PRINT September 2013


MICHEL SERRES is one of the most important philosophers of recent decades—and yet he remains little known to the English-speaking world. This may be partly because he is as much an aesthetic voice as he is an analytical one: Celebrated for his pathbreaking work in the philosophy of science, he has also defied that discipline with his singularly poetic language, which is highly difficult to translate. Indeed, he has made one of his signature subjects the mediation and translation between disparate fields and competencies, bringing together ecology and sociology, technology and culture, physics and literature, mathematics and mythology (and invoking Hermes, the messenger god, as his emblem of sorts). Taking his place in a radical genealogy of thinkers such as Gaston Bachelard and Paul Feyerabend, Serres has had a decisive impact, felt in the work of Bruno Latour, Gilles Deleuze, Ilya Prigogine, Isabelle Stengers, and Bernard Stiegler, among others.

Serres has audaciously bridged nature and mind; animal and mineral; being and matter; and our notions of time, sensation, causality, and power. For him, turbulence is all. Fluid dynamics and the thermodynamics of entropy and Brownian motion are not only scientific phenomena but powerful tools for explaining the world at large. In other words, against the linear trajectory of scientific progress and traditional understandings of time and motion, Serres posits a universe full of eddies, fluctuations, and currents, so that, against the Heraclitan proverb, one may in fact step in the same river twice—for a river is defined by recursion, repetition, and nonlinear spirals rather than a smooth path into the future. This is what Serres terms “liquid history”—a view that is nondeterministic, multiplicitous, chaotic, resolutely materialist; that perceives complexity and crisis; that takes into account local disturbances as much as long-term glacial or geologic change. And perhaps this is why Serres has become one of the most visionary and eloquent observers of the profound instabilities arising in the postwar period. As he wrote in 1990,

We are now, admittedly, the masters of the Earth and of the world, but our very mastery seems to escape our mastery. We have all things in hand, but we do not control our actions. Everything happens as though our powers escaped our powers—whose partial projects, sometimes good and often intentional, can backfire or unwittingly cause evil. . . . Our conquests outstrip our deliberate intentions.

For this issue of Artforum, art historian and critic PAUL GALVEZ spoke to Serres in Paris about contemporary intersections between nature, tech­nology, science, and culture, and about our era’s unforeseen innovations and unprecedented risks.

PAUL GALVEZ: You have described the world as ruled by flows—by turbulence, percolation, disorder, and uncertainty—rather than by linear progress or orderly systems. And, in fact, much of your work revolves around the ultimate form of turbulence: disaster. You’ve said that your philosophy really comes from the moment of Hiroshima. So I wanted to ask, first of all: Do you think that there are events, like 9/11 or other acts of terrorism, in our present day that have as enormous an impact now as Hiroshimadid at the time? Is the historical limit—the unthinkable—still that of Hiroshima and Auschwitz, or, in the twenty-first century, must we confront a new era, new regimes, new configurations of disaster, politics, and philosophy? What is different now?

MICHEL SERRES: One way to understand the differences between the two catastrophes, between Hiroshima in 1945 and the terrorism of today, is in terms of scale and quantification, and thus in terms of our entire relationship to knowledge. On the one hand, Hiroshima was a massive single event, and it was at the end of the first truly global war. It became symbolic of what we thought about science, specifically the advent of “big science,” large-scale initiatives like the Manhattan Project, research involving thousands of people, if not more, over the past century. Which is to say that science, for just about everyone, had been the bearer of progress, of civilization and humanity; but all of a sudden, we realized that science could produce a genuine catastrophe, like Hiroshima. It made the unthinkable precisely thinkable. And that was, for my generation, a very important rupture in the relationship to scientific research, and so we invented what we call today the “ethics of science.” In the end, World War II produced some sixty million deaths. That is a catalcysm that is so numerically great and so horrific that it exploded our entire comprehension of scale, of magnitude, and of the capabilities of science.

