Participatory Spirituality for the 21st Century
Although I'm just beginning to explore his work, and don't know the full scope of it yet, I'd like to start a thread for Michel Serres. I'm exploring it in the context of a paper I'm writing which involves a grammar-related theme (Serres places prepositions at the center of his (post)metaphysics).
Here's a brief biographical introduction, from the European Graduate School website:
Michel Serres, Ph.D., is a philosopher specialized in epistemology, a professor as well as a writer. He was born on September 1st 1930 in Agen, in the Lot-et-Garonne region in France. Son of a farmer, he first studied at a naval school in 1949. He studied at the prestigious École normale supérieure, starting in 1952 where he also passed in aggregation in philosophy 1955 in Paris. However, from 1956 to 1958 her served in the French navy, even participating in the re-opening of the Suez canal as well as in the Algerian war. Serres is not only an elected member of the prestigious French Academy (March 29th 1990) but he has also received France’s highest decoration, the National Order of the Legion of Honour.
In 1968 Serres defended his dissertation and was granted his doctorate as a result. He went on to teach University-level philosophy in Clermont-Ferrand where he became a friend of Michel Foucault and Jules Vuillemin. At that time Foucault and him regularly work together on problems that would result in Foucault’s master piece The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. After that, he also taught at Vincennes, Paris I (from 1969 on) and Stanford University (from 1984 on) as professor of the history of science. His research not only focuses on the history of science but he is particularly interested in the possible links and interdisciplinarity between so-called hard sciences and social sciences. In fact, he has been instrumental in the popularization of scientific knowledge.
In his book The Parasite (1980; Eng. Trans. 2007) Serres wants to remind us how human relations are to society the same as that of the parasite to the host body. The point is that by being a parasite even minority groups can become play a big role in public dialogue. For example, they can bring the kind of diversity and complexity essential to human life and thought.
Genesis (1982; Eng. Trans. 1997) is Michel Serres’s attempt to think outside metaphysical categories such as unity and rational order. He wants to make us hear the "noise," the "sound and the fury," that actually are in the background of life and thought. The argument is that although philosophy has been essential to the conception of laws of logic and reason, which themselves have been key to our understanding of ourselves and our universe, one of the most pressing tasks of thought today is to acknowledge that multiplicity and not unity is the order of the day. Such plurality cannot really be thought, but perhaps it can still be sensed, felt, and heard beneath the illusion of rational order imposed by civilization. Serres gives us here a critique of traditional and contemporary models in social theory as a call for the rebirth of philosophy as the art of thinking the unthinkable.
In Five Senses: A Philosophy of Mingled Bodies (1985; Eng. Trans. 2009) Professor Serres warns us that the fundamental lessons we must learn from the senses have been marginalized by the scientific age. Indeed, the metaphysical and philosophical systems of the latter have taken over our five senses through the domination of language and the information revolution. This book is an exploration of the detrimental consequences of such powerful downplaying of the five senses in the history of philosophy of the West. By doing a history of human perceptions he writes in favor of empiricism and against the Cartesian tradition. He does this by demonstrating the sterility of systems of knowledge separated from the body. Yet data today is more important than sense perception. Serres makes the point even more strongly by asking the rhetorical question: “What are we, and what do we really know, when we have forgotten that our senses can describe a taste more accurately than language ever could?”
His most recent book is Biogea.
From a post on the OOO thread...
Balder (quoting Serres): Nature’ inseminates itself with programmes. Things, dual, manifest both causation and coding. We 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. Things are also symbols. There is more than chemistry in chemistry. Why does this element react or not in the presence of some other element? Why does it choose it in this way? What ‘faculty’ in it makes election? Large masses write, molecules read. And, even more than inert matter, living matter writes, reads, decides, chooses, reacts – one would have thought it long endowed with intentions. An hour of biochemistry will quickly persuade one of the exquisite astuteness of proteins.... The wind forms blades in the sea like lines on a page; the current traces its passage along the talweg and the glacier in a valley; the axle projects on the sundial the exact latitude of the place; the stylus scars the wax and the tip of the diamond inscribes its trace on the glass. Let us not pretend that we alone write. Oil and water do not mix; bodies choose their partners in combination while excluding other elements; crystals characterised by impurities straighten the course of certain flows. It is not just we who are concerned with acts of choosing. Islands, cliffs, radioactive bodies engrave memories. Let us not pretend that only we remember. In short, things themselves, inert as well as organic, exchange elements, energy and information, conserving, diffusing and selecting this last. Let us not pretend that only we are given to acts of exchange. This inscription, these decisions, these mnemotechnics, these codings, along with many other examples, give to objects quasi-cognitive properties. There is an ‘it thinks’, in the sense of ‘it rains’ as well as an ‘I think’ or ‘we think’ (Michel Serres, L'Incandescent)
Theurj: In a word, rhetaphor.
