#98 = Volume 33, Part 1 = March
Michel Serres: Science, Fiction, and the Shape of Relation
In Eclaircissements: cinq entretiens avec Bruno Latour (1994, translated as Conversations on Science, Culture, and Time), Bruno Latour suggestively reaches out to a figure from science fiction in his attempt to describe the strangely undisciplined, interdisciplinary work of Michel Serres. Latour asks Serres, who has written on subjects as diverse as information theory, the physics of the Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius, fluid dynamics, contemporary ecological imperatives, and Emile Zola, “why in the space of one paragraph, do we find ourselves with the Romans then with Jules Verne then with Indo-Europeans, then, suddenly, launched with the Challenger rocket, before ending up on the bank of the Garonne river?” (Serres and Latour 43). Latour proposes that Serres proceeds through the use of a something like a conceptual “time machine” (79). After all, he seems resolutely indifferent to temporal distances, being able to suggest that Lucretius may be more our contemporary in his presentation of the world as a chaotic and turbulent swirl of atoms than Newton is in imagining the world as a percussive and concussive collection of billiard balls.1 It is easy to see what Latour means here, for Serres’s poetically resonant folding together of subjects, spaces, and times creates a map of new and unexplored shortcuts and pathways, wormholes that join together positions and moments that philosophy, history, science, and literature have traditionally held quite distinct. Serres, however, rejects Latour’s metaphor of the time machine, which he fears is infected with the idea of traveling backwards along the line of time. “[T]he words machine and backward in time bother me,” states Serres, for “set in motion on its railroad track, such a locomotive is the embodiment of linear time” (79).
Serres’s resistance to Latour’s proposition reveals a rather limited conception of the metaphorical possibilities offered by time travel, for he only sees within it suggestions of a conventional and even potentially tyrannical version of linear time. Perhaps the time machine reminds Serres of H.G. Wells’s 1895 novella, in which time travel projects the future of the world as an inverted Hegelian dialectic of historical progression that leads not to pure Spirit but to degeneration and the heat death of the Earth. Serres wants no part of such a vision of linear, historical temporality, which he reads as tainted with conflict and the violence of dialectical supersession. Serres presents himself instead as an irenic philosopher (a thinker of peace rather than war) who is able to bring together temporally distant elements and epochs through an understanding of time not as a line in which the past is necessarily excluded and overcome, but as a turbulent and chaotic system of “stopping points, ruptures, deep wells, chimneys of thunderous acceleration, rendings, gaps” (Serres and Latour 57). The time that interests Serres percolates—sometimes working through, sometimes working back—rather than passes (58).2 So Latour withdraws his metaphor. It is not Serres who travels through time, along its line; rather, the philosopher is simply attentive to the way in which things become unexpectedly close or distant within a temporality that is chaotic and turbulent, a time that is more meteorological in its movements than classically historicist.
It is perhaps no surprise, then, that the one author Serres who has written on that has a place within the canon of science fiction is Jules Verne rather than Wells (see Jouvences and “Jules Verne”). For Verne’s version of time travel in Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864) finds a past that has not yet been overcome, a past hidden within the center of the Earth that is accessible only by passing through the infinite complications of turbulent ice flows and a space that folds time—a volcanic shaft that links surface and center, present and past. But Serres writes that in the works of Verne, “there is only a technology of vehicles and communication,” only balloons, aerostats, submarines, steam engines, airplanes, railways, and “not one word of what commonly goes by the name of science fiction” (“Jules Verne” 175). Revealing again a rather limited conception of sf, he presumably means that there are no impossible technologies, no time machines. And Serres certainly works more to find suggestive symmetries among Verne, Greek myth, and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), than any connection with other scientific romances of the period. In fact, he displays a resistance to such “genre fiction,” revealing throughout his work a powerful preference for canonical authors: Zola, Molière, Balzac, La Fontaine, Rousseau, and Musil, among others. Serres’s relevance to sf studies clearly does not lie in his specific readings of texts, then. However, his insistence on mapping the passages between discourses and genres that would conventionally appear to be spatially and temporally distinct, alongside his creation of a method that reveals the productive hybridity of disciplines, suggests that there could nevertheless be linkages and relationships between his theories and science fiction that Serres himself has not explored.
Hermes: Science and Literature. Despite a seeming suspicion of science fiction as a category, Serres’s work of the 1960s and 1970s persistently demonstrates an explicit interest in the passage between science and fiction. He complains to Latour that when he started writing, “the bifurcated relationship between science and literature was so frozen, so distant, that two eternities seemed to be looking at each other like two porcelain dogs—like two stone lions flanking a doorway” (Serres and Latour 47). His work explicitly opposes such ossified disciplinary purity, seeking out what he finds to be always already there in diverse philosophical, scientific and literary texts—a complex, twisted, and enfolded passage between the science and the humanities. One of Serres’s maxims is that “[t]here is no pure myth except the idea of a science that is pure of all myth” (Serres and Latour 162), and his monumental five-volume series Hermès, published between 1968 and 1980, works to demonstrate that science should not be regarded as offering an objective or unmediated view of the world; rather, it is a cultural formation that has its history and complex place amongst other discourses.3 In a mode that is now recognizable to us via Foucauldian historicism and the cultural history that has become so influential in the humanities and social sciences during the 1980s and 1990s, Serres insists, contrary to the institutional disciplinary separations and the increasing specializations of the period, on the development of scientific, literary, and philosophical world-views that are imbricated with one another in complex and suggestive ways.
Hermès IV: La distribution (1977), for example, explores the nineteenth-century rejection of Cartesian machines in favor of models of motors and the laws of thermodynamics. “As soon as one can build … steam or combustion engines, chemical, electrical, and turbine engines, and so forth,” writes Serres, “the notion of time changes. The second law of thermodynamics accounts for the impossibility of perpetual motion.… [E]nergy dissipates and entropy increases” (Hermes 71). But the notion of the “heat death” of the universe and the inevitable cessation of all work, all change, which is found in scientific tracts from the 1840s onwards, is not restricted to a single discipline; instead, works from Marx to Freud, Zola to Turner, Nietzsche to Bergson, are connected by the same models and metaphors, both reflecting and in some cases anticipating the production of seemingly “objective” scientific knowledges through a complex series of significantly non-linear relationships. In Hermès IV, Serres writes that he discovered during his writing of Feux et signaux de brume: Zola (1975) that the history of science “offers less interest as an object or domain than as a set of operators, a method or strategy of working on formations different from itself” (Hermes 39). He reads Zola’s texts as structured according to the scientific models of genetics with which the author was familiar. More significantly, though, Serres suggests that the horrors of heredity, the playing out of genetic flaws that structure and scar Zola’s Rougon-Macquart novels, actually anticipate the discovery of thermodynamic models of the world. As Harari and Bell point out in their excellent introduction to the English translation of Hermès, the imperatives of sex and death, heat and cold, that circulate through the structural genetics of these novels create a “genetic treatise that is itself the materialization of a cosmology of heat—a steam engine” (Harari and Bell xviii). Serres can thus write that the “steam engine [that] circulates therein among the hereditary flaws and murders” of Zola’s novels and the “thermodynamic grill” that stretches across these texts, reveal much more of the cultural formation of the nineteenth century than a neat and hermetically sealed history of the novel or an equally distinct history of science (Hermes 39-40). As soon as attention is paid to the unexplored passage between the apparently discrete discourses of science and fiction, it becomes clear that the space of the relationship is more complex than simply connective. Because Zola’s texts are necessarily born in a space of communication between multiple domains, there are other, seemingly more logically distant “sets of operators” that inform the texts.
