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Michel Serres (1930-2019)

Raymond Boisvert meditates on the mind of a metaphysician of meaning.

When I think of Michel Serres, I think wine. Generally, Sauternes. Specifically: Château d’Yquem. Why? In particular, because Serres reflects on this wine in The Five Senses (1985). More widely, wine embodies two themes that set the tone for his work: liquidity and blending (or mixture). Liquidity: Philosophers have traditionally favored metaphors involving solids with fixed, rigid barriers, kind of like statues distributed in Euclidean space (see Serres’ Statues: The Second Book of Foundations, 1987). Serres believed it was time for a shift to liquid metaphors, with their emphasis on flux, temporality, interplay and, importantly, porous boundaries. (Clouds were one of his favorite images). Mixture: two of Serres’ favorite words were ‘mixing’, and ‘blending’. A great Château d’Yquem is all about intermingling. There is, to begin with, the grape blend – sémillon and sauvignon blanc – but it’s not just the mix of grapes. There are also the range of micro-climates, the clay/gravel soil composition, what the fungus botrytis does to grapes, the hand harvesting, the particular sun/rain ratio of a growing season… Emphasizing both liquidity and intermingling, Serres attempted to draw philosophy away from its fixation on clear and distinct separations. Rather surprisingly he instead suggested that, at the heart of things was con-fusion, the mixing together of things. Commingling would offer a great antidote to what Serres’ most sought to undermine: violence.

Michel Serres
Michel Serres
Portrait © Clinton Inman 2019 Facebook him at clinton.inman

Violence was a focus for Serres because he was born in 1930. Serres’ father had been at Verdun. Growing up, Michel lived through a time marked by Franco, Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, along with places like Guernica, Auschwitz, and Hiroshima. Not surprisingly, as he said to Bruno Latour: “Violence was already, and has remained, for my whole life, the major problem.”

Although he studied at a naval academy, he resigned his commission and leaned strongly in the direction of pacifism. In his earlier life he held several not especially prestigious teaching positions in France, teaching the history of science, not philosophy. Thanks to his friend René Girard he secured posts in the US, first at Johns Hopkins and then at Stanford, where he was in the department of French and Italian. Formal homeland recognition came in 1990 with his election to the Académie Française. The induction ceremony dispensed with the symbolic sword in deference to Serres’ pacifist inclinations.

Serres was, to say the least, unusual: on a quest to minimize violence; an academic who found no home in a philosophy department; a friend of symbolic logic who did not reduce thought to deductive reasoning; a fan of science who resisted scientism; a philosopher who spent most of his time reading outside of philosophy; a media presence who was neither flamboyant nor polemical; a polymath who sought always to build bridges and linkages.

Signal To Noise

Two prefixes mark out the intellectual landscape fostered by Serres: ‘with’ (syn in Greek and con in Latin), and ‘between’ (inter). He articulated what he called a philosophy of prepositions, not one of nouns or verbs, in which ‘with’ and ‘between’ played central roles. For his guiding spirit Serres fastened upon Hermes, composing five books dedicated to this messenger of the gods. Hermes typified our time (the information age) in the way that Atlas (holding up the heavens: direct force) had typified the ancient world, and Prometheus (the fire giver: thermodynamics, steam) marked a later era. In the world of Hermes, reality is a vast messagerie composed of a turbulent crisscrossing intersection of messages, indications, meanings. The lifeworld is not pervaded by insular bits of matter, but rather by continuous signallings as with photons, rocks from the moon, pheromones, truffles, stories, fevers, heliotropic plants, pangs of hunger… Earlier eras had an Archimedes or a Sadi Carnot as prototypes. The age of Hermes was introduced by Claude Shannon (1916-2001), who formulated the laws of information flow on which the internet (among other modern phenomena) depends. Serres, however, gave Shannon’s communication theory a typical twist. ‘Noise’ was treated as one-dimensionally bad by communication theorists. The Serres turn: think of noise as double-sided, not as unilaterally bad. Noise, that which altered a message, also allowed change. Without noise in the cosmos there would be the lifeless iteration of the same inanimate processes forever. Pure signal means identity, monotony, changelessness. Relentless noise brings pandemonium, all chaos and no cosmos. Living systems thrive when there is the right signal/noise mix.

Using an outdated French term, Serres rehabilitated ‘ la noise’. He welcomed la noise as a kind of pan-fecund womb, an all-powerful superabundance of possibilities. Such noise would be analogous to the phrase ‘formless and void’ of the book of Genesis, denoting the primordial helter-skelter mix with which God works to create the Earth. Noise, in this sense, is a treasure trove, but only as a bundle of possibilities: some loving connection (as for instance with the Creator) is needed for things to come to birth. Whatever emerges – say a cask of Yquem – is a particular combination drawn from the trove of the all-mixed-together. Every composition, every entity, has to be understood as a limited mixture sorted out from the unlimited fertility that is la noise. When Serres sought an image for the constitution of entities, he chose the harlequin: all patchwork, all the way down.

