Michel Serres’s philosophy is scantly known outside France. In this review essay the author takes up three books that Serres published late on in his life and that engage in different ways with the environmental emergency. These short eminently readable books appeal to a wide audience and at the same time draw together major concerns and approaches from his life’s work. In each of the three books, Serres explores the preconditions for, and the emerging sense of, a contract between humans and the rest of the natural world.
Michel Serres published more than sixty books from 1968 up to the year of his death in 2019. He was a professor for twenty-seven years at the Paris-Sorbonne University, where he served as the Chair in the History of Science and was a visiting Professor at Stanford University for thirty years. In 1990 Serres was elected to the Académie Française in recognition of his status as one of France’s most prominent intellectuals. His philosophy is scantly known outside France although some recent interest has been sparked by the publication of further translated texts into English and Chris Watson’s extensive monograph.1
Serres’s thought concentrates on what he perceives as a new relationship “with the world” that produces a profound change in hominization.2 He argues that philosophy has to come to terms with the interventions that he describes as “world-objects,” for example, the potential devastation of the world through nuclear weapons, the ability to access and communicate globally through the internet, and the present environmental catastrophe. For Serres world-objects pose a range of new scientific, technological, judicial, and moral questions.3 Three decades ago he published The Natural Contract, calling for a new partnership with the natural world before it is too late. His philosophical practice draws on diverse strands from science, mathematics, and communication theory, together with literature, ancient philosophy, myths, and fables. Those who turn to him discover a lucid modern thinker, eschewing scholarly jargon and unnecessary technical language. Moreover, late on in his astonishingly productive life he published a series of short, eminently readable books that deal directly with the ecological crisis, including Biogea (2012; French original Biogée, 2010); Malfeasance: Appropriation through Pollution (2011; French original Le Mal Propre: Polluer pour s’approprier?, 2008); and Times of Crisis (2014; French original Temps des Crises, 2009). In this review essay I take up these three books, which also draw together major concerns and approaches from his life’s work.
Serres has always been well ahead of the game, but rarely invited to play among Anglophone scholarship. I think this can be put down to three main reasons: substantial parts of his work have remained untranslated; his mixing of styles and content with seemingly gay abandon make his work impossible to place in an academic niche; and finally, his prickly attitude to the world of mainstream academia. Overall, he requires patience. Paulson, a translator of Serres work, says pertinently that “if you study him, you won’t find an applicable method that you can use in turning out your own dissertation and books on schedule.”4 Serres also seems to have relished being on the outside. Like his compatriot Pierre Bourdieu he wore his working-class background proudly as a badge of honor. At a young age he became a sailor to get the better of his father who was a bargeman and claims he learned more about philosophy from his experience at sea than reading books. Taking up postcolonial historian Chakrabarty’s challenge, Serres immerses himself as a “geophysical force.”5 His books meld into one another to seek an ever-denser bouquet or mosaic, two metaphors he uses frequently, to combine the human, life, and earth sciences with the humanities into a vibrant whole.
The Many Interdisciplinary Ways of Knowing
Serres’s philosophy never places humans at the center of the world or at the pinnacle of evolution. He explores different pathways to expose, celebrate, and communicate with all of nature. Serres invents the word “Biogea” to refer to the earth (gea) and all living things, including humans (bio). He does refer to “nature” in his philosophy but defines it in a distinctive way via its etymology. He frequently reminds us that the Latin natura refers to birth, as in natal and the Nativity. Nature is about ceaseless transformation and rejuvenation. Biogea offers a typical potent mix of personal stories of traumatic and exhilarating encounters with the natural world, scientific discoveries of the intimate codes of nature, and striking depictions of the waste that pollutes the earth. He seeks throughout to listen to the multiple things of Biogea and at the same time to evoke their voice: “I sing these strong and fragile turbulences—inert, living and human, universal.”6 He describes meetings and excursions that made up his life and shaped his philosophy. Like the adventures met by Odysseus, or the journey in The Divine Comedy guided by Beatrice, he is directed by meetings that interrupt, branch out, erode, renew and bring joy, pain, and love.
