Michel Serres book project update: Draft Introduction

For the past three and a half years I have been working on a monograph on the thought of Michel Serres. It has been an exhilarating and exhausting project, in the course of which I have largely forgotten what it feels like to be anywhere near an intellectual comfort zone.

During these years I have also been on a journey of learning how to write a book on a single thinker. It has come down, I think, to juggling three related concerns: letting Serres’s thought speak for itself and operate with its own evolving parameters and sensibilities; bringing it into conversation with the positions adopted by other thinkers without taking the focus away from Serres’s own concerns or emphases; and developing an approach to writing on a single thinker per se, seeking to draw my book’s rhythm and approach out of Serres’s own patterns of thought rather than forcing him into an alien set of assumptions and categories, all the while avoiding a hagiographic approach.

This week I finished the first full draft of the book, which spans six chapters and runs to 181 000 words including translated quotations. I have posted the full draft Introduction below, and it is also available as a PDF on academia.edu and researchgate.net. The Introduction gives the reader a sense of my overall approach, some of the main characteristics of Serres’s writing and a potted biography, as well as making the case for the timeliness of Serres’s thought.

Michel Serres: Figures of Thought

Introduction: Michel Serres Today

Draft, February 2019

Abbreviations

ADP          L’Art des ponts: homo pontifex

AMM       Angels: A Modern Myth

ANC          ‘A New Culture that Suits the World’

ASMS       ‘Analyse symbolique et méthode structurale’

At              Atlas

AVN          Andromaque, veuve noire

BPP           ‘Le balancier, la pierre philosophale’

Bi               Biogée

Bio             Biogea

BEC           ‘Biogée: En cousine compagnie avec le monde’

BOP          The Birth of Physics

C                Conversations on Science, Culture and Time

CEL            Carpaccio : les esclaves libérés

CN             Le Contrat naturel

CNems    ‘Le Contrat naturel: Un entretien avec Michel Serres’

CS              Les Cinq sens

D                Détachement

De              Detachment

DBS           Darwin, Bonaparte et le Samaritain

Ec               Éclaircissements

EgC            ‘Ego Credo’

EHS           Éléments d’histoire des sciences

EMS          Geneviève James, ‘Entretien avec Michel Serres’

EMSa        Luc Abraham, ‘Un entretien avec Michel Serres’

IRR            ‘L’imprévisible reste la règle’

EPF            Éloge de la philosophie en langue française

ESC            Esthétiques, sur Carpaccio

ESP            Écrivains, savants et philosophes font le tour du monde

FPIC          French Philosophers in Conversation Chapter 3: ‘Michel Serres’

FS              The Five Senses

FSB            Feux et signaux de brume : Zola

G                Geometry: The Third Book of Foundations

GB             Le Gaucher boiteux

Ge             Genèse

Gen           Genesis

GM           La Guerre Mondiale

H                Habiter

H1              Hermès I: la communication

H2              Hermès II : l’interférence

H3              Hermès III : La Traduction

H4              Hermès IV : la distribution

H5              Hermès V : le Passage du Nord-Ouest

Her            L’Hermaphrodite

HKI            Harry Kunzru, ‘Michel Serres Interview’

HLSP         Hermes: Literature, Science, Philosophy

Hom         Hominescence

HP             Entretien Horizons Philosophiques

IMS           ‘Interview Michel Serres’, in Revue Projet 2003

In               L’Incandescent

Inc             The Incandescent

IP               ‘L’information et la pensée’

JJV             Jouvences, sur Jules Verne

JVSH         Jules Verne , la science et l’homme contemporain

JVSJ          ‘Jules Verne’s Strange Journeys’

Lafay        ‘Michel Serres: ‘Grâce aux NTIC, le temps est d’amour’”

LDA           La Légende des anges

LGR           ‘Le grand roman’

LRE            Le retour éternel

LSD            Leibniz sans Dieu

LTH            ‘Le temps humain: de l’évolution créatrice au créateur d’évolution’

Mal           Malfeasance

MP            Le Mal propre

MiS           ‘Michel Serres’, in Florian Rötzer, Conversations with French Philosophers

MS            ‘Modèle et structure’

Mus          Musique

NC             The Natural Contract

NM           Nouvelles du monde

NP             La Naissance de la physique dans le texte de Lucrèce

OG            Les Origines de la géométrie

Par            ‘Paris 1800’, in A History of Scientific Thought

PCDS1      Petites Chroniques du dimanche soir, tome 1

PCDS2      Petites Chroniques du dimanche soir, tome 2

PCDS3      Petites Chroniques du dimanche soir, tome 3

PCDS5      Petites Chroniques du dimanche soir, tome 5

PCDS6      Petites Chroniques du dimanche soir, tome 6

PP              Petite Poucette

P                Le Parasite

Pan           Pantopie: de Hermès à Petite Poucette

Par            The Parasite

PT              ‘Panoptic Theory’

Pr               ‘Préface’, in Serres and Farouki (eds.), Le Trésor: Dictionnaire des sciences

R                Rome : le livre des fondations

Ro              Rome: The First Book of Foundations

Ram          Rameaux

RCNbnf   ‘Retour au contrat naturel’ (BNF)

RCNsf       ‘Retour au contrat naturel’ (Simon Fraser)

RCNslp     ‘Retour au contrat naturel’, in Signons la paix avec la terre

RH             Récits d’humanisme

S                 Statues : le second livre des fondations

St               Statues: The Second Book of Foundations

S&H          Peter Hallward, ‘The Science of Relations’

SL               Le Système de Leibniz et ses modèles mathématiques

Sol             Solitude

SP              ‘Sciences et Philosophie : Entretien de Michel Serres avec Pierre Léna’

T                 Thumbelina

TDC           Temps des crises

TOC           Times of Crisis

TU             ‘Temps, usure : feux et signaux  de brume’

TI               Le Tiers-instruit

TK              The Troubadour of Knowledge

TP              ‘Le Tragique et la pitié’

VB             Variations on the Body

VSC           Variations sur le corps

Y                 Yeux

Michel Serres celebrated his eightieth birthday in 2010, and has published over forty-five single-authored books on subjects of contemporary importance ranging from the future of humanity to the nature of social relations and ecology, including three French bestsellers.[1] Only the tenth philosopher since 1900 to be elected an ‘immortal’ member of the illustrious Académie Française, he has received numerous international prizes and the library of the elite École Normale Supérieure in Lyon bears his name. How curious and tantalising it is, then, that his distinctive and ground-breaking thought remains chronically under-received by both Anglophone and Francophone readerships.

Serres is everywhere and nowhere: in addition to publishing an average of one or two books every year over the past decade, appearing regularly on television and co-hosting a national radio program from 2004-2018, he fails to feature in many lists of leading French philosophers or intellectuals and under half his work exists in English translation.[2] We will search in vain for a Serresian school of thinkers, and almost never encounter a gaggle of Serresians alongside the Deleuzians, Foucauldians and Derrideans at the larger academic converences. In no time soon is the blogosphere likely to foment with Serresian critiques of the latest political decision.

In more ways than one however, Serres is a thinker whose time, at long last, has now come. For one thing, his radically cross-disciplinary approach and his determination to set all local questions within a radically global context of sometimes surprising or even scandalising juxtapositions provides a blueprint for navigating today’s complex globalproblems that refuse to be cloistered within disciplinary boundaries. It is ironic, Serres argues, that ‘at the very moment when we need wholeness, we only have philosophies of difference’ (GM 168).[3] The problem is not limited to philosophy, however. Corporations and governments divide themselves into ministries and departments, ‘whereas any question whatever today touches the connected whole of their specialities’ (GB 72).[4]

Problems such as climate change, ecology and unemployment (GB 72) are ‘transversal’ (Sol 17), ‘de-localised’ (H2 33) or a ‘total social fact’ ([‘fait social total’], see H2 25, CN 125-6/NC 78-9, AVN 137, EPF 61, H 57,140, JVSH 16-7, EHS 344/HST 432, Pan 169), cutting across disciplines and government ministries alike. Such problems are ‘discovered at the intersection of a growing multiplicity of approaches’ (H2 34),[5] and they are to be addressed not with local tactics but with global strategies (H2 32-3) and a ‘general mobilisation’ (H2 34). Faced with such problems, we are witnessing ‘the end of the analytic ideal’ (Sol 17)[6] and ‘the end of the era of specialities’ (H2 27).[7]Such problems call not for a facile eclecticism of the sort that commonly masquerades under the infinitely malleable banner of ‘interdisciplinarity’, but for an approach that, while ranging over disciplines from mathematics and the hard sciences to literature and visual art, can nevertheless both allow each of them to speak its own language and follow its own path, and yet move between them in ways that are not arbitrary and that cohere, if not into a philosophical system, then in a cross-disciplinary synthesis. What Serres’s thought offers us is precisely the complementarity of the disparate and the coherent, the variant and the invariant, the same and the different, that today’s transversal problems require. We are seeing, Serres argues, the birth of a ‘pantology’, a ‘practice of totalities’ [‘pratique des totalités’] and ‘new knowledge of everything’ [‘nouveau savoir du tout’] (H56).

