Reading Notes & Quotes: Introduction to Michel Serres' HERMES

I have found myself drawn more and more to Michel Serres. It is quite exciting to engage with his philosophy for its own merit, but because he is just now truly coming into his own in the English-speaking world (little by little his writings are being translated from French). What follows are my notes/highlights from the introduction to the English translation of Hermes.

Hermes: Literature, Science, Philosophy
by Michel Serres
Edited by Josue V. Harari and David F. Bell
Johns Hopkins University Press
Baltimore & London

Introduction: Journal a plusiers voies
by the editors

pp. xvi-xvii
But legislation signifies closure - law, order, stability, closure. And Serres asks, “In whose interest is it to lay down a law of history if not in the interest of whomever wishes to stop time? Of Course it is in the best interests of whoever pursues power in economics, politics, or philosophy to close of genius … The law is a theft.” [Hermes IV: La Distribution (Paris: Minuit, 1977), p. 37]

p. xix
There is no hierarchy of cultural formations. “It is not, it has never been the case that science is on one side and myth on the other. In a given myth, millennial tradition, or barbarous thought, the proportion of relevant science is probably as great as the proportion of mythology that envelops any given science.” [Feux et signaux de brume, p. 18]

p. xxi
Serres offers a second explanation when he suggests that since the Odyssey, our imagination has been subjected, whether we like it or not, to the archaic laws of myth. “The sacred mythic and religious words are spoken at the same time and in the same breath as those of science and of journeys … Verne represents the resurgence volens nolens … of a fantastic flow of myths.” [Jouvences, p. 16-17] Here the combination of positivist and mythical material provides Serres with another opportunity to illustrate his favorite thesis: myth informs science, it comes before and leads into scientific knowledge. In Verne’s case, myth serves as the framework of the history of the positivist sciences. However, the realization that myth is at the origin of scientific advances aad can be inextricably tied up with science is used by Serres to undermine the main positivist axiom describing scientific knowledge as a progress toward a greater truth. Instead, Serres offers the view he had already sketched in his Leibniz, namely, that progress can only be conceived as a series of indefinitely differentiable local cycles. “For any given process there are regional evolutions, partial accelerations, temporary regressions, alterances, equilibriums, finite transformations. The notion [ of progress ] is plural or pluralistic …” [Le Systeme de Leibnez et ses modeles mathematiques, 2 vols. (Paris, P. U. F., 1968), 1:284.]

The third aspect of the Vernian journey is the most important. The experience of the traveler consisting of a series of movies in space produces a phenomenon of a new order, one by which geography overtakes knowledge: “Our geography invades the planet. This is the second voyage, the reappropriation through knowledge. Geography is nothing else, its birth is there, at the moment at which knowledge becomes universal, in spatial terms and not by virtue of any right.” [Jouvences, p. 12] Thus, space and knowledge are conceived and recounted in the same way. Space makes an inventory of the adventures of knowledge, omitting nothing; knowledge traces a cartography of known lands, omitting nothing. The minute filling in of terrestrial reaches and the exhaustive account of cycles of knowledge are one and the same operation and permit The Extraordinary Voyages to establish the difficult relationship between spatial or geographic model and the model of knowledge as encyclopedia. The (re)emergence of this language of paths, routes, movements, planes, and maps, this spatial language of the writing of the world (geo-graphy), marks the moment of passage toward a new epistemology.

“Science is the totality of the world’s legends. The world is the space of their inscription. To read and to journal are one and the same act.” [ibid., p. 14]

p. xxii
One must therefore conceive of a philosophy that would no longer be founded on the classifications and ordering of concepts and disciplines, but that would set out from an epistemology of journeys, forging new relations between man and the world: “The landscape contains pits, faults, folds, plains, valleys, wells, and chimneys, solids like the earth and fluids like the sea. The metaphor is geophysical here; it could be mathematical. In any case, the model is complex. Here and there, locally, I identify fractures or discontinuities, elsewhere, on the contrary, relations and bridges.” [La Naissance de la physique, p. 200]

pp. xxii-xxiii
All of the above displacements are isomorphic, since they all belong to pluralized spaces each constituted in a complex way and each related to the other according to a multiple set of relations. As a result, circulation both along and among those displacements cannot be conceived as a high road, but only as a multiplicity of paths. What counts in this space constituted of fragmented local spaces is less the circumscription of a region than the circulation along and among paths. And what holds for space in general holds for the space of knowledge as well. Here one encounters again the configuration of the encyclopedia, a space in which invention develops precisely according to the art of passage and circulation. [“Invention develops according to an ars interveniendi; intersection is heuristic, and progress is an intercrossing” (Hermes II, p. 13).] To know is thus to navigate between local fragments of space, to reject techniques of classification and separation in order to look for units of circulation along and among displacements. To know is to adopt the comparative and pluralistic epistemology of the journey, to implement a philosophy of transport over one of fixity in order to counter the dogmatism of unified and systematic knowledge.