His wanderings reflect his practice of philosophy, which he describes as “topological” or his “hobby of prepositions.”7 He does not take a straight path. His teacher and later colleague, Michel Foucault, described his own approach as being “like a crayfish that walks sideways.”8 In contrast Serres thinks in all directions; he speaks of prepositions: “with them, by them. I write for, I live with, I go through.”9 In particular, thinking through prepositions helps to break down dualist modes of understanding. Serres does not just dismantle binaries such as culture/nature, subject/object, science/humanities, or them/us; he always seeks an “inclusive third” position that crosses, reverses, or fuses the two sides.10 As we will see later for Serres nature is culture and vice versa. It is therefore rather bewildering that political ecologists and environmental historians have not engaged with Serres’s pervasive radical inclusiveness. To take one example Moore claims that notions such as Deleuze and Guattari’s “assemblages,” Haraway’s “cyborgs,” and Latour’s “networks” and “hybrids” have pointed the way forward, but not fully challenged the “dualistic framing of world history.” No one has pried open the “prison house of the Cartesian binary” that divides nature and society, or nature and culture.11 I am sure there are many who would defend Deleuze and Guattari, Haraway, and Latour vigorously, but Serres has for many decades exploded such divisive thought and practice.
Serres provides a diverse series of meditations on the “ways of knowing” that are beyond the “puritanical distinction” between subject and object, the master ego and the world that we abuse. His experiences as a sailor are key: “The primeval Eve sea from whose wombs we all came, seaweed, plants and animals, bacteria and mammals, reptiles and whales, even humans.”12 Having lived through the magnificence and dangers of the sea he wants to “think” with it, both as a renewing power and in its present state of contamination. Specific encounters on land are also related as transformative, such as witnessing the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989. From that point he became a “being in the world.”13 He discovered a way of knowing that stemmed from sharing in the rumblings of the earth, as he also found shivering in a tent on the Lukla path to Everest, with the howling of wolves even more intense than the noise of the storm. Some of his immersive thought meshes with Bennett’s insightful Vibrant Matters, although there is scarce reference of it in the latter, which tends to take its cue from Latour.14
Serres returns to the enduring question of writers and poets: “How would my words let the world without words speak without me?”15 He recounts how the physicality of the world is covered with words, signs, images, and the din of “advertising” in the wide sense of incorporating both commercial and self-promotion. The constant pollution of our senses by a cacophony of loudspeakers hides the fundamental hubbub of the world, the rustle of Biogea, the gaping mother earth. But he finds an unexpected pathway to reach the physicality of the world in claiming that there is nothing more important today than the latest scientific discoveries that the things of the earth and life, including humans, are coded. Everything teems with the buzz of communication, receiving, transmitting, storing, and managing information from molecules in the tiniest cell to human relations. All nature, including ourselves, works phylogenetically, bifurcating, metamorphosing, becoming “other” through encounters and entanglements. The fact that humans are not the only subjects that communicate information brings an equality and intimacy with the whole of Biogea. Most importantly relations are not couplings or combinations of things; they condition life and precede existence.16
These recent discoveries provide another way to think through, with, and for nature. Serres overlaps here with Karen Barad’s thought, particularly her notion of “agential realism,”17 which links explicitly with Serres’s enduring exploration of a “theory of relations.”18 For Serres his relational understanding, his knowledge of advanced science, and his personal encounters fire his philosophy and at the same time help to “build a megaphone for Gea: seas, rivers, lands, glaciers, volcanoes, winds; then for Bio: rats, wolves and jackals and all fauna and flora.”19 The book can display an exuberance that teeters occasionally on the indulgent, words pouring out and sometimes losing their force through becoming a frenzied fanfare. But there are many passages that become a joyous and loving hymn with and to Biogea.