Another reason we may think that Serres’s time has now finally come is that, like Nietzsche’s madman, it has taken time for our intellectual and political culture to catch up with Serresian thought. Indeed, he is notable for the way in which he anticipates problems and trends before they receive widespread critical attention. If, as he holds, ‘to think is to anticipate’ ([‘penser, c’est anticiper’], see Pan 359-374), then Serres does more than his fair share of thinking. He anticipated by around twenty years the critique of the linguistic philosophies of the 1970s-1990s, his work on objects from the 1980s and 1990s is foundational for the recent philosophical resurgence of objects and things, and he embraced and shaped ecological concerns before they became the theoretical ordre du jour they are today.

Serres’s prescience is not limited to philosophical trends, however. At the heyday of the Althusserian hegemony at the École Normale Supérieure, Rue d’Ulm, he questioned the Marxist orthodoxy of the primary of production, convinced that the age dominated by the production of physical goods from raw materials was being overtaken by communication and information transfer, requiring a new paradigm. From our vantage point as cross-platform media-consuming internet users, we might concede he had a point.

Nor have all the cheques Serres has written to the future already been cashed. His writing anticipates trends that are still gathering pace or are perhaps yet to develop, such as a scientific study of literature that does not make the literary text a handmaiden to extra-literary concerns, and a naturalised sociology that sees social phenomena such as war and the economy as extensions and re-workings of biological, chemical, physical and indeed mathematical patterns. To be sure, there is much in Serres’s writing that still ‘requires time’ and is ‘on its way’.

If this uncanny knack for anticipation occurred once or even twice in Serres’s thought then a miserly spirit could well argue that, like the broken clock that tells the correct time twice a day, his prophetic gift could be nothing more than the law of averages. To argue such a case in the face of so many anticipatory successes, however, begins to look like a desperate attempt to avoid the obvious conclusion that Serres’s thought is perceptive. Furthermore, each of these anticipations is not an isolated moment in Serres’s writing, as if they each relied on an isolated flip of a coin. They are more accurately likened to a series of expertly assembled dominoes falling into one another in a cascade or—to use an illustration from Serres’s beloved game of rugby—a flowing move of interconnecting passes, beautifully orchestrated and resulting in a try.

What emerges in—and as—this series of interconnected moments is what Serres calls a ‘global intuition’, a forceful vision,[8] a ‘new way of being in the world’[9] or ‘a different style of thinking and writing—style as a method of seeing and understanding things’.[10] This idea of a Serresian global intuition, a way not only of thinking but of living, behaving, feeling, desiring and moving in the world, of resonating with the way the world is and the way it is changing, will be a key notion guiding our exploration of Serres’s thought in this book, and will help us to see why it is no coincidence that he should anticipate so many recent—and perhaps future—turns in thought and society.

Who is Michel Serres?

The Montaignan question ‘qui suis-je?’ [‘who am I?’] is repeated persistently, at times almost obsessively, across the Serresian corpus, occurring twenty times in Récits d’Humanisme alone, followed by Le Tiers instruit (13), Le Parasite (13), Le Gaucher boiteux (11), Carpaccio: les esclaves libérés (9), to name only the five books in which it occurs the most.[11] His insistent return to this question speaks not only of the importance of the theme of identity in his writing but also of the importance of Serres’s own biography for understanding his thought. In contrast to recent thinkers who would deny or minimise the relevance of their own biographical details in understanding their writing, Serres readily admits and embraces the ways in which his thought has been sculpted by the details of his life. This should not surprise us in a thinker for whom, as we shall see time and again in the following chapters, sooner or later everything is related to everything else. To be sure there is a distinction (philosophy is not reducible to biography, or vice versa), but there is also a coherence, almost at times too neat a coherence between Serres’s life and his writing, as if he retroactively frames every detail of his childhood as a significant portent of what was to come.

Michel Serres was born on September 1, 1930, in the city of Agen on the Garonne river in the department of Lot-et-Garonne in south-west France. As he tells the story of his birth it was an eventful affair:  he emerged from the womb with the umbilical cord wrapped three times around his neck (PCDS4 62), a fact he colourfully interprets as bequeathing him a fear of tight spaces to this day (PCDS3 211), accounting no doubt for his love of mountaineering and the countryside.

His father and grandfather both worked as bargees (mariniers) on the Garonne river, dredging and sifting silt to be divided between ‘the black’ (used for tar) and ‘the white’ (which went to make cement) (GMS). The young Serres tells of how he and his brother would wake four or five hours before dawn to shovel sand into ten-ton trucks in what he calls ‘real hard labour, hard, very very hard’ (Pan 25).[12] War also marked Serres’s early years: his father was gassed in the Great War, and his mother was the only girl in her collège to marry because all the possible fiancés died on the battlefields (Sol 44). As for Serres himself, he tells of the time in 1936 when his family gave lodging to refugees fleeing the horrors of the Spanish Civil War, and again in 1939 when they took in refugees of the Nazi Blitzkrieg (Sol 44). He tells of the violence that broke out at the liberation of France in 1945, when a young Serres had to bury school-friends in his première class (aged 16 years) who killed each other because of their respective allegiance to the pro-German milice or the anti-Nazi resistance during the War (Sol 118-9).

In addition to being shaped by these cultural and social events of his youth, Serres also testifies to the lasting impression left on him by the landscape of his beloved Agen. Though not a coastal town, at the time of Serres’s youth Agen was a port (Stendhal took a boat from Agen to Bordeaux, he notes (Ag)) and the river looms large in the life of a young man who calls himself ‘the last survivor of the last tribe of the last bargemen of the Garonne’ (Ag).[13] The motif of water, it seems, was destined to play an important part in Serres’s life:

I had been born on the water; my family lived off the water. Family history has it that in the great flood of 1930, when my mother was pregnant with me, she was evacuated from our house by boat from the second-story window. Thus, I had been afloat while still in the womb, and not just in amniotic fluid! (Ec 16-7/C 6; see also GMS)[14]

Serres’s story, then, does not begin with roots or foundations because ‘there are no roots in the river’ (Ag),[15] but with floating at the mercy of a swell that both provides his family’s income and periodically threatens to take their lives.

Serres’s experience of Agen was double, ‘the upstream mountains and the downstream sea’ (Bi28/Bio 25, see also Ag),[16] on one side the undifferentiated expanse of the flat river and on the other the variegated, undulating, irregular contours of the verdant Pyrenees, a contrast that will appear on a number of occasions in his writing, and describe one of the recurring contrasts of his thought between the blank or white (blanc) universal and motley local colour. Further features of the city also return in Serres’s writing. The club where Serres fell in love with rugby, Sporting Union Agenais, provides not only illustration but inspiration for his thought on a number of occasions, notably in his description of the quasi-object in Le Parasite. Agen is also famous for its bridge over the Canal des Deux Mers, joining the Atlantic to the Mediterranean, and sparking in the young Serres a fascination for bridges and for the figure of the Pontifex (bridge-builder) to which he would repeatedly return, most notably in Esthétiques, sur Carpaccio (1975), L’art des ponts (2006), and Carpaccio, les esclaves libérés (2007).

It seems that Serres’s schooling also inculcated in him the interdisciplinary bent that would characterise his later work. He tells the story of a conversation he had with a priest with whom he translated Greek plays (mainly tragedies, he informs us) in the school holidays:

When I passed by first bac—there were two at the time—he asked me what I planned to do and I replied that I was going to read philosophy. At that time there was the choice in the final year of school between two streams: arts, that was called ‘philo’, or maths. ‘Perish the thought!’, said the priest. ‘Because you are good in the arts you will take beginner’s maths.’ I was so surprised that I stammered ‘You are having a laugh, I don’t know the first thing about it!’, and I can still see him now, smiling as he said to me, ‘So much the better!’ I followed his order and took elementary maths at Agen. (Pan 33-4)[17]

Serres’s upbringing also gave him an interest in and appreciation of manual work and made him feel an outsider to the Parisian elite in a way that he rarely passes an opportunity to mention: ‘I am of the people. My first training is in the trades and techniques of common folk. From when I was very young I visited forgers, saddlers, bricklayers, farm workers, bargemen’ (Pan 24-5).[18] Serres almost seems to revel in his outsider status, never quite fitting into the French university system and feeling spurned—with justification, as we shall see below—because of his cross-disciplinary approach.