Serres rather unexpectedly reads Zola’s explorations of literary naturalism, his scientific exploration of genetics and anticipation of thermodynamics, as bisected by the structures and imperatives of myth. In Zola, he asserts that mythic discourse is “une entreprise de tissage” [a process of weaving], whereby, as Andrew Gibson puts it, “connections are established between places and spaces that are remote or isolated or inaccessible from, closed to, dangerous, even deadly to each other” (90). Strangely, then, Zola’s Paris can be read as having a mythic geography, because it is populated by characters circulating, according to the engines of their genetic instincts, through and between spaces that initially seem as heterogeneous and distinct from one another as the island spaces of Homer’s Odyssey. In Hermès IV, Serres describes how these isolated spaces in Zola’s texts are woven together, connected and disconnected, by bridges, wells, labyrinths—“spatial operators”—that are topologically analogous to the topographical shapes of Greek myth (Hermes 42-43).
Topology, which holds a fascination for Serres throughout his work, is concerned with “the properties of figures and surfaces which are independent of size and shape …; hence, with those abstract spaces that are invariant under homeomorphic translation” (“Topology” 2081). As Steven Connor puts it, topology is a mathematics of surfaces that involves “actions of stretching, squeezing, or folding, but not tearing or breaking” shapes (“Topologies” 106). Topologically speaking, then, a teacup and a doughnut are isomorphically identical: teacup and doughnut can be stretched, squashed, or shaped into one another without piercing the surface of the form. One significant aspect of topology for Serres is the fact that points that seem metrically distant from one another (say, the bottom of the teacup to the outer rim of the handle), can be shown to be adjacent to one another under isomorphic translation. Where both Euclidean and non-Euclidean metrical geometry is concerned with measurement and with “the science of stable and well-defined distances,” topology is “the science of nearness and rifts” (Serres and Latour 60), of continuity and contiguity. For topology is concerned with demonstrating how the spatial relations of measurement are subject to unpredictable shifts, as what appears at one moment to be the inside of the form can be warped into its outside under topological analysis. For Serres, Zola’s texts are traversed by spaces that, once understood topologically, reveal unexpected passages, links, or similarities between realms that would usually remain socially distinct. Alongside the thermodynamic motor of drive and decay, the figures and structures that are folded into Zola’s scientific discourse and his literary naturalism can be understood as working in isomorphically identical ways to the chimerical spatiality of Greek myth.
Borrowing equally from structuralism and historicism,4 Serres reads Zola so that “the text turns inside out like a glove and shows its function” (Hermes 47). The “spatial operators” at work in the texts produce an unexpected mythic geography within the scientific discourse of naturalism and the tragedies of social transgression that attend it, unfolding ways of reading that reconfigure character, language, and theme into new relationships with one another. So Serres can argue that within both myth and this nineteenth-century literary discourse, “connection and non-connection are at stake, space is at stake, an itinerary is at stake. And thus the essential thing is no longer this particular figure, this particular symbol, or this particular artifact; the formal invariant is something like a transport, a wandering, a journey across separated spatial varieties” (43). For Serres, this “transport” is “the elementary program of topology” (44). At this historical moment, as conventional accounts have it, the modern discourses of naturalism and rationality triumph over mythical accounts of the world: “Euclidean space … repress[es] a barbarous topology” and “transport and displacement without obstacles” takes the place of “the ancient journey from islands to catastrophes, from passage to fault, from bridge to well, from relay to labyrinth” (52; emphasis in original). Spaces are separable, ordered, disciplined. But Serres describes how mathematics returns to its origins within this same historical moment. Just as mythic journeys appear within the discourse of literary naturalism, topology emerges as a science in the work of Johann Listing and James Clerk Maxwell. So at the very moment when we appear to have “an aged Europe asleep beneath the mantle of reason and measure, mythology reappears as an authentic discourse” (53) within the nineteenth century.
Of course, for an Anglophone readership, this warping of the topography between inside and outside, this creation of unexpected passages between realms that ought, conventionally, to remain discrete, is more reminiscent of a rather different genre of writing from the latter half of the nineteenth century. Although Serres makes no mention of it, the fin-de-siècle Gothic, which holds a central place within the conditions of emergence of science fiction, shares and represents in even more sensational terms Zola’s fascination with the depravity and degeneration perceived to be at work within the labyrinthine modern city. Like Zola’s “steam engine” of literary naturalism, the evolutionary paradigm, degeneration anxiety, and discourse of scientific naturalism that all subtend a text like Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886), reveal it to be one of many nineteenth century “fictions of science, even if it is not useful to call them science fiction” (Luckhurst 23). And following Serres’s reading of Zola, the illegitimate enfolding of diverse temporalities and spatialities within the Gothic, in which the threateningly archaic returns to menace the present and the borders and boundaries of both psychical and geographical space are subjected to unpredictable metamorphoses, might similarly be understood in topological terms.
The description of the house in which Jekyll and Hyde reside seems to resist the stable measurements that conventional geometry might wish to impose on it. Entered from the front, the house appears to be one of “great wealth and comfort”; it is warm, homely, “after the fashion of a country house” and thus far from the cold alienation of urban space (18). Jekyll’s residence is set within the geometrical, gridded certainty of Cartesian space—“a square of ancient, handsome houses” (17)—and remains reassuringly intact and coherent, despite the fact that most of its neighboring dwellings have been separated and “let in flats and chambers to all sorts and conditions of men” (17-18). But the laboratory through which Hyde makes his entrances and exits is, by contrast, the most unheimlich of spaces. Approached through a dim bystreet, this windowless and “sinister block of a building,” which bears “the marks of prolonged and sordid negligence” (8), “seems scarcely a house” (11) at all. It is indeed a space that will not yield itself to measurement, “for the buildings are so packed together about that court … it’s hard to say where one ends and the other begins” (11). In the mythical space of the city as labyrinth, the house and laboratory are connected through a rift or fault line in rational space, just as the architecture of the psyche, in which conscious and unconscious are supposed to remain relatively distinct, is warped into the Gothic monstrosity of Jekyll/Hyde. Topology also makes sense of the instability of outside and inside that haunts the scene. Jekyll, who is all outward respectability and the exteriority of socially sanctioned behavior, resides within descriptions of cozy interiority—of hearths, furniture and domestic servants—while Hyde, who is nothing but the interiority of libidinal forces, is only ever explicitly connected to the description of the laboratory as an unreadable blank of exterior surface that has no windows and a door that admits only him. In topological terms, Jekyll and Hyde could be thought of as a toroid (a doughnut shape). In place of the relative lack of complexity of a sphere or cube in which all visible surfaces are reassuringly exterior, the hole that rends the book into a textual toroid produces a shape in which inside and outside are disturbingly continuous.