With regard to terrorism today, I was struck by recent reports concerning annual deaths and causes of death. They present a classification of worldwide catastrophes—for example, specific diseases, or viral outbreaks charted by the World Health Organization—and then events like car accidents, which are the cause of more than one million deaths per year and forty million injuries. And terrorism actually comes in last, with about fifteen thousand deaths. So today’s media obviously overevaluates the risks of terrorism, creating an industry of fear. We talk about it every day and constantly prepare ourselves for it, even though terrorism is much less widespread, in totality, than the press coverage suggests. Of course, that doesn’t discount the extreme violence around the world, the state of seemingly perpetual conflict in which we live and the terrible individual toll that takes, but the total magnitude is of a different order than that of the world war. Between Hiroshima and terrorism now, there is a difference both in quantity and in kind.

PG: There are also, as you’ve said, disasters that are not as spectacular, that may even be imperceptible, but are more long-range. And they are perceived as natural but could also be linked to human acts or error.

MS: Well, yes. Now we must confront climate change, accidents, the extinction of species, the destruction of the entire environment. And that’s a catastrophe that we rarely perceive day-to-day, or perceive largely in abstract terms, but that is of the magnitude of—and poses as many dilemmas as—Hiroshima.

PG: You have long stressed the theme of return, the almost inevitable presence of archaism, in the technological realm. We see this emphasis when you argue for the real connections between Lucretius and contemporary physics, but also when you invoke the metaphor of the car: A car is an object that seems to be new, but that in fact is an assemblage of different technologies produced in vastly different times—the prehistoric wheel, the midcentury automatic transmission, the GPS. Yet this notion that the present is permeated by the past is different from the idea that history is a cycle, that there is nothing really new under the sun. It seems important to grasp this distinction.

MS: Indeed, there’s an extraordinary, unprecedented difference between the recent past and the contemporary age. Now, I think we’re actually in a period of peace that’s also one of decisive transformation. For example, in the US, at the beginning of the twentieth century, about half the population were farmers. Today, only 1 percent are farmers. And when I was born, in 1930, there were just over two billion people in the world. Today, there are seven billion. So in my own lifetime—over the course of one human life—the world’s population has multiplied by nearly four. Life expectancy dramatically increased almost everywhere. What’s more, as part of these entirely new developments, there are of course radically new technologies. As a result, the difference between the time of my childhood and today is probably as pronounced as the one that separated the Middle Ages and the quattrocento.

PG: But do you find that even now, there is a return of ritual, of myth, of atavistic violence? What do you mean by archaism in terms of technology? The clearest example of that, probably, is the Holocaust, which has been understood both as the epitome of modernity and as an eruption of something primal—of barbarism, as Walter Benjamin famously argued. And fascism literally paraded its technological modernity via reference to past glories and an almost cultish devotion to the racial purity of the Volk.

MS: What I call archaism today would instead be the spectacle of terror, of guns, of killing machines. That’s our archaism: We only talk about terror and pity. It’s the archaism of human sacrifice, quite simply, of Abraham. Yet Western nations have not been at war with each other for seventy years, which has not happened in millennia, since the Trojan War. That is only the Pax Americana of the West, of course, but it is still a remarkable span of time. We’ve been at peace for seventy years, and we only talk about catastrophes.

PG: One of your most famous, and controversial, moves was in fact to draw a comparison between modern technological accidents and archaic sacrifice. You compare the Challenger space shuttle explosion to the ancient ritual of Baal: The Carthaginians would sacrifice children and animals by placing them in an enormous statue of the god Baal and burning them alive—an act that is uncannily paralleled in the Challenger disaster, in the tremendous cost of engineering and building these vessels, the ceremonial event, the witnessing crowds, the terrifying symbolic power. And the denial entailed in sacred violence is paralleled in modern technological accidents, which we know will occur because they are statistically inevitable.

But you’re as much a scientist as a philosopher of the sciences. Do you think that the sciences are prepared to study and potentially solve these perpetual disasters, or is it, in fact, the sciences that are condemned to perpetuate or even cause these crises, whether climate change or technological failure?