The time has now come to name the elephant in the room: It is hard to avoid the conclusion that all these biographical details, pregnant as they are with significance for Serres’s intellectual journey, are just a little too neat, like a straight to TV detective drama in which each and every incidental detail in the plot and characterisation is revealed to have been a significant clue to the inevitable dénouement and triumphant unmasking of the villain. So how should we understand Serres’s mise en scène of his childhood? There are, I think, two contrasting readings that are strictly undecidable, but that in their opposition neatly perform what is at stake for the reader of Serres’s work more broadly. There is nothing to stop us dowsing Serres’s childhood stories in a cold bath of hermeneutic suspicion, chalking them up to the same genre of autofiction that saw contemporaries like Marguerite Duras play with the details of her own childhood in order to save various ends of self-presentation. Or we can choose to approach these details not as a retro-engineered suite of justifications inscribing Serres’s life-course with an air of transcendent destiny, but as features which, over time, revealed themselves to have held an importance that was perhaps not noticed at the time but the cumulative effect of which is to reinforce the importance of the body and of landscape in shaping an intellectual career. Serres’s thought is about drawing links, and the implicit links he draws between the landscape and bodily labour of his childhood and his subsequent thought are a mise en abyme of what is at stake in that thought as a whole: they do not compel the reader to assent or beat her into submission with their ineluctable necessity, but they do create a case, plausible for some and persuasive for others, of the inter-connectedness of all things, not least biography and writing. So caveat lector: as we pass judgment on Serres’s biography our predispositions as readers are in turn being scrutinised. With this in mind, let us press on.

In 1949, with his second baccalaureate in mathematics safely under his belt, Serres entered the Naval Academy at Brest. He briefly continued his study in mathematics and physics but soon resigned in order to attend the prestigious Parisian Lycée Louis le Grand to study the classe préparatoire aux grandes écoles (CPGE) nicknamed the khâgne, the preparatory course for entry into the elite École Normale Supérieure (ENS). As Serres tells the story, a friend of his and son of a refugee from Paris who stayed in the Serres household during the Second World War made personal representations to the secretary of Louis Le Grand on Serres’s behalf, saying that a friend from the Naval Academy should be considered for the khâgne: ‘My friend telephoned me to tell me that I was enrolled at Louis le Grand. “But to do what?” I asked him. “To prepare for Normale” he replied. I didn’t even know what Normale was!’ (Pan 38).[19] These events allow Serres to stumble into Louis Le Grand almost by accident, attending the elite institutions without any of the intellectual ambition that usually accompanies such a move. It is not the last time Serres will portray himself as having greatness thrust upon him.

Serres’s contemporaries at Louis Le Grand included Pierre Bourdieu, Michel Deguy, Louis Marin, Pierre Nora and notably Jacques Derrida, with whom Serres became friends and exchanged letters during the holidays.[20] Upon entering the ENS in 1952, Serres and Derrida were also among only four students in their year to take the philosophy option,[21] and they holidayed together in 1953 at the ski resort of Carroz-D’arâches in Haute-Savoie.[22] If Serres found himself at the heart of the incipient French intellectual elite during this time, he did not share its ideology. When he dared to suggest to the highly influential ENS tutor and Marx scholar Louis Althusser that the age of production was soon to be overtaken by that of communication, he was denounced as a fascist (Pan124).

After passing the national Capés and Agrégation teaching qualifications (with Serres ranked first and second in the year in the two competitions respectively), in 1956 he joined the French Navy as an officer, serving a three year term on various vessels which took him to the Suez canal during the crisis as well as to Djibouti and to Algeria at the time of the Algerian war of Independence. Both the motif of the sea and the language of sailing pervade Serres’s work, from the image of the undivided ocean of knowledge in Hermès II: l’interférence, to the story of escaping a burning ship at the beginning of Les Cinq sens and the figure of the sailor in, among other texts, Hermès II, Hermès IV, Hermès V, Les Cinq sens, Détachement, Nouvelles du monde, Le Contrat naturel and Variations sur le corps.[23]

Although he considered his time in the Navy ‘two years of paradise’ (Pan 42), it nevertheless came to an abrupt halt when a crisis of conscience caused him to return to academic study in what he later called ‘the main bifurcation of my life’ (Pan 32).[24] The crisis was a recurrence of the reason he had previously resigned from the Naval Academy, namely the development of atomic weapons and their use to devastating effect at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The same mathematical science that Serres was so ardently pursuing, with whose progress he was directly complicit, had made the devastating bomb possible. Serres writes of the bomb as a problem which explodes ‘on every page of my books’, raising questions that science could not answer and driving him to the study of philosophy. Only philosophy, and at this time for Serres specifically the philosophy of Simone Weil (Ec 33/C 18, Pan 40), could explore and address the moral questions around the bomb, and so philosophical study forced itself upon the young Serres. Indeed, ‘Hiroshima remains the sole object of my philosophy’ (Ec 29/C 15-6),[25] and ‘I am a son of Hiroshima’ (Pan 32, see also PCDS2 57, Sol 45).[26] As Rick Dolphijn succinctly puts it, Hiroshima showed Serres ‘how physics was alienated from nature, how epistemology was alienated from ethics and how man was alienated from the world’.[27]

Serres returned to academia in 1960, first at the University of Clermont-Ferrand, but his multi-disciplinary background and his resistance to practicing philosophy as a philological exercise in excavating the classics meant that he was made to teach outside his specialty. This period saw Serres living between Clermont-Ferrand and the ENS Rue d’Ulm, where he was completing his major thesis that was planned on the subject of algebra, developed in the direction of topology, and ended up taking a more philosophical turn, issuing in the two-volume work Le Système de Leibniz et les modèles mathématiques (1968). It was at Clermont-Ferrand that he became firm friends with Michel Foucault, and in 1968 Foucault recruited Serres, or so he promised, to the philosophy department at the Centre universitaire expérimental de Vincennes, founded at the height of the 1968 protests as a new type of freer, more open academic institution. At Vincennes Serres joined an illustrious faculty including not only Foucault himself but also Alain Badiou, Jacques Rancière and Étienne Balibar, though significantly Serres was not, as it turned out, appointed as a Professor in in the newly-founded Philosophy department (see Pan 51).[28] His cross-disciplinary training, it seemed, created a barrier of suspicion with the philosophical counter-establishment just as it had previously with its bourgeois mirror image.

Serres’s experience of the events of 1968, like his impression of his home city of Agen, was split between two contrasting experiences: the excitement of Clermont-Ferrand and the squabbling of Vincennes. At the ‘heavenly’ Clermont-Ferrand ‘there prevailed a sort of lyricism in which we were all basking’ (Pan 49).[29] It was there that Serres and colleagues convened the États généraux de l’Université, a national conference to rethink the institution of the university. With a return to the tone of a studied insouciance that marked the story of his entry into Louis Le Grand, Serres uses a reflexive verb to remark how ‘I found myself presiding over the sitting’, and quips that ‘There I was, the boss! I had a good laugh. But I never belonged to any group’(Pan 57),[30] concluding that it was ‘the only time I entered into politics, really’ (Pan 57).[31] The contrast could not be more vivid with a Vincennes where ‘the atmosphere was positively violent, and above all more dishonest, more false, with this bunch of grand bourgeois left-wingers posing as revolutionaries’ (Pan 49).[32]

Serres cuts a lonely figure during this period. Modestly referring to his working class childhood and noting that ‘I no longer broke rocks, and that was already a lot’, he laments that ‘I have always been very glad to do this job. Apart from the fact that I had no friends in this environment’ (Pan 57-8).[33]His own diagnosis of the situation is that he felt more at home with sailors, labourers and farmers than intellectuals: ‘When I got married, for example, I invited all the workers from the family firm’ (Pan 57).[34] I have no hesitation in taking Serres at his word here, but it does seem just a little odd for one whose almae matres include Louis le Grand, the ENS and the Sorbonne to protest quite so much about intellectual culture and to insist quite so often that ‘I have always been a “little guy”‘ (Pan 57).[35] The least we might say here is that Serres is a ‘petit’ who has the luxury of an audience to hear him characterise himself thus. He casts himself as the protagonist in the hero’s journey, making of necessity a virtue and overcoming the odds to triumph in the end: ‘Excluded from the system, I opened the Michel Serres boutique. And I have to say that I haven’t come out of it at all badly. In the final analysis, it is an exclusion that been rather successful for me’ (Pan 363).[36] The ‘little’ one made it big after all. It is hard to escape the conclusion that this way of framing the story is at least in part a case of Serres sedulously cultivating his self-image, a narrative equivalent of the studiously unkempt hairstyle he sported in the 1970s and 1980s.

Serres’s stay at the University of Vincennes was short-lived (though he lives in Vincennes to this day), and in 1980 he was appointed to a post at l’Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne, which he kept until 2008. Once again, however, he was rejected by the philosophy department and taught instead in the history of science, an evidently painful event to which he alludes in the dedication to Rome:

With the present book […] I express my gratitude to the community of historians that welcomed me thirteen years ago when the pressure group then in power expelled me from my former paradise: philosophy. Thereby making my life hard.