Science fiction’s use of Gothic tropes is well-documented, as future is anxiously enfolded into the concerns of the present, or the integrity and proper limits of the human body are subjected to more or less violent reconfigurations. Indeed, the codification of temporal and spatial instability within this genre allows the cyberpunk fictions of the late 1980s and 1990s to be read as part of what might be thought of as a second wave of fin-de-siècle Gothic. Dani Cavallaro notes a connection between the tropes of cyberpunk and Gothic architecture, in which the past is recuperated and the meaning of its style reconfigured by its eruption into the present (176). Borrowing more of its visual language from cyberpunk than from Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968), Ridley Scott’s 1982 film Blade Runner certainly explores a Gothic Los Angeles, full of crumbling edifices of the past, half-abandoned and hollowed-out buildings—the dark, uncanny interior spaces of memory and mourning. Cavallaro argues, however, that within cyberpunk the Gothic also becomes the favored style for describing the results of the interface between humans and technology. William Gibson’s famous and founding definition of cyberspace as “[u]nthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the non-space of the mind, clusters and constellations of data, like city lights receding” (Neuromancer 67), renders it a “foundationless space” of “limitless surfaces” (Cavallaro 175)—a space closely associated with Gothic affect and the terror of the ungraspable sublime. Drawing upon distinctions elaborated by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Cavallaro argues that Gothic space is a “smooth space … denot[ing] fluidity, boundlessness and the collapse of rationalizing grids” that can be contrasted with “striated space, the symbol of order, classification and categorization” (177; emphasis in original). Cyberpunk, by this analysis, incorporates Gothic disorder into the spatial rationalism of traditional sf.
Cavallaro does not note, however, that Gibson works with two geometrically and politically opposed representations of cyberspace in his texts. As Nick Bingham points out, the version of cyberspace that appears at the beginning of the 1995 film of Johnny Mnemonic (for which Gibson wrote the screenplay) is “a gridded, Euclidean world, stretching uniformly and endlessly in all directions: a geo-metric totality” (248). In “Burning Chrome” (1982), the corporate cyberspace visible to “legitimate operators” is similarly represented as a “3-D chessboard, infinite and perfectly transparent” (195). Later, it is envisaged as “bright geometries representing the corporate data.… Towers and fields of it in the colorless nonspace of the simulation matrix” (197). Here, the sublime is invoked through scale and the power of function. But despite corporations’ wish to control the infinite network of data by modulating it into rational, totalizable forms and localities, the cowboy heroes of Gibson’s texts are able to hack into these predetermined networks and pathways. The cyberpunk achieves a technologized version of the Situationist dérive by rerouting corporate space and exploiting the topological peculiarities of the complex but continuous surface of the network. The cyberspace to be found in the second half of Johnny Mnemonic, which is entered using stolen hardware and hacking skills, is thus very different from the previous version of gridded totality. It takes on the appearance of an infinitely malleable surface that can be unfolded and molded at will, as Johnny’s hands, wired into a VR interface, work to uncover and unfold the pockets of data and information that exist in its unlocalizable space.
The network of cyberspace thus belies its corporate representation as totalizable, stable within the realm of Euclidean geometry. For cyberspace is not the agglomeration of discrete parts that could submit to being mapped from the outside or from above. Even Johnny’s body, seemingly fixed in the Euclidean space of the “real” (connected to hardware and moving little more than a few feet over a suggestively gridded board), is actually enfolded within an infinitely complex information interface that enables Beijing and Newark momentarily to touch one another. Just as Gibson’s conception of the technologically enhanced body in “Burning Chrome” similarly blurs the boundaries between flesh and machine (“leads [are] clipped to the hard carbon studs that stick out of my stump” ) by turning embodiment into a network of technical relations, the matrix itself assumes a symbiotic and dispersed corporeality to be imagined as an “extended electronic nervous system” (197). As Jack implies, cyberspace, with its links to the embodied user, is a network that always has the possibility of reshaping itself or undergoing homeomorphic translation: the “matrix folds itself around me like an origami trick” (216), states Jack, as he finally bends and scores Chrome’s corporate space beyond recognition. Following one of Serres’s favorite theses that myth informs, enriches, and even subtends the discourse of science, the cyberspace of the console cowboy can thus be read as another mythic space—a space of journeys, displacements, translations, and transformations—that cannot be reduced to the totalizable or striated shapes of Euclidean geometry.5 It would also be important to note that the scientific modeling of communications networks, and of cyberspace in particular, has taken its figures and tropes—sublime “[u]nthinkable complexity” and the topological peculiarity of a space that is both global and local—from the discourse of both Gibson’s science fiction and, more fundamentally, the language of myth.6
Topology states that some geometric problems are not dependent on the precise shape of the objects involved; what is significant is how these shapes are connected together. The fundamental mathematical purpose behind topology is that by concentrating on the configuration of passages and connections rather than static points in space, it is possible to see structural similarities between problems that seem, at first glance, to have little relationship with one another. Once the invariant qualities of the problem have been identified, it is possible to work with a geometric problem that may have proved unsolvable in one particular form, within the potentially more welcoming environment of the other. Serres’s work is, of course, similarly obsessed with such homeomorphic translations between seemingly radically distinct discursive environments. Reading topological complexity does not simply enable Serres to draw new maps of the stable terrain of literature, philosophy, myth, and science; instead, just as the teacup needs to be worked in order for its points to resemble the doughnut in metrical space, so Serres’s philosophy stretches and explores the spaces of and passages between epistemologies that are usually kept distinct from one another.
In the first phase of Serres’s work, it is therefore no surprise that the tutelary house-god of this project is the cunning and ingenious Hermes, the protector of boundaries whose statue is placed at crossroads. Hermes—god of commerce and theft and founder of alchemy (hermeticism), among other sciences—is the demiurge of plural spaces, guiding travelers along and between uncertain topographies and standing, as Latour has it, for “mediation, translations, multiplicity” (Serres and Latour 1). The final volume of the Hermès sequence published in 1980 is thus subtitled Le Passage du nord-ouest (The Northwest Passage) because it tells of the difficult journey between disciplines whose itinerary is not predicted from the outset and whose map is the process of the passage. The space between disciplines through which Hermes passes is the realm of ice flows, jagged shores, and the randomly scattered islands. This journey through the northwest passage is thus a randonnée, what Harari and Bell describe as “an expedition filled with random discoveries that exploits the varieties of spaces and times” (xxxvi). For the space in between disciplines is seen by Serres as still very much underexplored and far more complicated than the idea of an “interface” between two stable concepts would suggest. “It’s more fractal than truly simple,” Serres tells Latour; it is “less a juncture under control than an adventure to be had. This is an area strangely void of explorers” (Serres and Latour 70).