The new space - spaces - of knowledge thus defined calls for a philosophy of communication that expresses at the same time the totality of the theoretical world of the encyclopedia and the totality of the world as it is: “Exchange as the law of the theoretical universe, the transport of concepts and their complexity, the intersection and overlapping of domains … represent, express, reproduce perhaps the very tissue in which objects, things themselves, are immersed - the all-encompassing and diabolically complex network of inter-information. Communication asserts itself once again at the end of a circuit that renews theory.” [Hermes, II, p. 15] In order to produce this complex network of communication, it is necessary to find everywhere and in all their variety the units of circulation that express the fields of our reality. The ultimate goal: to fulfill the conditions for the broadest possible communication.

p. xxv
In order to constitute the network of communication among these multiple beginnings (and domains of knowledge), one must establish corridors of communication across spaces and times, cultural formations and texts. … Correct transmission seems to require two contradictory conditions. On the one hand, it necessitates the presence of noise, since the meaning of a message takes shape only against a background noise. On the other hand, it requires the total exclusion of precisely what it needs to include, namely, background noise. Here is Serres’s elaborate solution to the dilemma:

“Such communication [ dialogue ] is a sort of game played by two interlocutors considered as united against the phenomena of interference and confusion, or against individuals with some stake in interrupting communication. These interlocutors are in no way opposed, as in the traditional conception of the dialectic game; on the contrary, they are on the same side, tied together by a mutual interest: they battle together against the noise … They exchange roles sufficiently often for us to view them as struggling together against a common enemy. To hold a dialogue is to suppose a third man and to seek to exclude him; a successful communication is the exclusion of the third man. The most profound dialectical problem is not the Other, who is only a variety - or a variation - of the Same, it is the problem of the third man.” (pp. 66-67)

Hence two wills to communicate presuppose a third will opposing them that must be eliminated. In order to decide the difference between message and noise, there must always be an alliance of two against one, the third man being responsible for both noise and successful communication. By his inclusion in the circuit, he blurs the message and renders it unintelligible; by his exclusion, he renders it intelligible and assures its transmission.

… Noise occurs between two positions in an informational circuit and disrupts messages exchanged between them (noise or static in information theory in English is translated as parasite in French). Thus the parasite first presents itself in a negative guise: it is viewed as a malfunction, an error, or a noise within a given system. Its appearance elicits a strategy of exclusion. Epistemologically, the system appears as primary, and the parasite as an unhappy addition that it would be best to expel. Such an approach, however, misses the fact that the parasite, like the demon and third man, is an integral part of the system. By experiencing a perturbation and subsequently integrating it, the system passess from a simple to a more complex stage. Thus, by virtue of its power to (p. xxvii) perturb, the parasite ultimately constitutes, like the clinamen and the demon, the condition of possibility of the system. In this way the parasite attests from within order the primacy of disorder; it produces by way of disorder a more complex order.

Order is not the law of things but their exception.

For Serres, to think the concept of disorder does not mean to establish a dialogue between two symmetrical ontologies but rather to rethink the relations between order and disorder in such a way as to show how everything begins, ends, and begins again according to a universal principle of disorder. Consequently, it is necessary to rethink the world not in terms of its laws and its regularities, but rather in terms of perturbations and turbulences, in order to bring out its multiple forms, uneven structures, and fluctuating organizations.* One must rethink the physical universe of the clinamen, the transformational universe of thermodynamics, and the informational universe of noise according to a founding disorder and its power to modify reality and to render it in all its complexity.

*Implicit in this conception of reality is a criticism of the problematic of representation. Serres conceives of it as an operation that reduces the multiplicity of reality to rational sequences and controllable consequences. The unitary space of representation is thus viewed as a geometry of violence: “Violence is one of the two or three tools that permit us to insert the local into the global, to force it to express the universal law, to make reality ultimately rational. In fact, as in geometry, what passes for a universal globality is only an inordinately distended [ local ] variety. Representation is nothing but this distension, swelling, or inflation. One can still say to those who are too violent: you are ignorant of, you are forgetting geometry” (Jouvences, p. 75)

“The parasite invents something new. It intercepts energy and pays for it with information. It intercepts roast beef and pays for it with stories. These would be two ways of writing the new contract. The parasite establishes an agreement that is unfair, at least in terms of previous accounting methods; it constructs a new balance sheet. It expresses a logic that was considered irrational until now, it expresses a new epistemology, another theory of equilibrium.” [Le Parasite, p. 51]

p. xxx

The simple, the distinct, and the monosemic are no longer acceptable values of this discourse; they are replaced by concepts and logics of fuzziness, complexity, and polyvalence. True, science has been our culture for two thousand years, but it is a culture whose knowledge has perhaps reached its limits. Myth and fable, philosophy and literature go beyond these limits. Fables provide a more complete knowledge than geometry, philosophy a more fluctuating one than mathematics, and literature a more complex one than that of exact sciences. … There is no theoretical preamble to the demonstration. Theory is a worldly practice: abstract concepts and scientific notions are elicited directly from the adventures of the ladies’ man. Seducer, scientific observer, and learned reader of literature: Serres assumes his multiple identities as he works through a myriad of inter(re)ferences to create a culture, a history, and a memory.


Hermes and...

  • myth

  • philosophy

  • science

  • literature

  • The medium is the message

  • The medium is the “method”

p. xxxvi

(footnote 48)
In Serres’ work, method is found in the construction of models and in their applications and variations according to mathematical operations. Method is the illustration of a given type of knowledge through the set of results that the method can produce. But the term method itself is problematic because it suggest the notion of repetition and predictability - a method that anyone can apply. Method implies also mastery and closure, both of which are detrimental to invention. On the contrary, Serres’ method invents: it is thus an anti-method.


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