With this same book, I thank René Girard, who, in similar circumstances, welcomed me, a quasi-refugee, into the hospitable America and who then taught me the true ideas developed here. (Rounnumbered)

Par le livre présent […], j’adresse mon remerciement à la communauté des historiens qui m’accueillit, voici treize ans, quand le groupe de pression alors au pouvoir m’expulsa de mon vieux paradis: la philosophie. Ce qui me fit la vie dure. Par le même, je remercie René Girard qui; dans les mêmes circonstances, m’accueillit, quasi réfugié, dans l’hospitalière Amérique, et qui, alors, m’y  enseigna les idées vraies ici développées. R 7)

The American hospitality to which he refers here is that of Stanford University, where he took up a visiting professorship in 1984.[37] The 1980s also saw an up-turn in Serres’s fortunes as a public intellectual. ‘The media darling Michel Serres’[38] was now to be seen on the iconic flagship arts program Apostrophes hosted by the equally iconic Bernard Pivot, which ran from 1975 to 1990. He appeared to discuss his publishing successes, notably Les Cinq sens, Le Contrat naturel and Le Tiers-instruit, with one entire episode in 1989 dedicated to Serres and Girard at Stanford.[39]

If the 1980s was the decade of media popularity for Serres, then the 1990s saw him collect a series of honours and titles, none more prestigious than his election to the Académie Française in 1990, the forty-strong group of ‘immortals’ of French intellectual life drawn from the arts, sciences and public life. In 1994 he was appointed as chief scientific advisor to the television channel La Cinquième, though his work for television pre-dates this appointment: along with astrophysicist Pierre Léna he co-wrote and narrated the ten-part television series Tours du monde, tours du ciel directed by Robert Pansard-Besson, first broadcast on the channel Arte in 1991, discussing the history of astronomy and cosmology. In 1996 he was involved in the production of another series, La Légende des sciences, the twelve episodes of which explore the history of science. This time Serres worked alongside Pansard-Besson as co-screenwriter and provided the series voiceover. He also made a notable appearance in the documentary La Grande allure (1985) by celebrated Québécois director Pierre Perrault, in which he is filmed having two conversations with the director and scriptwriter Jean Gagné about marine navigation.[40] His media career took a further turn in 2004 when he was invited by Michel Polacco, controller of the national radio station France Info, to take part in a weekly broadcast giving a ‘scientifically and philosophically informed’ view on a theme from the week’s news. Le Sens de l’Inforan from 5 September 2004 for 14 years until July 14, 2018, drawing up to four million weekly listeners.[41] On March 27 2004 Serres opened the Bibliothèque Michel Serres and the Institut Michel Serres at the ENS Lyon; in 2012 he received the Meister Eckhart Prize from the University of Cologne for his work on identity, only the second French thinker to receive the award after Claude Lévi-Strauss in 2003, and in 2013 he received the Dan David Prize, for cross-disciplinary work contributing to the betterment of society.

Why is he not better known?

Despite his status as académicien, despite his more than forty-five monographs, his long-term professorship at Stanford and his prestigious international prises, Serres ‘has as yet failed to find an audience amongst British and North American social theorists’,[42] ‘remains underutilized across the social sciences’[43] and is yet to ‘acquire the status of his peers’.[44] William Paulson laments that his prediction that Serres would attain a fame on a par with that of Barthes or Derrida was ‘about as wrong as could be’.[45]

It is not that Serres does not write enough, for he has regularly published around one or two books a year for the last two decades. It is not that his books have remained unknown; Petite Poucette and Temps des crises became best-sellers in France, and Les Cinq sens, Le Contrat naturel and Le Tiers-instruit were discussed in prominent national fora including the national salon Apostrophes. One explanation for Serres’s relatively anaemic reception is his untimeliness, which is no doubt the philosophical price to pay for his prescience. His Le Système de Leibniz struck an optimistic and only subtly political note at the height of the politically charged crisis of 1968, with its pronouncements such as ‘the more we advance in knowledge, the more we discover with joy a better world: in fact, the more we constitute it as such’ (SL 389)[46] jarring with the militant Zeitgeist. In Les cinq sens (1985) Serres was writing against language at the height of the linguistic turn in French thought, maintaining that ‘I fear those who go through life drugged, less than I fear those under the edict of language’ (CS 98/FS 92).[47] Le Contrat naturel, pleading for a renewed environmental responsibility and restraint on corporate destruction of the environment, dropped one year after the stock market crash of 1989 and at the beginning of the early 1990s recession in France and the U.S.A., when the appetite for potentially economically harmful environmentalism was at a low ebb.

There are also additional reasons, more inherent to Serres’s own writing, that may in part account for his lukewarm reception to date both in France and in the Anglophone world. One such factor is that his writing may not be considered ‘critical’ or ‘engaged’ enough by readers who consume philosophy in order to be informed which side of the latest ideological divide they are supposed to be on, why they are correct, and why their enemies must be defeated. Serres’s writing rarely (though occasionally) displays the sword-wielding or tub-thumping agonism that characterizes this critical tribalism, and he abhors the political ‘engagement’ common among many of his peers. In Chapter One we shall see that Serres considers this not as an absence or a weakness of his thought, but a positive choice for Leibnizian federation over Cartesian analysis. Serres’s thinking was, in contrast to many of his contemporaries, not defined by the political events of May ‘68 but by the bloody deaths of two World Wars and, supremely, the science-enabled atom bombs dropped on the civilians of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. ‘For me’, he warns in Solitude, ‘political decision were synonymous with mass deaths’ (Sol 119),[48] and whether or not readers share this view it does make sense of his reluctance to wade into political debates all guns blazing.

One reason Serres’s work is dismissed particularly in Anglophone circles is that his broad cross-disciplinary interests make for an approach that is vague and lacking in rigour, showing an unhealthy preference for stylistic peregrinations over careful systematicity. It is easy to peddle a story along these lines. Serres has been dismissed to my face have heard Serres dismissed on the basis of one misattributed quotation in Le Système de Leibniz, and on the basis that Petite Poucette is an octogenarian’s fantasy of the internet. These are quick and easy charges to make but, to my mind at least, accusations such as these are so keen to take the speck out of Serres’s eye that they miss the plank in their own, often a plank manifested precisely in looking first for whatever detail might be perceived incorrect in a thinker, rather than seeking to understand the global intuition he or she is offering. The problem here is in the refusal to see the federating impetus of Serres’s thought. It is not that he has the last word on anything he says, but that his thought as a whole gains compound persuasiveness with each journey it travels between disparate fields; its power is in its cumulative coherence, not in its treatment of any one theme in isolation. This is why it is quite correct—though a little obtuse—to answer the question ‘Where does Serres write about this or that subject?’ with the response ‘everywhere’. For the same reasons, Serres’s work does not lend itself to swift and self-contained ‘applications’ to discrete social or political questions, and even less to dinner party one-upmanship. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Serres is not a droppable name.

The way in which Serres weaves together disparate discourses, subjects and approaches is frequently seen not as a speciality in itself but as the lack of any speciality and as a shallow eclecticism: ‘I have never been considered a specialist in any domain, or of any problem’ (Pan 360), he laments.[49] To be a specialist in moving between and among problems and domains, it seems, does not count for an academic culture that persists in fighting over the rights to minuscule parcels of terrain. Serres has suffered from his decision to break the academic convention of staking out an intellectual territory of modest proportions (a strategy that was once archly described to me as writing a monograph on Molière’s underpants), making oneself its undisputed master and then milking it for all one is worth, defending one’s precious possession tooth and nail against the pretensions of any hostile academics who might challenge one’s position.

The breadth of Serres’s work also has the effect, unappealing for some, of taking even the most polymathic reader out of her comfort zone.[50] To read Serres is to become an outsider: the mathematician finds herself an outsider to nineteenth century literature, if not to recent trends in biology. The literary scholar finds himself on unfamiliar territory with Serres’s use of the technical vocabulary of sailing, or mathematical topology.[51] This is only a reason not to read Serres if we demand to dominate our reading matter and then pontificate as experts at the feet of whom all others are forced to sit. To read Serres is not to master Serres, and that is a good thing. We can hear the tone of frustration in Bruno Latour’s question ‘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?’ (Ec 70/C 43).[52] To read Serres is to be confronted with at least some of the vast ocean of knowledge of which we are barely even aware of our ignorance, to be confronted with disciplines which, whatever our speciality, we last studied at school, and this can perhaps be a discomforting experience for those driven by a critical instinct to prove themselves right and everyone else wrong.