Appropriation through Soft and Hard Pollution
In Malfeasance we follow Serres on a different path, working and reworking a thesis concerning the origins of pollution. This is a tract full of rage and disgust. The opening sets the tone and pace: “Tigers piss on the edge of their lair. And so do lions and dogs.”20 Animals define their territory by noise, smells, and dirt, by howls, calls, piss, and shit. They defend and protect their habitat, their property. Serres audaciously explores how this animal behavior forms the origin of the human concept of property, of the legal right to possessions. Pollution and the climate emergency are therefore not, as commonly thought, a recent phenomenon going back to the industrialization of the nineteenth century, but rather something we share with all animals. We all appropriate, take possession, through dirt. He provides a series of diverse examples. We have longed for a clean space that belongs to nobody, a utopia, heaven, God. Religions are built on the impossible, out of this world notion of complete cleanliness. More down to earth the hotel room is cleaned for anyone to enter. With our smells, marks, and dust it is ours until cleaned again. Serres quotes from Montaigne, one of his favorite authors, “one’s own excrement smells good,” while other people’s keeps you well away.21 Rousseau argued that the rights to property stemmed from a mere convention, a civil acceptance of the claim that “this is mine.” On the contrary Serres replies, the foundations of rights are far more “natural.”22
Serres goes on to trace how urine, excrement, and other bodily matter has been used to mark human territory. To support his case he refers to two of his Books of Foundations: the demarcation of space by corpses and burial sites23 and the murder of Remus by his twin brother Romulus that founded the city of Rome through bloodying the ground.24 From antiquity bodily waste, dead bodies, and blood have marked our possessions, property, and territory. It all involves “appropriation through pollution.” As he says, but does not elaborate, likewise sperm is used to abuse and appropriate women. He envisages a map of the world defined by boundaries, partitions, and edges that repeat these primary soiling gestures. In his words his book becomes a “Stercorian Atlas” displaying a growing network of appropriation by stains and marks that in the modern era involves the spraying and dumping of industrial waste on a massive scale until our waste has appropriated the world.25 We are a particularly nasty, virile, invasive polluter, a world parasite. Serres is in rebellious mood here. He compares his pages to the tagger spraying their work on city and suburban walls in defiance of the pervasive spread, or dumping, of advertising by wealthy global companies: “My page, my rage tag.”26 I think he would be delighted to know that taggers use the term “pissing” to refer to the use of a fire extinguisher filled with paint to spray their signature.
Importantly in Malfeasance Serres distinguishes “hard” and “soft” pollution. Each generates the other. The former is, for instance, the solid waste, liquids, and gases released by industries, cars, and aircraft. The latter includes the flood of texts, images, and sounds emitted by promoting and advertising material goods that in turn produce hard pollution. Significantly for Serres’s argument, both forms stem from exactly the same “will to appropriate” and expand the space of our properties, wealth, and power.27 Those who have the most property, wealth, and power engender the most hard and soft pollution. Dogs mark their space with barks and urine, the wealthy spread and expand their space through images, logos, and slogans. For Serres they “command” our attention with noise and words that, worse than hard pollution, eat into our thoughts, our language, our habits, our social relations, our “soul.”
As discussed in Biogea, we are inundated with soft pollution to the extent that we forget or are ignorant of the teeming languages of Biogea, the background noises of the world. From this position Serres does not see pollution as primarily about the damaging physical effects on humans and the earth. Pollution stems from nature, marking territory, but has become much wider and more penetrating. It encompasses our whole culture: “Our intentions, decisions, and conventions.”28 Dealing solely with the hard forms such as CO2 emissions, measured statistically by scientists and setting targets for reductions, risks missing the fundamental problem that lies in our soft thoughts and desires as much as our wasteful actions. Any way forward has to acknowledge the extent that pollution through appropriation is embedded in humanity.
The concluding pages of Malfeasance provide a twist of irony to his story. Our damage of the earth’s land, seas, and air has reached such a scale that it no longer has discrete borders. Pollution spreads everywhere, affecting the poor most, but reaching everyone, crossing national and local borders. We have dirtied and usurped the whole world to the extent that it now belongs to no one. We no longer have a home. For Serres this alters fundamentally any previous notion of the rights of property, as the space of property has no limits and no owners, an advanced form of globalization. Serres claims that the metaphor of “networks,” a web of enclosures, is no longer appropriate. We live in a new space, whether we like it or not, in which the limits of property are fading. We own nothing. Global pollution will either end our species and the earth will eventually return again after its sixth extinction to a more fertile space, or it will lead us to recognize that we can no longer pretend to be its master. With time running out Serres is unsure whether we are able to take such a profound step in hominization. Malfeasance poses the question: What politics are worth anything if they do not engage profoundly with the ecological catastrophe on behalf of future generations? The final book in this review essay explores various answers.