On FB, where I posted the same quote, I received the following responses from a couple friends, Kerry Dugan and John O'Neill...
Kerry: Exquisite. Serres sounds in sync with Dogen's 'teachings of the insentient'.
Balder: Yes, for me it is like he is pronouncing the vital being-time of things. I'm reading Serres' work for the paper I'm working on and really enjoying it.
John: HI Bruce, in regard to the above quote from Serres: I’m starting to read a book of selections from the spiritual writings of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin , put together by Ursula King. The first chapter is on “Discovering the Divine in the Depth of Blazing Matter.“
I’m re-discovering him and his continuing evolutionary relevance after reading him many years ago.
A couple of quotes:
“Purity does not lie in separation from, but in a deeper penetration into the universe. It is to be found in the love of that unique boundless essence which penetrates the inmost depths of all things and there, from within those depths, deeper than the mortal zone where individuals and multitudes struggle, works upon them and molds them.
“Bathe yourself in the ocean of matter: plunge into it where it is deepest and most violent; struggle in its currents and drink of its waters. For it cradled you long ago in your preconscious existence; and it is that ocean that will raise you up to God.
So many things which had once distressed him… all seemed to him now merely ridiculous, nonexistent, compared with the majestic reality, the flood of energy, which now revealed itself to him: omnipresent, unalterable in its truth, relentless in its development, untouchable in its serenity, maternal and unfailing in its protectiveness,”
He goes on with a hymn to matter , which he acclaims as the divine milieu.
And I think you’d like this, which resonates with one of your earlier posts.
And why should I not worship it, the stable, the great, the rich , the mother, the divine? Is not matter, in its own way, eternal and immense? Is it not matter whose absence our imagination refuses to conceive, whether in the furthest limit of space or in the endless recesses of time? Is it not the one and only universal substance, the ethereal fluidity that all things share without either diminishing or fragmenting it? Is it not the absolutely fertile generatrix, the Terra Mater, that carries within her the sesds of all life and the sustenance of all joy? Is it not at once the common origin of beings and the only end we could dream of, the primordial and indestructible essence from which all emerges and into which all returns, the starting point of all growth and the limit of all disintegration? All the attributes that a philosophy of the spirit posits as lying outside the universe, do they not in fact lie at the opposite pole? Are they not realised and are they not to be attained in the depths of the world, in divine matter.”
It seems de Chardin’s thought was cosmotheandric before Panikkar.
Bruce, I love seeing where your explorations are leading...
It turns out, Bruce, as I read further along, that my last quote was partial and misleading. It’s not the direction in which he wants to take us, enticing as it sounds.
He goes on to say,
“It was then that faith in life save me.
Life! When trouble lies heaviest upon us, whither shall we turn , if not to the ultimate criterion, the supreme verdict, of life’s success and the roads that lead to it? When every certainty is shaken and every utterance falters, when every principle appears doubtful, then there is only one ultimate belief on which we can base our rudderless interior life: the belief that there is an absolute direction of growth, to which both our duty and our happiness demand that we should conform: and that life advances in that direction ,taking the most direct road. I have contemplated nature for so long , and have loved her countenance, recognised unmistakably as hers, that I now have a deep conviction, dear to me, infinitely precious and unshakeable, the humblest and yet the most fundamental in the whole structure of my convictions , that life is never mistaken, either about the road or its destination.. No doubt it does not define intellectually for us any God or any dogma; but it shows us by what road all those will come that are neither lies nor idols; it tells us toward what part of the horizon we must steer if we are to see the dawn light grow more intense. I believe this in virtue of all my experience and of all my thirst for greater happiness: there is indeed an absolute fuller-being and an absolute better-being, and they are rightly described as a progress in in consciousness, in freedom, and in moral sense. Moreover, these higher degrees of being are to be attained by concentration, purification, and maximum effort…
The true summons of the cosmos is a call consciously to share in the great work that goes on within it; it is not drifting down the current of things that we shall be united with their one, single soul, but by fighting our way, with them, toward some goal still to come.”
