: ‘our whole tradition, as unchristian as it would like to be, still retains something of the “Christmas projection”: at a given moment “that” takes place, and we find ourselves thereafter in a Christian condition’.122 Rather than seeking to be rid of Christianity through just such a Christmas projection, Nancy insists that Western modernity, under the influence of Protestant Christianity, deconstructs itself, following a trajectory of demythologisation, begun in ancient monotheisms, that leads to secularisation and makes of Christianity what Marcel Gauchet calls ‘the religion for departing from religion’.123 What is important for our purposes in this argument is the recognition that Nancy’s deconstruction of the origin of Christianity replaces a rupture with a gesture: not the historical break of a ‘before’ and ‘after’ but an ongoing movement of demythologisation that Christianity inherits from Judaism, inhabits for a while and then bequeaths to secularism. To translate this into Serresian language, we could say that it replaces a declaration with a procedure, a determinate claim – ‘that has taken place’ – with an algorithm, a repeated gesture of transformation. Nancy’s aim, like Derrida’s, is to destabilise the metaphysics of the origin, to reject the absolute distinction between ‘before’ and ‘after’ and the concomitant logic of salvation that it perpetuates. Serres’s gesture, as Julian Yates rightly notes, is more radical: he ‘behaves as if the poles’ of before and after, inside and outside, same and other ‘didn’t exist’ and ‘ignores these boundaries, proceeding inductively, empirically, calling things as he sees them, refusing completely to accept oppositions between ideas or concepts 120

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‘L’absolu originaire . . . n’est présent qu’en se différant sans relâche’, Derrida, ‘Introduction’ in Husserl, L’Origine de la géométrie, 171. CW’s translation. Nancy, Dis-Enclosure, 145; ‘une naissance pure et simple du christianisme . . . un beau jour, advient et change tout’, La Déclosion, 121. Nancy, Dis-Enclosure, 145; ‘toute notre tradition, aussi peu chrétienne qu’elle se veuille, maintient toujours quelque chose de la « projection de Noël »: à un moment donné, « ça » a lieu, et l’on se retrouve ensuite en état chrétien’, La Déclosion, 221. See Gauchet, Le Désenchantement du monde, 133–41/The Disenchantment of the World, 101–6.

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that otherwise appear to be the same’.124 I would like to correct Yates’s otherwise fine analysis in one respect, however. It is not quite right to say that Serres ‘ignores’ distinctions like before and after, or proceeds as if they did not exist. That would be more of a Cartesian gesture than a distinctively Serresian move, clearing away the contours of history as if in order to build a new universal edifice. Serres does not reject historical models based on the ‘logic of resemblance and difference, contradiction and identity, continuous or discontinuous’ because they say too much, but because they say too little and rely – either in the affirmation or in the breach – on a ‘simplistic logic of two values’ (NP 200/BOP 162, translation altered) which flounders at the least complexity. Serres does not ignore the difference between before and after but he multiplies it, folding it back on itself like his multiplication of Descartes’s straight line, revealing the neat temporal flow it describes to be a complex system of eddies, percolations and counter-currents. In short, he opposes it neither by ignoring it nor by deconstructing it but – in the manner with which we are now familiar – by generalising it. This differs from Derrida’s and Nancy’s figures of thought. Whereas they subvert the before/ after dichotomy by showing the two terms to be mutually reliant, reaching over into each other rather than standing in stark opposition, Serres is quite happy to maintain the before/after distinction but he multiplies it to the point where the ‘Galilean moment’ becomes only one in a set of interweaving, crossing instances of ‘before’ and ‘after’. Where Derrida and Nancy deconstruct, Serres opposes by generalising. Take the example of the origin of geometry. For Serres there is not one deconstructed origin of geometry that endlessly differs from itself and is deferred with respect to itself but, as the French title of his 1993 book Les Origines de la géométrie125 suggests, multiple historical origins. The geometrical forms are known and used well before Thales – in pottery, basketwork, locomotion and construction – in Egypt and Sumaria (H1 106) as well as in Greece, each tradition comprising a series of palimpsests reaching back to forgotten influences. The temporality of any mathematical system ‘seems homogeneous, whereas the temporality of its elements, indeterminate, rent, chaotic, seems aleatory from the outside’ (OG 17/G xvii).126 The so-called Greek miracle is revealed to be a railroad heist in which ‘[b]y chance and accident the Greeks jumped onto a moving train at the moment when everything had already

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Yates, ‘“The Gift is a Given”’, 200. The title is somewhat disappointingly translated as Geometry, veiling from its Anglophone readership the intended resonance with Derrida’s work on Husserl. ‘La temporalité propre au système paraît homogène alors que celle de ses éléments, indéterminée, déchirée, chaotique, paraît, de l’extérieur, aléatoire.’

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been decided, when the concepts were a thousand times overdetermined and, by miracle, designated a complex and mixed ore as being pure’ (OG 21/G xx).127 The gesture of opposing by generalising also marks out Serres’s position from that of Latour’s We Have Never Been Modern, as Stephanie Posthumus helpfully explains.128 Serres resists the proposition that we have never been modern in favour of arguing, as we saw above, that so-called temporal revolutions are a ‘use of the calendar as a dramatic device’ (NP 9/BOP 3) and in truth one of the most ancient gestures of all. If modernity is epitomised in the gesture of the tabula rasa, of the conceit of the fresh start signalling a break from, and progress with respect to, a previous state, then we have always been modern. Serres is not, as Latour tries to summarise, ‘a-modern, or non-modern’ (Ec 213/C 146),129 but pan-modern. Again, the inaugural temporal schism of modernity not deconstructed (Derrida) or denied (Latour), but generalised. In conclusion, Serres insists that ‘What we ordinarily call time and history boils down to an extremely rare case’ of a ‘general configuration’ of a history that ‘filters, leaves, retains, returns, forgets, loafs, freezes, or seems to sleep amid multiple interlacings’ (OG 43/G xxxviii).130 In the teeth of the temporal ideology that would see pockets of disorder in an ocean of regularity, Serres affirms that ‘where disorder is the norm, order is only a rarity. The exception becomes the rule and the rule becomes the exception’ (H4 10).131 Linear time and sequential history are minute archipelagos on a sea of changing currents (see H4 11). It is not that linear history does not exist, but that, in Serres’s account of time, much more exists than linear history. Multiplying Temporalities

Serres opposes Cartesian time by multiplying temporalities. Already in Le Système de Leibniz he is impugning ‘the over-simplified notion that we have of time’ and insisting that ‘to extend Leibnizian thinking by generalising it, we must take seriously the idea of a differentiation in multiple elementary times’ 127

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‘Par chance et hasard, les Grecs ont pris le train en marche, en, un moment où tout était déjà joué, où les concepts étaient mille fois surdéterminés, et, par miracle, ont désigné comme pur un minerai complexe et mélange.’ Posthumus, ‘Translating Ecocriticism’, 16. ‘a-moderne, ou non moderne’. ‘Ce qu’à l’ordinaire nous appelons temps et histoire se réduit à un cas rarissime de cette configuration générale: à un couloir optimalement aménagé, quelque Seine rationnelle, assagie sous le pont Mirabeau. En fait, comme l’Amour ou le Yukon, l’histoire filtre, laisse, retient, revient, oublie, paresse, gèle ou paraît dormir parmi de multiples entrelacs.’ ‘[l]’ordre n’est qu’une rareté où le désordre est ordinaire. L’exception devient règle et la règle devient exception’.

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(SL 285; see also Ec 89/C 58).132 For Serres, everything exists in at least three distinct broad temporalities (At 126–7) which can be further subdivided and combined in different ways. The first time is the reversible, clockwork time of the classical age, when no fundamental law was thought to dictate the direction of time’s flow. The second time is the globally entropic time of the second law of thermodynamics, of Carnot’s heat engine that carries everything towards death. This thermodynamic principle was formalised in 1865 by Rudolph Clausius who, drawing heavily on Carnot’s work on heat engines, coined the term ‘entropy’ to describe the irrecoverable heat inevitably lost from any mechanical system. Laplace brings this irreversible time into the natural sciences with a cosmogony that supplements Newton’s reversible cosmology with a dimension of becoming (JVSH 36), and Darwin inscribes irreversible time at the heart of the natural sciences (JVSH 39). The eternal universe of Pascal is no more: ‘Immersed in time the universe likewise is born, develops, evolves, wears out and, perhaps, will die’ (JVSH 36).133 Time enters into science. The third time is the locally negentropic time of codes and information, preserving complexity against the general decay of order (H4 287).134 The idea of negentropy was developed in the 1930s, describing a pocket of information preserved in a wider context of entropic decay (see JVSH 136). It is a time encrusted in the living beings who ‘follow an evolution that Bergson called creative, of which we can at least say that it runs in the opposite direction to the thermodynamic arrow’ (H5 79).135 Serres does not understand these three times to be successive but concurrent and layered in our experience of the world: Our living organisms, too, know the synchrony of several times: they are Newtonian when they get up and go to sleep with the sun, carrying clocks inside them that go haywire when they rapidly cross time zones; according to the second principle of thermodynamics they die exhausted, worn out, covered in wrinkles; but sometimes, unpredictably, they are Bergsonian or Darwinian, reproducing granddaughters better than they are. 132

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‘la notion trop simplifiée que nous avons du temps . . . [p]our prolonger alors la pensée leibnizienne en la généralisant, il faut prendre au sérieux l’idée de différentiation en temps élémentaires multiples’. ‘Plongé dans le temps, l’univers, de même, naît, se développe, évolue, s’use et, peut-être, mourra.’ As Serres points out, it was French physicist Léon Brillouin who defined information as the reverse of entropy (see GB 197). ‘ils suivent une évolution que Bergson appelait créatrice, dont on peut dire au moins qu’elle court à rebours de la flèche thermodynamique’.

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Nos organismes vivants connaissent, eux aussi, la synchronie de plusieurs temps: newtoniens, ils se lèvent et se couchent avec le soleil, portent en eux des horloges qui s’affolent lors de parcours rapides traversant les méridiens, meurent, épuisés, usés, couverts de rides, suivant le second principe de la thermodynamique, mais, imprévisibles, bergsoniens ou darwiniens, parfois se reproduisent en petites filles améliorées. (At 99)

The coexistence of these three times may well be a synchrony, but it is not a harmony. Serres confesses to being able to offer no account of how the different times are brought together (H5 80), and presents our experience of living in multiple temporalities as one of being torn, plunged in a flow with three unrelated times, whose sweeping along we don’t know how to form into a whole. Contradictory among themselves, these three times nevertheless bear everyone’s existence in that, punctual for appointments, we observe the work of our profession and collective holidays, we are soon going to die from exhaustion, but we love, think, invent and reproduce? (G xxxii, translation altered) écartelés, plongés dans un flux à trois temps sans rapport, dont nous ne savons pas composer l’entraînement. Comment nouer, en effet, un brin réversible à deux fils irréversibles et inversés l’un de l’autre? Contradictoires entre eux, ces trois temps, pourtant, portent l’existence de chacun, en ce qu’exact aux rendez-vous, il observe les travaux de sa profession et les fêtes collectives, va bientôt mourir d’épuisement, mais aime, pense, invente et se reproduit? (OG 37) (see Figure 2.6).

Figure 2.6 Serres opposes the classical understanding of time by generalising and multiplying it

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In addition to the major categories of reversible, entropic and negentropic times, Serres argues that we also live in at least five additional temporalities (H 182–3). The first is the time of a ‘memory which mocks history’ in which I am the contemporary of Montaigne, Cervantes, Ovid, The Odyssey, Chopin or Fauré. This time bears striking resemblances to Deleuze’s and Bergson’s cone of memory, which similarly collapses all past experience into a simultaneity. The second is a biological, Darwinian time of filiation, drawing Serres to ‘admire my granddaughters, ten times more beautiful than the snows of yesteryear’ (H 184).136 The third is the time of the ‘Great Story’ (Grand Récit) of the universe beginning with the Big Bang and ending, sometime in the future, perhaps with a Big Crunch. My body is composed of molecules that have their origin millions of years ago in this story, themselves formed from yet more ancient atoms: I am a palimpsestic composite of different moments in the Great Story. This dimension of time challenges and expands existing theories of narrative identity, as I have noted elsewhere.137 The fourth additional time that Serres identifies is the time ‘of rarities, of unpredictable novelties that surge forth in me without warning, as twaddle or as ideas set in pretty, gleaming words’ (H 184).138 In its rarity, novelty and unpredictability this fourth time is the time of creation and invention, though not in the sense of the supposedly definitive historical ruptures that Serres opposes by generalising. Finally, he identifies ‘the time of the Messiah’ who may come, or come again, which resonates with Derrida’s messianism without messianicity. Serres’s multiple times, then, are complex, incorporating dimensions that in other twentieth- and twenty-first-century philosophies are isolated and given prominence in a way that, in each case, risks a temporal umbilicism. Serres’s response to the threat of such umbilical thinking, once more, is to multiply temporalities. Percolation

From The Birth of Physics onwards, Serres further complicates his account of time by introducing the idea of percolation, a motif that stands in relation to time as landscape does to space, and that draws out the temporal dimension of topology.139 136 137 138

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‘admirer mes petites-filles, plus belles dix fois que les neiges d’antan’. See Watkin, ‘Michel Serres’ Great Story’. ‘des raretés, des nouveautés imprévisibles qui surgissent en moi sans crier gare, en sornettes ou idées serties de mots jolis qui luisent’. Topology is, of course, already temporal, and the notion of paysage often carries a temporal [dimension] for Serres. The order of exposition in this chapter is not intended to imply a priority of space over time in Serres’s thought; indeed his account is directly set against what Bergson identifies as the spatialised time of Cartesian linearity.

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Running through and drawing together these scattered treatments of time is the constant refrain that ‘[t]ime flows in an extraordinarily complex, unexpected, complicated way’, and that ‘[t]ime is paradoxical; it folds or twists; it is as various as the dance of flames in a brazier – here interrupted, there vertical, mobile, and unexpected’ (Ec 89/C 58).140 Serres’s ‘percolation’ is a rejection of the simple, linear metaphor of ‘flow’ (Ec 91/C 58). The theory of percolation was developed by Pierre-Gilles de Gennes, a Nobel Laureate in physics (1991) who understood the term to mean ‘random flowing in a random environment’ (OG 4/G xxxviii)141 and who proposed percolation as – in the title of one of his famous papers – ‘a unifying concept’ [‘un concept unificateur’]. Serres shares this lofty claim with de Gennes, heralding percolation as ‘a global vision, finally, of space and time’ (EPF 211).142 Percolation is not an aporia that blocks time, but neither does it let time flow unimpeded. The Latin colare (etymon of the modern French couler, to flow) means ‘to filter’: time passes, and time does not pass. Percolation is not always smooth; it includes tipping points and sudden changes: ‘Time does not flow, does not pour en masse; it filters or percolates. Above certain thresholds it does not flow any more. My soul and our history are born when they cross thresholds of percolation’ (RH 116).143 It borders on the chaotic as it ‘percolates in several directions, multiple speeds and numerous rhythms, multivalent like tolerance, rich like a peaceful thought’ (S 296/St 169).144 ‘Simple and laminar flux’, where a fluid flows in parallel layers that do not interfere with each other and are not turbulent, is ‘a particular case’ of percolation (OG 40/G xxxv), in the same way that Cartesian geometrical space is a particular case of space among others: once more percolation opposes the linear view of time by generalising it. ‘What we took to be the common and reasonable current’, in other words a simple, linear flow, ‘amounts to a rarity’ (OG 40/G xxxv).145 Serres illustrates what he means by taking Apollinaire’s famous lines about love, loss and the Mirabeau bridge over the Seine in Paris. Serres treats Le Pont Mirabeau in the same way that the old MTV show Pimp My Ride treated suburban Los Angeles 140

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‘Le temps coule de façon extraordinairement complexe, inattendue, compliquée . . . Paradoxal, le temps se plie ou se tord c’est une variété qu’il faudrait comparer à la danse des flammes dans un brasier: ici coupées, là verticales, mobiles et inattendues.’ ‘écoulement aléatoire dans un environnement aléatoire’. ‘vision globale, enfin, de l’espace et du temps’. ‘Le temps ne coule pas, ne s’écoule pas en masse; il filtre ou percole. En-dessous de certains seuils, il ne s’écoule plus. Mon âme et notre histoire naissent en passant des seuils de percolation.’ ‘Donc le temps percole en plusieurs sens, multiples vitesses et rythmes nombreux, multivalent comme la tolérance, riche comme une pensée paisible.’ ‘Ce que nous prenions pour le fil usuel et raisonnable se ramène à une rareté.’

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cars: supercharging it with all manner of new features, trims and capabilities. Apollinaire’s original poem begins in this way: Under the Pont Mirabeau flows the Seine And our loves Must I remember them Joy always came after pain That the night would come and the hour ring The days go by I remain146 Sous le pont Mirabeau coule la Seine Et nos amours Faut-il qu’il m’en souvienne La joie venait toujours après la peine Vienne la nuit sonne l’heure Les jours s’en vont je demeure147

Whatever water may or may not do as it passes under the Pont Mirabeau, Serres insists, it does not obey a simple, laminar flux in the way that Apollinaire’s poem implies. In Geometry he gives the surrealist a lesson in fluid dynamics: not all the water under the Mirabeau Bridge, which Apollinaire doesn’t watch, will necessarily go to Rouen, and the water that flows into the Channel didn’t necessarily pass under his lover’s Bridge . . . countercurrents impelled part of the flow to head back upstream; eddies and turbulences seized another part under the bridge pier, randomly and in a circle; evaporation transformed yet another part into vapor. (G xxxv) toute l’eau qu’Apollinaire ne regarde pas, sous le pont Mirabeau, n’ira point, obligatoirement, à Rouen et celle qui se jette dans la Manche ne passa pas forcément sous le Pont de ses amours . . . des contre-courants poussèrent partie du flux à rebrousser vers l’amont, des tourbillons et turbulences en saisissent une autre, sous la pile, au hasard et en cercle, l’évaporation en transforma une autre encore en vapeur. (OG 41, translation altered; see also Mus 66)

146 147

My translation. Apollinaire, Alcools, 14.

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Time indeed flows like the Seine (and the Yukon and the Ganges), providing that we understand the flow of the Seine to be anything but laminar (see also Ec 90/C 58). Like the turbulent, evaporating Seine of crosscurrents and eddies, Serres understands temporality more broadly as ‘a complex surface, comprising “chimneys” of strong acceleration, “bottlenecks” that block ascensions, zones of immobile values, tears and so forth’ (H1 101, see also OG 29/G xxvi).148 So Serres (and why not!) takes it upon himself to pimp Le Pont Mirabeau by setting it on a more accurate scientific footing: ‘Under the Mirabeau Bridge the Seine flows exceptionally; certain days pass on, others return or remain, for which alone the hour rings; yes, our loves return, sometimes, like these percolating waters’ (OG 40/G xxxv).149 Percolating time, furthermore, is ‘real time’, the time we encounter if we seek ‘to remain faithful to the things themselves’ (OG 41/G xxxvi).150 Species percolate (At 114); information percolates (At 111); rivers, time, the world and life percolate (At 100), and the weather, that etymological twin of time,151 also percolates, changing not in a linear way but moving stochastically, often unpredictably, running in eddies, slowing down, speeding up, changing direction abruptly like the fly, leading Bergson to define weather (le temps) as ‘uninterrupted gushing forth of unpredictable novelties’ (quoted in H 185).152 We may, misguidedly, choose to ‘reduce such a complexity to a corridor or a continuous line uniformally linking one point to another, successively’ (OG 41/G xxxvi, translation altered),153 but then we are dealing with our own philosophical artefact, and no longer with the time that there is. It is also percolation that provides Serres with an alternative to the ‘calendar pathos’ [pathétique du calendrier, NP 9/BOP 3, translation altered] of instant revolutionary change and to the ‘Galilean moment’: ‘The regime of revolutions is no doubt only apparent. What if, behind them or beneath these schisms, flowed (or percolated) slow and viscous fluxes?’ (Ec 202/C 138–9).154 Serres appeals to the shifting of tectonic plates, a very slow movement that can nevertheless produce 148

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‘une surface complexe, comportant des « cheminées » d’accélération forte, des « cols » d’arrêt d’une ascension, des zones de valeurs stationnaires, des déchirures et ainsi de suite’. ‘Sous le pont Mirabeau coule exceptionnellement la Seine; certains jours s’en vont, d’autres ou retournent ou demeurent, pour lesquels seulement sonne l’heure; oui, nos amours reviennent, parfois, comme ces percolantes eaux.’ ‘Pour rester fidèle aux choses elles-mêmes’. Le temps in French means both ‘the time’ and ‘the weather’. ‘jaillissement ininterrompu d’imprévisibles nouveautés’. ‘réduire une telle complexité à un couloir ou une ligne continue reliant uniment un point à un autre, à la queue leu leu?’ ‘Le régime des révolutions n’est sans doute qu’apparent. Et si, derrière elles ou en dessous de ces coupures, coulaient – percolaient? – des flux lents et visqueux?’

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dramatic effects, notably tsunamis and earthquakes. Note that he is not denying the possibility of revolutionary change, but opposing an umbilical account of revolution by multiplying the instances and dynamics of change beyond revolution’s simple temporality of ‘before’ and ‘after’ which, though it works well as a ruse for selling laundry powder, is an inadequate view of history. To divorce the earthquakes from the very gradually percolating plates that cause them would be as wrongheaded as to deny that a revolution is a dramatic expression of similarly subterranean, gradual changes. Below those plates themselves, furthermore, ‘is a core of heat that maintains or propels the moving crust’ (Ec 203/C 139).155 A further, important consequence that Serres draws in relation to these temporal tectonic plates is that events which can seem gratuitous or isolated on the surface have deep connections that could never be fathomed from a superficial standpoint: Are the breaks in history similarly brought about from below by an extraordinarily slow movement that puts us in communication with the past, but at immense depths? The surface gives the impression of totally discontinuous ruptures, earthquakes – in this case, quakes of history or of mobs, sometimes – whose brief violence destroys cities and remodels landscapes but which, at a very deep level, continue an extraordinarily regular movement, barely perceptible, on an entirely different scale of time. (C 139)156 Les cassures de l’histoire sont-elles, de même, entretenues, en dessous, par un mouvement extraordinairement lent qui nous met en communication avec le passé, mais à des profondeurs immenses? Alors, la surface donne l’impression de ruptures parfaitement discontinues, tremblements de terre – ici tremblements d’histoire ou de foules parfois – dont la brève violence détruit les villes et remodèle les paysages, mais, très bas, continue un transport extraordinairement régulier, à peine perceptible, sur une tout autre échelle de temps. (Ec 203)

In a paragraph that gives a fascinating insight into the way in which Serres understands the operation of this unseen, subterranean world, he claims that the history 155

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‘Et en dessous, encore, de ces mouvements continus, traînants et tranquilles, mais inexorables, un noyau de chaleur en entretient ou entraîne les tapis roulants.’ This reflection would be a propitious starting point for a comparison of Serres and Foucault on historical periodisation in general and historical ruptures in particular, a reflection which this already long chapter cannot contain. If such a treatment were undertaken from a Serresian point of view, it would likely argue that Foucault’s Bachelardian and Nietzschean historical ruptures are examples of umbilical temporality to set alongside Derrida’s messianicity, Deleuze’s duration and Badiou’s event.

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of religions ‘forms the lowest plate – the deepest, the most buried, almost invisible, and surely the slowest moving’, and yet that there is a level deeper still: ‘what I would like to catch a glimpse of, beyond that, and deeper yet, is the furnace-like interior, so hidden, that blindly moves us’ (Ec 203/C 139).157 This ‘furnace-like interior’ where, presumably, there is no distinction between the different disciplines or ‘aspects’ at all, is the geological equivalent of what, in Le Système de Leibniz Serres calls ‘structure’. We shall examine just one such subterranean connection at the close of this chapter: the resonance between an ancient sacrificial rite and a tragedy at the cutting edge of modern technology. The very slow speed of tectonic movement is one instance of a more general principle for Serres according to which everything is subject to time, sometimes fast-moving and sometimes glacial: Objects are flames frozen by different time-scales. My body is a slightly slower flame than this crimson curtain which consumes the logs. Some things, for example stones, are slower still, while others, like suns, are more agitated: a thousand times make their edges pulsate. (Steven Connor’s translation). Les objets sont des flammes gelées par des temps différents. Mon corps est une flamme un peu plus lente que ce rideau cramoisi qui consume les bûches. D’autres choses sont plus lentes encore, pierres, d’autres plus foudroyantes, soleils. Mille temps font battre leurs bords. (H5 53)

The movement of a flame, like that of tectonic plates, is not linear and Cartesian. It flickers, moves back on itself, changes direction and leaps. In short, it percolates. This account of time as a flickering of variable speeds also yields a new understanding of ‘progress’. In line with Serres’s figure of opposing by generalising, his idea of progress is not linear and unidirectional but complex and percolating: ‘For any given process there are regional evolutions, partial accelerations, temporary regressions, alternations, equilibriums, subtle transformations. The notion [of progress] is plural or pluralistic, whichever’ (SL 284).158 Indeed, rather than necessarily improving over time Serres argues that philosophical ideas obey a law 157

158

‘Puis-je dire que la fait entrevoir l’histoire des religions, par exemple, qui forme la plaque la plus basse, la plus profonde, la plus enfouie, jusqu’à l’invisible, la plus lente sûrement; mais je voudrais bien deviner, en outre et en dessous encore, l’intérieure fournaise si enveloppée, qui nous meut aveuglément.’ ‘il y a, pour un processus donné, des évolutions régionales, des accélérations partielles, des régressions temporaires, des alternances, des équilibres, des transformations fines: cette notion est plurale ou pluraliste, comme on voudra’.

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of entropy according to which they progressively accrete ‘cultural noise’ and can be lost altogether (H1 29 n7). It is important not to read this complexity as a refusal of any progress whatsoever; that would be just as reductive as the symmetrical insistence on uninterrupted incremental historical improvement. Serres does not reject progress, he opposes it by generalising its movement: ‘I see how history progresses; it progresses the way a fly flies. It’s true that a fly progresses, sometimes’ (R 232/Ro 156).159 History as clinamen

In The Birth of Physics Serres argues that ‘[a]ny object in the world, insofar as it exists by a deviation from equilibrium, and insofar as it resists the tendency to entropy, is a complex clock associating several times’ (NP 202/BOP 163).160 Insofar as each such object will draw together reversible, entropic and negentropic times in a unique way, Serres advances a view for which time is as multifarious as are things themselves: ‘time is nothing without each thing, and each thing has its own’, a situation he calls ‘polymorphous temporality’ (NP 169–70/BOP 137).161 This understanding of time also furnishes Serres with an account of history as clinamen, a productive departure from equilibrium, a deviation from the free fall of immutability. ‘The past, the present, the future, the dawn of appearance and death, tenacious illusions, are only the declinations of matter’ (NP 45/BOP 34).162 In place of ‘progress’, ‘growth’ and ‘maturation’, Serres suggests ‘(quasi) homeostatic circulations’ or ‘pseudo-balanced cycles, temporarily almost fixed’ (NP 73/BOP 57). The turbulence of time is therefore ‘rigorously isomorphic with natural genesis out of chaos’, and so ‘[h]istory is indeed a physics’ (NP 222–3/BOP 179, translation altered).163

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‘Je vois comment l’histoire avance, elle avance comme une mouche vole. Il est vrai qu’une mouche avance, parfois.’ ‘Tout objet quelconque du monde, en tant qu’il existe par un écart à l’équilibre et en tant qu’il résiste à la tendance à l’entropie, est une horloge complexe associant plusieurs temps.’ ‘Or le temps n’est rien sans chacune des choses, et chacune a le sien. L’atomisme est un pluralisme, et singulièrement, un polymorphisme chronique.’ Both published translations of The Birth of Physics translate ‘chronological polymorphism’, but the French ‘chronique’ has no attested sense of ‘chronological’ in any of the major dictionaries. ‘Temporal polymorphism’ would be a compromise translation, expressing the sense of the context, and avoiding the implication of linearity in ‘chronological’. ‘Polymorphous temporality’, though freer, flows better in English. I am grateful to David Webb for his correspondence and advice on this question. ‘Le passé, lé présent, le futur, l’aurore de l’apparition et la mort, tenaces illusions, ne sont que déclins de matière.’ ‘elle [une spirale sans cesse en écart sur elle-même] est rigoureusement isomorphe à la genèse naturelle à partir du chaos. L’histoire est bien une physique.’

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Serresian temporal polymorphism is similar to Deleuze’s account of the multiplicity of duration in Bergsonism, but with an important difference.164 Despite the complexity and nuance of Deleuze’s argument, it is clear that when he evokes differing durations he does so at the level of kinds,165 not of individuals. Distinctions are made between ‘[t]he flowing of the water, the flight of the bird, the murmur of my life’,166 but not between different birds, different rivers or different human lives. Even where infinite numbers of different durations are evoked, it is still at the level of the species.167 Serres’s temporal polymorphism, by contrast, distinguishes both at the level of the kind and at the level of the individual. For Serres, time is locked in the materiality of the individual body, inscribed in its clinamina and deviations, in a way that differentiates it from other similar objects and from others of its kind, as well as from other kinds. The baker’s transformation

In Rome, Geometry and Atlas Serres presents his account of time in terms of the image of kneading dough and, more specifically, through the topological ‘baker’s transformation’. The baker’s transformation is a mathematical automorphism (a way of mapping an object onto itself without destroying its structure, see R 105/Ro 67–8) that resembles the action of kneading. Begin with a square (as in Figure 2.7 on the left). Flatten and stretch it so that it is half as tall and twice as wide (the middle figure).

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As Chris Steyaert rightly notes, ‘the work of Serres and Deleuze features “conceptual resonances” (Herzogenrath (ed.), Time and History 14), and forms a “dissonant conjunction” (Herzogenrath (ed.), Time and History 165)’, Steyaert, ‘Michel Serres’. Whereas most accounts seek to draw parallels between Deleuze and Serres, my first concern in this book it to draw attention to ways in which Serres differs from Deleuze and other contemporaries, to make an argument for the importance of Serres’s thought in its own right and not just as an echo chamber for the concepts of better-known authors. Deleuze, Bergsonism, 33. Deleuze, Bergsonism, 80. ‘Psychological duration, our duration, is now only one case among others, among an infinity of others, a certain well-defined tension, whose very definitiveness seems like a choice between an infinity of possible durations’, Deleuze, Bergsonism, 48. This reading is also dominant in the secondary literature on Deleuze. See, for example, Colebrook, Gilles Deleuze, 39: ‘Time is . . . always taking the form of different and divergent “durations”. Imagine, for example, the difference between the duration of a plant, an animal and a human observer. The plant “perceives” light, heat and water without any delay; it directly absorbs the light and so on. An animal introduces greater delay into perception; it can hesitate between which plant it might consume, or whether it will eat at all. So the speed or “duration” of the animal gives it a certain degree of consciousness. Human beings, because of their power of thinking and memory, have a duration or speed which is not just more complex but extends to become a difference in kind.’

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Figure 2.7 The Baker’s Transformation (from Randolph Nelson, Probability, Stochastic Processes, and Queueing Theory, p. 519) Then fold one half on top of the other (the figure on the right). When this operation is repeated, the square is progressively ‘mixed’. Serres uses the figure of time as dough to present a more complex account than either time as a continuous line or time as a series of discrete strata (R 108/Ro 70). Rather than accreting layer after layer in a well-ordered accumulation, ‘[t]ime enters into the dough, a prisoner of its folds, a shadow of its repeated foldings’ (R 106/Ro 69, translation altered).168 This means that, as opposed to the sediment image of time, moments of time folded within the dough can move either closer or farther away from each other as it is kneaded: thus there can exist in culture things that the line makes appear very distant but which are in fact close, or on the contrary things that seem very close that, in fact, are very distant from each other. (C 58, translation altered) qu’il puisse exister donc, dans la culture, des choses que la ligne faisait paraître très éloignées et qui sont en fait rapprochées, ou des choses au contraire très rapprochées qui en fait sont éloignées. (Ec 89)

Each individual iterative moment of squashing and folding in the baker’s transformation is ‘clear and determined’, easy to follow itself, but when many movements are taken together then ‘the entire route seems random’, or at least indescribably complex (R 107/Ro 69). Similarly, ‘[l]ocal time, from now to a moment ago or to a little before, is as clear, as determined, almost as necessary as the folding over of the escutcheon, as the simple gesture of the baker’ (R 107/Ro 69, translation altered).169 I know what I was doing five minutes ago, and why. The passage from the local to the global, however, is unpredictable, ‘It seems to go, crazily, just anywhere,

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‘Le temps entre dans la pâte, prisonnier de ses plis, ombre de ses rabattements.’ ‘Le temps local, de maintenant à tout à l’heure ou à un peu avant, est aussi clair, déterminé, presque nécessitant, que le rebattement de l’écu, que le geste simple de la boulangère.’

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drunk, and just anyhow’ (R 107/Ro 69),170 following ‘the same story as that of the fly’ (At 104; see also Ec 99/C 64–5),171 or rather developing the fly motif from one single specimen to ‘the thousand flights of a swarm of bees’ or even a ‘fuzzy set of Brownian flights, those of the little grains of the dough mixture’ (R 108/Ro 70),172 a bewildering movement which, like the fly buzzing across the landscape, draws a global immanence from a massive series of stochastic local movements (At 105). Serres further develops the dough motif by insisting in Rome and Statues that the baker in question is female (la boulangère). This gesture is intended to set the dough image, and the topological view of time it describes, outside the canons of ‘our’ (male) thought: we have never known what a tissue is, never noticed or listened to women, never known what a melange might be, and never understood, or even imagined, time. (Ro 69) nous n’avons jamais su ce qu’était un tissu, nous n’avons jamais vu ni écouté les femmes, nous n’avons jamais su ce qu’était un mélange et nous n’avons jamais compris, même pensé, le temps. (R 107)

The strange chaotic movement of the dough is not, Serres is at pains to explain, an effacement of time or some strange irrational time where anything can happen at any moment, but an ‘excess of complexity’ (R 108/Ro 70) in which linear time is dwarfed by the intricate and unpredictable temporal movements among which it finds itself. It is only an impoverished Classicism that would brand this movement ‘random’ and throw it outside the purified pomerium. As such, kneading is a very Leibnizian gesture, layering filter upon filter rather than following the Cartesian method of incessant subtraction and purification: ‘Analysis cuts; the baker folds’ (R 106/Ro 69).173 As it brings about these new juxtapositions and surprising similarities, kneading functions for Serres as ‘a kind of metametaphor, which figures the topological generation of metaphor itself’.174

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‘Il semble aller, follement, n’importe où, ivre, et n’importe comment.’ ‘la même histoire que celle de la mouche’. ‘[le temps] est un vol d’abeille, non, il est les mille vols d’un essaim d’abeilles, non, il est ensemble flou de vols browniens, ceux des petits grains de la pâte au mélange’. ‘L’analyse coupe, la boulangère plie.’ Connor, . The main difference between Serres’s dough image and the account of time it is intended to exemplify is, of course, that for Serres there is no baker who folds time while remaining outside it. This would require some equivalent of Leibniz’s pre-established harmony, which Serres rejects. How, then, is the dough transformed? Whence comes the kneading? There are, I think, two responses. First, ontologically speaking the multiplicity of temporal trajectories comes from myriad infinitesimal clinamina – for example

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Diachronic Relations

Serres’s understanding of time as percolation yields a set of startling juxtapositions that defy customary historical propriety by juxtaposing seemingly unrelated events, theories or artefacts. The reason is that, for Serres’s topological account of time, large temporal distances are no less difficult to span than relatively small ones. As Bruno Latour puts it, ‘[f]or you Pythagoras and Lucretius are no more or less distant than La Fontaine or Brillouin. One would say that for you there is no such thing as time. That everything is contemporary’ (Ec 71/C 44–5).175 Latour is correct in his identification of the result – large temporal jumps do not pose a problem for Serres – but 180 degrees wrong about the reason why: temporal distances can be bridged not because there is no time for Serres, but because there are many times. Time is not denied, but multiplied. Baal and Challenger

None of Serres’s juxtapositions is more arresting than that between the rituals of ancient Carthaginian Baal worship and the explosion of the NASA space shuttle Challenger in 1986 with which he opens Statues. First we find ourselves first in sixth-century BC Carthage, where there stands a colossal hollow iron statue of the god Baal. The interior of the statue is divided into seven chambers, into which are placed precious metals, food and animals. A fire is then lit at the foot of the statue and its contents are burned in its seven iron ovens. As the giant statue is obscured from view by the smoke of the roaring fire below it, assembled crowds worship and praise the god. In a particularly horrific twist, pre-selected first-born children of noble families are thrown into an empty compartment in the statue

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the countless subtle transformations in the negentropic development of life – that compound to introduce new temporal eddies and currents. From this point of view it is the percolating transitions that themselves bring shape and movement to time; the folding is a product of the clinamen, not its cause. Secondly, temporal distances are experienced as shortened when we become aware of isomorphisms across time of which we were previously ignorant, for example between Lucretius and thermodynamics (discussed in Chapter 4), or between ancient Baal worship and the 1986 Challenger space shuttle disaster (discussed in this chapter). Serres does not bring into being the proximities he describes, but he does make them visible and in so doing brings them into experience. The image of the dough therefore captures both how time is, and how it is experienced. This explanation, of course, serves only to raise the question ‘but what causes the clinamen?’, a question to which we shall return in Chapter 4. I am grateful to David Webb for drawing to my attention the problem of the question ‘who is the baker?’ ‘Pythagore, Lucrèce ne sont ni plus ni moins loin, pour vous, que La Fontaine ou Brillouin. On dirait que pour vous il n’y a pas de temps. Que tout est contemporain.’

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by its elaborate mechanical arm, as the crowd shout ‘They are not men but oxen’ (S 15/St 3).176 The rite is subsequently repeated at regular intervals, not this time with human victims but with cows. We next find ourselves in the Florida peninsula on a particularly cold January afternoon in 1986. At 1:39 EST on 28 January, seventy-three seconds after takeoff, the Challenger shuttle bursts into flames above the Atlantic Ocean, killing its seven crew members instantly. The launch and explosion are carried live on network news channels, with US schools interrupting normal lessons so that the pupils can witness what was set to be the latest triumph of US technology and ambition. In the aftermath of the disaster, footage was compulsively re-aired on international TV networks. The linear conception of time would present these two events as being very distant from each other. The Baal episode is a myth; it is ancient, trading on fictions, superstitions and barbaric practices. The Challenger episode, by diametric contrast, is science; it is modern, built on facts, and the explosion is a tragic accident (S 17/St 4). By this reckoning, Challenger is indeed very distant from Baal. Serres, for his part, is not claiming that Challenger is Baal. In other words, he is not opposing the modern view by contradicting it. Rather, in a move we have now coming to expect, he opposes it by multiplying it. Yes, there is a difference between science and myth, superstition and rationality, but it is one among many relevant differences and similarities, and should not be taken as the umbilical account of the relation between these two events. Serres, then, meets the objection that ‘Baal is not Challenger’ with the response ‘[i]t is, and it isn’t . . . we must hold both affirmations at once’ (Ec 230/C 159).177 What he means is that there is no direct royal road linking the Baal and Challenger moments, but they can nevertheless be understood as analogous models of a common structure, a bespoke North-West Passage can be found between them, and we can, if we are careful, elaborate a two-column table translating from the language of Baal into the language of Challenger (S 15/St 3). Let us first, then, list the similarities between the two events, and then consider what to make of them. Serres discerns at least sixteen analogies (S 16/St 4; see also Ec 221/C 160), tabulated here in bullet form: • The crowd: ‘Just as much of a crowd, on one side as on the other, forms a great crush at the tragic spectacle and gapes with horror’ [‘Autant de foule, de part et d’autre, s’écrase au spectacle tragique et bée d’horreur’].

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‘ce ne sont pas des hommes, mais des bœufs’. ‘Elle l’est; elle ne l’est pas . . . il faut garder les deux affirmations ensemble.’

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• Celestial aspiration: ‘the Ancients and the Moderns designate the heavens as the aim and target of their aspirations or projects, space and the stars’ [‘les Anciens et les Modernes désignent le ciel comme but et cible de leurs aspirations ou projets, l’espace et les astres’]. • Crippling cost: ‘the undertaking is expensive, for the Carthaginians as for us; the nation almost bankrupts itself over it’ [‘l’entreprise coûte cher, aux Carthaginois comme à nous, la nation s’y ruine presque’]. • Chosen experts: ‘both of them divide their group and carefully separate the common man or those watching from the specialists, shut away, specially clothed, designated as priests or technicians of the thing or its representation’ [‘les uns et les autres divisent leur groupe et séparent soigneusement les hommes du commun ou assistants des spécialistes, enfermés, spécialement habillés, appelés prêtres ou techniciens de la chose ou de sa représentation’]. • Fire: ‘here the blast-off, there the gigantic pyre’ [‘voici la mise à feu, voilà le bûcher géant’]. • Clouds and smoke: ‘here clouds of smoke twisting into coils, there eddies that hide or veil what is happening’ [‘voici des nuages de fumée tordus en volutes, voilà des tourbillons qui cachent ou voilent ce qui se passe’]. • Technology: ‘two ingenious pieces of machinery’ [‘deux machineries ingénieuses’]. • Death: ‘here death, over there and in the past death’ [‘ici la mort, la mort là-bas et autrefois’]. • The foregrounding of specifically family death: ‘the loss of fathers and mothers, the death of children’ [‘perte de pères et de mères, mort d’enfants’]. • Repetition and ritual: ‘repetitions of the event, formerly like a rite returned to at a prescribed time or in the case of a pressing danger, now like on the stage or at the cinema. The event, filmed, is shown and reshown as though to assuage an unsatiated hunger in us’ [‘répétition de l’événement, jadis comme un rite revenu à temps prescrit ou dans le cas d’un danger pressant, maintenant comme au théâtre ou au cinéma. L’événement, filmé, passe et repasse comme pour apaiser en nous une faim inassouvie’]. • Substitution: ‘They would also start it again a hundred times in the past: then they sacrificed animals, apes, or oxen, substituted for human children, and the crowd would cry with reason: “No, they are not men but oxen.” The animals served as symbols or signs, consequently it could be repeated without end. Likewise we reshow images, which certainly resemble the thing more than symbols or substitutes’ [‘On recommençait aussi cent fois, jadis: alors on sacrifiait des bêtes, singes ou bœufs, substitués aux enfants des hommes; et la foule criait avec raison: non, ce ne sont pas des hommes, mais des bœufs. Les animaux servaient de symboles ou de signes, du coup l’on pouvait indéfiniment répéter.

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De même nous repassons les images, plus ressemblantes à la chose certes que des symboles ou substituts’]. Compulsion to repeat: ‘But the essential thing remains: this need to start again, to rerun, to repeat, to represent the rite, the tragedy in which the dead do not play at dying but truly die’ [‘Mais l’essentiel demeure: ce besoin de recommencer, reprendre, répéter, représenter le rite, la tragédie où les morts ne jouent point à mourir, mais meurent vraiment’]. The central statue-like object: ‘What stands, in the end, before the multitude or in the center of the gathering contains humans like a box, a Trojan Horse leaving at a gallop for the moon, a reddened bull charging into space, a vehicle pointed in a direction or a statue endowed with a meaning. Immobile at first, the statue moves and leaves. But the idol and the rocket are tombs’ [‘Ce qui se dresse, enfin, devant la multitude ou des hommes comme une boite, cheval de Troie partant au galop pour la Lune, taureau rougi chargeant dans l’espace, véhicule pointé en direction ou statue douée d’un sens. Immobile d’abord, la statue bouge et part. Mais l’idole ou la fusée sont des tombeaux’]. The denial that the deaths are a human sacrifice: ‘The fathers and mothers, seeing the murder of their children, said that they didn’t know what they were doing, as though it proved more difficult to say than to do . . . No, it’s not about human sacrifice, but merely an accident’ [‘Les pères et les mères, voyant le meurtre de leurs enfants, disent qu’ils ne savent pas ce qu’ils font, comme s’il se révélait plus difficile de dire que de faire. . . . Non, il ne s’agit pas de sacrifice humain, mais d’un accident seulement’] (S 17–8/St 4). The necessity of sacrifice to both enterprises: both events are sacrifices to progress. The Carthaginians believed they were saving their city from destruction by sacrificing to Baal, and the Americans believed they were winning the space race and the Cold War (S 32/St 13). ‘[T]he same reasoning and the same relationship to the global, well described by the theologians or philosophers during the Age of Reason, are used to justify our present inability to reduce or eradicate the number of our deaths as are used to found archaic societies on human sacrifice’ [‘le même raisonnement, le même rapport au global, bien décrits à l’âge classique par les théologiens ou philosophes, justifient notre impuissance présente à réduire ou éradiquer le nombre de nos morts, et fondent sur le sacrifice humain les sociétés archaïques’] (S 27/St 13). An attempt to control the future: ‘Our god is the machine, the technical object’, and in the same way that the Carthaginians thought they were guaranteeing the future of their city through their sacrifices in the iron statue, our technology ‘stresses our mastery of our surroundings’ until the moment when it ‘suddenly plummets, like a lead weight, into the depths of a formidable anthropology’

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[‘machine, objet technique, qui accentue notre maîtrise de l’étendue, qui règle quelques rapports de groupe ou de psychologie visqueuse, mais descend soudain, par ce coup de sonde, dans les fonds d’une anthropologie formidable’] (Ec 205/C 141). When seeking to discern what Serres intends us to understand through these comparisons we must be careful not to use the language of linear time. Serres is not ‘jumping’ from one ‘age’ to another, as if the distance from one to the other remained fixed, nor (as he corrects Bruno Latour) should his thought be understood as travelling back in a time machine, an image which ‘wonderfully embodies linear time’ (Ec 120/C 79, translation altered).178 Baal is not more distant from us than Challenger, but the two are layered together as a palimpsest, kneaded together, for the time being, in the temporal dough. Serres argues that the series of substitutions between the Baal and Challenger events (crowd for crowd, fire for fire and so forth) stitch them together not across time but by mutual indwelling: Baal is in the Challenger, and the Challenger is in Baal; religion is in technology; the pagan god is in the rocket; the rocket is in the statue; the rocket on its launching pad is in the ancient idol – and our sophisticated knowledge is in our archaic fascinations. (C 160) Baal est dans Challenger et Challenger dans Baal, la religion dans la technique, le dieu dans la fusée, celle-ci dans la statue, mais aussi la fusée prête à partir dans la vieille idole, et nos savoirs raffinés dans nos archaïques fascinations. (Ec 232)

As with science and literature in the cases of Zola and Verne, neither Baal nor Challenger is a controlling paradigm for the other: the Challenger disaster is not, at bottom, an enactment of an ancient rite, any more than ancient Baal worship is a modern technological enterprise. Neither Baal nor Challenger is the ‘real’ to the other’s ‘metaphor’, the umbilical structure to the other’s model. Furthermore, as Serres’s images of dough would suggest, the juxtaposition of Challenger and Baal is not an isolated case but an example of the general phenomenon according to which ‘a certain number of contemporary actions, behaviours, or thoughts repeat, almost without change, extremely archaic modes of thought or behaviour’, with the result that ‘[w]e are ancient in most of our actions and

178

‘cette locomotive matérialise à merveille le temps linéaire’.

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thoughts’ (Ec 202/C 138; see also S 214/St 139)179 and, concomitantly, the ancient world was ‘advanced in luminous proof’ (OG 181/G 89).180 If we fail to recognise this complex temporality then we simply do not understand who ‘we’ are. We think we were born yesterday, in a Cartesian tabula rasa that left behind once and for ever our mythical, sacrificial prehistory, and we ignore the complex layering and folding of our ancient-and-modern ‘we’ (S 21/St 7). Whereas the modern, Cartesian world seeks to plot myth and science on a single temporal line leading away from the former and towards the latter, Serres insists that his new history of the sciences ‘is plunging, today, as though in a loop, into the fundamental human myths from which Empedocles’s first laws came’ (Bi 65/Bio 71),181 folding time so that myth and science touch. Whereas Cartesian thinking would seek to expel all myth so as to leave pure, luminous scientific knowledge, Serres counters that ‘knowledge without illusion is illusion pure and simple, where you lose everything including knowledge. It is a theorem, more or less: the only pure myth is that of a knowledge pure of all myth’ (H3 259, MS’s emphasis; see also S 47/St 22; Ec 237/C 162).182 This tu quoque charge, accusing those who reject myth of propagating the greatest myth, is compounded when Serres argues that, if we reject the idol as barbarous, that same gesture of rejection is sacrificial (S 18–19/St 5). If we still fail to see Carthage in Cape Canaveral, it is because we are still too close to the ancient rite. It is precisely those facets of modern life that Cartesian thinking understands as marking our definitive break from a myth-riddled and superstitious past that, for Serres, constitute our link with that past. Our capacity to produce and distribute electricity, for example, ‘is nothing other than throwing thunderbolts, storms are electric. This is the ancient dream of being Zeus’ ( JJV 276).183 Or take metaphysics: time and again metaphysics and formal discourses find themselves equivalent to the myths with which they claim to have nothing in common. In The Natural Contract Serres notes a formal equivalence between the idea of the natural contract and original sin: both found ‘the necessity of collective connections’ and here as

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‘un certain nombre de performances ou d’actions, de conduites ou de pensées contemporaines répètent, presque sans changement, des modes de pensée ou de conduite extrêmement archaïques . . . Nous sommes des Anciens dans la plupart de nos actions et pensées.’ ‘nous restons archaïques, aujourd’hui, tout autant que nous étions, avant-hier, avancés dans la preuve lumineuse’. ‘plonge, aujourd’hui, comme en boucle, dans les mythes humains fondamentaux, d’où sortirent les premières lois d’Empédocle’. ‘[u]n savoir sans illusion est une illusion toute pure. Où l’on perd tout, et le savoir. Il s’agit, à peu près, d’un théorème: il n’y a de mythe pur que le savoir pur de tout mythe.’ ‘n’est pas autre chose que de lancer la foudre, les orages sont électriques. Le vieux rêve d’être Zeus.’

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elsewhere ‘a story is as good as philosophy’ (CN 98–9/NC 59).184 In L’interférence, he states his position with lucid directness: ‘The mythical age spoke mythically – in other words through its own system of symbols – what the metaphysical age speaks conceptually – in other words through its own system of symbols’ (H2 174).185 Verlaine and Lucretius

If myth and technology are not as straightforwardly distant as modernity would care to admit, then neither are literature and science. It should not surprise us, for example, that Lucretius’s De rerum natura is ‘strictly equivalent’ to the second law of thermodynamics (NP 88/BOP 69), or that his clinamen is to be understood as a scientific, not only a ‘philosophical’ or ‘poetic’, proposition (NP 9/BOP 3). Nor should we be surprised that Verlaine’s Sonnet Hope shines like a wisp of hay in the stable ‘intuits the reality of background noise’ (Ec 119/C 78).186 Serres refuses the explanation that this was a lucky or unintentional coincidence, insisting that it is a product of poetic gift. Verlaine’s intuition comes by dint of ‘observing his own intropathic experience with what I dare to call an unheard-of precision’ (Ec 119/C 78).187 This does not mean that he could have articulated the theory of background noise as it is understood by modern science. His insight is ‘unknowing’ in the sense that ‘the sciences converge there in a transparency through which the eye passes without seeing anything’ (TI 96/TK 56).188 To Bruno Latour’s objection that this ‘seems implausible’, Serres replies that ‘[i]t only seems implausible to those who believe that an unbridgeable distance separates a nineteenth-century poet from a late-twentieth-century physicist’ (Ec 119/C 79);189 in other words it only seems implausible to one operating with a ‘global intuition’ founded on an exclusively Cartesian, geometric notion of space and time. Secondly, it only appears implausible now given our current, and recently formed, understanding of the relationship between science and literature. They are currently topologically distant in our map of knowledge, but in the future it could well be that explaining Verlaine’s poem in the light of communication theory, background noise and the quasi 184

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‘Donc la théorie du contrat social ne fait que répéter, tautologiquement, la nécessité des liaisons collectives: d’un lien l’autre. De plus, Geius démontre son équivalence avec celle du péché originel. . . . Ici donc, comme souvent, le récit vaut philosophie.’ ‘L’âge mythique disait mythiquement, c’est-à-dire au moyen d’une symbolique propre, ce que l’âge métaphysique dit conceptuellement, c’est-à-dire au moyen de sa propre symbolique.’ ‘Verlaine devine la réalité du bruit de fond.’ ‘En observant avec une précision inouïe – osons le dire – sa propre expérience intropathique.’ ‘des sciences ensemble y convergent dans une transparence à travers laquelle l’œil court sans rien voir’. ‘Elle ne paraît peu plausible qu’à ceux qui croient qu’une distance infranchissable sépare un poète du xixe et un physicien de la fin du xxe.’

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physical origin of language is going to become ‘as simple as ABC’ (Ec 125/C 83, translation altered). Latour persists, however, suggesting that Serres is reading into Verlaine what is not in fact there, that ‘noise theory’ is imported by Serres to make sense of Verlaine’s sonnet. Serres’s reply is emphatic: No, I don’t import it. Verlaine’s poem springs from an authentic coenesthetic experience. The poet falls asleep and describes this falling asleep . . . And, as happens when one descends below consciousness, clouds of images appear, flecks of phosphenes, gusts of acouphenes, auditory and visible clouds that lead from the usual waking order to a sort of fluctuating disorder. (C 98) Non, je ne la transporte pas. Le poème de Verlaine part d’une expérience cœnesthésique authentique; le poète s’endort . . . et décrit cet endormissement, un peu comme James Joyce à la fin d’Ulysse. Et comme il arrive quand on descend sous l’éveil, voici qu’apparaissent des nuages d’images, des flocons de phosphènes, des bouffées d’acouphènes, nuages auditifs et visibles qui conduisent de l’ordre usuel de l’éveil vers une sorte de désordre fluctuant. (Ec 146)

As for the imagery Verlaine employs to describe this experience, Serres protests [d]o we, as scientists, use examples other than these when we seek to explain the ordinary, clearest, most precise theories of background noise? These examples are found in scientific literature itself: the sound of falling water made by mills and by the sea.

His conclusion is emphatic: ‘Verlaine describes with great precision the same thing that it has taken us so long to learn through the sciences’ (Ec 146/C 98). We only need the scientific theory of background noise to understand Verlaine because we do not share his poetic insight; in their own terms, the theory and the insight are not hierarchically ordered. Serres’s treatment of the Challenger/Baal relationship, as well as his account of science and literature in Lucretius and Verne, is indicative of what we might call his commitment to epistemic democracy. If no single region of knowledge is privileged in providing a degree zero access to truth, if no region provides the literal truth in relation to which all other regions are metaphorical approximations, then of course discourses of both science and myth will yield knowledge about the modern world. It is this principle of epistemic democracy that drives the breadth of materials with which Serres engages, for example finding a sophisticated account of the fetish in Hergé’s The Castafiore Jewels, or ontological theories in the fables of La Fontaine. This breadth of material makes perfect sense in the

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light of his aspectualism, according to which all regions of knowledge can be isomorphically related to all others. Conclusion

Serres offers a remarkably distinctive, powerful and complex account of time and space, drawing on insights from the natural sciences that allow him to develop a disciplinary aspectualism that resists the many temptations to umbilical thought that lurk in the modern academy. Although his thought shares some tendencies with Derridean or Nancean deconstruction, and with Deleuze’s account of duration and the fold, he stamps these broad trajectories with his own figures of thought: topological space and time, the handkerchief and the baker’s dough, aspectualism, the ‘something in x deeper than x’, epistemic democracy and opposition by generalisation. As I suggested in the introduction to this chapter, however, Serres is not simply developing a theory of space and time, but he is inviting us to inhabit a disposition, a sensibility, a way of being in (and out of!) the world that he calls a ‘global intuition’. It is a topological disposition in which the past is folded into the present like pleats in dough, in which both space and time are complex, multiple and variegated, irreducible to single trajectories. It is a global intuition that can tolerate no hierarchy between the arts, humanities and sciences, refusing all umbilical or queen disciplines in order to take the harder, more challenging route of speaking in several voices. It is a global intuition that resonates with but stands apart from the major accounts of time, of the event, and of periodisation in the European philosophy of the last fifty years, and it reveals these accounts to be umbilical through its characteristic figure of opposing by multiplying. Finally, Serres’s global intuition is democratic, resisting the temporal geocentrism and the apocalypse of nuance that attend the dominant accounts of space and time in modernity. In this chapter we have also begun to see a shift in emphasis in Serres’s thought. In Le Système de Leibniz and the early volumes in the Hermès series, order and structure take rhetorical precedence over disorder and noise.190 As early as Hermès II: L’interférence, however, Serres begins to affirm that ‘“disorder” – which has multiple entry points – is more fundamental than order’ (H2 33),191 and he insists that, whereas we used to be astounded by disorder, now order is the rare and curious thing (H2 76 n5). By the time of the introduction to Hermès IV: La distribution 190

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It is not that disorder is unacknowledged in the early work, as some have mistakenly thought. See SL 249 n1. ‘le « désordre » – à plusieurs entrées – est plus fondamental que l’ordre’.

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we witness a distinct change of emphasis in his thought, with disorder and noise now taking centre stage. In Chapter 4 we shall see this transition consummated in Serres’s work of the 1980s and later, where themes like background noise, the tohu-bohu and multiplicity replace the previous motifs of structure, isomorphism, analogy and model. Before we continue that journey, however, and having now become familiar with some of the key Serresian figures of thought, it behooves us to reflect on a subject which, for many readers, will be the first and greatest obstacle to coming to grips with Serres’s writing: his style.

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3

Serres’s Style

Let no one say that I have said nothing new . . . the arrangement of the subject is new. When we play tennis, we both play with the same ball, but one of us places it better. (Blaise Pascal, Pensees)

WHEN I FIRST PITCHED a book on Michel Serres to Edinburgh University Press, the anonymous reviewers reserved particular enthusiasm for one of the project’s aims, to help readers understand why Serres writes as he does. And for good reason: the first impression most readers will have of Serres’s writing, certainly from texts of the mid-1980s onwards, is of his rich, ‘poetic’ style which moves quickly between a bewildering range of ideas and topics and deluges the reader with a cataract of allusions and intertextual references. We cannot press far into Serres’s works without being brought face to face with the twin and inextricably intertwined questions of his style of writing and his style of thinking. In terms of his style of thinking, Serres’s determination to range across diverse subject matter in multiple disciplines poses a problem for many. In his 1986 interview with Serres, Florian Rötzer wastes no time in cutting to the quick: ‘People reproach many French philosophers for mixing forms of discourse. For this reason, they take them to be irrational theoreticians. In what sense do you understand yourself? Is your philosophy rationalistic?’1 The suspicion is that Serres’s thought must lack rigour if it seeks to cover so much ground. This is also the accusation of Alan Sokal in Fashionable Nonsense.2 Even readers with a 1 2

Rötzer, Conversations with French Philosophers, 87. Sokal, who seems to have read at least some of A History of Scientific Thought, gives Serres the following begrudging acknowledgment: ‘the work of Serres is replete with more-or-less poetic allusions to science and its history; but his assertions, though extremely vague, are in general neither completely meaningless nor completely false’ (Sokal and Brichmont, Fashionable Nonsense, 8).

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sympathetic predisposition to Serres acknowledge that his style of thinking poses substantial challenges to his readers. Steven Connor, for example, argues that his ‘undockability’ and ‘unpocketability’ are reasons why he is not better known in the Anglophone world.3 Connor goes on to insist that it is precisely because of the cross-disciplinary sweep of Serres’s writing that ‘his work, and, even more importantly, the style of thinking and writing that his work warrants, has a claim on us’.4 If the breadth of Serres’s thought is a problem for readers, so too is its mode of expression. Pierpaolo Antonello admits that there is ‘certainly a problem of style, of linguistic complexity, undertones, and ambiguities that are part of the very method Serres follows in his readings on philosophy, art, or science’.5 It would be hasty, however, to dismiss Serres as just one more ‘French thinker’ of ‘high theory’, afflicted with the national disease of incomprehensibility. This judgement remains blind to those distinctive features of his writing that set him apart from his French contemporaries, a point that Steven Connor beautifully articulates: Compared with the mannered ostentations of a Derrida, the orphic esotericism of Lacan, the bristling technicism of a Deleuze, the dandiacal exhibitionism of a Baudrillard or a Žižek, Michel Serres’ writing displays a uniquely fluid ingenuity, a flamboyant inventiveness, a stripped, fragile tenderness.6

While I would disagree with the rhetorically over-inflated dismissals of other French thinkers here, the characterisation of Serres is on point. His style is unique among French philosophers of his generation, bringing its own unique rationale, challenges and possibilities. Among readers of Serres there is general agreement that his style of thinking and writing is a natural, even necessary aspect of his intellectual journey. For Bruno Latour, ‘his style is part and parcel of his very philosophical argument’7 in a French tradition for which ‘[t]he deepest content of what they have to say is first of all a

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Sokal either does not understand, or does not take time to engage with, Serres’s aspectual pluralism. His project is to purify the immaculate pomerium of science from the confusion, contingency and transience of the humanities, reducing Serres’s isomorphisms to ill-judged metaphors, asserting for example that ‘percolation theory deals with the flow of fluids in porous media and says nothing about the nature of space and time’ (Sokal and Brichmont, Fashionable Nonsense, 263). Connor, ‘The Hard and the Soft’. Connor, ‘The Hard and the Soft’. Antonello, ‘Celebrating a Master’, 166. Connor, ‘The Hard and the Soft’. Latour, ‘The Enlightenment without the Critique’, 96.