We Become Objects as the Earth Emerges as a Subject
Times of Crisis is Serres most explicitly political book, in a didactic style, a manifesto in the original sense of offering an eye-catching lucidity of purpose, to make his thought public. The running heading refers to the financial crisis but those expecting a discussion of the difficulties facing the world economy would be disappointed. The book concerns the deep fault lines of upheavals such as the 2008 financial crash that he takes right back to no less than the emergence of humanity itself. For Serres the real crisis today is the one facing the earth and all life, including ourselves. Political and economic proposals for a recovery or reform will not be up to the task. As with a medical critical condition, something new has to emerge to avoid death. How do you weigh the importance of a crisis? Serres answers: by the length of time that has led up to it.
Characteristically Serres never indulges in nostalgia for a better past, captured in the title of his pocketbook c’était mieux avant! (it was better before!).29 On the contrary he celebrates the contemporary. He notes that from the 1960s there has, in the West at least, been a period of unprecedented change in landscape, agriculture, mobility, health, control over reproduction, life expectancy, demographic growth, connectivity, technology, and access to information. We have different bodies and relations with one another. Crucially for the first time we are able to picture and comprehend the whole earth, a global habitat that we are now destroying. This is our crisis. We find ourselves in a new age of responsibility in which we depend on the world and it depends on us.
Serres claims that we are intoxicated by the notion of who will win, a game of two players, master or slave, them or us, this ideology or that. At the beginning of The Natural Contract he presents Goya’s painting Duelo a garrotazos (Fight with Cudgels) depicting two enemies striking each other in the middle of a quagmire. He discusses how we have been fascinated by these vicious struggles from Homer’s depiction of the sacking of Troy to violent crime thrillers, but as in Goya’s painting we tend to forget the mud, the earth, the “world of things themselves” that surrounds and threatens the fighters. We are like the duelists, sinking as we fight, but we are slowly and reluctantly beginning to acknowledge that the third position of the earth has to be taken into account.30 We have ignored the world but now it intervenes as a third actor, forces entry into our politics. In Biogea he tells a story that begins from observing the love shown by parents toward their child who has been cured of the once deadly bacterial meningitis. Serres connects this scene with the life of Fleming, the famous inventive biochemist who discovered penicillium, which happens to be a fungus that has been on earth for about 1 billion years. Serres presents us with the defeated microbe, actually much older than the curative fungus, and perhaps more resilient, and asks: “Who will win?” We cannot win a competition with nature. The game has to stop. We have to have her on our side.
As Serres has always understood the earth shakes us and “keeps us alive, transcends us and can eradicate us” but now it is “starting to scream.”31 We have to end this abusive relationship. There are overlaps here between Serres’s ecological philosophy and Bruno Latour’s thoughts toward a political ecology, but although the latter borrows terms from the former, such as “world-object” and “quasi-subject,” it is surprising that Latour rarely engages with Serres after the publication of their Conversations, published three decades ago.32 In one article, having dismissed Serres’ notion of a natural contract, Latour does go on to explore Serres’s wider thought of the earth moving, trembling, and responding, having some form of “agency.”33 Yet he does not acknowledge the diversity of paths that Serres has journeyed to explore the subjectivities of nature or how these paths lead to, support, and renew his idea of forming a peace treaty between humans and the rest of the natural world.
A new social contract is Serres’s defining idea in his philosophy of ecology, which he returns to frequently—the need for an agreement or pact with the Biogea. In The Natural Contract that spelled out his initial thoughts, he concentrates on the question of who has the right to become a legal subject and focuses on the interrelated history of law and philosophy. The book received some stern criticism with the objection: Which or whose hands will actually sign it on behalf of nature? Serres replies that such an objection is nonsense because his proposal is to renew the social contract that nobody actually signed, although many live as if we had.34 His interest is to explore the preconditions for a virtual contract that this time involves all of nature, including ourselves. He points out that today we legally protect certain endangered species. We stop the hunting of certain animals with the force of law. In doing this we are acknowledging their right to exist, the right to live in peace. We are also seeing laws introduced to protect the life and land of Indigenous people. Despite opposition from some governments aligned to powerful companies, Serres notes that gradually and reluctantly our behavior and sensibility are changing. We do not have to wait, spending time working out the legal wording. Nature is becoming a legal subject.