Serres regularly confounds his readers and his thought has an ‘unpocketability’ and ‘undockability’[53] that wriggles free of all attempts to cloister it. Whereas many theoretical treatises take a central theme and scrutinise it centripetally from a number of different angles, Serres’s books tend to take a motif and then radiate out in a lavishly centrifugal diffusions, crossing disciplinary boundaries at will. As Steven Connor rightly points out, it is precisely because Serres does not let his reader settle into a familiar thematic treatment that his work ‘constitutes a thesaurus of possibilities that is much richer than that of other writers who may appear more tractable to our purposes’.[54]

Another potential obstacle in the way of Serres’s readers, but one that reveals itself to be a fitting and necessary aspect of his approach, is his style, especially from around Le Parasite (1980) onwards. The question of Serres’s style will be treated at length in Chapter Three, but no survey of the reasons why Serres has not been more widely received can be complete without a brief mention of his so-called ‘hermetic’[55] or ‘poetic’[56] mode of writing. Alan Murray rightly notes, ‘for many first-time readers, it is not immediately obvious that what they are dealing with is, in fact, philosophy at all. For example, Serres hardly ever uses philosophical terminology and rarely refers to other philosophers’.[57] He passes seamlessly between anecdote, myth, theoretical discourse, literary criticism and fictional narrative, and this means that the ‘concrete proposals’ or ‘practical measures’ for addressing the problems he raises are not often offered to the reader as low-hanging fruit but must be gleaned not only from what he writes but from the way he writes. This rich way of writing also means that his books resist translation ‘due to their complex word play, neologisms and erratic style’,[58] perhaps even more than those of Derrida and Deleuze, and unlike Bruno Latour he has never embraced writing in English.[59]

One more practical issue accounts for the slow take-up of Serres in the Anglophone world: the sluggish rate at which his books are being translated, and the somewhat haphazard order of those translations. The first book to appear in its entirety in English—discounting the composite Hermes: Literature, Science Philosophy (1982)—was The Parasite (1982), followed by Detachment (1989), Rome (1991, retranslated in 2015), Angels: A Modern Myth, Conversations on Culture, Science and Time, Genesis and The Natural Contract (all in the annus mirabilis of 1995), The Troubadour of Knowledge (1997), The Birth of Physics (2000, retranslated in 2018), Origins of Geometry (2001, retranslated as Geometry in 2017), The Five Senses (2008), Malfeasance (2011), Variations on the Body (2011), Biogea (2012), Times of Crisis (2013), Thumbelina and Statues (2014), Eyes (2015) and The Incandescent (2018). To be sure, Serres is currently undergoing something of a publishing and critical revival, with a monograph and collected volume on his thought appearing within two years[60] and the new Bloomsbury Michel Serres and Material Futures series, in addition to the book you are currently reading. The most egregious omission from this list, of course, is Le Système de Leibniz which, like De la grammatologie for Derrida or Différence et répétition for Deleuze, sets key trajectories for almost all Serres’s later thought. The translation of this magnum opus, which is surely now inevitable, will, I predict, will mark a step-change in the reception of Serres’s thought. I hope to demonstrate in the chapters that follow why it is the single most crucial text in understanding Serres as a thinker, despite the fact that he developed and nuanced many of the positions he holds in this early work. Derrida’s and Deleuze’s reception would surely have been different had their seminal theses similarly remained similarly unpublished. It is additionally very hard to understand Serres’s thought without, if not the five volumes of the Hermès series, then at least Hermès II: l’interférence, Hermès IV: la distribution, and Hermès V: le Passage du Nord-Ouest, and we await the translation of these volumes with similar impatient expectancy.

One final reason why Serres is not more widely read, at least in his own estimation, is that he does not peddle a philosophical brand:

I do not have the equivalent of this idea attached to the name of certain philosophers as if it were their treasure: the clinamen for Epicurus, the lump of wax for Descartes, the general will for Rousseau, the flesh for Merleau-Ponty, deconstruction for Derrida, mimetism for René Girard, etc. I have no logo, not brand. But a philosophy does not spread without a logo (Pan 360-1)[61]

This is not entirely true: Serres’s quasi-object, parasite and troubadour of knowledge do to some extent have the same currency as Derrida’s deconstruction (a term with which Derrida, for his part, is distinctly uneasy insofar as it is used to characterise his thought as a whole[62]), and at least the same prominence as Descartes’s wax or Merleau-Ponty’s flesh. What is certainly true is that Serres does not court, and has not received, the same devoted gaggle of disciples that gathers around his more prominent contemporaries. While Derridean, Deleuzian and Foucauldian approaches to everything from architecture to zoology abound and are explored in a steady stream of monographs with titles in which thinker and subject straddle the copula ‘and’, rare indeed is the confessedly ‘Serresian’ reading of a particular theme or problem. This is partly Serres’s own doing: his thought resists the off-the-shelf character that garners disciples, and because the topics on which he writes are so diverse his readers form no mobilisable community.[63] In a interview with Peter Hallward published in 2003 he argues that ‘[t]here are two kinds of philosopher: there are philosophers who shackle you’ like Hegel and Heidegger whom, once the unsuspecting reader begins to digest their vast output, reel her in and make her their disciple, ‘and philosophers who free you’ (H&S 234-5) like Leibniz, who does not cajole its readers into becoming Leibnizians. Serres has individual and independent readers, not groups of followers. Masataka Ishibashi rightly points out that that, when we read Serres on Leibniz we customarily do so with the aim of understanding Leibniz, not primarily of understanding Serres better through his reading of Leibniz, and when we read Serres on ecology or the senses we do so with the aim primarily of understanding those topics more adequately, rather than understanding Serres himself: ‘Serres has not been read for himself but according to the interests of each reader. From which there arises a real problem’.[64]

There are, however, encouraging signs for the future of Serres scholarship. His reputation continues to benefit from isolated but outstanding standard-bearers such as Marcel Hénaff, Bruno Latour, Christiane Frémont, William Paulson, Steven Connor, David Webb and Stephanie Posthumus to name but a few, and the rate of translation of his important works is picking up, with Bloomsbury and Rowman and Littlefield blazing the trail. If optimism is a function of trajectory, then there is every reason to see a bright future for work on Serres.

How (not) to write about Michel Serres

Having sketched Serres’s life and the reasons for his tepid reception to date, we now turn to the thorny issue of the approach of this book. By no means the smallest thorn is that there are sufficient indications in Serres’s writing, echoed and amplified in the judgments of some of his readers, that writing a book such as the one you are currently reading is a bad idea per se. Serres’s work, as we have already seen, resists reductive synthesis. Each paragraph sends out axons in multiple directions and we are faced with the unenviable choice of either ignoring some of the important connections or producing a map that is as large as the territory it represents. If Serres’s meaning is in the way that he writes just as much as in what he says, then how can a book that does not write like Serres begin to do justice to his thought?

Warnings against such a foolhardy undertaking proliferate in the literature on Serres with sufficient frequency to make any sensible scholar walk away quietly and try something else. Stephanie Posthumus voices a concern that I suspect everyone who has written on Serres has experienced along the way: ‘we often have the impression of advancing against the current, of doing violence to the very nature of the work, when we summarise Serres’s thought’[65] It is quite true, as Niran Abbas warns, that, when it comes to Serres, ‘[b]y excluding the “inessential,” one misses the essential’.[66] Steven Connor similarly cautions that Serres’s thought ‘does not seem to allow short-cuts, does not surrender easily to the economy of synecdoche, or permit the parsimony of paraphrase’.[67] Abbas, once more, issues one of the starkest warnings against writing on Serres’s thought:

It would even be possible, I think, to create an abstract, conceptual handbook from Serres, a kind of dogmatic, synthetic textbook of “Serresean philosophy,” with an emphasis on the invariant models and the philosophical translations of scientific concepts. Yet although such a handbook strikes me as a real possibility, it is one, I suspect, that no one really devoted to his work could quite want to do.[68]

These are high stakes indeed: to write a book on Serres’s thought betrays a lack of devotion to Serres. Catch 22. This may not, however, be quite such a bad thing. I come neither to praise Serres nor to bury him, and I write as not as one devoted to Serres’s work but as one who is nevertheless convinced that it is fresh, important and chronically underappreciated. I am not a ‘Serresian’, but then again I suspect that Serres would not approve if I were. It is also true, of course, that anyone at all who writes on Serres cannot do so without some measure of the synthesising and seeking invariance against which Abbas warns. Indeed, in the same paragraph he dips his toe in this water with the meta-comment that ‘[w]hat matters is less an overarching argument running through a book (though strong and coherent argument there is), but rather the connections being made through continuous interwoven “digressions” that turn out to be the very texture of the writing and thought’.[69]

Despite the admonitions of multiple readers of Serres I remain convinced that sketching the contours of a ‘Serresian philosophy’ not only has merit but fits well with Serres’s own approach in ways I will explain below, and that if the worst excesses of dogmatism and synthetic reductionism can be avoided, this is not only a valuable but a necessary task if the power and uniqueness of Serres’s thought is to be introduced to more readers in both the Anglophone and Francophone worlds. What Abbas is rightly resisting, I think, is a reduction of the cross-disciplinary richness of Serres’s thought to a flat philosophical suite of concepts in relation to which his treatments of literature and science can be dismissed as so many bells and whistles. I share that misgiving, and I offer the account of ‘extensivity’ and ‘exhaustivity’ in Serres’s pluralism (see Chapter Two) as a way to preserve the uniqueness of each disciplinary approach while still allowing them to be brought into relation with each other

In ‘undermining the “Serres handbook” option’, Abbas intends that ‘the rich concreteness of his writing thus serves to prevent his texts from becoming instruments of power and control-with all the dangers for loss of intellectual influence that this stance implies’.[70] I wonder, though, whether that is quite a Serresian stance to take. To sequester Serres’s writing in a purified temple unsullied by the evils of power and control may unwittingly play into the hands of what I will call the sacred/profane dichotomy of modernity against which he struggles might and mane. For Serres everything is related, and influence, power and control are best addressed not by seeking, per impossibile, to remain unadulterated by them, but—as Serres does with pollution in Le Mal propre—by understanding them in a broader context that shows their surprising isomorphic affinities with dynamics with which they are customarily thought to have nothing in common.