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style, a form, a particular way of saying it’.8 Antonello suggests that Serres’s linguistic complexity is unavoidable because ‘language embeds knowledge; language is a historical palimpsest that needs to be unveiled and that traces the anthropological and cultural history of its formation’,9 and Patrick Rödel insists that, with Serres as with any philosopher, the search for truth and for beauty are the same philosophical exercise and that Serres’s ‘ultimate courage to think’ can only be experienced in a language that befits this undertaking.10 Finally, Latour’s own response to his question of why Serres and other French writers cannot just ‘say what he means in plain language’ is that ‘what they have to say is that the plain language is to be transformed for something to be said’.11 In a 1987 interview with Geneviève James, Serres offers a similar explanation of his own style in The Five Senses. Insisting that ‘logic is inseparable from style’,12 he explains: I have tried to use 1) the composition and 2) the style that are the closest to the object and the theory, in order to obtain an effect of stained-glass or juxtaposition as in the facets of a fly’s eye, to achieve an effect of multiplicity.13

The aim is nothing less than to ‘make a book that is as faithful as possible to what we are describing’ and, as Serres points out, ‘that, after all, is what philosophy is’.14 Elsewhere, he broadens this principle to the whole to his work, explaining that ‘I try to adapt the way in which I speak and write to the phenomena that I strive to see and grasp’ (Pan 96).15 Commenting on the fly-like, exodic and seemingly random movement of his writing from one point to another, he explains that ‘it was necessary to find a new language’ because ‘the classical or technical style of philosophy . . . didn’t have the terms or operators capable of describing this method’ (Ec 108–9/C 71–2).16 It should therefore be no surprise to us that Serres cultivates his style so intentionally. He is, it will be remembered, seeking not merely to convey a list of facts or propositions but to ‘produce a global intuition, profound and sensible’

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Latour, ‘The Enlightenment without the Critique’, 96. Antonello, ‘Celebrating a Master’, 166. Rödel, Michel Serres, la sage-femme du monde, 7, 10. Latour, ‘The Enlightenment without the Critique’, 96. ‘la logique est inséparable du style’, Serres and James, ‘Entretien avec Michel Serres’, 793. ‘J’ai essayé d’utiliser 1) la composition, 2) le style les plus proches de l’objet et de la théorie, pour obtenir un effet de vitrail, ou de juxtaposition comme les facettes de l’œil de la mouche, pour avoir un effet de multiplicité’, Serres and James, ‘Entretien avec Michel Serres’, 795. ‘fabriquer un livre qui soit le plus fidèle possible de ce qu’on décrit. Et cela, ça s’appelle quand même de la philosophie’, Serres and James, ‘Entretien avec Michel Serres’, 795. ‘j’essaie d’adapter la manière dont je parle et j’écris aux phénomènes que je peine à voir et à saisir’. ‘le style classique ou technique de la philosophie, . . . n’avait pas de termes ou d’opérateurs qui permettaient de dire cette méthode . . . il fallait trouver une langue neuve’.

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(Ec 170/C 115),17 a way of holding oneself, bodily and intellectually, in the world, a material, imaginative, cognitive, corporeal disposition and a set of sensitivities from which flow assumptions, understandings, concepts and theories. For everyone, not just for Serres, the way we use language is a powerful influence upon, and reflection of, our way of inhabiting the world. Our vocabulary and its register, our intonations, the rhythms of our written and spoken sentences, the metaphors and images that help us to navigate the world, are tools with which we sculpt our experience and make sense of our lives. If we want to understand how someone sees the world, it pays to listen not just – and often not primarily – to what she says, but to how she says it. To be sure, Serres uses language to shape and express his global intuition in a more intense way than most, but the difference is one of degree, not of kind. The current chapter will examine Serres’s style in the context of his aim to produce a global intuition, moving through a series of increasingly broad perspectives: vocabulary, tropes, concepts, books, and his oeuvre as a whole. It will argue that the demand for Serres to speak plainly is an attempt to impose upon him the stylistic equivalent of the Cartesian umbilical thinking discussed in the preceding two chapters. Far from being an affectation or indulgence, Serres writes in the way that his global intuition demands. He also inhabits the global intuition that his style demands. What Style Is Serres Rejecting?

In coming to understand Serres’s style of thinking and writing it will be helpful to reflect upon the modes of expression he rejects: the Cartesian method of criticism, the institution of the academy, and recent Western academic language and conventions. Serres’s dismissal of the academy and its methods will no doubt seem over-dramatic to some, even bitter, but we would do well to see it in the context of the Leibnizianism discussed in Chapter 1, a disposition that seeks always to federate, to find analogies and links. Insofar as the academy shows itself to be implacably opposed to this Leibnizian spirit, Serres is implacably opposed to it. The method of critique

Serres is antipathetic to the method of critique characteristic of the human sciences, and in particular the ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’18 that dominated the intellectual 17

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‘mon but n’est pas d’avoir raison à toute force, mais de produire une intuition globale, profonde et sensée’. The ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’ is a term coined by Paul Ricoeur in Freud and Philosophy to describe a disposition common to the philosophies of Marx, Freud and Nietzsche. All three ‘begin with suspicion concerning the illusions of consciousness, and then proceed to employ the stratagem of deciphering’ (see Ricoeur, Freud and Philosophy, 34).

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landscape in France in the latter decades of the twentieth century and still exerts a powerful influence on academic method today. Critique is consumed in judging the work of others (Her 60), and within the university system the method of critique trains generations of judges, producing stadiums full of referees ready to blow the whistle at the slightest infringement, while the pitch remains empty of players (Ec 198/C 136). The practitioners of academic critique are priests of knowledge, pronouncing ex cathedra on orthodoxy and heterodoxy, or pathologically suspicious police officers who are always tracking and questioning anyone they see (PT 32; R 33/Rom 31). But what is wrong with priests, police officers, referees and judges? Six things. First, their methods are parasitic and avoid invention and creativity: they simply apply a pre-existing code to a case, deciding only between rule-following and rule-breaking (Her 61). While others get themselves dirty in the difficult tasks of production and creation, the critic preserves his immaculate, unsoiled hands (Ec 198/C 135). Serres warns his readers never to trust such clean-handed critics, for unlike Diogenes ‘they have abandoned neither coat, nor money, nor petty power nor their mediocre glory’ (OG 216/G 115; see also D 65–6).19 Secondly, critique is arbitrary. Proponents of one school criticise those of another in utterly predictable ways, like the baseball player denouncing the footballer for never scoring a home run.20 Thirdly, academic criticism and judgement are habitually turned against the weak, the distant and the dead, those who are unable to defend themselves against the scrutiny heaped upon them. Self-critique is a rare commodity, and the subjects of the human sciences are seldom the same as their objects: the Zulus do not hold classes about Western academic anthropologists (Her 63; see also MMT 201). Western dominance is no longer asserted through colonialism, but through theorisation, leading Serres to float the idea of a new human right not to be studied. Fourthly, critical analysis is also destructive, immobilising its object in order that it might be torn limb from limb: Cutting, deboning, plucking, skinning a chicken: these things are made all the easier by bleeding it to death beforehand so that it stays still while we try to understand what or who gives it life, this unprecedented invention. To distinguish is a trivial work, a dismemberment of reality. Adding, integrating, connecting, crossing, thinking: this is an often formidable work . . . inaccessible invention? 19 20

‘ils n’ont laissé ni manteau, ni argent, ni petit pouvoir ni leur gloire médiocre’. Readers from the United Kingdom will perhaps prefer the image of the cricketer criticising the rugby player for never playing a late cut.

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Découper, désosser, plumer, peler un poulet: choses d’autant plus faciles qu’auparavant on le saigne à mort pour qu’il ne bouge; tenter de comprendre quoi ou qui lui donne vie, invention inouïe. Différentier: travail trivial, désarticulation de la réalité. Sommer, intégrer, connecter, traverser, penser: œuvre souvent redoutable . . . invention inaccessible? (GB 228)

It divides and dissects to the point where it reduces its object to a powder, at the very moment when the great problems facing us require the forging of links and alliances (CN 172/NC 110). Our need is to integrate, but our only philosophies are philosophies of difference (H 56). Fifthly, not only does critique prey on its object, it also seeks to destroy its predecessors in a move reminiscent of the Cartesian tabula rasa discussed in Chapter 1. Each new critic earns his or her seat at the table by pointing out where the previous generation has failed, in a self-important temporal geocentrism (EHP 105): The hypocritical method consists of always placing yourself behind the other, thus creating a line. You must jump quickly to the end of the line, get behind that last person who has necessarily left his own back exposed, and then cover your own back for fear of being caught by whoever has understood the stratagem. (PT 33–4)

Our contemporary philosophy then is less one of suspicion and more one of denunciation (CN 12/NC 69) and – in what by any measure must count as one of Serres’s more extreme analogies – a human sacrifice: I no longer see any difference between the negative approach of the philosophers and the human sacrifices of the Aztecs tearing out a victim’s heart on a pyramid so the sun could rise. They too believed that death was within time, prime mover of the world and history. (D 53)

According to this macabre Serresian twist on the anxiety of influence, each new academic journey is launched by stepping over the dead and dismembered bodies of its predecessors. Sixthly, the delusional holy grail of this method is to find a position that escapes and rebuts all critique, to locate the end of the long chain of reason and finally close it in an impregnable circle (CS 542/FS 257; see also Ec 198–9/C 135-6, PT 34). But, of course, no such position can be found; every Socrates is vulnerable to his own dialectical method being turned back on him (TI 130–1/TK 81), and so the practitioners of the hermeneutics of suspicion find themselves embroiled in something resembling a cross between playground jape and a dystopian nightmare,

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‘looking over the shoulder of someone with something to hide’ which ‘immediately invokes a third person, who in turn looks over the shoulder of the second, who now is also under suspicion, and so on, ad infinitum’ (Ec 194/C 133–4).21 Each new philosopher, in turn, pretends that he has no shoulder to look over, that he ‘asks all the questions so that none can be asked of him’ (Ec 195/C 134),22 that he is himself beyond suspicion by virtue of the rigour and tenacity of his global scepticism, that he is the unguarded guard who will guard all the other guards. This method critiques everything but itself, presenting itself as the almost-universal solvent that dissolves everything . . . except its own rampant dissolution. Every possible betrayal is already predicted, every possible way of cheating is ‘always expected and accounted for’ (PT 34) from inside this theoretical panopticon. And what is the name for the one who can scrutinise all others but who cannot be scrutinised, the one who judges and guards all others but whom no one can guard, the one who looks over every shoulder but has no shoulder of his own? God. The institution of the modern university

Serres’s view of the institution of the university is, to put it mildly, rather dim. Along with media and publishing, the modern university is a ‘great mammoth’ and an ‘ideocracy’ that stifles creation and invention (TI 149–50/TK 93). As for academic titles, they are the university’s version of Emperor’s new clothes, so much ‘powder or foundation’ to cover the nakedness underneath, so many lies and cardboard appearances (TI 220/TK 145). Not only do campuses dismember the body of knowledge by housing disciplines in different buildings and structuring them in separate organisational groups, but like a cavalier butcher they further cleave the corpse into divided limbs through ‘break and distinction, separation or, in a word, sect, section and sex’ (Her 95).23 One means of exclusion and division is the proliferation of needless disciplinary jargon and the pomposity of ultra-technical Latinate vocabulary. Serres warns against the terror of lexica such as those of Sartre, Marx and Freud (EPF 65) that dominate philosophical discourse, denouncing them as an intellectual terrorism that ‘breeds fear and exclusion’ (Ec 41/C 24).24 Philosophical jargon has little to do with clarification but serves the twin aims of hiding a lack of genuine 21

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‘dans le dos de quelqu’un qui dissimule ou croit cacher quelque chose; or cette position renvoie, tout aussitôt, à un troisième personnage qui se placerait, à son tour, dans le dos de celui qui est déjà dans le dos du premier, pris la main dans un autre ou le même sac; et ainsi de suite’. ‘Il pose toutes les questions de sorte qu’on ne peut lui en poser aucune.’ ‘la coupure et la distinction, la séparation ou, pour tout dire d’un mot, la secte, la section et le sexe’. ‘Le vocabulaire ultra-technique engendre la peur et l’exclusion.’

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thought by providing the limping thinker with ‘the crutch of the concept’ (G 4, translation altered)25 while making a place for this or that thinker ‘on the stage of the learned’ [‘sur la scène des doctes] (AVN 127). Jargon serves to separate the true parishioners from the despised outcasts (CN 22–3/NC 7–8), and it is an ‘immoral’ practice that ‘prevents the majority from participating in the conversation, it eliminates rather than welcomes, and, further, it lies in order to express in a more complex way things that are often simple’ (Ec 42–3/C 25).26 It lies, Serres clarifies, not in its content but in its form, assuming and mandating that worthy ideas can only be expressed in initially impenetrable ways. The ganglands of academia are patrolled by posses of scholars who each use ‘a single key’, be it Marxist, psychoanalytic, semiotic or so on, ‘to open all doors and windows’ (Ec 137/C 91–2; see also Her 108–9).27 Academic departments similarly follow a particular theoretical school to the exclusion of others, in a perpetuation of war by other means. This weaponisation of scholarship leads, unsurprisingly, to the construction of knowledge as ‘an agonistic space of conflict, hostility and critique’28 (FS 8), with the result that ‘there is no difference between the purely animal or hierarchical customs of the playground, military tactics, and academic conduct’ because ‘the same terror reigns in the covered playground, in front of torpedo launchers, and on campus’ (TI 205/TK 134).29 All our language to describe arguments is from the lexicon of war,30 and in their wartime mentality the human sciences are too obsessed with winning and losing to make discoveries or even to think (PT 35). Desperate to defend their intellectual territory at all costs, ‘we often see discourses constituted with the sole aim of showing the nonvalidity of the discourse next door’ (R 310/Ro 210).31 This space of contestation and confrontation is not only martial but theological: ‘The history of doctrines and controversies faithfully copies that of religions, minutely divided into heresies, schisms, confessions and sects’ (GB 221).32 Philosophy and the 25 26

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‘le secours du concept’. My translation here is a paraphrase; ‘secours’ can mean ‘help’ or ‘support’. ‘Le vocabulaire technique, oui, me paraît même immoral, il empêche le plus grand nombre de participer à la conversation, il élimine plutôt qu’il n’accueille, et, de plus, il ment pour dire de façon très complexe des choses souvent simples.’ ‘ils utilisaient une seule clef pour ouvrir toutes les portes et fenêtres’. Connor, ‘Introduction’, 8. ‘il n’existe pas de différence entre les mœurs purement animales, c’est-à-dire hiérarchiques, de la cour de récréation, les tactiques militaires et les conduites académiques: il règne une même terreur sous le préau, devant les tubes lance-torpilles et sur les campus’. Lakoff and Johnson, Metaphors We Live By, 4–6. ‘Ainsi voit-on souvent des discours se constituer dans l’unique but de montrer la non-validité du discours d’à côté.’ ‘L’histoire des doctrines et des controverses mime, de même et fidèlement, celle des religions, minutieusement découpées en hérésies, schismes, confessions et sectes.’

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human sciences dethrone theology only to adopt its worst features: denunciation and the relentless purging of heretics. In a somewhat concessionary Churchillian moment, Serres does insist that despite modern academy being seemingly the worst of all possible institutions, ‘[t]he university model is the best possible model’ in the way that it brings together teaching and research (S&H 235–6). Nevertheless, the fact remains that he reserves some of his most acerbic, stinging invective for the modern university. Academic language and convention

In addition to excoriating the method of suspicion and the institution of the university, Serres despises the conventions of academic writing. He expresses an intense distaste, for example, for footnotes and citations.33 Footnotes are already scarce in Hermès III: la traduction (1974), Jouvences sur Jules Verne (1974) and Feux et signaux de brume: Zola (1975), and by the time of Le Parasite (1980) Serres has abandoned identifying his sources and intertexts in footnotes altogether. Looking back in 1997 on his early works, he finds them ‘too difficult, too tough, too inhibited, too protected in a huge armour of references and quotations’ (EHP 99).34 So now his approach has changed: ‘Now, I no longer use footnotes because I hate that gesture more and more.’35 Footnotes ‘disfigure volumes’ (TI 98–9/TK 58), vampirise the text (CS 367–8/FS 332) and render ‘the sequence of words ugly’ (R 17/Ro 5).36 In addition to their unpleasant aesthetic qualities, footnotes also impede the true aim of philosophy which, for Serres, is invention. Rejecting the academic convention of recycling old ideas in footnotes, Serres insists than ‘an excellent definition of good training – in philosophy and elsewhere’ is ‘start by being familiar with everything, then gradually forget everything’, because ‘the only serious thing is invention’ (Ec 38/C 22, translation altered).37 Dispensing with footnotes is part of this active forgetting. I confess to finding this particular Serresian antipathy a little overdone. Surely footnotes are in themselves not an intolerable affectation, though they can of course be used in such a way. Employed well they can be useful, and a courtesy to the 33

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Footnotes, indeed, like this one. For an explanation of why I am not writing this book on Serres in the same way that Serres himself writes, please see the Introduction. ‘trop difficiles, trop ardus, trop coincés, trop défendus dans une armature énorme de références et de citations’. ‘Maintenant, je ne mets plus de notes en bas des pages parce que je déteste de plus en plus cet effet-là.’ ‘Quelques références sont posées, en cas de besoin, au bas de la page, sans appel de note, de peur d’enlaidir la suite des mots par des chiffres.’ ‘Excellente définition de la bonne formation, en philosophie comme ailleurs! Tout connaître, pour commencer; ensuite commencer à tout oublier. . . . Il n’y a de sérieux que l’invention.’

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reader when they demystify an allusion or provide some bibliographical information on a point not discussed in the main text. Similarly, to avoid such footnotes can be an elitist refusal to help the less erudite.38 But academic style is one area in which Serres is in no mood to admit of nuance, and he holds his position against the humble footnote with all the ferocity of a rugby team defending wave after wave of attacks on their five metre line. A way to read this ferocity which is maximally favourable to Serres would, I think, emphasise the ‘global intuition’ he seeks to conjure in his writing. Extensive footnoting changes the rhythm and flow of a text, and as we shall see below rhythm and flow are exceedingly important not only for Serres’s style but also for his way of understanding and living in the world. In addition to footnotes, Serres has little positive to say about the modern academic convention of citation. It is necessary to know one’s sources, he affirms, but once one is no longer an apprentice one should leave direct citation behind (GB 5, 86). In delightfully colourful language, Serres denounces citation because it ‘is the mark of an uncultivated person, delayed digestion, the flatulent burp of the dyspeptic afflicted with aerophagia’ (CS 374/FS 338).39 The more citations appear in a text, the less work (œuvre) there is (JVSH 103). As with the rejection of footnotes, perhaps Serres presses his case a little too enthusiastically here. For example, the rejection of citations on the basis that ‘in an honest book the ideas come from the author’ (Ec 122/C 81)40 fails – or refuses – to acknowledge the great extent to which all thinkers, even the most original, are dependent on those who went before them, a point Serres is all too keen to make in his dismissal of those who divide time into the periods before their own work and after their messianic intellectual visitation (see Ec 211/C 145). Quotations like this are redolent of the same tabula rasa mentality that Serres denounces in Descartes. Could footnotes and citations not be used to show the percolation and topological folding of ideas across time in the textual dough? As the reader may have already sensed, there is a broader problem with Serres’s thought here. By so virulently critiquing the method of critique, by so resolutely excluding the logic of exclusion, is Serres’s dismissal of academic method and culture not open to the charge of tu quoque, as well as to that of being unnecessarily harsh? Yes and no. Yes, because Serres is not at his best when he is describing the positions with which he disagrees. His criticisms are important, but his one-sided 38

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Le Parasite, abounding in allusion as it does, would surely be easier to read if it had footnotes. The reader who does not recognise Serres’s allusive references will misunderstand a portion of the book’s argument, and much of its wit. See my ‘Michel Serres’s The Parasite’. ‘La citation marque l’inculture, le retard de digestion, le renvoi flatulent du dyspepsique affecté d’aérophagie.’ ‘dans un livre honnête, les idées viennent de l’auteur’.

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account of academia does risk coming across as resentful, whether or not that is his intention. He repeatedly acknowledges that modern academia is both the worst of all possible systems and the best one we have, and that there is much that is good and necessary in the method of critique, but his own language is too bellicose for his rejection of the paradigm of war not to seem a little conflicted. Rhetorically exaggerating the position of one’s antagonist is one reason why Serres dismisses academic practice, but it is a trait also to be found in that very dismissal. The question of whether Serres is being unnecessarily harsh can also be answered with a ‘no’ however. If we frame his blistering remarks within the context of his thought as a whole, where such comments are rare and do not reflect the dominant intellectual or stylistic tone of his writing, we might suspect that there is more to his invective than meets the eye. According to this more sympathetic reading, Serres is inhabiting the discourse of critique either by contagion or as a deliberate strategy to turn its own weapons against it, before laying down those weapons to pursue the federating, inventive thought which is more broadly characteristic of his writing. How each reader chooses to balance these two readings will, no doubt, speak eloquently about his or her own global intuition. The Very Idea of Style

Serres has been tarred with many ‘accusations of poetry’ over the years (Ec 70/C 44). The very idea that his writing is ‘literary’ or ‘poetic’ (even ‘shamelessly poetic’!41) usually makes one assumption that is fundamentally at odds with his way of thinking. It assumes that there is a ‘plain’, ‘no frills’ or zero degree style that communicates information without any poetic embellishment, needless imaginative digressions42 or ‘metaphorical pathos’43: a ‘just the facts, ma’am’ way of writing. This writing degree zero44 can then be embroidered, beautified or embellished in various ways, the theory goes, but these ways serve only to obscure the basic information conveyed. This literalistic fallacy is the stylistic equivalent of the umbilical thinking discussed at length in the previous two chapters. It takes one mode of writing or one style – let us call it the ‘unadorned style’ – and installs it as the origin and the truth 41 42 43 44

Rene ten Bos calls Serres’s style ‘shamelessly poetic’ in Bos, ‘Nawoord’, 187. Clark, ‘Aujourd’hui l’écologie?’, 119, quoted in Posthumus, ‘Vers une écocritique française’, 92. Roger, Court traité du paysage, 155, quoted in Posthumus, ‘Vers une écocritique française’, 92. The term ‘writing degree zero’ was coined by Roland Barthes to describe ‘a colourless writing, freed from all bondage to a pre-ordained state of language’ which ‘achieves a style of absence, which is almost an ideal absence of style; writing is then reduced to a sort of negative mood in which the social or mythical characters of a language are abolished in favour of a neutral and inert state of form’, Barthes, Writing Degree Zero, 76–7.

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of all other styles, against which all other ways of writing are to be measured. It is a position perhaps surprisingly taken by Martin Legros and Sven Ortoli, Serres’s interviewers in Pantopie. For Legros and Ortoli Serres’s books are: carried along by a literary ambition which doubles the demand of philosophy but to our taste sometimes plays tricks on him, bad tricks. By dint of crafting language like a poet, the thinker conceals his own concepts under a bountiful style, inventive though those concepts be. portés par une ambition littéraire qui double l’exigence philosophique mais parfois, à notre goût, lui joue des tours, des mauvais tours. À force de travailler la langue comme un poète, le penseur dissimule ses propres concepts, pourtant si inventifs, sous un style foisonnant. (Pan 8)

This is a very fine example of umbilical thinking.45 Note that Serres’s ‘literary ambition’ is thought to double (i.e. to be detachable from and in addition to) the ‘demand of philosophy’, and that it is taken to veil his own concepts which, presumably, would be much better expressed in a plain and straightforward way. Maria Assad also comes dangerously close to this approach when, in what appears to be a desire to defend Serres’s style to sceptical readers, she writes that: His ideas go through a series of images and stories before they are presented as such. His reader needs a sharp mental eye to catch them in their metaphorical stages in order to be receptive to an ‘odd’ or strange idea once it is formulated.46

This is the position that holds there is one (and only one) literal mode of expression, a set of ideas ‘as such’ that can ‘go through a series of images and stories’ as if they were donning various amusing but ultimately dispensable fancy dress costumes, or be presented in their plain and no-nonsense nakedness. It tends to the assumption that there is a pure mode of non-metaphorical expression – a mode, incidentally, which 45

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This is not an isolated example. Here is Keith Moser commenting on Maria Assad’s reading of Serres’s style: ‘As Maria Assad notes, although sometimes both Serres’s lyrical writing style in his later works and his innate cosmic predilections could give the reader the wrong impression about the intellectual rigor of his philosophy, one never has to dig that hard in order to exhume basic scientific principles’ (Assad, ‘Portrait of a Nonlinear Dynamical System’, 142, quoted in Moser, The Encyclopedic Philosophy of Michel Serres, 51). The equation of ‘rigour’ with ‘basic scientific principles’, and the location of these principles as the bedrock or foundation of Serres’s thought that has to be exhumed from under the poetic accretions, seems to me to betray Serres’s Leibnizian aspectualism. Assad, Reading with Michel Serres, 3.

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is suspiciously close to the culturally and geographically contingent conventions of much modern Western philosophical writing – that is valid for all subjects on all occasions, and compared with which all other modes of expression are metaphorical deviations and inessential embellishments. Transposing this same argument into the key of thermodynamics and the parasite that will be discussed more fully in Chapter 4, to argue that Serres’s style ‘hides its own concepts’ is to believe in the myth of a zero degree of pure communication free of all interference, all static (parasite, in French), a pure shaft of Platonic noonday sunlight in comparison to which all ‘poetic’ figures are merely unwelcome noise and shadow.47 So, in conclusion, if by ‘poetic style’ we mean a literal kernel plus the husk of unnecessary bells and whistles, then Serres’s style is not poetic. If we stubbornly maintain that ‘our’ way of writing is the only correct way, then in our self-satisfied umbilicism we will be frustrated by Serres’s ‘poetic’ style in the same way that we will find Lucretius and Plato in need of translation into more ‘proper’ philosophical discourse. Having paid to attend a ballet, we will express our indignation that we did not see a football match. Vocabulary

According to Serres himself, part of the reason that he has been accused (as if it were a crime!) of being a poetic writer is rather perverse. It is because he resolved to eschew technical vocabulary and ‘use more and more natural, everyday language’ (Ec 109/C 71–2; see also FPIC 59),48 and it is this natural language that is mistaken for ‘“poetic” effect – a strange accusation that I have suffered from and still do – not because I scorn poetry but because this is evidence of solid incomprehension’

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Cary Wolfe similarly does Serres’s style a disservice in his introduction the second edition of The Parasite: ‘Serres’s writing is so strange and so demanding. In fact, Serres’s work, in a profound sense, struggles against clarity, which is to say that it struggles, in a way, against language itself, [mis]understood as the more or less transparent and unproblematic transmission of conceptual and analytical content from writer to reader’ (Wolfe, ‘Bring the Noise’, xiii). Wolfe’s intention here is good, seeking to debunk the idea of a transparent and unproblematic language, but the suggestion that Serres’s writing ‘struggles against clarity’ is at odds with Serres’s aim to ‘make a book that is as faithful as possible to what is being described’ [‘fabriquer un livre qui soit le plus fidèle possible de ce qu’on décrit’], Serres and James, ‘Entretien avec Michel Serres’, 795. Serres is only struggling against clarity if Cartesian clarity is original and fundamental, if the Cartesian method is in fact umbilical. Serres’s claim is quite different: it is clarity itself that struggles against the complexity of the world, its aspectual pluralism, temporal percolations and topological foldings. It is Descartes who has to fight to rid his pomerium of all difference, whereas the variegated landscape burgeons with no need of intervention. ‘j’ai résolu, peu à peu, d’utiliser de plus en plus le langage naturel, celui de tous les jours’.

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(Ec 109/C 71–2).49 The incomprehension becomes a little more understandable, however, when we look at the sort of everyday language Serres uses. When Latour challenges him that his style is ‘considered difficult, elusive’, he replies that ‘I remain as much as possible in everyday language – I simply use it in all its amplitude’ (Ec 41/C 24).50 What this means is that, when he writes about sailing or woodwork, he uses the everyday vocabulary of the seaman and the carpenter, which to the rest of us may appear affected and forbidding: ‘The average reader may complain that he has to look things up in the dictionary, but the sailor and the carpenter will rejoice that they are respected’ (Ec 138/C 92).51 If our own area of expertise is misrepresented or improperly discussed we think it ignorance; if another’s area of expertise is properly discussed we dismiss it as obscurantism or affectation. There is a decidedly political dimension to Serres’s insistence on recondite language. He is acutely aware of the asymmetry and power dynamics at play even in the study and ‘protection’ of ‘endangered’ languages, and he impishly describes how [o]n the day that the university set aside funds for the participant-observer study of my ruined Occitan culture, I began to dream, with some vengefulness, I admit, of gathering a team of Pyrenean shepherds who would take the train for Paris and study the customs of the professors of the Collège de France, their cuisine (raw or cooked?), and their sexual habits. (MMT 201)

He is also painfully aware of the prejudices of institutions charged with the preservation and development of language. How can it be, for example, that the Gascon word ‘adischats’ or ‘adischatz’, spoken by six million French people as a way of taking leave of each other, finds no place in the Dictionnaire Robert and is considered among ‘provincial regionalisms, archaic and obsolete’ (MMT 203), while faux Anglicisms such as ‘winglet’ sit comfortably in its pages? The increasing insinuation of English into the Robert is for Serres a move in which we see the biter bit, where even the French language, dominant in relation to regional dialects and

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‘effet poétique, accusation étrange dont j’ai souffert et souffre encore, non que je méprise la poésie, mais qui témoigne d’une incompréhension dure’. ‘- Mais votre style est considéré comme difficile, comme exclusif.’ ‘- Je reste pourtant, autant que je le peux, dans le langage courant, mais je l’utilise dans son ampleur.’ ‘le lecteur moyen se plaindra peut-être d’avoir à chercher dans le dictionnaire, mais le marin et le charpentier se réjouiront qu’on les respecte’. Serres privileges the precise vocabulary of manual and artisanal pursuits as these provide a clearer and more immediate connection with bodily and material reality outside language. The precise language of the lawyer, the medic or – heaven forfend – the philosopher are not accorded similar treatment.

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accents, is under threat now from ‘the one exclusive communicative idiom’ of English (MMT 204; see also DT). The national company which forced the closure of the local firm is now under threat from the multinational corporation. For those unfamiliar with provincial French language or the vocabulary of sailing and carpentry, Serres’s ‘often difficult and unconventional vocabulary’ remains perhaps ‘the most striking surface feature’ of his writing.52 His recondite language is not the same as the technical academic jargon he so viscerally eschews, but it can have the same effect, increasing the perceived difficulty of his texts and asking more of his reader. So why does Serres do it? In addition to this determination to respect the professions about which he writes, there are at least three reasons. First of all, each profession, each mode of engagement with the world, has its own reality – its own ‘global intuition’ – that is reflected in the peculiarities of its vocabulary and style, and in taking care to adopt these specific lexica Serres is employing what we might call a ‘stylistic aspectualism’. To deny the unsubstitutable specificity of each regional language is to fall back into the imperialistic, all-encompassing theoretical abstraction that would run counter to Serres’s eschewal of the Cartesian universal in favour of finding unique and specific north-west passages: Just as the sailor does not become one unless he has felt his hammock rocked by all the oceans formed or not by local seas, the thinker tests thought by bathing in regional knowledge, just as he also tests his language by not being repulsed by the notion of writing the language of the tactician, the vagrant, the carpenter, the monk, the scholar. (TK 72) De même que le marin ne le devient que s’il a senti son hamac se balancer par tous les océans formés ou non de mers locales, de même le penseur éprouve la pensée baignant les sciences régionales, de même, aussi, fait l’épreuve de sa langue, en ne répugnant pas d’écrire celle du manœuvrier, du voyou, du charpentier, du moine, des savants. (TI 118)

To use a rich vocabulary is to affirm the irreducible specificity of unique regions of knowledge, a conviction that runs through Serres’s thought. Secondly, Serres is simply using precise terms to refer to objects and processes in order to avoid clouding the real with a vague fog of generalities. He prefers to call a spade a spade rather than a ‘tool’ or an ‘object’ in order ‘to get as close as possible to the beast in question’ (Ec 138/C 92).53 ‘I assure you’, he affirms to the sceptical 52 53

Paulson, ‘Writing that Matters’, 28–9. See also Harari and Bell, ‘Introduction’, xxxvii. ‘pour approcher de plus près la bête en question’.

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Legros and Ortoli, ‘that I try to tend towards clarity as much as I can’ (Pan 98).54 To generalise is to betray the clarity and specificity of the really existing material world as opposed to our mental models of it, so Serres operates under the writer’s motto ‘The richer his language, the more trustworthy his work’ (TI 118/TK 72)55 or, in William Paulson’s words, ‘[r]ichness and concreteness go hand in hand’.56 Thirdly, this care for precision has the effect of raising the reader’s consciousness. Preferring ‘dory’ or ‘skiff’ to the more familiar but non-specific ‘boat’ makes strange the object in question, causing the reader to notice it in a new way, giving it a new dignity of material individuality which, as we shall see in Chapter 5, is crucial to Serres’s project. Not only is the specific object given a new visibility however; language itself is also renewed. It is the philosopher’s task to ‘strive continually to bring ordinary language back to life’ (FPIC 60), and an author who employs neglected terms ‘forces readers to refer to the dictionary, but, in reviving language, he puts new life into it’ (Ec 41/C 24).57 Metalanguage

Hand in hand with Serres’s embrace of a range of precise, everyday languages is an antipathy to metalanguage. The terms that recur in his writing – the parasite, noise, translation, Hermes – have not ossified into the sort of signature concepts that attach themselves to other philosophers, such as ‘Epicurus’s clinamen, Descartes’ piece of wax, Rousseau’s general will, Merleau-Ponty’s flesh, Derrida’s deconstruction, René Girard’s mimetism, etc.’ (Pan 360).58 He is, furthermore (and perhaps predictably) quick to dismiss such signature concepts, arguing that ‘I have no logo, no brand’ (Pan 30)59 and ‘I avoid metalanguage, because usually it is only used for advertising. What’s the point of saying, “I just did this or that”? If one really does it, it’s obvious’ (Ec 136/C 91, translation altered).60 It is not quite correct, however, for Serres to say that he has no metalanguage, for as Bruno Latour rightly points out ‘[h]e does not use one metalanguage, but many’.61

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‘Je vous assure que j’essaie de tendre le plus possible vers la clarté.’ ‘Plus riche sa langue, plus loyal son travail.’ Paulson, ‘Swimming The Channel’, 25. ‘Il oblige à recourir au dictionnaire, mais, en le réveillant, il vivifie le langage’. ‘le clinamen d’Épicure, le morceau de cire de Descartes, la volonté générale de Rousseau, la chair de Merleau-Ponty, la déconstruction de Derrida, le mimétisme de René Girard, etc.’ ‘Je n’ai pas de logo, pas de marque.’ ‘j’évite le métalangage, parce que, le plus souvent, il sert seulement de publicité; à quoi bon dire: je viens de faire ceci ou cela? Si on le fait vraiment, cela se voit de soi.’ Latour, ‘The Enlightenment without the Critique’, 97.

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This is a further instance of opposing by generalising. If the aim (or at least the consequence) of employing a metalanguage is to institute an authoritative yardstick against which a body of work can be measured and to which it can be held, then multiplying metalanguages deprives any one language of this authoritative status. The reductive pull of metalanguages can be resisted either by futilely denying them, or by multiplying them; Serres opts for the latter approach. In opposition to an ossified metalanguage, Serres insists that ‘[y]ou have to invent a localised method for a localised problem. Each time you try to open a different lock, you have to forge a specific key, which is obviously unrecognizable and without equivalent in the marketplace of method’ (Ec 137/C 91–2).62 Serres is not of course unique in eschewing a stable metalanguage to describe his work. Derrida and Deleuze are both known for refreshing and re-imagining their language many times over the course of their careers, and to a lesser extent Foucault also changes his language as his method develops. So is there anything distinct about Serres in this respect? No and yes. No, because the way in which terms like ‘chaos’, ‘noise’ and ‘turbulence’ ‘emerge from a particular milieu’63 is not dissimilar to how notions such as ‘dissemination’ or ‘supplementarity’ appear in Derrida’s work, or ‘stratification’ and ‘rhizome’ in Deleuze’s. For all these thinkers, the terms they use are context dependent and are not intended to stand over their thought as sufficient descriptions of the whole. What Lucie Kim-Chi Mercier writes of Serres is true of them all: ‘one concept is overtaken by another, whose domain of reference overlaps with the former while leaving an irreducible remainder’.64 There is also a sense, however, in which Serres’s approach to metalanguage is distinct from that of his contemporaries. The difference – and this time it is a difference of degree, not of kind – is that the terms that describe Serres’s approach and the objects of his concern such as noise or the parasite lack the philosophical grandiosity of Deleuzian transcendental empiricism or Derridean dissemination and différance. While Serres has no metalanguage strictly speaking, he does take certain everyday words and invests them with new meaning. Patrick Rödel calls these his ‘crossroad-words’65 ‘these words whose territories Serres explores, drawing maps of their multiple meanings’,66 not so much concepts as source or prototype words, nodes of meaning where multiple senses intersect in a single term, such as ‘angels’, 62

63 64 65 66

‘Il faut inventer une méthode locale pour un problème local. Chaque fois qu’on cherche à ouvrir une serrure différente, il faut forger la clef spécifique, donc évidemment méconnaissable et sans équivalent sur le marché des méthodes.’ ‘émerge d’un milieu particulier’. Webb, ‘Penser le multiple sans le concept’, 92. Mercier, ‘The Mathematical Anamneses’, 52. See Rödel, Michel Serres, la sage-femme du monde, 142–62. ‘ces mots dont Serres explore les territoires et dessine la carte des significations multiples’, Rödel, Michel Serres, la sage-femme du monde, 18.

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‘hard/soft’, ‘music’, ‘passage’ and ‘percolation’.67 Rather than a ‘metalanguage’ these ‘crossroad-words’ would be better understood as a Serresian inter-language or meso-language, moving between different discourses and domains of thought with the exodic, procedural, topological speed of the fly. Finally, this movement itself is, in a strained sense, Serres’s metalanguage. Latour is partially correct when he suggests that Serres has ‘a metametalanguage, if we can call it that, which itself remains relatively stable’ (Ec 153/C 103),68 namely the repeated gesture of moving exodically or topologically from subject to subject. Latour is correct because there are indeed certain gestures or ‘figures of thought’ that characterise Serres’s global intuition. He is incorrect, however, in forcing the term ‘language’ to do duty for these figures. They describe the structure of Serres’s thought, not one of its models, and it would be better to call them a meso-grammar or even meso-syntax, emerging from the thought itself rather than being imposed on it from above. Prepositions

One way in which Serres stands alongside his philosophical contemporaries is in the manner in which he challenges the hegemony of the noun in the Western tradition. He shares with Derrida and Deleuze an aversion to considering the noun – and its counterpart, the stable object – as the fundamental unit of thought and existence. Like them he denounces the philosophy that thinks only in substantives and infinitives – ‘to be and to have, consciousness, nothingness, thought, will . . . nouns that are not declined, infinitives that are not conjugated’ (Pan 93)69 – and that throws all other language in the bin (Pan 95; see also TI 226/TK 149). These nouns are the ‘statues’ and ‘fetishes’ of philosophy (Ec 163/C 110), causing it to speak a telegraphic language – ‘Me arrive tomorrow’, ‘Me be ego’, ‘Being and nothingness’ – that Serres likens to playing the piano while wearing boxing gloves (Pan 94).70 This is no mere lexical bugbear; for Serres the preponderance of nouns and infinitives in philosophy reflects and informs a global intuition, including an ontology and a theology. He maps this philosophical style onto the declarative solar language of Plato and Descartes: Traditional philosophy speaks in substantives or verbs, not in terms of relationships. Thus, it always begins with a divine sun that sheds light on everything, with a beginning 67 68 69

70

Rödel, Michel Serres, la sage-femme du monde, 142. ‘un méta-métalangage, si l’on peut dire, qui lui demeure relativement stable’. ‘l’être et l’avoir, la conscience, le néant, la pensée, la volonté . . . Des substantifs qui ne se déclinent pas, des infinitifs qui ne se conjuguent pas.’ ‘« Moi arriver demain », « Moi être ego », « Être et néant ».’ The boxing glove image serves a double purpose. As well as being hopelessly undifferentiated, boxing gloves are a fitting image of the pugilistic disposition of [Cartesian] thought.

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that will deploy itself in history (finally standardised) or with a principle – in order to deduce, through logic, a generalised logos that will confer meaning on it and establish the rules of the game for an organised debate. (C 101) La philosophie traditionnelle parle par substantifs ou verbes, non par relations; donc elle part toujours d’un soleil divin qui éclaire tout, d’un commencement, qui va se déployer dans l’histoire enfin normée, ou d’un principe, pour se déduire par la logique, d’un logos en général qui lui confère le sens, de règles du jeu pour organiser un débat. (Ec 150)

As Maria Assad explains, the solar noun enjoys an ‘overriding authority’ and ‘names everything in imitation of divine creativeness’.71 This dismissal of the monolithic substantive would not be out of place in a text by Derrida or Deleuze, but Serres’s response to it differs markedly from theirs. Whereas Derrida in Of Grammatology destabilises the noun by putting it under erasure and, in his later writing, by hemming it around with constructions such as ‘x without x’ and caveats like ‘if there is such a thing’, and whereas Deleuze in The Logic of Sense prefers the dynamism of the verb to the stasis of the noun and the logical proposition,72 Serres for his part privileges the preposition, a word class used particularly in the French language (PC).73 While we will sadly now never see the publication of what Serres has called his ‘dream book’ book on prepositions,74 we can reconstruct the crucial role they play in his thought from scattered references throughout his writing. Prepositions are attractive to Serres because they transform things and describe topological transformations. Every preposition lends itself to federating without excluding or denying, describing ‘the possibility of a relation, a bending, a declension, more complicated than it is, but perhaps in part composed from it at the outset’ (At 80).75 They are procedural, declaring ‘almost nothing’ while they ‘affect the 71 72

73

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Assad, Reading with Michel Serres, 28. See, for example, Deleuze’s discussion of the proposition ‘the tree is green’ and the verbal structure ‘the tree greens’ in the chapter ‘Third Series of the Proposition’, in Deleuze, The Logic of Sense, 12–22. Jean-Luc Nancy also gives a central role to the proposition ‘towards’ (à) in Adoration, arguing that the movement towards the incommensurable, which he calls the ‘hi!’ [‘salut!’], precedes every address. The important difference between Nancy’s and Serres’s use of prepositions is that for Nancy the preposition ‘towards’ finds its valence in the context of incommensurability, whereas what makes sense of Serres’s prepositions is topology. See Nancy, L’Adoration, 28–9/Adoration, 17–18. ‘My dream book, that I was never able to finish, is about prepositions’; ‘Le livre de mes rêves, que je n’ai jamais pu finir, porte sur les prépositions’ (Pan 94). In Conversations Serres tells Latour that ‘I’m working on a book I will describe as being on prepositions’ (C 101); ‘Je prépare, pour le décrire, un livre sur les prépositions’ (Ec 150). ‘la possibilité d’une relation, d’une flexion, d’une déclinaison, plus compliquées qu’elle, mais, peut-être, composées à partir d’elle’.

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destiny of all whom they visit’ (LDA 147/AMM 147; see also EPF 50).76 Indeed, they are language’s capital, its ‘general equivalent’ (GB 126) of potential that can be concretised into any form. As such, prepositions ‘describe . . . the set of possible procedures’ and trace the fundamental web of all relations: ‘Toward’ goes to the end on the route, ‘for’ accompanies, in the neighbourhood, ‘by’ goes around obstacles . . . The web that they deploy and that they knot between themselves sketches the linguistic or a priori form of all our webs. « Vers » va au but sur la voie, « pour » accompagne, dans le voisinage, « par » passe sur les obstacles . . . Le réseau qu’elles déploient et qu’elles nouent entre elles dessine la forme a priori ou linguistique de tous nos réseaux. (Pr xvii–xviii)

Semantic meaning is declarative, but prepositional meaning is directional, spatial and temporal; it produces meaning not as a series of immoveable land masses but as the shifting relations and flows of an ocean. In Angels: A Modern Myth Serres identifies prepositions as angels (LDA 142/AMM 141), shuttling between and among, travelling towards and away from. Declarative thought by contrast is the language of the substantive, immoveable God, never his angels (S 314/FS 286). In dismantling philosophy’s pompous nouns and infinitives and replacing them with supple prepositions Serres is also rejecting ‘an infinitive and substantive language no one can speak without laughing’ in favour of ‘a sayable language close to those real ones we speak’ (In 320/Inc 180).77 A prepositional orientation provides a rich and supple framework for thought in which ‘a thousand spatio-temporal situations proliferate, different from those of for and against, a hundred positions far removed from power and subjection, logics different from those of belongingness’ such that ‘flexible and modal, philosophy finally embraces the real and the living’ (In 318/Inc 179, translation altered; see also GB 175).78 Taken together, prepositions encompass the universal topological variety that Serres’s philosophy seeks to approach, ‘as if they indexed a pre-space, before any possible itinerary’ (GB 126).79 They also trace the panoply of vectors that thinking can follow: ‘I live and think in and outside, with and among, by 76 77

78

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‘déclinent le destin de tous ceux qu’ils visitent’. ‘Tant que la philosophie invente des concepts, elle construit une langue infinitive et substantive que nul ne parle sans rire. À reconnaître les espaces et les temps qui conditionnent les positions, elle reconstruit, par ces prépositions, une langue dicible proche de celles, réelles, que l’on parle.’ ‘Ainsi prolifèrent mille situations spatio-temporelles autres que celles du pour et du contre, cent positions éloignées du pouvoir et de la sujétion, des logiques différentes de celles de l’appartenance; flexible et modale, la philosophie épouse enfin réel et vivant.’ ‘comme si elles indexaient un pré-espace, avant tout itinéraire possible’.

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and for, on and under, from and towards, I think and live between’ (GB 126).80 In short, when it is animated by prepositions ‘[t]hinking does not settle down [se pose], it indicates [se prépose]’ (GB 175).81 Prepositions also organise Serres’s own writing: each of my books describes a relationship, often expressed by a unique preposition . . . Inter-ference, for the spaces and times that are between; communication or contract for the relation expressed by the preposition with; translation for across; the para-site for beside . . . and so on. Statues is my counter-book and asks the question: What happens in the absence of relations? (C 101)82 chacun de mes livres décrit une relation, souvent exprimable par une préposition singulière . . . L’inter-férence, pour les espaces et les temps qui se trouvent entre, la communication ou le contrat, pour la relation exprimée par la préposition avec, la traduction, pour à travers . . . le para-site, pour à côté de . . ., et ainsi de suite. Statues est mon contre-livre, et pose la question: que se passe-t-il en l’absence de relations? (Ec 151)

Serres’s turn to prepositions is not just a matter of style; it facilitates a radically different imperative that ‘thinks without reference: by relations, speaks by flexions or declensions, by the means of prepositions’ (At 65).83 Tropes

In addition to his specific vocabularies, his resistance to metalanguage in favour of a meso-grammar and his insistence on the importance of prepositions, Serres also employs an impressive range of literary tropes in his writing: allusion and wordplay, overdetermined terms, metaphor and discussions of etymology, subversions of well-known phrases, dialogue, personal anecdotes, lists, passages of description, stories, myths and distinctive rhythms. Though examples of such tropes might be found in other recent thinkers, rare is the writer who employs such a wide range, or employs it so consistently, as Serres. In this section I will briefly discuss and analyse each of Serres’s major tropes.

80 81 82 83

‘Je vis et pense dans et hors, avec et parmi, par et pour, sur et sous, de et vers, je pense et vis entre.’ ‘La pensée ne se pose, elle se prépose.’ In addition, he characterises Habiter as a book of dans, hors and par (H 20). ‘pense sans référence: par relations, parle par flexions ou par déclinaisons, au moyen des prépositions’.

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Allusion

Serres’s books drip with allusions. This is a widespread feature of his writing, but a handful of examples will give an indication of its extent.84 He writes a whole section of The Parasite around Rousseau’s Confessions without directly naming either the author or the book. In The Five Senses he critiques Merleau-Ponty and phenomenology without mentioning them by name; in Feux et signaux de brume the discussion moves from novel to novel of Zola’s in a way that expects the reader to keep up by catching a casual mention of a character’s name or a brief description of a significant event. The unsuspecting reader can be left wondering for paragraphs on end whether or not such transitions have occurred. As well as such sustained discussions, Serres’s texts from the mid-1980s onwards are full of micro-allusions. In the space of two sentences he can make fleeting reference to the Dead Sea Scrolls and Newton’s apple tree, without mentioning either.85 Serres also demands a biblical literacy of his reader, sprinkling references such as ‘the wind comes from where it will, blows where it will’ (P 55/Par 38)86 or ‘fat cows and lean cows’ (P 181/Par 155).87 He mentions in passing Montaignan loci classici – ‘choose a teacher who has a smart head rather than a full head’88 and ‘the world is but a perennial see-saw’89 (P 33/Par 20); he alludes to La Fontaine’s fable ‘The Grasshopper and the Ant’ [‘La Cigale et le fourmi’] through rewriting its line ‘I sang, if you please’ [‘Je chantais, ne vous déplaise’] as ‘Night and day, like the grasshopper, he sings, if you please’ [‘Nuit et jour, à tout venant, il chante, ne vous déplaise’] (P 114/Par 84, translation altered). 84

85

See my reader’s companion to Le Parasite (Le Parasite de Michel Serres) for a near-exhaustive account of the allusions in that volume. The sentences in question are from Le Parasite: The first shepherd lays his hands on the treasure of the scrolls found in the cave; there are a hundred thousand. Now, with electronics and inter national relations, you glean rare, scattered, barely noticeable atoms of letters. Newton under the apple tree, all alone, gives the law of the world, leaving only a few marginal scraps for his innumerable offspring. (Par 17) Le premier berger met la main sur le trésor de manuscrits, dans la grotte, ils sont cent mille, maintenant, avec l’électronique et les relations internationales, à grappiller des atomes de lettres, rares, éparses, insensées. Un solitaire promeneur, sous le pommier, dit la loi du monde, il laisse quelques marginales bribes à l’innombrable queue de sa suite. (P 29)

86 87 88

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‘le vent vient d’où il veut, souffle où il veut’. ‘les vaches grasses et vaches maigres’. Screech, Michel de Montaigne, 168, translation altered; ‘choisir un conducteur qui eut plutôt la tête bien faite que bien pleine’, de Montaigne, ‘De l’institution des enfants’, 150. Screech, Michel de Montaigne, 907; ‘Le monde n’est qu’une bransloire perenne’, de Montaigne, ‘Du repentir’, 804.

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Bruno Latour captures well the scope and effect Serres’s allusive style: When you read his commentary of La Fontaine’s Fables, you always wonder where are the fables he is talking about. When you read his description of Auvergne’s landscape or of the North-West Passage, you are never presented with a textual substitute for them. When Carnot’s thermodynamics is put to use in order to understand Zola, neither of them is first explained to you.90

So why does Serres ask so much of his reader? In part – but only in part – it is the price to pay for throwing overboard the ballast of academic paratext, the footnotes and reference list that would ordinarily provide a context and paper-trail for a book’s intertexts.91 But even without heavy footnotes Serres could still drop in the name of the author he is discussing. Why doesn’t he? What would he lose by doing so? The best answer, I suspect, is that it has to do with the flow and rhythm of the text, with the effect of a vague echo or a half-remembered quotation in the reader’s mind, the way in which it evokes the incipient orderliness or rhythm of thought that will be discussed briefly at the end of this section and then more fully in Chapter 4. Serres’s writing does not merely present us a description of the world; it invites us to participate in the world’s flows, echoes and foldings. Wordplay: homophony and metaphor

While Serres’s wordplay is not as pronounced as Derrida’s, it is an important if punctual feature of his writing. In Atlas, for example, he lets himself be taken along by the homophony of boulanger (baker), bouger (to move), bulle (a bubble), bouillir (to boil), bouillon (a broth or stock) and boule (a ball): So let us open this little oven: the boulanger makes bread in balls, through well-defined movements that science is beginning to describe but that common language, finding itself once again ahead of learned discourse, calls moving. In the aforementioned box, a single word is repeated and says it all: to make the ball, the boulanger moves. By what movement? Precisely the one that you notice in a boiling liquid: there is the same word again. So trace the movement of the bubbles in a broth, and you will have spoken both the thing and the idea, while taking a semantic survey of the common word: it brilliantly describes boiling which, through the trajectories of the bubbles that move, constitutes the global and unitary ball. (CW’s emphasis) 90 91

Latour, ‘The Enlightenment without the Critique’, 97. In my own attempt to grapple with the multiple allusions of Le Parasite I produced such a document, ‘Michel Serres’s The Parasite’.

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Ouvrons donc ce petit four: le boulanger fabrique le pain en boule, et il y parvient par des mouvements bien définis que la science commence à décrire, mais que la langue populaire, en avance sur les doctes, comme il arrive, appelle bouger. Dans ladite boîte, un seul mot se répète et dit tout: pour faire la boule, ce boulanger bouge. Par quel mouvement? Exactement celui que vous observez dans un liquide qui bout: revient encore le même mot. Désignez donc le mouvement des bulles dans un bouillon, et vous aurez dit et la chose et l’idée, en faisant le tour de l’aire sémantique du mot populaire: génialement, il décrit l’ébullition, qui, par les trajets des bulles qui bougent, constitue l’unitaire et globale boule. (At 107)

The homophony in this passage recreates the rapid movement of a boiling fluid and the repeated folding of pastry preparation. Other examples of wordplay reinforce an argument Serres is making. As Patrick Rödel argues, the assonance of ‘métrisable’ (measurable) and ‘maîtrisable’ (manageable, masterable) in a discussion of Descartes makes the point that Cartesian geometry is a weapon to subjugate the natural world and make humanity its ‘master and possessor’.92 In L’Hermaphrodite Serres discusses the internal palindrome in the word ‘Sar-ras-ine’, its meaning ‘the two in him or in her’ (Her 74)93 and its partial homophony with his own name ‘Ser-res-ine’ (Her 74). Both Sarrasine and Serres himself are thwarted left-handers, forced into a bilateral, ambidextrous existence that is figured in the internal mirroring in their names. Furthermore, if Serres is arguing – as he is – that ‘everywhere everything is just as it is here . . . Except that the degrees of grandeur and beauty change’ (TI 11/TK xiii),94 then we should not be surprised that one of his tropes of choice is the metaphor. As Andrew Gibson notes, ‘[t]he mixed or destabilised metaphor seems to me to be cardinal to Serres’s work’, and his willingness to mix metaphors in what he calls ‘cross-metaphorisation’ drives forward his thought by tracing new sets of relations.95 Lists

One feature of Serres’s writing that adds to its ‘poetic’ effect and reinforces the specificity of his vocabulary is his lists that, by concatenating precise terms, draw the reader to reconsider and linger on the objects he is describing. For example, in Biogea he characterises the new aesthetic that he is seeking as: marine, land, air, burning, living, plant, floral, fertile, leafy, bushy, exuberant, animal, female, faunlike, fecund, bifurcating, proliferating, seasonal, womblike, diverse, 92 93 94

95

Rödel, Michel Serres, 17–18. ‘des deux en lui ou en elle’. ‘tout est partout comme ici, en tout identique à ce qu’on peut voir à l’ordinaire sur le globe terraqué. Sauf que changent les degrés, de grandeur et de beauté.’ Gibson, ‘Serres at the Crossroads’, 91.

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composite, disparate, fragrant, winey, singing, dancing, enthusiastic, animated, whirling . . . loving and human. (Bio 182) marine, terrienne, aérienne, brûlante, vive, végétale, florale, fertile, touffue, buissonnante, exubérante, animale, femelle, faunèsque, féconde, bifurquante, proliférante, saisonnière, matricielle, diverse, composite, disparate, odorante, chantante, enthousiaste, animée, tourbillonnante . . . amoureuse et humaine. (Bi 155)

This discontinuous juxtaposition, constantly threatening to break out in repeated alliteration or assonance but always stopping just short or ebbing away, mirrors the modulations of the background noise so crucial to Serres’s understanding of language (see Chapter 4). He also uses concatenation to evoke abundance, as when he describes an orphic journey which ‘is reborn, resurges, re-lives, recreates, composes, abounds, sings, thinks, calculates, cries, climaxes’ (Mus 47).96 Pierre-Marc Gendron has it right: this is not a style that imitates nature, but that participates in and performs its rhythms.97 Etymologies and lexical fields

Argument from etymology is infrequent in Serres’s writing, but it is by no means absent. In line with his disposition to find unexpected relations between seemingly distant ideas, he often draws attention to the common etymologies of seemingly unrelated words, for example ‘rive’ (the bank of a river) and ‘rival’ (rival), or ‘page’ (page) and ‘païen’ (pagan) which both derive from the Latin pagus (a field). ‘Contrat’ (contract), from con- (together) and trahere (to drag or draw) draws together its participants, setting off in The Natural Contract a series of images of tethering: a moored ship, a mountaineering party roped together, oxen drawing a plough (NC 103–11/CN 62–8). Like others before and after him Serres lays stress on the etymology of ‘sujet’ (subject, subjectum in Latin): ‘sub-’ meaning underneath and ‘-jectum’ from ‘iacere’, to throw. His distinctive spin on this etymology is to identify this figure of the subject as one thrown underneath, like Tarpeia under the pile of shields,98 dying when she receives what, au pied de la lettre, she desired. 96

97 98

‘renaît, rejaillit, revit, recrée, compose, surabonde, chante, pense, calcule, pleure, jouit’. Further lists I have noted in my reading of Serres can be found on 5S 28, 122-3, and VC 11. Gendron, ‘Le Voyage extraordinaire’, 268. Tarpeia was tricked. She offered the Sabine army entry into the city of Rome in exchange for ‘what they bore on their left arms’, by which she meant their jewellery. They agreed, and duly threw on top of her their weighty shields, carried on their left arms, under the accumulated weight of which she suffocated and died. Her body was posthumously thrown off the Capitoline Hill, thereafter called the Tarpeian Rock. See Morford and Lenardon, Classical Mythology, 536–7.

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Genesis and The Parasite exploit the multiple senses of the term ‘noise’, ‘an old word, from old French, that speaks of noise and fury, the tumult of things and the hatred of men. Noise designates the chaos’ (P, back cover; see also Ge 31/Gen 12–13).99 These senses are woven together in Serres’s description of the chaotic-creative background noise of the world. Similarly, he leans on the diverse lexical field of the French ‘parasite’, which can mean an uninvited dinner guest, an organism which lives on and draws nutrients from a host, or the interference that disrupts a signal as it travels along a channel between a source and a receiver. The Cartesian ‘cogito’ derives from agere, to herd an unruly flock of sheep (Pan 366–7; see also GB 43). When two such flocks are combined, there results a compound shepherding: co-agere. Serres deploys this etymology in two ways. First, he reimagines what it is to think: ‘The origin of the verb “to think” is: I cannot master the multiplicity of ideas that rush into my head’ (Pan 366),100 and he paints a picture of the Cartesian philosopher as a hapless, Chaplinesque shepherd driving his wayward flock through ravines and across exposed mountainsides, between glaciers and wolves. Better the Leibnizian pluralism that embraces the profusion of thought: ‘Descartes said cogito; Leibniz, who was more of an expert in etymology, responded: a multiplicity of thoughts pass through me’ (ESP 74).101 Secondly, he turns this new understanding of thinking back on the Cartesian cogito. Descartes may think that he has become the master of his thoughts, but ‘simply by saying “cogito” he admits that he is not their master’ (Pan 366).102 Rewriting well-known dicta

One of Serres’s most characteristic, subversive and also entertaining stylistic traits is his repeated rewriting of well-known phrases and sentences from the history of philosophy. This riffing on canonical quotable quotes is undoubtedly playful and has a light mocking edge to it, but it also serves to question common assumptions and highlight unexpected affinities between ideas. Some of these riffs are local and intended to make a point in the unfolding of a particular argument, like turning Heraclitus’s ‘I never step into the same river twice’ into ‘I can never sit twice on the same bank’ (NP 188–9/BOP 152–3), or transforming Hobbes’s ‘man is a wolf [loup] to man’ into the parasitic ‘man is a louse [pou] to man’ (P 12/Par 5). 99

100

101

102

‘un vieux mot, de l’ancien français, qui dit le bruit et la fureur, le tumulte des choses et la haine des hommes. Noise désigne le chaos.’ ‘L’origine du verbe « penser » c’est: je ne peux pas maîtriser la multiplicité des idées qui se pressent dans ma tête.’ ‘Cogito, disait Descartes; passent en moi une multiplicité de pensées, répondait Leibniz, plus expert en étymologie.’ ‘rien que de dire “cogito”, c’est l’aveu qu’il ne les maîtrise pas’.

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Other rewritings are sustained across texts and over time. Serres repeatedly, almost obsessively, rewrites Descartes’s ‘I think therefore I am’. Among the cornucopia of riffs on this phrase (I have counted at least sixteen different variations across Serres’s oeuvre), here are some of the most notable: • To think in the Cartesian sense is to die to the real world, the world of noise and confusion: ‘The more I think, the less I am; the more I am I, the less I think and act’ (VSC 10/VB 7).103 • Thinking is not an isolated pursuit, as Descartes envisaged, but something that federates and draws me towards others, even at the expense of myself: ‘I think, therefore I flow into an other’ (Bi 33/Bio 30).104 • Thinking is embodied and situated in a landscape, not an exclusively rational and intellectual pursuit as Descartes supposes: ‘I taste therefore I exist locally. . . . I taste, therefore a fragment of my body exists: mouth, head, mask, wolf’ (CS 242/FS 224–5, translation altered).105 • Thinking does not consist in following a method or rules, but in inventing: ‘I think therefore I invent, I invent therefore I think: the only proof that a scientist works or that a writer writes’ (TI 147/TK 93).106 • Thinking is about branching, changing direction: ‘We think therefore we are like trunks and branches. To think, become a tree’ (GB 23).107 • Finally, Serres uses Descartes’s formula to critique contemporary society: ‘in our societies, Cartesian meditations are soon written: I am rich, therefore I am’ (P 308/Par 229).108 Another favourite Serresian riff is from Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origins of Inequality: ‘The first person who, having fenced off a plot of ground, took it into his head to say this is mine and found people simple enough to believe him, was the true founder of civil society’.109 Serres leaves his reader in no doubt as to his profound distaste for this fencer, rewriting the phrase it in several different ways. He critiques the Cartesian 103 104 105

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‘Plus je pense, moins je suis; plus je suis je, moins je pense et moins j’agis.’ ‘je pense, donc je me jette dans un autre’. ‘Je goûte donc j’existe localement. . . . Je goûte donc existe un fragment de corps: bouche, masque, tête, loup.’ ‘Je pense donc j’invente, j’invente donc je pense: seule preuve qu’un savant travaille ou qu’un écrivain écrit.’ ‘Nous pensons, donc nous sommes comme des troncs et des branches. Pour penser, deviens un arbre.’ ‘dans nos sociétés, les méditations cartésiennes sont bientôt écrites, je suis riche donc je suis’. Rousseau, The First and Second Discourses, 141. ‘Le premier qui, ayant enclos un terrain, s’avisa de dire: Ceci est à moi, et trouva des gens assez simples pour le croire, fut le vrai fondateur de la société civile’, Rousseau, Discours sur l’origine, et les fondements de l’inégalité parmi les hommes, 164.