Exclusion & Connection

Mixture and Hermes work well together when it comes to discouraging violence. Serres saw violence as deriving from what French calls appartenance, the kind of belonging or club membership which says: ‘us’ here, ‘them’ there. Appartenance encourages purity and exclusion. What results, typically, from the exclusion, is conflict.

But what if this belonging/exclusion pattern was part of a flawed intellectual landscape? What if, at the source of all, was rather the overabundance called la noise? Appartenance would lose its justification, since ‘us’ and ‘them’ might be different renditions, but they both draw on the same initial abundance of possibilities. The older, Plotinus-derived way of looking at reality stresses an initial unity, with multiplicity as a deviation from the initial state. This vision, thoroughly dominant in the West for over two thousand years, encourages a return to the purity of oneness. Within the Plotinian stream, it made sense to seek one language, which gave access to the really real – the language of science; or to identify one people as the true representatives of humanity; or to isolate the one, true religion; or to force left-handed individuals to use their right hands (Serres was left-handed and had been forced to switch). If, by contrast the noise – raw fecundity – is basic, the emphasis changes. The goal is not now categorisation and separation. Rather, creativity is encouraged, with new life emerging from fresh mixings and blendings: so much so that philosophy and birthing are joined at the hip. “What good is philosophy,” Serres was fond of saying, if it “does not give birth to a world to come?”

Connections, interminglings, birthings, these are the tasks of philosophy. Hermes, shuttling back and forth, translating, fostering comprehension, is, like Socrates, a midwife. Even better, Hermes, like Xenophon’s Socrates, is a matchmaker (or in Xenophon’s crude formulation, a pimp). Philosophy is badly served when there is too much fascination with statuesque analysis, separating and breaking up the world. Hermes is, rather, an agent of philia, the friendship-love that connects. “The philosopher,” Serres asserted, “writes under the tutelage of an archangel, an alternative name for Hermes, label for the messenger, inventor of languages, constructor of paths” (Les Cinq Sens, pp.225-226).

The Path To Everything

Paths connect. For that reason Serres championed the humanities over the social sciences. The social sciences, he worried, assumed a basic disconnection – that of culture from nature. Serres instead suggested emphasizing a human/world collectivité which recognized the gathering together of the separated realms of nature and culture.

Since to him what was fundamental was the collectivité, Serres was one of the few French philosophers to embrace ecology. The Natural Contract (1990) begins with a Goya painting, Lucha con Palos (Fight with Cudgels, 1820). Two men are in combat. So intently is each focused on the other that they fail to realize they’re both sinking into the mud. Just so, philosophical frameworks that separate culture from nature will ignore the need for a ‘contract’ – will overlook how we are already ‘con-tracted’, connected, with the entire collectivité of which we form a part. And because we have ignored the collectivité – because one great appartenance says ‘humans here, world there’ – a new kind of violence is upon us. We have entered upon a great ‘world war’: a war against the world. Our marvelous triumphs in science and technology have as an obverse our liberation from what was formerly unavoidable in nature, that is, disease. The converse, though, is a new necessity, and an onerous one. Once, there were great swaths of nature over which we had no influence: weather, for example. Because we had no impact, we were relieved of responsibility. This is no longer the case. Humanity is changing the climate. We now face an unavoidable issue: “How to dominate our domination, how to become masters of our own mastery.”

Recovering philosophy’s association with love, admitting that we are all part of the collectivité, thinking of ourselves as translators/interpreters, dismissing the lure of an illusory original oneness, can all help move us away from violence. This should not be that difficult for philosophers, as it suggests that we bring back to prominence what was already central for Plato: dialogue. Sadly it will now be a dialogue without a major participant, Michel Serres.

© Prof. Raymond Boisvert 2019

Raymond D. Boisvert is a Professor Emeritus of Siena College, NY.

Suggestions For Further Reading

A good place to start is The Natural Contract (1990): short, focused on environmental issues, and providing a sense of Serres’ general take on things. Another helpful initiating text is Conversations on Science, Culture and Time (1992) with Bruno Latour. Here Serres explains his positions by responding to questions. A prototypical Serres book is The Troubadour of Knowledge (1991). It engages with all his major themes. His magnum opus is The Five Senses (1985), but this is hard to read because the very language attempts to take us out of language and into a felt relation with a multi-textured world. His bestseller has been translated as Thumbelina: The Culture and Technology of Millennials (2014). In it Serres reflects on the latest technological advancements as utilized by young people (cf texting using thumbs). It shows Serres’ unwillingness to cast blanket condemnations on particular eras, and his resistance to any kind of ‘golden age’ thinking.

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