Bruno Latour asserts that Serres’s topologically complex philosophy is fundamentally amodern: it does not accept the distinction between the orders of things that divide the natural from the cultural or social, and that is the legacy of what it means to consider oneself modern. In such “modern” terms, it seems nothing other than madness for Serres to assert in Statues (1989) that the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986 and the incineration of human sacrifices within a brass statue dedicated to Baal in Carthage strangely resemble one another. It seems like science read as a most peculiar kind of mythological fiction.7 For, as Latour puts is, we moderns can only see the Challenger as a technical object, while religious sacrifice is a social phenomenon: “to be modern is precisely to accept that Challenger has nothing to do with Baal, because the Carthaginians were religious and we no longer are.… [T]he revolutions that have made us modern have in fact made these past states incommensurable” (Serres and Latour 138-39). In topological terms, though, they may be linked by structural resemblances and connectivities. To see the relationship between Challenger (the technological object of modern science) and Carthaginian sacrifice (the social object of a mythological and religious world-view) is to see how our scientific tools, technologies, and objects are implicated within those atavistic, libidinal, irrational, and transcendental impulses that have persistently appeared within cultural formations as the Gothic underside of a positivism that draws its strength from the Enlightenment project. Of course, science fiction has always worked precisely to explore the cultural effects and affects of projected scientific advancement. Sf has continually read the rational space of modern science as implicated within the disruptive, irrational (in terms of Euclidean geometry), and often uncanny spatialities that are figured by the human hopes and fears that attend its journeys, translations, and transformations. Serre’s work offers science fiction studies a theoretical language for mapping the contours and bifurcations of the passage between science and fiction; it also offers a language for creating and exploring the topologically complex cognitive and imaginative spaces within which such connections might be projected.
Noise and Sense. There is perhaps a familiar flavor to some of the ideas that Serres presents here. The fetishes that injected such frissons into the discourses of postmodern theorizations of culture in the 1980s and 1990s all seem to be there: multiplicity, liminal spaces, hybrid knowledges, chaos, the plurality of meaning, incommensurability, and the revelation of the discursive qualities of seemingly objective disciplines such as history and science. Serres worked with Foucault in the 1960s, and Hermes I includes specific engagements with his work; Serres is referenced in The Archaeology of Knowledge (1969), Deleuze’s The Fold (1988), Deleuze and Guattari’s Capitalism and Schizophrenia (1972), and Derrida’s Given Time: Counterfeit Money (1991, see Berressem 52). It is clear, then, that he can hardly be thought of as being excluded from the climate of “French Theory” that dominated the Anglo-American academy and the metalanguage of postmodern literary studies in the 80s and 1990s. Nevertheless, while sympathetic to the work of Foucault and Deleuze (see Serres and Latour 38-39), Serres’s work, particularly from the 1980s, demonstrates an implicit critique of those theorists of postmodernity whose interest lies primarily in reading the exchange of signs. It is thus perhaps this theoretical interest in “narratives,” and its sometime refusal to grant the particularity and quiddity of things behind the circulation of signs, to which Serres’s work can be most productively opposed. Indeed, Jean Baudrillard’s lamenting acceptance of a technologized world of rapidly exchanging signs and simulacra might be taken as representative of what Serres finds to be the materially impoverished philosophies of language dominant within the period. He worries that “language replaces experience. The sign, so soft, substitutes itself for the thing, which is hard. I cannot think this substitution as an equivalence.… My book, Les cinq sens, cries out against the empire of signs” (Serres and Latour 132). In the work that follows the final volume of Hermès —Le parasite (1980; The Parasite), Genèse (1981; Genesis), and Les cinq sens (1985; The Five Senses)—Serres neither celebrates nor simply opposes the circulation of signs; instead, he pares back the philosophical obsession with language and discursive structures of the 1970s and 1980s to its most basic elements. That interest in language is reconfigured as an engagement with the very channels of communication itself—those prepositions that precede statements or postulates and that are the fundamental ground of language. For Serres, before language, before even the word, there was noise, a “background noise, which precedes all signals and is an obstacle to their perception” (Serres and Latour 78). This noise, against which previous philosophies have blocked their ears, is both the very possibility of language and its interference; it is the multiple sound of the universe that “the intense sound of language prevents us from hearing” (78).
Hermès was always interested in the transmission and unpredictable transformation of messages through topologically diverse spaces, but Serres extends the interest in information theory displayed in Hermès IV in the work that follows it. Information theory uses mathematics and probability to describe the relationship between intended information and white noise in the channels of communication between a sender and receiver. As Serres puts it: “[i]nformation theory follows directly from thermodynamics. It studies the transmission of messages, the speed of their propagation, their probability, their redundancy” (Hermès IV; qtd in Harari and Bell xxiv). Serres is not the only writer to suggest that the deep metaphor that structures thought in the twentieth century—from the unconscious to the computer to the genome—is that of the code; but Serres asserts that all creations of systematic order, all the biological transformations of life, every scientific system, are forms of coding that transmit information down diverse channels:
What is mathematics if not language that assures a perfect communication free of noise? What is experimentation in general if not an informational as well as an energetic evaluation of the laboratory? What is a living system if not an island of negentropy, an open and temporary vortex that emits and receives flows of energy and information? What is a language, a text, history itself with its traces and marks, if not objects of which the theory of information defines the functioning? (Hermès IV; qtd in Harari and Bell xxiv)
In order for these diverse systems of coding to speak to one another, the philosopher’s work must establish pathways of communication between this network of systems; it must also read communication itself as an enactment of the turbulent relationship between contingent pockets or figures of order and the swirling disorder that is its ground. In the later Genesis, Serres will write that “[n]oise is the basic element of the software of all our logic, or it is to the logos what matter used to be to form” (7). Communication only emerges from background noise, from signs differentiated from an infinite cacophony of other signs and from the static that will not admit to being read as a sign at all. In Hermès II: L’Interférence (1967), Serres also describes how communication between people, dialogue, is best thought of as “a game played by two interlocutors considered as united against the phenomena of interference and confusion” (Hermes 66). He suggests that these interlocutors are not dialectically opposed; rather, “they are on the same side, tied together by mutual interest: they battle against noise” (67). In fact:
To hold a dialogue is to presume 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 problem of the Other, who is only a variety—or a variation—of the Same, it is the problem of the third man. We might call this third man the demon, the prosopopeia of noise. (67; emphasis in original)
By 1980, this prosopopeia has another face: the excluded third, the demon, is called the parasite.
Serres chooses the figure of the parasite because the word bears a useful triple meaning in French: it is a biological organism that invades and lives off another; a sponger or guest who outstays his or her welcome, giving only conversation rather than material remuneration; and the term for noise or static in information theory. In biological, social, and communicative terms, the parasite is a “thermal exciter” (Parasite 190) that causes fever and inflammation, interrupting and incapacitating the functioning of a system through its noise. The parasite excites the system to the degree that a message sometimes cannot pass at all; nevertheless, it is also, significantly, the possibility of any communication. “[W]hite noise is the condition for passing (for meaning, sound, and even noise), and the noise is its prohibitor or interception.… Heat a little, I hear, I send, I pass; heat a little more, everything collapses” (194), writes Serres. The parasite, like the excluded third man in dialogue, is integral to the system from the start: its noise precedes and perturbs the system; but noise is also part of the production of the system—indeed, it forces the system to increase in its complexity. Given that he sees the action of the parasite within all information systems, Serres’s project is thus to demonstrate philosophically, as chaos theory, information theory, and fluid dynamics have done within their disciplines, that ordered systems are significant exceptions rather than the rule. As Harari and Bell put it, for Serres, “it is necessary to rethink the world not in terms of its laws and regularities, but rather in terms of perturbations and turbulences, in order to bring out its multiple forms, uneven structures, and fluctuating organizations” (xxvii).