So, your post and Teilhard’s reflections have prompted an interesting little journey for me, tonight, both into the attractive beauty, dynamic energy and divinity in matter, and towards an evolutionary consciousness into the future, which transcends and includes matter.
Balder: Thank you, John...I'm not sure (yet) what Serres' ultimate trajectory is. He is concerned, he says, with a philosophy of angels -- a philosophy which meditates upon those fleeting, luminous mediators that link subjects with subjects or objects, that dwell in the "mitten drinnen," in the thick midst of becoming, drawing depth and integration out of the flux of relations. He appears to be concerned with grand narrative, but not the monospheric kind (here, he is akin to Sloterdijk); instead, he wants to pronounce and evoke vision of a sky-borne, transient, pluralist topography of relations, which intermix and interpenetrate and co-implicate, in a vast relational dance of multiplicity, without appealing to the singular "gaze" of ontotheology. (This, at least, is my sense of what he is doing so far). He sees we have become ungrounded in some sense, in our modern age, and he dwells on the pathological dimensions of this in some of his works, but also suggests that in this ungrounding is also an opportunity for discovering our "incipient infinitude". And while I don't understand (yet) where exactly he is pointing in the bulk of his work, here is one hint from an essay about him: "But, in doing so [i.e., philosophy coming to inhabit the non-place], it will mimic the new condition of a humanity that is encroaching on or even entering into different forms of ubiquity, and thus becoming hominescent. L’Incandescent rehearses the names of this new, emergent being. First of all, Pantope, because this being lives anywhere and everywhere; Panchrone, because he begins the work of integrating the different time-scales in which he participates in his embodiment, from the Grand Narrative of the DNA that dates from billions of years ago to the forms of technical and medical supplement that may have been developed mere months ago (Serres 2003, 216-9); Pangloss, because he accesses and negotiates between all possible languages (Serres 2003, 220-7); Pangnose, because of the prospect of the generalisation and dissemination of knowledge, accessible to all at every point ‘human knowledge like the knowledge of the things of the world becomes the most widely-distributed thing in the world’ (Serres 2003, 236); Panthrope, since universal communications dissolves the distinction between stranger and neighbour (Serres 2003, 234-6); and Panurge, because we make use of every conceivable form of machinery and energy-production (Serres 2003, 238-41)."
In this post I've made reference to how prepositions have a symbiotic link to image schemas, and therefore might be more of a meta-paradigm than one of several paradigms focused on parts of speech. I.e., that prepositions, being linguistic developments from pre-linguistic image schemata, are what ties or integrates not only the other parts of speech but the other paradigms that grow from them. Hence their meta-paradigmatic function.
Also Serre's uses the term Panurge, so I'm naturally (narcissistically?) more inclined.
Bruno Latour on Michel Serres' philosophy.
I'm fascinated with how Serres does not see strict divisions between domains. Or a metalanguage that contextualizes them all within a critique or model. Not only different domains but what one who uses metalanguages might interpret as past and lower levels that must be supplanted. It seems more like how Luhmann sees the various mutations of a human or society, as that of structural couplings. Or how Gebser does as well, how they all continue to exist simultaneously via such couplings. And yet there is not overarching 'integral' metalanguage (model, method) etc. As in Morton or Zizek, there is no Nature. I like this quote:
"'Critique' philosophers firmly install their metalanguage and in the center and slowly substitute their arguments to every single object of the periphery; organizing the critique is a tantamount to a careful, obstinate and deliberate empire-building" (90).
Serres emphasis on the infra-language of a given text reminds me of descriptions of deconstruction:
"Deconstruction is not a method and this means that it is not a neat set of rules that can be applied to any text in the same way. Deconstruction is therefore not neatly transcendental because it cannot be considered separate from the contingent empirical facticity of the particular texts that any deconstruction must carefully negotiate."
It brought to mind, for me, Adam Robbert's contribution to the upcoming book on Metatheory. He suggests that Latour offers a complement to metatheory, which he calls infratheory. A description of the paper is available here.