MS: Well, on the one hand, science is the reason for our greater life expectancy. And what’s destroying the climate, for instance, is not necessarily science: It’s also the economy, industry, business, and finance. It was in fact scientists who first sounded the alarm about the problem of the environment and ecological destruction, who first warned us, “Watch out, we’re in danger,” you see. It was the scientists who threw that situation into relief.

PG: Yes, of course, the problem is not necessarily exclusive to the sciences. . . . It’s a question that exceeds scientific thought.

MS: This is exactly what I argue in Biogée [Biogea, 2012]. The book is a call to listen to what is said both by living beings and the planet. It means letting the planet speak.

PG: The fundamental question posed in Biogée is: What is the role of nature today? What should it be? It’s different from the natural law of the Enlightenment, from the law of progress. Is the role of nature for you now different even from its theorization in your early writings (such as La Naissance de la physique [The Birth of Physics, 1977])?

MS: Well, in Le Contrat naturel [The Natural Contract, 1990], I argued that it was necessary to have a contract with nature, and that nature had to be considered as a subject of law. I was criticized heavily at the time because I was entertaining the idea that nature could be subject to law. But in Biogée, I am even more adamant. I say that not only can nature be considered a subject of law, but it should be considered a subject, period; that is to say, it is full of information and we must listen to it. As a result, in many of the texts in Biogée, I aim to let the earth speak; I let the wind speak, I let the ocean speak, I let living beings speak. As if Biogée was listening to what nature tells us. And this has nothing to do with nature in the eighteenth-century sense, which was a kind of decor, if you will, for human life. Rousseau, and in fact everyone who talks about nature in the eighteenth century, posits a version of a contract with nature as a master-slave relation. Whereas now, quite the opposite: It’s a partner, you see? It’s not decor, it’s a partner. It’s not an environment, it’s something that resembles us.

PG: I agree that Rousseau’s conception of nature is wholly different from yours, but when you talk about communicating with nature like a person, in fact it sounds to me like nineteenth-century Romanticism, which was in a certain way about animating nature like a person.

MS: Well, that’s archaism right there. But unlike the Romantics, many classical philosophers troubled normal ideas about matter and agency. For example, when [Gottfried Wilhelm] Leibniz speaks about monadology, he says that monads—which for him constitute the atomic elements or building blocks of the universe—perceive, that they have perception. In turn, take the notion of information today: Every scientist agrees that a living being, whether it’s a worm or even a monocellular organism or bacteria, receives information, emits information, stores information, and processes information. What do we do with information? We perform those four operations, like those entities: We receive information, we emit information, we process information, and we store information. As a result, there is something that completely unifies us with the inorganic elements of nature, which Romanticism did not see at all, because Romanticism, of course, was not advanced enough from a scientific point of view to understand the notion of information.

PG: Do you think, in fact, that nature and information are not opposed? In other words, it’s not the organic versus the synthetic, nature against technology or discourse?

MS: In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, objects of nature or nonhuman living beings were considered to be objects. We alone, we humans, were subjects, and the rest of nature consisted of objects. I am trying to change this subject/object relationship and give nature the dignity of a subject—which changes the definition of subjectivity itself. To see nature not only as a subject of law but as a subject that processes information. And there is progress there, in relation to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century notions of nature, a progress that both militated against and was due to advances in the sciences. Science is what allows us to understand in a profound way what I called the new animism, or a new kind of materialism.

PG: But is there a danger in this new animism, a return of the repressed? A return of institutions that are very, very conservative and traditional? In other words, this is what resembles nineteenth-century Romanticism, no? A return to the origin, a return to foundations, that is ahistorical? Indeed, this would seem to be the complete opposite of the atomist materialism that you have put forth elsewhere—the nonlinear, resolutely nonanthropomorphic, contingent universe that Lucretius described. Is the idea of a new animism not a denial of materiality in favor of a kind of stealth anthropomorphism? In which objects are ultimately just treated like subjects (unlike, for example, in Bruno Latour’s notion of the absolute symmetry, the absolute parity, of subjects and objects)? And is there a danger of this contradiction in the current environmental movement?