Genesis, which Serres later said should have been called Noise (“an old French word that expresses clamor and furor” [Serres and Latour 74]), explores further this static—the sound, the ur-condition of the material universe—and its complex relationship with systems of contingent order. Still under the divine protection of Hermes, the philosophy of communications (in the broadest possible sense) that appears in Genesis is able to “conceive the message as order, meaning, or unit” but can also conceive “the background noise from which it emerges” (110). The figure of turbulence that resounds and repeats within the poetic and incantatory framework of Genesis is Serres’s way of paying attention to the multiplicity of the sensible world that philosophy and science reject in their quest for “a principle, as system, an integration … of elements, atoms, numbers” (2). Again, he repeats that the multiple, appearing as a complex interaction between undifferentiated noise and negentropic islands of transient order, is not to be thought of as out of the ordinary or as “an epistemological monster”; instead, it is “the ordinary lot of situations” (5). For Serres, “turbulence is a multiplicity of local unities and of pure multiplicities,” or, with greater complexity, “a chaotic multiplicity of orderly and unitary multiplicities and chaotic multiplicities” (110). And these turbulent systems, in which there are both ferment and quasi-static eddies, are to be found in many places. Turbulence is in the weather, in river flows, in a linguistic message, in twisting columns of smoke, in the pulsing of blood through the body, even in the order/disorder of individual corporeality itself, which is a “temporary turbulence,” a contingent and circumstantial linking together of smaller turbulences (110). Turbulence is thus widespread, but, crucially, it exists in multiple distributions rather than as a universal state.
The analysis of the flows and thrusts, the prepositions that link together these turbulent systems, become, perhaps unexpectedly, part of Serres’s project to construct “a decent philosophy of the object” (Genesis 91). Because the conventional object of modern thought “lies precisely outside of the relational circuits that determine society,” writes Serres, he attempts “to think a new object, multiple in space and mobile in time, unstable and fluctuating like a flame, relational” (91). By producing “reflections on the multiple” (91), Serres grants objects their rightful position within the construction of the world. Seemingly rejecting the phenomenological desire to see the thing in itself as it really is, Serres concentrates instead on the significance of what he calls “quasi-objects.” In Genesis, Serres uses the example of a ball to explain the figure of the quasi-object that appears in The Parasite and Rome: le livre des fondations (1983; Rome: The Book of Foundations). Although the ball has certain particular physical qualities, its significance lies in the fact that it is fundamentally a “relational object” (Genesis 87) rather than an object with its own distinct and separable being: “Around the ball, the team fluctuates quick as a flame, around it, through it, it keeps a nucleus of organization. The ball is the sun of the system and the force passing among its elements, it is a center that is off-centered, off-side, outstripped” (87-88). The kernel of the object itself has a limited significance, except that it forms a center of attraction; instead, it is within the relational network constellating around the ball that meaning is located. The ball is a quasi-object rather than an essential object, because when viewed as part of a network of communications and exchanges of information, it reveals itself to be “more of a contract than a thing” (88). The ball as a quasi-object thus not only reveals its own presence and interventions, it demonstrates that human subjectivities and collectives must also be viewed as part of a multiple interface with the non-human object world. As Serres goes on to write in Légende des anges (1993; Angels: A Modern Myth), “[l]iving things and inert things bounce off each other unceasingly; there would be no world without this interlinking web of relations, a billion times interwoven” (47).
Serres asserts the social importance of the quasi-object by explaining, in Genesis, that the crucial difference between human and animal societies is the emergence of objects. “Our relationships, social bonds, would be airy as clouds were there only contracts between subjects” (87), he muses. As “the luminous tracer of the social bond” (87), objects slow down the relationships between subjects and what would otherwise be their quickened and simplified reactions to the world. Human societies are fundamentally structured and stabilized according to exchanges within a network of objects that are invested with a cultural valency that transcends any simple use value. Any object invested with desire or fear traces a silent contract with the human. A good, simple example of what Serres means by the quasi-object might be the vestige of human civilization represented by the conch shell in Lord of the Flies. The object itself is valueless; as a quasi-object, though, it “stabilizes … relations” (87), it slows down instinctive interactions to create a contract that is “heavier and denser” (Serres and Latour 201), adding complexity to the system of human relations and even fundamentally working to construct a society that values the voice of each individual. As Serres goes on, rather radically, to put it in Angels, it is a mistake to imagine that the ball in a game is simply being manipulated by human subjects; rather, Serres’s peculiar empiricism leads him to assert that the ball itself “is creating the relationship between them [human subjects]. It is in following its trajectory that their team is created” (Angels 47-48). If the ball is a quasi-object, a “tracker of the relations in the fluctuating collectivity around it” that actually makes it the “true subject” of the game, the skilled player is also perhaps only a quasi-subject, in that he “knows that the ball plays with him or plays off him, in such a way that he gravitates around it and fluidly takes the position it takes, but especially the relations it spawns” (Serres and Latour 108). This newly reconfigured subject is no longer an individual, a modern subject; instead, s/he is held together by multiple cords, contracts, and channels of communication. S/he is a constellation of relations and becomings rather than a being. As Serres puts it in The Parasite, the quasi-object that constructs, positions, and shines a light upon the subject reveals that it is never simply and essentially itself (as nothing for Serres ever is):
The quasi-object that is a marker of a subject is an astonishing constructor of intersubjectivity. We know, through it, how and when we are subjects and when we are no longer subjects. “We”: what does we mean? We are precisely the fluctuating back and forth of the “I.” The “I” in the game is the token exchanged. And this passing, this network of passages, these vicariances of subjects weave the collection. (227)
During the 1980s, Serres’s peculiar empiricism attempts to free itself from the discourse of rational science and from what he, not always convincingly, finds to be the crushingly second order investigations of phenomenology and linguistic critique. Although Serres states that science seeks to assert its objectivity, its freedom from the complex cords of the quasi-object (Genesis 90), in Les cinq sens he demonstrates that sensory embodiment renders it impossible to stand in front of or outside the world, to free oneself from its entangled networks and the multiple spaces and times traced by the circulation of objects.8 As far back as Hermes IV, Serres writes that:
My body […] is not plunged into a single, specified space. It works in Euclidean space, but it only works there. It sees in projective space; it touches, caresses and feels in a topological space; it suffers in another; hears and communicates in a third.… My body lives in as many spaces as the society, the group or the collectivity have formed.… Consequently, my body is not plunged into one space but into the intersection or junctions of this multiplicity. (Hermes 44-45)
In Les cinq sens, however, Serres expands upon this philosophy of the body by stating that it does not simply inhabit multiple spaces; rather, it constructs its sense of itself through and in terms of a structural multiplicity. For Serres, bodies are always “corps mélês” (mingled bodies). Using the skin (which he says carries the message of Hermes) as merely one example, Serres reveals how “in the skin, through the skin, the world and body touch, defining their common border. Contingency means mutual touching: world and body meet and caress in the skin.… I mingle with the world which mingles itself in me. The skin intervenes in the things of the world and brings about their mingling” (qtd in Connor, “Michel Serres’s Les Cinq Sens” 157). As Connor suggests, knowledge is no longer a process of unveiling the world (157); rather, knowledge arrives both from being thrust into the midst of things, from being implicated in a world of relationships with objects and others that brings diverse local spatialities together, and from also understanding oneself as a similarly imbricated and implicated bundle of multiple relations.