Perhaps the starkest warning against writing a book about Serres comes from Serres himself, in the introduction to Le Système de Leibniz, where he warns against choosing a single Leibnizian discourse—whether it be logic, the metaphysics of forces, monadic pluralism or theological mysticism—and trying to reduce the rest of Leibniz to it (SL 26-7). And yet, in this chastening warning against writing what Abbas calls a ‘Serres handbook’, we also find a Serresian blueprint for such an exercise, namely that we can seek to read Serres as Serres himself reads Leibniz. Refusing any single starting point, Serres takes the plurality of Leibnizian discourses itself as his entry into the Leibnizian corpus, seeking to account for how they relate to each other rather than trying to reduce one to another.[71]This is the approach to Serres’s own work I attempt in the current volume.

I am of the very firm conviction that a book on Serres should not need, or try, to write like Serres. To describe is not the same as to participate, and both have their place. As is the case with every assessment and analysis of a body of work, whether in literature, philosophy or any other field, to read this book is not to read Michel Serres. Writing a book that approximated as closely as possible to reading Serres himself would, furthermore, be pointless: just go and read Serres himself. What the prospective reader of Serres does not yet have, however, is a volume that presents and evaluates Serres’s thought systematically, starting with a sustained treatment of Le Système de Leibniz and then following an often winding path through his books on Verne and Zola, through his Hermèsseries, his foundations trilogy, and through his treatments of language, objects and ecology. That is what the present volume aspires to offer: one path through Serres’s work. There is more than adequate precedent in Serres’s writing itself for the sort of approach this book is taking. The ‘table de manières’ in Jouvences, sur Jules Verne demonstrates that Serres acknowledges there are multiple paths through his work, multiple ways to ramble over the landscape of his thought. However, as Steven Connor rightly notes, to choose one pathway is inevitably to open oneself to all of it, for ‘here the local communicates fully with the global and the global wholly inhabits the local’.[72]

Figures of thought

With these caveats in place I can now sketch the main contours of the approach to Serres’s work I have adopted in this book. There are two: I seek to draw out Serres’s ‘global intuition’, and I do so by focussing on his ‘figures of thought’. This is an approach that, I will argue, cuts with the grain of his writing.

The term ‘figures of thought’ [‘figures de la pensée’] was the original 2015 subtitle of Le Gaucher boiteux, before it was re-released in 2017 with the subtitle ‘power of thought’ [‘puissance de la pensée’]. In Le Gaucher boiteux Serres treats the idea of figures of thought at some length, identifying them by five key features. First, they are operators.[73] Near the beginning of Le Gaucher boiteux Serres promises that ‘this book will describe figures of thought’, and ’what is thinking if not, at the very least, performing four operations: receiving, emitting, storing and processing information?’ (GB 11).[74] So Serres’s first definition of figures of thought is as a series of operations that are performed repeatedly, always in new contexts and on different information. Drawing on the language of his earlier work in Éloge de la philosophie en langue française and elsewhere, this is an understanding of figures of thought as algorithms, complex functions for producing an infinite variety of outputs from infinite possibilities of inputs.

Secondly, figures of thought are a natural phenomenon, not imagined ex nihilo by the philosopher and not merely a cultural artefact. They emerge from the ‘Great Story’ of the universe with its bifurcating turns that lead from the emergence of matter through mineral, animal and human life and encompass language, meaning and culture. ‘Life as it evolves’, insists Serres, ‘operates by emergences, by unexpected syntheses. Like the Great Story, it explodes with inventions. It produces figures’ (GB 14).[75] So, for example, species of flora and fauna are figures (GB 15), understood as new inventions or branchings in the Great Story that respond and adapt to particular environments. Figures are not limited to a glacial evolutionary timescale however, for ‘the ordinary existence of the animal, vegetal or human body ceaselessly produces such sums, such syntheses, such figures, such emergent novelties’ (GB 28).[76] Whatever figures may exist, in whatever form and in whatever context, ‘they all emerge from the movement of the Universe, of life, of the body, of cultures, in short of thought.’ (GB 178)[77] There is, then, a fundamental continuity between the way Serres understands the rhythms of nature and the rhythms of his own thought.[78]

Thirdly, figures are inventions. They introduce something new into the Great Story of the universe. In Serres’s language, they are ‘ramifications’,[79] ‘elements, constellations, plants, animals, nymphs, idols, and their sweet twin sisters, ideas’ (GB 16)[80] that cannot be reduced to what preceded them. Fourthly, human figures are not always products of the mind but are also formed by and expressed in the body. Serres gives the examples of the tummy roll, the Fosbury flop, the elegant pas de deux and the tender gesture (GB 28), and of distinctive ‘ways of holding the body, gestures, postures and movements’ (GB 29).[81] Figures transgress the dichotomy of mind and body.

Fifthly, literature also invents figures equivalent to those of the Great Story, as Serres explains in an important but complex passage sketching the scope of the term:

literature […] invents and draws figures as beautiful as Ulysses, Don Quixote, Don Juan or the Grand Inquisitor, it gives us access to a summation that is analogous to, and a virtual and cognitive synthesis that is the soft equivalent of, those sums and syntheses that the Great Story shows us when hard iron, aluminium or manganese appear, the equivalent of those that evolution brings forth when a gull in the sky, a jaguar on the earth and a manatee in the ocean see the light of day, of those that populate the mythologies of fetishes and idols, of those produced by the body as adaptive gestures when it walks, jumps, and runs, equivalent to the laws it discovers when it becomes liquid as it swims and believes it can fly as it jumps, to the figure that brings into the light the miracle of maternity, then to the final gesture, named more softly.

la littérature […] invente et dessine des figures aussi belles que celles d’Ulysse, Don Quichotte, Dom Juan ou le Grand Inquisiteur, elle nous fait accéder à une somme analogue, à une synthèse virtuelle et cognitive, équivalente dans le doux à celles que le Grand Récit nous montre quand paraissent, durs, fer, aluminium ou manganèse, à celles que l’évolution fait émerger quand paraissent à la lumière telle mouette dans les airs, sur la terre le jaguar ou le lamantin dans les mers, à celles qui peuplent les mythologies de fétiches et d’idoles, à celles que le corps produit en gestes adaptés, lorsqu’il marche, saute, court, aux lois qu’il découvre quand il nage en se liquéfiant et saute en croyant qu’il vole, à la figure que fait accéder au jour la miraculeuse maternité, puis au geste final et plus doux de nommer. (GB 41)

Like the figures of the natural world, literary figures are alive in the sense that they can evolve over time, ‘at least in the virtual of an experience that is indispensable to the way our learning metamorphoses’, and so ‘they mimic the world and life, in the sense of recreating them’ (GB 41).[82]Nature and culture, body and mind, literature and life are all encompassed in Serres’s transgressive notion of the figure.

Sixthly, and following this literary pattern, many of the figures that Serres invents are characters whose names can be mythological or literary (Hermes, Atlas, Harlequin and Pierrot), generic (the parasite, the pontifex, angels) and/or proper (Thumbelina, Bianca Castafiore, Ulysses). These characters will be discussed at greater length in Chapter Three, but what is important for our purposes here is that they draw together the general and the individual, in one more instance of Serres’s distinctive account of the complementarity of the local and the global. Such figures are superior to abstract ideas not only because they better reflect the invention of nature’s figures that are always ‘individual incarnations’ (GB 47), but also because they better represent the truth of ideas than ideas themselves: a beautiful man or woman is beautiful in a way that the abstract idea of beauty is not, such that ‘this spiralling return of the idea towards the figure can no longer pass for a stupid regression, as if it were an inability to conceptualise, but on the contrary it constitutes cognitive progress, a gain in reality’ (GB 119).[83] Serres’s figures, in other words, are not merely descriptive but performative, not merely mimetic but participatory.