We are no longer mere masters; we have to control our power over things. Serres explains this change through a notion that runs through his whole philosophy: the changing relation between subjects and objects. He conceives the recent emergence of what he terms “world objects” like nuclear weapons that could destroy the whole earth, or our perception of the globe from pictures taken by astronauts, or the global reach of communication technologies and the internet, or our ability to pollute the whole earth. We are now able to destroy, perceive, transmit, and act globally. At the same time our subjectivity is changing as we begin to conceive the whole of humanity, or global community, in relation to these world objects. But this is not the end of the story. Crucially our global pollution forces us to become objects, passive victims that depend on the earth. In turn the objective earth becomes like a subject, reacting to our destructive actions. We are already starting to think, act, and react to the earth as if it were a subject, a partner.
In each of the three books under review, Serres explores in different ways the emerging sense of a natural contract, as “global history enters nature” and “global nature enters history.”35 He is a philosopher and does not spell out the political and institutional requirements that would support his proposal but at the same time, particularly in Times of Crisis, he undertakes more than the groundwork, with some inventive promptings of ways forward. He certainly does not think we can rely on nation-states or political leaders to make much difference. We need to find innovative solutions that match the depth and extent of our crisis. This cannot be achieved through politicians or specialists. He urges us to speak in the language of “WAFEL,” a term that he playfully invents from the initials of the English words: water, air, fire, earth, and life.36 Many scholars, scientists, artists, writers, activists, and politicians talk of the crisis of the earth and humanity, but they tend to do so disjointedly. “We claim to hold colloquia, but we speak there in dislocated terms.”37 He puts forward a “project of thought” that brings voices together.
As part of this project Serres conceives a new transdisciplinary “Life and Earth Sciences” (LESC), which is more than combining the study of all living things, including humans, with the earth sciences, such as geology, oceanography, climatology, and astronomy. As he demonstrates in Biogea LESC would open up a more sharing, open, connected “way of knowing.” Here the person who knows would participate in what she knows, in the things of the world, understanding and speaking their language, listening to their voices, sharing in their history, and informing her politics. He hopes this joint project would form a new knowledge that would be “closer to us, more concrete, more physical and also more modest.”38 Serres reflects that all sciences in fact are starting to look like ecology, associating, allying, and federating all life. Importantly building on his notion of the “Instructed Third,” Serres’s inclusive vision and anticipation of LESC would also include the humanities and social sciences, which would become “a kind of subsection of the LESC and vice versa.”39
All of this sounds more a utopian dream than a pragmatic proposal, but Serres understands philosophy as igniting thought and invention as well as anticipating the future. Toward the end of Times of Crisis he says he would like “to write stories, songs, poems, and a thousand texts” that would encourage people to engage and intervene in our crisis.40 Specifically he sees the internet and mobile communication technologies, literally in the hands of young people,41 as tools that might give access to information that can be shared and help to change hierarchical power structures in politics, science, and education. As he sometimes admits he is over-optimistic in believing that the internet and other technologies might bring about a new form of democracy; he rarely mentions the consequences of social media trolling, fake news, and growing tribalism. On the other hand his work remarkably foresees recent global school strikes, the innovative campaigning of young people for a new partnership with the earth, and protests that depend on instant, accessible, and mobile communication. The demands of a growing body of young people have sidestepped their teachers and are being backed by eminent climate scientists and political activists. A common voice is perhaps beginning to emerge. Born from his immersion in the teeming physicality of the world his hope is that we begin to recognize our utter dependency on the earth and that the skills of young people, new global technologies, and the underlying codes of nature uncovered by science might coalesce into something he has sought for decades: a pact, a peace treaty, a contract with one another, the earth, and all living things. “We have to bring about peace between ourselves to safeguard the world and peace with the world in order to save ourselves.”42 The three books offer a helpful snapshot of Serres’s substantial earlier philosophical thought and practice. Each of them invites humanities scholars to join in a wide conversation with many other diverse disciplines in facing our present environmental emergency. Above all they show how the “ways of knowing” opened up by recent discoveries in the Life and Earth Sciences can be drawn together to inform both humanities and politics.
Serres, Atlas, 71.
See especially, Serres, Troubadour of Knowledge.
See especially Serres, The Parasite.
See Serres Thumbelina.