Strangely, for a thinker who so relishes being derided as a poet and whose philosophical method relies so heavily on metaphor to give a rapid contiguity to what would normally remain spatially distinct, Serres uses the embodied philosophy of Les cinq sens tocry out against language and “the empire of signs” that informed the Western intellectual and social dominant of the 1980s. Part of this refusal of language is a turning away from the discourse of phenomenology, which has a lineage that links the poststructuralism of Derrida back through Heidegger’s fundamental ontology to Husserl.9 Serres tells Latour that the “return to things” always runs up against the barrier of logic within philosophy; phenomenology, in particular, always filters sensory experience through structures of language. He criticizes Merleau-Ponty’s assertion in The Phenomenology of Perception that “‘we find in language the notion of sensation.’ … What you can decipher in this book is a nice ethnology of city dwellers, who are hypertechnicalized, intellectualized, chained to their library chairs, and tragically stripped of any tangible experience. Lots of phenomenology and no sensation—everything via language” (132).
But, as Connor points out, the final section of Les cinq sens reworks Serres’s critique of philosophies that close their ears to the sensible word and listen only to language, by rendering the postmodern obsession with signs redundant rather than erroneous (166). Serres writes that rather than opposing the world where signs are dominant, his text “celebrates the death of the word” (Les cinq sens 455), for the world of language has already been decentralized and redistributed as part of a wider network of codes and information. As Connor puts it, “[w]here language [for Serres] sought to fix and petrify objects, distributing them in patterns of invariant conversion and exchange, information dissolves the object by operationalizing it” (“Michel Serres’s Les Cinq Sens” 166). A world that is conceived of according to the complex, unpredictable and turbulent circulation of information, rather than under the delimited arena of agreement that Serres problematically suggests is required by the exchange of signs, takes Serres back to “the primal adventure of philosophy … the bottomless mystery of the givenness of things, now, and perhaps just for now, apprehensible otherwise than as the mere task or antagonist of the linguistic subject-protagonist” (Connor, “Michel Serres’s Les Cinq Sens”167).
Most postmodern theorizations of the body have sought to emphasize its hybridity, its dispersal, its multiple interfaces with technologies—humanity as the apotheosis of Freud’s “prosthetic god.” Serres’s version of embodiment may have none of the jacked-in enjoyments or prosthetic appendages of which theoretical explorers of cyberspace were once so fond; nevertheless, it cannot be read as an agrarian rejection of technology or some nostalgic return to an essential and stable matter either.Instead, the processes through which the embodied subject feels, thinks, and constructs itself are shown to have been always already multiple effects of the dispersal and coagulation of information, the centripetal and centrifugal forces that make center and periphery impossible to locate and that are the sensory body’s work of self-making and self-transformation. The sensory body is not a coherent modern subject, distinctive within and distinct from its environment; it is a multiple, a bundle of relations—a quasi-body, perhaps.
Serres’s distinctive account of embodiment, his desire to figure the world as a network of relationships in which objects play constitutive roles, and his continuing interest in the topologically complex passages between systems and disciplines, makes this work particularly relevant to contemporary texts that are attempting to explore the interstices of the traditional genres of science fiction, horror, and fantasy. Sf’s persistent attempt to impose a certain disciplinary purity on itself, most famously articulated in Darko Suvin’s assertion that the genre is constructed through the “presence and interaction of estrangement and cognition” (61), borrows much from science’s fundamentally modern claims for the impermeability of its borders. But where sf has traditionally been represented as a genre that imagines different worlds, spaces, and technologies within the framework of rational laws of causality and logical possibility, China Miéville has recently sought to rethink science fiction as a “subset of a broader fantastic mode” (“Symposium” 43), suggesting that sf simply represents the “not-yet-possible” rather than the “never possible” that has more traditionally characterized fantasy. Serres’s account of the mythological paratext and crumpled time-lines that run alongside the positivist narrative and linear temporality of science is very suggestive for a reading of the “dark fantasy” of a writer such as Miéville. For this work, which has variously been called the “New Weird,” “slipstream,” “span,” or “interstitial” fiction (see Luckhurst 241), can also be thought of as exploring the topological similarities and unexpected passages between areas of thought and genres that philosophy and literature would normally hold distinct.
M. John Harrison, who coined the moniker “New Weird” in homage to the Weird Tales of the 1920s that similarly combined science fiction, fantasy, and horror, suggests that such texts can “replace boundary metaphors … [and] get rid of the old Newtonian spatial metaphors of ‘barriers’ and ‘ghettos’” (qtd in Luckhurst 240). One must imagine that, as in Serres’s work, such “boundary metaphors” would be replaced by passages, conjunctures, connectivities. A short story such as Miéville’s “Reports of Certain Events in London” certainly explores various homeomorphic translations among realism, fantasy, conspiracy narratives, and the Gothic, as it describes how the narrator is drawn into a meticulously detailed occult science that explores the Via Ferae (feral streets) that appear and disappear in London. As with Miéville’s earlier King Rat (1998) and the Gothic Jekyll and Hyde, generic transgression is figured in terms of topological complexity; but here, the very subject of the narrative has become the unpredictable passage—the wild alleyway and untamed boulevard—that enacts a form of mythic spatial translation. One way of reading this remapping of the corporate, institutional, and diversely social spaces of the city according to the wild and illegible logic of Via Ferae is to view it as a reworking of the Situationist dérive that pays even closer attention to the role of objects in the co-construction of urban space. Part of what makes Miéville’s work so compelling is the astonishing attention he gives to the world of things, as he imagines the city streets that are constitutive of the social world as possessed with powerful but unreadable intentions: “Their motivations are unimaginable, as opaque as brickwork sphinxes. If they consider us at all, I doubt they care what’s in our interests” (“Reports” 75). The text imagines urban space as transcribed and transfigured by the turbulent and chaotic appearance of these literalized prepositions, which occur like parasitical “patterns of interference” (59), constituting and scrambling the distribution of information that makes up the network of relationships that is London.
The Via Ferae and the city itself might thus be imagined as quasi-objects—“multiple in space and mobile in time, unstable and fluctuating like a flame, relational” (Serres, Genesis 91)—rather than essential objects that are nothing other than tools to be used by powerfully coherent subjectivities. “Varmin Way,” which appears and disappears in “Reports,” is in fact both quasi-object and quasi-subject: it intentionally pushes through the stable urban environment, but it is nevertheless reshaped by the city, as it sometimes appears in “a buckled configuration due to the constraints of space” (61). The Via Ferae, which are multiple in space and time, have their own unreadable intentions; but they can also potentially be used by humans. There are legends of those who can tame and ride these streets; but the Via Ferae are just as capable of using the human building and planning efforts through which London is constantly being reconstructed for their own purposes. “Maybe this is how they will occur now, arriving not suddenly but slowly, ushered in by us, armoured in girders, pelted in new cement and paving” (77), suggests the narrator.