Seventhly, figures are synthetic. While remaining unique they can draw together and communicate a world: ‘singular, original, unique of its sort, even marginal if you want, and in any case unexpected, a concrete character synthesises a whole world and often brings it into being’ (GB 53).[84] Eighthly and finally, these figures are upstream of abstract ideas which ‘come right at the end of a long series of more nourishing figures’ (GB 24).[85] Figures are the living, effervescent forms from which abstract concepts are painfully reduced. Serres’s twin insistence on the natural origin of all figures of thought, and on their (literary or fleshly) incarnation sets them apart from other attempts to label philosophical moves, such as the ‘philosopheme’ used by Derrida and others,[86] and also the Deleuzian concepts which it is the business of philosophy to create.[87]

Figures of thought help Serres to establish continuities, invariances and isomorphisms across his treatments of different themes in different books. The figure of Hermes, for example, stands over Serres’s writing from Hermès I: la communication until it is replaced by multiple angels in La Légende des anges, undergoing many evolutions and subtly variant incarnations along the way. Figures help Serres’s reader to build a sense of characteristic Serresian philosophical moves or gestures, without ossifying them into a rigid philosophical system or handbook. I propose to build on this Serresian trait by drawing out the similarities between moves and gestures that remain disconnected in Serres’s own writing, providing figures for certain moments of Serres’s thought that risk passing under the radar of all but the most assiduous and capacious reader of his work. Where I have named figures that are not consistently accorded a label by Serres himself, I have tried to do so by pressing into service terms which are already present in his writing. In labelling figures of thought I am extending a practice already underway in Serres’s thought, not imposing upon it an alien grid. My aim is twofold: first to make visible the recurring moves in Serresian thought that might otherwise risk appearing disjointed or opportunistic, providing the reader with a legend for reading the Serresian map, and secondly to show the North-West passages that connect far-flung corners of the Serresian corpus.

An approach that focuses on figures of thought seeks to take seriously Abbas’s warning about a ‘Serres handbook’ while also responding to René Girard’s prescient but problematic injunction in the introduction to Detachment:

Future historians of ideas may decide, at some point, that Michel Serres was one of the leading spirits in a revolution that is taking place in our midst at this very moment and is transforming our conception of knowledge. This will happen when the categories are finally created that will make his thought more predictable and classifiable than it is now.[88]

The spirit of this prediction is, I think, correct, and borne out by the way in which Serres’s work has been received to date. It is notable that where such terms do exist in texts in translation—notably ‘parasite’ and ‘natural contract’—Serres’s thought has been relatively well and productively received. The prediction is problematic, however, in its detail. It is not predictability and classifiability that Serres’s thought requires, but figures or operators that can help us to navigate through it, and these figures do not need to be created for they already exist; they do not require imposing on Serres’s thought, but bringing to its surface.

A global intuition

Serres’s figures of thought do not exist in isolation from each other but form part of a coherent sensibility that he calls a ‘global intuition’. Serres draws on concepts of intuition as self-evidence in Descartes (H1) and as ‘a gushing duration’ [‘durée jaillissante’] in Bergson (H5 79-80, see also Ec/C, and CS/FS),[89] but his notion of a ‘global intuition’ is distinctively his own. In the course of a conversation with Bruno Latour he explains that ‘my goal is not above all to be right but, rather, to produce a global intuition, profound and sensible’ (Ec 170/C 115).[90] This compact statement draws together five aspects of Serres’s thought that will shape the approach of this book; let us consider each one in turn.

First of all, Serres is seeking to produce not a set of propositions or a system, but an intuition. The examples he gives of such intuitions show them to be possible ways of seeing or experiencing the world. It is a term the effects of which are relatively easy to describe, but which is hard to define:

Do you want to talk about invention? It’s impossible without that dazzling, obscure, and hard-to-define emotion called intuition. Intuition is, of all things in the world, the rarest, but most equally distributed among inventors—be they artists or scientists. Yes, intuition strikes the first blows. (C 99)

Voulez-vous parler de l’invention ? Comment faire sans invoquer cette émotion fulgurante, obscure et difficile à définir qu’on appelle l’intuition ? L’intuition est la chose du monde la plus rare, mais la mieux partagée par les inventeurs, qu’ils soient artistes ou savants. Oui, elle joue — et frappe — les premiers coups. (Ec 148)

Serresian intuition strikes the ‘opening blows’ of the creative process in the arts and the inventive process in the sciences; it generates the initial hypothesis that is to be tested, or the initial way of seeing the world that is to be explored. Like Nietzsche’s eternal return (see LRE), an intuition is not something that can exhaustively be explained, but it explains everything else. It need not be instantaneous, but ‘ertain great inventors confess to having received their definitive intuition in a single night, a week, a wonderful year’ (In 99/Inc 52).[91] Intuition is also distinct from understanding. For example we can come to an understanding of the vast duration of time since the big bang without intuiting it (In 190/Inc 105). An intuition is in an important sense pre-rational, but it is not anti-rational or arbitrary. Indeed, new intuitions can be demanded by new circumstances, such as the development of non-Euclidean geometry requiring us to see the world differently (see Rome).

Secondly, Serresian intuition is ‘profound and sensible’. Intuition is not exclusively intellectual but ‘[w]hatever the activity you’re involved in, the body remains the medium of intuition, memory, knowing, working and above all invention’ (VSC 31-2/VB 34).[92] Intuition is corporeal: not a concept but a sensibility, and not a way of thinking but a way of living in the world. It is also profound and sensible in the sense that it is a pre-theoretical sensitivity to what in Chapter Four we shall see Serres call the rhythms and sounds of existence out of which meaning and language emerge. The corporeality and pre-theoretical, pre-linguistic rhythmicality of Serresian global intuition sets it apart from the intellectualising notion of ‘worldview’ and also from Deleuze’s concept of the ‘image of thought’ in Difference and Repetition and elsewhere which, though similarly global in scope, is primarily concerned with questions of reference, truth and representation.[93]

This intuition, thirdly, is ‘global’. An intuition does not pertain to an isolated phenomenon or a particular problem, but to the nature of reality as such, and specifically to what must necessarily be: ‘every great change in knowledge, intuition or our relationship to the world, corresponds to a crisis over the concept or reality of necessity’ (CS 294/FS 268).[94] As an example of such a concept or reality of necessity we might think of the intuition that space is topologically constituted:

It’s fun, instructive, and has a strong influence on intuition. Once you’ve entered into this kind of thinking you realize how much all of what we’ve said about time up till now abusively simplifies things. (C 58)

C’est amusant, instructif et change fortement l’intuition. Une fois que vous êtes entré dans cette manière de penser, vous vous apercevez à quel point tout ce que nous avons dit jusqu’à maintenant sur le temps simplifie abusivement les choses. (Ec 92-3)

An intuition is not something that we experience in the world but a way of looking at and making sense of everything we experience in the world: a how, not a what.

Fourthly, Serres is not simply seeking to describe his global intuition, but to produce it in his reader. An intuition requires cultivation, reflection, meditation. It may come in a flash but it takes work to inhabit it. For instance, Serres urges that, in order to intuit the vast time that has elapsed since the big bang and its implications for our understanding of ourselves and the world, ‘we have to carry out a theoretical effort as well as an existential one: trying to live and understand the content and stake of this new ancientness’ (In 190/Inc 105).[95] It also follows from this desire to produce rather than describe that Serres’s style of writing will play an important role in inculcating in his reader the rhythms and sensibilities of his global intuition. As we shall see in chapters Four, Five and Six, Serres’s texts do not represent his global intuition but participate in it, and invite the reader to participate with them. The accent on production also sets Serres’s global intuition apart from Foucault’s epistemes in The Order of Things and The Archaeology of Knowledge. Whereas Foucault’s demarche is predominantly descriptive and he hesitates to describe the archive of his own historical moment,[96] Serres engages in an active construction of a new global intuition based on recent discoveries in the sciences and recent philosophical theories.

Fifthly, Serres is seeking ‘not above all to be right’. Let it be said loudly and clearly that this does not amount to Serres claiming that he does not mind whether he is right or not. He is saying, rather, that being right or wrong is a status within a particular global intuition of the world, a move within a particular game, less ‘profound and sensible’ than the global intuition that makes sense of it. Being right is a matter of verification; measuring something against an existing standard to see if it conforms. It is of great use, but it creates nothing new. Intuition, by contrast, is about invention:

I have come to believe that a work achieves more excellence when it cites fewer proper names. It is naked, defenseless, not lacking knowledge but saturated with second naivety; not intent on being right but ardently reaching toward new intuitions.

A university thesis aims at the imitable; a plain and simple work seeks the inimitable. (C 22-3, translation altered)

Il m’arrive de penser qu’un ouvrage atteint d’autant mieux l’excellence qu’il cite moins de noms propres : nu, sans défense, non point sans savoir mais saturé de naïveté seconde, cherchant peu à avoir raison, mais tendu ardemment vers l’intuition neuve.