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tabula rasa approach to history when he writes ‘The first one who, having enclosed a field or bit of land, decided to exclude everything there, was the true founder of the following historical era’ (P 239/Par 178; see also OG 49/G xliii),110 and he highlights the atomising tendency of analytic thought with the words ‘The first priest . . . who, having enclosed a plot of ground, found his neighbours satisfied with the borders of their common enclosure, was the true founder of analytic thought’ (CN 89/NC 53; see also OG 318/G 196).111 He re-frames Rousseau’s phrase as a critique of intellectual culture with the words ‘the first one who, having enclosed a plot of land thought to say, this is such and such a property, and found people shrewd enough to believe him, was the real founder of intellectual society’ (ESC 36),112 and he uses it to highlight the importance of passages as well as enclosures: The master makes a hole in the hedge so that the dogs can pass through, so that relations can be established, so that he can leave the garden on horseback. Master of the closed, master of the open. Of what was the first founder the first when he, having made a hole in a hedge that enclosed an area, said: this is my passage, finding gardeners weak enough to believe him, to allow him to do it, indeed, to call it such? (Par 84, translation altered) Le seigneur troue la haie pour que passent les chiens, pour établir des relations, pour sortir du jardin à cheval. Maître de l’enclos, maître de l’ouvert. De quoi fut le vrai fondateur le premier qui, ayant troué une haie qui fermait un enclos, s’avisa de dire: ceci est mon passage, et trouva des jardiniers assez faibles pour le croire, pour le laisser faire, voire pour l’appeler? (P 114)

In Malfeasance, where he rewrites the phrase no less than nine times, he uses it to criticise the logic of rivalry, the accumulation of capital, and the advertising industry, to equate property with soiling, and also to suggest that the gesture of soiling undermines the very closure that it seeks to establish. Finally, at the end of Malfeasance, he rewrites Rousseau’s sentence in a more positive way: ‘The first who, having enclosed a garden, decided to say “This is enough” and remained egonomous without drooling on more space, made peace with his neighbours and 110

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‘Le premier qui, ayant enclos un terrain ou un champ, s’avisa d’exclure tout ce qui était là, fut le vrai fondateur de l’ère historique suivante.’ ‘Le premier prêtre qui, ce bout à la main, ayant enclos un terrain, trouva ses voisins satisfaits des bords de leur clôture commune, fut le vrai fondateur de la pensée analytique, et, à partir d’elle, du droit et de la géométrie.’ ‘le premier qui ayant enclos un terrain s’avisa de dire: ceci est de propriété telle et telle, et non d’autres, et trouva des gens assez avisés pour le croire, fut le vrai fondateur de la société intellectuelle’.

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retained the right to sleep peacefully, to have warmth plus the divine right to love’. That is the Michel Serres version of Jean-Jacques. (Mal 86) « Le premier qui, ayant enclos un jardin, s’avisa de dire: ‘Ceci me suffit’, et demeura égonome sans baver sur plus d’espace, fit la paix avec ses voisins et garda le droit tranquille de dormir, de se chauffer, plus le droit divin d’aimer. » Voilà du Jean-Jacques en version Michel Serres. (MP 115)

In addition to these examples from Descartes and Rousseau, Serres also regularly riffs on the words of John 1 ‘In the beginning was the Word’: in the beginning was chaos ( JJV 256), the echo, imitation, bifurcation (Ge/Gen), the river (Pan 19), ichnography, the blank, the victim, violence, the point and the instant, the Eucharist, satire, non-standard multiplicity, plague, dancing, bifurcation, the black box and Albula (R/Rom), production, noise, murder action and hatred (P/Par), chaos, void, cataract, the fall and chance (NP/BOP ), the tohu-bohu, the undifferentiable,113 the cloud, storms and distribution (H4 9). Other scattered riffs include variations on Camus’s ‘We must imagine Sisyphus happy’ (Gen 195/Ge 123), and Pascal’s ‘the eternal silence of the infinite spaces frightens me’ (NP 51/BOP 38). What is Serres doing in and through these riffs? We can begin by noting that he primarily rewrites phrases with which he profoundly disagrees. There is something of the spirit of 1968, something of the situationist détournement in Serres’s riffs, the literary equivalent of drawing a goatee on the Mona Lisa or scrawling Communist slogans in speech bubbles coming out of the mouths of characters on Parisian advertising hoardings. Serres, in the very moment he rejects Rousseau’s account of private property, breaks and enters Rousseau’s Discourse, leaving his own parasitic graffiti tag on one of its most memorable phrases. Serres is not one of those who is ‘stupid enough to believe’ the one who says ‘this is mine’, and his riffs demonstrate this. Stories and myths

The reader of modern Western philosophical texts who comes to Serres’s writing for the first time will be struck both by the number and the nature of the stories with which he sprinkles his writing, sometimes literary, sometimes mythological and sometimes anecdotal. They appear consistently throughout his work, although they are more prominent in some texts than others. Angels is written entirely in

113

The French ‘l’indifférenciable’ is a similarly esoteric word.

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the form of a conversation; Biogea is predominantly in the first person and contains many anecdotes; The Five Senses begins with a striking story of trying to escape a burning ship, and surely no Serresian text is more layered with palimpsests of myths interacting with each other on many levels than The Parasite, in which for Steven Connor ‘everything is fable’.114 Serres’s stories do not merely serve an illustrative or supplementary purpose and are not always framed by less ‘literary’ passages explaining their meaning in ‘plain’ language. As befits his aspectual pluralism they do their own work in their own way, not relying on any other discourse to translate them. Indeed, Serres often seems readier to turn to narrative than to theoretical prose. Take, for example, the allusions and intertexts of The Parasite, from La Fontaine, Rousseau and Xenophon to Fellini, Molière, Genesis and Juvenal. Steven Connor argues that The greatest difficulty presented to the reader of The Parasite is distinguishing the fable from the fabled. Are these stories of feasts and interruptions just fabulations of the abstract mathematics of information theory? Or are those equations modelling of [sic] the logic of the fables?115

Connor does not explicitly answer his own question, but the implied response is that the stories in the text are a model of mathematics, and mathematics is in turn a model of the stories. There is no umbilical discipline, and both mathematics and fabulation speak an irreplaceable but isomorphic aspect of truth. In La Guerre mondiale Serres explains that, though novelists are often despised by theoreticians, ‘their imagination seemed to me often to penetrate deeper into the anthropological truth than many historical or philosophical documents’, and ‘the detail of stories enlightens more, and better, than the mediation of the concept’ (GM 20).116 Theoretical language may suffice for the as yet unrefined adolescence of thought, but ‘the more experience comes with age, the more admiration for literature grows’ (GM 20).117 This recourse to literary storytelling should not be understood as a condemnation of theoretical thought, but as a recognition that it offers one aspect of truth, not truth simpliciter. Indeed, theory at its best recognises this fact: ‘Only philosophy knows how to show that literature is more profound than it, and precedes it’

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Connor, ‘Parables of the para-’. Connor, ‘Parables of the para-’. ‘leur imaginaire m’a paru pourtant et souvent aller plus profond, vers la vérité anthropologique, que bien des documents d’histoire ou de philosophie . . . le détail du récit éclaire plus et mieux que la médiation du concept’. ‘plus l’expérience advient avec l’âge, plus l’admiration pour la littérature croît’.

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(Her 115).118 There are moments when Serres seems to reject technical writing altogether, in favour of a more ‘literary’ style. This is not Serres at his best. He casts a more compelling vision when he advocates for an aspectual approach: ‘I believe in this coupling of the grammarian and the stylist, the philosopher and the writer, the scientific intelligence and the literary intelligence. I believe in both’ (FPIC 59). There is no need to choose, for example, between technical language and myth, for ‘metaphysics or formal discourses correspond to myths: go and analyse the state of nature or recount the wonders of the first garden; only the mode of expression differs, not the meaning’ (CN 89/NC 59, translation altered).119 What Serres is eschewing here is not philosophy but the Platonic understanding that literature and philosophy are inimical: ‘The distinction between literature and philosophy is in large part a university artefact. Works by philosophers are full of stories and those of novelists are full conceptual analysis’ (Pan 105).120 In an image similar to the vacuum pump of modernity that, for Bruno Latour, makes a dichotomy of the rigorously inseparable realms of science and myth,121 Serres complains of those who would want to ‘chase away the hare of disorder’ in his writing (P 116/Par 85),122 letting loose their beaters, hunting horns and whips to dragoon his sentences into timid compliance with uniform philosophical expectations. From L’Incandescent (2003) onwards, Serres frames his whole project, and indeed the whole universe, in terms of a story, the ‘Great Story’ (Grand récit) branching from the Big Bang to the present day and beyond. It is significant that he does not encompass his thought with one or more fundamental concepts (such as ‘being’, ‘immanence’ or the ‘event’), but with a story. This is an inevitable consequence of dispensing with a meta-discourse or master discourse; there is no ‘law’ above the story, no original beginning of which the story is derivative.123 It is testimony to his desire to take off his boxing gloves before starting to play the piano (Pan 93–4). In general, Serres’s stories and myths can be understood as one aspect of the way in which he seeks to produce a global intuition rather than a narrow argument. They are also a mark of writerly honesty. As Patrick Rödel notes,124 Serres does not seek to hide himself behind his writing, as if his texts descended from some heavenly

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‘Seule la philosophie sait démontrer que la littérature est plus profonde qu’elle et la précède.’ ‘la métaphysique ou les discours formels équivalent aux mythes: analysez l’état de nature ou racontez les merveilles du premier jardin, seul le mode d’expression diffère, non le sens’. ‘La distinction entre littérature et philosophie est en grande partie un artefact universitaire. Les œuvres des philosophes sont pleines de récits et celles des romanciers d’analyses conceptuelles.’ See Latour, Nous n’avons jamais été modernes/We Have Never Been Modern. ‘chasser le lièvre du désordre’. I am grateful to David Webb for pointing out this implication. Rödel, Michel Serres, 52–3.

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place with all the authority of a Platonic sun. We all necessarily begin with ourselves and will have personal reasons for what we do and what we write, but most of us, when we write academic books, conveniently veil these reasons behind the passive voice for one reason or another, in part no doubt because of a fear that they will appear insufficiently disinterested, objective and universal. In telling us about his own experiences as he explains his thought, Serres is simply lifting the veil. Rhythm/background noise

The most pervasive of all Serres’s stylistic traits, and one intimately tied to his ontology as we shall see in the next chapter, is his manipulation of the rhythm of language to evoke the evanescently emerging patterns discernible in background noise or tohu-bohu of the world. Serresian sentences frequently totter on the brink of rhyme, the reader unable to know for sure whether the effect is intentional. The following passage from The Parasite, for example, contains an almost perfect Alexandrine couplet (in bold in the French), as well as three sequential rhymes (in italics): It is the cripple who sees him [the blind man] and calls him over, and he comes towards his voice. He hears, he listens, and soon he obeys. Of course he can distinguish a message from noise, but his lack of control means that he can be lied to with impunity. . . . They began with symbiosis, but that did not last very long. (Par 36–7, translation rewritten) C’est l’estropié qui le voit et l’appelle, et il vient à sa voix. Il entend, il écoute, déjà il obéit. Bien sûr, il saura distinguer un message d’un bruit, mais son absence de contrôle fait qu’on peut lui mentir à loisir. . . . Ils ont commencé par une symbiose, elle a duré le temps des roses. (P 52)

Or just a few pages later we encounter these sonorous rhymes and ternary rhythms: I don’t want to play any more. Neither at the game of who is smarter nor that of the truth. For you can die of hunger, of cold, of drowning, while playing. I want to eat some good cheese. Not the best, nor the true, as told in to mirrors with their images. And I want to be wise. And I want my little piece of the banquet, the object. (Par 75, translation altered) Je ne veux plus jouer. Ni au jeu du plus fin, ni au jeu de la vérité. On y meurt de faim, de froid, de noyade. Je veux manger du bon fromage. Non pas du meilleur, ni du vrai, racontés aux miroirs de l’image. Et je veux être sage. Et je veux ma petite part du banquet, l’objet. (P 102)

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In neither of these examples, however, nor in the many others in Serres’s writing, does the rhythm ever settle into utter predictability. Like a wave on the ocean the form appears and dissipates again, always incipient and never canonical. In a crucially important passage on his style in The Five Senses, Serres insists that we must pay attention to the rhythm of language before we seek to understand its meaning: It is through the voice that the first act of seduction passes between interlocutors, sotto voce, a tension that is rhythmic and musical, calling for consideration, pleading for attention. Some virago repels us with her insistent nagging, some self-important windbag bores us with his endless monologue: too much noise, not enough rhythm, no melody at all. Throw out any book that fails to grab you with these right from the start. It is the first chord that captivates, fascinates and enchants us. Pull out all the stops for your introduction, make it abrupt if you seek to wake your readers up; long, gentle and floating if you seek to disarm them. Music always comes at the head of a parade, so that from far away the first thing we hear is the drumming, before the procession of long rhetorical divisions. (FS 120–1) L’appel à la bienveillance, la supplication pour l’écoute, la première séduction entre interlocuteurs passe par la voix, sottovóce, tension d’ordre rythmique et musical. Cette virago par ses criailleries pointues nous écarte, cet important phraseur monologuant nous ennuie: trop de bruit, pas assez de rythme, nulle mélodie. Jetez tout livre qui ne vous donne pas cet appât, d’abord. Le premier accord sonne, captive, fascine, enchante par le chant. Travaillez l’exorde plus que tout, abrupt si vous cherchez l’éveil, période volante et douce si vous voulez désarmer. La musique, au défilé, marche devant, ainsi, de loin, on entend d’abord le tambour, avant le passage des longues divisions rhétoriques. (CS 127–8)

This insistence on the materiality and rhythm of language chimes perfectly of course with Serres’s insistence on the importance of the body and of the concrete world beyond language, which I shall discuss at greater length in Chapter 4. Language is an object, not separate from the world but circulating with all other objects and emerging within the general background noise. Language participates in the rhythms of the world whether it likes it or not; it does not stand apart from them to pass judgement on them: ‘Language speaks, gives us gentle meaning, proves, but also blows, thunders and shreds us with its screeching’ (CS 123/FC 116).125 If Serres’s style is 125

‘le langage parle, dit du sens doux, démontre, mais sonne, vente, tonne et déchire aussi par ses criailleries’.

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‘poetic’, it is because it participates in the poetry of the world, rather than seeking magically to create its own anechoic chamber within that world, desperately policing its borders lest the ubiquitous background noise should be heard in the sacred confines of its cloisters. Latour is therefore correct when he argues that Serres’s texts do not claim to replace the real world but add themselves to it in order to create a richer and more complex reality.126 As Cary Wolfe says, ‘it is noise that Serres’s writing doesn’t just talk about but generates – not as the other or the opposite of content, but as content’s very fiber’.127 The evocation of the background noise is even more explicit in Feux et signaux de brume: ‘I believe . . . in something like an original musical influence. When you are writing you do not talk, you sing. It is not even singing, and music is a bad word, it turns heads’ (FSB 126).128 It is striking how the continuation of this quotation accurately describes the evanescently rhythmical nature of Serres’s own prose: ‘a continual tonality, grossly expressed, most often brief, yes, in the quantitative sense of the word, rarely anything more, and which is not necessarily a word’ (FSB 126).129 He writes of ‘this murmur that is constantly there and penetrates the whole stylistic process’ (FSB 126),130 but this is not just a case of an author passively echoing the universal background noise. The background noise is inflected in each text as in a sounding box, so that ‘each book, each author, each style has its own murmur’ (FSB 126).131 This is the secret voice that speaks through the stochastic blizzard of words; it is all we remember of a text we read long ago, once its content has been forgotten (see CS 134/FS 126). It is when this inflected background noise is heard in a text that the effect is mistaken for ‘poetic style’, though it is not a question of style alone but of the creation of intelligibility.132 At the end of this whistle-stop tour of some of Serres’s main tropes, what can we conclude? It fundamentally cuts against the grain of Serresian thinking to claim that ‘In Serres’s work, the discrete charms of knowledge go hand in hand with anecdotes and memories, stories and myths, tales and encounters – and all of this belongs to the realm of literature.’133 It no more belongs to the realm of literature

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Latour, ‘The Enlightenment without the Critique’, 97. Wolfe, ‘Bring the Noise’, xiii. ‘Je crois . . . à quelque chose comme une emprise musicale originaire. Écrivez, non, ça ne parle pas, ça chante. Ça ne chante même pas, et musique est un mauvais mot, ça fait du bruit.’ ‘Une tonalité en continu, grossièrement articulée, brève le plus souvent, oui, de la valeur quantitative d’un mot, rarement plus, et qui n’est pas forcément un mot.’ ‘cette rumeur qui passe, constante, et qui traverse tout le processus stylistique’. ‘chaque livre, chaque auteur, chaque style a sa rumeur propre’. This point is made by Frémont, ‘Philosophie pour le temps présent’, 20. Harari and Bell, ‘Introduction’, x.

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than knowledge belongs to the realm of science or meaning to the realm of myth. Such a proprietorial paradigm, seeking others stupid enough to believe it, is precisely the sort of thinking from which Serres’s style is struggling to break free. So let us return to the question we raised towards the beginning of this section. What would Serres lose if he shed his ‘literary’ and ‘poetic’ style, if he set aside allusion, metaphor, lists, etymologies, subversions of famous philosophical phrases, stories, personal anecdotes and a careful ear for textual rhythm? The answer is: the world, and everything in it. Serres is not seeking to write books that merely inform; he aims to write beautiful books. Not beautiful books for the sake of beauty alone, but for the sake of truth: ‘to make a book that is as faithful as possible to what you are describing. That is what is called philosophy, after all.’134 Serres is not seeking to write books that enact their own private apocalypse and create their own little pomerium, free from the mixed voices and incipient rhythms that circulate in the profane world outside. In his ‘performative poetics’135 Serres is not simply aiming to write mimetic texts that faithfully represent the world, circumstances and objects with which they engage, but his writing is an exercise in methexis: his writing participates in the oceanic flows, topological foldings, background noise, rhythms and short-circuits of the world. Let me be clear. I am not arguing that, if Serres ceased to write ‘poetically’, the spell of his writing would be broken. I am arguing that it would be cast. There is no surer way to enchant writing than to recount the myth of a discourse free from all myth, to affect the style of a writing without style, independent and separated from the world. Informative, ‘plain’, ‘just the facts, ma’am’ writing is the great stylistic fairy tale, the poetic enchantment that must be broken, and Serres’s methectic style shatters the illusion of a worldless prose. Concepts

We have consistently seen over the previous chapters how Serres rejects the abstract, universal concepts of declarative thinking. Yet it is also true that he employs many concepts in his own writing. So how does he avoid falling into the same damaging patterns he identifies in other philosophers and philosophies? What is it about Serres’s concepts that makes them different and, from our point of view, makes them interesting? The answer, in short, is that his concepts are characters.136 134

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‘fabriquer un livre qui soit le plus fidèle possible de ce qu’on décrit. Cela, ça s’appelle quand même de la philosophie’, Serres and James, ‘Entretien avec Michel Serres’, 795. Steyaert, ‘Michel Serres’, 554. I will resist using the term ‘conceptual personae’ identified with Deleuze and Guattari, because of the significant differences between the way they and Serres use characters. I will discuss these differences at the end of this section.

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Character-concepts

Serres provides two separate genealogies of his characters, one stretching back much farther than the other. The longer of the two begins in societies of oral tradition, when our ancestors thought in terms of heroes and stories and before the imposition of ideas tethered thought to a geometrical rack (GB 118). Abstraction was undoubtedly a monumentally productive invention but in the Google age, when limitless examples can be conjured at the speed of light, it becomes less crucial. For the first time in history, thought today can ‘afford the luxury of singularity’ (Pan 85–6),137 and this moment is an opportunity to ‘return to the icon, the idol, the concrete story, the hero, the incarnated species, the best, the thing itself, the crowd of people this text exposes, in short, to subjects of thought, to what lies beneath’ (GB 119).138 This ‘spiralling return to the idea via the figure’ sees characters waking from their long, dogmatic slumber to revivify thought with ‘a grain of reality’ (GB 119).139 The shorter genealogy situates Serres’s characters in ‘a grand tradition running from Montaigne to Pascal’ (Pan 91).140 As precursors to his own characters, Serres mentions Plato’s Socrates, Montaigne himself as a figure of humanity in general, Descartes’s evil genius, La Fontaine’s animals, Leibniz’s Polish twins and Martin Guerre, Voltaire’s Candide, Zadig and Micromégas, Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, Sartre’s Roquentin, Camus’s Sisyphus, and Deleuze, to whom we shall return at the end of this section. We might also add the way in which Georges Dumézil evokes the Capitoline Triad of Jupiter, Mars and Quirinus as representative of the great institutions of religion, war and the economy. So when eyebrows are raised at Serres’s conceptual characters, it is not because he is innovating; indeed, the history of philosophical characters is extensive and canonical. It is because casting concepts as characters is further grist to the mill of those who would dismiss Serres as a ‘poetic’ and ‘literary’ writer, one who does not conform to one umbilical, historically and geographically limited paradigm of philosophy. So what specific role, then, are Serres’s character-concepts playing in his thought? We cannot say that they are philosophical fiction, such as the characters of Voltaire, Montesquieu and Nietzsche;141 they are not dramatisations, like the Socrates of Platonic dialogues. They are not literary characters like Julien Sorel or 137 138

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‘se payer le luxe de la singularité’. ‘revenir à l’icône, à l’idole, au récit concret, au héros, à l’espèce incarnée, à la bête, à la chose même, à la foule de personnes que ce texte expose, bref, aux sujets de la pensée, à ce qui gît dessous’. ‘Ce retour en spirale de l’idée vers la figure ne peut plus passer pour une régression sotte, comme une impuissance à conceptualiser, mais constitue, au contraire, un progrès cognitif, un gain de réalité.’ ‘une grande tradition qui va de Montaigne à Pascal’. The one exception is Angels: A Modern Myth, where the conceit of a conversation between two characters is maintained throughout.

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Madame Bovary, and their names are codes rather than proper names (Pan 90–1). They are sometimes eponymous – Thumbelina, The Troubadour of Knowledge – and sometimes sustained over many texts, like Hermes, Harlequin and Pierrot, or the parasite. In Pantopie Serres situates his characters as straddling philosophical schematism and literature/myth, and in The Incandescent he claims that they vibrate ‘between the person and the symbol’ (In 320–1/Inc 180–1).142 In an intriguing passage in Le Gaucher boiteux he also likens the creation of characters to the evolution of living creatures. Like the emergence of a new species, a new character ‘incarnates’ the state of the world at the moment of its appearance, but also creates a bifurcation and opens onto a new environment (GB 53–4). And what is true for the pit viper, the whale and the sequoia also goes for Ulysses, Don Quixote, Dom Juan and Harpagon (GB 54), as well as for Thumbelina. A ‘character’ or a ‘figure’ ‘gathers to itself a whole world, synthesises it and often begins it’ (GB 53).143 Serres’s character-concepts help him to break with declarative thought, for ‘my concepts are not concepts in the classical sense but “operational”, dynamic concepts’ (Pan 78),144 reflecting his move away from declarative to procedural or algorithmic thought. Each time they appear, they act uniquely: That is why conceptual characters are at work everywhere, reappearing from one book to another, each time similar and different, to open a new path for thought, as the occasion requires, in such and such a place, at the right time, on such an such an object that appears, or that is to be made, and which requires our understanding. C’est pourquoi les personnages conceptuels travaillent partout, se retrouvent, chacun semblable et différent, d’un livre à l’autre pour ouvrir un nouveau chemin à la pensée, à l’occasion, à tel endroit, au bon moment, sur tel objet qui se présente, ou qui est à construire, et qui exige compréhension.145

If they are procedural in this way, Serres’s characters ‘are not conceptual but are “real” characters, characters of a story, of literature’ (Pan 85);146 in other words they are qualitatively different from Cartesian universal concepts. We should read this statement not as implying that Serres’s characters have nothing at all to do with concepts, but that they are not reducible to the universality of concepts at the expense of their storied singularity. Serres’s character-concepts are by no 142 143 144 145 146

‘entre la personne et le symbole’. ‘concentre, à soi seul, tout un monde, le synthétise et souvent le commence’. ‘mes concepts ne sont pas des concepts au sens classique mais des concepts « opératoires », dynamiques’. Frémont, ‘Philosophie pour le temps présent’, 19. ‘ne sont pas conceptuels mais sont de « vrais » personnages, des personnages de récit, de littérature’.

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means anti-conceptual, as we can see from an illuminating exchange with Legros and Ortoli. They ask why, if Serres chooses characters non-conceptually, he still feels the need to attach concepts to them. Why conceptual characters, rather than simply characters? In reply, Serres uses the analogy of walking, an action that performs ‘an unconscious and incarnate synthesis’ of millions of chemical and electrical events on a number of levels of complexity, requiring a combinatory explosion of an unimaginably large number of elements. In the same way, his characters are ‘syntheses that set aside the whole analytic process that they presuppose’ (Pan 101).147 Far from being anti-conceptual, then, Serres’s characters synthesise and embody a huge number of precise conceptual moves. Asked by Legros and Ortoli whether he would describe his characters as conceptual, Serres responds with an unambiguous ‘No, I do not believe they are’ (Pan 82). They are not conceptual insofar as concepts are purely abstract, and Serres is at pains to argue, with Leibniz, that the global is in (not above, not abstracted from) the local. He insists that his books do not contain concepts, but singularities, reiterating ‘there are two completely different ways of thinking: concept on one side, singularity on the other’ (Pan 83).148 His characters are not concepts because – like the Montaigne of the Essays – they do not lose their individuality in the generality for which they stand. Serres makes this very clear in Thumbelina, where he argues that: The name of my heroine does not indicate ‘someone of her generation’ or ‘a teenager of today,’ which are expressions of contempt. No. There is a question here of selecting an element x from a set A, as one says in set theory. Unique, Thumbelina exists as an individual, as a person, not as an abstraction. (T 69) Le nom de mon héroïne n’indique pas « quelqu’un de sa génération », « quelque adolescente d’aujourd’hui », expressions de mépris. Non. Il ne s’agit pas là de tirer un élément X d’un ensemble A, comme on dit en théorie. Unique, Petite Poucette existe comme individu, comme une personne, non pas comme une abstraction. (PP 72)

Serres’s characters are not mere individuals, however. They draw together the general and the specific, the abstract and the concrete, the global and the local: ‘the figure or the person, as symbols, are syntheses, singular integrals, conserving the abstract to be sure but bringing alongside it the things of the world and life in its flesh’ (GB 119).149 A character is of flesh and bone ‘as you or I could meet him on a street corner’, but 147 148 149

‘des synthèses qui mettent en sommeil tout le processus analytique qu’ils présupposent’. ‘Il y a là deux manières totalement différentes de penser: d’un côté le concept, de l’autre la singularité.’ ‘la figure ou le personnage, en tant que symboles, sommes, synthèses, intégrales singulières, conservent l’abstrait, certes, mais y allient les choses du monde et la vie dans sa chair’.

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also represents a species, a category, a form or a universal (GB 54).150 They have the capacity of ‘combining the singular with the universal’ (In 321/Inc 180–1)151 and of laying bare ‘the dynamic according to which, beginning with a singularity, we can understand the world’ (Pan 86).152 They are ‘generic individuals’ (Pan 74). It would be going too far to claim that Serres’s characters are subjects, but Christiane Frémont is surely correct in calling them ‘quasi-objects’,153 or objects that create dynamic webs of relationships and distribute subjects and objects around them.154 Another way of thinking about this agency of Serres’s characters is that, like algorithms, they provide what we might think of as intellectual moves, figures of thought, ‘shapes’ or ‘forms’ of thinking that can be deployed in any number of situations. This is William Paulson’s position when he argues that the importance of Serresian characters is ‘not primarily structural, nor does it even lie in their function as mediations between the concrete particulars of experience and the abstract concepts of philosophy’, but their importance is that ‘these are the figures that help Michel Serres think, the situations, examples, and proto-narratives through which he generates and modulates ideas’.155 They are philosophical algorithms. Classifying Serres’s characters

Classifying Serres’s characters is no easy task. Even deciding what to name them is contentious. Christiane Frémont calls them ‘conceptual characters’, ‘figures or objects’ and ‘mediators who circulate and act in their space of thought’.156 Pierpaolo Antonello prefers ‘heuristic operators’ or ‘philosophical characters’.157 Marianne Durand-Lacaze goes with ‘conceptual characters’ [‘personnages conceptuels’] and ‘character-concepts’ [‘personnages concepts’] (BEC). For William Paulson they are ‘figures’,158 Pierre-Marc Gendron calls them ‘figures’ and ‘characters’ [‘personnages’],159 and Christian Godin calls them ‘types’.160 One characteristic common to Serres’s characters is that they are from the common people (Pan 93), a trait which Serres also admires in the characters that 150 151 152 153 154 155 156

157 158 159 160

‘tel que vous et moi pouvons le rencontrer au détour du chemin’. ‘d’allier le singulier à l’universel’. ‘la dynamique qui fait qu’à partir d’une singularité on peut comprendre le monde’. Frémont, ‘Philosophie pour le temps présent’, 19. Quasi-objects are discussed at greater length in Chapter 5. Paulson, ‘Writing that Matters’, 31. ‘personnages conceptuels’, ‘des figures ou des objets’ and ‘médiateurs qui circulent et agissent dans leur espace de pensée’, Frémont, ‘Philosophie pour le temps présent’, 19. Antonello, ‘Celebrating a Master’, 167. Paulson, ‘Writing that Matters’, 31. Gendron, ‘Le Voyage extraordinaire’, 157. Godin, ‘Panorama d’une pensée’, 28.

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people the biblical gospels. Hermes, for example, is not a god but the messenger of the gods. In ancient tragedy messengers are unnamed characters, and yet how often does the message brought by this anonymous character contain ‘if not the whole meaning of the play, at least the dramatic twists’ (Pan 93).161 Like the anonymous workers evoked in the Internationale, Serres’s characters are ‘operators that allow a pivot from the banal to the universal’ (Pan 74),162 tiny ‘bombs’ that explode to encompass everything (Pan 89). Hermes is the ‘nothing’ who becomes ‘everything’. Harlequin, similarly, is ‘nothing at all’, as is the unnamed goalkeeper in The Troubadour of Knowledge with the potential to move in any direction. Thumbelina, diminutive even in her name (‘Petite Poucette’ in French, which can translate literalistically as the diminutive ‘Little Thumbette’), is the representative of the whole of humanity (Pan 89). Frémont warns against classifying Serres’s characters,163 but despite sharing a similar reticence Serres himself divides them into groups, though only for ‘amusement’: In the family of Hermes we could place angels, who are messengers, the Parasite or Bianca Castafiore, who prevent communication, the Pontiff, who builds bridges or in other words relations . . . Another very important constellation is that of the thirdinstructed from whom come all those characters who have to do with education: Harlequin and Pierrot, the Hermaphrodite, the Incandescent etc. Dans la famille des Hermès, on pourrait inscrire les anges, qui sont des messagers, le Parasite ou la Castafiore, qui empêchent la communication, le Pontife, qui construit des ponts, c’est-à-dire des relations . . . Une autre constellation très importante est celle du Tiers-Instruit dont sont issus tous les personnages ayant trait à l’éducation: Arlequin et Pierrot, l’Hermaphrodite, l’incandescent, etc. (Pan 69)

Elsewhere Serres groups his characters differently, noting that characters like Hermes or the third-instructed incarnate, each in its own way, a crossing of multiple routes, a web of circulations, a complex synthesis, like a living being is made of molecules, tissues, organs and functions all connected in admirable webs. (GB 116)164

161 162 163 164

‘sinon tout le sens de la pièce, au moins les coups de théâtre’. ‘des opérateurs qui permettent de basculer du banal vers l’universel’. Frémont, ‘Philosophie pour le temps présent’, 20. ‘les personnages comme Hermès ou le Tiers-Instruit incarnent, chacun à sa manière, un entrecroisement de voies multiples, un réseau de circulations, une synthèse complexe, comme un être vivant se compose de molécules, tissus, organes et fonctions connectés en réseaux admirables’.

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The variety of possible groupings is just what we would expect from complex individual characters, each with a range of evolving features and a unique history. So, with respect to Serres’s own divisions, I amuse myself in turn below with an alternative classification.165 The first family of characters has to do with communication and federation, a fundamental Serresian figure of thought: ‘all I have been doing, ever since I began my work, is building a bridge between two distant things’ (Pan 287).166 These ‘bridge figures’ (GB 100) include Hermes, the Pontiff, angels, the fly, Thumbelina, Ulysses and the rambler, the third-instructed and the Hermaphrodite. There is also Jesus Christ, combining not only two natures in hypostatic union but two languages in his name: Hebrew Yeshua and Greek Christos (GB 101). There is also a sub-group of characters who impede or frustrate communication as they facilitate it, including the parasite (Pan 75–6), Bianca Castafiore and Maxwell’s Demon. Let us briefly consider one of the most prominent characters in this group: Hermes. Serres’s Hermes is not the god of hermeneutics but ‘the more classical god, Hermes, of communication, the god of transport, commerce, of sailors – the god whose statue was placed at the crossroads of various towns’ (FPIC 50–1). He is the god of synthesis who ‘becomes Serres’s way of tracking and weaving connections between the tattered divisions in knowledge’,167 and whose emblem is the preposition ‘toward’ (Ec 164/C 111). He is the patron deity of the communication age that succeeded the nineteenth-century age of production with its own figure of Prometheus (Hom 32–3). In conversation with Bruno Latour, Serres summarises Hermes’s valence in the following way: he is the god of our laboratories, where, as you have pointed out, everything functions through networks of complex relations between messages and people. He is the god of our biology, which describes messages transmitted by the central nervous system or by genetics. He is the god of computer science, of rapid finance and volatile money, of commerce, of information, of the media which produce a third reality, independent of the one we hold as real. He’s the god of the relations between law and science. (Ec 168, translation altered) 165

166

167

After sketching my own groupings I came across John Lechte’s article on Serres in Fifty Key Contemporary Thinkers, where he makes the same broad division between ‘Hermes the traveller and the medium’ who ‘allows for the movement in and between diverse regions of social life’ and Harlequin ‘standing in the place of the chaos of life’. See Lechte, Fifty Key Contemporary Thinkers, 351. ‘[t]out ce que je fais, depuis que j’ai commencé à travailler, consiste en effet à jeter un pont entre deux disparates’. Brown, ‘Michel Serres’, 12.

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dieu . . . de nos laboratoires, où, vous l’avez vous-même montré, tout fonctionne selon des réseaux de rapports complexes entre les messages et les personnes, celui de notre biologie, qui décrit des messages cervicaux ou génétiques, celui de l’informatique, de la finance rapide et de la monnaie volatile, du commerce, de l’information, des médias producteurs d’une réalité tierce indépendante de celle que nous tînmes pour réelle, des rapports entre le droit et la science. (C 114)

Michael Bell notes a parallel between Serres’s use of Hermes and his contemporary Jacques Derrida’s essay ‘Plato’s Pharmacy’ (first published 1968) which features Hermes’s Egyptian analogue, Thoth.168 Whereas Derrida focuses on Thoth’s invention of writing and its implications for memory, Serres figures Hermes as a ‘god of intermediaries and translators’ (Hom 32–3;169 see also P 82–3/Par 42), of communication and passages, who ‘transports forms from one place to another’ (Ec 110–11/C 73).170 Serres’s Hermes knows nothing of the frustrations and paradoxes of Derrida’s Thoth, and embodies the Leibnizian conviction that ‘it is not worth entering into philosophy young if you have no hope, no project or no dream of, one day, attempting a synthesis’ (H5 24).171 In Habiter Serres notes that, with the gradual depletion of fossil fuels we are perhaps now reaching the end of the age of Hermes, when travel and communication are cheap and effective (H 162). In Le Gaucher boiteux he notes that, since Atlas, the plurality of angels has replaced Hermes in his thinking, for Hermes proved ‘too solitary a messenger, from a time long passed’ in a ‘time of multiplicities’ (GB 52; see also P 61).172 Thumbelina, for her part, is the ‘last descendant in the ancient and modern line of Hermes’ (GB 52–3).173 Finally, in Pantopie Serres identifies Pantope as a secular angel who incarnates today’s world traveller, a figure through whom ‘I would like to . . . “recycle” or secularise the scholastic tradition of angelology, of the knowledge and function of angels as it emerged in the Middle Ages’ (Pan 107–8).174 These new figures, however, do not signal a renunciation but a development of Hermes: Serres affirms in conversation with Bruno Latour that ‘I have never abandoned Hermes, who 168 169 170 171

172

173 174

Bell, ‘Michel Serres’, 179. ‘dieu des intermédiaires et des traducteurs’. ‘transporte les formes d’un lieu à un autre’. ‘[i]l ne vaut pas la peine d’entrer, jeune, en philosophie, si on n’a pas l’espoir, le projet ou le rêve, de tenter un jour la synthèse’. ‘les anges en foule et Atlas en personne reconfigurèrent vite Hermès, messager trop solitaire, issu d’une époque révolue. Vint le temps des multiplicités.’ ‘dernière descendante dans l’antique et moderne lignée d’Hermès’. ‘[j]e voulais . . . « recycler » ou séculariser la tradition scolastique de l’angélologie, de la connaissance des anges et de leur fonction telle qu’elle est apparue au Moyen Âge’.

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constitutes the unity of my work’ (Ec 164/C 110),175 and the affirmation can be extended to the present day. The second broad category includes characters of plurality and potential. If Hermes is one of the most prominent characters of communication (though by no means an umbilical or queen figure), then his equivalent in this second category is the Harlequin/Pierrot doublet.176 As befits a theatrical tradition with its roots in improvisation, Harlequin and Pierrot serve in a number of different contexts in Serres’s work. In Le Gaucher boiteux they figure the chaotic, multi-coloured tohubohu of the human sciences and the ‘white and reductive simplicity’ of the exact sciences (GB 61–2).177 Harlequin is the complex, irregular, undulating landscape and Pierrot the abstract, featureless sea. Harlequin is the patchwork of multiple traits that make an individual’s identity, and Pierrot is the universality that treats all humans equally. Serres’s texts are rich with characters who, like Harlequin, combine differences in themselves: the third-instructed, the hermaphrodite and, insofar as it gathers subjects around itself and sets them in dynamic relation to each other, the quasi-object. Captain Haddock and Tintin also parallel the Harlequin/Pierrot doublet. Haddock is unpredictable, debauched and colourful, whereas Tintin’s idealised, model temperament resembles ‘a round and completely white ball, a hole through which anyone can put their head, like at fairgrounds’ (Pan 74; see also PCDS2 181–4).178 Just like the stripped Harlequin coinciding with the blank Pierrot, Tintin is ‘this whiteness that is the sum of all colours . . . it is no one and everyone’ (Pan 74).179 One further sub-group in this second family of characters is figures of pluripotency and potential, able to transform in a number of different ways. We might think of the Incandescent, with its Pierrot-like glowing whiteness from which all colours can be refracted, the spinning top that remains invariant (in that it is spinning in one place) precisely because of its variations (its constant rotation on its axis), the Joker, the goalkeeper, or Proteus. Overlapping with this group are the figures of original, chaotic indeterminacy and background noise, including Vénus turbulente (Turbulent Venus), the Belle Noiseuse, the apeiron and the tohu-bohu. 175 176

177 178

179

‘Je n’ai jamais quitté Hermès, qui fait l’unité du travail.’ Lest the contingent nature of these categorisations needs to be stressed, we note that the Harlequin/Pierrot doublet has significant overlap with Hermes. In conversation with Bruno Latour, Serres affirms that, in Hermes, ‘the unifying and synthesizing impulse never abandons local, radical pluralism’, for Hermes ‘passes everywhere, visiting places in their specific detail and their singularity’ (C 110), ‘l’intention unitaire et synthétique n’abandonne jamais un pluralisme local radical: il passe partout, et visite les lieux dans leur détail spécifique et leur singularité’ (Ec 164). ‘la simplicité blanche et réductrice des sciences exactes’. ‘[u]ne boule ronde, complètement blanche, un trou à travers lequel n’importe qui peut mettre la tête, comme dans les dessins de foire’. ‘ce blanc qui est la somme de toutes les couleurs . . . c’est personne et c’est tout le monde’.

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Serres’s character-concepts and Deleuze and Guattari’s conceptual personae

The best known use of characters in recent French thought is to be found in the work of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. The conceptual personae of Deleuze and Guattari’s What is Philosophy? are generic nouns, categories that can be preceded with the definite article rather than named individuals: the friend, the enemy, the foreigner, the stranger, the deportee or the revolutionary people.180 These conceptual personae are in the service of concepts; they ‘carry out the movements that describe the author’s plane of immanence, and they play a part in the very creation of the author’s concepts’, and ‘will themselves inspire original concepts’.181 They are also intimately tied to the philosopher who uses them, to the extent that ‘[c]onceptual personae are the philosopher’s “heteronyms,” and the philosopher’s name is the simple pseudonym of his personae’ and ‘[t]he philosopher is the idiosyncrasy of his conceptual personae’.182 It is clear that Serres admires and draws from Deleuze and Guattari’s conceptual personae, stating that ‘besides creating concepts, philosophy creates characters. It was Deleuze again who recently said it best, in a way that I can’t’ (Ec 112/C 74, see also EHP).183 Nevertheless, there are some important differences between Deleuzian conceptual personae and Serres’s character-concepts. As he explains in an interview with Marianne Durand-Lacaze, his character-concepts are more of an end in themselves than are conceptual personae: Deleuze said: ‘what is a philosopher? The one who creates concepts’. I think that the conceptual character is even more important. Because he carries in himself the sense and the whole of the depth of the concept, along with a sort of almost independent life. Deleuze disait: « qu’est-ce qu’un philosophe? Celui qui crée des concepts ». Je pense que le personnage conceptuel est encore plus important. Car il porte en lui le sens et l’ensemble de la profondeur du concept et une sorte de vie presque indépendante. (BEC) 180 181

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These are the six conceptual personae treated at length by Lambert in Philosophy after Friendship. Deleuze and Guattari, What is Philosophy?, 63; ‘Les personnages conceptuels en revanche opèrent les mouvements qui décrivent le plan d’immanence de l’auteur, et interviennent dans la création même de ses concepts . . . ils . . . vont eux-mêmes inspirer des concepts originaux’, Deleuze and Guattari, Qu’est-ce que la philosophie?, 62. Deleuze and Guattari, What is Philosophy?, 64; ‘Le personnage conceptuel n’a rien à voir avec une personnification abstraite, un symbole ou une allégorie, car il vit, il insiste. Le philosophe est l’idiosyncrasie de ses personnages conceptuels’, Deleuze and Guattari, Qu’est-ce que la philosophie?, 62. ‘la philosophie crée, aussi bien que des concepts, des personnages, Deleuze, lui encore, l’a mieux dit, récemment, que je ne saurais le dire’.

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Whereas for Deleuze and Guattari the conceptual persona serves the creation of concepts, for Serres the concept is a distillation and reduction from the character who gives it life. When Legros and Ortoli press Serres directly on whether his character-concepts, like Deleuze’s conceptual personae, are ‘heteronyms of Michel Serres’, he answers categorically: No, in no way. It is in fact quite the opposite. If it were me, it would not be interesting. What Deleuze defines, basically, is the equivalence between a character and a novel: ‘Madam Bovary is me’, Flaubert said. Now, in my case the characters are true incarnations. Hermes, for example, is the man of the new age, when the paradigm of communication replaces the paradigm of production. He succeeds Prometheus.184 Non, en aucun cas. C’est même exactement le contraire. S’il s’agissait de moi, ce ne serait pas intéressant. Ce que Deleuze définit, au fond, c’est l’équivalent d’un personnage de roman: « Madame Bovary, c’est moi », disait Flaubert. Or, dans mon cas, les personnages sont de vraies incarnations. Hermès, par exemple, c’est l’homme des temps nouveaux, quand le paradigme de la communication remplace le paradigme de la production. Il succède à Prométhée. (Pan 72–3)

It seems odd, then, when twenty pages further on Serres attests to just how much of himself is in his characters: In each book I pour myself into a new character, left or right, same or other: Hermes, angels, Atlas, Harlequin, the Parasite . . . I replace my substance with a substitution. I am Saint Michael, an archangel, and I am not: Hermaphrodite. But why, then, conjugate the verb to be? I substitute substance with substitution. À chaque livre, je me coule dans un personnage neuf, gauche ou droit, même ou autre: Hermès, les anges, Atlas, Arlequin, le Parasite . . . Je remplace ma substance par une substitution. Je suis saint Michel, archange, et ne le suis pas: Hermaphrodite. Mais pourquoi, derechef, conjuguer le verbe être? Je substitue à la substance la substitution. (Pan 93)

The reconciliation of these dissonant views is perhaps to be found in a passage where Serres qualifies the extent to which he identifies with his characters, insisting that each time he substitutes himself for this or that character the metamorphosis 184

Later Serres adds the gloss that, if any of his characters resemble him, it is Pantope (Pan 106).

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is asymmetrical, the characters functioning both as masks and expressions (GB 94). It is Serres who, for a while, inhabits and expresses his characters, rather than they who express him. Books

In this final section I would like to address the question of Serres’s books: how they are constructed and how they relate to each other. As with his vocabulary, tropes and concepts, there is some evolution in the structure of Serres’s books over time, though it is easy to exaggerate or to misapply the idea of a Serresian Kehre. How Serres’s books are constructed

For one who inveighs against the ‘straight line’ of Cartesian reasoning and the single sun of Platonic truth, and for one whose conviction is that everything can be related to everything else, it should come as no surprise that, his doctoral thesis excepted, Serres’s books do not follow a single line of argument from beginning to end or divide themselves into linearly organised, sequential and cumulative chapters.185 This does not make them chaotic or rambling; it just means that they conform to different, multiple models of organisation. When Serres affirms that ‘I don’t think that I have ever written books’ (EHP),186 we should read this as analogous to other rejections of the traditional book. For example, Roland Barthes’s ‘From Work to Text’ presents seven propositions distinguishing ‘work’ from ‘text’. A work ‘can be held in the hand’, is ‘normally the object of a consumption’ and has a meaning that ‘closes on a signified’. The text, by contrast, is ‘not to be thought of as an object that can be computed’, is not ‘held in language’ but ‘only exists in the movement of a discourse’, is ‘off-centred, without closure’ and radically symbolic.187 Similarly, in A Thousand Plateaus Deleuze and Guattari reject the hierarchically organised root-book that sends down one main taproot and clusters all its material around that centre, which Deleuze equates with

185

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The exception is Le Système de Leibniz, which was written according to the constraints of the thesis genre in the French educational system. Even then, Serres attests to a discomfort with the convention, noting that it sits ill with the organisation of Leibniz’s own oeuvre as a ‘tabular space with an infinity of entrance points’ [‘espace tabulaire à une infinité d’entrées’] (SL 1), and that ‘it would have been necessary to draw, not to write, in order to escape the suffocation of linearity and attain the spatiality of the system’ [‘il aurait fallu dessiner, non écrire, pour échapper à l’étouffement de la linéarité, et parvenir à la spatialité du système’] (SL 2). See also Pan 112. ‘Je ne crois pas que j’aie jamais écrit de livres.’ See Barthes, ‘From Work to Text’; ‘De l’œuvre au texte’.

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the book’s single vertical spine.188 Instead, they favour the rhizome-book that does not stand over against the world as its faithful reflection but ‘forms a rhizome with the world’ such that ‘there is a parallel evolution of the book and the world’.189 For his part Serres argues that, in the classical age, the book was understood as a closed system of truth in the sense that it is an index sui, grounding and justifying itself as a structured whole and acting as the touchstone of its own notion of truth and falsehood with no need of an interpretative key or supplementary material from outside its own covers (see FSB 23). The classical book refers only to itself or, in industrial terms, ‘the “motor” is inside, it is self-propelled’ (FSB 23).190 In contrast to this model, Serres’s own writing is plural and exodic. He is much less interested in staking out and defending an intellectual territory (and finding someone stupid enough to believe him!) than in proliferating the relations between diverse territories. Serres’s books are not systems complete in themselves and closed in on themselves, but open webs of relations reaching out to other texts beyond themselves. The Serresian text is a crossroads, a web, a collection of nodes with multiple afferent and efferent pathways between them. It is an open space, not of substance but of ‘substitution that precedes it, supplements it, masks, it, translates and betrays it’ (GB 93).191 More than that, a Serresian text is a place of topological transformation and non-Euclidean geometry, where subjects are kneaded and stretched, folded onto each other and moved away again, with simple movements producing ever more complicated distributions of elements. In Éloge de la philosophie en langue française Serres evokes Poincaré’s half-plane, a contribution to non-Euclidean geometry which, along with the Poincaré disk model, projects a sphere onto a two-dimensional plane. This hyperbolic geometry obeys all the Euclidean rules with the exception that parallel lines can intersect, providing Serres with a mathematical model which affords the most surprising intersections: I traced the plans of all my books on the Poincaré plane. All the trajectories are projected onto it: my singular one, and that of our collective in its language, that of the world, jostled, rational, chaotic, that of our new ways of knowing. Sur lui [le plan de Poincaré] j’ai tracé les plans de tous mes livres. Sur lui tous les trajets se projettent: le mien, singulier, celui de notre collectif dans sa langue, celui du monde, bousculés, rationnels, chaotiques, celui de nos manières nouvelles de connaître. (EPF 192) 188 189

190 191

Deleuze and Guattari, Mille Plateaux, 11/A Thousand Plateaus, 5. Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 11; ‘Il fait rhizome avec le monde, il y a évolution parallèle du livre et du monde’, Mille Plateaux, 18. ‘Le “moteur” est dedans, elle est automotrice.’ ‘la substitution qui le précède, le supplée, le masque, le traduit et le trahit’.

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Following this non-Euclidean model, ‘everything in Serres’s writing crosses its own path sooner or later’.192 Serres’s texts are constructed according to the movement of the fly, Ulysses and the rambler, tracing an exodic path from one place to another and asymptotically arriving at the universal, but without any top-down method or grand masterplan. He shares Hergé’s judgement of his own work that ‘I begin anywhere and it grows like ivy’ (GB 95).193 The ivy image here resonates with Serres’s understanding of story as a series of branchings and bifurcations: ‘the ivy invents in the same way that life has gone on and things have happened since the beginning of the world, incidental, random, often thrown away but, in the end, having a direction like a story’ (GB 97).194 Why abandon linearity for this more complex movement? As it turns out, for the very same reason that, thinking the world to be transparent to reason, Descartes and the classical authors adopted a linear form in the first place. Just as their linearity reflects and reinforces their view of the order and structure in the world, so also for Serres ‘the order finally chosen emerged as the most faithful to the things themselves: it is as if the map comes slowly down to earth and merges with what it is trying to represent’ (EHS 15/HST 16).195 Given this aversion to linearity, tables of contents are a problematic paratextual feature for Serres, which is why he has fun with them. Many of his texts contain truncated contents pages that strike an enigmatic rather than a clarificatory note. Here, for example, is the contents page to Rameaux, with all its runically suggestive inner connections, rhythms, alliterations and assonances: Système Format-père Science-fille Le fils adoptif Récit Événement Avènement Aujourd’hui Bibliographie 192 193 194

195

... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ...

9 11 41 67 101 103 133 167 199

Connor, ‘Michel Serres’s Five Senses’. ‘Je commence n’importe où et cela se développe comme du lierre.’ ‘le lierre invente comme va la vie et comme font les choses depuis le commencement du monde, contingentes au hasard, éliminées souvent, mais, au total, sensées comme un récit’. ‘L’ordre choisi s’imposa par sa fidélité aux choses elles-mêmes: on dirait que la carte descend lentement sur Terre et se fond avec ce qu’elle veut représenter.’

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As Patrick Rödel rightly notes, this transforms Serres’s contents pages into a trope of their own; they are ‘sometimes arranged like a poem, at the beginning of the book or at the end’ and they ‘sketch what we could call the musical tonality of the text’.196 In Jouvences sur Jules Verne, he abandons the usual ‘Table des matières’ (table of contents) for a ‘Table des manières’ (table of manners), in which he lists five separate ‘legends’ or routes through the book, all labelled with their number apart from the fourth, which bears the title ‘stationary voyages’ [‘voyages immobiles’] ( JJV 290). The five tables can be understood as a series of topological transformations of the book’s content (see JJV 287–91). The fifth legend resembles a traditional table of contents, but the previous four all trace exodic paths through the text, listing the book’s chapters out of linear order. The first and second legends also contain blank entries which ‘correspond to the regions where the author has never been’ ( JJV 287),197 reminding the reader that the book is not folded in on itself in self-sufficiency but open to further relations to be made and links to be drawn. This proliferation of ‘manners’ of reading Jouvences is one of the most vivid illustrations of Serres’s move of opposing by generalising. Far from rejecting the traditional table of contents out of hand he multiplies it, revealing the customary organisation to be one possible ‘manner’ among others. How Serres’s books relate to each other

Moving on now from how Serres’s books are constructed individually to how they relate to each other, we find similar patterns emerging. During one of his conversations with Bruno Latour he talks intriguingly about the relations between his different texts in terms of a maritime map: I want to finish drawing this navigational map, this inventory – fluctuating and mobile – before I die. Once this work is done it will be clearly seen that all the relations I traced out either followed or invented a possible road across the ensemble of movements from place to place. Note that this maritime chart, an ocean of possible routes, fluctuates and does not remain static like a map. Each route invents itself. (C 105, translation altered) 196

197

‘les tables des matières . . . sont disposées parfois à la façon d’un poème, au début du livre ou à la fin . . . Bref, elles n’offrent guère les repères qu’un étudiant pressé serait en droit d’en attendre, mais esquissent ce qu’on pourrait appeler la tonalité musicale du texte’, Rödel, Michel Serres, 64. ‘correspondent aux régions où l’auteur n’est jamais allé’.

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Ce portulan, cette recension, flottants et mobiles, je veux finir de les dessiner avant de mourir. Une fois ce travail achevé, on pourra voir clairement que tous les rapports que j’ai tracés suivaient ou inventaient une voie possible sur l’ensemble des déplacements. Notez que ce routier maritime, océan de chemins possibles, fluctue et ne reste pas stable comme une carte. Chaque voie s’invente. (Ec 156)

In view of the complexity of this image, with its ever evolving and creatively drawn routes, it misses the point to complain that Serres’s texts are repetitive, yet this is a charge that has not infrequently been laid at his door. One of the kindest versions of this accusation comes from William Paulson: although Serres is by no means the sort of philosopher or scholar who makes a career out of rewriting the same book, it would not be farfetched to say of him, as Hugo said of Balzac, that ‘all his books form but a single book’.198

Steven Connor echoes this sentiment when he writes ‘Read some way into any Michel Serres book, and you will find yourself having made headway with them all; but you will have to read them all before you can finish reading the one you have in your hand.’199 Serres does indeed return to themes, motifs and characters time and again, but never merely to repeat what he has said before. Passages and ideas do not duplicate themselves in a mechanical way; like the process of evolution they iterate ideas, mutating them ever so slightly and setting them in different contextual habitats to see what relations they can create. Connor is again one of the most astute readers of Serres on this point, arguing that ‘it is similarly extremely hard to mark out any clear and determinate progress from origins to ends’ in the relations between Serres’s different books, full as they are of ‘anticipations, dawdlings, accelerations, rewindings, recapitulations’.200 Serres repeats himself as a Bach fugue repeats itself: thoughtfully, exploratively, creatively.201 198 199

200 201

Paulson, ‘Writing that Matters’, 31. Connor, ‘The Hard and the Soft’. Even once we have read them all we are not finished with Serres but only just begun. As the ‘Table of manners’ in Jouvences suggests, a multiplicity of routes can be traced through and between his different books. Connor, . The major difference between the structure of Serres’s texts and that of a Bach fugue, however, is that the latter has a theme which is developed, whereas for Serres the theme is just one more variation: When you hear or compose variations on a given theme, don’t you sometimes ask yourself if the theme itself doesn’t develop like one variation among others? Simpler, doubtless, purer, shorter, certainly, but why separate it from them? There is as much distance between the variations as between them and the theme, which nothing prevents me from calling a variation on one of the variations. Why prejudge it as more stable and more centered than they? Yes, the theme is nothing but one of the variations. (TK 149)

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If the motif of repetition is inadequate to describe the relations at work in Serres’s oeuvre as a whole, then what alternative images can be offered? Serres reflects upon his own oeuvre as a hypertext, with more complex topological relations than those allowed by a three-dimensional web or net:202 It is not a succession of scattered reflections. Each text refers to others and finds its place in a larger whole. Exactly the same as in a hypertext where a series of links refer to all the others, in an almost infinite way. il ne s’agit pas d’une succession de réflexions éparses. Chaque texte renvoie à d’autres et s’insère dans un ensemble plus vaste. Exactement comme dans un hypertexte informatique dans lequel il y a une série de liens qui renvoient à tous les autres, de manière presque infinie. (Pan 112–3)

If Serres’s texts form a totality, it is the procedural totality of a hypertext, not the declarative totality of a system. In order to grasp the relations of Serres’s books to each other, we must tackle the difficult question of whether there are distinct periods of his thought such that we can talk about one or more Serresian Kehren. There is a general consensus that Serres’s work can meaningfully be divided into periods, but precious little agreement over precisely when those periods begin and end. There is good evidence for a Kehre in Serres’s own reflections on his writing. In 2007 he denounces his 1975 Esthétiques sur Carpaccio for ‘the style I used in my youth where an insufferable tension brought forth obscurity’ (CEL 7),203 and in one interview in Jules Verne, la science et l’homme contemporain he repudiates the style of his 1974 Jouvences in no uncertain terms: ‘I would sometimes ardently burn the style in which, for my sins, I wrote in my youth’ ( JVSH 131).204 He regrets that he sought to write according to the model of mathematics, with its ‘elegant succession of rapid cascades’ ( JVSH 19)205 which made his early books Quand vous entendez ou composez des variations sur un thème donné, ne vous demandez-vous point, parfois, si le thème lui-même ne se développe pas comme une variation parmi d’autres? Plus simple, sans doute, plus pur, plus court, certes, mais pourquoi le séparer d’elles? ll existe autant de distance entre ces dernières qu’entre elles et le thème que rien n’empêche alors que j’appelle variation sur l`une des variations. Pourquoi le préjuger plus stable et mieux centré que ces dernières? Oui, le thème n’est qu’une des variations. (TI 226) 202

203 204 205

In other words, there is no umbilical or queen theme. The web and net are used as images of Serres’s oeuvre in Paulson, ‘Writing that Matters’, 31, and Connor, ‘The Hard and the Soft’ respectively. ‘le style pratiqué dans ma jeunesse où une tension insupportable provoquait de l’obscurité’. ‘Je brûlerais parfois avec ardeur le style en lequel, pour mon malheur, j’écrivis dans ma jeunesse.’ ‘cette succession élégante de cascades rapides’.

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unnecessarily complicated by moving too quickly from subject to subject. He also regrets that Jouvences is full of ‘a dressage slang’, a jargon of which he has since repented not simply because it is unnecessary but because ‘it has no other aim but to prevent entry to those excluded from the parish and from the conversation’ ( JVSH 130).206 Serres situates The Parasite (first published in 1980) as a turning point in his writing, a transition he ascribes not – or not only – to intra-philosophical convictions but to more institutional concerns, because my relationship to the university has been a little disturbed by a certain number of events which have no need of commentary and which led, as it happens, to me travelling a great deal and leaving the French university system. Parce que mon rapport à l’université a été un peu troublé par un certain nombre d’événements qui n’ont pas besoin d’être commentés et qui ont fait d’ailleurs que j’ai beaucoup voyagé, que j’ai quitté l’université française. (EHP 98)

Attesting that ‘my turning point is The Parasite’, Serres writes that it was from this point on that he gave himself to a philosophy that, following Deleuze and Guattari’s injunction in What is Philosophy?, invents characters and concepts (EHP 8).207 Among Serres’s commentators there is no shortage of hypotheses about prospective Serresian ‘turns’. For Maria Assad the ‘new beginning, stylistically speaking’ is marked by the publication of Genèse in 1982, shifting his writing ‘into a mode that many of his critics call poetic’, and signalling a change of focus ‘from paradigms of fluid mechanics, passages, and parasitism to tropes of the multiple and the chaotic’.208 Assad also nuances the idea of a rupture in Serres’s thought, pointing out that Genèse and subsequent texts present ‘a continuation of Serres’s far-reaching reflections in the earlier writings’.209 In 2003, Stephanie Posthumus evokes two ‘structuralist moments’ in Serres’s thought, the first running from Le Système de Leibniz to Hermès I: la communication, and the second from Hermès II: l’interférence to Hermès IV: la distribution. After Serres’s 206

207 208

209

‘À l’époque de Jouvences, je sortais de classes où l’on cultivait un argot de haute école. Je l’ai pratiqué, je m’en repens, et reconnais qu’il n’a d’autre but que de fermer tout accès aux exclus de la paroisse et de la conversation.’ ‘mon virage c’est Le Parasite’. Assad, Reading with Michel Serres, 4. Brown also locates a turning point with Genèse, as the point from which ‘Serres translates the emphasis on demonstration into a formal stylistics’ and ‘[t]he work attempts to perform the themes it speaks of at the level of its own presentation’, Brown, ‘Michel Serres’, 4. Assad, Reading with Michel Serres, 4.