Of course, Serres insists that this is how things generally are, that this is the quotidian experience of embodiment and of being thrown into an object world; Miéville, in contrast, relishes the Gothic frisson at the presentation of what seems like monstrosity. In “Familiar,” a witch attempts to conjure a powerful fetish for himself that will work as a “conduit to fecundity” (83). A visceral conglomeration of his own flesh and bodily fluids, the familiar is rejected, but grows by wordlessly incorporating everything and anyone it encounters into its own horrifying multiple and mingled corporeality. This “corps mélês” is however still bound to its progenitor that wished to use it as a tool; and it grows at the expense of the integrity of the witch’s body, which fades away in “random holes” and “[e]ntropic wounds” (95). This is a singularly Gothic account of embodiment; but Miéville’s fantastically imagined corporeality, combined with the supernatural power of the object world, uses the affective disturbances they enact as part of an explicitly political attempt to imagine and think outside of “realist” capitalist epistemologies and ontologies. Miéville asserts that the “New Weird” is a genre that both imagines and “is born out of possibilities, its freeing-up mirroring the freeing-up, the radicalisation of the world. This is post-Seattle fiction” (“Long Live the New Weird” 3). As Luckhurst notes, Miéville has recently extended this argument to state that “Neoliberalism collapsed the social imagination, shunting the horizons of the possible. With the crisis of the “Washington Consensus” and the rude grass-roots democracies of the movements for social justice, millions of people are remembering what it is to imagine” (qtd in Luckhurst 240). For Miéville, as for Serres, there are ungainsayable, constitutive relations between subjectivity and the world of others. But where Serres uses philosophy inflected with the tropes of fiction and poetry to map the interstices of orthodox accounts of the world, Miéville fleshes out the role of a philosophically rigorous fantasy in imagining alternatives to the account of an empowered modern subject that is distinct in and for itself and that represents the world as a playground for its projects. For Miéville, there is an enduring political significance in imagining a quasi-subject that remains separable neither from the object world nor from those other subjects that it would seek to objectify.
Of Air and Angels. Theorists of the postmodern have consistently written of the importance of contingent epistemologies, of “situated knowledges” (in Donna Haraway’s terms) that refuse to speak globally in one strident voice. Serres similarly asserts the value of regional domains that do not circulate, as in the philosophical systems of modernity, “an autonomous type of truth,” with each domain having “a philosophy of its relations of its truth to its system and of the circulation along these relations” (Hermès II; qtd in Harari and Bell xiv). For Serres, there are only ever regional epistemologies. However, as his work from the 1990s onwards makes clear, the task of philosophy now may be to pay attention to the local, but only insofar as it reveals multiple and chaotic relations with the global. In a rather more synthesizing fashion than previously, Serres writes that because globalized telecommunications (de)materialize a world that seems structured as and through exchanges of information or messages more completely than ever before, it is possible and indeed necessary to write “a general theory of relations” (Serres and Latour 108). In the last chapter of Le Contrat naturel (1992; The Natural Contract) he meditates on the word contract—literally, the connection, the cord through which “information, forces, and laws” (108) pass—and begins to see how, through scientific progress, the bonds and relations that attach humans to objects, to the earth and to each other, will need to be rethought. The first quasi-objects constructed the social contract, but that contract “comprehended but a few objects, drawn by a modest number of members” (109). There was no totality of humans, just as “there was no nature, in the global sense of the word” (109). The modern social contract constructed around Enlightenment scientific accounts of the world was also unaware of nature, “for the collectivity live[d] only in its history, and that history lives nowhere” (109). Nature was reduced to human nature. The contemporary world of globalized telecommunications, however, gives us new quasi-objects, new tools that link local to global. In Angels, and, more recently in Hominescence (2001), Serres explores how technoscience has produced conditions whereby the world, reformed as both a multiply localized and global network of matter-information, requires that those traditional cords be both detached and reattached in ways that bring metrically distant spaces into a topological contiguity.
Serres goes on to write a book on angels because they are the airborne “message bearers” of the world of global telecommunications: “Each angel is a bearer of one or more relationships; … every day we invent billions of new ones.” (Angels 293). Serres states in Angels, as he hints in The Natural Contract, that a particular subset of quasi-objects has enabled this volatilization of matter into message. These objects are what Latour calls “immutable mobiles,” which, as Nick Bingham explains, carry information and reconfigure, through the contracts they create, the metrical spatiality of distant and near: “writing, print, paper, money, a postal service, cartography, navigation, and telephony have all generated new forms of immutable mobiles and (consequently) the potential for new configurations of centres where they may be combined and peripheries from which they may be gathered” (Bingham 253). These “immutable mobiles” that “think for us, with us, among us, and … even within which, we think” (Angels 50), are not new. Serres insists that the “artificial intelligence revolution dates from at least as far back as neolithic times” (50), when we began to encounter quasi-objects. Nevertheless, because we now exchange increasing amounts of information with “objects that appear more as relations, tokens, codes and transmitters” (52), because we interact with quasi-objects such as computers, which break old contracts and produce new material and social relationships, we are “living like angels” (62). We are able to function in multiple localities through the use of media that are no longer bound, as books, like “different sheets, piled one on top of the other … isolated in their own dimension.… [T]oday’s interconnectedness pierces vertically through the stack, or punches through between vertices, thus enabling them to communicate” (68). This space of elsewhere, inside out-there, in which communication takes place, is called in Atlas (1994) the “hors-la”—the multiple space of sensory experience, which also appears in Les cinq sens. This space is, however, illuminated, rendered airborne, and translated through geographical space by telecommunications.
It is becoming increasingly clear that theory is moving away from the overly-totalized versions of postmodernity, which kept such a stranglehold on the humanities in the latter part of the twentieth century, towards more flexible, more multiple accounts of globalization and the global contemporary. Although Serres has shared certain kinships with the postmodern, a text such as Angels might also be seen as an attempt to consider the relations and linkages within the global contemporary that bring together spaces and times other than the dominant. His text thus attempts to do justice to and map the relationships of the local to the global. In The Natural Contract, Serres considers the way in which the network of global telecommunications inaugurates a new contract with the earth in its totality—a symbiotic relationship that reveals our responsibility to and for the natural world and makes it all too clear that the earth threatens our survival, as much as we threaten its: “Bound together by the most powerful web of communication lines we have ever spun, we comprehend the earth and it comprehends us … in an enormous play of energies that could become deadly to those who inhabit this contract” (110).