MS: That’s very hard to answer for the following reason: The so-called political movements of environmentalism, for example, use the word ecology, but ecology has two meanings. First, it’s the name for a very complex set of sciences, which were invented in Madison, Wisconsin, and in Montpellier, France, at the same time, at the end of the nineteenth century. The ecological sciences require great competence. But then there are the ecological movements, which are maintained by people who are rarely competent in that science. So there are two meanings to the word, the scientific meaning and the lay one. There is often a serious gap between what the scientists of ecology say and what the political movements do. And therein lies the difficulty of our current world.

PG: So, for example, the movement to protect agriculture and organic farming in the US and in Europe often becomes a kind of protectionism that preserves the current state of industrialized agriculture without thinking about its long-term consequences, other than perhaps future profits.

MS: Exactly.

PG: And that gap between what is said and done—the bifurcation of language, of practical discourse and philosophical or scientific terms, is a central topic in Biogée. So I wondered about the style of the book. You’re well known for a specific and special way of writing. But when I read certain passages, they very much reminded me of Gaston Bachelard’s writing, especially his work on the natural elements. You have pioneered our modern understanding of Bachelard, in fact, and I want to ask how, precisely, you see your work in relation to his theorization of the elements, which proposes a more dynamic relationship of human beings to the material world.

MS: We don’t talk about the elements in the same way. What’s remarkable in Bachelard is a very strong rupture between scientific thought, on the one hand, and poetic thought, on the other. Consequently, I’ve worked my entire life to remove that rupture, to show that one single voice can speak about the elements both scientifically and poetically. In Le Tiers-instruit [The Instructed Third, 1991], I didn’t want to separate scientific minds from literary minds, the “hard” sciences from the social, but to bring them together. My idea was reunion, not separation.

PG: For Bachelard, the poetic is that which is not science. . . . The rupture with the sciences was complete. In fact, you could say that the strengths and weaknesses of his work depend on the absolute nature of this rupture or epistemic break. For Bachelard, literature safeguards the sensuous, interdependent synergy between subject and object that modern science has rendered inert. He did not see, as you do, any possibility of reconciliation between the sciences and the humanities. But your work seems to posit a new episteme, no? Does it have any relation to what has been called the posthuman?

MS: Listen: All that “post-” vocabulary always made me laugh, because the postmodernists think that postmodernism is the end of great narratives. And to make fun of them, I have continually taken pains to explain just what the great narrative is: At the very moment when postmodern philosophers thought that there weren’t any more great narratives, science set out, on the contrary, to build the greatest narrative that had ever existed. It begins with the Big Bang, 15 billion years ago, and proceeds to chronicle the formation of the earth, 4 billion years ago, the beginning of life, 3.8 billion years ago, the evolution of life, and, finally, prehistory and history. In other words, today we have an enormous narrative at our disposal that is also extremely precise from the point of view of scientific reason. So today we are not at the end of the great narrative but, on the contrary, at the beginning of it. Our forefathers did not have that kind of narrative in mind, that kind of temporality. As a result, well, with regard to the “post-something” vocabulary, I still have to laugh. Voilà.

PG: Still, what you’re saying reminds me of the last chapter of Foucault’s Les Mots et les choses [The Order of Things, 1966], in which he talks about the death of man, but it hasn’t happened yet, so we’re waiting for that in order to have a new era. It’s a big question, but I’m going to ask it anyway: Do you think Biogée gives an idea of what happens after the death of man?

MS: Well, what dies in the era of Foucault is humanism. Humanism, which is founded on the vision of the world in which man is exceptional and in which man is the only one in nature. But the great narrative that I just described shows that we have to build a new humanism, one in which man is the equal partner of all living beings and all things on the planet, in the universe. That’s the goal of my work: to construct a new humanism. The former humanism is dead; like Narcissus, it was enthralled with its own reflection—it believed that man was exceptional, a singularity in the universe. By the same token, antihumanism seems to throw the baby out with the bathwater. But no, our destiny is a common destiny, shared with all our living and nonliving partners on Earth. That’s the new humanism. And Biogée tries to begin to build it.

Translated from French by Molly Stevens.