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structuralist period Posthumus identifies two further developments. The first is the ‘important turning point’ of Le Parasite, published in the same year as Hermès V: le passage du nord-ouest but belonging to two different periods of his thought. The second major turn is the publication of Les cinq sens in 1985, inaugurating sustained reflection on the question of the body in the light of which ‘it is not impossible that the return of the body marks the second moment in Serres’s philosophy, a moment that extends and deepens until today’.210 David Bell and Josué Harari see Hermès IV: la distribution as a key transition in Serres’s work from stable to chaotic systems,211 and for William Johnsen writing in 2005 it is The Parasite that signals the ‘fundamental shift’ from ‘the more comfortable world of philosophy as textual commentary and textual verification’ to ‘philosophy as poetic creation’.212 In ‘Topologies: Michel Serres and the Shapes of Thought’ (2002), and then again seven years later, in ‘Michel Serres: The Hard and the Soft’ (2009),213 Steven Connor splits Serres’s work into three periods which he calls ‘phases’ (with an intentional ambiguity between ‘phase’ as state of matter and historical period)214: projection; immersion; and synthesis. The first phase encompasses Le Système de Leibniz and the Hermes series and is characterised by ‘complex, digressive, irregular, unpredictable, encompassing wormholes and back-alleys as well as highways – between the different modes of knowledge represented by science and culture’.215 In this phase, Serres writes ‘theoretically and speculatively’.216 In Connor’s first major turn, Serres ‘plunges into the complex, mixed, unpredictable milieux intimated in the writings of the first phase’217 and begins a series of works from The Parasite (1980) to The Troubadour of Knowledge (first published in 1991) ‘that eschewed the conscientious sieving of particular issues in the history of science and mathematics, for a much swifter, more elliptical kind of writing’.218 This is the period during which, from The Five Senses onwards, ‘Serres begins to stretch his limbs, to burst into flames, the book in which he first makes his scandalous approach to things’.219 Connor’s second major shift in Serres’s writing is 210

211 212 213 214 215 216 217 218 219

‘il n’est pas impossible que le retour du corps marque le deuxième moment de la philosophie de Serres, moment qui s’étire et s’approfondit à nos jours’, Posthumus, ‘La nature et l’écologie chez Lévi-Strauss, Tournier, Serres’, 168. Harari and Bell, ‘Introduction’, xxvi. Johnsen, ‘Frères amis, not ennemis’, 39. Connor also addresses the question of periodisation in less depth in ‘Michel Serres’s Five Senses’. Connor, . Connor, ‘The Hard and the Soft’. Connor, . Connor, . Connor, ‘The Hard and the Soft’. Connor, ‘Michel Serres’s Five Senses’.

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signalled by The Natural Contract (first published in 1990)220 and Conversations on Science, Culture and Time (first published in 1992).221 In Le Contrat naturel, Serres’s writing has ‘taken on a more urgently worldly tone’ and become ‘ever more frankly and boldly prophetic’, particularly in the humanism quadrilogy Hominescence (2001), L’Incandescent (2003), Rameaux (2004) and Récits d’humanisme (2006) and in shorter works like Thumbelina (first published in 2012), La Guerre mondiale (2008) and Biogea (first published in 2010).222 Patrick Rödel echoes this analysis when he argues that Serres’s writing progressively simplifies itself and ‘goes more directly towards what is essential, as if pushed by the urgency there is to speak on, to think on’.223 Looking back in ‘Michel Serres’s Milieux’ on his previous attempts at periodisation, Connor later admits that ‘one seems always to have touched down in the swirling middle whenever, and wherever one starts to read the work of Michel Serres’.224 In this later essay he rejects the linearity of ‘phases’ in favour of seeing the Serresian oeuvre as ‘honeycombed with tunnels and passages leading to other places, other topics, in other books’, such that his work as a whole forms ‘a structure in which the local contains the global, and the global contains the local’.225 So there is a general consensus that, give or take a book or two, 1980 and The Parasite marks a significant moment in the development of Serres’s style, and unanimity that a turn takes place at some point during ‘little window’ between 1977 and 1982,226 with The Five Senses also frequently cited as an important marker of a new departure that foregrounds materiality and the body. However, there is an elephant in the room. The problem with the idea of Serresian Kehren is – as Connor intuits in ‘Michel Serres’s Milieux’ – that they take for granted just what Serres is trying to disrupt: an inevitable and uncomplicated linear understanding of time. So how might we think about Serres’s work in a more Serresian way? Rather than the image of the single line with a series of turns, we would do well to understand Serres’s works as a swirling vortex, with material circulating, appearing and reappearing in different combinations, at different depths and speeds. This is the image favoured by Connor when he evokes the way in which Serres’s work frustrates linear division: ‘You think you are making an incision that will slice in a nice clean diagonal through the work, 220 221 222 223

224 225 226

Connor, ‘The Hard and the Soft’. Connor, . Connor, ‘The Hard and the Soft’. ‘va plus directement à l’essentiel, comme poussée par l’urgence qu’il y a à dire encore, encore à penser’, Rödel, Michel Serres, 33. Connor, ‘Michel Serres’s Milieux’. Connor, ‘Michel Serres’s Milieux’. Posthumus, ‘La nature et l’écologie chez Lévi-Strauss, Tournier, Serres’, 74 n47.

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and you find yourself swept up like Dorothy into a vortex that will take you on a circumperegrination of every quarter of it.’227 Serres opposes the linear narrative about his work by multiplying it. Taking the ‘table des manières’ in Jouvences as our guide, it is safest to say that there is no single way of dividing Serres’s work, but multiple possible ways, each with their own rationale and each tracing a different nonlinear route through the Serresian landscape. Once again following the lead of Jouvences, we might conjecture about the absent texts – for example the book on prepositions that Serres claims he wants to write (Ec 150/C 101) – that, if they are included in a ‘table des manières’, will redistribute the other texts around them and draw new relationships between nodes of the Serresian corpus. Conclusion

We can conclude our discussion of Serres’s style in this chapter with two observations. The first is that, beginning with Le Système de Leibniz and increasing until The Parasite when Serres finds what we might call his ‘total’ style, the way in which he writes reflects his ontological commitments: his commitment to topological space and time, to the principle of federation and finding routes between the most unlikely points, to the emergence of meaning from the background noise of the world. The second observation is that Serres’s writing calls for (and calls forth) a certain type of reader. Those who stubbornly read Serres with a rigidly preconceived idea of what philosophical writing should and can be, of what counts as truth and of what constitutes poetic embellishment, will most likely leave a Serresian text feeling frustrated and will almost certainly be locked out of appreciating the riches that his writing has to offer. The vortexes and currents of Serresian style leave the reader with a choice. Like the defiant oak tree in Aesop’s fable she can resist their turbulent tug, remaining steadfastly rectilinear, refusing to bend to their rhythms and ultimately snapping in frustration. Or she can let herself sway with Serres’s texts like a reed in the wind, allowing their rhythms and topological movements to guide her this way and that to the point where she finds herself dancing with and in the text. The best way to read Serres, if we are interested in understanding and experiencing what he is saying (and how he is saying it) in his own terms, is to yield to the ebbs and flows that take the reader in unpredictable directions, sometimes returning to where we began, sometimes striking out in one direction and at other times circling round in an eddy.228 227 228

Connor, ‘The Hard and the Soft’. A similar nautical image to this one is used by William Paulson, who refers to the reader being ‘buffeted and shaped’ by the flow of Serres’s texts. See Paulson, ‘Swimming The Channel’, 36.

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It is not a manner of reading that can be easily experienced from the outside looking on, and even less adequately sketched in a chapter like this one. It both offers and requires a ‘global intuition’ that is almost impossible adequately to describe, but easier to inhabit with a little practice. This is what is meant when readers of Serres talk about him wooing rather than reasoning them into submission. Just like the world in which it participates, a Serresian text is experienced before it can be ratiocinated, lived before it can be thought. It is to be participated in, as well as analysed. Serres’s style reaches out from his texts and extends its hand to the reader as an invitation to dance. Like all such offers it is risky; it can be made to look foolish, ostentatious or presumptuous. Like all such offers, it can be met with folded arms, the avoidance of eye contact and a sullen countenance. But Serres, nevertheless, has made his offer. How it is received, only the reader can determine.

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PART II

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4

Language

from noise emerges the music from which emerges the language from which knowledge emerges.1 (Michel Serres, Statues)

THE FIRST THREE CHAPTERS of this book sought to offer an overview of some of Serres’s key figures of thought, focusing primarily on his earlier writing. They familiarised the reader with how Serres thinks and writes, but did not deal at length with his thoughts about particular issues or questions. By contrast, each of Chapters 4 to 6 focuses on a prominent theme in Serres’s writing: language, objects and ecology respectively. We cannot call them three ‘areas’, as if Serres’s thought could be subject to an intellectual Enclosure Act that decreed each book – or even each paragraph – to be about a particular theme to the exclusion of others. That would resemble the Cartesian pomerium against which his whole thought militates. In Serres’s aspectual approach, each theme is extensive but not exhaustive,2 and so each of the chapters in Part II is about the whole of Serres’s work. Language, objects and ecology are each part of a dichotomy characteristic of modernity – language/world, subject/object, nature/culture. In each case Serres challenges the dichotomy and gives us back one of its elements in a much altered form. These themes are also, of course, major topics in recent and contemporary European thought, and where appropriate I will bring Serres into conversation with other important recent thinkers on these subjects. The present chapter concerns Serres’s distinctive and radical account of language.

1 2

‘De la noise émerge la musique d’où émerge le langage d’où la connaissance émerge’ (S 339/St 195). For an explanation of Serres’s ‘aspectual pluralism’ and the difference between extensive and exhaustive coverage, see Chapter 2.

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Serres’s Critique of Linguistic Philosophy

Serres was critical of the linguistic philosophy of the 1960s–90s while it was in its heyday and before such criticism became the intellectual fashion it is today. In Hermès IV: la distribution (1977) he lampoons the idea that the world is linguistically or socially constructed, a position which ‘cannot see, by virtue of its hypothesis, that things are in a space and transform one another even when we are not there to write or speak about them’ (H4 280).3 Like the hypochondriac who, on pretence of an imaginary ailment, banishes himself from the world to remain imprisoned in the reassuring confines of his bed, ‘we are excluded from the world’ and find ourselves ‘imprisoned in texts, words, sentences, language’ (H4 156).4 In our bookish omphaloskepsis we have seen fit to ‘bracket off the world of objects so that we can be attentive to nothing but our representations’ (H4 157).5 As early as Jouvences (1974) we can sense Serres’s weary exasperation with some features of 1970s linguistic philosophy: Say that there is no object as long as no one pays attention to it, and you are right there with Berkeley: there is no camel in the desert unless a Bedouin passes by and speaks, or transmits the event in writing. ( JJV 233)6

Serres denounces what he calls the ‘generalised structuralism’ (H4 282) of the 1970s because it hates the world: it is a latter-day nominalism for which ‘our final relationship to the world, air, water, earth and fire passes through imagination, dream and discourse’ and for which ‘the universe is a dream, a musical phrasing’ (H4 145).7 Serres’s criticism of philosophies of language ascends to its shrillest pitch in The Five Senses (first published in 1985). This is the book that he wrote soon after giving up smoking, a renunciation that, according to his own testimony, gave him back the sensory experience of the world (PCDS3 140). It is perhaps little wonder, then, that this is also the volume that condemns in the strongest possible terms the intoxicating effects of language, robbing us of the material world and obscuring it behind a smoky haze of linguistic idealism. In a 1986 interview Serres describes 3

4 5 6

7

‘ne peut voir, en raison de son hypothèse, que les choses sont dans un espace et s’y transforment les unes par les autres quand bien même nous ne serions pas là pour en écrire ou en parler’. ‘Nous nous sommes exclus du monde. En prison dans les textes, les mots, les phrases, le langage.’ ‘mettre le monde des objets entre parenthèses pour n’être plus attentifs qu’à nos représentations’. ‘Dites qu’il n’y a pas d’objet tant que personne ne s’en occupe, et vous êtes ramenés à Berkeley: il n’y a aucun chameau dans le désert, si nul Bédouin n’y passe et parle, ou transmet l’événement par écrit.’ ‘[n]otre dernier rapport au monde, air, eaux, terres et feu, passe par l’imagination, le rêve et le discours . . . [l]’univers est un songe, un phrasé’.

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The Five Senses as a reaction against the linguistic philosophy for which ‘only that exists which we perceive through language’, which holds that ‘our subject is entirely formed by language’, and against which he issues ‘a kind of exhortation, cry, rebellion, or revolt against this exclusiveness accorded to language by philosophy for half a century’ (MiS 90). In this textual equivalent of rehab Serres can barely stifle a weary chuckle when he discusses the linguistic philosopher who, having built himself a house of concepts and logic, sits in his study in the comfortable Fifth Arrondissement of Paris and gazes through his closed window at the apple tree outside, taking it upon himself to write a verbose dissertation on its blossoms which he can neither smell, touch nor distinctly see, protected as he is from the wind, rain, sun, cold, fog, scent and light that make the tree what it is, and conveniently forgetting as he does the frame, the curtains, and the opaque glass and window that insulate him from ever coming into contact with the object of his linguistic flights of fancy: ‘The house-skull quietly contemplates the tree through the porthole-eye’ (CS 155/FS 147; see also Pan 130–1).8 Like an all-male board for the promotion of women’s interests, Serres sees this approach not as a way to capture something of the hopelessly abstracted and remote apple tree, but as the very conditions that make its capture impossible. Serres is customarily coy when it comes to naming specific philosophers guilty of this sort of linguistic abstraction, but the hapless apple tree gazer is an exception to this rule of allusive discretion. In Conversations he is outed as the Merleau-Ponty of Phénoménologie de la perception (1945),9 a book that made the young Serres laugh out loud with its incipit ‘At the outset of the study of perception, we find in language the notion of sensation’ (quoted in Ec 192/C 131–2, MS’s emphasis).10 Before the reader has even finished the first sentence of this 500 page tome, perception has already been reduced to language. Serres dismisses this phenomenology in no uncertain terms: ‘What you can decipher in this book is a nice ethnology of city dwellers, who are hypertechnicalised, intellectualised, chained to their library chairs, and tragically stripped of any tangible experience. Lots of phenomenology and no sensation – everything via language’ (Ec 192–3/C 132).11 The phenomenological turn to the ‘things themselves’ shows itself to be nothing more than a retreat to the writing desk (Pan 130–1). It is curious, and not a little ironic, that 8 9 10 11

‘La maison-crâné considère placidement l’arbre par le hublot-œil.’ Phenomenology of Perception (1965). ‘En commençant l’étude de la perception, nous trouvons dans le langage la notion de sensation.’ ‘Déchiffrez, en fait, dans ce livre, une bonne ethnologie des habitants de grandes villes, hypertechnicisés, donc intellectualisés, attachés à leur chaise de bibliothèque et tragiquement dénués de toute expérience sensible. Beaucoup de phénoménologie, pas de sensation: tout dans la langue.’

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it should be Merleau-Ponty whom Serres singles out for this treatment, for we shall see below that Serres’s own account of language has a great deal in common with the later Merleau-Ponty, and especially with his Collège de France lectures on nature. Does Serres Change His View on Language?

It is common in the secondary literature on Serres to read the argument that he changed his view on language, or at least his tone, between The Five Senses and his writing of the late 1990s. However, this view risks obscuring the important point that what Serres is condemning in The Five Senses with all the newfound zeal of a recovering addict is not language per se but linguistic idealism. He wants his reader to feel the petrifying torpor of the words that deaden her to the world, not in order to have done with language but to prepare the way for a more adequate account of language, in which it will in fact be just as ubiquitous – if not more so – as in the linguistic constructivism he condemns. Indeed, as we shall see below one fascinating aspect of the account of language that emerges from Serres’s later writing is that he does not reduce its importance, much less abandon it in the name of some utopian direct access to the things in themselves. In fact, in Serres’s materialism language and communication are everywhere and in everything, in a way that leaves linguistic philosophies seeming parochial and unambitious in their claims. From The Five Senses onwards Serres’s view of language is complex, for as he readily acknowledges he can only condemn the narcotic of linguistic philosophy by means of words. Like the Derrida of ‘Plato’s Pharmacy’ he readily acknowledges the double nature of language as poison and cure: Since that old fable writer Aesop said that language is the best and worst of all things, it has become a banal truism to observe in his wake that every means of communication becomes equally poison or remedy: speech or writing long ago or in former times, and channels today. Depuis qu’Ésope, vieux fabuliste, dit que la langue est, de toutes choses, la pire et la meilleure, c’est une évidence plate que d’observer, après lui, tout moyen de communication, parole, écriture, jadis ou naguère, et canaux, maintenant, devenir poison ou remède, indifféremment. (At 16)

There also remains in Serres’s writing long after the supposed mellowing of his attitude to language a suspicion of ‘the world wrapped in words, sentences, images’ and of our propensity to shut up ‘all the things of the world in prison under words’

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(Bi 39/Bio 38).12 Yet also, pharmacologically, there is in Serres’s writing a sense in which there is nothing outside language. In order to understand how he can hold both of these positions simultaneously we need to come to terms with his radical understanding of language’s origin and universality. The Origin of Language

Serres offers a radically naturalised account of language, locating its origin in the rhythms and patterns of the natural world. In the modern world, however, we have forgotten this origin, or try to hide it. We have fenced language off in a human enclosure, and like Ulysses’ sailors we have stopped our ears to any languages other than human. The world has become hidden to ‘we, Latins’ who no longer hear or understand its sounds (Bi 42/Bio 41). Serres seeks to give us back these noises muffled by our linguistic anthropocentrism, and with them a new and much enlarged understanding of language. Whereas mid-twentieth-century linguistic philosophy understands language in terms of structures and differences, Serres’s paradigm is multisensorial, foregrounding the auditory, the olfactory and the gustatory and arguing that these senses privilege the singular and leave the body intact in contrast to the analytical abstraction of vision and hearing (CS 23/FS 26).13 This is no accident: ‘hearing is better at integrating than analysing’ (Ge 22/Gen 7),14 and Serres is seeking to provide an integrated account of meaning, signals and language, not one that encloses human rationality and language in a sui generis domain. It is also more difficult to isolate and separate the hearer from the heard than the seer from the seen; sound is a medium in which one bathes, constantly mixing everything within it, whereas vision respects distance and separation. Serres also prefers hearing because, like the background noise that plays such an important part in his account of language, it is always present: even in the absence of all other sound – such as in an anechoic chamber – I begin to hear the intropathetic noise of my own body: When the sense of sight is the model of knowing, I am not always thinking. If hearing is the model, I am always thinking. Well, I am always thinking. Hearing, no doubt, is a better model, where the occultations are never total, and where the flashes always overlap. (Gen 61) 12

13

14

‘Je vois, j ’entends, je sais le monde empaqueté de mots, de phrases, d’images. Nous mettons . . . toutes les choses du monde en prison sous les mots, enfermées derrière leurs barreaux.’ Serres also suggests in The Five Senses that touch should displace vision as the pre-eminent sense, for all senses involve touch and need to be reconceived on this basis. The auditory, for example, is associated with touch by virtue of the material translation of information by touch, percussion and resonance. ‘l’ouïe intègre mieux qu’elle ne peut analyser’.

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Quand la vue est modèle de la connaissance, je ne pense pas toujours. Si l’ouïe est le modèle, je pense toujours. Or, je pense toujours. L’ouïe, sans doute, est un meilleur modèle, où les occultations ne sont jamais totales, et où les éclats, toujours, se chevauchent. (Ge 105–6)

Even in withdrawal from the natural world, even for the linguistic philosopher sitting at her desk, the background noise continues to purr, produced by the murmurs of the body itself, by the ‘brouhaha that doubtless comes from the effervescence produced by the admirable web of nerves and vessels, by the exchanges of energy in which the organs, tissues and cells engage, following billions of biochemical programs’ (RH 46–8).15 Noise

From the second volume of the Hermès series onwards, Serres develops a sustained reflection on the background noises of our existence, from cosmic background noise through the sounds of the natural world to the noises constantly generated by our own bodies. It is in these noises that language finds its earliest origins: A four-stage rocket launches the birth of language, . . . first the muted heat, towards white noise, from this brouhaha to the first signals, then from these too timid melodies, and finally from these to the first vowels . . . Noise, cry, song, music, voice . . . all precede the basic utterance, before the language of the story. Une fusée à quatre étages lance la naissance du langage, . . . elle sourd de la chaleur, d’abord, vers le bruit blanc; de ce brouhaha va aux premiers signaux; puis de ceuxci à de timides mélodies; enfin de celles-ci aux premières voyelles . . . Bruit, cri, chant, musique, voix . . . précèdent l’énonciation de base, avant la langue du récit. (RH 49–50; see also Mus 88)

Tracing these stages – from noise through music to the voice – will show us to what extent, and to what effect, Serres naturalises language. In Genesis the working title of which was Noise, he insists that all knowledge begins with noise: Background noise is the first object of metaphysics, the noise of the crowd is the first object of anthropology. The background noise made by the crowd is the first object of history. Before language, before even the word, there was noise. (Gen 54) 15

‘brouhaha issu sans doute de l’effervescence produite par le réseau admirable des nerfs et des vaisseaux, par les échanges d’énergie auxquels s’adonnent les organes, les tissus et les cellules, selon des milliards de programmes biochimiques’.

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Le bruit de fond est le premier objet de la métaphysique, la noise de la foule est le premier objet de l’anthropologie. Le bruit de fond que fait la foule est le premier objet d’histoire. Avant le langage, avant même le verbe, le bruit. (Ge 96)

As he stresses so emphatically in The Parasite, noise16 is not to be eliminated from communication as something that impedes it, but rather it makes all communication possible in the first place. To think that noise must be eradicated is a symptom of the Cartesian pomerium, the attempt to create a pure, sacred space of absolute meaning (see Figure 4.1). Already in Hermès II: l’interférence Serres insists that background noise is the ‘universal condition of all exchange’ (H2 192–3).17 This noise is not the equivalent of the Saussurean langue, language as system, as opposed to parole, language as utterance. It is stubbornly material and resolutely non-human: physical or thermodynamic noise . . . is the condition of circulation of every message in general, and that which remains in the absence of all messages, a material that remains unconstrained by any form superimposed on it, an objective panting that comes before every signal, every sound, every sign, every singular language. le bruit physique ou thermodynamique . . . est condition de circulation de tout message en général et qui demeure en l’absence de tout message, matière aléatoire de toute forme surajoutée, halètement objectif préalable à tout signal, à tout son, à tout signe, à toute langue singulière. (H2 192–3)

Figure 4.1 The false dichotomy of message and noise 16 17

‘Les parasites’ is French for the crackling of static interference or noise on a communication signal. ‘condition universelle de tout échange’.

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It is not that our language and communication fight against the background noise in order to be heard, or that the background noise confuses their message; they are themselves modulations of the background noise, moulded from its raw material, carried by noise. No logos without noise (Ge 22/Gen 7). This naturalisation of language bears comparison with the later Merleau-Ponty who, in his lectures on nature at the Collège de France, insists that: The Nature in us must have some relation to the Nature outside us; moreover, Nature outside us must be unveiled to us by the Nature that we are. It is the nexus we are seeking, not the arrangement [of nature] under the gaze of God. Bergson: whatever the nature of the world and being, we are of it [nous en sommes].18

In the same way, human language for Serres is of the background noise, and the languages within human culture must have some relation to the languages that precede them (see Figure 4.2). In the Introduction to Hermès II: l’interférence Serres calls the background noise ‘this mute logos that is the very enigma into which we are plunged’ and an ‘objective transcendental’ (H2 15).19 It is hard to over-estimate the implications of this latter term for Serres’s naturalised account of language. In his Critique of Pure Reason Kant introduced the transcendental categories of the understanding, a priori concepts such

Figure 4.2 Noise does not obstruct the message, it carries it 18

19

Merleau-Ponty, Nature, 206, translation altered. ‘Il faut donc par exemple pour nous que la Nature en nous ait quelque rapport avec la Nature hors de nous, il faut même que la Nature hors de nous nous soit dévoilée par la Nature que nous sommes. C’est le nexus et non la mise en place sous le regard de Dieu que nous cherchons. Bergson: de quelque nature que soient le monde et l’Etre, nous en sommes – Par la nature en nous nous pouvons connaître la Nature, et réciproquement c’est de nous que nous parlent les vivants et même l’espace.’ Merleau-Ponty, La nature, notes, cours du Collège de France, 267. ‘Restait à faire varier les objets du monde, pour retrouver en tous lieux l’inscription, l’échange, l’émission et la réception, de ce logos muet qui est l’énigme même où nous sommes plongés. Il existe bien un transcendantal objectif.’

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as space and time which unify the manifold of intuition and without which our experience of the world would be impossible. Foucault makes an important intervention when he introduces the ‘historical a priori’ which, unlike Kant’s categories, can change over time.20 But Foucault’s historical a priori nevertheless remains an artefact of human culture; Serres naturalises the a priori, showing how the transcendental conditions of our knowledge and experience are not an eternal structure of our understanding, nor a feature of our cultural moment, but irreducibly embedded in the noises and rhythms of the world, reversing Kant’s Copernican Revolution that puts the thinking subject at the centre of knowledge with his own Ptolemaic Revolution that makes the subject peripheral to the objective transcendental of natural language and meaning. Serres undertakes a much more sustained reflection on background noise in Hermès IV: la distribution, not least in the chapter entitled ‘The origin of language’. Here, noise and disorder appear as the ground against which any figure of knowledge or understanding must appear: ‘Order is but a rarity where disorder is ordinary. The exception becomes the rule and the rule becomes the exception’ (H4 10).21 Noise is the real before all structure (H4 14), though not like the Lacanian Real which is inaccessible to consciousness in any direct way, which ‘resists symbolization absolutely’, and direct exposure to which results in trauma.22 In the same way that he naturalises the Kantian transcendental, here we see Serres naturalising the Real; it is no longer a feature restricted to human (or even sentient) experience, but an observable feature of the universe originating, ultimately, in the Big Bang itself. At one point in Récits d’humanisme Serres speculates as to whether we might call the noise of my nervous system and organs an ‘unconscious’ (RH 46–8; see also Mus 123). It is a tantalising suggestion, and one very much in line with his account of the emergence of signal, thought and communication from the incipient pregnancy of background noise. It fits also with his naturalisation and objectification of the Kantian a priori. This Serresian unconscious cannot be inscribed within a Freudian model; not only is it a feature of the whole body and not just the psyche, but it participates in and is drawn from the universal brouhaha of the world. 20

21

22

Foucault most fully develops the idea of the historical a priori in Chapter 5 of Part III of The Archaeology of Knowledge. The term describes the practices that condition which statements can be accepted as true and real at a given time. Given that ‘discourse has not only a meaning or a truth, but a history’ (127), these a priori conditions can change over time, but their succession is ‘not deductible’ (127). It does not replace the formal a priori, but they operate on ‘two different dimensions’ (128). ‘L’ordre n’est qu’une rareté où le désordre est ordinaire. L ’exception devient règle et la règle devient exception.’ Lacan, The Seminar, 66.

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Cosmos and chaos

The primacy of disorder and noise that comes to the fore in Hermès IV: la distribution requires a revolution in modern Western thinking, accustomed as it is to seeing the universe as a fundamentally ordered place of laws and regularities punctuated but never fundamentally challenged by local and temporary islands of chaos. Modernity has laboured under the twin convictions that order is more fundamental than disorder, and that order is real but disorder only apparent. It follows that apparent disorder (for example, the retrograde movements of the planets in the heavens) needs to be accounted for by a more sophisticated theory which will reduce it once again to order. The problem with this for Serres is summed up in the apparent but local victory of the heliocentric model which, in addition to bringing order to the solar system, introduces a much greater disorder when it comes to understanding the universe as a whole. Disorder is real and more fundamental than apparent order (SL 249 n1), and what is required is a pluralising of the Copernican Revolution such that any and all celestial bodies (or indeed any point in space) can be considered as a centre. We moderns tend to think that through our language we win a victory over chaos, even that our language creates the order of the world, but this victory is a small island surrounded on all sides by a great ocean of noise: Stable, we speak in language, we speak victorious over the noise, or this noise, victorious, reduces us to a mute semaphore, on the metabolic bank from which invention sets out, at random, into the senseless. Knowledge, intuition and speech, at a distance from this bank, are random fluctuations in the night of our times. Nous parlons, stables, dans la langue, nous parlons, victorieux du bruit, ou ce bruit, victorieux, nous réduit à un sémaphore muet, au bord métabolique où l’invention se lance, au hasard, dans l’insensé. Connaissance, intuition et parole, en écart sur ce bord, fluctuations aléatoires dans la nuit de nos temps. (H5 81)

In this seeming stability and victory we have lost the ability to hear the background noise; we have ears only for the meaning and order that protects us from the chaos we fear (Bi 37–8/Bio 36).23 In fact, the very idea of ‘chaos’ and the fear it engenders is a symptom of our condition. Pure chaos is a concept engendered by, and contingent upon, the modern fantasy of pure order, an artificial separation in which absolute noise is expelled 23

In The Five Senses Serres exhorts us to listen more attentively, to push back the threshold at which we make (our own) sense from the noise.

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Figure 4.3 The false dichotomy of cosmos and chaos outside the pomerium of pure, absolute meaning. Unlike the modern opposition between order and chaos, noise for Serres has no contrary and the space of noise has no exterior (Ge 107/Gen 61–2). It is not one half of a Manichean battle between meaning and nonsense, truth and falsehood, structure and randomness, or even between identity and difference (see Figure 4.3). For this same reason it would be equally mistaken to understand Serres’s account of noise as a feature of the ‘cosmos’, with its implication of order and structure. Noise is not a structure but rather ‘the global basis of all structures’ (Ge 181/Gen 111).24 Philipp Schweighauser is almost correct when he describes Serres’s turbulence as ‘an intermittent state between unity and multiplicity, between order and chaos, forever oscillating between the two’.25 The danger with such a formulation is that it gives the impression that unity and multiplicity, order and chaos, are original and that turbulence is some combination or subsequent mediation between them. For Serres the opposite is the case: turbulence is original, and the binaries of unity/multiplicity and order/chaos are artificial abstractions resulting from the purification of a sacred pomerium of unity or order at the expense of expelling multiplicity and chaos to the profane outside. In contrast to the order/chaos and unity/multiplicity binaries of modernity, for Serres background noise is always already pullulating with incipient murmurs and rhythms constantly emerging and just as quickly dying away. What we perceive as the background noise of the natural world is not chaos but a cacophony of many forms of symbolic exchange of energy and information involving the sun, the atmosphere, rocks, rivers, fish and animals of all sizes (see Figure 4.4). 24 25

‘fond global de toutes les structures’. Schweighauser, ‘The Desire for Unity and Its Failure’, 141.

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Figure 4.4 Noise is not chaos as opposed to order. Both pure chaos and order are meaningless Noise is, then, a constant presence if not in the world around me then at least in my own body, and it is not random but a cacophony of processes of information and energy exchange forming an incipient logos: No life without heat, no matter, neither; no warmth without air, no logos without noise, either. Noise is the basic element of the software of all our logic, or it is to the logos what matter used to be to form. (Gen 7) Pas de vie sans chaleur, pas de matière, même, pas de chaleur sans air, pas de logos sans bruit, de même. Le bruit est l’air du logiciel, ou il est au logos ce qu’autrefois la matière était à la forme. (Ge 22)

This incipient logos resonates with the distinction made by Philo of Alexandria between logos endiathetos, literally the ‘word remaining within’, and logos prophorikos, the uttered word.26 This distinction is taken up by the later Merleau-Ponty in The Visible and the Invisible, where he evokes the pre-linguistic logos endiathetos as: that λόγος that pronounces itself silently in each sensible thing, inasmuch as it varies around a certain type of message, which we can have an idea of only through our carnal participation in its sense, only by espousing by our body its manner of ‘signifying’.27 ce λόγος qui se prononce silencieusement dans chaque chose sensible, en tant qu’elle varie autour d’un certain type de message, dont nous ne pouvons avoir idée que par notre participation charnelle à son sens, qu’en épousant par notre corps sa manière de « signifier ».28 26 27 28

Kamesar, ‘The Logos Endiathetos and the Logos Prophorikos in Allegorical Interpretation’. Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible, 208. Merleau-Ponty, Le Visible et l’invisible, 261.

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The logos prophorikos, by contrast, is ‘that uttered λόγος whose internal structure sublimates our carnal relation with the world’,29 which sounds more like the Serres of The Five Senses than the Merleau-Ponty that Serres condemns in that volume, sitting in his Fifth Arrondissement study gazing at the apple tree outside. In The Visible and the Invisible Merleau-Ponty evokes an ‘empirical pregnancy’, a world that is pregnant with meaning30 in which ‘language is encrusted in the visible and has its place there’.31 Like Serres’s noise, Merleau-Ponty’s logos endiathetos is the (back)ground against which meaningful figures emerge and without which they cannot emerge, burgeoning with as yet unformed and unfigured meanings. The most significant difference between the two is that whereas Serres’s ground is auditory, Merleau-Ponty’s imagery of figure and ground is primarily visual, repeating the ocularcentrism of Western modernity that begins with Plato’s figure of the sun as truth.32 It is not that background noise is a meaningless chaos, but rather that it is overdetermined with gobbets of incipient meaning, with the result that it has no particular or determinate sense: Background noise, stable and unstable, does without sense; it is the non-sense of sense or the absence of sense, because it is going, locally, every which way: everything flees away. Everything is going from everywhere in every direction and refracting everywhere. (Gen 63) Le bruit de fond, stable et instable, se passe de sens, il est le non-sens ou l’absence de sens parce qu’il va, localement, dans tous les sens: tout fuit. Tout va de partout en tous sens et partout se réfracte. (Ge 109)

The background noise is non-sense not because it has too little sense, but because it has too much. What we customarily call ‘meaning’ is a reduction and taming of this omnidirectional meaningfulness, not the creation of meaning ex nihilo. Language hears and echoes the rhythms of the natural world, drawing out and amplifying its always ephemeral tempi (see Ge 118/Gen 70). In Récits d’humanisme Serres suggests that drawing meaning out of background noise is less a work of creation than of interruption, introducing consonants into its flowing vowels, selectively stopping its incessant cascade and thereby engendering not only language but also the rhythm of story (RH 48–9). This account bears significant affinities to Lacan’s theory of the 29 30 31

32

‘ce logos proféré dont la structure interne sublime notre rapport charnel au monde’. See Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible, 207–8. ‘Le langage est incrusté dans le visible et y tient sa place’, Merleau-Ponty, Notes de cours au Collège de France 1958–1959 et 1960–1961, 212. CW’s translation. See Jay, Downcast Eyes.

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undifferentiated and uncognisable Real, and the symbolic which makes ‘a cut in the real’, differentiating presence from absence and one entity from another, leading to the famous conclusion that ‘it is the world of words that creates the world of things – things originally confused in the hic et nunc of the all in the process of coming-into-being’.33 The difference between Lacan’s symbolic cuts and Serres’s interruptions of the background noise is threefold. First, Serres’s background noise is not inaccessible like the Lacanian Real. An encounter with background noise does not issue in trauma and an inability to symbolise the experience, but it calls forth a participation in and development of its evanescent movements. Secondly, unlike the Lacanian Real, Serresian background noise does not ‘resist symbolisation absolutely’ but is pregnant with the ebbs and flows of emerging rhythms and meanings. Thirdly, language does not therefore make an alien series of cuts in the background noise but selectively takes up and amplifies its own emerging forms and meanings. Serres uses a number of additional terms to describe background noise. It is the tohu-bohu of Gen. 1: 2, the Hebrew term for the ‘formless and empty’ earth upon which Elohim supervenes to create. Serres uses the tohu-bohu motif often from Hermès IV: la distribution onwards to evoke an inchoate chaos ripe for ordering but as yet of no determinate form. In Musique he develops these biblical inflections more explicitly, evoking the Hebrew ruach (with a semantic range that includes ‘breath’, ‘spirit’ and ‘wind’) that, in Gen. 1: 2, ‘was hovering over the waters’: ‘In the beginning reigns the background noise: tohu-bohu, lapping, fluctuations of the random waters. The ruach blows above this randomness. Now listen to this wind bring order to the disordered’ (Mus 110).34 The rhythm of the biblical passage itself, Serres notes, parallels the emergence of order from the empty void of verse 2. In addition to tohu-bohu, Serres makes frequent use of the term brouhaha in relation to background noise, a word that enters the French language as an exclamation by the devil intended to evoke fear (‘Brou, brou, brou, ha, ha, Brou, ha, ha’),35 settling by the mid-eighteenth century on the sense of ‘confused noise’. He evokes a ‘fundamental brouhaha, in its nascent state’ which murmurs under and outside our languages, ‘before the meaning of what I am saying gushes forth’ (Bi 43/Bio 42, translation altered).36 He also characterises the incipient meaningfulness of the world in terms of Anaximander’s apeiron, the ‘limitless indefinite’ which generates opposites (hot and cold, wet and dry, light and dark) that, in turn, shape the world. The 33 34

35 36

Lacan, Écrits, 65. ‘Au commencement règne le bruit de fond: tohu-bohu, clapotis, fluctuations des eaux aléatoires. Souffle la ruagh au-dessus de ce hasard. Écoutez maintenant ce vent ordonner le désordonné.’ See (last accessed 21 August 2019). ‘Car je cherche le sens de ce brouhaha de base, à l’état naissant. La Biogée bruit, elle crie en deçà de nos langues; sans elles; sous elles; hors d’elles; sous ces lignes, avant que jaillisse le sens de ce que je dis.’

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apeiron is ‘[t]he origin of geometry, no doubt of philosophy, maybe of all knowledge’ (In 112/Inc 59; see also GB 147).37 All determinate differences and all sciences, both formal and applied, find their common origin in ‘this totality in potency having no determination’ (In 112/Inc 59).38 In an affirmation reminiscent of Leibniz, Serres argues that the apeiron puts into relation all things which, to judge by appearances, have nothing in common (GB 149). Finally, he also refers to the background noise as blanc (white, blank), not in the sense of devoid of all colour but of containing the possibility to become all colours, in the same way that white Pierrot contains all the colours of Harlequin’s coat. In a section of The Incandescent entitled ‘The apeiron as origin of knowledge’ (In 111–13/Inc 59–60), Serres identifies white (blanc) space as the origin of all determinate cultures, white places and objects as the condition of social life, and the ‘incandescent void’ as the origin of all knowledge (In 111/Inc 59). David Bell notes how background noise situates Serres’s account of language both in proximity to and significantly distinct from Derrida’s.39 For Derrida, archewriting or différance is the original condition of all linguistic communication, written or spoken,40 and for Serres noise is a similar condition of the possibility of communication and of the impossibility of perfect communication. For Serres, however, noise is natural and directly apprehensible, and he explicitly situates human syntactic language within a frame of universal communication across all entities, animate and inanimate. For Derrida, by contrast, différance cannot be directly seen or heard, and his overriding preoccupation is with written and spoken human languages. Deleuze, too, seeks to undermine the one/many distinction with his univocity of being, the ‘single voice that raises the clamour of being’. This single voice is not the One but a multiplicity in which nothing can be distinguished or differentiated. Serresian noise can be distinguished from Deleuzian multiplicity and the Badiouian void in one very important way: it can be directly experienced. Whereas the Deleuzian multiple is a purely differential field that must be inferred as the necessary condition of all existence once the dogmatic image of thought has been jettisoned, and whereas the Badiouian void follows from the axiom that ‘the one is not’,41 the Serresian ‘physical or thermodynamic noise’ (H4 192)42 is the signal noise on an electronic communication, the intropathetic bodily sounds that can 37 38 39 40

41 42

‘L’origine de la géométrie, de la philosophie sans doute, de toutes les connaissances peut-être.’ ‘cette totalité en puissance sans aucune détermination’. Bell, ‘Michel Serres’. This account is modified from Bell’s, because he seems to suggest in passing that, for Derrida, only written communication is subject to distortion: ‘Serres points out that writing is not the only pathology of communication (pace Derrida): in fact, all communication is characterised by background noise’, Bell, ‘Michel Serres’, 182. ‘Let us posit our axioms. There is no God. Which also means: the One is not’, Badiou, Ethics, 25. ‘bruit physique ou thermodynamique’.

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be heard in an anechoic chamber, the rhythmical roaring and pounding of the tide and, quite literally, the background noise of the universe: cosmic background radiation. Serresian noise is not a necessary inference, axiom or condition of existence; it is what we hear when we put our hands over our ears and listen to the sound of our own body, or when we go to the beach. It is not only real, in Deleuze’s sense, it is also material, actual and directly perceptible. Compared to this everyday experience, the Deleuzian virtual and the Badiouian void are abstract, logical inferences: ideas of the ground of being most unlike the soily earth beneath our feet. As Serres says, ‘I always asked Deleuze the following question: in what space do you draw your plane of immanence? If there is a plane of immanence it must indeed be some-where. I got no reply’ (S&H 223). Music and rhythm

Serres situates music between the Harlequin-like omnidirectionality of background noise and the linguistic meaning that seeks to channel that cacophony in a determinate direction. Music is an ‘isthmus, crossroads, free sound between the zero and the everything of information, between the spiky jumble of noise . . . and the smooth necessity of meaning which, thus calmed, springs forth from it’ (Mus 43).43 This highlights an important aspect of Serres’s account of language and meaning. For Cartesian-inspired modernity, meaning and truth are the opposite of falsehood and nonsense, and in each case it is by expelling the latter from the pomerium of knowledge than the former can be purified (see Figure 4.5).

Figure 4.5 In modernity, meaning and truth are the binary opposite of noise and falsehood 43

‘isthme, carrefour, bras de mer libre entre le zéro et le tout de l’information, entre le fouillis plein d’épines du bruit . . . et la lisse nécessité du sens qui, ainsi apaisé, en jaillit’.

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For Serres, by contrast, meaning is found between two extremes, both of which are meaningless. The first extreme is the omnidirectional white noise which, in carrying the potential for all messages and all information in general, carries none in particular. The second extreme is the unchanging monotone, a radical contrast to white noise but just as incapable of carrying information. Both the tohu-bohu and the rhythms of music find themselves between these two poles; the tohu-bohu is a little closer to white noise and music is a little closer to monotone, but both lie between indetermination and monotonous predictability (see Figure 4.6).44 One consequence of this way of understanding meaning is that there can be no such thing as absolute sense for Serres, because meaning itself is always a mixture from which two opposed absolutes are subsequently abstracted. Syntactic language is further towards the pole of monotone than music, but it still sits in the tension between the two extremes. So language for Serres is not first and foremost a question of structure and difference – as it is for the linguistic philosophy of the twentieth century – but of rhythm.45 The first – and often the most important – message of human language is coded not in its words but in in its rhythm: ‘It is through the voice that the first act of seduction passes between interlocutors, sotto voce, a tension that is rhythmic and musical’ (CS 127-8/FS 120).46 Music marches ahead of language, and we hear its

Figure 4.6 Meaning and existence are found between monotone and white noise 44

45

46

Once more, it should not be understood that monotone and white noise do not pre-exist tohubohu and music, any more than pure white sugar granules pre-exist sugar cane. The pure state is an abstraction from the impure, not its condition of possibility. Although the most frequent account of the origin of language in Serres makes reference to music and rhythm, it is not the only theory he offers. In Rome and again in Darwin, Bonaparte et le Samaritain he advances the theory that the origin of language is deciphering tracks left by animals (R 29/Ro 15; DBS 16). The two theories are not incompatible. ‘L’appel à la bienveillance, la supplication pour l’écoute, la première séduction entre interlocuteurs passe par la voix, sottovóce, tension d’ordre rythmique et musical.’

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drumbeat long before we see the linguistic divisions file past. ‘Acute accent’, ‘grave accent’ and ‘circumflex accent’ are originally musical notations (PCDS5 186), and Serres speculates that language probably arose from the practice of putting sounds, and eventually words, to music. Rhythm is also crucial to linguistic understanding. An Italiophone or Hispanophone can understand a good deal of French because of the shared Occitan rhythms and cadences of those languages (Mus 55–6). In a beautiful passage from Feux et signaux de brume Serres sets forth an account of reading and memory that foregrounds noise and rhythm: If you try to remember a text written a long time ago your memory will only reproduce this noise . . . or a spot of colour, a broadly light and warm hint, yellowish. Inversely, you who read, you know very well that each book, each author, each style has its own murmur, its secret sound that speaks to you across the stochastic shower of words or, better, that is produced by the cloud of signs all by itself, at random. You know very well that a boring, impossible, discourteous text is devoid of this clamour. Throw it away. Essayez de vous souvenir d’un texte anciennement écrit, la mémoire ne vous restituera que ce bruit . . . ou une tache de couleur, note généralement haute et chaude, dans les jaunes. Inversement, vous qui lisez, vous savez fort bien que chaque livre, chaque auteur, chaque style a sa rumeur propre, son bruit secret, qui vous parle à travers la pluie stochastique des mots, ou mieux, que produit, de lui-même le nuage des signes au hasard. Vous savez bien qu’un texte ennuyeux, impossible, discourtois, est dénué de cette clameur. Jetez-le. (FSB 126)

This is all an important corrective to some dominant twentieth-century theories of language that overwhelmingly stress propositional content and logical analysis of sentences because it shows that language conveys more than conceptual meaning, more than putatively pure information that can be abstracted from its noise, murmur or secret sound. If, for twentieth-century structuralist and post-structuralist accounts of language, the condition of possibility of meaning is difference, then for Serres the condition is music, which ‘like a portentous comet drags behind itself the possibility of meaning’ ( JJV 258).47 Music emerges from the background noise hesitantly, falteringly and briefly:

47

‘traîne derrière lui, comète annonciatrice, la possibilité d’un sens’.

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Sometimes there can emerge from this chaotic tohu-bohu and from its fluctuations, at the periphery of my ‘consciousness’, from this background noise and its tiny signals, a timid fragment of a melody, never heard before and drifting into earshot: ululation, lamentation, hymn, cantilena, dirge, chant . . . Parfois, de ce tohu-bohu chaotique et de ses fluctuations, à l’orée de ma « conscience », de ce bruit de fond et de ces signaux menus, imperceptiblement aigus, peut surgir un fragment de mélodie timide, inouïe et venant à l’ouïe: hululement, lamentation, hymne, cantilène, complainte, mélopée . . . (RH 48)

It is these momentary fragments of melody that eventually coagulate to form ‘primitive music’, which swells into ‘the beginnings of articulation’ which itself ‘silently searches for something reasonable’ (RH 48).48 Music is universal because ‘everyone can hear it, whatever their language, their level of suffering and their condition, their world and their birth’ (H2 193; see also PCDS5 112)49 but for that reason it is not specific. Music takes us to the limitless apeiron of the pre-Socratics (H1 129), it signifies an indeterminate meaning ([‘communication du quelconque’], ESC 148), and so it stands in relation to determinate languages like a stem cell to particular cell types: it is none in particular and all in general. In Musique Serres imagines languages as so many branches from the ‘stem-music’ that gives rise to them all (Mus 74): Totipotent music, now. Discursive sense has one or several values; music appears to me to be plurivalent or, better still, omnivalent. Totipotent as it is, its power supports discursive meaning which is sometimes univalent. It rings in potency, language speaks in act. Musique totipotente, maintenant. Le sens discursif a une ou quelques valeurs; la Musique me paraît plurivalente, mieux encore, omnivalente. Totipotente, elle supporte, de sa puissance, le sens, parfois univalent, du discursif. Elle sonne en puissance; la langue dit en acte. (Mus 80–1)

Music is a Harlequin of meanings, coaxing pluripotent sense into incipient rhythms which are then refracted by determinate languages into an array of colours (Mus 81; see also Ge 74/Gen 41).

48

49

‘À partir de la musique primitive, émanée elle-même du bruit, un début d’articulation cherche sourdement du sensé.’ ‘chacun peut l’entendre, quelle que soit sa langue, sa souffrance et sa condition, son monde et sa naissance’.

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Music does not only precede language for Serres; it also precedes science and mathematics. The Pythagorean importance of musical harmony and the ratios of string lengths to harmonic vibrations has been well documented (see Mus 93), but the many algorithms that music uses also anticipate multiple branches of mathematics and, as a universal language that obeys laws of harmony and ratio, music is also the muse of the sciences (Mus 33–4): ‘The senseless sounds of music give birth to languages; sciences are born from its codings’ (Mus 102).50 Music is the closest we have to an ur-language. We have lost all trace of any putative common language among our ancestors who left Africa to be scattered across the world (In 220–1/Inc 123), but music is humanity’s first tonality that even now remains in common to us all: ‘We don’t know of any culture that doesn’t have dancing or singing, that doesn’t have ululation or threnody. Homo musicus’ (In 220/Inc 123).51 We can draw two main conclusions from this survey of Serres’s account of the origin of language in noise and music. First, it poses a profound challenge to dominant accounts of knowledge and meaning. Our model of knowledge has until recently been stubbornly ocularcentric: we ‘see’ when we understand, we affirm that ‘seeing is believing’, and we imagine with our ‘mind’s eye’. Serres longs, by contrast, for a ‘universal acoustics’ (Mus 88, 102), dreaming of the day when all disciplines will prepare for instruction with a study of music rather than the heavily visual disciplines of reading, writing and geometry that dominate much contemporary formation: If there are vibrations in every domain, in a sort of universal acoustics, then music and information, both in a sense universal, ought to be able to construct an epistemology founded on harmony at least as easily as that which since Plato we founded on vision. Such a universal acoustics would allow us finally to hear the song of the World and its enchantment. S’il existe des vibrations en tous domaines, une sorte d’acoustique universelle, alors Musique et information, tous deux universels en quelque façon, devraient pouvoir construire une épistémologie fondée sur l’entente au moins aussi aisément que celle qu’à partir de Platon nous fondâmes sur la vue. Cette acoustique universelle nous permettrait d’entendre enfin le chant du Monde et son enchantement. (Mus 98)

As Steven Connor rightly concludes52 this is an invitation to a new Pythagoreanism, but not to Pythagorean abstraction. Order and harmony for Serres are 50 51 52

‘Des sons sans sens de la Musique naissent les langues, de ses codages naissent les sciences.’ ‘Nous ne connaissons pas de culture sans danse ni chant, sans hululement ni mélopée. Homo musicus.’ Connor, ‘Rustications’.

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encrusted in the joints of the material,53 not to be found by escaping it. Music, Connor continues, is for Serres a mingling of (hard, material) energy and (soft, immaterial) information, a naturalised account of meaning to accompany Serres’s naturalised and objective a priori. The second conclusion to draw from Serres’s account of noise and music is that it emphatically relativises human language and knowledge. His ‘Ptolemaic revolution’ decentring the thinking subject from the production of language by dispersing it throughout both the animate and inanimate world displaces syntactic and discursive languages from their solar centrality (RH 80), making them take their place in the ranks of many modulations of noise, among which they are by a long chalk not the most widespread or long-lasting: In this empty universe invaded by the beginnings of expression, the miserly meaning that we draw out from our shrill voices and from our fragile marks insinuates itself and nestles. . . . That is what it means to understand: to throw our words into the sense of the world. Dans cet univers vide envahi d’un commencement d’expression, le sens mesquin que nous faisons jaillir de nos voix criardes et de nos fragiles marques s’insinue et se blottit. . . . Voilà ce que signifie comprendre: jeter nos paroles dans le sens du monde. (NM 229–30)

The noise that gives rise to human language is vastly broader than this language, rhythming as it does the whole universe: spiralling galaxies, the rotation of neutron stars, the vibration of colours in the spectrum of heavenly bodies, harmonic relations between planets, the return of spring and of each day, the oscillations of calcium, electron spin . . . the centennial flowering of bamboo, cyclical epidemics, the rare loves of grasshoppers, the migrations of cranes and ducks, menstruation, the tempo of reproductions, heart, pulse and neurons, the rhythm of hormones . . . sing-song accents, pulsing voices, measured paces, the swelling clamours of crowds . . . measures, undulations, wavelengths and wavelets . . . what’s more, from the beginning of time, we can hear the beat: murmurings, intensity, rapidity, brakings and accelerations . . . spirales des galaxies, rotation des étoiles à neutrons, vibration des couleurs dans le spectre des astres, rapports harmoniques entre planètes, retour du printemps et des jours, oscillations du calcium, spin de l’électron . . . floraison séculaire du

53

The vivid image is from Merleau-Ponty, Le Visible et l’invisible, 154/The Visible and the Invisible, 114.

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bambou, épidémies cycliques, amours rares des cigales, migrations des grues et des canards, menstruation, tempo des reproductions, cœur, pouls et neurones, rythmes des hormones . . . accents chantants, pulsation des voix, mesure des pas, clameurs en houle des foules . . . mesures, ondulations, longueurs d’onde et ondelettes . . . dès le commencement des temps, on peut entendre, de plus, du tempo: frémissements, intensité, rapidité, freins et accélérations . . . (Mus 26)

Stripped of its unique status, or rather unmasked as never having possessed a unique status, syntactic language must take its place among the stars, migrations and hormones as an effect and modulation of background noise. This also means that it is strictly misleading to frame this account of the background noise as the ‘genesis’ or ‘origin’ of (human) language, to the extent that this gives the impression that such language is the telos, or at least the crowning glory, to which background noise is only ever a servant and forerunner, John the Baptist to its Jesus Christ. It is the same mistake we sometimes make in relation to evolution, assuming that its whole purpose from the beginning was to produce human beings, and that now that it has done so it will rest on the seventh day. The pregnancy of the background noise is the truly remarkable thing, and language is one of its symptoms, one medium among many others each carrying information in its own way. Atoms and Letters

Serres’s account of language is, as we have begun to see, embedded in a larger ontology of background noise and information. This ontology sinks its roots deep into Lucretian and Epicurean atomism, from which Serres elaborates an ontology that further roots language in the natural world and, as we shall see, challenges contemporary notions of ecomimesis. Lucretian physics has two key moments, both of which Serres takes up and reworks for his own purposes: that billions of atoms fall in parallel in the void, and that sometimes one of these atoms deviates ever so slightly from its parallel course in what Lucretius calls a clinamen (from the Latin clinare, to incline). We shall briefly examine Serres’s reconstruction of these moments, before reflecting on their significance for his account of the origin and scope of language. In his reconstruction of the Epicurean ontology of atoms falling in the void, Serres places great stress on the Lucretian equation of atoms with letters. In Book 2 of De rerum natura he suggests that, although the number of different letters in the alphabet and the number of types of atom are both small, yet they compose a limitless number of combinations, creating dissimilar sentences from similar letters, and

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dissimilar bodies from similar ‘first-beginnings’ (or atoms).54 The ‘great power’ of both is in their arrangement and order. There is no qualitative difference between combining atoms to form molecules, tissues, organs and bodies, and combining letters to form words, sentences, paragraphs and texts. Serres introduces the equation of atoms with letters in Le Système de Leibniz (SL 508 n1), and begins to develop it in Jouvences and Feux et signaux de brume. Lucretius’s billions of atoms falling in the void without intersecting or disturbing each other is not an emptiness, but it is as yet without any discernible form, before all reality, story and history (histoire). As for the clinamen, it is the very rare (NP 99/BOP 78) and imperceptible (NP 28/BOP 18) deviation in the course of an atom, breaking the monotony of order and introducing, as in the case of a musical melody, just enough disorder to place existence in the ‘window’ between the two poles of the ‘monotonous one’ and the ‘saturated all’ of white noise (NP 181/BOP 146–7), themselves equally meaningless because ‘[w]hen there is an infinity of dispersed information in the well, it is really the same well as if it were devoid of information’ (Ge 40/Gen 18) (see Figure 4.7).55 A least locally, bodies and texts disintegrate as entropy increases. The clinamen and the void guarantee that this is never global or universal, and that there is a resurgence of new order now and then, here and there.56 The clinamen itself,

Figure 4.7 Material existence and linguistic meaning are found between monotone and white noise

54 55

56

See Lucretius, On the Nature of Things, 52–3. ‘Quand ‘une infinité d’informations éparses est dans le puits, c’est bien le même puits que s’il était la nullité d’information.’ My thanks to David Webb for this thought.

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then, is not order as opposed to chaos, or creation as opposed to destruction. It sits not as one term in a binary but between two equally (linguistically) meaningless and (materially) chaotic poles; it is an event, a deviation that precipitates first chaos (turbulence) and then order (vortices): Everything comes from the two instances of chaos that mark the two thresholds of disorder. The monotone unity of meaning, nothing new under the sun, or the totality of the meanings in all places, where nothing is ever the same and everything is different, are nonsenses by lack or by excess, by absence and saturation. (BOP 146) Tout vient des deux chaos qui marquent les deux seuils du désordre. L’unité monotone du sens, rien de nouveau sous le soleil, ou la totalité des sens en tous lieux, rien n ’est jamais le même et tout est différent, sont des non-sens par défaut ou excès, par absence et engorgement. (NP 181)

So the laminar falling of atoms in the void is not itself existence, and has no meaning: If there is just a single sense, then there is no sense. . . . if there were only one season there would no seasons, if there were only one era there would be no eras, if there were only one island there would be no island. (BOP 146). S’il n’y a qu’un sens, il n’y a pas de sens . . . s’il n’y avait qu’une saison, il; n’y aurait pas de saison, s’il n ’y avait qu’une ère, il n ’y aurait pas d ’ère, s’il n ’y avait qu’une île, voici qu’il n ’y aurait pas d’île.(NP 180–1)

It is the clinamen that ‘sets the first coding, it introduces a new time, writing, memory, the reversible and the negentropic’ (NP 186/BOP 150).57 The clinamen introduces a movement of one particle towards (vers) another that begins the formation of meaning in the same way that sounds constitute the incipient rhythms in the tohu-bohu that will eventually form music, language and knowledge. Similarly, ‘[t]he first word formed by the atom-letters is vers’ (NP 180/BOP 146).58 This movement is a creation; it brings objects into being, like the action of God in Gen. 1 creating form and distinctions within the tohu-bohu: ‘In the beginning, then, is the bifurcation’ (Ge 109/Gen 63; see also R 277/Ro 187).59 Both meaning (sens) and 57

58

59

‘Le clinamen fait le premier codage, il introduit un temps nouveau, l’écrit, la mémoire, le réversible et la néguentropie.’ ‘le premier mot formé par les atomes-lettres c’est vers’. In French, ‘vers’ as a preposition means ‘towards’, and as a masculine noun a ‘verse’ or line of poetry. ‘Au commencement donc est la bifurcation.’

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objects are formed ‘in the most natural way in the world’, by a change of direction (sens) (NP 181/BOP 147). Like the material world, discourse is imbalance and asymmetry (NP 99/BOP 78). Hard atoms and soft letters

One important feature of Serres’s ontology of atoms and letters is that it repeatedly transgresses the distinction between the hard and the soft, between the material and the linguistic. The clinamen equally marks ‘the birth of things . . . [a]nd the appearance of language’ (NP 34/BOP 23).60 So being and writing, life and language, are not only strictly parallel but also coterminous: ‘atoms are letters. And bodies are words, and laws are sentences, and the world is a text’ such that ‘the discourse of forces and the discourse of codes are together, in parallel, from the origin of physics’ (JJV 201–2).61 The Birth of Physics further develops this intimacy of the material and the linguistic, the hard and the soft: ‘Atoms . . . are letters. Their interconnection constitutes the tissue of the body, in the same way as letters form words, empty spaces, sentences and texts’ (NP 175/BOP 141).62 We need to slow down at this point and explore the status of this equation between atoms and letters for Serres. Much hangs on this relation, because if ‘atoms are letters’ is a metaphor and not an ontological claim then what Serres is giving us is an analogy of language and not an account of its origin, and language and existence would, after all, require two separate theories to account for them. ‘Nature’ and ‘culture’ would still be qualitatively different. In The Birth of Physics Serres seems to vacillate between the metaphorical and the non-metaphorical, as we have just seen. First, he tells us that ‘Atoms, as we know, are letters’, immediately adding the qualifier ‘or are like letters’ (NP 175/BOP 141).63 Atoms and letters are alike, he continues, in the sense that ‘[t]heir interconnection constitutes the tissue of the body, in the same way as letters form words, empty spaces, sentences and texts’.64 A finite set of initial elements produces a functionally infinite number of possible combinations of ‘linguistic atoms’ just as of ‘letters of matter’. 60 61

62

63 64

‘la naissance des choses . . . [e]t l’apparition du langage’. ‘Les atomes sont des lettres. Et les corps sont des mots, et les lois sont des phrases, et le monde est un texte. . . . Le discours de la force et le discours du code sont ensemble, parallèlement, dès l’origine de la physique.’ ‘Les atomes, on le sait, sont des lettres ou sont comme les lettres. Leur entrelacement constitue le tissu des corps, de la même manière que les lettres, entre elles, forment des mots, des vides blancs, des phrases et des textes.’ ‘Les atomes, on le sait, sont des lettres ou sont comme les lettres.’ ‘Leur entrelacement constitue le tissu des corps, de la même manière que les lettres, entre selles, forment des mots, des vides blancs, des phrases et des textes.’