Une thèse universitaire vise l’imitable, une œuvre tout court cherche l’inimitable. (Ec 39)

Intuitions are responsible for the ‘great inventions’ (Ec 62/C 39) of thought, such as Bergson’s intuition that time is duration, or Galileo’s that the universe is written in the language of mathematics (RH 179, see also R 83/Ro 52). Intuition is not irrational, but it is upstream of rationality, the creative raw material upon which rationality sets to work: ‘Intuition initiates and commands, abstraction follows it, and finally proof sorts things out and sets them down, in its pedestrian way, as it is able’ (Ec 104/C 68).[97] In the course of this book I will seek to draw out the nature and implications of Serres’s global intuition, relating each local insight or figure of thought to this global, pre- and trans-rational way of living in and understanding the world.

In the service of these twin aims of identifying and exploring Serres’s key figures of thought, and of locating them within the global intuition he offers to his reader, this book is divided into two parts of three chapters each. Part I seeks to survey and discuss some of Serres’s main figures of thought by exploring the philosophers with whom he most frequently disagrees and those who shape his thought most deeply (Chapter One), the distinctive account of space and time in his global intuition (Chapter Two), and the irreducible importance of his style of writing for the communication of his global intuition (Chapter Three). Part II then turns to three salient themes in Serres’s thought which are also important topics in recent and contemporary politics and society, exploring how language (Chapter Four), objects (Chapter Five) and ecology (Chapter Six) function as nodes or junctions that both develop and set to work Serres’s figures of thought, instantiating his global intuition. I encourage the reader to engage with these chapters not as an unbreakable sequence but as six ways into, and paths through, Serres’s thought. Across the six chapters I briefly indicate ways in which Serres’s positions both resonate with and depart from contemporaries such as Derrida, Badiou, Deleuze and Foucault, and later thinkers such as Jane Bennett, Catherine Malabou, Bruno Latour, Graham Harman and Jean-Luc Nancy. These encounters with other thinkers are intended as indicative suggestions and not exhaustive treatments; it cuts against the grain of Serres’s own writing to engage in interminable comparisons, and it loses much of the freshness of Serres’s thought always to be dragging him back and tying him down with minute comparisons. It is my hope that, by letting his work speak for itself, readers from diverse disciplinary backgrounds will find not only comparisons with already familiar thinkers but an inventive, invigorating and challenging global intuition and a suite of figures of thought that can help them think in fresh ways about subjects both new and old.


[1] Petite Poucette (2007) sold over 300 000 copies in France and Temps des crises (2009) also entered the best-seller lists. In the 1990s Eclaircissements (1992), a series of interviews with Bruno Latour, was also a best-seller.

[2] Serres receives extended treatment in very few surveys of recent French thought. Two notable exceptions are Vincent Descombes’s Modern French Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980), where Serres receives a section entitled ‘What is a structural analysis? (Serres)’ (pp. 82-92), and the edited volume Contemporary French Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), which features Bruno Latour’s essay ‘The Enlightenment without the Critique: A word on Michel Serres’s Philosophy’ (pp. 83-97). Serres is unmentioned in the survey of contemporary thinkers in the October 2006 edition of the Magazine Littéraire, in Alan Montefiore’s Philosophy in France Today (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), in Richard Kearney’s Modern Movements in European Philosophy: Phenomenology, Critical Theory, Structuralism (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1994), in An Introduction to Modern European Philosophy, edited by Jenny Teichman and Graham White (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1995), in Richard Kearney (ed.), The Continental Philosophy Reader (London: Routledge, 1996), in Peter Sedgwick’s Descartes to Derrida: An Introduction to European Philosophy (Hobooken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2001), in Simon Critchley’s Continental Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), in Andrew Cutrofello’s Continental Philosophy: A Contemporary Introduction(London: Routledge, 2005), in 100 years of European Philosophy Since the Great War: Crisis and Reconfigurations edited by Matthew Sharpe, Jack Reynolds and Rory Jeffs (Dordtrecht: Springer, 2017), and in Robert Solomon and David Sherman (eds.), The Blackwell Guide to Continental Philosophy (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2008), though curiously The Natural Contract does receive a brief mention in the broader Blackwell Companion to Philosophy, edited by Nicholas Bunnin, Eric Tsui-James (Oxford: Blackwell, 2008). His name appears once in a list of thinkers in the Foreword to Luc Ferry and Alain Renaut’s French Philosophy of the Sixties: An Essay on Antihumanism (Amherst, MA: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1990). He is mentioned in dispatches in Alan D. Schrift’s Twentieth Century French Philosophy: Key Themes and Thinkers(Oxford: Blackwell, 2006) and in Gary Gutting’s French Philosophy in the Twentieth Century groups him with Cavaillès and Canguilhem in a seven page section that cites only Serres’s Conversations on Science, Culture and Time and framing Serres as a philosopher of the concept rather than of consciousness. Most inexplicably of all, he merits mention over only two pages in the three-hundred page Continental Philosophy of Science edited by Gary Gutting (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2008). Less than half Serres’s work has been translated. Most egregiously, his thesis Le Système de Leibniz remains available only in French.

[3] ‘au moment même où nous avons besoin d’intégrales, nous n’avons de philosophies que celles de la différence’. I have adopted in this book what I hope is a sensitive and flexible approach to translation. The original French of most quotations is given in footnotes. Where quotations are very brief and admit of very little translational ambiguity, I have refrained from providing the original French. Translations of block quotations are given in the text, directly above the original French. Occasionally, where a number of brief quotations appear in succession, I have added the French in square brackets after each quotation to save the reader the trouble of finding each individual translation in the notes.

[4] ‘alors que n’importe quelle question touche, aujourd’hui, l’ensemble connexe de leurs spécialistes’.

[5] ‘découvert à l’intersection d’une multiplicité croissante de voies d’approche’.

[6] ‘la fin de l’idéal analytique’.

[7] ‘la fin de l’ère des spécialistes’.

[8] ‘Poets and imaginative prose writers are prophets, not in the sense of foretelling things, but of generating forceful visions’, Niran Abbas, Mapping Michel Serres (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005) 8.

[9] Keith Moser, The Encyclopedic Philosophy of Michel Serres: Writing the Modern World and Anticipating the Future (Augusta, GA: Anaphoral Literary Press, 2016) 244.

[10] Pierpaolo Antonello, ‘Celebrating a Master: Michel Serres’, Configurations 8:2 (2000) 165-169, 166.

[11] Next come Les Cinq sens (9), Rameaux (8), L’Incandescent (8), Hominescence (6) and Genèse(6).

[12] ‘un vrai travail de forçat, dur, très très dur’.

[13] ‘le dernier survivant de la dernière tribu des derniers mariniers de Garonne’.

[14] ‘j’étais né sur l’eau, ma famille vivait de l’eau ; on raconte que ma mère, enceinte de moi, sortit par la fenêtre du premier étage de notre maison, en bateau, pendant la grande inondation de 1930 ; j ‘avais donc navigué en prénatal, et pas seulement dans les eaux amniotiques !’.

[15] ‘il n’y en a pas de racine dans le fleuve’.

[16] ‘les monts d’amont et la mer d’aval’.

[17] ‘Quand j’ai eu mon premier bac—à l’époque, il y en avait deux—, il m’a demandé ce que j’allais faire et je lui ai répondu que j’allais m’inscrire en philo. À l’époque, on avait le choix pour la terminale entre deux filières: terminale lettres, dite « philo », ou terminale maths. « Jamais de la vie ! m’a dit le curé. Puisque tu es bon en lettres, tu vas faire math élém. » J’étais tellement surpris que j’ai balbutié: « Vous plaisantez, je n’y connais rien ! » et je le vois encore me sourire : « Tant mieux ! » J’ai suivi son injonction et fait math élém à Agen.’

[18] ‘Je suis du peuple. Ma première formation vient des métiers et techniques du petit peuple : dès le plus jeune âge, j’ai fréquenté des forgerons, des selliers, des maçons, des ouvriers agricoles, des mariniers’.

[19] ‘Mon ami m’a téléphoné pour me dire que j’étais inscrit à Louis-le-Grand. « Mais pour faire quoi? lui ai-je dit. Pour préparer Normale », m’a-t-il répondu. Je ne savais même pas ce que c’était Normale !’

[20] Benoît Peeters, Derrida: A Biography (Cambridge : Polity Press, 2013) 65.

[21] Peeters, Derrida 63. The other two, Pierre Hassner and Alain Pons, were from the Lycée Henri IV, the other great Parisian feeder school for the Grandes Ecoles.

[22] Peeters, Derrida 65.

[23] This latte list is taken from Stephanie Posthumus, ‘La nature et l’écologie chez Lévi-Strauss, Tournier, Serres’, PhD Thesis, Faculty of Graduate Studies, The University of Western Ontario, London, Ontario, 2003, 113.

[24] ‘la principale bifurcation de ma vie’.

[25] ‘Hiroshima reste l’unique objet de ma philosophie’.

[26] ‘[j]e suis un fils d’Hiroshima’.

[27] Rick Dolphijn, ‘The World, the Mat(t)er of Thought’, in Michel Serres and the Crises of the Contemporary, ed. