BY Daniel Miller in Profiles | 01 SEP 10
Featured in
Issue 133

Joyeux Anniversaire!

Michel Serres, one of the most influential and eccentric of French philosophers, turns 80

BY Daniel Miller in Profiles | 01 SEP 10

Challenger, 1986.

Recently returned from inspecting his lunar lands, Harlequin, King of the Moon, calls a press conference. The audience is hoping for wondrous eccentricities, modern ideas about ruins, the latest ideologies from Paris … But the Emperor frustrates the gathered crowd: ‘Everything, everywhere, is just as it is here [...] nothing new under the sun or on the moon.’ He drifts away from the microphone; turning his back on the camera phones, he starts to slowly strip. His coat, an iridescent garment, spotted like an ocelot, made in Singapore and sold in Zurich, drops to the pavilion’s smashed-up marble floor. Beneath it is another layer. Tigroid item after zebrine item falls away, each new unveiling yielding yet more layers. The audience is scandalized and shocked, amused and enthralled, email-checking, Facebooking, half-bored. The Emperor removes the final veil. The crowd gasps! ‘Harlequin is a hermaphrodite, a mixed-body, male and female. Scandalized, the audience is moved to the point of tears. The naked androgyne mixes genders so that is impossible to locate the vicinities, the places, or borders where the sexes stop and begun: a male lost in a female, a female mixed with a male. This is how he or she shows him/herself: as a monster.’

A longer version of this scene (the direct quotes are taken from it), begins Michel Serres’ Le Tiers-Instruit (The Troubadour of Knowledge, 1991/7). It’s his philosophy of auto-education, and plausibly his key work. The book both unlocks his other works and allows a clear picture of their author; if Gustave Flaubert was Emma Bovary, Harlequin is Serres himself. He is a corrected left-hander, a voyager, a convention-breaking maverick and the owner of a similarly hybrid corpus, assembled from material miscegnated from distant disciplines and sources – fables and mathematics, art and science, ancient myths and hypermodern information systems – without disciplinary divisions or clear epistemological precedence. In the words of his most famous pupil, Bruno Latour, eulogizing his teacher in a 1987 article: ‘Serres is naive and gullible beyond description [...] Faced with a Tintin comic strip, he cannot tell for sure if this is not the best theory of modern communication that has ever been written.’

On 1 September 2010, Serres turns 80 years old. He is one of the most famous philosophers in France, where his books sell in the hundreds of thousands, and where he occupies the 18th chair in the Académie française, but he remains comparatively obscure in Anglophonia, which prefers gauchiste zealots. But, in honour of his birthday and in gratitude towards his example, let’s redress this imbalance.

We could begin with his oddness – there is no other word for it. While most modern philosophers are defined by their enemies, Serres remains at a distance from this paradigm, defining it (in dialogue with Latour) as Critique Philosophy, or philosophy pursued as a practice of belligerent ideological mastery. He variously rejects it as a regal procedure, which demands the right to judge everything; as a police procedure, which identifies sight with suspicion; and as an academic narcissism, in which the practitioner surreptiously installs his idol (or his ego) at the centre of reality, and then lambasts the universe for its infidelious deviations. But what seems to disturb Serres the most in Critique Philosophy is what might be called the will to a meta-language, or the idea that the world is reducible to a power-code, theoretical jargon or ‘-ism’.

Serres’ own style runs in the opposite direction, flinging everyday language, with mercurial abandon, into unstable geographies where heavy vocabularies can’t go. What this approach has produced over the past 40 years is a bewildering retinue of genre- and context-crossing agents, from Hermes to Harlequin, attended by a bestiary of allied familiars and occasionally diamond-hard fragments of poetic-philosophical clarity. The opening passage of Genèse (Genesis, 1982/95) – a book that Serres claims in the latest edition, ‘should have really been called Noise’ – proposes a ‘flight of screaming birds [...] a cloud of chirping crickets’ and other winged and dappled things as a ‘new object for philosophy’. The idea of the unit, Serres states, has enthralled our thinking for too long, despite the fact (or because of it) that ‘we’ve never hit upon truly atomic, ultimate, indivisible terms that were not themselves, once again, composite’. The Carrolesque Les Cinq Sens (The Five Senses, 1985/2008), a book composed to ‘cry out at the empire of signs’ which Serres identifies with academia and western hyper-technicalization, supplies a kind of synesthetic chess game as a model of the warring senses. ‘Hermes will kill Panoptes,’ Serres explains, ‘the messenger will triumph over the surveillant or observer.’

This is the writing which has led to Serres’ repeated arraignments as a fascinating symptom of contemporary decadence (Jean Baudrillard), a dangerous mystagogue who threatens to unite with others and overturn the order of modernity (Luc Ferry), and in need of a lesson in logic (N. Katherine Hayles). Some of this is true. In rejecting the philosophical ideal affirmed by his scholarly colleagues – the ideal of enlightenment massaged through the production of reason – Serres calls modernity into question much more radically than its Postmodernist critics, who remain within its framework even while they cast doubt on its contents. ‘We could construct a kind of dictionary,’ Serres tells Latour in Éclaircissements (Conversations on Science, Culture and Time, 1990/5), ‘that would allow us to translate, word by word, gesture by gesture, event by event, the scene at Cape Canaveral [the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster of 1986] into the Carthaginian rite [of human sacrifice to the master god of Carthage] and vice versa [...] 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.’ We have never been modern. What we have been (and still remain) is spellbound by a foundation myth of contradiction and negation, constructed by the helpless genius of the human mind in its eternal quest to screen-out, appease, cajole or conquer death. What is special about Serres, and what counts him amongst the small handful of genuine living philosophers, is his elaboration of a form of thought that has enabled him to escape, Houdini-like, from this enterprise.

In my opinion, La Légende des Anges (Angels: A Modern Myth, 1993/5) is Serres’ most beautiful work. The action takes place in Paris-Charles de Gaulle Airport and is organized as a dialogue between Pantope, a travelling inspector for Air France, and Pia, a doctor at the in-house medical centre. The pair discuss the wiring and waning of the world, surrounded by a web of buzzing networks, on the verge of our post-human future. Serres is sanguine about the prospects, recognizing that new liberations will mean new oppressions and that the new world will be carried on the back of violence, like the old ones. The text concludes, at midnight, on an enigmatic note. A radio message is sent from an aeroplane in flight. A pregnant woman, en route from Israel, is suffering contractions. The aeroplane lands and the woman is assisted to a duty-free shop. A group of post-conceptual curators, en route to Albania to shepherd a conference about Shabtai Zvi, arrange a kind of bed from nylon veils, coats and random parts of discourse. Three Iraqi–Kurdish academics help the woman to some water. What progeny is to be expected? As the woman’s contractions begin to increase in intensity, and Pia prepares for an emergency delivery, Pantope notices a laminated silver card resting on the marble floor, which must have slipped out from the woman’s pocket. The card reads: ‘Pan Am First Moon Flights Club.’