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In the case of both atoms and letters, not all combinations are possible: they can only meaningfully combine in specific ways, such that ‘[t]he analogy of behaviour is perfectly apt. It is a metaphor and it is not: the correspondences or relationships there are exhaustively dominated’ (NP 175/BOP 141).65 Atoms and letters not only combine in the same way, they are two expressions of the same thing: negentropy. Everything that exists – adamantine crystals, bronze, a foetus, trees and stars – exists only in written form and only as code, written in the atomic ‘alphabet in the universal of the drift’ (NP 185/BOP 149).66 Both words and things are islands of negentropy, escaping the irreversible flux of dissolution for a short time. This is why, after his previous vacillation on the question of whether ‘letters are atoms’ is a metaphor, Serres can categorically assert ‘[t]hat atoms are letters is not an arbitrary theory or a decision or a metaphor. It is a necessity of what Lucretius and his predecessors called nature’ (NP 182/BOP 147),67 and again ‘[t]hat atoms are letters, that connected bodies are phrases, is no doubt not a metaphor, it is that without which there would be no existence’ (NP 185/BOP 150).68 What Serres is expressing here, but expressing quite obliquely, is that existence and code are ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ expressions of negentropy respectively. The difference is one of degree, not of kind, though it is also important that the transition from one to the other is not a simple movement up and down a scale, not simply a question of more or less but the difference between two isomorphic models with a common structure. Language and existence are two inseparable and intertwined aspects of the same universal processes of inclination and combination, and so it makes no more sense to think of one as the metaphor of the other as it does to think of putting one foot in front of the other as a metaphor for walking: atomus sive littera. All matter is coded; all code is material. What this refusal of metaphor is attempting to communicate, then, is that ‘atoms are letters’ is one instance of the universal condition of existence that Lucretius calls clinamen, and which accounts for both matter and information, and also for metaphor itself. Inclination is the characteristic of ‘the primary space in which every metaphor finds its place and time’ (NP 185/BOP 150),69 of which metaphor is one linguistic variation. Metaphor is an inclination of sense, a deviation from 65

66 67

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‘Leur entrelacement constitue le tissu des corps, de la même manière que les lettres, entre elles, forment des mots, des vides blancs, des phrases et des textes. . . . L’analogie de comportement est parfaite. C’est une métaphore et ce n’en est pas une: les correspondances ou relations y sont exhaustivement dominées.’ ‘alphabet dans l’universel de la dérive’. ‘Que les atomes soient des lettres n’est pas une thèse arbitraire ou une décision ou une métaphore. C’est une nécessité de ce que Lucrèce et ses prédécesseurs appelaient la nature.’ ‘Que les atomes soient des lettres, que les corps connectés soient des phrases n’est sans doute pas une métaphore, c’est ce sans quoi il n ’y aurait pas d’existence.’ ‘l’espace premier où toute métaphore aura lieu et temps’.

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the straight, and thus participates synecdochically in the deviation that Lucretius calls the clinamen. Clinamen is not a metaphor, because metaphor is an instance of negentropic clinamen, along with atoms and letters. A concomitant of this identification of atoms and letters in Serres’s aspectual pluralism is that both matter and information are ‘extensive’.70 Everything is matter; everything is language. In an oft-quoted line from The Birth of Physics, Serres affirms ‘L’histoire (history/story) is a physics and not the other way round. Language is from the beginning in bodies’ (NP 186/BOP 150, translation altered).71 The context of these two sentences is crucial for understanding their meaning, and for avoiding a common misreading. Serres has been arguing that history codes events into categories of riches and poverty, war and peace: ‘Since nature does not code them, we ourselves must do it to give ourselves a proper history and a time’ (NP 186/BOP 150).72 However, when we perform this coding we are not imposing an alien framework on an uncoded nature but rather continuing and extending a principle of coding found in nature itself: ‘we repeat, we imitate, farther from equilibrium, the native activity of nature which it itself codes near the fall’ (NP 186/BOP 150).73 Human historiography and story writing, then, are a physics because they extend the coding already present in nature. ‘And not the other way round’ means that embodiment, not disembodiment, is original, in other words that physics is not first of all a theory, a linguistic construct, as some of the more extreme linguistic philosophies of the twentieth century would maintain. ‘And not the other way round’ does not mean that physics first exists free of all code, language and story, which supervene on it only later. On the contrary, ‘language is born with things, and by the same process’ (NP 153/BOP 123).74 Lest ‘and not the other way round’ be understood to imply a chronological precedence of the material over the linguistic, we would do well to add ‘and bodies are from the beginning linguistic’. Language and bodies are equiprimordial and coextensive: the deviation between things and language is reduced to zero. In both cases – but there is only a single case – every formation is nothing but relation, everything is only relation. Outside of relation, there are only clouds in the void, letters or atoms. (BOP 123) 70 71

72

73

74

See the section entitled ‘Extensive, not exhaustive’ in Chapter 2. ‘L’histoire est une physique et non l’inverse. Le langage est d’abord dans les corps.’ The French reads ‘Le langage est d’abord dans les corps’, which might be paraphrased as ‘before it is anything else, language is in bodies’, in the sense that language is embodied all the way back. The translation ‘language is already in bodies’ risks missing this sense; ‘always already’ would be better. ‘Puisque la nature ne les code pas, force nous est bien de le faire pour nous donner une histoire propre et un temps.’ ‘nous répétons, nous imitons, plus loin de l’équilibre, l’activité native de la nature qui, elle, code au voisinage de la chute’. ‘La langue naît avec les choses, et par le même processus.’

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l’écart des choses aux langues est réduit à zéro. Dans les deux cas, mais il n’y a qu’un seul cas, toute formation n’est que de liaison, tout n’est que relation. En deçà de la relation, il n’y a que nuages dans le vide, lettres ou atomes. (NP 153)

Nor is there any separation between existence and law, for they are both instances of federation. So ‘[t]he law repeats the fact itself: while things are composed, the laws express the federated’ (NP 152/BOP 123).75 Linguistic syntax and grammar are extensions of the federation of the material world, not impositions upon it; similarly, material bodies are extensions of informational federation, not its ‘other’. This challenges the idea that there are universal laws of physics that determine how atoms move and combine, and therefore also the idea of a universal language or grammar. Almost all modern accounts of causality assume it is law-governed in some way, placing law before causality. But in Lucretius and Serres it is the other way around: causality first and law after, and therefore law is local in time and space.76 In Serres’s account that there can be no naturalistic fallacy, for laws of federation are immanent to everything that exists, and without this natural law they would not exist: ‘[f]rom fact to law, the distance is null’ (NP 153/BOP 123).77 An ontology of inclination

Beyond The Birth of Physics Serres extends his account of atoms and letters into a general ontology of inclination. Everything exists in the window between monotone and white noise: language and matter, facts and laws. Serres’s terms for the difference that produces this tension between laminar flow and infinite unpredictability vary across his texts, and include inclination, orientation, asymmetry, parasites and multiplicities, limping, falling and drifting. For the sake of consistency I will adopt here the language of inclination, a term that appears in The Birth of Physics, L’Hermaphrodite, The Troubadour of Knowledge and Le Gaucher boiteux, directly translating the Latin clinamen. Everything inclines in an asymmetrical way, spinning, leaning or drifting. This, Serres maintains, is the basic condition of all existence, from atoms and stars through snail shells and human bodies (the left breast is statistically larger than the right, he informs us) to languages, manufactured objects and cultures. Indeed, according to a theory to which he refers on multiple occasions the universe itself came into being as a rupture of symmetry:78 75 76 77 78

‘[l]a loi répète le fait même: pendant que se composent les choses, les lois disent le fédéré’. See Webb, ‘On Causality and Law in Lucretius and Contemporary Cosmology’. ‘[d]u fait aux lois, la distance est nulle’. See, for example, Serres, Le Gaucher boiteux, 87, and Serres et al., Pantopie, 86.

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The stars turn and advance, oriented, like particles around the nucleus of an atom. Crystals and molecules are lateralised, with highly refined symmetries and asymmetries. Direction or orientation comes neither from men nor from their preferences, from their inclinations, but from the inanimate world that precedes the living and from the living that precedes culture. Things lean to one side: force fields, boreal auroras, twisting turbulences, cyclones, spots on the planet Jupiter . . . the universe was born, it is said, from spontaneous symmetry breaking. Direction traverses the immensity of the sky, enters the box of details, and rides on the arrow of time. (TK 14, translation altered) Les astres tournent et avancent, orientés, comme les particules autour du noyau de l’atome. Cristaux et molécules sont latéralisés, à symétries et asymétries hautement raffinées. Le sens ou l’orientation ne viennent pas des hommes ni de leurs préférences, de leurs inclinaisons, mais du monde inerte avant le vivant et du vivant avant la culture. Les choses inclinent: champs de forces, aurores boréales, turbulences vissées, cyclones, tache sur la planète Jupiter . . . l’univers naquit, dit-on, d’une rupture de symétrie. Le sens parcourt donc l’immensité, du ciel, entre dans la boîte du détail et chevauche la flèche du temps. (TI 36–7)

It is only approximately correct, however, to call this an ‘ontology’, because Serres’s account here is so radical that it challenges the primacy of the category of ‘being’: Who am I? This clinamen. Who am I? The diverted itself. A living chiasm. But what is to be gained by still conjugating the verb ‘to be’? I pour [Je verse]. ‘Towards’ [vers] indicates a direction, straight ahead, but also Aquarius, but also the convert’s change of direction. Who am I? Through a series of crossings I pour towards [je verse vers] the universal. Qui suis-je? Ce clinamen. Qui suis-je? Le distrait soi-même. Un chiasme vivant. Mais à quoi bon conjuguer encore le verbe être? Je verse. Vers indique une direction, droit devant, mais aussi le verseau, mais aussi le cercle du converti. Qui suis-je? Je verse vers l’universel par traversées. (GB 86)

The operative distinctions for Serres here are not between being and nonbeing, because it is not correct to characterise the tohu-bohu of the laminar cataract of atoms as nonbeing in the Aristotelian sense. The important distinction is between laminar flow and the clinamen, which do not resolve to a binary of order and disorder but find themselves on a spectrum on which matter and language exist between the two poles of monotone and white noise, or between uniformity and dissolution (see Figures 4.8 and 4.9).

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Figure 4.8 The important distinction in classical thought is between being and nonbeing

Figure 4.9 The important distinction for Serres is between laminar flow and the clinamen Nothing in the universe of inclination is inert or mute, nothing is pre-linguistic, because everything that exists leans one way or another, and that leaning is the principle of language and law, of history and of narrative, as well as of material existence. There is no existence simpliciter, before language and law supervene upon it, or are projected onto it by a constituting consciousness, for ‘everything that exists only exists in the form of writing and code’ (NP 184/BOP 149).79 Language, law, history, narrative and material existence are all species of the genus inclination. Finally, it is not the case that language imitates the inclination of atoms, or that matter imitates the federation of the law: language, law and matter 79

‘Tout ce qui existe n’existe que sous forme d ’écrit et de code.’

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each equally instantiate inclination. There is no ‘umbilical’ or ‘queen’ inclination. In this, Serres’s ontology of inclination resembles Deleuze’s insistence on philosophy’s participation in reality, where ‘writing now functions on the same level as the real, and the real materially writes’.80 Serres insists that the motif of inclination is no abstract metaphysics or speculative theory. Just like the background noise that can be experienced by placing our hands over our ears or taking a walk on the beach, the condition of existence is evident and directly observable. We each experience it a thousand times each day, when we observe the cosmic regularity of the sun ‘rising’ and ‘setting’ as the earth rotates on its axis and perpetually inclines in its orbit around the sun, or when we pick up the right-handed implements most of us use every day without a second thought. Inclination is the principle not only of the imperceptibly small clinamen and the cosmological rupture of symmetry, but also of ‘the butterfly’s beating wing in chaotic phenomena, catalysts in chemistry, the neodarwinian sense of “mutation”, Jenner’s vaccine or Pasteur’s microbes that change organisms by such minuscule inclinations, with no confrontation or clinking of weapons’ (GM 105–6).81 The clinamen is not a postulate, a necessary inference or an axiom: it is an everyday observation. Everything leans. This principle of inclination spans nature and culture, the sciences and the arts. It is a familiar principle, Serres argues, in molecular biology, information theory, crystallography, fluid dynamics, and of course also in the Lucretian clinamen that ruptures the symmetry of falling atoms (GB 76–7). Without exception, everything inclines: ‘Orientation can thus be said to be originary, invariable, irreducible, so constantly physical that it becomes metaphysical’ (TI 38/TK 15).82 To exist is to incline, to veer, to be off-centre. In fact, the inclination that characterises all existence is operative for Serres at multiple linguistic levels, including the semiotic, the semantic and the narratological. In a series of four recent books83 he develops a theory of narrative that strictly follows this Lucretian paradigm, understanding stories as a series of branchings, deviations or clinamina, and as early as Jouvences he insists that ‘there would never have been any history without declination, . . . there would never have been 80 81

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Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 141. ‘l’aile mouvante du papillon dans les phénomènes chaotiques; les catalyseurs, en chimie; la mutation au sens néodarwinien, la vaccine de Jenner ou les microbes de Pasteur, qui changent les organismes à partir d’inclinaisons aussi infimes, sans face-à-face ni cliquetis d’armes’. ‘L’orientation peut donc être dite originaire, invariante, irréductible, si constamment physique qu’elle en devient métaphysique.’ See Serres, Hominescence; L’Incandescent; Rameaux; and Récits d’humanisme (2006). I consider the narratological implications of Serres’s recent work in Watkin, ‘Michel Serres’ Great Story’.

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any story’ ( JJV 111).84 In Morales espiègles he gives this a mythical spin by framing Adam and Eve’s inaugural act of disobedience as an original bifurcation, and indeed he frames humanity as the disobedient animal: Among the animals that rarely disobey, those we call genetic automata follow an instinct programmed since the origin of their species: that is why they have no history other than that of evolution. We change, progress and regress, we invent the future because we are de-programmed and we disobey. So is this the motor of history? Parmi les animaux qui désobéissent rarement, ceux que l’on appelle automates génétiques suivent un instinct programmé depuis l’origine de leur espèce: voilà pourquoi ils n’ont d’histoire que l’évolution. Nous changeons, progressons et régressons, nous inventons l’avenir parce que, déprogrammés, nous désobéissons. Voilà donc le moteur de l’histoire? (ME 10)

This understanding of story in terms of the clinamen allows Serres to embrace with a single motif both the narratives of human culture and what he calls the ‘Great Story’ of the universe from its origin, through the asymmetries which cause the formation of planets and the inclinations that shape evolution. Similarly, he insists that thinking itself is leaning, and that all its discoveries and creations derive only from branchings, bifurcations or ruptures of symmetry (GB 78). This insistence on the continuity between ‘natural’ and ‘cultural’ clinamina sets Serres apart from thinkers like Derrida and Nancy, for it distances from his writing any notion that language necessarily reduces the alterity of that about which it speaks.85 Language does not violently totalise the material world but perpetuates 84 85

‘il n’y aurait jamais eu d’histoire sans déclinaison, . . . il n’y aurait jamais eu de récit’. It is not that Derrida and Nancy – or Deleuze, for that matter – consider language and the world to be radically different to each other. This is the perennial misunderstanding of Derrida’s ‘il n’y a pas de hors-texte’ which confuses ‘text’ with ‘syntactic language’. Derrida is quite happy to say that the living cell, for example, is an instance of writing: we say ‘writing’ for all that gives rise to an inscription in general, whether it is literal or not and even if what it distributes in space is alien to the order of the voice: cinematography, choreography, of course, but also pictorial, musical, sculptural ‘writing.’ One might also speak of athletic writing, and with even greater certainty of military or political writing in view of the techniques that govern those domains today. All this to describe not only the system of notation secondarily connected with these activities but the essence and the content of these activities themselves. It is also in this sense that the contemporary biologist speaks of writing and pro-gram in relation to the most elementary processes of information within the living cell. (Derrida, Of Grammatology, 9) On tend maintenant à dire « écriture » pour . . . tout ce qui peut donner lieu à une inscription en général, qu’elle soit ou non littérale et même si ce qu’elle distribue dans l’espace est étranger à l’ordre de la voix: cinématographie, chorégraphie, certes, mais aussi « écriture » picturale, musicale, sculpturale, etc. On pourrait aussi

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and extends its rhythms. Nor is there an equivalent dichotomy, for Serres, to that between Badiouian truths and the inconsistent multiplicity they count as one. Clinamen is imperceptible, and its effect is gradual and cumulative, not an ‘event’ in Badiou’s sense. In whichever direction we look, no basic divisions or alterities scar the undulating landscape of Serresian thought: it is inclination all the way down, all the way back, all the way up and all the way forward. Serres’s account of the universality of inclination and information–energy also bears comparison with Catherine Malabou’s attempt to account for the whole of the real in terms of the paradigm of epigenesis. In a crucial passage in Before Tomorrow Malabou argues that epigenesis is not a term restricted merely to accounting for the development of the brain; it provides a paradigm for describing all existence: Brain epigenetics is not a production apparatus of the sole ‘holding-true’ that concerns only subjectivity. Brain activity is the natural and material capturing of nature and matter; the contingency of its epigenesis thus also engages the contingency of the world concretely. The brain is no more a subject than the world is an object. The epigenetic development of the brain affects the totality of the real.86 L’épigénétique cérébrale n’est pas un appareil de production du seul « tenir pour vrai », qui ne concernerait que la subjectivité. L’activité cérébrale est saisie naturelle et matérielle de la nature et de la matière, la contingence de son épigenèse engage donc aussi concrètement celle du monde. Le cerveau n’est pas plus un sujet que le monde n’est un objet. Le développement épigénétique du cerveau affecte la totalité du réel.87

parler d’écriture athlétique et plus sûrement encore, si l’on songe aux techniques qui gouvernent aujourd’hui ces domaines, d’écriture militaire ou politique. Tout cela pour décrire non seulement le système de notation s’attachant secondairement à ces activités mais l’essence et le contenu de ces activités elles-mêmes. C’est aussi en ce sens que le biologiste parle aujourd’hui d’écriture et de programme à propos des processus les plus élémentaires de l’information dans la cellule vivante. (Derrida, De la grammatologie, 19)

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Nancy, for his part, is equally happy to move effortlessly from the material to the conceptual in his account of beings in L’Expérience de la liberté and elsewhere. What sets Serres apart from thinkers like Derrida and Nancy at this point is not his insistence that there is no dichotomy between language and the material world, but the persistence, in the latter thinkers, of the idea that language necessarily and violently reduces the otherness of that about which it speaks (see Derrida, ‘Violence and Metaphysics), and that ‘there is no experience of sense if “experience” is supposed to imply the appropriation of a signification . . . there is nothing other than experience of sense if “experience” says that sense precedes all appropriation or succeeds and exceeds it’, Nancy, The Sense of the World, 11/‘il n’y a pas d’expérience du sens si « expérience » doit impliquer l’appropriation d’une signification – mais qu’il n’y a rien d’autre que l’expérience du sens (et c’est le monde) si « expérience » dit que le sens précède toute appropriation, ou lui succède, et l’excède’, Le Sens du monde, 24. Malabou, Before Tomorrow, 150. Malabou, Avant demain, 259–60.

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Drawing on the work of neuroscientist Jean-Pierre Changeux, Malabou argues that epigenesis involves several strata: embedded in one another, each one [is] subject to random variability: the evolution of species in paleontological time, together with its consequences for the genetic constitution of human beings; individual evolution, through the epigenesis of neural connections, which occurs throughout the individual’s development; cultural evolution, likewise epigenetic but extracerebral, which spans not only psychological time but also age-old memories; and finally the evolution of personal thought, which occurs in psychological time and draws upon individual and cultural memories that are both cognitive and emotional.88 enchâssées les unes dans les autres, sujettes chacune à la variabilité aléatoire: l’évolution des espèces pendant les temps paléontologiques et ses conséquences sur notre constitution génétique, l’évolution individuelle par l’épigenèse des connexions neuronales qui concourt au développement de l’individu, l’évolution culturelle, elle aussi épigénétique, extra-cérébrale, qui va des temps psychologiques aux mémoires millénaires, et enfin l’évolution de la pensée personnelle, également épigénétique, qui se produit dans les temps psychologiques et met à contribution les mémoires individuelles et culturelles, cognitives et émotionnelles.89

These nested levels of epigenesis lead Malabou to posit ‘[w]hat we can henceforth call the epigenetic structure of the real’.90 While Malabou’s epigenesis of the real bears similarities to Serres’s ontology of inclination, it differs in two important respects. First, all of Malabou/Changeux’s examples of epigenesis are biotic, whereas for Serres inclination accounts for inanimate as well as animate existence. Secondly, Malabou’s account lacks Serres’s rigorous aspectualism. Malabou’s idea that various instances of epigenesis are nested one within another is in contrast to Serres’s Leibnizian aspectual pluralism, in which there is no hierarchy of discourses, no most fundamental or ‘umbilical’ instance of inclination. Malabou’s reliance on Changeux at this point in her argument takes her in a different direction to Serres, for it is clear in Changeux’s exchanges with Alain Connes and Paul Ricoeur that he considers neuroscience to be an umbilical discipline to which all

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Malabou, Before Tomorrow, 150–1, quoting Changeux, What Makes Us Think, 239. Malabou, Avant demain, 260, quoting Changeux and Ricoeur, Ce qui nous fait penser, la nature et la règle, 267. Malabou, Before Tomorrow, 151/‘[c]e que nous pouvons appeler désormais la structure épigénétique du réel’, Avant demain, 261.

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others can ultimately be reduced, founding not only his account of the mind but also the discourse of mathematics.91 Language, then, is not foreign to and necessarily reductive of material existence (as it is considered to be in structuralist linguistic philosophies), for the reason that it participates in the same movements of inclination of which existence consists in the first place. The world is not the other of language to begin with, such that the gulf between language and world either is or is not bridged; existence and language are inextricably intertwined aspects of the same movement of inclination. For linguistic philosophies, language seeks to represent or imitate the world, and fails to do so. For Serres, language participates successfully in the orientation of the world. Whereas linguistic philosophy stresses the failure of language as mimesis, Serres hails its success as methexis. (Eco)mimesis and (eco)methexis

One important consequence of Serres’s account of inclination embracing both language and material existence is that it is not primarily mimetic. For Serres, language does not represent the material world any more than the material world represents language: that would be to install either atoms or letters as the umbilical instance of inclination. Instead they both participate, and participate equally, in the universal condition of inclination. This leads Serres away from a mimetic and towards a methectic account of language, and therefore also to a new approach to ecomimesis that is a prominent theme in contemporary ecophilosophy. It is the central motif, for example, of Timothy Morton’s Ecology without Nature and is also treated briefly in his Hyperobjects.92 Ecomimesis for Morton can be weak (‘whenever writing evokes an environment’93) or strong (which ‘purports to evoke the here and now of writing’, in the mode of ‘“as I write this, the smell of hot dogs wafts through the Lisbon night air”’94). In other words, ecomimesis (in both its weak and strong forms) is ‘nature writing’95 in the sense of writing about nature.

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For a development of Changeux’s views on philosophy and neuroscience, see Changeux and Ricoeur, Ce qui nous fait penser/What Makes Us Think? Changeux sets out his understanding of the relationship between neuroscience and mathematics in Changeux and Connes, Matière à pensée/ Conversations on Mind, Matter, and Mathematics. Morton, Ecology without Nature; Hyperobjects. Morton, Ecology without Nature, 33. Morton, Ecology without Nature, 32–3. Morton, Ecology without Nature, 10.

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Ecomimesis assumes in fact not one imitation but two, which can be represented diagrammatically. First, a mimesis of ‘nature’ by ‘language’: writing can only ever imitate and seek (and inevitably fail) adequately to represent the world outside the author’s study window. Secondly, there is also a mimesis of ‘language’ by ‘nature’: the world outside language can only ever imitate or provide a metaphorical, romanticised version of the structures and meaningfulness of language, but it can never directly participate in them (see Figure 4.10). This mimetic paradigm can only ever understand the claim that there is language in nature as a metaphor. Human beings have ‘real’, non-metaphorical language, to which other phenomena may or may not approximate to varying degrees. On this understanding, saying that the stars or a river or a one-celled organism speak or sing, or that a stone thinks, is (at best) romantic or (at worst) animist nonsense (In 64/Inc 31). This objection is only true, however, if the sacred model is assumed. Inside the human pomerium there is real language, and outside there is what might metaphorically or whimsically be called non-human ‘languages’. The crucial way in which Serres’s model differs from this mimetic, sacred paradigm is that, when he talks about ‘nature writing’, he does not only mean ‘writing about nature’, but ‘writing by nature’. In Biogea (first published in 2010), for example, Serres can claim not only that he thinks about the world, but that he thinks like the world (Bi 159/Bio 187): ‘Coded-coding, each thing reverberates in every other thing, coding-coded’ (Bi 114/Bio 131),96 humans included (TDC 61/ TOC 34). This coding is, furthermore, inherent to the processes of nature absent any human intervention:

Figure 4.10 Ecomimesis assumes a double imitation 96

‘Codante-codée, chaque chose retentit à toute autre chose, codée-codante.’

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Made up of letters, figures or notes in long sequences, the multiply folded chains of acids and proteins transcribe and translate themselves by themselves, without our intervention. There is no need for us to discover mathematical language, it inhabits the very intestines of the thing; it does not describe or explain these new objects from the outside, but rather constitutes them, present in their innermost part. Formés de lettres, de chiffres ou de notes en longues séquences, les rubans multiplement ployés des acides et des protéines se transcrivent et se traduisent d’eux-mêmes sans notre intervention. Nous n’avons point à découvrir le langage mathématique, il gît dans les entrailles mêmes de la chose; il ne décrit ni n’explique ces nouveaux objets de l’extérieur, mais, présent dans leur intimité, il les constitue. (Hom 95)

Light, wind, rain, chemical reactions, yews and sperm whales (Bi 147/Bio 172), crystals, stellar colours, radioactivity, biochemistry, rocks, glaciers, DNA, the Big Bang: in example after example the world is not merely written, it knows how to write: ‘Inert or living, the universe speaks as we do, writes as we do, talks and expresses itself as we do, creates data banks, remembers, translates and even sometimes makes mistakes or lies, though rarely’ (RH 80).97 This writing, furthermore, forms a story, providing an econarratology to accompany Serres’s account of ecomethexis: ‘the Universe, the Earth and life know how to tell the story of their origins, to speak of their evolution, slowing the contingent bifurcations of their time and sometimes giving a glimpse of the period of their disappearance’ (RH 80).98 So what relation does human language have to this cacophony? It is an extension of, and participation in it: ‘We perceive and know the world in the same way that the world perceives itself and knows itself. The background noise of my body hears the background noise of the world: harmony, anharmony disharmony?’ (TU 212).99 The world opens itself to me (ego pateo) and I to the world (mundus patet): ‘interfering, we both vibrate together, like the canvas of the tent and the wind, with fear, with emotions, with similar movements’ (Bi 100–1/Bio 114).100 I do not simply think

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‘Inerte ou vivant, l’univers parle comme nous, écrit comme nous, dit et s’exprime comme nous, crée des banques de données, se souvient, traduit, et même parfois, mutant, erre ou ment, mais rarement.’ ‘L’Univers, la Terre et la vie savent raconter leur origine, disent leur évolution, relatent les bifurcations contingentes de leur temps et laissent entrevoir parfois, l’ère de leur disparition.’ ‘Nous percevons et connaissons le monde à la mode même où le monde s’auto-perçoit et s’autoconnaît. Le bruit de fond de mon corps entend le bruit de fond du monde: harmonie, anharmonie, dysharmonie?’ ‘Interférant, nous vibrons tous deux ensemble, comme la toile de tente et le vent, de peur, d’émotions, de mouvements semblables.’

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about rivers; I think like a river (Bi 27/Bio 23) or like the sea (Bi 29, 79/Bio 26, 88), like the earth and like a mountain (Bi 32/Bio 29). Writing is not something estranged from the processes of the natural world, but participates in those processes: ‘Work flows from me like honey, like the spider’s web . . . I am a bee or a spider, a tree. I no longer can tell the difference between work and secretion’ (P 118/Par 86–7).101 My little stories are part of the universe’s big story, not an imitation of it from the outside but a participation in it from the inside: ‘The speaking subject mingles its sound with those of resonant objects. I write like light, crystal or a stream; I tell my story like the world’ (RH 80).102 This is why ‘[w]e are in want of a general theory of marks, traces and signals to go with the physics of forces, to teach us to remember the world and remember as it does, to write on it and like it’ (In 73/Inc 36, CW’s emphasis).103 This is not an account of mimetic representation, but of methectic collaboration: ‘I think, therefore I mimic? No, rather I plunge into its Story, the powerful dynamism of which shows me how to invent, step by step’ (GB 10).104 Does the ecomethectic paradigm mean that there is no mimesis at all? Surely human language still seeks to represent the natural world. Surely onomatopoeia imitate, even if nothing else does? It does indeed, but this mimesis is now framed and contextualised by an original methexis. Before any poet puts pen to paper in an act of ecomimesis, and as the condition of possibility of any such poetic act, there is an irreducible and non-binary participation of the ‘subject’ and ‘language’ in the world they conspire to imitate. Ecomimesis always comes to the party second, supervening upon a more fundamental ecomethexis: my language participates in the rhythms and inclinations of the ‘natural’ world, of material existence, before it can ever seek to represent them. Mimesis stands on the shoulders of methexis. From the point of view of Serresian ecomethexis there is no qualitative difference between language and the natural world. Language is not indistinguishable from other modes or media of information exchange, but it is not the paradigm of all information exchange either. As David Webb points out, this is the case because for atomist theories order itself is a code, to write about things is to participate in their metamorphosis through language.105 In Steven Connor’s succinct

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‘L’œuvre, tout à l’heure, coule de moi comme du miel, comme le fil de l’araignée . . . Je suis une abeille ou une araignée, un arbre. Je ne vois plus la différence entre l’œuvre et la sécrétion.’ ‘Le sujet parlant mêle son bruit à celui des objets résonnants. J’écris comme lumière, cristal ou ruisseau; je me raconte comme le monde.’ ‘il nous manque une théorie générale des marques, des traces et des signaux pour apprendre à nous souvenir comme le monde et de lui, pour écrire comme lui et sur lui’. ‘Je pense, donc je le mime? Non, je plonge plutôt en son Récit, dont le dynamisme puissant me montre, pas à pas, comment inventer.’ Webb, ‘Penser le multiple sans le concept’, 93.

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formulation, ‘life is this writing of itself: bios is autographic, hence autobiographical’.106 Regardless of what language says, its saying always already participates in the inclination of all things: ‘[w]hoever speaks is also singing beneath the words spoken, is beating out rhythm beneath the song, is diving into the background noise underneath the rhythm’ (CS 127/FS 120).107 This insistence on the primacy of linguistic ecomethexis over ecomimesis parallels Jean-Luc Nancy’s insistence on the ad-oratio, the address that precedes and makes possible any communication,108 and it also parallels the Levinasian ‘Saying’ that is always present in every ‘said’.109 One important difference, however, is that Serres’s ecomethexis neither originates with nor takes as its paradigm human speech. To participate in the rhythms of the world is not to recognise the excess of sense in the other (as for Nancy), or to acknowledge the injunction that lays on me an infinite demand (as for Levinas), but to break down the wall of alterity between human language and a crystal, a whirlwind or a tree. Serresian ecomethexis also challenges the account of the relation between writing and ambiance in Morton’s Ecology without Nature. Morton sets up the stakes of ecomimesis in terms of overcoming a Cartesian dualism of subject and object, and indeed he cites Serres in order to do so: ‘We must . . . change direction and abandon the heading imposed by Descartes’ philosophy.’110 But, as he freely admits, he cannot escape this dualism of an inside (the subject’s experience) and an outside (the subjectless world or what Quentin Meillassoux would call the ‘great outdoors’111) and so it continues to structure his account of ecomimesis. What is more, this dualism cannot but structure Morton’s thinking because mimesis as a figure requires a minimal split between the imitator, the imitation and the imitated, a split which also lends itself readily to parsing subject, text and object. What Serres’s methectic paradigm allows us to see is that, when Morton rightly rejects the false immediacy of ecomimetic prose (or what in Hyperobjects he calls ‘presentism’112), he is only giving us half the story. To be sure, his analysis is correct when he argues that the words ‘“As I write these words, I peer out of the window of my study across open fields and gnarled trees crusted with ice”’113 can

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Connor, ‘The Hard and the Soft’. ‘Qui parle chante sous la langue, rythme du temps sous le chant, plonge dans le bruit de fond sous son rythme.’ See Nancy, L’Adoration, 28–9/Adoration, 17–18. See Levinas, Otherwise Than Being or Beyond Essence. Serres, The Natural Contract, 34, quoted in Morton, Ecology without Nature, 105. See Meillassoux, Après la finitude/After Finitude. See Morton, Hyperobjects. Morton, Ecology without Nature, 33.

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in no way cash the cheque of immediacy they so beautifully sign, but the analysis is not yet complete; we need to add a crucial supplement to this failure. Such a sentence does not deliver immediacy mimetically; on that, everyone is agreed. It is, however, a performance of immediacy when considered as methexis, as Serres would have us do. The words it employs are inclining in their meaning, held in tension between monotone and white noise, in just the same way that the gnarled, ice-encrusted trees exist by virtue of the clinamen. There is immediacy in these words after all, but it is methectic and not mimetic. Where Morton’s ecomimesis remains anthropocentric (for only people do ‘nature writing’), Serres’s universal paradigm is (to use his favourite prefix) pancentric in a way that does not exclude human communication, but does not give it a qualitatively privileged status either. It therefore breaks with the Cartesian paradigm more thoroughly than Morton is able to do. It elegantly overcomes the division between ‘nature’ and ‘culture’ without implicitly or explicitly creating a hierarchy that elevates either term above the other, and it provides a unified approach to language that implacably resists the sacred paradigm with all its attendant problems and inadequacies. Information and Energy

Thus far we have seen that Serres’s account of language is radically naturalised and non-anthropocentric, and that language is coextensive with material existence in a non-metaphorical way. This final section of the chapter will continue unfolding Serres’s understanding of language by turning from the paradigm of atoms and the clinamen to that of information theory in order to explore the implications of his claim that everything from crystals and stars to organisms and towns receives, stores, process and emits information. The sacred model of language

Much of Western modernity considers language to be the exclusive preserve of rational human subjects, and considers the rest of the world to be mute. Language belongs within the pomerium of the subject, the privileged, sacred domain, set apart within the vast universe as the templum for the worship of human rationality. This is a meaningful and ethically significant human realm of culture burgeoning with language. The world outside its city walls, by contrast, is a blank canvas of meaninglessness ripe for linguistic conquest and exploitation, a non-human world which is full of mute objects and indifferent with regard to ethics: neither good nor evil (see Figure 4.11).

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Figure 4.11 The sacred model of language The sacred model of language also divides the ‘soft’ inside of the pomerium from the ‘hard’ outside: ‘On the one hand, storms and tsunamis, shorn of intention; on the other, institutions and dialogues, human, conventionalised. On one side, forces; on the other, codes’ (MP 85/Mal 62–3).114 The separation of the sacred domain of subjective meaningfulness from the profane wasteland of meaningless objectivity is commonly traced to the Cartesian distinction between res cogitans and res existensa. We find it classically formulated in Albert Camus’s notion of the absurd, for which a human expectation for meaningfulness butts up against the senselessness of the world: I said that the world is absurd, but I was too hasty. This world in itself is not reasonable, that is all that can be said. But what is absurd is the confrontation of this irrational and the wild longing for clarity whose call echoes in the human heart. The absurd depends as much on man as on the world. For the moment it is all that links them together.115 Je disais que le monde est absurde et j’allais trop vite. Ce monde en lui-même n’est pas raisonnable, c’est tout ce qu’on peut dire. Mais ce qui est absurde, c’est la confrontation de cet irrationnel et de ce désir éperdu de clarté dont l’appel résonne au plus profond de l’homme. L’absurde dépend autant de l’homme que du monde. Il est pour le moment leur seul lien.116 114

115 116

‘D’un côté, les orages et les tsunamis, privés d’intention; de l’autre, les institutions et les dialogues, humains et conventionnels. D’un côté, les forces; de l’autre, les codes.’ Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, 21. Camus, Œuvres complètes, 233.

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This opposition between the indifference or irrationality of the world and a subject unable to abandon its expectation of meaningfulness plays itself out again and again in modern European thought. It is in fact a peculiarity of the modern West. Ancient Greek and Roman cultures understood that the gods reserved the right to communicate through the natural world and even created the office of the haruspex to interpret the divine messages left in the entrails of sacrificial animals. Judaism and Christianity, likewise, have no problem in asserting that ‘The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands’ (Ps. 19: 1) and ‘since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse’ (Rom. 1: 20). It is in the seventeenth century that communicative agency is denied both to gods and to nature, becoming the peculiar preserve of human subjects in a move that leaves material existence mute and bare.117 Despite the Romantic tempering of modernity’s restriction of language to human agents and the now fashionable rejection of Cartesianism, variations of the sacred model are also at work in contemporary thought. It can be seen in Catherine Malabou’s Ontology of the Accident, in which she presses her reader to recognise ‘the existence of an element of indifference in being itself’,118 or in Quentin Meillassoux’s contention that we live in a ‘glacial world . . . in which there is no longer any up or down, centre or periphery, nor anything else that might make of it a world designed for humans’.119 The sacred model also underpins the thought of Jacques Rancière, as can be seen when he equates syntactic, discursive language use with political equality: political activity is always a mode of expression that undoes the perceptible divisions of the police order by implementing a basically heterogeneous assumption, that of a part of those who have no part, an assumption that, at the end of the day, itself demonstrates the sheer contingency of the order, the equality of any speaking being with any other speaking being.120 l’activité politique est toujours un mode de manifestation qui défait les partages sensibles de l’ordre policier par la mise en acte d’une présupposition qui lui est par

117 118

119 120

See Rigby, ‘Language’, 263–4. ‘l’existence d’un élément d’indifférence dans l’être même’, Malabou, Ontologie de l’accident, 29/ Ontology of the Accident, 24. Meillassoux, Après la finitude, 159/After Finitude, 115. Rancière, Disagreement, 30.

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principe hétérogène, celle d’une part des sans-part, laquelle manifeste elle-même, en dernière instance, la pure contingence de l’ordre, l’égalité de n’importe quel être parlant avec n’importe quel autre être parlant.121

This is a particularly striking instance of the equation of language with ethical value, but similar moves are made by Badiou and Meillassoux when they insist on the uniqueness of human beings as thinking, rational animals.122 Whatever the nuances of individual philosophical positions, the scope of language is a political question. Descartes takes animals’ inability to use language in a human, syntactic way as a sign that they have ‘no minds at all’ and that nature acts in them according to the dispositions of their organs, as we see that a clock, which is composed of nothing but wheels and springs, can count the hours and measure time more accurately than we can with all the care at our command.123

Similarly, the importance in the late 1970s and 1980s of discerning whether Koko the gorilla had a capacity for complex language use was far from a purely linguistic question; it impinged on questions of animal personhood, dignity and equality.124 My purpose here is not to arbitrate these individual cases. The point that emerges from Serres’s account of language is a more fundamental one, namely that the great majority of the discourse around animal languages, animal rights, animal dignity and indeed human dignity assumes the sacred/profane structure: if we can prove that animals have language then we are – it is assumed – ipso facto making a case for their dignity, allowing them to join us inside the sacred pomerium of language use. Having decreed that syntactic language use of itself bestows on humans a special ethical status, we agree to make language-using animals, to all intents and purposes, honorary humans, which is about as satisfying and acceptable as making women honorary men or black people honorary white people. The problem with the sacred model per se is that it is always a question of where to draw the line, of which species should be allowed inside the sacred templum of language, and who or what should remain in the profane, mute exterior. Hence the historical polemics over whether slaves have language, or whether particular colonised peoples have language. Attempts to define the uniqueness of human language continue today, whether it be the argument that only human language is

121 122 123 124

Rancière, La Mésentente: politique et philosophie, 53. See Chapters 1 and 2 of my French Philosophy Today. Descartes, Discourse on Method, Optics, Geometry, and Meteorology, 47. See Cavalieri and Singer, The Great Ape Project.

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rational, only human language is inventive rather than purely descriptive, or only human beings have a sense of linguistic ‘rightness’.125 Fighting over where to draw the line between language use and non-use simply will not do, because the very division itself between sacred and secular will always leave someone or something out in the cold, cast beyond the pale of dignity. And so the question to be asked is not at all about where we draw the line: do slaves have language, do great apes, do other animals? The problem is that we have accepted the premise that we need to draw a line anywhere, that language is a phenomenon with discrete borders that we need to identify and police. Serres avoids this trap by arguing that language use is universal. Situating his contributions in the context of early modern debates about the possibility of universal language will begin to show that there is much more at stake than the question of whether animals have language or not. From biosemiotics to pansemiotics

Serres’s own position on the scope of language is radical: nothing at all is excluded from language use. In this he goes beyond not only the debates about language use in higher primates but also the customary treatments of information in the burgeoning discipline of biosemiotics, ‘[t]he study of signs, of communication, and of information in living organisms’.126 Biosemiotics traces its roots to the work of the German biologist Jakob von Uexküll (1864–1944), whose influence can also be seen in the thought of Martin Heidegger, Georges Canguilhem, the later Merleau-Ponty, Gilles Deleuze and contemporary posthumanisms. Uexküll understands all animals, human beings included, in terms of their Umwelt (environment), the range of environmental signals to which a particular animal is sensitive. Some animals navigate primarily by smell, picking out certain olfactory stimuli as significant and ignoring altogether other stimuli to which different species are acutely sensitive. Dogs can hear sounds imperceptible to humans, and so forth. Uexküll’s most famous example, upon which Deleuze seizes in A Thousand Plateaus, is the Umwelt of the humble tick: 125

126

This latter position is advocated by Taylor in The Language Animal. Despite the title of his book, for Taylor it is a ‘category mistake’ (139) to consider humans to be animals, an argument made in part on the basis of the human capacity to discern ‘expressive rightness’ or ‘descriptive rightness’ in language, the capacity to tell the difference between a right and a wrong description. Smith, Oxford Dictionary of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, 72. This definition is endorsed by the International Society for Biosemiotic Studies. See (last accessed 22 August 2019). Moser discusses Serres’s relationship to biosemiotics theories in Chapter 1 of The Encyclopedic Philosophy of Michel Serres. See also my ‘Michel Serres’ Great Story’.

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Out of the egg crawls a not yet fully developed little animal, still missing one pair of legs as well as genital organs. Even in this state, it can already ambush cold-blooded animals such as lizards, for which it lies in wait on the tip of a blade of grass. After many moltings, it has acquired the organs it lacked and can now go on its quest for warm-blooded creatures. Once the female has copulated, she climbs with her full count of eight legs to the tip of a protruding branch of any shrub in order either to fall onto small mammals who run by underneath or to let herself be brushed off the branch by large ones. The eyeless creature finds the way to its lookout with the help of a general sensitivity to light in the skin. The blind and deaf bandit becomes aware of the approach of its prey through the sense of smell. The odour of butyric acid, which is given off by the skin glands of all mammals, gives the tick the signal to leave its watch post and leap off. If it then falls onto something warm – which its fine sense of temperature will tell it – then it has reached its prey, the warm-blooded animal, and needs only use its sense of touch to find a spot as free of hair as possible in order to bore past its own head into the skin tissue of the prey. Now, the tick pumps a stream of warm blood slowly into itself.127

The tick’s world comprises, by human standards, a very small number of meaningful signs: light, butyric acid, warmth and blood. And yet Uexküll’s point is that the tick’s Umwelt is perfectly coherent and perfectly meaningful: not hierarchically inferior to the human Umwelt, but certainly different. The ecosystem is constituted by a very great number of overlapping Umwelten, with each species of plant and animal having its own particular configuration of meaningful signs which it reads and processes (for the tick, feeling the warmth of the sun leads to climbing up, and sensing butyric acid leads to dropping down). This is at the basis of the study of biosemiotics. It is common for accounts of biosemiotics to emphasise the continuity between human discursive language and other means of communication and information exchange, be they aural, visual, chemical or genetic.128 There are of course differences of degree between human and other languages (though the extreme complexity of some animal forms of communication is only now becoming known129), but not of kind. The world is understood as a ‘polylogic semiosphere’, an environment of many overlapping but largely non-communicating sign systems.130 127 128 129 130

Von Uexküll, A Foray into the Worlds of Animals and Humans, 45. See, for example, Sebeok and Umiker-Sebeok, Biosemiotics. See, for example, Kaplan, Australian Magpie. The semiotic philosophy of Charles Sanders Peirce is commonly acknowledged to have provided theorists such as Sebok with an account of sign systems that was not restricted to human verbal communication, unlike the structuralism of Ferdinand de Saussure.

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There is much in Serres’s writing that concurs with these biosemiotic principles. He is quite ready to show, for example, that the robin has at least 1,000 separate songs, and that chimpanzees ululate throughout the night in choirs that form and disband (Mus 57–8). He is happy to acknowledge that human language derives in part from animal calls and is not of a different genus to them (Bi 101/Bio 115). Serres frames his own account of the semiosphere in terms of the receiving, stocking, processing and emitting of information, and he concurs with most biosemioticians when he argues that this extends to all living things: ‘Bacteria, mushrooms, whales, sequoias, we know of no living things that do not emit, receive, stock and process information’ (IP).131 For Serres, human and animal genomes are texts, and those texts are read and interpreted by RNA (Hom 100). History does indeed begin with the invention of writing, but the writing Serres has in mind is genetic, reaching much further back than human ideographs or hieroglyphs (Pan 155–6). Nowhere is this more powerfully illustrated than in what he calls ‘the greatest discovery of the century’ (Ram 29),132 namely that information is found in the very heart of matter, ‘in the disposition of atoms to form molecules, or that of particles in atoms’ (Ram 29).133 Everything in the universe, humans included, receives, stores, processes and emits information. Here we can already see Serres beginning to depart from biosemiotic orthodoxy: his account of semiosis is not limited to the biological. Atoms are not alive, and yet for Serres they process information like humans and animals. It would be more accurate to label his thought an ecosemiotics134 or, even better, a pansemiotics, rather than a biosemiotics. Serres repeatedly brings non-living entities into his discussions of language and meaning, and not merely as passive carriers of information. The wind, for example, ‘spreads by variable waves, by means of beats and interferences: thunders, explodes, vibrates, whistles in a high pitch, booms in a low, makes the entire world enter into its intense, regular and chaotic trance’ (Bio 97/Bio 110, translation altered),135 sculpting waves, flattening palm trees, moving around sand

131

132 133 134

135

‘Bactérie, champignon, baleines, sequoias, nous ne connaissons pas de vivants dont on ne puisse pas dire qu’il émet de l’information, il en reçoit, qu’il la stocke, et qu’il la traite.’ ‘la plus grande découverte du siècle’. ‘dans la disposition des atomes pour former les molécules, où celle des particules dans les atomes’. The term has a common definition different from what I suggest here. Ecosemiotics is ‘the semiotics of relationships between nature and culture’, and therefore far too anthropocentric to describe Serres’s understanding of semiosis. See Kull, ‘Semiotic Ecology’. ‘se répand par ondes variables, battements, interférences: tonne, explose, vibre, siffle haut, sonne bas, fait entrer le monde entier dans sa transe intense, régulière et chaotique’.

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dunes in the incipiently ordered way that rhythms the tohu-bohu. In fact, the wind parallels the origin of language: Thanks to the wind and through it, I think I understand how a language begins. We too start from the commotion triggered by an emotion in the groin and translate it by means of vocalizations, laments and cries into disjointed waves and jerky rhythms accompanied by showers of sobs. (Bio 111) Grâce au vent et par lui, je crois entendre comment commence un langage. Nous partons, nous aussi, du tohu-bohu qu’une émotion déclenche dans le bas-ventre et le traduisons par des vocalises, complaintes et cris, en ondes sans suite et rythmes saccadés, qu’accompagnent des sanglots en pluie. (Bi 98)

This parallel will no doubt raise objections: the wind does not know what it is doing, and unlike human speech its movements have no intentional meaning. However, this objection assumes a binary understanding of meaning as either fully present or utterly absent (see Figure 4.12). Serres, however, operates with a gradual scale of meaningfulness, ranging as we have seen between white noise and monotone. The wind finds its place on this scale, giving what Serres calls ‘the first grain of sense’: ‘The wind doesn’t speak by means of its violence, but it nevertheless sets at the same time the tone and the tempo, a tempo interrupted with disharmonies, the ruptures of rhythm’ (Bi 100/Bio 113) (see Figure 4.13).136

Figure 4.12 The binary understanding of meaning as either fully present or utterly absent 136

‘Par sa violence, le vent ne parle pas, mais pourtant il donne à la fois le la et la mesure, le tempo coupé de dysharmonies, les ruptures de rythme.’

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Figure 4.13 Serres’s gradual scale of meaningfulness The claim that the wind has no meaning also begins from the assumption that the only meaning is that emitted by a self-conscious subject. Serres opposes this equation of meaning with conscious intention by multiplying it: intentional, conscious language use is one instance of a broader category which it does not control; it is not the umbilical form of ‘sense’ with relation to which all other so-called ‘meanings’ are metaphors or approximations. Serres arrives at this understanding of meaning and language as distributed phenomena through engaging with information theory and thermodynamics. In the chapter ‘Origine du langage’ in Hermès IV: la distribution (H4 259–72/HLSP 71–83) he notes that nineteenth-century thermodynamics concerned itself with motors and remained on the everyday scale of machines and living organisms with moving parts. The development of information theory in the early twentieth century borrowed and adapted its concept of entropy from thermodynamics, but was able to deal with scales of energy much smaller than those of thermodynamics, opening its methods to new objects of study: discourse, writing, language, and psychic and social phenomena. Thermodynamics allows us to theorise how entities receive, store, process/ exchange and emit energy, and information theory allows us to theorise how those same entities receive, store, process/exchange and emit information (H4 262), now understood as energy at orders of magnitude smaller than that of thermodynamics: ‘Writing is an energy’ ( JJV 186).137 Serres uses the biblical Vulgate formula ‘verbum caro factum est’ [‘the word became flesh’] (GB 155) to describe this coincidence of the energy and information, but the phrase risks misleading because it gives the impression that word and flesh first existed independently, before they were brought together. A riff on a Spinozan motif would be closer to what Serres has in mind: informatio sive energeia. 137

‘L’écriture est une énergie.’

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Despite this intimacy of energy and information, however, ‘the era of the signifier’ forgot the information theoretical debt to thermodynamics and began to detach language and information from the flows of energy that accompany and enable them. Carnot’s hot and cold sources disappeared behind theories of linguistic difference; transformational motors became informational motors and energy was eclipsed by language (H4 287–8).138 It is by recovering the continuity of the thermodynamic-information theoretical approach that Serres elaborates his universal semiotics. The living organism, now part of an open system of exchange, is traversed constantly by a torrent of information–energy in just the same way as other entities. ‘The body is a hyper-complex system producing language from information and noise’ (H4 270),139 and the same is true of cells and molecules: all are structured by the couplets information-background noise, chance-programme and entropy-negentropy, and they can be described aspectually in terms of chemistry, physics, thermodynamics or information theory. The organism is not one information-processing machine but many such machines in stratified layers of complexity, each layer ‘reading’ the noise-information from the stratum below it and interpreting its informational content: molecules, cells and organs all participate in this progressive elimination of residual background noise: ‘what was supposed to interfere begins constructing; obstacles combine to organise; noise becomes dialect’ (H4 268/HLSP 80). Each stratum is the unconscious of the layer above it, and so ‘there are as many unconsciouses in the system as there are integration levels’. So as a living organism I am not a receiver, stocker and emitter of information merely in my manipulation of discursive language: my skin for example receives and stocks information, ‘engraved and imprinted to the same extent as the surface of the brain, and perhaps in the same way’ (CS 76/FS 75).140 Understanding consciousness as one of these strata of organisation can help us to see why Serres’s position does not resolve to a crude animism. He rejects the ‘double absurdity’ that the inert world is alive and that life and the material together enjoy consciousness (At 133), while still maintaining that all entities receive, store, process and emit information. Serres can only be considered animist by a position that holds an umbilical view of human language as the controlling definition and yardstick of all possible languages. 138

139

140

This eclipse of thermodynamics behind information theory helps us to see why Serres is determined, in Jouvences and Feux et signaux de brume, to understand Verne’s and Zola’s texts in terms of motors and the Carnot cycle. ‘Le corps est un système hypercomplexe produisant du langage à partir de l’information et du bruit.’ ‘la peau se grave tout autant que la surface du cerveau, tout aussi écrite, peut-être de même façon’.

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Serres draws two main conclusions in ‘The Origin of Language’. The first is that meaning is demystified: It is no longer incomprehensible that the world is comprehensible. The real produces the conditions and means of its own self-knowledge. The rational, as they used to say, is an island of the real, a rare and exceptional summit that is quite as miraculous as the complicated system that produces it, through the slow conquest of the vagaries of the backwash, on the side. (HLSP 82–3, translation altered) Il n’est plus incompréhensible que le monde soit compréhensible. Le réel produit les conditions et les moyens de son auto-connaissance. Le rationnel, comme on disait, est un îlot de réel, un sommet rare, exceptionnel, aussi miraculeux que le système compliqué qui le produit, par conquête lente sur l’aléa du ressac, à la côte. (H4 271, emphasis original)

Sense and comprehensibility are no longer the preserve of human rational consciousness alone. Rationality is of course not excluded from meaning, but the production of meaning in human language is now seen as one operation among many, one island of sense in an archipelago surrounded by a sea of noise. We are not the only ones to write, to choose or to remember: ‘“It thinks” in the sense of “it rains” exists as much as “I think” or “we think”’ (In 338/Inc 191; see also In 71/Inc 37, GB 202).141 The world possesses the same faculties we used to think belonged to us alone (At 138), and the local, human economies of exchange that Marcel Mauss discovered are now incorporated into the general economy of the universe (BPP 103). In Steven Connor’s succinct formulation, ‘wherever we may look, in the genome, in the molecule, in the vibrating particle, there is no brute, inert, formless matter to be found, but rather . . . coding, information, writing, goes all the way down, and all the way back’.142 Serres is at pains repeatedly to stress – as he was in the case of Lucretius’s assertion that ‘atoms are letters’ – that to speak of matter thinking or remembering is not a metaphor. When he says that all things receive, store, process and emit information he speaks plainly and wants to be taken that way (Bi 115/Bio 132). To assume that this sort of language can only be metaphorical would be to ‘forget the process of metamorphosis which is worldwide, vital, primordial, quite literally joined up and religious, in order to believe that thinking has to do only with

141 142

‘Il y a du « il pense » au sens de « il pleut », autant que du « je pense » ou du « nous pensons ».’ Connor, ‘The Hard and the Soft’.

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neurons in the brain and the loquacious human’ (GB 24).143 To consign all nonhuman language to the status of being a metaphor of ‘genuine’ language would require a strange solipsism, imagining that we live alone in the world and on its surface, arriving there directly from the heavens, mistaking ourselves for the Platonic and Kantian sun. Serres’s refusal of the unique status of human language provides a further example of his figure of thought I have labelled opposition by generalisation: Serres opposes the primacy of human conscious thought, language and memory not by deflating consciousness but by showing human faculties to be particular instances of much broader features of the world. It is not that our language and faculties enjoy no special status, but that they share that special status with rocks, ticks and galaxies. Each information processer has its own variations on the four operations of receiving, storing, processing and emitting information, its own accent and syntax (Bi 148/Bio 173), but the particular modalities of human language are no basis on which to think it qualitatively unique. In fact, amid this ubiquity of language one lone and ironic uniqueness remains to humans: although we are not the only ones to use signs, we are still the only ones to think that we are the only ones to do so (TU 212). Once the fundamental principle of the ubiquity of information processing has been established, however, it is appropriate to acknowledge that human language and cognition are quantitatively exceptional: ‘in a thousand living species, sometimes highly “intelligent” ones, we find scattered a thousand ways of communicating which are united and combined more completely by the performances of our language’ (In 65–6/Inc 32).144 Human language integrates and processes information to a more complex degree than other modes of processing, but not in a qualitatively different way. Serres’s second conclusion in ‘The Origin of Language’ is that, understood in terms of thermodynamics and information theory, ontology is flat: Nothing distinguishes me ontologically from a crystal, a plant, this animal or the order of the world: together we drift towards the noise and black depths of the universe, and our diverse systematic constitutions travel upstream on the entropic river in the direction of the solar source, itself adrift. (HLSP 84)

143

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‘oublier le processus, mondial, vital, primordial, relié, donc, selon la lettre, religieux, de la métamorphose pour croire que penser concerne seulement les neurones du cerveau et le seul humain loquace’. ‘en mille espèces vivantes, parfois fort « intelligentes », se dispersent mille manières de communiquer que les performances de notre langage réunissent et combinent plus complètement’.

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Rien ne me distingue ontologiquement d’un cristal, d’une plante, de cet animal et de l’ordre du monde: nous dérivons ensemble vers le bruit et le fond noir de l’univers, et nos complexions diverses de système remontent le fleuve entropique en direction de la source solaire, elle-même en dérive. (H4 271)

It is the inclusion of the crystal and the ‘order of the world’ in this list that should capture our attention. Serres is not merely drawing a biosemiotic equivalence between information processing in human beings and in other animals, but a pansemiotic equivalence between human beings and all other entities in the universe: animate and inanimate, individual and collective. In terms of the amount of information transferred, human communication is eclipsed in the vast energy and information flows of the world: ‘the World writes just as much as we do, and better: it stores, processes, receives and emits information just as much as we do, and better’ (GM 106).145 What human language use, for example, ever caused of itself a world to come into being, a flower to bloom, a star to die or an organism to be born? Our language use may be more complex than that of other animals, but compared to the scale, complexity and effects of information exchange in the universe as a whole it barely registers. In fact, human language use piggybacks on many other forms of information exchange: it is a derivative latecomer to the party. In La Guerre mondiale among many other places, Serres explicitly underlines the universality of the fourfold operation of receiving, stocking, processing and emitting information: Must we not admit that the sun emits information, that the moon and a river etc. do so too? I see no objects incapable of performing these four operations. For example, a sperm whale emits information, receives information, stores information and processes it. It is true of a bird, of a single-celled organism, it is also true of the world . . . But is true as well of a town. . . . What is an arable farm? What is my house? My house receives information, emits information, stores information and processes it. In the world of objects I know of none, me included, that is not subject to these four operations. Ne faut-il pas admettre que le Soleil émet de l’information, que la Lune, que la rivière, etc., le font. Je ne vois pas d’objets qui soient incapables d’effectuer ces quatre opérations. Par exemple, un cachalot émet de l’information, reçoit de l’information, stocke de l’information et la traite. Et c’est vrai d’un oiseau, d’un monocellulaire, 145

‘le Monde écrit tout autant et mieux que nous; il stocke, traite, reçoit, émet de l’information tout autant et mieux que nous’.

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c’est vrai aussi de la Terre . . . Mais c’est aussi vrai d’une ville. . . . Qu’est-ce que c’est qu’une ferme agricole? Qu’est-ce que c’est que ma maison? Ma maison reçoit de l’information, émet de l’information, stocke de l’information et la traite. Je ne connais pas dans le monde d’objets, moi compris, qui ne soient pas soumis à ces quatre opérations. (GM 106; see also Bi 115/Bio 131–2, Mus 164, TDC 61/TOC 34, GB 12, Y 27, Pan 149, 151, 155–6, TU 212, At 115, FSB 67, GB 11)

Serres could not be more explicit: ‘the things themselves, inert, as well as the living things exchange elements, energy and information, preserve this latter, spread it, select it’ (In 338/Inc 191).146 Machines, furthermore, also have their place within this paradigm, and Serres ascribes the same four processes to the standalone PC and the World Wide Web (Pan 150–1; H 140–1). The only difference between machines and organisms is that ‘for the former, the information account is negligible in relationship to the energy account, whereas, for the latter, both accounts are on the same scale’ (H4 269/HLSP 81).147 The medium or ‘support’ for the information is, in this respect, secondary: machine, organism, crystal, farm, town and universe all support the reception, storing, processing and emission of information (AVN 18–19). Serres’s account of the universal circulation of energy and information bears significant resemblances, once more, to Nancy’s description of sense in Adoration and elsewhere. For Nancy, sense circulates between all entities in an infinite and mutual referral [‘renvoi mutuel infini’].148 All determinate exchange is preceded and facilitated by an address to the infinite sense of the other, a speaking-towards (ad-oratio) that opens the possibility of return or response [‘renvoi’].149 Adoration is language in its affirmative, rather than informative mode. This is similar to Serres’s account insofar as both Serres and Nancy evoke a universal circulation among all entities: information–energy and sense respectively. If we take Serres’s affirmation that ‘[i]nformation circulates in and between the totality of existing things, universally’ (GB 11)150 and substitute ‘sense’ for ‘information’, we have a phrase that would not look out of place in Adoration. But there are also significant differences between Nancy’s and Serres’s approaches. Language for Nancy addresses itself to its other, 146

147

148 149 150

‘les choses elles-mêmes, inertes, ainsi que les vivants échangent éléments, énergie et information, conservent cette dernière, la diffusent, la sélectionnent’. ‘La différence, alors, entre une machine et un organisme vivant est que, pour la première, le bilan informationnel est négligeable par rapport au bilan énergétique, alors que, pour le second, il se trouve sur la même échelle.’ Nancy, L’Adoration, 22/Adoration, 13. Nancy, La Pensée dérobée, 172. ‘L’information circule dans et entre la totalité des existants, universellement.’

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the infinite sense that always exceeds it. For Serres, by contrast, energy is not the other of information in the way in which sense for Nancy is the other of language, because it makes no more sense to say that energy exceeds information than it does to say that information exceeds energy. Information is not a vessel that attempts and fails to capture energy, but another mode of energy: energeia sive informatio. A second difference is that Nancy separates, in his analysis though not in experience, the communication of determinate linguistic content from the phatic address, the ad- of adoration, which serves as its condition of possibility. For Serres, by contrast, there is no such separation. The hot reservoir of the Carnot engine does not need to address the cold reservoir before heat exchange takes place, and neither is information exchange preceded by any form of address. Despite Nancy’s best efforts, when we compare his adoration to Serresian information–energy exchange it is hard not to see in his thought the remnants of the occlusion of thermodynamics behind information theory that Serres bemoans in La Distribution. Conclusion

In this chapter we have encountered a new Serresian figure of thought. It is a figure that resembles moments in Derrida’s and Deleuze’s philosophy, but also differs from them significantly. If Derrida’s signature opposition is presence/ absence, and Deleuze’s is identity/difference, then Serres’s is order/chaos. In each case, the distinction is between a centripetal term (presence, identity, order) and a centrifugal term (absence, difference, chaos). Deleuze and Derrida overturn the privilege of the centripetal term (identity and presence respectively) by making it a product of the centrifugal term (in Deleuze’s overturning of Platonism) or by making both of them the product of a third term which is identified more with the centrifugal term than with the centripetal (in the deconstruction of Derridean différance or arche-writing). Serres, by contrast, does not simply derive order from chaos, following the Deleuzian model, or derive them both from a third term, following Derrida. For Serres, both order and chaos are primary and, in a crucial respect, identical. To see how this is the case, let us first consider his accounts of meaning. In the Lucretian paradigm, the cataract of atoms falling in the void is not a picture of chaos but of absolute, laminar, monotonic order, and the clinamen is a moment of disorder introduced into the cataract’s ordered descent. In Serres’s account of the emergence of language from the background noise of the world, by contrast, noise is a chaotic cacophony of omnidirectional sense into which order is progressively introduced by rhythm, music and language. So is order primary, or is chaos? Serres answers: yes.

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Neither order nor chaos is umbilical; in other words Serres does not simply draw order out of chaos, nor chaos out of order. This is not because neither order nor chaos is original (as would be the case for Derrida who derives both difference and identity from différance, both speech and writing from arche-writing) but because they are both original. But how can the Lucretian paradigm of the monotonic cataract and the original chaos of the tohu-bohu both be original, if one implies a primacy of order and the other a primacy of chaos? The response is that the two can be identified with each other if, and only if, absolute order and absolute chaos are identical. And for Serres absolute order and absolute chaos, monotone and white noise, are identical in one very important respect: they are both expressions of meaninglessness. The audience turns its back for a moment on Harlequin/chaos and is startled, when it glances back over its shoulder, to find Pierrot/order in his place. Chaos = order; Harlequin = Pierrot. This is how Serres differs from Deleuze and Derrida; his position would be like Deleuze identifying difference with identity, or Derrida identifying absence with presence. For ease of reference I propose to call this figure of thought Serresian ‘combination’, the bringing together (com-) of a double or twofold distinction (bini). To recapitulate, it involves two steps: 1) taking a centripetal/centrifugal binary (for example: order/chaos) and distributing the value normally attached to the centripetal pole (the value of meaningfulness attached to order) between the two poles, both of which are seen to lack that value, and then 2) identifying the two poles themselves with each other in respect of the chosen value. Deleuze overturns Platonism; Derrida deconstructs; Serres combines. Serres’s account of the combination of chaos and order paves the way for a new integrated theory of information and energy, of nature, culture and writing: ‘Biology, in a broad sense, is still lacking a general theory of signals that would engage directly with these questions that, between them, cover it all’ (Hom 201).151 The ‘general theory of marks, traces and signals’ (In 73/Inc 36)152 for which Serres calls would not consider energy and information as parallel and independent systems, but would seek to account for their interactions and mutual influences, as he sketches with the image of a steam locomotive: Would you like an amusing image of the difference between hard energy – say, heat, for example – and the soft energy of language? Imagine a train for which all of 151

152

‘La biologie, au sens large, manque encore d’une théorie générale des signaux qui traiterait directement de ces questions dont l’ensemble la recouvre.’ ‘il nous manque une théorie générale des marques, des traces et des signaux pour apprendre à nous souvenir comme le monde et de lui, pour écrire comme lui et sur lui; les choses sont aussi des symboles’.

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its energy passes through its whistle. The hard (in terms of energy) makes the train move and the soft, as it passes through the whistle, emits a signal. As it happens, this signal can order the departure of the train. Voulez-vous une image amusante de la différence entre l’énergie, dure, celle de la chaleur, par exemple, et l’énergie douce, celle du langage? Imaginez une locomotive dont toute l’énergie passerait par le sifflet. La dure, énergétiquement parlant, fait mouvoir la locomotive et la douce, passant par le sifflet, délivre un signal. Par parenthèse, ce signal peut ordonner le départ de la locomotive. ( JVSH 137)

What Serres’s thought demands at this point, as indeed at every point, is not only a new theory of understanding but a new sensibility or ethos, a new ‘global intuition’ that uses information theory in a way that ‘allows us to pivot to another world, or at least to observe the world differently’, representing ‘a total upheaval of the way in which we perceive and understand the world’ (Pan 148–9).153 Part of this upheaval is an abandonment of the remnants of the sacred view of language and an embrace of a new sense of universal community, with all entities knitted together in ‘the panlinguistic vibration emitted by the cables of this performative bridge that links me to others, to God and to the world: ego sive homo sive Deus sive natura’ (RH 81).154 Serres’s global intuition also undermines the hierarchical valuing of human cognitive capacities above other means of information processing that characterises not only our relationship to the non-human world but also the relationship between different human communities. In Hominescence he wonders why we consider writing to be the height of civilisation: ‘Because we narcissists belong to a civilisation of paper? Because this convention allows us to despise cultures more numerous than ours whose languages are not written, considering them outside History?’ (Hom 67).155 Here we sense a linguistic geocentrism to set alongside the temporal geocentrism of the ideology of progress discussed in Chapter 2. If a hierarchical view of capacities for language use predisposes to particular and problematic value judgements in this way, then Serres’s pansemiotics will at the very least engender a set of predispositions grounded in mutuality and not competition. 153

154

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‘La théorie de l’information nous permet en effet de basculer dans un autre monde, ou du moins d’observer le monde autrement. . . . C’est un bouleversement total de notre manière de percevoir et de comprendre le monde. Et c’est d’une simplicité absolue.’ ‘la vibration panlinguistique émise par les câbles de ce pont performatif qui me relie aux autres, à Dieu et au monde: ego sive homo sive Deus sive natura’. ‘Parce que, narcissiques, nous appartenons à une civilisation de papier? Parce que cette convention nous permet de mépriser, en les considérant comme hors de l’Histoire, les cultures, plus nombreuses que les nôtres, dont les langues ne s’écrivent pas?’

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Finally, but by no means least significantly, Serres’s global intuition makes things visible again, bringing them out from behind the linguistic veil that has made them disappear before our very eyes. ‘I would like to listen to the things freed of these packages, the way they presented themselves before finding themselves named’ (Bi 39/Bio 38)156 he claims. Language has anaesthetised us to the world’s subtle flavours, textures and tones, smothering them in the sweet universal ketchup of words. Naming is also an act of appropriation (see MP ), and things are prised away from our act of linguistic appropriation as they are understood in terms of their participation along with us in the universal condition of information processing, making them strange. It is not that language per se is dangerous or problematic, but that we have been taken in by umbilical thinking, choosing one manifestation of language – human alphabetic, syntactic language – and using it as an umbilical reference against which to measure, and in relation to which to demote, all other ‘languages’. Serres’s response to the linguistic paradigm in philosophy and to the privilege of human language in modernity is not to claim that there is too much language in our thinking, but that there is far, far too little.

156

‘Je voudrais écouter les choses délivrées de ces paquets, comme elles se présentaient avant de se trouver nommées.’

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5

Objects

There was a time when philosophy had to descend from the heavens to the earth . . . The time is coming when philosophy will have to descend from the subject to things.1 (Michel Serres, Hermès II: l’interférence)

I

N THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY philosophy has experienced something of a ‘thingly turn’,2 with the rise to prominence of a variety of new materialisms, actor–network theory, thing theory and object oriented ontologies. Serres haunts the corridors of much of this recent material, mentioned in dispatches as a forerunner or as a source for this or that thingly idea that subsequent theorists graft onto their own approaches. But these newly popular theories display a tendency to reach for a rather narrow selection of Serresian ideas, viewing his thought as often as not through the narrow lens of The Parasite, if not the even tighter focus of Serresian notions like the quasi-object or interobjectivity. My aim in this chapter is to let Serres’s broad and complex approach to objects speak for itself, without framing it as the warm-up act for this or that new materialist or object oriented approach. I shall first explore Serres’s ‘pragmatogony’, the distinctive mythical genealogy of objects he offers in Statues, and proceed to compare his account of the object in the ‘new new scientific spirit’ [‘nouveau nouvel esprit scientifique’] of Hermès II: l’interférence to that of Descartes and Bachelard, before reflecting on

1

2

‘il fut un temps où la philosophie eut à descendre du ciel sur la terre . . . Voici venir le temps où la philosophie doit descendre du sujet dans les choses.’ The term is coined by Connor in his paper ‘Thinking Things’. Useful overviews of different aspects of the recent thingly turn include Bryant et al., The Speculative Turn; Coole and Frost, New Materialisms; Brown, Critical Inquiry; Dolphijn and van der Tuin, New Materialism; Gratton, Speculative Realism; Reader, Theology and New Materialism.

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whether Serres’s thought can properly be called ‘materialist’. I then turn to The Parasite, paying particular attention to the important moves Serres makes in relation to the subject and object, and arguing that the paradigm of the parasite is more radical than we can realise if we simply focus on isolated Serresian ideas like the quasi-object. Serres helps us to see that there exists, in recent treatments of objects and things, the same latent sacred/profane divide that characterises many contemporary approaches to language use and muteness. His account of objects also issues in a reading of capitalism distinct from the Marxist-inspired analyses with which contemporary theory is replete. Pragmatogony

It is customary for recent reassessments of the object to define themselves in contradistinction to the Cartesian res cogitans and res existensa. Serres’s genealogy of the subject and object begins much earlier than this, stretching back to the emergence of the first human communities. His analysis of the development of subjects and objects also encompasses the modern and late modern eras, including the linguistic philosophies of the 1960s to 1990s. He does not tell this whole story in any one place, but we can reconstruct it from scattered passages and allusions throughout his work. In Statues Serres seeks to trace the pre-historical emergence of objects, a task which he labels ‘pragmatogony’.3 Pragmatogony is a ‘necessarily mythical’4 undertaking, not only because we cannot travel back into prehistory in order to observe the emergence of objects first hand, but also because the development of the scientific discourse that opposes itself to myth is itself part of the story of pragmatogony, as we shall see below. Four features characterise Serresian pragmatogony: 1) human beings and objects emerge together, 2) they substitute for each another, 3) objects have their origin in death, and 4) objects are first, as Latour would say, ‘matters of concern’ before they are ‘matters of fact’.5 Prehistory and the cadaverous object

Serres’s pragmatogony aims at nothing less than an account of the emergence of the object as such, ‘not only of the tool or the beautiful statue, but of the thing in

3

4 5

Like so much of Serres’s work, pragmatogony has been taken up and developed by Bruno Latour. See Latour, Pandora’s Hope, and ‘Pragmatogonies’. The term has also received isolated treatment further afield. See, for example, De Beer, ‘Pragmatogony’. Latour, ‘The Force and Reason of Experiment’, 74. See Latour, ‘Why Has Critique Run out of Steam?’

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general, ontologically speaking’ (S 162/St 91).6 The genealogy begins in the mists of prehistory, with the simultaneous emergence on the planet of human beings and objects. ‘The most revolutionary event in human history’, Serres claims, the event by virtue of which humans become humans, is not accession to the abstract in language, but ‘an uprooting from the ensemble of relations we maintain in the family, the group, etc., and which concern only us and them, leading to an accord, perhaps unclear, but sudden and specific, to something external to this ensemble’ (NP 163/BOP 162, emphasis original; see also Ge 146/Gen 87–8).7 In other words, it is the object that gives birth to the human that gives birth to it. Before this event of unparalleled significance there existed, according to Serres’s pragmatogonic myth, only the web of relations between animals. This is not to say that those animals did not interact with entities outside themselves – eating them, climbing them, taking shelter under them – but these entities appeared in the codes and interactions of animal groups only in their instrumental capacity as food or shelter. They had no existence outside their usefulness to the community, and all the messages of the group were conjugated in the first and second persons (NP 163/BOP 132). Things are the unmarked terms of creaturely existence. The emergence of the first humans is heralded by a new quality of relations to things, characterised by the pronouns ‘voici’ and ‘ecce’: what appears is no longer simply ‘food’ or ‘dwelling’ but ‘the thing itself’, resisting complete subsumption into the economy and aims of the collective. What is new here is the appearance of the object as something impenetrable, something not exhausted by its role in the relations of the community: the fruit is more than my food and the tree more than my home. The first such inassimilable object, Serres argues, and the one which opens the floodgates to all subsequent objects, is the human corpse: The corpse was the first object for men. Lying before them like a problem and an obstacle, motionless. Any other thing – tree, stone, animal – could or can become individual, collective, private or public property, and in this last case merchandise, stake or fetish. Before the dead body, every subject draws back: the dead body lies there lifeless, cutting out its space, larger lying down than standing, more terrifying dead than alive. Also the first solid: stiff, hard, rigorous, coherent, substantial, absolutely stable, the first stone statue. (St 91, translation altered) 6 7

‘non seulement de l’outil ou de la statue belle mais de la chose en général, ontologiquement parlant’. ‘L’événement le plus révolutionnaire dans l’histoire des hommes, et, peut-être, l’évolution des hominiens, fut moins, je crois, l’accession à l’abstrait ou à la généralité, dans et par le langage, qu’un arrachement par rapport à l’ensemble des relations que nous entretenons dans la famille, le groupe, etc., et ne concernant qu’eux et nous, aboutissant à un accord, peut-être confus, mais, soudain, spécifique, au sujet d’une chose extérieure à cet ensemble.’

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Le cadavre fut pour les hommes le premier objet. Posé devant eux comme un problème et un obstacle, gisant. N’importe quelle autre chose, arbre, pierre, bête pouvait ou peut entrer dans la propriété, individuelle, collective, privée, publique et dans ce dernier cas marchandise, enjeu ou fétiche. Devant le corps Mort, tous les sujets reculent: il gît là, découpant son espace, plus grand couché que debout, plus terrifiant mort que vif. Premier solide aussi: raide, dur, rigoureux, cohérent, consistant, absolument stable, première statue de pierre. (S 163)

Resisting any attempt to co-opt it as a means to an end of the community, this recalcitrant object provokes the collective to become visible to itself as a collective, because there is now something in contradistinction to which it can define itself.8 This hominisation through objects is accompanied by a symmetrical ‘thingification’ of life, or what Serres calls ‘the growing objectification of our intersubjective relations’ (P 88/Par 65),9 including the domestication and rearing of animals and the creation of tools, devices and machines [‘engins’]. From the very origins of humanity there is a mutuality, a co-belonging of humans and things, a ‘transcendental constitution of the object by the subject’ and a ‘symmetrical constitution of the subject by the object’ recurring in ‘dizzying semi-cycles endlessly renewed’ (S 209/St 119).10 It is things that make the humans who make things, long before the petrified modern division between subjects and objects. The paradigmatic instance of the cadaverous object in Statues is the sacrificial victim, the corpse that substitutes for the living, representing the community to itself: ‘the word “victim” signifies substitution, precisely. Of the same origin as “vice versa,” “vice-admiral,” “vicar,” or “vicarious” as we have seen, it indicates lieutenancy: who or what is the place-holder; who or what represents’ (S 280/St 160).11 The victim-object is also the first individual, the first subject, insofar as it stands apart 8

The principle here is articulated by Serres in The Birth of Physics: ‘if there were only one season there would no seasons, if there were only one era there would be no eras, if there were only one island certainly there would be no island’ (BOP 146); ‘s’il n’y avait qu’une saison, il; n’y aurait pas de saison, s’il n ’y avait qu’une ère, il n ’y aurait pas d ’ère, s’il n ’y avait qu’une île, voici qu’il n ’y aurait pas d’île’ (NP 180). If there is only the collective, there is no collective. 9 ‘l’objectivation croissante de nos relations intersubjectives’. 10 ‘J’imagine, à l’origine, un tourbillon rapide où la constitution transcendantale de l’objet par le sujet s’alimenterait, comme en retour, de la constitution, symétrique, du sujet par l’objet, en semi-cycles foudroyants et sans cesse repris, revenant à l’origine.’ 11 ‘le mot victime signifie la substitution, justement. De la même origine que vice versa ou viceamiral, vicaire ou vicariant, on l’a vu, il indique la.lieutenance: qui ou ce qui tient lieu, celui ou ce qui représente.’

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from the anonymous crowd, bearing the guilt of the collective. Before even the emergence of the responsible individual in law, the collective produced subjects in its designation of scapegoats:12 This tragic character, in the usual sense as well as in the etymological sense of the word – tragos, in Greek, signifies goat – undergoes the process of individuation, the notorious principle of which can be reduced to this sacrifice, the simple and cruel execution of an envoy. As it manufactures this ‘I’ by assassination, the group becomes ‘we’. (Inc 140, translation altered) Ce personnage tragique, au sens usuel comme au sens étymologique du mot – tragos, en grec, signifie le bouc –, subit le processus d’individuation, dont le fameux principe se réduit à ce sacrifice, simple et cruelle mise à mort d’un émissaire. En fabriquant, par l’assassinat, ce je, le groupe devient nous. (In 250)

The individual, the hero and the champion all have their origins in this sacrificial victim removed from the collective; the origin of ‘subject’ in the Latin subjectus means ‘someone thrown underneath, trampled, pillaged, stoned, lynched, sacrificed’ (In 251/Inc 140).13 The first subject (sacrificial victim) becomes the first object (corpse). In this way, sacrifice is the birth of the logic of substitution that plays an important role in Serres’s pragmatogony. First, the victim substitutes itself for the community. Over time, animal sacrifice substitutes for human sacrifice, vividly captured in the story of Abraham and Isaac on Mount Moriah, and eventually animal sacrifice itself is substituted by the mortuary object, the sarcophagus, pyramid or statue that represent the dead, standing in their place: Menhir, dolmen, cromlech, cairn, pyramid, tombstones, boxes for the dead imitating my mother the Earth, mute objects, raised statues, or standing ghosts, resurrected from the black box when the shutter falls down that we thought we had closed for ever, cippi, effigies of marble, granite or plaster, bronze, steel, aluminium, composite materials, full, dense, heavy, immobile, masses marking places and indifferent to time, pierced, bored, hollow, become boxes again, empty, light, white, mobile, automobile engines indifferent to places wandering through time, carrying the living. (Inc 24) 12

13

Serres draws heavily on the work of his friend René Girard for his account of the scapegoat. He is characteristically light on referring to Girard by name, but he treats the Girardian themes of violence, mimetism and/or the scapegoat at some length in in Musique, Le Parasite, Récits d’humanisme, Le Tragique et la pitié, La Guerre mondiale, Atlas, Hermès V: le passage du nord-ouest and Carpaccio: les esclaves libérés. ‘quelqu’un jeté dessous, piétiné, saccagé, lapidé, lynché, sacrifié’.

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Menhir, dolmen, cromlech, cairn, pyramide, pierres tombales, boites aux morts mimant ma mère la Terre, objets muets, statues levées ou revenants debout, ressuscités de la boite noire, quand s’abat le cache que nous avons cru rabattre pour toujours, cippes, effigies de marbre, granit ou plâtre, airain et bronze, acier, aluminium, matériau composite, pleines, denses, lourdes, immobiles, masses marquant les lieux indifférentes au temps, trouées, forées, creuses, redevenues boites, vides, légères, blanches, mobiles, moteurs automobiles errant par le temps indifférents aux lieux, emmenant des vivants. (In 50)

The object is a substitute for the sacrificial corpse, itself a substitute for the living community. Serres sees a further substitution depicted in Corneille’s Horace: the moment when the eponymous Roman is put on trial for the murder of his sister is a turning point at which ‘the search for meaning now substitutes for the victims’ blood’, and language, law and judicial process stand in the place of the corpse. Elsewhere, Serres similarly claims that the lifeless body, itself aneconomic, ‘founds, cognitively speaking, the object as such that can eventually become a currency of exchange’ (At 232).14 Communities, individuals, subjects, objects, language and exchange relations are linked in a ‘chain of substitutions’ (S 306/St 175). Here we see Serres once more jumping nimbly over the ditch dug by modernity separating matter from language, as he substitutes information for the object. The story of the relations between the ‘hard’ and the ‘soft’ is one of substitutions that tightly intertwine the categories modernity seeks to separate. Rome and the legal object

Advancing in time to Roman law and early Christian theology, Serres once more argues that the subject and the object develop together.15 ‘Ego’ emerges within the context of Roman law as the subject of the verb credo (Ec 288/C 200), expressing ‘contractual confidence in a promise made by or to others’ (EgC 5). The ego credo of Roman law is then taken up by the Apostle Paul in a way that gives it a 14 15

‘fonde, cognitivement, l’objet comme tel, qui, éventuellement, peut devenir monnaie d’échange’. Quoting the passage in Statues in which Serres imagines ‘at the origin, a rapid whirlwind in which the transcendental constitution of the object by the subject would be nourished, as in return, by the symmetrical constitution of the subject by the object’ (St 119)/‘J’imagine, à l’origine, un tourbillon rapide où la constitution transcendantale de l’objet par le sujet s’alimenterait, comme en retour, de la constitution, symétrique, du sujet par l’objet’ (S 209), Bruno Latour will later call this inextricable co-development of subject and object the ‘symmetrical attitude’ that modernity seeks to suppress in its own asymmetrical posture, anthropology, rationality and universal. See Latour, We Have Never Been Modern/Nous n’avons jamais été modernes.

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fundamental role in the constitution of the individual as a universal (non-tribal, non-gendered, non-socio-economically exclusive) category: As an act that cannot be reduced to any collective reference, this new faith creates the ego that becomes its subject. . . . When the first Christians said, ‘I believe’, they suddenly knew that they were no longer either slaves or senators, foreigners or women, Jews or Greeks, sailors or farmers. They were for the first time singular individuals, alone before God and by the grace of Jesus Christ. Moving in this way from categories into universal subjectivity, they were resurrected. (EgC 5, 7)

Alongside the individual, the thing also gains a new status in this period. The French ‘chose’ (thing) derives from the Latin ‘causa’, ‘a juridical term that designates the case in a trial or a trial itself’ (Hom 212–13; see also Ec 284/C 197–8, OG 77/G 9),16 and similarly the Latin ‘res’ (thing) designates ‘the object of the judicial procedure or the case itself’ (S 307/St 176).17 The English ‘thing’ similarly derives from a term in Germanic law (see RCNsf, RCNbnf). In this moment of the pragmatogony a ‘thing’ is not something in the world existing independently of human intervention, but ‘the subject of debate, the decision of a court, the substance of a contract’ (Hom 212–13).18 A thing is not a matter of fact but a matter of concern, ‘[a]s though objects themselves only existed according to the debates of an assembly or after the verdict delivered by a jury’ (S 111/St 59).19 As Bruno Latour observes, this legal entity has nothing in common with the modern thing-in-itself.20 What this means, Serres concludes, is that ‘cases precede things and the first known subject is the subject in law’ (RCNsf; see also Hom 213).21 Do we not, after all, decline objects in the ‘accusative’, demonstrating in our grammar that ‘the thing, objective, takes its origin from the case, violently interrogated’? (OG 77/G 9)22 Descartes and the object of the understanding

Serres has little to say directly about the development of the subject and object in the medieval period, save that at this time the objectus is understood as that which lies at a moderate distance from the subject, neither so near as to be confusing nor 16 17

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‘terme juridique propre à désigner l’enjeu d’un procès ou le procès lui-même’. ‘l’objet de la procédure judiciaire ou la cause elle-même’, quoted in Latour, Nous n’avons jamais été modernes 1, 14/We Have Never Been Modern, 83. ‘ce sur quoi il y a débat, décision d’un tribunal, ce de quoi il y a contrat’. ‘[c]omme si les objets eux-mêmes n’existaient que selon les débats d’une assemblée ou qu’après décision prononcée par un jury’. Latour, We Have Never Been Modern, 83/Nous n’avons jamais été modernes, 114. ‘les causes précèdent les choses et le premier sujet connu est le sujet de droit’. ‘la chose, objective, tient son origine de la cause, mise violemment à la question?’

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so far as to be imperceptible (Hom 206). The next moment of significance in his genealogy of the object is the early modern period and the work of Galileo, Bruno and, inevitably, Descartes. It is Galileo and Bruno who added to a long line of pragmatogonic substitutions when they ‘substituted the law of physics for the rules of the court and the rules of law’ (S 239/St 176)23 and extricated objects from the sphere of contracts and legal disputes, establishing them as entities independent of and indifferent to human concerns: ‘The rock falls all by itself, no more guilty party’ (S 239/St 176).24 We refer to the modern age as the age of humanism, Latour muses, but this is an asymmetrical nomenclature that forgets ‘the simultaneous birth of “nonhumanity” – things, or objects, or beasts’.25 If the modern age is humanist, then it is also, and equally, ‘objectist’. Descartes, for his part, ossifies the division between subject and object, same and other (H1 194), driving them apart in an abstractive dichotomy: ‘the world is reduced to what is not us, the complement of the socio-political whole, in short, our given’ (GM 128).26 Both subject and object undergo a purification, suppressing the object’s metamorphic changes and the subject’s unconscious prehistory (H2 90 n10).27 The Cartesian object to which Serres pays most attention is the piece of wax from the second Meditation. Descartes introduces the wax to demonstrate that we know things not through our senses but through our understanding, by ‘purely mental scrutiny’.28 His discussion considers not wax in general but this piece of wax. It has just been taken from the honeycomb; it has not yet quite lost the taste of the honey; it retains some of the scent of the flowers from which it was gathered; its colour, shape and size are plain to see; it is hard, cold and can be handled without difficulty; If you rap it with your knuckle it makes a sound.29 23 24 25 26

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‘Ils substituent la loi de physique aux règles du prétoire et du droit.’ ‘La pierre tombe toute seule, plus de coupable.’ ‘la naissance conjointe de la « non-humanité », celle des choses, ou des objets, ou des bêtes’. ‘[l]e Monde se réduit à ce qui n’est pas nous; le complément de l’ensemble sociopolitique; bref, notre donné’. I intend the term ‘abstractive dichotomy’ in this volume to emphasise the way in which modernity’s fundamental oppositions derive from, and reduce, prior complexities. An abstractive dichotomy abstracts two elements from an interwoven system or web, ossifies them, and presents them as mutually exclusive, stripping away the relations they entertain between themselves and with other elements in the system. Latour will later refer to the ‘vacuum pump’ [‘pompe à vide’] or ‘force-pump’ [‘pompe aspirante ou refoulante’] of modernity that purifies hybrids, creating the dichotomous domains of the subject and the object, agency and passivity. Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy, 21; ‘seulement une inspection de l’esprit’, Descartes, Méditations métaphysiques, 32. Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy, 20; ‘ce morceau de cire qui vient d’être tiré de la ruche: il n’a pas encore perdu la douceur du miel qu’il contenait, il retient encore quelque chose de l’odeur des fleurs dont il a été recueilli; sa couleur, sa figure, sa grandeur, sont apparentes; il est dur, il est froid, on le touche, et si vous le frappez, il rendra quelque son’, Descartes, Méditations métaphysiques, 30.

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Descartes proceeds to argue that, when the wax is taken close to a fire, it can lose its smell and its texture, its colour and its temperature can change, and yet we would still consider it the same wax. Given that the wax cannot be any of these changeable ‘external forms’, Descartes proposes: ‘Let us concentrate, take away everything which does not belong to the wax, and see what is left.’30 What remains is not anything that can be imagined – for the wax could be transformed in ways that no one has ever dreamed – but it ‘is perceived by the mind [entendement] alone’31 with clarity and distinctness. Triumphantly, Descartes concludes that even bodies are truly known only by the understanding. By this ruse, an underwhelmed Serres concludes, the classical thinker ‘drapes a vague Neverland in abstraction, in the hope that this way he can remain its Master’ (H1 197).32 As a philosophical object the odourless, pure liquid wax has no memory and no particularity, and Descartes is merely recycling a Platonic hatred of material objects in favour of the eternal and the universal. In this sense, Descartes’s account of the object is subjective–subjective: the subjective apprehension of the ego encounters an object that exists, in its purity, only in the subjective understanding.33 Serres argues not only against the physical possibility of Descartes’s purification of the wax from all non-essential qualities, but also its theoretical possibility. Without some trace of its individuality we would have no way of affirming that the wax remains the same across its transformations at all. Despite its change from liquid to solid the wax retains ‘the trace of events that are foreign to its own nature’ and can only be said to change because it conserves these vestigial qualities as the invariant of its variations (H2 82),34 guarding the information that has been communicated to it. Foreshadowing his later insistence on the necessity of noise for any communication, Serres argues here that, if the wax is pure, it ceases to exist in time. 30

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Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy, 20; ‘Considérons-le attentivement, et éloignant toutes les choses qui n’appartiennent point à la cire, voyons ce qui reste’, Descartes, Méditations métaphysiques, 30. Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy, 20; ‘il n’y a que mon entendement seul qui le conçoive’, Descartes, Méditations métaphysiques, 30. ‘habille d’abstrait un outremonde vague dont il entend par là rester le Maître’. Serres also places Bergson’s dissolving sugar in this category of the subjective–subjective. In Creative Evolution, Bergson illustrates the simultaneity of psychological duration and a physical process by describing my impatient wait for sugar to dissolve in a glass of water (see Bergson, Creative Evolution, 9–10/Evolution créatrice, 17). For Bergson, as for Descartes before him, ‘the glass of water, the sugar, and the process of the sugar’s melting in the water are abstractions’ (Creative Evolution, 10/Evolution créatrice, 17). The solid sugar becomes dispersed in the fluid water just as objects are suspended in the solute of the flux of consciousness. For Serres, the melting of Bergson’s sugar and Descartes’s wax are both cases of ‘annihilating the object by liquefying it’ [‘anéantir l’objet en le fluidifiant’] (H2 92). ‘la trace d’événements étrangers à sa nature propre’.

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It is important to note that Descartes proceeds here in accordance with the principle ‘to the things themselves’, but for him the thing itself is the essential wax as perceived by the understanding, once its ‘external forms’ have been bracketed. This ‘thing itself’, from a Serresian point of view, is umbilical: one mode of apprehending the wax – through the rational understanding – has been crowned as the queen aspect that tells the zero degree truth about the wax with unsurpassable clarity and distinctness. This deference to the understanding is a refusal to think the complex mixture of malleability, odour, texture and provenance that inextricably comprise the lump of wax in the philosopher’s hand. Descartes performs the same reductive operation on the subject, taking one faculty – namely rational thought – and making it the umbilical characteristic of humanity as such. The division between the faculties in the first place is a refusal to think mixture (G 42/OG xxxvii) and a reduction of complex eddies and counter-currents to the single linear flow of a ‘rule’ for the direction of the mind, where ‘rule and direction repeat the Latin rectus which signifies the straight line’ (OG 267/G 157) (see Figure 5.1).35 Serres joins many other commentators in arguing that adverse social consequences flow from Descartes’s subject/object dichotomy and his claim in the Discourse on the Method that human subjects should be ‘masters and possessors’ of objective nature. Descartes offers us a framework in which ‘[o]ur fundamental relationship with objects comes down to war and property’ (CN 58/NC 32),36 and in which generic, manipulable, passive objects powerlessly offer themselves up to be ravished and exploited by the imperious subject (In 67/Inc 33). Serres differs from

Figure 5.1 The Cartesian object 35 36

‘règle et direction répètent le latin rectus qui signifie la ligne droite’. ‘[n]otre rapport fondamental avec les objets se résume dans la guerre et la propriété’.

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many accounts of subject and object in Descartes, however, in his insistence that the Cartesian object is in fact a regression to the animalistic subsumption of the object into the economy of the collective. For Serres, the great irony in Descartes’s position is that, at the very moment when it appears objects are being cut loose from subjective interference to exist in their own splendid indifference, Descartes’s triumph is in fact to subsume scientific and technical knowledge under the paradigm of the law of property (CN 59/NC 33), thereby drawing the thing back under the cloak of the Roman causa from which modernity is thought to liberate it. More than that, Descartes also regresses to the pre-human reduction of objects to their manipulability and usefulness. Outside the subject there are only ‘passive things, brute given, endlessly exploitable’ (GM 128).37 This echoes the pre-human state from which, in Serres’s description, objects emerge: all that is outside the collectivity of subjects exists only for the instrumental benefit and use of subjects, and nothing exists in itself, with depths greater than those accessible to rational thought. This, then, is the great irony of the Cartesian moment: Homo sapiens will have taken millions of years to extricate itself from this animal or infantile condition that exploits the given. Since Malfeasance, I understand that Descartes, in demanding that we become possessors of nature, extends animal behaviour. Homo sapiens aura mis . . . des millions d’années à se tirer de cette condition bestiale ou infantile qui exploite le donné. Depuis Le Mal propre, je comprends que Descartes, demandant que nous devinssions possesseurs de la nature, prolonge des conduites animales. (GM 129)

For Serres – and this is where his account differs from that of many who trace the genealogy of the object through Descartes – the Cartesian object is anything but a bare mathematical entity stripped of any qualities; Descartes brings the object back within the exclusive purview of the collectivity. It is with Descartes that the chose becomes a causa once more, a legal concern under property law, and it is with Descartes that the object again relies ultimately on the individual whose possession it is. Bachelard and the laboratory object

The next major figure in Serres’s pragmatogony is Gaston Bachelard. In the final chapter of The New Scientific Spirit entitled ‘Non-Cartesian Epistemology’, Bachelard elaborates his own account of the truth of the object. He begins with a vigorous 37

‘des choses passives; du donné gratuit, exploitable à merci’.

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critique of Descartes’s primacy of the understanding, or what he calls the ‘Cartesian partiality in favour of subjective experience’.38 Whereas Descartes retreats into his subjective understanding in order to grasp the wax’s essence, Bachelard insists on an ‘objective’ approach that rests not primarily on an understanding unencumbered by evanescent accidents but on ‘the stylised nature of the laboratory prepared by mathematical schemata’.39 Bachelard understands Descartes’s abstract, speculative account of the wax as an instance of what he calls macrophysics, a method that contents itself with sweeping judgements derived from ‘nature that presents itself to immediate observation’.40 He opposes to this the microphysics of the scientific laboratory, where precise measurements are taken of the wax under controlled conditions in what he calls a ‘progressive objectification’.41 First, the wax is purified as much as possible from its smell and impurities. This produces a ‘pure form’ of wax which is different from its ‘natural form’, and which would not have existed but for the laboratory experiment. A tiny fragment of this purified artefact is placed in ‘a minuscule electric oven’ with its temperature precisely controlled, heated and cooled very slowly so that its molecules align as much as possible. A beam of X-rays is then fired at the specially prepared droplet of wax, ‘of course leaving aside all recourse to natural white light that pre-scientific ages thought to be simple in nature’.42 The refracted rays produce a spectrogram similar to those obtained for crystals, and for Bachelard this reveals the true nature of the wax. The reduction of the wax to its essence is complete: ‘It will suffice to untangle the naturally confused circumstances in order truly to organise the real.’43 Bachelard calls this an ‘active empiricism’,44 active because it relies on the activity of preparing the wax in a very specific way and deploying the apparatus of the laboratory. While Serres notes the substantial disagreement between Bachelard and Descartes, he does also argue that Bachelard’s ‘new scientific spirit’ resembles Descartes’s old metaphysical spirit in significant ways. To begin with, both 38

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Bachelard, The New Scientific Spirit, 167; ‘partialité cartésienne en faveur de l’expérience subjective’, Bachelard, Le Nouvel esprit scientifique, 169. CW’s translation; ‘[l]a nature stylisée du laboratoire préparée par les schèmes mathématiques’, Bachelard, Le Nouveau nouvel esprit scientifique, 166. ‘la nature qui se présente à l’observation immédiate’, Bachelard, Le Nouveau nouvel esprit scientifique, 166. ‘objectivation progressive’, Bachelard, Le Nouveau nouvel esprit scientifique, 169. ‘laissant bien entendu de côté tout recours à la lumière blanche naturelle que les âges pré-scientifiques postulaient de nature simple’, Bachelard, Le Nouveau nouvel esprit scientifique, 169. ‘Il suffira de débrouiller les circonstances, qui sont naturellement brouillées, pour organiser vraiment le réel’, Bachelard, Le Nouveau nouvel esprit scientifique, 172. ‘empirisme actif’, Bachelard, Le Nouveau nouvel esprit scientifique, 172.

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Descartes and Bachelard consider the ‘natural’ features of the wax, such as its smell, texture and colour, to be incidental. Both perform a reduction on the wax in order to access its true nature, though for Descartes it happens to be a progressive subjectification, and for Bachelard a progressive objectification. Bachelard’s reduction, however, seeks to reduce not only the piece of wax itself but the context in which it is perceived: ‘[w]hat is fleeting can be nothing other than the disjointed circumstances, and not in the least all the coordinated relations that express material qualities’; in other words for Bachelard it is not the wax itself that is evanescent but the aleatory circumstances surrounding its observation.45 Another similarity is that both Bachelard and Descartes believe that their respective methods yield ‘a new experience and a new way of thinking’ (see Figure 5.2).46 Serres reserves severe – and, for some, no doubt surprising – condemnation for Bachelard’s approach. Descartes’s wax at least ‘has the advantage of being an object of the world of experience’ (H2 72),47 but Bachelard’s minuscule drop is an object that can only be experienced through the apparatus of the laboratory. In Descartes’s account there are two stories: that of the world and that of the poêle where the philosopher shuts himself away to think. For Bachelard, however, ‘the first is utterly suppressed, the second has occupied the whole place’ (H2 89).48 Whereas Descartes purifies his story from a pre-existing impurity, Bachelard begins with an original purity of perfectly aligned atoms and prepared substances that is detached from the

Figure 5.2 The Bachelardain object 45

46 47 48

‘Ce qui est fugace, cela ne peut être que les circonstances décousues et non point les relations coordonnées qui expriment des qualités matérielles’, Bachelard, Le Nouveau nouvel esprit scientifique, 172. ‘une expérience nouvelle et une pensée nouvelle’, Bachelard, Le Nouvel esprit scientifique, 172. ‘Il a l’avantage d’être un objet du monde de l’expérience et de mon expérience.’ ‘il y a suppression maximale de la première, la seconde a pris toute la place’.

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world of experience. The poêle has become the universe, the pomerium now a limitless city that covers the entire globe. Bachelard’s new scientific spirit claims to be circumventing the unknown of sensory obscurity, but in doing so it stumbles into the greater unknown of a molecular and atomic world of Brownian motion ‘infinitely more fleeting and voluble than the sensory whirlwind’ (H2 76).49 Descartes doubts everyday experience, but Bachelard leaves it behind altogether. For Serres the Bachelardian approach is not truly objective at all, but what he calls subjective–objective. It is determined in advance that the umbilical context of laboratory conditions alone will yield the zero degree truth of the object ‘in itself ’, and this preference for the laboratory is itself a subjective decision. The ‘objectivity’ of the laboratory is then contingent on this subjective fiat. Just as Descartes frames his recourse to the understanding as a way of penetrating ‘to the things themselves’, so also Bachelard considers that his laboratory approach is delivering the wax as it really is, shorn by the little oven and the X-ray machine of all the macrocosmic speculative fancies that Descartes let cling to it. But once more, Bachelard’s wax ‘itself’ is a contingent construct. The wax of the crystal spectrograph is no more the degree zero truth of the object than the wax of the philosopher’s understanding. Bachelardian physics, Serres argues, has not arrived at the thing itself but rather ‘it has constituted a coherent world of theoretical and experimental conditions that allow the thing to be manipulated, scrutinised from perspectives foreign to its constitution’ (H2 88).50 The object is accessed only to the extent that it responds to a set of criteria subjectively laid down in a theory that pre-exists it, with no thought of consulting the object itself. Serres and the object of the new new scientific spirit

Post-war French philosophy does little in Serres’s eyes to wake the object from its Cartesian and Bachelardian slumber. Suggesting rather impishly that the only object Sartre encountered in his life was a root that Roquentin vomited over, Serres argues that Sartre offers us nothing more than ‘a return to things without things, a return to the body without body’ (Pan 131).51 Along with Proust and Céline, Sartre only invites natural objects into his writing as a foil to his little schemes: a wind that prevents the beginning of a battle, or a root that provides a convenient resting place for the products of philosophical emesis; animals, the 49 50

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‘infiniment plus fugace et volubile que le tourbillon sensoriel’. ‘elle a constitué un monde cohérent de conditions théoriques et expérimentales, qui permettent de manipuler la chose, de la considérer sous des points de vue étrangers à sa constitution’. ‘un retour aux choses sans choses, un retour au corps sans corps’.

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sea and the climate are classed as either useful or dangerous (In 333/Inc 188), in a perpetuation of Descartes’s animal regression. Sartre’s work, like so much modern theory, is empty of objects: all circuses and no bread (PT 28–9), living entirely on human relations. As for the linguistic philosophy of the mid-twentieth century, it turns its back on the world and solid objects in an ‘acosmism’ [‘acosmisme’] to which we shall have occasion to return in Chapter 6 (see RH 137, H4 288). In Hermès II: l’interférence, Serres offers his own account of the subject and object, under the banner of what, with a tweak of Bachelard’s nose, he calls the ‘new new scientific spirit’ [‘nouveau nouvel esprit scientifique’]. It is an approach that ‘reconnects with a certain Aristotelian tradition, with a certain empirical tradition à la Locke or Condillac, through a theory of structure and information’ (H2 72).52 The new new scientific spirit as it is presented in Hermès II has three axes. First, it is structural. It distances itself from the ‘flows and fluxions . . . waves, gas and fluids’ of the Bachelardian universe to return ‘to the things themselves’ in their solidity: ‘Ours is the spirit of solids, the time of things is finally here’ (H2 71–2).53 Serres’s version of the thing ‘in itself’ is ‘the object rediscovered as such, and not historically or experimentally dislocated’ (H2 95),54in other words not accessed through the exclusive filter of the understanding or the exclusive context of the laboratory but – as we might say – in its natural habitat. When Serres returns ‘to the things themselves’ he privileges the objects of our everyday experience, dismissed by Descartes as a source of error and by Bachelard as an irrelevance. Serres’s call to return to the things themselves stresses the need to pay attention ‘to mixed multiplicities, to scatterings, taking them just as they are, no longer chaining them up in linear sequences or multiple planes woven into a network, but treating them head-on like a big number, like large populations, clouds’ (H4 40).55 In other words, to return to the things themselves is precisely not to refine and isolate the object either in the understanding or in the laboratory, but to comprehend it in all its turbulent nonlinearity.

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‘renoue avec une certaine tradition aristotélicienne, avec une certaine tradition empiriste à la manière de Locke ou de Condillac, à travers une théorie de la structure et de l’information’. ‘Tout à l’heure, le monde des fluences et fluxions faisait apparaître électivement des milieux de propagation, des ondes, des gaz et des fluides. On ne parvenait point à la chose, la chose solide. Dans l’univers de la discontinuité, de a P e la construction des modèles et de la pensée structurale, ce qui peut exister, c’est justement le solide; nous revenons aux choses mêmes. Notre esprit est l’esprit des solides, le temps des choses, enfin venu.’ ‘[l]’objet retrouvé comme tel, et non dissocié en historique et en expérimentable’. ‘aux multiplicités mélangées, aux dispersions en les prenant telles quelles, ne plus les enchaîner dans des séquences linéaires ou des plans multiples tissés en réseau, mais les traiter directement comme grand nombre, grandes populations, nuages’.

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By comparison, Descartes and Bachelard address only ‘pseudo-solids’ and ‘pseudoobjects’. For Descartes the ideal object is an ‘amorphous body’, and for Bachelard it is a regularised, purified ‘body with continuous deformations’ (H2 84–5).56 Like Marie Antoinette who, history tells us, was furnished with manicured and washed cows festooned with ribbons so that she could enjoy the authentic experience of being a milkmaid, both Descartes and Bachelard make the object scrub up and present itself properly before they will consider it, losing in the process all the rich complexity and impenetrability of its existence. Serres, by contrast, is determined to ‘give the things themselves all their rights before stepping in’ (H4 40).57 To return to the things themselves is to let the things be unruly and chaotic, noncompliant with our methods, sequences, consequences and systems, to give the objects their head. It is therefore the structural approach of the nouveau nouvel esprit scientifique that also provides Serres with an alternative to the umbilicism of Descartes and Bachelard. Whereas they arrive at their knowledge of the object by routing it through the understanding in the case of Descartes, and through the various measurements of the scientific disciplines as they are performed in the laboratory in the case of Bachelard,58 Serres prefers an aspectual translation in which the object ‘is no longer delivered to us according to a reference chosen by this or that ruse, but according the pluralist play of interferences’ (H2 141).59 This is why Serres labels his own approach ‘objective–objective’: it does not subjectively impose a single grid of interpretation on the object (see Figure 5.3). We must also bear in mind that, in conformity with Serres’s account of language discussed in the previous chapter, returning to the things themselves is first of all a practice of methexis before it is an exercise of mimesis. In other words, Serres does not need to represent the object faithfully in language in order to have ‘returned’ to it. Models are not only mimetic copies of structures, and if they are taken to be such copies then they are taken in an umbilical manner. Models also, 56 57 58

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‘corps à déformations continues’. ‘[r]endre aux choses elles-mêmes la totalité de leurs droits avant d’intervenir’. There is an important distinction between Descartes and Bachelard which Serres has a tendency to underplay. Descartes’s umbilicism is single: the understanding [‘entendement’] is the unique royal road to knowing the object ‘in itself’. Bachelard, by contrast, entertains a plurality of scientific approaches, allowing that, for example, the study of electricity theorises differently from the study of mechanics. For Bachelard, rationality within science is thoroughly plural. Nevertheless, what is important for Serres is that both Descartes and Bachelard make one or more theoretical discourses the gatekeepers to understanding the object in itself, which in both cases necessarily abstracts the object from its everyday context and keeps it under umbilical lock and key. Bachelard allows for a plurality of approaches to the object, but for Serres it is nevertheless a plural umbilicism. ‘ne nous est plus livré selon une référence élue par telle et telle ruse, mais selon un jeu pluraliste d’interférences’.

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Figure 5.3 The Serresian object inevitably, participate in the rhythms and flows of the world they describe. So when Shoshana Felman criticises what she sees as an irreducible gap between the model and the real for Serres, she is assuming that a return to the things themselves can only be mimetic.60 When Serres denies, for example, that ‘atoms are letters’ is a metaphor, he is not, as Felman supposes, ‘seeking to establish or discover a metaphor without remainder, a perfectly symmetrical analogy between the model and the modelled’;61 he is insisting that a model cannot be a metaphor of what it models if what is modelled is the tohu-bohu of existence in which the model participates. This is metonymy, not metaphor, and the model is indeed a return to the things themselves providing it is understood as participating in, and not just representing, that which it models. Model and object, theory and reality, code and matter, participate structurally in the same movements and flows. The second axis of the new new scientific spirit is the inextricable pluralism of code and matter, energy and information, discussed at length in Chapter 4 above. The new new scientific spirit thinks of objects as information–energy or as code–matter, as solids carrying information, or as information solidly conveyed: ‘every solid . . . is the place where a structure foreign to it and applied to it is conserved’ (H2 81).62 If what exists for Descartes is the pure, unchanging object of the understanding, and for Bachelard the exquisitely fine measurements of the purified 60 61

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Felman, ‘De la nature des choses’. ‘chercher d’établir ou de découvrir une métaphore sans reste, une analogie parfaitement symétrique entre modèle et modelé’, Felman, ‘De la nature des choses’, 9. ‘tout solide . . . est le lieu de conservation d’une structure étrangère à lui et appliquée sur lui’.

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laboratory sample, then what exists for the new new scientific spirit are ‘information in general, which can stabilise itself in a solid’ (H2 95),63 and ‘communications transporting information and engraving it in solids which conserve it’ (H2 91).64 This informational paradigm changes Serres’s understanding of the nature of objects. The ‘fundamental, invariant property of the solid object in general’ is (brief or long) conservation, retention, memory; the possibility of inscription on the solid – considered as a ‘register’ or a ‘compiler’ – of a structure completely foreign to its own nature, the possibility of recuperating the resulting information, reproducing and, through that, reconstituting the past. la propriété fondamentale, invariante, de l’objet- solide en général: conservation (brève ou longue), rétention, mémoire; possibilité d’inscription sur le solide, considéré comme un « registre » ou un « compilateur », d’une structure complètement étrangère à sa nature propre, possibilité de récupération de l’information induite, restitution, et, par là, reconstitution du passé. (H2 83–4)

An object is defined by its capacity to be deformed, if only minimally (H2 78). Information and order also provide the criterion of existence for solid objects: ‘there are therefore only two physically distinct states, according to the atomic structure of matter: the ordered state (truly crystallised solid) and the disordered state (either condensed: liquid and amorphous solid, or of little density: gas)’ (H2 84–5).65 Information and tohu-bohu, code and white noise, are the categories with which Serres’s ontology of objects conjures. The third axis of the new new scientific spirit is the hardest of the three to understand, but also according to Serres its definitive criterion. It is what Serres calls the ‘intrinsic status of epistemology’, or the idea that the object itself should dictate how it is to be approached and studied. This third axis therefore relativises the other two, as it also relativises Descartes’s understanding and Bachelard’s laboratory. In other words, our approach to objects should not be to torture them on the racks of our ovens and in X-ray machines, nor to squirrel them away in our immaculate understanding as we recline in the comfort of our poêle, but ‘to decipher the language of objects applied to objects, by reconstituting this objective

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‘de l’information en général qui peut se stabiliser dans un solide’. ‘des communications transportant de l’information et la gravant dans des solides qui la conservent’. ‘[i]l n’y a donc plus que deux états physiquement distincts, selon la structure atomique de la matière: l’état ordonné (solide vrai cristallisé) et l’état désordonné (soit condensé: liquide et solide amorphe; soit peu dense: gaz)’.

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language where possible’ (H2 94–5).66 The new new scientific spirit seeks to speak the language of objects, rather than forcing objects to speak the language of metaphysics or laboratory physics, entering into the logos of things rather than forcing them into one or more foreign logoi. This third axis forces every approach to the object to be reflexively aware of its own parti pris and limitations, and therefore ‘the fact of acquiring the reflexive and critical dimension confers a state of maturity, opening a way that can no longer be missed’ (H2 71).67 In the terminology of the present book, we could call this third, definitive feature of the new new spirit the ‘aspectualist axis’. Nevertheless, this professed objective approach to objects is haunted by the ambiguous status of mathematics. ‘The new new spirit is thought without reference’ (H2 15–16),68 Serres proclaims, because it is underpinned by a mathematics that, as he explains elsewhere, is a language that ‘speaks with no mouth’, a ‘blind thought that sees with no gaze’, an ‘active thought that thinks with no subject or cogito’ (H1 73).69 The question of whether Serres replaces the umbilical thinking of the understanding and of laboratory measurements with his own umbilical mathematics, as we saw above, an undecidable point.70 One way to understand this enigmatic third axis is as a rejection of substance in favour of substitution and relation. The Aristotelian, umbilical language of substance still controls both Descartes’s and Bachelard’s approaches to the object, predisposing them to eliminate the incidental features of the wax in order to reveal its substance ‘hidden, beneath, permanent across the diversity of attributes or accidents’ (R 161/ Ro 107).71 Like Tarpeia under her pile of shields this substance is sacrificial, a unity of representation that arises when the multiplicity of the world is slain. What Serres objects to here is not only the all-too-convenient distinction between essence and accident, but the way in which relations are relegated, along with accidents, to the incidental paraphernalia of knowledge: ‘we are still astonished by the poles and the stations, the substances, the names, and we believe we have said it all when we understand relations as couplings or combinations’ (P 290–1/Par 216).72 Serres’s 66

67

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‘de déchiffrer le langage des objets appliqués aux objets, en reconstituant, quand il se peut, ce langage objectif’. ‘le fait d’acquérir la dimension réflexive et critique consacre un état de maturité, ouvre un chemin qui ne peut plus être manqué’. ‘Le nouveau nouvel esprit, c’est la pensée sans référence.’ ‘ce langage parle sans bouche, cette pensée aveugle qui voit sans regard, cette pensée active qui pense sans sujet du cogito’. See the discussion of the status of mathematics in Chapter 2. ‘La substance est l’unité ou première ou dernière, cachée, dessous, permanente par la diversité des attributs ou accidents.’ ‘nous restons éblouis par les pôles et les stations, les substances, les substantifs, et nous croyons avoir tout dit quand nous comprenons les rapports comme couplage ou combinatoire’.

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claim is bold: ‘All the philosophers who went before me had a philosophy of substance and me, I have a philosophy of substitution’ (Pan 88–9),73 which amounts to the same thing as a ‘theory of relations’ (P 290–1/Par 216) and multiple forms of relation. When it comes to the famous lump of wax, the approach of the new new scientific spirit is a synthesis of Descartes and Bachelard. From Descartes it takes the wax’s historicity, its memory (of lavender, of honey). From Bachelard (and Bergson) it takes the emphasis on the physical features of the wax itself, though unlike Bachelard’s laboratory purification it does not do this at the expense of history (H2 78). The wax is no longer the place of variations, but the support for conversations, the palimpsest that conserves the traces of the old writing under the new, the alluvium that recounts the genesis, the fossil that recounts prehistory, the museum piece that recounts history. n’est plus le lieu des variations, mais le support des conservations, le palimpseste qui garde, sous la nouvelle écriture, les traces de l’ancienne, l’alluvion qui raconte la genèse, le fossile qui raconte la préhistoire, la pièce de musée qui raconte l’histoire. (H2 79)

As we reach the end of this analysis of Serres’s new new scientific spirit, it pays to reflect for a moment on the curious fact that Descartes, Bachelard and Serres all claim to be returning to the things themselves. This similarity highlights the important and somewhat inconvenient truth that it is by no means clear what should count as the ‘thing itself’ at all. If the thing itself is that which remains constant across all its variations, then Descartes’s approach commends itself. If it is the structure of the object once it has been purified to the point of being denatured and analysed through a range of repeatable and precisely calibrated laboratory technologies, then of course Bachelard’s approach is apropos. If, however, the thing itself is the information-object, then only Serres has a justified claim to be returning ‘to the things themselves’. But how should we arbitrate between these positions? The difference is one of philosophical axioms rather than scientific measurements. Within Descartes’s philosophical system, and given his assumptions, his account of the object makes splendid sense, as do those of Bachelard and Serres within their respective frameworks. Serres addresses this important question in Hermès II: l’interférence when he

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‘Tous les philosophes qui m’ont précédé ont fait une philosophie de la substance, et moi, je fais une philosophie de la substitution.’

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queries the transcendental posture of philosophy present in Descartes and intensified by Kant. The modern period is preoccupied with the question of the conditions of possibility of true experience, leading Descartes to the cogito and Kant to his Copernican Revolution. Nevertheless, the question of the conditions of possibility of experience is circular. For both Descartes and Bachelard, asking the ‘pseudo-philosophical question’ [‘question pseudo-philosophique’] (H2 88) of the conditions of possibility of experience only yields those conditions of possibility which have been baked into the assumptions and methods employed in each case. Descartes’s object of the understanding is the object dictated by the conditions of possibility framed by his radical doubt, and Bachelard’s laboratory object is the only object that can be experienced under laboratory conditions. To the man with a hammer everything is a nail, and to the man with a laboratory every object is a purified medium for the diffraction of X-rays. What sets Serres’s new new scientific spirit apart, and it is to be sure a slender and fragile difference, is its moment of self-reflexivity, the third axis that takes a step back from any particular approach and asks after the ‘language of objects’ themselves. The difference is slender because it is impossible utterly to set aside assumptions in order to approach the object with no preconceived notion of what its language might be, without a hypothesis to prove or falsify. Materialism

In the light of the recent resurgence in materialist thought, not a little of which draws on Serres’s ideas, it is important to ask the question: is Serres a materialist and, if he is, what sort of materialist is he? As early as Hermès II: l’interférence he distances himself from the idealism/materialism dichotomy, arguing that whereas mathematics tends to idealism and chemistry to materialism, erecting any queen discipline is a ‘perfectly arbitrary’ idea, and such choices ‘are less decisions about the genesis of being or knowledge, the world or understanding, than they are names of stages in philosophy’s successive changes of reference’ (H2 210–11).74 His most direct use of the term in relation to his own thought comes in a broadcast of Le Sens de l’Info from 1 April 2012 (PCDS6 58–60). In this episode he introduces materialism and spiritualism as two substance monisms. Materialism ‘reduces everything to . . . tangible realities, to the things themselves’, and considers mind/ spirit (l’esprit) to be ‘reduced either to a word devoid of sense, or to a sort of

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‘sont moins des options sur la genèse de l’être ou du savoir, du monde et du connaître, que la désignation d’une étape dans les changements successifs de référence par la philosophie’.

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emanation of matter’ (PCSD6 58–9).75 He then introduces a third position, ‘pluralism’, for which ‘the world is formed from an infinity of shimmering realities’, such as Aristotle’s individuals or Leibniz’s monads (PCDS6 59–60),76 a position he considers ‘an extremely powerful vision of the world, a vision of realities’ (PCDS6 60, CW’s emphasis).77 Finally he affirms that ‘[i]n my books I defend philosophical “pluralism”’ (PCDS6 60).78 In his rejection of the label ‘materialist’, what Serres is affirming here is the equality of matter and the immaterial (whether we call it spirit, code or information) as parallel ‘realities’. The materialism that Serres refuses in this broadcast is the materialism that treats matter as an umbilical substance and mind/spirit as derivative. This is not, let us note, a rejection of materialism outright, but only of umbilical matter (see Figure 5.4). It should not surprise us therefore that in The Birth of Physics he writes in positive terms about Lucretian materialism, praising it for not holding matter to be umbilical. He nevertheless professes an unease with the term ‘materialism’ itself, both because it is a label and because of what this label in particular conveys. His aspectual, interdisciplinary ethos baulks at the restriction of movement that labels

Figure 5.4 Umbilical materialism 75

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‘Le premier [sorte de monisme] réduit tout aux dites réalités tangibles, aux choses mêmes, et nie l’existence de ces autres réalités dont je viens de parler. On l’appelle alors « matérialiste ». Pour lui, l’esprit se réduit ou à un mot privé de sens, ou à une sorte d’émanation de la matière. Diderot était matérialiste et les marxistes étaient des monistes matérialistes.’ ‘le monde est formé d’une infinité de réalités chatoyantes’. ‘une vision extrêmement puissante du monde, une vision des réalités’. ‘Dans mes livres, je défends plutôt le pluralisme « philosophique ».’

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in general impose, and he looks back wistfully at the label-free thought of the ancient atomists: Epicurus and Lucretius, those fortunate souls, didn’t know that they were materialists. This word was invented much later by Leibniz . . . Antiquity experienced that age of freedom in which philosophers did not exhibit themselves in cages; in easily distinguished pigeonholes, easily defended, and good hiding places. . . . Schools were not smothered beneath the classification of ideas which foreclose history and the possibility of invention. (BOP 52, translation altered) Epicure et Lucrèce, les bienheureux, ignoraient qu’ils étaient des matérialistes. Ce mot fut inventé bien plus tard par Leibniz . . . L’Antiquité connut cet âge libre où les philosophes ne s’exposaient pas dans des cages. Dans de petits casiers bien repérables, pour la défense et le refuge. . . . Les écoles n’étaient pas écrasées par la classification des idées, qui ferment, l’invention possible et l’histoire. (NP 68)

The Lucretian materialism presented by Serres in The Birth of Physics is a ‘vision of realities’, closer to the ‘pluralism’ of the Sens de l’Info broadcast than to its material monism. Lucretius, Serres insists, is a materialist, but one for whom matter and information, atoms and letters, are accorded equal status. The federation of atoms does not precede or ground the federation of law: ‘Not that one leads to the other, or vice versa. They are the same, that’s all. A little while ago, this was quite rightly called a materialist assertion’ (NP 68/BOP 53).79 Lucretian materialism, then, is a pluralism in which neither economic law nor the laws of nature stand as a zero degree truth in relation to which the other is a metaphor. In the same paragraph Serres goes on to define umbilical thinking as an idealism: ‘if you perform a reduction in either direction, you must justify the first [an economic law] or project the second [the laws of nature]; either way, if you want to see the internal connections, that is idealism’ (NP 68/BOP 53).80 Not only is the Lucretian aspectual isomorphism of atoms and letters authentically materialist; it is in fact the only authentic materialism. The same laws of inclination and conjunction govern the world and a nascent humanity (De rerum natura Book 5), perception (Book 4) and matter (Book 2): ‘Always the same whole, a

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‘Non que l’une se ramène à l’autre, ou inversement. Ce sont les mêmes, voilà tout. Ce qui, tantôt, se nommait, justement, une assertion matérialiste.’ ‘si vous réduisez, dans l’un ou l’autre sens, ou vous justifiez la première [an economic law], ou vous projetez la seconde [the laws of nature]: dans les deux cas, et si vous aimez voir les boîtes fonctionner, c’est de l’idéalisme’.

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multiplicity of elements, and always the same operations at work on these wholes. The method by structural invariants, generalised to the global stability of flowing movements, establishes materialism’ (NP 69/BOP 54).81 This passage is reminiscent of the algorithmic universality of Le Système de Leibniz: matter is structurally isomorphic with language (see Figure 5.5). As David Webb and Bill Ross rightly point out, far from threatening Serres’s materialism this insistence on the isomorphism of atoms and letters founds it: ‘it is important to see that it is precisely by virtue of its material basis in atomism that Serres’ epistemology is in fact non-reductionist’ because iterations of a single basic process produce not only different worlds in different places and at different times, but also the related phenomena of physical nature, living beings, society, history, and morality within a single world, ours, as Lucretius himself describes them.82

Serresian code–matter is aspectual, not umbilical: neither matter nor code stands in relation to the other as its umbilical origin. In this sense, Serres is neither a materialist if this excludes the equiprimordiality of information, nor an idealist if this excludes the equiprimordiality of matter. The problem here is that ‘materialism’ and ‘idealism’ are themselves artefacts of modernity, of the abstractive dichotomy

Figure 5.5 Code–matter

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‘Toujours le même ensemble, une multiplicité d’éléments, et toujours les mêmes opérations au travail sur ces ensembles. La méthode par invariants structuraux, généralisée à la stabilité globale des mouvements fluents, établit le matérialisme.’ Webb and Ross, ‘Introduction’, 9–10.

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of the ideal and the material exemplified in the Cartesian distinction between the res cogitans and the res existensa. We can summarise Serres’s reconstruction of Lucretian materialism in The Birth of Physics by saying that the material is extensive (everything is matter and void), but not exhaustive (the discourse of matter and void cannot say everything about anything). Serres is an extensive materialist, but not an exhaustive materialist. This is why the charge laid at his door by Terence Blake and others, that ‘this information paradigm is itself in danger of becoming a Monomyth, a unifying thread in what Serres calls the Grand Narrative, the unified story to which all our sciences contribute’,83 does not compromise Serres’s position. It would only do so if his pluralism were in tension with his synthesis, if his universal were declarative and not procedural, and if Harlequin and Pierrot were locked in a winner-takes-all game which, as we have seen, they are not. Code–matter is not umbilical because it is aspectual: it is extensive, yes, but it is not exhaustive. If the ‘matter’ of materialism is passive, lifeless and inert then, no, Serres is not a materialist, and he joins Lucretius and Democritus in laughing out loud at such an absurd abstractive dichotomy (see GB 208). But he is a materialist if we let him define the material in terms of the code–matter discussed at length in the previous chapter, in which energy and information are coextensive and in which all existence is irreducibly and inextricably both ‘hard’ and ‘soft’. Serres identifies clear political stakes in Lucretian materialism. Idealism projects a political convention onto nature, seeking to make objects into ‘transformable forms for a pole endowed with force and consciousness’ (NP 151/BOP 121, translation altered),84 the all-powerful subject. Materialism, by contrast, insists that ‘We must return to things themselves’ and ‘it is . . . the natural constitution that, in the final instance, accounts for every other federation’ (NP 150–1/BOP 121).85 On first reading, this is a puzzling sentence. Serres seems to be affirming, malgré lui, that the material is, after all, umbilical, that atoms and clinamina are the original and non-metaphorical instance of federation from which all other instances, including language, are derived. The problems interpreting this paragraph only arise, however, if we assume that the materialist/spiritualist dichotomy is original, and that the ‘natural constitution’ therefore excludes coding and information. On the contrary, the clinamen is always already coding, already information. The ‘natural constitution that, in the final instance, accounts for every other federation’ is always 83

84 85

See (last accessed 22 August 2019). ‘des formes transformables pour un pôle muni de force et de conscience’. ‘c’est . . . la constitution naturelle qui rend compte, en dernière instance, de toute autre fédération’.

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already coded. So Serres is not claiming here that atoms are umbilical or exhaustive of reality, in other words that only atoms are real and that letters, language and information are derivative, metaphorical realities. What he is claiming is that atoms are extensive, that, as he later affirms in Hermès IV: la distribution, ‘[t]he atomism of information had never left the material’ (H4 56).86 It is also important to bear in mind that this is a paragraph not about atoms and letters, but about ‘Lucretius’ fight against Mars, against power’87 that would seek to manipulate material objects at the whim of consciousness. Serres is not denying the reality of language and information but resisting an anthropomorphism that seeks to remake material reality in its own mental image, for which ‘[t]he state of things becomes State reason, in place of that of the transcendental “I”’ (NP 151/BOP 121).88 In the secondary literature, approaches to Serres and materialism fall into two categories, either accepting him as a materialist but taking care to define materialism in a way that accommodates pluralist code–matter, or understanding materialism to retain a hierarchical separation between matter and code, and therefore denying that Serres is a materialist. This distinction is more a question of emphasis than of a deep disagreement among Serres’s readers. The path most often taken is to define materialism so as to accommodate Serres’s pluralism, and readers of Serres have tried to do this by appending to ‘materialism’ a range of adjectives. Hanjo Berressem coins the term ‘intelligent materialism’, which ‘proposes a continuity between the material and the psychic which is missing in psychoanalysis and deconstruction’,89 and Bernd Herzogenrath explains that ‘intelligent materialism’ is ‘preoccupied with “intelligent matter” and supports a belief in the force and richness of matter itself . . . one that does not need form to be imposed on it to become alive’.90 To call materialism ‘intelligent’ is to make the claim that ‘“nature is coded”, from the beginning and down to the infinitely small’,91 ‘everything that exists only exists in the form of writing and code’ (NP 185/BOP 149).92 In other words, it is not a case of taking human, conscious, self-reflexive reason as the umbilical form of intelligence and extending this self-consciousness into the non-human world, but of situating human intelligence within a broader range of instances of receiving, storing, processing and emitting information. In conformity with this emphasis, Rick Dolphijn labels Serres’s approach an ‘algorithmic materialism’ which, following in the footsteps of 86 87 88 89 90 91 92

‘L’atomisme signalétique n’avait jamais quitté le matériel.’ ‘le combat de Lucrèce, contre Mars, contre le pouvoir’. ‘L’état des choses devient raison d’Etat au lieu d’être celle du je transcendantal.’ Berressem, ‘“Incerto tempore incertisqlie locis”’, 66. Herzogenrath, An American Body|Politic, 25. Berressem, ‘“Incerto tempore incertisqlie locis”’, 65. ‘Tout ce qui existe n’existe que sous forme d’écrit et de code.’

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Leibniz, ‘begins with the way information is emitted, received, stocked and processed’.93 David Webb also appends an adjective to Serres’s materialism, not this time to nuance but to emphasise it, stressing the inextricability of matter and code in Serres’s ‘thoroughgoing materialism’.94 Vera Bühlmann strikes a different but not incompatible note when she retains the ‘classical’ understanding of materialism and claims that Serres’s ‘communicational physics’ is ‘neither classically materialist nor classically idealist’ because ‘it maintains that nature consists in the form-bearing charges that are being exchanged in the communication between the two poles of a delicate and critical, because genuinely unlikely, relation of equipollence: that between the Earth and Humanity’.95 The ‘form-bearing charges’ in question here are the mattermessages exchanged between humanity and the world, and so Bühlmann’s refusal of the label ‘materialism’ amounts to much the same as Dolphijn’s or Berressem’s embrace of the term. Adjectival appendages like ‘intelligent’ or ‘algorithmic’ do have the merit of signalling that Serres’s matter is not to be confused with a Cartesian res existensa, but they still run the risk of creating a hierarchy between matter and code that is simply not there in Serres. Like ‘red apple’ or ‘fast car’, a noun–adjective combination suggests a hierarchy of substance and accident:96 matter is fundamental, and this matter happens to be of the intelligent sort. This potential misunderstanding would be mitigated by an admittedly inelegant but precise compound noun such as code–matter or information–energy, where the two terms are grammatically equal: all code is material, and all matter is coded. Serresian code–matter both resonates with and differs significantly from influential new materialist positions such as the ‘vital materialism’ of Jane Bennett. Both Bennett and Serres want to wake our experience of objects from its linguistic slumber; they both question human sovereignty over the world, seeking to resituate humanity in a less asymmetrical relationship with things; they both seek to affirm nonhuman agency, and they both emphatically reject ‘the image of dead or thoroughly instrumentalised matter’ that ‘feeds human hubris and our earth-destroying fantasies of conquest and consumption’.97 Bennett, indeed, makes several brief references to 93 94 95 96

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Dolphijn, ‘Introduction’, 7. Webb, ‘The Virtue of Sensibility’, 27. Bühlmann, ‘Cosmoliteracy and Anthropology’, 36, emphasis original. Let me be clear that I am not suggesting this to be the explicit position of Bühlmann, Dolphijn or Berressem. My argument is that, for the same reason that it is prudent to avoid evoking ‘materialism’ simpliciter in relation to Serres, it is also wise to avoid the potential misunderstandings generated by a noun–adjective combination. Bennett, Vibrant Matter, ix.

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Serres in Vibrant Matter, drawing on his reading of Lucretian flow and referring to the ‘isomorphism’ between the world, perception and matter.98 Serres’s position does not disagree so much with Bennett’s ends, but with her means. Take the statement in the preface to Vibrant Matter that ‘[w]e need to cultivate a bit of anthropomorphism – the idea that human agency has some echoes in nonhuman nature – to counter the narcissism of humans in charge of the world’.99 The reader should be puzzled by this pronouncement. To counter anthropocentrism with ‘a bit of anthropomorphism’ sounds like the Platonic noble lie, or like advocating a ‘war to end all wars’.100 Bennett only construes vital materialism as ‘a bit of anthropomorphism’ because she sees human agency as an umbilical instance of agency that can only find metaphorical ‘echoes in nonhuman nature’. This perpetuates the sacred/ secular divide between the human and the non-human even as it seeks to challenge it. Vital materialism ironically reinforces the living/non-living dichotomy by extending life further into the world of things. Like the positions discussed in Chapter 4 above that seek to push the boundaries of language use further and further into the nonhuman world in order to secure the value of non-human animals by making them pass the test of human exceptionalism, this sacred/secular account of life and non-life does nothing to dismantle the dichotomy it superficially challenges, making ‘vibrant’ things into honorary humans in all but name (see Figure 5.6).

Figure 5.6 Jane Bennett’s ‘bit of anthropomorphism’ 98 99

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Bennett, Vibrant Matter, 154 n26. Bennett, Vibrant Matter, xvi. In ‘Thinking Things’ Steven Connor calls Bennett’s position a ‘covert anthropomorphism’. There is little covert about Bennett’s statement here, and her anthropomorphism is only covert in the sense of Poe’s purloined letter, hidden in plain sight. Perhaps the proposition is meant ironically, though there are no scare quotes or other indications that this is the case. It would be over-interpreting what Bennett has written to construe the sentence as ironic.

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Serres’s code–matter, by contrast, and his insistence that everything – including human beings – receives, stores, processes and emits information, opposes the exclusivity of human agency by multiplying it, showing it to be one mode of agency among many others, quantitatively notable but not qualitatively unique. So for Serres to ascribe agency to objects is not to find an echo of human agency in non-human nature, any more than human agency is an echo of the agency of objects. Humans and non-humans alike receive, process, store and emit information, isomorphically but not in a hierarchical relation one to the other (see Figure 5.7). It is not that Serres eschews the language of life; in Biogea he can write of ‘the living sea, vital, vivifying, first mother of the living species, the material sea, soft as a baby’s skin, without a ripple, rocked in the calm after the storm, flowering breast, uterus, fertile womb, generous source of fecundity’ (Bi 16/Bio 10).101 It is that his use of this language is underpinned by an information theoretical paradigm that refuses perversely to fetishise life in an attempt to resist anthropocentrism. Serres’s information theoretical approach ignores the vital/inert dichotomy in its focus on the universality of code–matter. Whereas Bennett pushes the boundary of the sacred further out into the secular wasteland, Serres pulls down the wall separating the two. This is also Steven Connor’s position in his discussion of Serres and Bennett in ‘Thinking Things’, concluding that in Bennett’s vital materialism ‘things have been smuggled over the border into the land of the living, where we, of course, take ourselves to reside, and rule the roost’.102 To say with Bennett that ‘matter itself is lively’103 is not the same as to hold, with Serres, that ‘[c]oded-coding, each thing

Figure 5.7 For Serres, humans and non-humans alike receive, process, store and emit information 101

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‘la mer vive, vitale, vivace, mère première des espèces vivantes, la mer maternelle, douce comme une peau de bébé, sans ride, bercée au calme de bonace, sein fleuri, utérus, matrice fertile, source généreuse de fécondité’. Connor, ‘Thinking Things’. Bennett, Vibrant Matter, 13.

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reverberates in every other thing, coding-coded’ (Bi 114/Bio 131).104 Serres gives us the resources to think Bennett’s anthropomorphism differently, not by extending ‘life’, along with all things, out into things but by subsuming life under a universal paradigm of information processing. The sort of sacred/secular thinking that dogs Bennett’s vital materialism is also present in the humanism of Jürgen Habermas’s resistance to ‘treating humans like objects’ which, as Bruno Latour argues in ‘A Cautious Prometheus’, is ‘thoroughly unaware’ that it is ‘treating objects unfairly’.105 The solution to treating humans like objects is not to lower the drawbridge of the pomerium and bring humans safely back inside, leaving objects to languish in their miserable secularity, but to pull down the walls, fill in the moat and stop treating objects like ‘objects’. Parasitic Ontology

Published in English in 1982, only two years after its appearance in the original French, The Parasite was reissued in 2007 as the inaugural volume in the Minnesota Press ‘Posthumanities’ series, and has been prominent in the Anglophone reception of Serres’s work to date.106 It is also one of Serres’s most complex and allusive volumes, the ‘turning point’ (EHP 99) in which he abandons the conventions of academic writing. Steven Connor alone has called it in various places ‘in many ways his most difficult and intractable book, the one that is most difficult either to enter or fully to inhabit’,107 his ‘wildest, wiliest, most difficult’108 volume, and his ‘most strained and painful book’.109 Much of the difficulty of The Parasite is due to its relentless use of allusion and implicit reference to unnamed authors, and I have elsewhere sought to bring succour to its bamboozled reader seeking to follow the Ariadne’s threads of its multiple allusions.110 The book is nothing less than a bid to rethink the Western tradition of ontology not on the basis of substance and identity but on that of parasite and relation: ‘The theory of being, ontology, brings us to atoms. The theory of relations brings us to the parasite’ (P 248/Par 185).111 104 105 106

107 108 109 110 111

‘Codante-codée, chaque chose retentit à toute autre chose, codée-codante.’ Latour, ‘A Cautious Prometheus?’, 160. See Baran, ‘Predators and Parasites in Le Père Goriot’; Brown, ‘Michel Serres’; Burton and Tam, ‘Towards a Parasitic Ethics’; Clegg et al., ‘Noise, Parasites and Translation’; Guilherme, ‘Michel Serres’ Le Parasite and Martin Buber’s I and Thou’; Lanone, ‘Parasites, or the Politics of Textual Poetics in Ben Okri’s The Famished Road’; Raffel, ‘Parasites, Principles and the Problem of Attachment to Place’; Thompson, ‘Productive Parasites’; Wolfe, ‘Bring the Noise’. Connor, ‘Parables of the para-’. Connor, ‘Michel Serres’s Milieux’. Connor, ‘Michel Serres’s Milieux’. See my Le Parasite de Michel Serres. ‘La théorie de l’être, ontologie, amène aux atomes. La théorie des relations amène au parasite.’

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Parasite as paradigm

The semantic range of ‘parasite’ is broader in French than in English, and the French term has three pertinent meanings (P 16/Par 8; see also FPIC 57).112 The first is ‘an abusive guest’ [‘un invité abusif’], someone who lives and/or eats at the expense of another. In ancient culture, a parasite would ingratiate himself into a rich household, eating at the family table and ‘paying’ for his food either with flattery or conversational repartee. The second meaning, and that most familiar to English readers, is ‘an unavoidable animal’ [‘un animal inévitable’], an organism that lives on or with a host, from which it obtains nutrients, shelter or other benefit and which it may or may not harm. Thirdly, the parasite is ‘a break in a message’ [‘une rupture de message’], translating the concept of ‘noise’ in information theory or ‘static’ in signal analysis (P 16/Par 8). Like the white noise or tohu-bohu from which signals and code emerge, this parasite is not only an impediment to clear communication but also and at the same time its condition of possibility, making messages both possible and imperfect. The parasite is a ‘thermal exciter’ (P 255/Par 190),113 agitating and destabilising the functioning of the system into which it insinuates itself, enabling but also jeopardising communication: ‘Background noise is the condition for passing (for meaning, sound and even noise), and noise is its prohibitor or interception. . . . Heat a little and I hear, I send, I pass; heat a little more, and everything collapses’ (P 260/Par 194).114 Within the context of these three meanings, it is important to realise that ‘parasite’ has both a global and a local sense for Serres. The global sense picks up on the meaning of ‘static’ or ‘noise’ and presents the parasite as the condition of all existence, the ‘generalised clinamen’: everything that exists exists parasitically. In its local sense, a parasite is an entity that takes from a host without giving back (or at least without giving back in kind), which draws on the senses of an interloping dinner guest and an organism that lives off another. Serres introduces the paradigm of the parasite through a reading of Jean de La Fontaine’s fable ‘The Town Rat and the Country Rat’ [‘Le Rat des villes et le rat des champs’]. In the fable the town rat invites the country rat to dinner, and during their feasting the two are interrupted (Serres assumes by the owner of the dwelling in which the town rat lives). The ‘third man’ intrudes upon the rats’ meal with a noise (bruit), which is one of the three meanings of the French parasite: the static 112

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The dictionary of the CNTRL lists ten meanings of the term. See (last accessed 22 August 2019). ‘Le parasite est un excitateur thermique.’ ‘Le bruit de fond est la condition du passage (du sens, du son et du bruit même), et le bruit est son interdit ou son interception . . . Chauffez un peu, j’entends, j’émets, je collationne, chauffez un peu plus, tout s’effondre.’

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that interrupts a signal. Despite the house-owner ‘parasitising’ the rats, however, it is in fact this third who is himself parasitised by his hungry visitors. The complex parasitical relations in La Fontaine’s fable help Serres to rethink the conventional account of sameness and alterity, subject and object. The distinction between the same and the other requires, on Serres’s account, the prior expulsion of the third or the parasite, which is mistakenly thought to supervene upon or interrupt the exchange between self and other. Serres illustrates his point with two diagrams. In the first, I1 and I2 are the two interlocutors, and P the parasite who supposedly supervenes upon the already established line of communication (P 74/Par 53) (see Figure 5.8). In this customary but incorrect way of understanding relations between a sender and a receiver or an object and a subject, a channel of (linguistic) communication or (economic) exchange is parasitised by a third instance which introduces static, miscommunication and fraud. In La Fontaine’s fable, by contrast, ‘the guest becomes the interrupter, the source of noise becomes the interlocutor, the channel becomes an obstacle, and vice versa’ (P 74/Par 53-4).115 In other words, in the fable it is now radically impossible to decide who is the parasite and who is the host, who is the subject and who is the object, who is the giver and who is the receiver, and who interrupts whom. The linearity necessary for assigning these dichotomous labels is itself revealed to be an artificial reduction of a generalised parasitism in which ‘[t]he same and the other change places with the third’, and so ‘[a] diagram is needed where the branches are not determined and where the cuts are not specified’ (P 74/Par 53) (see Figure 5.9).

Figure 5.8 The parasite intervenes in an otherwise perfect line of communication (from Le Parasite, p. 74) 115

‘Qui était l’invité devient l’interrupteur, qui était bruit devient interlocuteur, qui était du canal passe à l’obstacle, et inversement.’

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Figure 5.9 The roles of emitter, receiver and parasite are not fixed (from Le Parasite, p. 53) This substitutability of same, other and parasite has important implications for Serres’s reworking of the notions of subject and object as they pass from an ontology of substance to an ontology of the parasite, where they become interchangeable. ‘From the point of view of the third, the thing is always double, everyone is both fish and fowl, host and guest, and enemy to boot. . . . we already know how a subject can become an object’ (P 84–5/Par 62).116 Despite the constraints of these diagrammatic representations the parasitic relationship is not a static one but a snapshot of an evolving picture. Serres describes La Fontaine’s fable as presenting a ‘parasitic chain’ [‘chaîne parasitaire’] (P 10/Par 4), a cascading series of parasitic relationships in which each parasite is parasitised in turn, as each new arrival seeks to displace what precedes it: the tax farmer possesses the food in his house parasitically because he did not produce it (P1); the town rat parasitises parasitised food from the farmer (P2); the country rat parasitises the town rat (P3), and the noise made by the approaching farmer parasitises the rats mid-meal (P4) (see Figure 5.10). The noisy approach of the farmer at P4 (as Serres supposes, for the origin of the noise is not identified in La Fontaine’s fable) turns the cascade into a self-parasitising ouroboros. The tax farmer becomes a ‘third man’ in his own house (P 71/Par 51) (see Figure 5.11). 116

‘Vue du tiers, la chose est toujours double, chacun est bien chair et poisson, hôte dans les deux sens, et ennemi, en outre. . . . nous savons comment un sujet peut à la rigueur devenir objet.’

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Figure 5.10 The complex, evolving picture of parasitic relations

Figure 5.11 The cascade of hosts, guests and parasites is turned into a self-parasitising ouroboros Beyond La Fontaine’s fable, Serres elaborates a generalised parasitic ontology which is basic, original and universal. First, it is basic because parasitism is ‘[t]he simplest link between two things’, and it is not simply that parasitism is ‘an elementary relation’ but that it is in fact ‘the element of the relation’ (P 245/Par 182),117

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‘le parasitisme est une relation élémentaire, il est même l’élément de la relation’.

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such that ‘the fundamental social relationship’ is ‘a parasitic one’. The parasitic relation is original because it precedes all contract and law, which can now be defined as ‘minimal and collective limitation of parasitic action’ (CN 65/NC 36).118 All relations of exchange and reciprocity are transformations of an original parasitism, every dialectical relation or dialogue is built on the exclusion of the third (H2 67), and similarly every group is founded on the exclusion of the third (R 212/Ro 143) which precedes – and must be sacrificed for – its founding. In fact, Nothing is more ancient than the excluded middle or third, to be understood at once in every sense, drawing, discourse and religion. The excluded middle or third is the scapegoat: the scapegoat is at the foundation of anthropology, the excluded middle at the foundation of our logic. They bear the same name. (Ro 126) Rien n’est plus ancien que ce tiers exclu, à entendre d’un coup en tous sens, dessin, discours et religion. Le tiers exclu est le bouc émissaire: celui-ci est au fondement de l’anthropologie, celui-là est au fondement de notre logique. Ils portent le même nom. (R 187)

Like difference for Deleuze, parasitism for Serres is simply what there is. Parasitism is also a universal relationship (Her 106). Not only are there more parasitic species than non-parasitic (Bi 141–2/Bio 166; GB 140), but in fact all sentient and non-sentient beings are parasitic in the Serresian sense, because they all take from the earth without giving back in anything like the same currency they receive.119 In elaborating parasitism as an ontological paradigm, Serres also exploits the etymology of the term. The prefix ‘para-’ describes not a fixed point, not a selfidentical substance, but a relation. It ‘means “near,” “next to,” measures a distance’ (P 189/Par 144);120 ‘it is on the side, next to, shifted; it is not on the thing, but on its relation’ (P 38/Par 55).121 It founds an ontology for which relations, not substances, are primary, an ontology which is ‘always mediate and never immediate’ (P 55/Par 38–9).122 The parasite is not a figure of relation simpliciter, however, because it is ‘a relation to the relation, a tie to the tie; it is connected to the channel’ (P 55/Par 39, translation altered).123 The parasite is a relation that interrupts and disrupts relations. This primacy of interruptive, parasitic relations replaces for 118 119 120 121 122 123

‘limitation minimale et collective de l’action parasitaire’. See Yates, ‘“The gift is a given”’, 204–5. ‘signifie voisin, à côté de, mesure une distance’. ‘il est à côté, il est auprès, il est décalé, il n’est pas sur la chose, mais sur sa relation’. ‘toujours médiat et jamais immédiat’. ‘[i]l a relation à la relation, il a rapport au rapport, il est branché sur le canal’.

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Serres the primacy of substance dominant in Western ontologies. What was previously thought of as substance is now seen to be ‘a point, a being, and a station’ that is composed of ‘a network of relations’ (P 55/Par 39).124 Things are crossroads that exchange and sort, bundles of relations dense enough to be mistaken for that which precedes all relations. The thing itself ‘is nothing but a position or situation. And the parasite has won’ (P 55/Par 39).125 Serres draws the meaning of ‘para-’ in the direction of the Lucretian clinamen when he describes the parasite as a ‘difference from equilibrium’ (P 47/Par 32):126 The relation upsets equilibrium, making it deviate. If some equilibrium exists or ever existed somewhere, somehow, the introduction of a parasite in the system immediately provokes a difference, a disequilibrium. Immediately, the system changes; time has begun. (Par 182) Elle s’introduit comme un coin dans les équilibres, elle les fait dévier. S’il existe, s’il a existé, quelque jour, quelque part, un quelconque équilibre, l’introduction d’un parasite dans le système provoque aussitôt un écart, un déséquilibre. Le système, tout de suite, change. Il dérive. Le temps a commencé. (P 245)

Like the clinamen, the deviations engendered by the parasite are minimal; it ‘produces small oscillations of the system, small differences: parastases or circumstances’ (P 258/Par 192).127 The clinamen and the parasite both introduce a drop of chaos into an ocean of order, around which crystals of existence begin to form. Just as existence for Lucretius begins with inclination, so also existence for Serres begins with the unbalancing of parasitic relations. But is it not the case that two substances must first pre-exist in order to be in a parasitic relationship? Not if we take the Lucretian paradigm as the model for Serres’s account here. For Lucretius, when atoms fall parallel in the void there is no existence; it is the clinamen that inaugurates time and existence. Similarly, the parasite is the origin of all existence understood as the disruption of perfect order: ‘The parasite controls life and death, the origin and the end, exchange and gift, time and composition, good and evil, false and true, order and disorder’ (Hom 210).128 The parasite is to biology what

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‘The whole question of the system now is to analyze what a point, a being, and a station are. They are crossed by a network of relations.’ ‘Elle n’est rien que position, situation. Et le parasite a gagné.’ ‘Le préfixe para est compté, calculé, à la tare, dans son écart à l’équilibre.’ ‘produit de petites oscillations du système, de petits écarts: parastases ou circonstances’. ‘Le parasite tient la vie et la mort, l’origine et la fin, l’échange et le don, le temps et la composition, le bien et le mal, le faux et le vrai, l’ordre et le désordre.’

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the clinamen is to physics: ‘The parasite is an operator; it is a generalised clinamen’ (P 253/Par 188).129 As for the sitos of para-site, it means ‘grain’ or ‘wheat’, a synecdoche of food. So the parasite is ‘what is next to eating, its neighbouring function’, namely ‘what emits sound’ (P 189/Par 144).130 So just like the Lucretian clinamen, the term ‘parasite’ draws together food and words, the material and the coded, converting energy into information: ‘when a parasite is your guest in the social sense, there is sometimes some return on the relationship, but the parasite always makes his return in words’ (FPIC 57–8). It is this equivalence of food and words inherent to the notion of parasitism that Serres is leveraging here. The parasite converts matter (food) into code (words), and vice versa.131 More broadly, it effects a range of interactions that are, by the lights of the extant logic of exchange, aneconomic. The parasite wants to trade voice for substance, (hot) air for solid, superstructure for infrastructure. People laugh, the parasite is expelled, he is made fun of, he is beaten, he cheats us; but he invents anew. (Par 35) Il cherche à donner de la voix contre de la substance, du gazeux contre du solide, ou bien de la superstructure contre de l’infra structure. On rit, on l’expulse, on se moque de lui, on le bat, il nous trompe, mais il invente du nouveau. (P 50)

It is through this crossing, this exchanging between the hard and the soft, that the parasite ‘builds a new logic’ (P 50/Par 35),132 and it is this ‘unbalanced’ nature of the parasite that prevents it from privileging either matter or code as the umbilical or zero degree substance. And what of the claim that ‘parasite’ is just a metaphor or an analogy for Serres?133 I do not think there is any objection to be made to this claim from a Serresian point of view, providing that it also be acknowledged that metaphor and 129 130

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‘Le parasite est un opérateur, il est un clinamen généralisé.’ ‘Dans cette bouche ouverte qui parle et qui mange, ce qui est à côté de manger, comme sa fonction proche, est ce qui, justement, fait l’émission du son.’ There is also strictly speaking a continuity here, for code itself, in whatever form, is carried in ‘énergie d’échelle microscopique’ (P 51/Par 36). ‘construit une logique nouvelle’. This question is asked by Sydney Lévy. He comes to a similar response to mine, but holds it for different reasons: ‘One may claim that the use of the “parasite” (just as the use of “algorithm”) is metaphorical or analogical. It is indeed, but does it really matter if it helped to better understand the host and at the same time helped to renew and maintain it?’ Lévy, ‘An Ecology of Knowledge’, 5.

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analogy themselves partake of the generalised parasitism of bifurcation and inclination. To coin a new metaphor, for example, is to introduce a new inclination into the laminar flow of meanings, an inclination that causes two meanings to collide and create something new. This is just as ‘literal’ a sense of ‘parasite’ as a material meaning, and only the prejudice that the material is more real than the informational would motivate someone to argue otherwise. Towards a gnoseological contract

The parasite is not just an isolated idea in Serres’s thought; it is an expression of his global intuition, his ontology and, as we shall see in the rest of this chapter and the next, of his ethics and politics as well. It is not a concept, or even a suite of concepts, but a paradigm. The implications of the parasitic paradigm for the way we think about objects are widespread and profound. From a parasitic perspective, the great danger is not in the reduction of the ‘otherness’ of the object to the ‘sameness’ of the subject, but in the binary subject/object distinction per se. Compared to the nuance and subtlety of generalised parasitism, Serres argues, seeking to understand relations in terms of the logic of subjects and objects is like playing the piano while wearing boxing gloves (P 78/Par 57). In The Parasite Serres’s reflection on the status of subjects and objects is shaped and expressed by his reading of another La Fontaine fable, ‘The Countryman and the Serpent’, in the course of which the eponymous reptile is cut into three pieces: Which is the third part? Or who or what is the third, in this logic of the trenchant decision? Is the third excluded or not? Here we have a trivalent logic where we expected only a bivalent one. The same at the head, the other at the tail, or being at the head and nonbeing at the tail, and this middle trunk that is both same and other, being and nonbeing, and so forth. (Par 23) Quelle est donc la troisième part? Ou quel est donc ce tiers, dans la logique de la décision tranchante? Est-il ou n’est-il pas exclu? Il y a là une logique à trois valeurs, où nous n’en attendions que deux. Le même en tête, l’autre en queue, ou l’être en tête et le non-être en queue, et ce tronçon médian qui est à la fois même et autre, être et non-être et ainsi autant qu’on voudra. (P 36–7)

The dichotomies of subject and object, same and other, being and nonbeing, are only operative after discarding the serpent’s middle part, and Serres is drawing our attention, quite literally here, to the excluded middle, in French le tiers exclu (the excluded third), the parasite that must be expelled in order to obtain the immaculate

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dichotomies of modernity. To begin with, the subject–object distinction is itself a reduction of the complexity of the threefold division upon which it supervenes, for it is the parasitic third that decides, judges or slices134 between subject and object by separating them (P 36/Par 23). Plenitude, mutuality and symbiosis come first; distinction and separation supervene later, as an abstractive dichotomy that results from the sacrifice of the third party.135 Furthermore, the subject created by this exclusion of the third is itself a parasite for ‘[t]he old distinction between subject and object is another reinstallation of the parasitic arrow . . . The subject takes and gives nothing’ (P 290/Par 216).136 The phenomenological term ‘given’ reinforces this idea ‘that the objective or exterior world gives freely and so demands nothing in return’ (RCNsf).137 The subject parasitises the object, appropriating it for its own needs, mastering and possessing it, sucking it dry of all its agency, meaning and value. It is an expression of ‘human narcissism’ that philosophy has not yet escaped (P 16/Par 8). Until now, Serres argues, subject–object relations have been aptly characterised in terms of a one-way parasitic arrow from the subject to the object. However, the substitutability and undecidability of subject and object in the parasitic paradigm calls for a new relationship, characterised this time by a double-headed arrow which implies a mutuality of subjects and objects. This demands a new paradigm of subject–object relations, for [t]he question of the relation between the subject of knowledge and its object has never been thought from the perspective of exchange; it is as if it went without saying that the active subject receives an information given it by the passive object. [l]a question du rapport entre le sujet de la connaissance et son objet n’a jamais été pensé dans le cadre de l’échange, comme s’il restait entendu que le sujet, actif, prenait une information que lui donnait l’objet, passif. (RCNsf )

The double-headed arrow, by contrast, frames the subject–object relation as a partnership (RCNbnf 23). Objects, as we saw in Serres’s pragmatogony, create subjects and communities just as much as subjects manipulate objects. 134

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The French ‘trancher’ can mean to slice or to decide. Serres is alluding to La Fontaine’s fable ‘The Countryman and the Serpent’. Sarah Carvallo argues that quasi-objects are best understood neither as modified objects nor as modified subjects but as a third category, ‘[c]omme on parle d’un troisième sexe ni féminin ni masculin, hermaphrodite’, Carvallo, ‘Éloge des corps mêlées’, 130. ‘[l]a vieille distinction du sujet, d’une part, et de l’objet, de l’autre, est une autre réinstallation de la flèche parasitaire . . . Le sujet prend et ne rend rien, l’objet donne et ne reçoit rien.’ ‘que le monde objectif ou extérieur donne gratuitement donc ne demande rien en retour’.

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In fact, this new relationship between subject and object is presented as a contract. Serres is well known for his ‘natural contract’ which I will discuss in Chapter 6, but it is less commonly acknowledged138 that in The Parasite he also calls for a ‘thingly’ or ‘gnoseological contract’ in which human beings are included among ‘things’, a contract between subjects and objects that sets out the terms of their symbiosis (P 225/Par 169). As an image of this contract Serres evokes the story of the blind man who carries a lame man on his back, the latter guiding the former with his words in a mutually beneficial ‘criss-cross association of the material and the logicial’ (P 51/Par 36).139 The gnoseological contract would require doubling the direction of the parasitic arrow running from subject to object in order to write ‘a . . . law of things themselves’ (P 291/Par 217, translation altered).140 The contract in question has to be supple enough to encompass equivalence not only between matter and matter but between matter and code. This will always be ‘an unjust pact; relative to the old type of balance’ and so requires ‘a new epistemology and a new theory of equilibrium’ (P 51/Par 36).141 The substance of the contract is to arrive at a symbiosis, rather than the human parasite seeking to master and possess its host, killing it in the process. Serres’s aim is not to undertake the impossible task of weaning humanity away from its parasitic mode of existence, but to recast it as ‘a symbiote or the partner in a balanced or equitable exchange beginning with the parasite or the predator that, in the beginning, it cannot not be’ (RCNbnf 23).142 This symbiosis requires exchange, and exchange – in contrast to parasitism – requires a contract (RCNbnf 24), not of course in the sense of a written agreement but in the sense of a modification of behaviour that promotes symbiotic existence. The quasi-object

Another way in which Serres’s paradigm of the parasite challenges a Cartesian pattern of subject–object relations is through the quasi-object. This notion first ghosts across the pages of Serres’s writing in Hermès II: l’interférence (1972) and is subsequently treated in Genèse (1982), Rome (1983), Les Cinq sens (1985), Statues (1987), 138

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I have been able to find no references at all to this gnoseological contract in the secondary literature on Serres. ‘association croisée du matériel et du logiciel’. ‘un droit . . . des choses elles-mêmes’. ‘un pacte injuste, au rapport des vieilles balances . . . il dit une nouvelle épistémologie, une autre théorie de l’équilibre’. ‘un symbiote ou le partenaire d’un échange équilibré ou équitable à partir du parasite ou du prédateur qu’à l’origine il ne peut pas ne pas être’.

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l’Hermaphrodite (1987), Le Contrat naturel (1990), Les Origines de la géométrie (1993), Atlas (1994), Variations sur le corps (1999), Hominescence (2001), La Guerre mondiale (2008), Le Gaucher boiteux (2015) and, of course, Le Parasite (1980). It develops Serres’s earlier pragmatogony, arguing for the centrality of objects in organising human communities. One of Serres’s most discussed and widely adopted terms, the quasi-object, frustrates the ‘vain utopia’ (R 128/Ro 85)143 of the Cartesian division between an individual active subject and lone passive object. Picking up where the pragmatogony in Statues leaves off, Serres begins the chapter of The Parasite entitled ‘Theory of the Quasi-Object’ with the statement and question ‘What living together is. What is the collective?’ (P 301/Par 224).144 Specifically, is the collective a being or a set of relations? The dichotomy is a false one: we cannot decide whether the parasite is a relation or a thing, an operator or a monad. What the being/relation dichotomy misses is the object without which there would be no collective. Serres takes the example of the game ‘hunt the slipper’,145 in which players sit in a circle and have to pass a slipper from hand to hand without the one player in the middle of the circle being able to identify who is in possession of the slipper. If the player in the middle correctly identifies who holds the slipper at a given moment, she trades places with the new victim. The object creates both the collective – when it is passed from hand to hand – and the individual – when it is held and the victim designated (P 303/ Par 225–6). The one without the slipper is not an individual but rather ‘dissolved, anonymous, into a monotonous chain where he does not stand out’ (P 302–3/ Par 225, translation altered).146 The subject, the I, is the one marked by the stationary object. Similarly, in most ball games the ball creates both the collective (the team) and the individual (the player with the ball who can be tackled or dispossessed) (P 304/Par 226). Such quasi-objects are defined by Serres as ‘tracers of intersubjective relations in the group’ (OG 331/G 206),147 but ‘tracer’ must be understood in a strong sense here. The quasi-object does not merely highlight relations that pre-exist it, but it creates relations that would not exist without it: ‘This circulation is necessary for the distributed multiple to become a collective’ (R 128–9/Ro 86).148 143 144 145

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‘utopie vaine’. ‘Ce que c’est que de vivre ensemble. Qu’est-ce que le collectif?’ In French the ‘jeu du furet’ (literally ‘game of the ferret’), in which one player, in the centre of a circle of other players, has to discover an object that is being passed quickly from hand to hand, generally on a string. See (last accessed 22 August 2019). ‘fondu, anonyme, dans une chaîne monotone, où il ne se distingue pas’. ‘traceurs objectaux de relations intersubjectives dans le groupe’. ‘Il faut cette circulation pour que le multiple, distribué, se fasse collectif.’

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The account of the quasi-object also echoes the accent on death and sacrifice in the pragmatogony in Statues. Like Romulus whose murder founded the city of Rome, the individual is designated in order to be the victim. The victim is also a substitute for the collective, a scapegoat who represents the group. With each pass of the slipper or ball the roles of victim, sacrificial priest and represented collective change within the circumscribed field of play that resembles the sacred space of the temple (P 304/Par 226). As the ball passes among the players it creates the collective by putting them to death within the rules of the game, one by one. In such a game the ball is the sun around which the players orbit, their bodies are its object; they are attributes of its substance (P 303/Par 251). The one who can look past the Cartesian asymmetrical prejudice ‘knows that the ball plays with him or plays off him, in such a way that he gravitates around it and fluidly takes the position it takes, but especially the relations it spawns’ (Ec 161/C 108).149 Serres’s quasi-object is like Montaigne’s cat: ‘When I play with my cat, how do I know that she is not passing time with me rather than I with her?’150 If I claim to know that it is exclusively I who play with my cat, I can know it only a priori, as an axiom of the asymmetrical Cartesian paradigm. Coming to grips with this understanding ‘supposes a Ptolemaic revolution of which few theoreticians are capable, since they are accustomed to being subjects in a Copernican world where objects are slaves’ (P 303/Par 226).151 It is of crucial importance to realise that the nature of this Ptolemaic revolution has nothing to do with ascribing consciousness or emotions to balls and slippers. Serres is emphatically not suggesting that the ball directs the game according to its own preconceived plan, or that the slipper hides itself, whether the players choose to do so or not. The Ptolemaic revolution has everything to do with Serres’s gesture of opposing by generalising. It is a plea to take a long view, to ‘forget the philosophical prejudices of the modern interlude’ (OG 246/G 140)152 and realise that modernity has installed conscious (human) agency as an umbilical, non-metaphorical yardstick of all other claims to agency, making agency into a black and white opposition between the utter conscious self-possession of the subject and the total passive inertia of the object, an emphatically abstractive dichotomy. A ball can never be

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‘sait que la balle joue avec lui ou se joue de lui, de sorte qu’il tourne autour d’elle et suit fluidement les positions qu’elle prend, mais surtout les relations qu’elle fraie’. Screech, Michel de Montaigne, 505; ‘Quand je me jouë à ma chatte, qui sçait si elle passe son temps de moy plus que je ne fay d’elle?’, de Montaigne, Œuvres complètes, II 12, 430. ‘suppose une révolution Ptolémaïque dont peu de théoriciens sont capables, accoutumés à être des sujets, dans un monde copernicien, où les objets sont des esclaves’. ‘les préjugés philosophiques de l’intermède moderne’.

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a subject of circulation, we assume, because it is not making conscious decisions about its trajectory. Yet when the ball determines the trajectory and behaviour of the players, constituting them as a collective, we naïvely place all the agency on the side of the humans, inducing in ourselves an object blindness and a consciousness fetishism that hampers our understanding of the quasi-object. The ball is subject in all but name (CS 357/FS 317). We would be naïve to assume, Serres cautions, that consciousness and knowledge emerge all of a sudden, finding their ultimate fulfilment in humans while remaining alien to all other entities: Neither knowledge nor consciousness suddenly arises to form sapiens. The thousand elements of their makeup appear starting from the inert – writing – or from the living – reading, choosing, deciding . . . Plunged into the world, we continuously forget how, over a long time, a meaning appears there. Like a temporal transcendental, certain conditions for knowing date from hundreds of millions of years ago. (Inc 37) Ni connaissance ni conscience n’émergent avec soudaineté pour former le sapiens. Mille éléments de leur constitution apparaissent dès l’inerte: écrite, ou le vivant: lire, choisir, décider . . . Plongés dans le monde, nous oublions sans cesse comment, longuement, un sens y apparaît. Comme un transcendantal temporel, certaines conditions du connaître datent de centaines de millions d’années. (In 74)

Serres is insisting here on a spectral understanding of agency, with reference once more to the information theoretical paradigm. When, in the quotation above, he argues that things ‘read, choose, decide’, he is referring to the four universal processes of receiving, storing, processing and emitting information–energy that vary greatly in degree between a neutron star, a crystal, a computer, a bacterium, a human being and a rugby ball, but do not vary in kind. When a ball organises a collective or a slipper organises a game, its agency is not conscious like that of the players with whom it interacts, but it is not for that reason to be flushed clean of all agency in an abstractive dichotomy. The important distinction here is not between subject and object at all, for ‘each term of the traditional subject-object dichotomy is itself split by something like a geographical divide . . . noise, disorder, and chaos on one side; complexity, arrangement, and distribution on the other’. This division is ‘more stable and potent’ than their ‘antique separation’ (H4 271/HLSP 82).153

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‘L’observateur comme l’objet, le sujet comme l’observé, sont travaillés par un partage plus stable et plus puissant que leur antique séparation.’

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Quasi-objects systematically blur the distinction between subject and object. Subjects can inhabit the place of quasi-objects, such as when women or slaves circulate as objects of exchange in a society (S 146/St 103), and quasi-objects can inhabit the place of subjects, such as when the circulating ball ‘plays the role of leader and no doubt reminds us of the head of the king, of the body cut in two, double, characteristic of those we call our leaders and put at our head’ (S 146/St 106).154 In such cases, ‘[t]he object changes into the subject and conversely’, and ‘[a]s a quasi-object, the ball is the true subject of the game’ (Ec 160/C 108).155 As Serres was already claiming in Le Système de Leibniz, ‘the subject is both subject and object at the same time. The object is both object and subject’ (SL 389).156 This interchangeability strains at the limits of the vocabulary of subject and object, such that Serres confesses ‘I no longer know how or where to place objects, as previously understood, as well as subjects, as they used to be known, since they each sometimes play the role and function of the other’ (In 340/Inc 192, translation altered).157 The dichotomy between subject and object is replaced by a ridge line or watershed (H4 271). Subject on this side of the Pyrenees, object on the other: strange ontology that is bounded by a river or mountain! The information theoretical paradigm also helps us to see that the quasi-objects that blur the boundary between the modern ‘subject’ and ‘object’ are not isolated curiosities but objects tout court. Serres’s own examples of the rugby ball and the slipper have, I fear, led to a misunderstanding of this point, and therefore to a lack of appreciation of the significance of the quasi-object.158 They risk giving the impression that quasi-objects are relatively rare in society, isolated to particular controlled contexts: a ball and a slipper are quasi-objects, the reader may infer, but the myriad things that populate daily life must belong to some other category of object. Rather than limiting the quasi-object to certain circumscribed games, however, Serres’s point is that we are always playing a game, sometimes more than one. If there is no game then there is no ‘we’, and there are no objects. Outside

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‘joue le rôle de capitaine et sans doute nous fait-elle nous ressouvenir de la tête du roi, du corps coupé en deux, double, propre à ceux que nous nommons nos chefs et mettons à notre tête’. ‘Comme un quasi-objet, la balle est le vrai sujet du jeu.’ ‘le sujet est à la fois sujet et objet. L’objet est à la fois objet et sujet.’ ‘je ne sais pas non plus comment et où placer les objets, ancien style, aussi bien que les sujets, ancienne manière, puisque les uns jouent parfois le rôle et la fonction des autres’. In addition to the match ball and slipper discussed here, Serres evokes several further examples of quasi-objects, including ‘the peace pipe among the enemies finally reaching an agreement’, the Eucharistic bread and wine circulating during a church service, ‘the common glass at the feast where there is drinking’ (Ro 86)/‘le verre commun au festin où l’on boit’ (R 128), and Romulus’s dead body, which he also calls a ‘pre-object’ (R 130/Ro 87 ).

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the sports pitch or the children’s party, our games are presided over by Dumézil’s triad of Mars, Jupiter and Quirinus, and each deity has its quasi-object: the prize of martial combat, the religious fetish, and the merchandise and money of commercial exchange respectively (see G 150/Gen 90–1). Each of these quasi-objects promotes the stability of a collective and reduces violence by channelling energy into choreographed sets of relations. The relative importance of fetishes, prizes and merchandise varies over time and across cultures, but the defining quasi-object of contemporary Western society is money which ‘circulates like a ball’ and ‘marks the subject’ such that ‘in our societies, Cartesian meditations are soon written; I am rich; therefore I am’ (P 308/Par 229).159 Furthermore, quasi-objects need not be material. War is a quasi-object, as is the language that passes between us and connects us (P 311–12/Par 232). Language is one of the quasi-objects, but only one, that draws us together. The misguided restriction of the category of quasi-object risks passing over its profound challenge to our thinking, namely that ‘the subject-object distinction completely disappears because I know no physical objects, living beings, or human communities which are not analysable according to these four operations’ of receiving, storing, processing and emitting information (Pan 149).160 This realisation is certainly ‘a complete disruption of our way of perceiving and understanding the world’, but it is also ‘absolutely simple’ (Pan 149).161 To think of agency not in terms of conscious intention but in terms of the four operations renders the strict subject/object dichotomy unthinkable, not that there are never any subjects and objects but that they are unceasingly substituting for each other. The ubiquity of information processing creates a community of exchange and transfer that is much wider than humans alone, extending to ‘everything in the world, without exception, us included’ (TDC 92–3/TOC 58),162 to which no existing term is adequate. Serres therefore coins the word ‘interobjectivity’ to describe the way in which ‘solid things, whether pure or impure, carry inscribed on them information that the whole theory conspires to decode, or they inform each other just as, previously, nature’s atoms expressed each other’ (H2 14–15).163 159

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‘Il circule comme un ballon, l’argent, quasi-objet. Il marque le sujet, il le marque efficacement: dans nos sociétés, les méditations cartésiennes sont bientôt écrites, je suis riche donc je suis.’ ‘la distinction sujet-objet disparaît complètement puisque je ne connais pas d’objets physiques, d’êtres vivants, ni de communautés humaines qui ne soient pas analysables selon ces quatre opérations’. ‘un bouleversement total de notre manière de percevoir et de comprendre le monde . . . d’une simplicité absolue’. ‘toutes les choses du monde, sans exception, nous compris’. ‘les choses solides impures ou pures, portent, inscrites sur elles, une information que la théorie entière concourt à déchiffrer, ou elles s’entre-informent, comme, autrefois, les atomes de la nature s’entrexprimaient’.

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The Pythagorean harmony is an interobjective code (H2 182), and things in the world engage in an ‘inter-objective exchange’ [‘l’échange inter-objectif ’] of information transfer (H2 191) that serves as the necessary condition of intersubjective messages circulating among human beings. Serres is careful to distance this position from a latter-day animism, answering in the affirmative his own question: ‘Aren’t there then, in the things of the world, functions that we believe to be exclusive to human understanding? I’m not saying a soul – a vague name – but cognitive elements?’ (Inc 64/Inc 31).164 In fact, it is precisely in finding such cognitive elements in the world that Serres avoids animism more adequately than can any substance dualism. The charge of panpsychism is only a scandal if the human psyche is taken to be the umbilical model of mind, by comparison to which all other ‘thinking’ is metaphorical. If the Cartesian asymmetrical paradigm accuses Serres of panpsychism, then he warns it in turn against a hubris of the subject: The wind forms waves on the sea as though it were a matter of lines on a page; the river traces its route along the thalweg and the glacier does so in the valley; the axis projects the exact latitude of a place onto its sundial; the stylus scarifies the wax, and the diamond point engraves its mark on the window pane. Let’s not claim we alone write. Oil and water don’t mix; bodies select partners for their combinations to the exclusion of other elements; crystals endowed with impurities rectify the direction of certain flows. The act of choosing doesn’t concern us alone. Ice sheets, cliffs, radioactive bodies engram memories. Let’s not claim we alone remember. In short, the things themselves, inert, as well as the living things exchange elements, energy and information, preserve this latter, spread it, select it. Let’s not claim we alone devote ourselves to exchange. This writing, these decisions, these memory storages, these codings, among other examples, endow objects with quasi cognitive properties. ‘It thinks’ in the sense of ‘it rains’ exists as much as ‘I think’ or ‘we think’. (Inc 190–1) Le vent forme des lames sur la mer comme s’il s’agissait de lignes sur une page; le fleuve trace sa route le long du talweg et le glacier dans la vallée; l’axe projette sur son cadran solaire l’exacte latitude du lieu; le style scarifie la cire et la pointe de diamant grave sur la vitre sa trace. Ne pré tendons point écrire seuls. L’huile et l’eau ne se mêlent pas; les corps élisent les partenaires de leurs combinaisons à l’exclusion d’autres éléments; des cristaux munis d’impuretés redressent le sens de certains flux. L’acte de choisir ne nous concerne pas seuls. Les islandsis, les falaises, les corps radioactifs

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‘N’existe-t-il donc pas, dans les choses du monde, des fonctions que nous croyons exclusives de l’entendement humain? Je ne dis pas une âme, dénomination vague, mais des éléments cognitifs?’

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engramment des mémoires. Ne prétendons point nous souvenir seuls. Bref, les choses elles-mêmes, inertes, ainsi que les vivants échangent éléments, énergie et information, conservent cette dernière, la diffusent, la sélectionnent. Ne prétendons point nous adonner à des actes d’échange seuls. Cette écriture, ces décisions, ces mémorisations, ces codages, entre autres exemples, confèrent aux objets des propriétés quasi cognitives. Il y a du « il pense » au sens de « il pleut », autant que du « je pense » ou du « nous pensons ». (In 337–8)

We may not currently have a word for an object that can reply to us and think for (or against) us, but that is a fault of our inherited vocabulary and not a deficiency in things (RH 194). We must invent such a word, and we could do worse than start with ‘quasi-object’. The Ptolemaic revolution also requires a shift in our sense of the priority of substance and relation; not a simple reversal of the Cartesian primacy of substance but a blurring of the distinction between substance and relation itself in which the individual, collective and object are all understood to be ‘capable of ecstasy, of difference from our equilibrium’, and can all ‘put our center outside ourselves’ (P 306/Par 228).165 This sharing of substance and relation is a participation, understood as ‘the passing of the “I” by passing’, ‘the abandonment of my individuality or my being in a quasi-object that is there only to be circulated’, and ‘the transsubstantiation of being into relation’ (P 306/Par 228).166 Just as it is not the algorithm itself that constitutes knowledge but the operations it performs, so also it is the movements of the quasi-object that knit together the collective, not the quasi-object itself.167 Is the quasi-object material? Yes. Is it a set of relations, or a contract? Yes: the object ‘is a quasi-object insofar as it remains a quasi-us . . . more a contract than a thing’ (Ge 147/Gen 87–8).168 It is for this reason that the material nature of the quasi-object is incidental to its function, and that quasi-objects need not be material at all. Finally, objects also provide the conditions of knowledge. The objective a priori we encountered in Chapter 4, drawing the conditions of knowledge from the noises and rhythms of the world, is also an a priori of objects. The beginnings of thought 165 166

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‘capables d’extase, d’écart à notre équilibre, que nous pouvons placer notre centre hors de nous’. ‘La participation est la passation du je par la passe. C’est très exactement l’abandon de mon individu ou de mon être dans un quasi-objet qui n’est là que pour circuler. C’est rigoureusement la transsubstantiation de l’être en relation.’ As Latour comments in ‘The Force and the Reason of Experiment’, 74, ‘In the end, it is the trajectories of the successive passes that define, in actu, the collective.’ ‘L’objet ici est un quasi-objet en tant qu’il reste un quasi-nous. Il est plus un contrat qu’une chose.’

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reside in the great objects of the natural world, sun, earth, in manufactured things, in the artificial, axis, table, compass, ruler, statue, lastly in the community, in the intersubjectivity that is poorly named and therefore poorly conceived, starting as it does from the individual subject, but that begins to take shape in front of the appearance, the obviousness, the emergence of these objects. (G 382, translation altered) résident dans les grands objets du monde naturel, soleil, terre, dans les choses fabriquées, dans l’artificiel, axe, table, compas, règle, statue, enfin dans la communauté, dans l’intersubjectivité mal nommée donc mal conçue à partir du sujet individuel, mais commençant à se former devant l’apparition, l’évidence, l’émergence de ces objets. (OG 301)

It is objects great and small that provide the categories of our understanding. Serres’s quasi-object has been taken up at length by Bruno Latour in We Have Never Been Modern and elsewhere.169 Acknowledging Serres to have first coined the term, Latour understands quasi-objects as hybrids that ‘occupy neither the position of objects . . . nor that of subjects’, and that cannot be understood as a simple mixture of ‘natural thing and social symbol’. 170 For Latour, the quasi-object unites the four different ‘repertoires’ by which the moderns structure their reality: 1) the ‘external reality of a nature of which we are not masters’, inert and meaningless, 2) the social bond or ‘what attaches human beings to one another’, including our passions and desires, 3) signification and meaning, or ‘the actants that make up the stories we tell ourselves’,171 and 4) the Being that we always forget when we preoccupy ourselves exclusively with beings. These four categories of reality, society, 169 170

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Notably ‘Ethnography of “High-Tech”’ and An Inquiry Into Modes of Existence. The quotation comes from a paragraph excised from the English translation, between the sentence finishing ‘en masse’ and the next starting ‘In order to accommodate . . .’ on page 50. See Latour, We Have Never Been Modern/‘Après Michel Serres, j’appelle de tels hybrides quasi-objets parce qu’ils n’occupent ni la position d’objets prévue pour eux par la Constitution, ni celle de sujets, et qu’il est impossible de les coincer tous dans la position médiane qui en ferait un simple mélange de chose naturelle et de symbole social’, Latour, Nous n’avons jamais été modernes, 73. Latour, We Have Never Been Modern, 88; ‘Le premier répertoire traite de la réalité extérieure d’une nature dont nous ne sommes pas maîtres, qui existe en dehors de nous et qui n’a ni nos passions ni nos désirs, bien que nous soyons capables de la mobiliser et de la construire. Le deuxième répertoire traite du lien social, de ce qui attache les humains entre eux, des passions et des désirs qui nous agitent, des forces personnifiées qui structurent la société, laquelle nous dépasse tous bien que nous, la construisions. Le troisième traite de la signification et du sens, des actants qui composent les histoires que nous nous racontons, des épreuves qu’ils subissent, des aven- tures qu’ils traversent, des tropes et des genres qui les organisent, des grands récits qui nous dominent infiniment, bien qu’ils soient en même temps simple texte et discours’, Latour, Nous n’avons jamais été modernes, 120–1.

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language and being can only artificially be separated, and quasi-objects take the guise of each in turn: As real as nature, as narrated as discourse, as collective as society, as existential as Being: such are the quasi-objects that the moderns have caused to proliferate. As such it behoves us to pursue them, while we simply become once more what we have never ceased to be: amoderns.172 réels comme la nature, narrés comme le discours, collectifs comme la société, existentiels comme l’Être, tels sont les quasi-objets que les modernes ont fait proliférer, tels il convient de les suivre en redevenant simplement ce que nous n’avons jamais cessé d’être, des non-modernes.173

Quasi-objects populate what Latour calls the ‘Empire of the Middle’, where modernity’s dichotomies give way to hybrids. Latour’s quasi-object does not depart from Serres’s, but it does proceed further along a Serresian trajectory. External reality, the social bond, meaning and being are all present in Serres’s account of the quasiobject, but in systematically enumerating them Latour makes patent what the reader of Serres has to work harder to see. Like Serres, Latour argues that quasi-objects (or what he also calls ‘hairy objects’ [‘objets chevelus’]) hold human collectivities together, and distinguish human societies from those, for example, of baboons.174 He also parallels Serres’s figure of abstractive dichotomies, insisting that the oppositions in terms of which modernity operates are ex post facto reductions of an original complexity: ‘Every quasi-object, every hybrid was conceived as a mixture of pure forms’ and the aim of analysis was to ‘cleave apart the mixtures in order to extract from them what came from the subject (or the social) and what came from the object’.175 Parasite as politics

Serres’s theory of the quasi-object presents an alternative to Aristotelian, Rousseauian and Heideggerian politics. In relation to Aristotle, the importance of the quasi-object 172 173 174 175

Latour, We Have Never Been Modern, 90, translation altered. Latour, Nous n’avons jamais été modernes, 122. See Latour and Strum, ‘Human Social Origins’. Once more, this passage does not appear in the English translation. ‘Tout quasi-objet, tout hybride était conçu comme un mélange de formes pures. Les explications modernes consistaient donc à cliver les mixtes pour en extraire ce qui venait du sujet (ou du social) et ce qui venait de l’objet’, Latour, Nous n’avons jamais été modernes, 105–6.

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shows that ‘the political animal is a fiction’ (R 132/Ro 88)176 because, according to Serres’s pragmatogony, the political animal constitutes itself in Aristotle’s thought precisely by the exclusion of the very objects that are necessary for the constitution of the collective polis in the first place. In relation to Rousseau in particular, and to contractarian theories of politics in general, the quasi-object provides an incremental alternative to contractarian fiat. The social contract, understood as the mythical founding act of society, is the political equivalent of the Cartesian tabula rasa, and quasi-objects are to collectivities what algorithms are to truth and universality: ‘in passing from palm to palm they gather together locally to build a group, from one neighbour to the next’ (Hom 307).177 Unlike the declarative knowledge that defines its axioms before it begins, algorithmic or procedural knowledge incrementally builds through its lightning-fast movement from concrete example to concrete example, as we saw in relation to the Google search algorithm in Chapter 1. Whereas the social contract apes the Cartesian Hail Mary pass that creates a perfect pomerium of knowledge in one grand gesture that expels all impurity, the quasi-object provides a theory of collectivity and a politics that is incremental, local and immanent: ‘The “we” is made by passing the “I.” By exchanging the “I.” And by substitution and vicariance of the “I”’ (P 305/Par 227).178 The quasi-object is also the hidden truth of Heideggerian Mitsein, as Serres obliquely suggests when he concludes a discussion of the ecstatic experience of playing on a rugby team by saying that ‘[n]o-one who has not experienced such ecstasy can know what being together means’ (CS 358–9/FS 323).179 He agrees with Heidegger that there is no being before being-with, but for Serres the ‘with’ of ‘being-with’ is not a purely human affair; it always goes via the object: ‘There is no object without a collective; there is no human collective without an object’ (R 129/Ro 86).180 One consequence of this insistence on the place of the object in being-with is that it naturalises what was previously metaphysical; our categories of totality ‘thus pass from metaphysics to physics, from speculation to action, from ontology to responsibility, from morals to politics’ (RCNsf).181 Jean-Luc Nancy reworks Mitsein by arguing that what the collectivity has in common is, precisely, nothing, opposing Heideggerian Blut und Boden politics by 176 177

178 179 180 181

‘L’animal politique est une fiction.’ ‘en courant de paume à paume, ils concourent localement, de prochain en prochain, à constituer un groupe’. ‘Le nous se fait par les passes du je. Par échange du je. Et par substitution, et par vicariance du je.’ ‘Nul ne peut apprendre ce que signifie être ensemble s’il n’a vécu cette extase-là.’ ‘Il n’y a pas d’objet sans collectif, il n’y a pas de collectif humain sans objet.’ ‘passent donc de la métaphysique à la physique, de la spéculation à l’action, de l’ontologie à la responsabilité, de la morale à la politique’.

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emptying it of any determinate content.182 Serres also opposes Heideggerian communal identitarianism, but he does it differently. Serrres resists the community of those who have nation or ethnicity in common not by circumventing determinate identities but by multiplying them: a hundred objects circulate in a collectivity creating as many overlapping and interacting micro-collectives. The Heideggerian mistake, from a Serresian point of view, is not (as Nancy would say) to accord any determinate content to community at all, but rather to insist on blood and soil as the umbilical determinants of community identity in all relevant senses. Serres defeats the spectre of exclusive collectivities not with Nancean incommensurability but with aspectual pluralism. We have already begun to see that, in addition to furnishing Serres with a radical ontology that rethinks same/other and subject/object relations, the parasite shapes a Serresian politics. Just as Serres traces very direct ethical and political consequences from Descartes’s subject/object dichotomy, so too the parasitic paradigm brings with it a new ethos, new political sensitivities and new concerns. The political consequences of the parasitic paradigm can be understood under two broad headings: parasitism precedes exchange, and communication supersedes production. Parasitism precedes exchange

Serres’s parasitic paradigm presents a challenge to the idea that exchange relations are primary in personal or political contexts. The logic of sameness, difference and the excluded middle predisposes us to understand politics in terms of an economy of exchange: once same and other, subject and object have been dichotomised, any relation between them is to be understood in terms either of a presence or an absence of reciprocity, of the acceptance or refusal of commerce. This is a prominent assumption in Derrida’s later work, for instance when he considers the inevitable reciprocity of gift-giving or hospitality. It is also the paradigm that tacitly governs Badiou’s insistence on fidelity to a truth, which insists upon the refusal of hybridity or exchange between truth and opinion. For Serres, by contrast – and, I would argue, for all of us if we stop to think about it – we must acknowledge that ‘exchange is neither principal nor original nor fundamental; I do not know how to put it: the relation denoted by a simple, irreversible, one-way arrow takes its place’ (P 12/Par 5, translation altered; see also P 109/Par 80, EHP 89).183 Parasitism is more fundamental than exchange, than reciprocity, and than the very distinction between same and other. Indeed, 182 183

See, for example, the excellent Devisch, Jean-Luc Nancy and the Question of Community. ‘L’échange n’est pas principal, ni originel, ni fondamental, je ne sais comment dire: le rapport en flèche simple irréversible, sans retour, prend sa place.’