Some of the frustratingly euphoric panegyrics to the possibilities of global communication in Angels are similarly tempered by Serres’s concern for the exclusions and bonds that necessarily attend technological connection. The “angels” of the virtual community inhabit what Marcel Hénaff calls the “telepolis” (187) and Serres calls “Newtown”—a sphere that floats above and is illegitimately opposed to the fourth world, which is excluded from the world of telecommunications (Angels 59-78). Serres’s suspicion of “the empire of signs” remains even in this new world order of expanded, turbulent, circulating information; for as Hénaff rightly observes, for Serres “language has remained the best and the worst of things” (188). So there are important questions to be asked of the new contracts forged by quasi-objects: who stores, controls, and programs information; who is excluded from both the hardware and the software? Serres remains hopeful, however, that this newly networked world will make it harder for the sound of the local to be drowned out completely. As Hénaff points out (whilst reserving some doubt as to whether things will really turn out like this):
It has become not only useless, but irrational and even criminal to erase landscapes in order to insert them in mass production, to create industrial conglomerates where work is Taylorized and dwellings are stupidly uniform, to destroy ancient cultures in the name of a technical and centralizing modernity. Local spaces and cultures can easily find a way to become global by means of the network. (188)
Perhaps. It remains to be seen whether the information that is fed into the global network from the third and fourth worlds will be heard as language and sense rather than filtered out as inevitable static within the system.
Some recent science fictions have also begun to pay attention to this space of exclusion. Geoff Ryman’s novel Air (2005) is an account of a village in the imagined territory of Karzistan, the last in the world to go online. It concentrates on the introduction of a new technology, “Air,” that offers to bring the benefits of the Internet into the nonspace of the mind by formatting the brain to interface with communications technology. By doing away with the need for hardware, Air seems to evaporate the material problems of exclusion from the technologized network. Despite exploring various political anxieties concerning who controls these formatting structures and the loss of indigenous cultural formations, the novel presents Air as a fundamentally utopian possibility. Ryman negatively articulates the problems facing an increasingly networked global society—exclusion from that network, the loss of cultural specificity, the lack of connection between people who live in geographical proximity to one another, the severing of the cord that connects people both to their location and past—by finally rendering them obsolete in the impossible world of Air. Air works in the eleven dimensions projected by contemporary string theory, which some physicists believe will offer a totalized explanation of the world; it thus mystically allows communion between all bodies and all souls, past and future. Air can speak, hear, and see for the protagonist Mae’s burned and profoundly disabled baby, placing him within an infinitely accessible network of others. The final vision of the novel also brings the warring factions of Mae’s extended community together as they “[turn] and [walk] together into the future” of Air (390). It could be argued that this utopianism critiques just how far the present network of communications really is from being either truly global or infinitely accessible; but there remains an unexamined assertion that the free trade in which Mae is now able to take part can simply evaporate social and cultural exclusion. Of course, there is also a political problem in imagining the space of third and fourth worlds as a new territory, a new world, that enables first-world writers of sf to explore, in brightly colored relief, their own anxieties about technological change. And perhaps it will become more significant in the future to listen to the ways in which cultures that are newly assuming a place within the network of global communications begin to write and imagine these reconfigured relationships in their own fictions of science.
Michel Serres remains an authentically perverse thinker, in the sense that his work represents a fundamental and productive deviation or swerve from philosophies of modernity. He is not interested in Habermasian rational communication or dialogue, in the notion of history as progress or even regress, nor, more fundamentally, in the separation of the social and natural into neatly separable categories that Latour sees as a fundamental part of the modern settlement. For the amodern Serres, the multiple, turbulent space of the relation between objects and humans, the planet and its inhabitants, is philosophy’s vital task to explore, just as it has been science fiction’s role to map and describe. In a world that materializes itself more and more as exchanges of information within plural and chaotic networks, Serres thus attempts, not always successfully, to do justice to the complexity of the relation without writing out the scenes of local and global injustice. Serres represents this technologized world, as many sf texts have done, as a space and time of desire and fear, hope and terror. Serres’s work may be useful for sf studies, however, not simply because it offers another theoretical language with which to describe the global contemporary; instead, it offers, more fundamentally, a way of reading the space between humans and others, between discourses, between science and fiction, as a passage of productive and unpredictable exchange in which both the message and the untranslatable static can, momentarily, be heard.
1. Serres does not dismiss Newton’s theories, but he seems more interested in how his system of “reverberation” partially reprises theories of Lucretian turbulence (Natural Contract 108-109).
2. As Serres points out to Latour, the French language preserves the connection between time and weather systems by using the same word to indicate both: les temps (58).
3. The five volumes of Hermès have not yet been translated into English in their entirety; the single-volume anthology Hermes: Literature, Science, Philosophy, edited by Harari and Bell, contains selected chapters from all five volumes plus a section from La Naisance de la physique dans le texte de Lucrèce: Fleuves et turbulences (1977; The Birth of Physics).For ease of reference, all citations from Hermès derive from the translated sections in Harari and Bell’s anthology.
4. Serres tells Latour that he knows structuralism well, since it is “algebraic in origin” (35). Serres’s first degree was in mathematics.
5. Cavallaro also notes that “the Gothic and cyberpunk inaugurate an “anarchitecture” that confuses the conventional separation between inside and outside, challenges the codes of perspective and undermines the very foundations of Euclidean geometry” (177).
6. Nick Bingham notes the extent to which Gibson’s work has influenced the formulation of problems and the agenda of research into cyberspace and virtual reality in both science and the humanities (248-49).
7. Serres makes a connection between the enormous cost incurred by both societies in erecting such “statues,” the key effect of specialists (scientists/priests) in constructing and controlling the event, the shared goal of reaching the heavens, and the importance of performance in front of watching crowds. Serres uses these similarities to argue that our technology contains repressed articulations of atavistic violence.
8. The English translation of this text will be published in 2006.
9. Serres tells Latour that he “respect[s]” philosophies of language—“I recommend them to my students, I have even practiced them”—but that he finds the results obtained to be “fairly weak” (Serres and Latour 131). He will not be drawn by Latour on the relationship of his work to Derrida’s. He simply states: “I have never participated in the Heideggerian tradition” (38). See also “The Stylist and the Grammarian” in The Troubadour of Knowledge (English translation of Le Tiers-instruit) for more on the relationship of Serres’s thought to Derrida’s.
Berressem, Hanjo. “‘Incerto Tempore Incertisque Locis’: The Logic of the Clinamen and the Birth of Physics.” Mapping Michel Serres. Ed. Niran Abbas. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 2005. 51-71.
Bingham, Nick. “Unthinkable Complexity: Cyberspace Otherwise.” Virtual Geographies: Bodies, Spaces, and Relations. Ed. Mike Crang, Phil Crang, and Jon May. New York: Routledge, 1999. 244-62.
Cavallaro, Dani. Cyberpunk and Cyberculture. London: Athlone, 2000.
Connor, Steven. “Topologies: Michel Serres and Shapes of Thought.” Anglistik 15 (March 2004): 105-17.
─────. “Michel Serres’s Les Cinq Sens.” Mapping Michel Serres. Ed. Niran Abbas. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 2005. 153-69.
Gibson, Andrew. “Serres at the Crossroads.” Mapping Michel Serres. Ed. Niran Abbas. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 2005. 84-98.
Gibson, William. “Burning Chrome.” 1982. Burning Chrome, and Other Stories. London: Voyager-HarperCollins, 1995. 195-220.
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