"The global soul: a small, deep place, not far from the region of the emotions. The local, storm-prone, surface soul: a viscous lake, ready to flare up, on which the multiple, rainbow-colored, slowly changing light plays...
All dualism does is reveal a ghost facing a skeleton. All real bodies shimmer like watered silk. They are hazy surfaces, mixtures of body and soul...
Everyone seems to believe that our point of view, our point of vision, is up in the dress circle, eyes sitting at the top of the trunk on a swivelling, mobile head, like a lighthouse lantern. Our skin would be the stone base of the lighthouse, with no relation to the lights and signals, a simple raised structure ensuring that the gaze will travel. The lighthouse guardian would be the pupil of the eye, or at least ensure its movement. I assume that the official in charge of the concept, like the chief engineer in charge of Lighthouses and Beacons, runs things from his office in Paris, the brain or a central processing unit. An expert trained at the Ecole Polytechnique, he pays a few quick visits to the sea illuminated by his department, when he has time. The centre is preoccupied with important things. For the rest, it suffices to telephone; to send or receive messages, to make language circulate.
The soul, and perhaps also knowledge, glides up and down the structure, on the surface of the tower. There is a kind of softness in the way it presents itself, like naked skin to sea water, a softness strong enough to resist circumstances or to seek them out boldly when the opportunity arises, but a strength subtle enough to pick up discreet calls, a hard and sensitive softness, a delicate balance, sometimes off-balance, between the delectable and the heart-rending. We learn nothing, really, except what marks the wax, which is soft and warm but cold enough for the tracing to endure, adaptive to the point of death but stopping short of it: to write, I read from my flayed skin rather than copying parchments from the library. These days I trust this memory more than data banks, An author speaks for himself. I write on my skin and not on that of others who would answer for me, as Bonnard paints on and exhibits it without shame. I decipher my wrinkles, the engravings of time, written with a stylus; my soul hants this incription-covered hide.
It seems to me that the brain is a local concentration of this place of knowledge. The thinking I quivers along the spine, I think everywhere."
~ Excerpts from Michel Serres' The Five Senses
That's beautiful Balder, thanks for sharing.
Sure, David -- I thought it was beautiful, too.
Here is a review of Serres' book, The Five Senses. It touches on themes relevant to those explored on this forum -- particularly, embodied cognition, topological thinking as a means of trans-disciplinary and trans-lineage theorizing (i.e., tracing homeomorphic equivalencies across varied topoi), etc.
I like this from the review, points I've made in various places throughout the forum:
"The terminology used in this excerpt–folds, knots, paths—display Serres’ long term interest in developments in modern mathematics, and in particular topology. Since his earliest work (see Serres, 1982), Serres routinely opposes the logic of geometry and topology. Whilst the former rests upon clear notions of identity and distinction, topology, and the mathematics which underpins it, is concerned with transformation and connection. Geometric reason seeks the truth of things through specifying their relationship to ideal, abstract propositions which define a space of clear measurement. […] The problem is not inherent to mathematical reason itself, but rather with the metaphysical assumptions of a particular kind of scientific modernity–one which may be drawing to a close."
As I was reading the review I was thinking this sounds very congruent with radical empiricism, and then I read this:
"Serres imagines touch, in particular, as a topological operation for veiling and unveiling
the world, imposing a structure in the middle of things which provisionally defines connections,
continuities, rearranges mixtures. Touch does not analyse or dissect; rather it makes new knots, new
The state of things becomes tangled, mingled like thread, a long cable, a skein. Connections
are not always unravelled. Who will unravel this mess? Imagine the thread of a network, the
cord of a skein, or a web with more than one dimension, imagine interlacing as a trace on
one plane of the state that I am describing. The state of things seems to me to be an
intersecting multiplicity of veils, the interlacings of which bodies forth a three dimension
figure. The state of things is creased, crumpled, folded, with flounces and panels, fringes,
stitches and lacing. (p.82)
To know, by this account, is to participate, to intermingle. Serres sees this procedure as form of
empiricism, understood as the forging of links and relations (to be compared, perhaps, with the
description of radical empiricism given by William James in The Meaning of Truth). The last two
chapters of the book are dedicated to a rhapsodic and sweeping hymn to ‘fluid empiricism’ (p.229)."