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it is their condition of possibility. Critiquing the well-worn dictum that society is founded on exchange, Serres emphatically replies: No: the straight, asymmetrical, more elementary arrow incontestably gives the parasite the first, dangerous, tragic, exposed place. Legal right is required, at least, and morality, on top of that, to patiently construct the double arrow of globally balanced exchanges. Everywhere and always orientation begins; what remains to be constructed are the different balancing acts. Exchange, then, comes second. (TK 16) Non: la flèche simple, asymétrique, plus élémentaire, donne sans conteste au parasite la place première, dangereuse, tragique, exposée. Il faut le droit, au moins, et de la morale, au plus, pour construire, patiemment, la double flèche des échanges, globalement équilibrés. Partout et toujours l’orientation commence; reste ensuite à construire les différents équilibrages. L’échange, donc, arrive en second. (TI 40)

Exchanged goods always travel across a channel that has already been parasitised, and ‘abuse value’ precedes use value (P 224–5/Par 168): The balance of exchange is always weighed and measured, calculated, taking into account a relation without exchange, an abusive relation. The term abusive is a term of usage. Abuse doesn’t prevent use. The abuse value, complete, irrevocable consumption, precedes use- and exchange-value. Quite simply, it is the arrow with only one direction. (Par 80) L’échange est toujours calculé, compte tenu d’une relation sans échange, abusive. Le terme abusif est un terme d’usage. L’abus n’empêche pas l’usage. La valeur d’abus, consommation complète et sans retour, précède les valeurs et d’usage et d’échange. C’est simplement la flèche dans un sens et un seul. (P 109)

The sort of reciprocal relations that govern the paradigm of exchange, law and contracts always follow parasitic relations in at least two ways. First, that which is exchanged has always already been parasitically extracted from the earth, either in the form of quarried or harvested materials, or in the form of intellectual property generated through the parasitic consumption of such materials. Secondly, each of us parasitises our mother and then our parents or carers for the first months and years of our life, before we enter into any formal economic exchange relationships. In these respects, as in society more broadly, ‘exchange appears after a previous state when everything was freely given and received’ (P 44/Par 30, translation altered).184

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‘l’échange est produit, après un état antérieur, où tout allait de gré à gré’.

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In Morales espiègles Serres contrasts the paradigm of reciprocal gift-giving to what he calls transitivity. With the usual circumspection that prevents him from naming those with whom he disagrees, Serres mentions only ‘certain philosophers’ who ‘even conclude that the true gift is impossible, because the giver always more or less crushes the receiver under the greatness and glory of their generosity’ (ME 60).185 He then introduces the idea of the ‘beneficial chain’ that replaces reciprocity and symmetry with transitivity: ‘Instead of going back in time, towards the past, towards the same people, it advances towards the future and spreads out to unknown others’ (ME 61).186 Among the examples Serres uses of this transitive paradigm of gift-giving, one has a particularly parasitic resonance: ‘children are less beholden to give back what their parents have given them than to give it to their own children. Likewise, great grandchildren will never be able to teach their grandpa how to pull mischievous funny faces’ (ME 61).187 Whereas reciprocity is preoccupied with balance and exchange, transitivity seeks to create a cascading flow of parasitic relations: ‘The burden of debt is no longer weighed in a balance, but as it slides from one point to another it sets off a perpetual movement’ (ME 64).188 The on-flow of gift giving is still motivated by debt, but now it is not a debt that paralyses reciprocity but that accelerates transitivity. The Serresian primacy of the parasitic also challenges the insidious and destructive assumption, fostered by late capitalism, that the only relations of value are economically significant relations of financial exchange, and according to which only those tasks or jobs which receive financial remuneration are positively valued in terms of status and power. In place of this homo economicus with its assumptions of sameness, alterity and exchange, Serres offers us homo parasitus which foregrounds the care-giving, child-rearing, earth-dwelling foundations of the economic that the paradigm of production and exchange predisposes us to forget, repress and undervalue. Serres’s radical challenge to the primacy of the same/other and subject/ object dichotomies, as also to the paradigm of production and exchange, offers transformative models to the humanities and perhaps in particular to disability studies and gerontology, directly confronting the insidious stigma of ‘being a burden’

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‘Certains philosophes concluent même que le véritable don est impossible, car le donateur écrase toujours plus ou moins le donataire sous la grandeur et la gloire de sa générosité.’ ‘Au lieu de revenir sur le temps, vers le passé, aux mêmes personnes, elle va vers l’avenir et se répand à d’autres, inconnues.’ ‘les enfants sont moins tenus de rendre à leurs parents ce que ceux-ci leur ont donné qu’ils ne doivent le rendre à leurs propres enfants. Les arrière-petits-enfants, de même, ne pourront jamais réenseigner les grimaces espiègles à leur pépé.’ ‘Le poids de la dette ne s’estime plus sur une balance, mais, glissant d’un point à un autre, lance un mouvement perpétuel.’

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by revealing parasitism as the fundamental and universal condition of existence, both human and non-human.189 Parasitism is no mere warm-up act; it does not precede exchange only to be subsequently swallowed by it. It remains to offer us an alternative logic, an alternative economy and an alternative way of life (art de vivre) to the paradigm of exchange (P 43/Par 30). In The Troubadour of Knowledge Serres expands on what he means by this alternative way of life, characterising parasitic logic as an ‘economy of taste’: The French words gré [taste, liking], grace [grace], or gratuité [gratuitousness], express this simple arrow of exchange without expecting or demanding a return. The logic of taste differs from that of exchange . . . Exchange calculates and seeks to win; the free gift plays at winner-takes-nothing and loser-takes-all. (TK 107) Les mots français gré, grâce ou gratuité expriment cette flèche simple de l’échange sans attente ou exigence de retour. La logique du gré diffère de celle de l’échange. . . . L’échange calcule et cherche à gagner, le don gratuit joue à qui gagne perd et à qui perd gagne. (TI 167)

It is a logic, an economy and a way of life familiar to families and lovers, characterised not by contracts and balance sheets but by the ‘thanks of gratitude’ and ‘free willing’ [‘gré gratuit’], where there is no shame in being ‘a burden’, either in youth, in incapacity or in old age. But this logic is incomparable with the society of exchange which, today, is relentlessly insinuating its market logic ever further into the domain of gratuity. Communication supersedes production

A second political consequence of the parasitic paradigm is that it can help us to come to terms with a transformation that, Serres argues, has overtaken our society in recent decades: communication has overshadowed production. The paradigm of production is familiar from nineteenth-century economics and Marxist analyses. 189

This is the argument of Serres’s beautiful and compelling contributions to the collected volume À visage différent, addressing child disability from a multi-disciplinary perspective. Michel and Suzanne Serres write of their own son, born in 1956 with a labio-facial cleft, and of the dignity and above all the normality of children who have a disability (Té 5). The title of Serres’s solo contribution to the volume, ‘Chacun reçoit des soins de tous’ (‘Everyone Cares for Everyone’), is a powerful expression of the universal co-dependence he elsewhere expresses in terms of parasitism. It is in caring for the burdensome that ‘something in us leaves the animal and becomes human’ [‘quelque chose en nous quitte l’animal et devient humain’, CRS 248].

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Its privileged activity is work, understood as ‘a force multiplied by a displacement’ (Pan 157–8)190 which takes place in an environment of heavy objects such as steel, coal, wool, plastic: what Serres calls ‘the hard’.191 The character-concept indicative of the paradigm of production is Prometheus, the god of forges and of the industrial, manufactured object. Production is a paradigm that privileges and foregrounds such manufactured objects and their circulation, and it is based on series of zero sum calculations that govern transactions. Serres offers a simple explanation of the principle in a 2003 interview: I have a block of butter, and you have three Euros. If we proceed to do a transaction, you will, in the end, have a block of butter, and I will have three Euros. We are dealing with a zero sum game: nothing happens from this exchange. Je possède une motte de beurre, et vous trois euros. Si nous procédons à une transaction, vous aurez à la fin une motte de beurre et moi trois euros. Il s’agit d’un jeu à somme nulle: il n’advient rien de cet échange. (IMS ¶ 22; see also PCDS2 44)

The paradigm of production fosters, and relies upon, this logic of exchange. Little did our society suspect in the 1960s, Serres argues, that the paradigm of production was coming to an end (GB 48). Back in 1943 when Thomas Watson, president of IBM, was predicting that ‘I think there is a world market for maybe five computers’ or even as late as 1977 when Ken Olsen, founder of Digital Equipment Corporation affirmed ‘[t]here is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home’,192 the communication revolution has taken us by surprise. Still today, Serres argues, the nineteenth-century Marxist paradigm of production and exchange continues to dominate so much of our thinking. There are many who still follow in the footsteps of Sartre who, ‘despite being surrounded by plastic material and deaf to the new universe of messages, persisted in believing in the god of forges, in the future of metallurgy, in production’ (EPF 51–2).193 So strong was the grip of the Marxist ‘vulgate’ (S&H 230) that when Serres suggested to Althusser that 190 191 192

193

‘une force multipliée par un déplacement’. See primarily Statues, The Five Senses and Connor, ‘The Hard and the Soft’. See Galliers and Currie, The Oxford Handbook of Management Information Systems, 469. The Watson quotation is commonly considered apocryphal. An explanation of why Olsen’s prediction may not be as misguided as it sounds can be found here: (last accessed 21 August 2019). ‘bien qu’entouré de matières plastiques et sourd au nouvel univers de messages, persistait à croire au dieu des forges, à l’avenir de la métallurgie, à la production’.

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communication had trumped production, the ENS philosophy professor branded him a fascist (Pan 124). There are also many who resemble ‘these European leaders who believed they were precipitating its unity by creating the Coal and Steel Union, which soon collapsed’ (EPF 51–2).194 It is the persistence of the paradigm of production that also accounts for Serres’s lifelong refusal of communism, even when the affiliation was almost universal at the ENS (Pan 126). Between 1945 and 1970 Serres noticed and commented on a transformation of blue collar into white collar jobs, and a working class that ‘melted like snow in the sun’ amid almost vertical productivity gains (Pan 125–6). The dialectical model of Hegel and Marx appeared as a storm in a teacup compared to the information technology that was being invented (Pan 125). This societal shift left Serres no longer believing in the primacy of Prometheus (Pan 126), and meant that ‘we had to change conceptual tools in order to understand the present’ (Pan 115).195 The conceptual tool required by the new age was communication, which dispenses with the zero sum game of production: during teaching, the game is not one of zero sum as more parties profit from the exchange: if you know a theorem and teach it to me, at the end of the exchange, we both know it. In this knowledge exchange there is no equilibrium at all, but a terrific growth which economics does not know. dans l’enseignement, le jeu n’est pas à somme nulle puisque l’échange profite à plusieurs: si tu connais un théorème et si tu me l’enseignes, à la fin de l’échange, nous l’avons tous les deux. Il y a dans l’échange des savoirs non pas un équilibre, mais une croissance formidable que l’économie ne connaît pas. (IMS ¶ 22; see also PCDS2 44)

The society of communication is characterised by ‘replicators, an invasive superabundance of codes or operations of coding’ (TP 59),196 populated by predominantly white collar workers (Pan 73) functioning as ‘angels at the heart of an immense messaging service’ (PCDS2 166).197 Communication conjures not with the steel, coal and wood of the paradigm of production, but with code, information and ideas, what Serres calls the ‘soft’ that now structures society (Pan 157–8). Production exchanges objects, but communication proliferates information. 194

195 196

197

‘ces dirigeants de l’Europe qui croyaient précipiter son unité en créant la Communauté du charbon et de l’acier, vite en déconfiture’. ‘il fallait changer d’outils conceptuels pour comprendre le présent’. ‘des réplicateurs, codes ou opérations de codage dont la surabondance envahissante caractérise notre société de communication et de publicité’. ‘anges au sein d’une immense messagerie’.

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The character-concepts indicative of communication for Serres include Hermes and Angels. He takes ‘a little personal pride’ in the fact that it was back in 1955 he began arguing that Hermes had eclipsed Prometheus: The group of technologies which have now passed into everyday life, which range from telephone communications, for example, to data processing and computers. That technology has in my view meant far more in the modern world than the production of primary materials. And in fact the future quickly showed that I was right, in that coal, steel, and all kinds of industry have more or less disappeared, whereas communication became the very foundation of our society. (FPIC 51)

When he evokes the overtaking of Prometheus by Hermes, Serres has something more comprehensive in mind than the replacement of nineteenth-century factories with late twentieth-century data centres. The ascendency of Hermes ‘disrupted everything, from the most formal abstraction to the most immediate lived experience, from information theory to the lack of culture in the media, from commercial services to industrial jobs, from the nature of mathematics itself to solidarity between humans’ (EPF 51–2).198 The logic of communication can, of course, be co-opted by or enclosed within a logic of exchange, a control we perhaps see most vividly today in recent developments in the nature of the Western university. But it can also subvert that control, as we can witness in the crisis of the music industry faced with the widespread dissemination of information on the World Wide Web and perhaps also in contemporary challenges to the university system posed by those same technologies. Objects do not disappear in the communication society, but how they are understood to function changes significantly. They are not primarily commodities but exchangers of information and matter (H2 16), plunged into the ‘tissue’ of ‘the diabolically complex global web of inter-information’ (H2 15).199 Subjects, similarly, are rethought as interceptors and exchangers situated within networks of information exchange rather than sitting outside the world of objects, and therefore ‘in this game, the subject lost its advantage’ (H2 15).200 The cogito of the communication paradigm is ‘I intervene, and only think if I intercept’ (H2 16),201 actions which resemble the static or noise (le parasite) interrupting a communication signal 198

199 200 201

‘bouleversa toutes choses, de l’abstrait le plus formel au vécu le plus immédiat, de la théorie de l’information à l’inculture des médias, des services du commerce aux travaux industriels, de la nature même des mathématiques à la solidarité entre les hommes’. ‘le réseau mondial diaboliquement complexe de l’entre-information’. ‘[l]e sujet, dans ce jeu, perdait ses avantages’. ‘J’interviens, et ne pense que si j’intercepte.’

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even as it makes that signal possible. Even production itself is incorporated into the new paradigm of communication, as a translation of the sun’s energy into material objects (see P 232/Par 174). Conclusion

What are objects for Serres? More pointedly, are they to be understood primarily in terms of networks of mediations as suggested in, for example, Bruno Latour’s actor–network theory,202 or are they dense, withdrawn substances that guard their secrets from us, as held by Graham Harman?203 Evidence can be marshalled to support both ‘relationist’ and ‘withdrawn’ readings of Serres. Yes, objects are always irreducibly relational, and ‘I am never alone in relation to an object’ for the very good reason that ‘[m]y attention, my perception are plunged in a social and cultural whole’ and ‘[t]he object is constituted in and through the relations of the group’ (R 128/Ro 85).204 Indeed ‘the thing itself is nothing else but a center of relations, crossroads or passages. It is nothing but a position or situation’ (P 55/Par 39, translation altered).205 But yes, equally, ‘the thing is black, sealed’ (R 94/Ro 60),206 dense and impenetrable, an ‘essential shadow’ in its ‘black and opaque compactness, forever bolted shut behind multiple doors and edges, attacked only by practice and theory’ (H2 175).207 ‘Respect the thing itself’, Serres enjoins, because its ‘iron law’ is resistant to every whim and opinion (VSC 51/VB 34).208 Yes, matter is coded 202

203

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205 206 207

208

The unit of analysis in actor–network theory is the network, in which humans, animals and objects all interact in complex assemblages with emergent properties and capabilities, transforming or ‘mediating’ each other. The ‘actor’ is irreducibly relational for Latour: ‘Now it is the actor, which so far in this book was kept as a point, an atom, or a source, that has to be flattened out and forced to take a star-like shape. What should we call this newly “flattened” element? . . . Why not use actor-network? . . . an actor-network is what is made to act by a large star-shaped web of mediators flowing in and out of it. It is made to exist by its many ties: attachments are first, actors are second’, Latour, Reassembling the Social, 217. The argument that ‘the things withdraw from presence in to their dark subterranean reality’ (Harman, Tool-Being, 2) such that ‘no relation can ever fully harness the reality of its terms’ (Harman, Tool Being, 170) and objects are ‘untranslatable into any relational access of any sort, cognitive or otherwise’ (Harman, ‘Marginalia on Radical Thinking’) is fundamental to Harman’s outlook. He is therefore suspicious of the ‘relationism’ of movements like actor–network theory which, he fears, make objects too readily accessible, too transparent, too manipulable. ‘Je n’ai jamais, seul, rapport à un objet. Mon attention, ma perception, ma connaissance sont plongées dans un ensemble social et culturel. . . . L’objet se constitue dans et par les relations du groupe.’ ‘la chose même n’est rien d’autre qu’une tête de relations, ce carrefour, ou ces passages’. ‘la chose est noire, scellée’. ‘compacité opaque et noire, verrouillé à jamais derrière les multiples portes de ses bords, seuls attaqués par la pratique et par la théorie’. ‘cette règle de fer . . . Respecter la chose même qui, seule, commande, et non l’opinion.’

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all the way down and all the way back, but it is still the case that ‘[w]hatever language may say, whatever rule may be imposed by grammar, I write what the things dictate; we think on their command; the community of scientists speaks under their control’ (In 337/Inc 190).209 Here, we see Serres’s thought treating the tussle between the primacy of relations or withdrawn substances in the same way as it treats the debate between traditional materialism and idealism: the (almost) always irenic Serres pronounces a blessing on both their houses, aspectually asserting both the irreducibility of relations and of brute, inassimilable objects. The corpse is an unavoidable, inassimilable, resistant mass that will not yield to our designs on it, and yet it also brings into being networks of relations among objects, individuals and communities. The withdrawn object and the networks of relations that characterise our thingly society share a common origin. Perhaps the most distinctive feature of Serres’s account of objects is that it achieves the aim of razing the absolute distinction between the human and the non-human, the subject and the object, not by projecting human qualities into the non-human world in a more or less artfully disguised anthropomorphism, but by insisting on the universality of the four operations of receiving, storing, processing and emitting information. The distinction here is reminiscent of one I sketched in a previous book between an imitative atheism that seeks to reap religion’s benefits by aping its desirable features, and an atheism of occupation that invades religion’s territory and claims those features as having been its own all along.210 In a similar vein, vibrant and other materialisms that find suffering, affect, passion, memory and thinking in the natural world often struggle to break free from what we might call an imitative objecthood, affirming the subject/object and sacred/secular divides in their very desire to overcome them, whereas Serres’s code–matter paradigm and pragmatogony of substitutions rather than substances can be thought of as an ‘objecthood of occupation’, showing the subject to have been behaving just like an object all along. Serres’s work on objects and the parasite in the 1970s and 1980s paves the way for his turn to explicitly ecological themes in 1990s: the excluded middle, the idea of a gnoseological contract, the human parasitic relation to the earth, the condemnation of an acosmic urbanism that lives only in human collectivities and neglects the material world, and the development of the idea of the world-object (objet-monde), first introduced in The Parasite, are all crucial for Serres’s ecological thought. It is to this important aspect of his writing that we now turn. 209

210

‘Quoi que dise la langue, quelque règle qu’impose la grammaire, j’écris sous la dictée des choses, nous pensons à leur commandement, la communauté des savants parle sous leur contrôle.’ See Watkin, Difficult Atheism.

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6

Ecology

We have transformed or exploited the world enough, the time is coming to understand it.1 (Michel Serres, Atlas)

THE FINAL THREE CHAPTERS of this book present a roughly chronological sweep through Serres’s work, starting with the books of the 1970s and early 1980s which introduce and elaborate his concern for language,2 through the 1980s when he produces his major contributions to thinking about objects,3 and finally to the more recent foregrounding of ecological concerns.4 In this final chapter we shall see how Serres’s ecological thinking both echoes some of the themes and figures of thought encountered in previous chapters, and also further develops and extends the political dimension of his writing. Serres’s relation to ecological concerns is complex. On the one hand, along with the communication revolution and the turn to materialism and the object, ecology is one of the areas in which his thought is prescient, even prophetic, and he anticipates the early twenty-first-century resurgence in ecological thought by over a decade. Indeed, his work has been described as ‘the beginning of all ecology’5 and

1 2

3 4

5

‘nous avons assez transformé ou exploité le monde, le temps vient de le comprendre’. Hermès II: L’interférence (1972), La Naissance de la physique dans le texte de Lucrèce (1977), Hermès IV: la distribution (1977), Genèse (1982) and Les Cinq sens (1985). Rome: Le livre des fondations (1983), Statues (1987) and Le Parasite (1980). Détachement (1983), Le Contrat naturel (1990), Le Mal Propre (2008), La Guerre mondiale (2008), Biogée (2010) and Habiter (2011). The other major Serresian theme of recent years is the human, addressed in a series of four volumes written in the 2000s: Hominescence (2001), L’Incandescent (2003), Rameaux (2004) and Récits d’humanisme (2006). I address the theme of the human in Serres’s thought in the fifth chapter of French Philosophy Today. ‘le commencement de toute écologie’, Auzias, Michel Serres, philosophe occitan, 9.

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he was thinking deeply and at length about ecological issues at a time when few others cared to address the subject: I was one of the first, if not the first, to make ecology not just a matter of fundamental urgency but above all a philosophical and even metaphysical question: the oldest question of philosophy, the idea of nature, had to be re-evaluated. J’ai été un des premiers, sinon le premier, à faire de l’écologie, non seulement une urgence fondamentale, mais surtout une question philosophique et même métaphysique: le concept le plus ancien de la pensée philosophique, l’idée de nature, devait être réévalué. (Pan 62)

When we engage with Michel Serres’s ecological thought, therefore, we are not simply reading a reaction to a recent critical trend, much less jumping on a modish bandwagon. This shadows a wider point of crucial importance to understanding Serres as an ecological thinker, for much ecological rhetoric – from both philosophers and politicians – is reactive, seeking to respond to changes and problems, always on the back foot, always fighting a losing battle to ‘protect’ and ‘conserve’. Eschewing this responsive paradigm, Serres’s thought offers us a richer ecological vision that can set a positive agenda for change. His proactive stance is driven by the question he poses: whereas much ecological thought asks the question ‘how?’ – How do we reduce emissions? How should we think of ‘nature’ differently? How do we ‘save the planet’? – Serres insists on the deeper question ‘why?’ – Why do we pollute? and ‘what do we really want when we dirty the world?’ (MP 57/Mal 40; see also Pan 251–2).6 On the other hand, however, ‘ecology’ and, a fortiori, ‘eco-criticism’, are singularly infelicitous terms to describe Serres’s thinking if they are taken to indicate that attention should be paid to particular objects (trees, animals, rivers . . .) or particular questions (climate change, deforestation . . .) as opposed to others by a certain theoretical discourse or approach (‘eco-philosophy’). Such local, circumscribed ideas as ‘ecology’ or ‘eco-philosophy’ not only militate against Serres’s Leibnizian pluralism and interdisciplinarity but are also, in his estimation, one of the causes of the ‘ecological crisis’. His work from the 1990s onwards abounds with themes that would commonly be filed under ‘ecology’, but if he uses the term relatively little and refuses to qualify his writing as ecological (see MiS 92), it is because of his fundamental conviction that it is impossible to isolate a set of

6

‘Question: que voulons-nous, en amont, lorsque nous salissons le monde?’ (Emphasis original.)

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discrete ideas under this label. Any attempt to discuss ecological themes in Serres’s work must therefore find a way to negotiate the refusal of his thought to become narrowly ecological. While Serres quite reasonably seeks to avoid the label ‘ecological’, it is not correct to say that, for this reason, his thought has nothing to do with ecology. In a 2014 interview he expands on his aversion to the term in a way that helps us better appreciate how he situates his own intervention in The Natural Contract: Faced with the grave threats to the future of our planet, you have proposed that we adopt a ‘natural contract’. Was this an ecological move on your part? No, certainly not. I carefully avoided the term. There is a confusion today about the word ‘ecology’, depending on whether it is used by politicians or scientists. In political discourse ecology is the ethical desire to preserve nature, understood as a wild and virgin space, protected from the ravages of humanity. In science, ecology (oikos logos: knowledge of the milieu, the habitat) is quite a different thing. Defined by the biologist Ernst Haeckel at the end of the nineteenth century, it is a highly sophisticated science that tries to gather all the geological, chemical, biological, vegetal, and animal interactions that constitute a milieu, for example the biotope of Mont Ventoux. Face aux menaces qui pèsent sur l’avenir de notre planète, vous avez proposé de passer un « contrat naturel ». C’était une démarche écologiste de votre part? Non, surtout pas. J’ai soigneusement évité le terme. Il y a une confusion aujourd’hui sur le mot « écologie », selon qu’il est employé par les politiques ou par les scientifiques. Dans le discours politique, l’écologie, c’est le souci éthique de préserver la nature, conçue comme un espace vierge et sauvage, prémuni des atteintes de l’homme. En sciences, l’écologie (oikos logos: connaissance du milieu, de l’habitat) désigne tout autre chose. Définie par le biologiste Ernst Haeckel à la fin du XIXe siècle, c’est une science ultrasophistiquée qui essaie de rassembler toutes les interactions, géologiques, chimiques, biologiques, végétales, animales, qui constituent un milieu – par exemple, le biotope du mont Ventoux. (Pan 233)

The two senses of ecology here, it will be noted, are in direct opposition to each other. The first sense, which I propose to call ‘restricted ecology’, reinforces the supposed dichotomy between a thoroughly human politics and a wild or unkempt nature, or between exclusively human environmental damage and an unspoiled world. Casting nature as a pure, virgin other it takes it upon itself to be nature’s ward, labouring might and main to preserve her chastity from humanity’s own advances, assuming a static view of the natural world and a reactive and conservative stance in relation to it. The second sense of ecology, by contrast, seeks to find

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links, dependencies and passages between all the entities in a given milieu, travelling across dichotomies and back again. Like north-west passages, these relationships are complex, constantly changing, creative and exploratory. While Serres does not write about ecology in the first, restricted sense, his thought most certainly is ecological in the second sense of insisting on relationships and continuities across apparent divisions and differences. The most fruitful way to understand Serres’s contribution to ecology in the narrow, political sense must necessarily pass through his elaboration of an ecology in the broader, scientific sense. I introduce the term ‘general ecology’ to describe this latter ecology in Serresian thought, proceeding as it does not by drawing distinctions and creating oppositions in the spirit of academic ‘criticism’ but by seeking translations and equivalences between seemingly disparate areas of thought or domains of existence. Among the scandalously sparse secondary literature on Serres in general, ecology is one of the themes that has received a comparatively thorough treatment. One of the main themes in discussions of Serres as an ecological thinker has been precisely the distinction he draws in the quotation above, between a broad sense of ‘ecology’ as general interconnectedness of all knowledge and all fields of inquiry, and a more specific sense pertaining to the ‘natural’ world.7 This distinction is brought into play by Sydney Lévy in his introduction to a special edition of the journal SubStance on Serres’s ecological thinking in 1997.8 Lévy frames his understanding of ‘ecology’ in terms of a Serresian interdisciplinarity tracing ‘local, tenuous, perilous’ north-west passages between different fields.9 Of particular note in the special edition is Paul A. Harris’s ‘The Itinerant Theorist: Nature and Knowledge/ Ecology and Topology in Michel Serres’, in which Harris elegantly articulates the broader and narrower senses of ecology in his contention that ‘Serres attempts to evoke an intimate, visceral knowledge of nature in order to redefine the nature of knowledge’10 in what he terms a Serresian ‘cultural ecology’.11 Both the natural 7

8 9 10 11

Serres draws this distinction himself in the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) lecture entitled ‘Retour au contrat naturel’, contrasting the broad sense of ‘a scientific discipline dedicated to the study of larger or smaller sets of living things interacting between themselves and with their milieu’ [‘une discipline scientifique, adonnée à l’étude d’ensembles, plus ou moins nombreux, de vivants interagissant entre eux et avec leur milieu’] with the narrower meaning ‘from ideology and politics, of doctrine that varies according to individuals and groups that hold it, that aims at the protection of the environment, though through diverse means that are often contested by its opponents’ [‘idéologique et politique, d’une doctrine variable selon les auteurs et les groupes et visant, par des moyens divers et contestés souvent par ses adversaires, à la protection de l’environnement’] (RCNslp 171–2). Lévy, ‘An Ecology of Knowledge’. Lévy, ‘An Ecology of Knowledge’, 3. Harris, ‘The Itinerant Theorist’, 39. Harris, ‘The Itinerant Theorist’, 44.

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world and the universe of knowledge are to be thought, analogously, as complex open systems of interconnection that do not sacrifice the empirical and material on the altar of the general and abstract. In her 2003 doctoral thesis Stephanie Posthumus once more discusses the relation between the broader and narrower senses of ecology,12 unfolding the broader sense through careful studies of the motifs of structures13 and networks (réseaux)14 in Serres’s thought and arguing that the author of The Natural Contract is elaborating his eco-philosophy (in the narrower sense) in terms of his ‘interconnected vision of the world’,15 all the while refusing to identify with narrowly ecological concerns.16 In the 2007 article ‘Translating Ecocriticism: Dialoguing with Michel Serres’17 and the 2011 ‘Vers une écocritique française: le contrat naturel de Michel Serres’18 she once more insists upon the broad sense of ‘ecology’, arguing that ‘Serres’s work is ecological in the sense that it makes connections across space and time, across literature and science, across matter and thought’,19 using Serres’s insights to shine a light on some of the shortcomings of Anglophone ecocriticism in relation to the five themes of ecology, science, nature, language and humanity. Serres offers ‘exactly what a new generation of ecocritics has been looking for as a way to combine both an urbancare and earthcare politics’,20 and the natural contract provides ecocriticism with a much-needed ecological politics.21 More recently, Keith Moser has returned to ecological themes in Serres, underlining once more the prescience of his engagement with questions of the natural world in the 1980s,22 and the importance of understanding Serresian ecology as a broad, interdisciplinary disposition and not a narrow set of environmental concerns.23 The current chapter builds on these discussions of Serres’s ecological thought by bringing some of his more recent texts into dialogue with books in the more established Serresian ecological corpus such as Le Contrat naturel and Biogée. This fresh material leads us both to affirm and challenge the existing treatments of Serres and ecology. We shall see how Serres demands that we reject the idea of ecology as a set of distinctive disciplinary concerns and that we understand 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23

Posthumus, ‘La nature et l’écologie’. Posthumus, ‘La nature et l’écologie’, 73–103. Posthumus, ‘La nature et l’écologie’, 189–202. Posthumus, ‘La nature et l’écologie’, 197. Posthumus, ‘La nature et l’écologie’, 224. Posthumus, ‘Translating Ecocriticism’. Posthumus, ‘Vers une écocritique française’. Posthumus, ‘Translating Ecocriticism’, ¶ 8. Posthumus, ‘Translating Ecocriticism’, ¶ 12. Posthumus, ‘Vers une écocritique française’, 90. Moser, The Encyclopedic Philosophy of Michel Serres, 60, 70. Moser, The Encyclopedic Philosophy of Michel Serres, 78.

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it instead as an expression of a global intuition, embracing a ‘general ecology’ that describes sets of relations and passages that connect everything to everything else. This is in line with Serres’s own insistence, from Le Système de Leibniz onwards, on the isomorphic inter-relatedness of all things. We shall see that this is not an easy or unproblematic route to travel, and that it brings together behaviours and phenomena that ecological thinking customarily strives to separate, as well as showing the paradigm of ecology as ‘conservation’ and ‘protection’ to be bankrupt and self-undermining. The chapter closes with a consideration of how general ecology can reframe our approach to environmental questions. Who Thinks Ecologically?

Much ecological thought floats on a sea of unexamined assumptions that situate it in an unmistakable cultural context, usually post-Romantic, almost always Western, set against this or that Western philosopher – usually Descartes or Heidegger – while always working within the Western tradition of analysis and critique. One of the great virtues of Serres’s thought, by contrast, is that it is set in a context much broader than the Western philosophy of the last 400 years, and so it provides us with valuable insights into a very important yet infrequently posed question: ‘who are we, who seek to think ecologically?’ It is a question – and not for the last time in this chapter – that pushes past the ‘how?’ to the ‘why?’: why is it that ecology has become a major theme in recent thought? To read Serres is to go beyond the question of how we ‘protect’ our ‘environment’ to ask why we find ourselves as those for whom ‘protection’ and ‘environment’ (as well as ‘we’ and ‘our’) assert themselves as the categories in terms of which these questions should be thought in the first place. For Serres, to insist on this deeper question is to tell the story of the end of the Neolithic period and of how we became acosmic. The end of the Neolithic

What counts as sufficient historical context for situating current ecological concerns? The technological advances of the twentieth century? The Industrial Revolution and the Romanticism of the nineteenth? Early modern rationalism and Descartes’s insistence that we are ‘masters and possessors’ of nature? The rise of Christianity in the West, with God’s injunction to Adam and Eve in Gen. 1 to ‘have dominion’ over the Garden of Eden and its animals? For Serres, though each of these moments holds some merit in answering the question ‘who are we, who seek to think ecologically?’, they are overshadowed by a recent historical change that overturns a pattern of human behaviour fully 10,000 years old. All

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developments in the ancient, early modern and modern periods are dwarfed by the epochal shift that is currently taking place: humanity is now leaving the Neolithic (In 365/Inc 207). As with his pragmatogony, Serres begins his genealogy of ecological concerns (his oikogony, perhaps) in prehistory. The salient events of the Neolithic age24 for Serres are 1) the birth of biotechnology with the ‘invention’ of maize through the selective breeding of teosinte, an ancestor of modern corn (Hom 18), allowing for a greater calorific yield per seed sown, and the domestication and breeding of animals, all of which made possible 2) the transition from a nomadic existence of hunting and gathering to a settled, agricultural life and the rise of permanent dwellings, villages, towns and cities. These related changes created a pattern of human existence that lasted until the twentieth century, transforming humanity’s relation to space, the body, science, reason, religion, culture and social life (Hom 110; see also MP 34/Mal 22, Pan 270–1). Compared to this Neolithic revolution, the ecological impact of Christianity, Descartes and the Romantics barely registers. We are living today, Serres argues, through the greatest transformation since the Neolithic Revolution, for ‘[t]he greatest event of the twentieth century incontestably remains the disappearance of agricultural activity at the helm of human life in general and of individual cultures’ (CN 53/NC 28).25 The statistics are striking. At the turn of the twentieth century around half the population of Western countries was involved, directly or indirectly, in arable or livestock farming, a practice established in the Neolithic period. In France, by 1980 the figure was 8.3 per cent and by 2000 it was 3.3 per cent. If we can judge the significance of a social change, at least in part, by the longevity of the tradition it overturns, then we have witnessed over the last century the most important transformation to the conditions of human existence in the last 10,000 years (Pan 270). It is these relatively recent developments that condition our understanding of ecological issues today. With the end of the Neolithic, we have lost the world. It has become for us the excluded third joining together what, without it, resolve to the poles of subject and object, same and other, like the middle section of the serpent in La Fontaine’s parable ‘The Countryman and the Serpent’ in The Parasite. This is nowhere more vividly illustrated than in Serres’s comments on Francisco Goya’s Men with Sticks:

24

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There are no universal dates for the beginning and end of the Neolithic period because agriculture and the domestication of animals developed at different times in different parts of the globe. In the Near East the period is commonly thought to begin around 9000 BC, and finishes in Europe between 7000 (Southern Europe) and 4000 (Northern Europe) BC. ‘[l]e plus grand événement du xxe siècle reste sans conteste la disparition de l’agriculture comme activité pilote de la vie humaine en général et des cultures singulières’.

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‘there are two combatants, and once one of them wins there will be no more uncertainty. But we can identify a third position, outside their squabble: the marsh into which the struggle is sinking’ (CN 13–14/NC 1).26 As Serres incredulously asks in relation to Hegel’s famous dialectic of the master and the slave, ‘Does anyone ever say where the master and the slave fight it out? Our culture abhors the world’ (CN 16/NC 3).27 Throughout recorded history and climaxing with the end of the Neolithic, the world has become an increasingly excluded irrelevance to our exclusively social concerns. So we fail to understand that the events of Oedipus the King are set in course as much by an epidemic as by any human action (PCDS2 17–18), and when battle and disease both sweep through a country we have little hesitation in deciding which was the more important event (PCDS1 284). ‘Perhaps one day we will be told what the Roman armies owed to pernicious germs for their victories, their conquests and the huge numbers of dead that preceded their advance’ (R 257/Ro 173, translation altered).28 One of the salient consequences of the recent end of the Neolithic agricultural society is that our relationship with space has changed. It is common to cite statistics of urban expansion and the gradual diminution of rural and greenbelt land since the Industrial Revolution, but for Serres this misses the point because the countryside has, in fact, completely disappeared. The time previously needed to travel within a large city is now – thanks to high-speed trains and air travel – sufficient to move from one end of the country to another through what used to be the countryside, with the result that ‘the entire country is transformed into a housing estate, the motorways are its roads and the TGV tracks its metro’ (H 153n, 159).29 Former farms are bought up as second homes and country retreats for city dwellers, rural dialects are standardised by the daily pedagogy of national and international broadcast media. Trees and rivers may remain, but the countryside as a place of cultural and natural resistance to the urban is no more, and we are free to ‘arrange the world for ourselves alone, now exclusively political animals, inexorable winners of the war of survival, enclosed forever in the city built without limits, coextensive with the planet’ (TI 179/TK 116–17).30 In short, ‘[n]ature according 26

27 28

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30

‘il y a seulement deux combattants que la victoire, sans plus de doute, départagera. Mais en tierce position, extérieure à leur chamaille, nous repérons un troisième lieu, le marécage, où la lutte s’envase.’ ‘Qui dit jamais où se battent le maître et l’esclave? Notre culture a horreur du monde.’ ‘Peut-être dira-t-on un jour ce que les armées romaines ont dû aux germes pernicieux pour leurs victoires, leurs conquêtes, et le nombre immense des morts devant leur avancée.’ ‘le pays tout entier se transforme en une cité dont les autoroutes sont des rues et les TGV des lignes de métro’. The TGV, ‘train à grande vitesse’, is the high-speed train running between major French cities. ‘Nous aménageons le monde pour nous seuls, animaux désormais exclusivement politiques, inexorables, gagnants de la lutte pour la survie, enfermés à jamais dans la ville bâtie sans limite, coextensive à la planète.’

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to the Moderns is reduced to human nature, which itself is reduced to reason. The world no longer has any place there’ (Pan 244).31 Like the Bachelardian laboratory that, for Serres, fills the whole of Bachelard’s reality and banishes experience completely (H2 72), so also the current generation has lost all connection to the land and become ‘exclusively political’ (OG 167/G 197). It is hardly surprising, then, given that philosophy is predominantly written by these same city dwellers, that ‘the most forgotten, despised and neglected of all philosophy’s standard objects, for at least half a century, has been the world’ (H5 100).32 Having denatured and conquered the countryside by overlaying it with an extended polis, the urbanites then complete their colonisation and add insult to injury by resurrecting it as the limp, needy, anaemic object of their miserly ecological ministrations: ‘I consider ecological ideologies to be the umpteenth instance of the city and city dwellers’ trans-historical victory over the fields and the woods’ (Ec 208/C 143).33 Even the appearance of the countryside has become urban. Its meandering hedgerows, copses and waterlogged meadows have been overwritten by the geometric fields and industrial means of cultivation that mirror the drive for optimisation in urban capitalism, flattening its idiosyncratic wrinkles with an injection of urban Botox (H 158). The excess and redundancy of the countryside has been flattened and simplified in order to make way for the Cartesian space necessary for the urban paradigm of universal exchange (H 156), its time no longer governed by the rhythms and changes of nature but by the formatted precision of the urban clock. We have lost any experience of the countryside, the sound of cows lowing, the smell of dung, the taste of a tomato or a peach (P 186/Par 141). In sum, everything that set rural culture aside from the urban has been smoothed away, and modern Western countries now function as large cities. Whatever pockets of countryside may yet remain become, in this new economy of space, a place of banishment (the etymology of the French term banlieue: suburb) and a non-place of exclusion defined by its peripheral relationship to the city. The non-urban has become the profane wasteland outside the sacred walls of the city, or what Serres calls ‘culture’s hell’ (CN 118/NC 73). If this were all that Serres had to say about the transformations of the last century then we might be forgiven for thinking that our exit from the Neolithic resembled a return to pre-Neolithic nomadism. After all, with modern transport networks we are much more mobile than the immediately preceding generations, moving between districts, cities, countries and continents in search of work and 31

32

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‘La nature des Modernes se réduit à la nature humaine, laquelle se réduit à la raison. Le monde n’y a plus sa place.’ ‘Le plus oublié, le plus méprisé, le plus délaissé des objets usuels de la philosophie, depuis au moins un demi-siècle, est le Monde.’ ‘je tiens les idéologies écologiques pour la énième manifestation de la victoire tram-historique de la ville ou des bourgeois sur les champs et les bois’.

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pleasure. Serres notes that he has lived the life of a global nomad, spending periods of time in Brest, Toulon, Clermont, Vincennes, Seoul, Tokyo, Melbourne, Brisbane, Baltimore, Stanford, Montreal, Buffalo, Djibouti and Bamako (RH 105). But to limit his insights in this way would be fundamentally to misunderstand the significance of his argument, for we have left the Neolithic not for a warmed-over nomadism but for a different sort of space altogether. We who think ecologically today have become acosmic. We have become acosmic

Our exit from the age of agriculture is, if anything, even more radical than its Neolithic beginning, for whereas the Neolithic saw a transition from a nomadic but still fundamentally geometrical existence, with migrations and journeys taking place on the three-dimensional space of the earth’s surface, today our most significant modes of existence are no longer geometrical but topological (see Chapter 2). For example, my primary address is no longer geographically specific but exists on the World Wide Web and can be accessed with equal ease from any location on the planet with an internet connection. My dwelling is decreasingly defined in terms of the ‘hard’ space of distances and increasingly in terms of the ‘soft’ space of relations (H 153n). Technology is changing our geometrical collectives into topological connectives (Pan 349) and we have passed from the paradigm of concentration to that of distribution (Hom 257). In geometrical terms, we live in utopia, not a non-place but a place that is both real and virtual (CMA 85–6). We may happen to be city dwellers or country dwellers, but the significance of that division is dwindling when we can access any information and work from anywhere. If it is true that pre-Neolithic nomads and Neolithic settlers do not live in the same world (H 6), then how much more is it true of those whose existence substantially leaves the paradigm of geometrical coordinates that the nomad and the settler share: ‘We are not from here. Real life plays out elsewhere’ (RH 105).34 Previous generations may have changed the form ( forme) of our experience, but we have stumbled upon a new ground ( fond), a new space. This increasing shift to a topological paradigm of connections and relations is only one half of a double movement that describes the contemporary experience of space. As well as opening up to infinite topological possibilities of interconnection, our space has also recently become finite. It used to be that our own immediate locality was limiting (it was hard and dangerous to travel; it was impossible to leave one’s responsibilities and those for whom one cared), but nevertheless the idea of 34

‘Nous ne sommes pas d’ici-bas. La vraie vie se joue ailleurs.’

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the earth as a whole provided a functionally infinite expanse for exploration and exploitation. Now our immediate geographical surroundings are decreasingly limiting but we are conscious for the first time of the earth itself as finite and fragile. Symbolic moments that capture this new realisation are the broadcast of the ‘blue marble’ photograph, the first full-view image of planet earth from space, taken by the crew of Apollo 17 on 17 December 1972 (see H 167, IRR), and the first French nuclear experiments in the Pacific (PCDS1 85). We have come to understand the earth not as the horizon of our experience but as a finite whole (H 167), and so we have all become astronauts, deterritorialised and alienated from our home planet (CN 185/NC 120). Both of these trends together (the importance of topological space and the understanding of the earth as finite) conspire to diminish the importance of the local; as Serres pithily puts it, ‘[t]he progressive erasure of local events constitutes the greatest contemporary global event’ (CN 170/NC 110).35 We are becoming world dwellers, earthlings deracinated from specific localities. Communication technologies are transplanting us from the sphere of a closed geometrical world to an infinite topological universe, at the same time that our infinite planet has become for us a closed and finite world. 36 Both of these changes are crucial for understanding who it is who thinks ecologically today. There has been a similar double movement in our experience of weather and climate. Serres notes that contemporary city-dwelling office workers are the first generation in human history for whom the local weather is not a primary concern or matter of family subsistence. He also notes that this change is happening at the very moment when the climate is becoming a primary global concern for the first time. For Neolithic humanity local weather is all-determining but global climate is not a conscious concern; for post-Neolithic generations local weather is a trivial matter but global climate is a major preoccupation (see CN 53/NC 28). This double movement develops the Serresian figure of thought we have labelled Harlequin/Pierrot, for which the local and the global are not in conflict but are directly proportional to each other.37 In the case of modern acosmism, the opening of a new universal, de-localised topological space does not spell the end of finitude and a concern for the local but its intensification in the realisation that our planet itself is a finite and constraining locality. The more we transcend local geometric space, the more we find ourselves confined by it (see Figure 6.1). 35

36

37

‘L’effacement progressif des événements locaux constitue le plus grand événement contemporain global.’ This double pivot – to the infinity of topological space and, simultaneously, to the recognition of our terrestrial finitude – updates and complexifies Alexandre Koyré’s account of the discovery of the infinite universe in the early modern period. See Koyré, Du monde clos à l’univers infini/From the Closed World to the Infinite Universe. See Chapter 1.

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Figure 6.1 The double movement of the late modern experience of space

Our acosmism also has implications for our relations to language and objects. In losing the world, modernity has turned its recalcitrant, unassimilated objects into the quasi-objects of its own games: stakes (Mars), fetish (Jupiter) and merchandise (Quirinus). Its philosophy has also become acosmic, ‘holding forth only on language or politics, writing or logic’ (CN 54/NC 29).38 We can therefore discern similar figures of thought in Serres’s treatment of language, objects and the world: in each case 1) an instance of umbilical thinking 2) creates an abstractive dichotomy and 3) is addressed by a blurring of the boundaries between the two dichotomised elements in a concept that translates between the two poles of the dichotomy. The umbilical thinking occurs when language, object or world eclipse the ground from which they emerge as a figure. This is the linguisticism for which the world disappears behind a veil of signs, the co-option of objects into human communities and human ends that dissolves resistant things into stakes, fetish and merchandise, and the acosmism that forgets its earthly rootedness and denies the world beyond the city. In each case, this umbilicism leads to an abstractive dichotomy and the privileging of one of its terms over the other: in the dichotomy of language and the world, language is privileged; in the dichotomy of subject and object, the subject is privileged; in the dichotomy of the nature and culture, culture is privileged. Finally, in each case the dichotomy is blurred in Serres’s work by a hybrid that transgresses its boundaries: the dichotomy of language and world is transgressed by code–matter; the dichotomy of subject and object is transgressed by the incessant substitutions of subject and object; and the dichotomy of nature and culture is transgressed in the natural contract. In each case, the hybrid concept is seen in retrospect to have been the original mixture from which the abstractive dichotomy is formed by artificially separating its fluid elements (Table 6.1).

38

‘ne dissertent que de langage ou de politique, d’écriture ou de logique’.

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Table 6.1 Umbilicisms, abstractive dichotomies and hybrid concepts Umbilicism

Abstractive dichotomy

Hybrid concepts

Chapter 4

Everything is language: linguisticism

Dichotomy of language and world; privilege of language

Code–matter

Chapter 5

Everything is quasi-objects: stakes, fetish, merchandise

Dichotomy of subject and object; privilege of subject

Substitutions of subject and object, quasi-object

Chapter 6

Everything is culture: acosmism

Dichotomy of culture and nature; privilege of culture

Natural contract, fetish, cosmocracy

For Serres, the changes to our understanding of space have produced a fundamental shift in the human condition: in the last century humanity [‘l’homme’] has left its intimate relation with the earth [‘humus’] with which it is etymologically linked (Hom 280–1). Does this mean that we have left humanity behind? ‘Yes and no, because all these events mark a decisive moment of hominisation. We will no longer be the people [hommes] we were, we are becoming people [hommes] as our children will understand the term’ (Hom 280–1).39 So how should we understand this new stage in hominisation, with its transformed relationship to the world it had previously excluded from its cultural polis? Serres’s answer is that the new humanity is the humanity of the natural contract, existing in a network of relationships that cross boundaries between the natural and the cultural, and for which everything is ecological. From Restricted to General Ecology: Beyond The Natural Contract The Natural Contract: law between nature and culture

Along with The Five Senses and The Troubadour of Knowledge, The Natural Contract was one of Serres’s first publishing and media successes, winning him an appearance on the flagship television series Apostrophes with Bernard Pivot on 6 April 1990.40 It was one of his first books to be translated into English and remains among his most read volumes, though it is open to grave misunderstanding if it is approached as a contribution to ecological thinking in a restricted, disciplinary sense. Indeed, we

39

40

‘Oui et non, car tous ces événements marquent un moment décisif de l’hominisation. Nous ne serons plus des hommes comme nous le fûmes, nous devenons des hommes comme nos enfants l’entendront.’ See (last accessed 22 August 2019) for an excerpt of the broadcast.

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cannot begin to understand the importance of Serres’s natural contract for ecology until we realise that it is not a book about ecology. Serres repeatedly makes just this point, insisting that the book does not contain even one mention of the term ‘ecology’ and that it should be read as a contribution to the philosophy and history of law41 which seeks to answer the question ‘who has the right to become a subject of law?’ (‘qui a le droit de devenir sujet de droit?’, RCNbnf 20; see also RCNslp 172). The text itself arose not directly out of ecological concerns but in a political context, when Serres was invited at short notice to replace his friend Michel Rocard at a socialist party conference in September 1989 (Pan 239). The importance of law for Serres, and the reason why The Natural Contract was written as a book about law (Pan 236), is that it straddles and confounds the dichotomies of nature and culture, science and politics, upon which the restricted notion of ecological thought customarily rests. The division between science and politics that Serres is evoking here is all too clear in the social contract theories of Hobbes and Rousseau, theories that separate and then seek to account for the transition between an uncivilised and unruly pre-social ‘state of nature’ and a structured and contract-governed polis. Serres has two main problems with social contract theory, both related to the description of pre-contractual life. He thinks that the concept of the state of nature perpetuates the dichotomies that hamper ecological thought, and he thinks that the ‘war of all against all’ undermines the very idea of a state of nature. Although he develops his own natural contract as a response to the modern condition of acosmism, Serres distances its structures from the social contract of Hobbes and Rousseau. One problem with social contract theory is that, like Descartes’s vacuum pump that empties the object of all agency, it evacuates all society and law from the time before the institution of the contract, creating an abrupt transition from ‘nature’ to ‘culture’ and giving the impression that, once the contract has been entered into, nature is forgotten, ‘now distant, mute, inanimate, isolated, infinitely far from cities or groups, from our texts, and from publicity’ (CN 62/NC 34–5),42 where Serres defines ‘publicity’ to mean ‘the essence of the public’. This abrupt transition from nature to culture is the sort of ‘calendar pathos’ (NP 9/BOP 3, translation altered) that Serres condemns so roundly in The Birth of Physics, and that he counters with his own understanding of the complex eddies, counter-currents and percolations of time.43 41

42

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Serres labels La Guerre mondiale his third book on philosophy of law, after Le Contrat naturel and Le Mal propre (GM 19). ‘désormais lointaine, muette, inerte, retirée, infiniment loin des cités ou des groupes, de nos textes et de la publicité‘. See Chapter 2.

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The social contract also reinforces the dichotomy between human subjective activity and natural objectivity and passivity (CN 64/NC 36). Serres returns on many occasions to Rousseau’s famous quotation from the ‘Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality Among Men or Second Discourse’ that states ‘The first man who, having enclosed a piece of ground, to whom it occurred to say this is mine, and found people sufficiently simple to believe him, was the true founder of civil society’.44 Such an understanding of civil society, he insists, assumes it to be founded on pure convention and leaves no room for any continuity or isomorphism between the civil and the natural. As for nature, after the inauguration of the contract it is a reality only for the solitary romantic dreamer; for society it is forgotten (CN 117/NC 73). Once the contract is entered into, the world is left behind for good and the parties to the contract exist in a human–human world in which the ‘natural’ can appear only as a stake, fetish or merchandise for the exploitation of the ‘cultural’. Furthermore, this story of culture as told by the social contract is a rather anthropocentric one in which humans take exclusive credit for their system of laws and society. The price to pay for this is that this same society becomes utterly unnatural and human law and convention lose any possible ontological justification. The calendar pathos of the social contract is undermined in contract theory itself, by the idea that the Hobbesian contract is preceded by a ‘war of all against all’. Serres sides with Rousseau against Hobbes on this point: wars require precisely that social order, collective identity, economic activity and rule-governed behaviour that is supposed to be inaugurated by the social contract: ‘War is characterised not by the brute explosion of violence but by its organization and its legal status’ (CN 30/NC 13),45 and this organisation requires a tacit contract between the warring groups. Wars are fought not between whole populations but between armies, and therefore require a logic of representation or substitution (the army on behalf of the entire community or nation) which in turn rests on a sense of corporate identity. But this logic of substitution and representation is conspicuously absent in both Hobbes and Rousseau’s accounts (GM 46). Nor do they explain what it is that causes the contracting parties to negotiate and agree in the first place (GM 43). There must be a cessation of violence and a certain good faith or trust to allow for negotiation (GM 88), but if so then violence can be arrested without 44

45

Rousseau, ‘Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality among Men or Second Discourse’, 161. ‘La guerre se caractérise non point par l’explosion brute de violence mais par son organisation et son statut de droit.’ Rousseau makes the same point in The Social Contract: ‘Men are not naturally enemies, if only because when they live in their primitive independence the relation among then is not sufficiently stable to constitute either a state of peace or a state of war’, Gourevitch, Rousseau, 46.

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a contract, and the contract becomes unnecessary. In one final argument, Serres notes that we simply do not know what happened before the foundation of civil society, any more than we can penetrate beyond the Planck barrier to the very instant of the origin of the universe (GM 52). In place of what he considers to be the flawed model of the social contract, Serres elaborates his own natural contract. With its imperative to respect the interests of the natural world, the natural contract picks up on theses from the objective–objective orientation of the new new scientific spirit in Hermès II: l’interférence,46 where Serres is solicitous to hear the language of things (H2 191) and not impose upon them a predetermined interpretive grid. In contrast to the problematic sacred and secular understanding of law and nature in social contract theory, the natural contract insists on the continuity between the two: These laws of nature almost always come down to expressions of equilibria or of invariance through variations, to structural laws, including those that give the largest share to time, the laws of evolution. We could call them, literally, laws of justice. (NC 87) Ces lois de nature, presque toujours, reviennent à des expressions d’équilibres ou d’invariances par variations, à des lois structurales, y compris celles qui donnent la meilleure part au temps, les lois d’évolution. Nous pourrions les nommer, à la lettre, des lois de justice. (CN 137–8)

The notions of equity and balance are already present in the fluctuating differences of the so-called ‘natural’ world, emerging and disappearing in the always-falling cataract of atoms, and so it is quite wrong to suggest that ‘natural justice’ and ‘social justice’ are founded on different sets of questions (CN 138/NC 87–8). Natural and human law run in continuity with, and parallel to, one another. Contra Rousseau, Serres does not hold that civil society is founded by the first man to enclose a piece of ground and find others simple enough to believe him; its origins are much further back, at least as far back as the first animal to urinate on its nest and snarl at others who dared approach, or the first plant to stretch out its leaves, shading the forest floor, thereby starving the other nearby flora of sunlight (see MP 22/Mal 12). Animals continually strike contracts between themselves ‘that are purely social, empty, based exclusively on the concept of us’ (Ec 287/C 199, emphasis original).47 Such contracts are simple, to be sure, but they are nevertheless in a line of continuity with more complex and 46 47

See Chapter 5. ‘les animaux concluent sans cesse entre eux des contrats purement sociaux, vides, exclusivement fondés sur le nous’.

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institutionally mediated human contracts. Rather than seeing ‘nature’ and ‘culture’ as immiscible opposites, Serres insists that ‘culture begins with nature; it is nature itself, pursued by other means made unrecognizable by each relay’ (Hom 58).48 These ideas, Serres stresses, are not his own invention; they can be seen in the fœdera naturæ (federations of nature) of Lucretius’s De rerum natura, as well as in poems of St Francis of Assisi and the three sixteenth-century Italian poets: Faërne, Cesare Pavesi and Verdizotti (RCNbnf 24). For all these writers, the bonds and interactions of the natural world are isomorphic with the laws of the cultural world. Serres’s approach to the paradigm of the contract is to oppose it by generalising it. Rather than taking the human contract – guaranteed in law and assented to either implicitly or explicitly by the contracting parties – as the paradigmatic measure of all contractual behaviour and considering any similarity to such legal contracts in the natural world as a metaphor or an echo, Serres sees human contracts as one instance of a much broader and longer history of contractual behaviour among fauna, flora and inanimate objects.49 This is the basis on which, in La Guerre mondiale, he can argue for a ‘physiodicy’ that blurs the distinction between the natural and the cultural, the hard and the soft, in which ‘the history of the climate enters into that of the law’ and ‘physical conditions intervene in institutional behaviours’ (GM 132–4).50

48

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‘[l]a culture commence par la nature, elle est la nature même, poursuivie par d’autres moyens et devenue, à chaque relais, méconnaissable’. In ‘Vers une écocritique française’, Stephanie Posthumus takes a different approach to metaphor, insisting that ‘we make a point of celebrating the metaphorical quality of the natural contract’ because ‘it is as a metaphor that the natural contract can serve as a model for complex ecological situations, that it can make us see the world differently’ [‘nous tenons à célébrer la qualité métaphorique du contrat naturel. Car c’est en tant que métaphore que le contrat naturel pourra servir de modèle à des situations écologiques complexes, qu’il pourra faire voir le monde autrement’, Posthumus, ‘Vers une écocritique française’, 93]. Metaphor here functions as an ‘as if’, leading us to dream about a reality that could be, and it is ‘a utopian vision, to be sure’, but it is ‘necessary or even unavoidable if human beings hope to continue to live on this planet’ [‘C’est une vision utopique, certes, que Serres reconnaît comme tel, mais nécessaire, voire incontournable si l’être humain espère continuer à vivre sur cette planète’, Posthumus, ‘Vers une écocritique française’, 93]. This risks making the natural contract sound like a noble lie, a thought experiment we all know is a metaphor but that does us so much good to believe. Without wishing to deny that metaphor can cast worlds in this way, it is important to underline that contract, for Serres, is not merely a metaphor: federation and law exist all the way down and all the way back in the natural world, and only if human contracts obeying national or international law are taken as an umbilical paradigm does that natural contract have to be a metaphor. It is not that the natural world is a mimesis of the contract; the natural contract is a methexis in the natural world. Furthermore, contract itself performs for Serres the function that Posthumus ascribes to metaphor: ‘The natural contract leads us to consider the world’s point of view in its totality’ [‘Le contrat naturel nous amène à considérer le point de vue du monde en sa totalité’] (CN 79/NC 46). ‘l’histoire du climat entre dans celle du droit . . . les conditions physiques interviennent dans les conduites institutionnelles’.

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Rather than evoking an instantaneous transformation from a state of nature to a society governed by the social contract, Serres insists that the natural law visible in the life and behaviour of animals evolves into positive law little by little, finally giving birth to a system of cultural convention and legislation (MP 24/Mal 14). Such a gradualism has important implications for the justification of law, because it frames the customary ‘is’ and ‘ought’ of the naturalistic fallacy as an abstractive dichotomy derived from a more complex continuity in which there is no existence without law and no law that can be completely disengaged from existence. In the same way that, for Serres, the contract cannot be a moment of absolute disruption which breaks from a state of nature and introduces civil society, similarly to make a dichotomy of the ‘ought’ and the ‘is’ already loads the dice so as to make their reconciliation impossible. Law is neither fully ‘natural’ nor exclusively ‘conventional’ but rather it exposes the unfoundedness of the very dichotomy between the natural and the conventional. Law is founded on natural rhythms and animal practices that human society both perpetuates and develops, as well as upon conventions which it establishes as a direct refusal of some of those same patterns of behaviour (DPS 7). Serres chooses as the character-concept51 for this understanding of law the oxymoronic figure of Robin Hood (in French ‘Robin des Bois’, Robin of the Woods), an instance of law (‘un robin’ is a now archaic term for a magistrate or man of law52) in the archetypal place of non-law: the forest (see GM 72–3). Law is the place where life and earth join, the gaping between ‘bio’ and ‘geo’ (Bi 46/Bio 46). The implications of this insistence on the continuity of nature and law for ecology are enormous. As Maria Assad rightly notes, Serres offers us ‘an ontological justification for ecological concerns which goes far beyond any politicised environmental movement’.53 This is one of the points at which we see Serres digging under the usual ‘how?’ questions of ecology to discover the ‘why?’ on which they rest. What is this ‘ontological justification’ he evokes? It is not that the ‘is’ of nature suddenly becomes an ‘ought’ and that the maintenance of the ontological status quo somehow becomes its own ethical foundation, but that whatever it is we call ‘ethics’ can only be seen as an evolution of rhythms and behaviours that go all the way down and all the way back in the natural world. In other words, Serres is insisting upon a non-dualistic understanding from which ‘ontology’ and ‘ethics’ can only ever be a posteriori theoretical abstractions, and it is this non-dualistic understanding that provides the ‘natural’ patterns of balance and equilibrium of 51 52 53

See Chapter 3 for an explanat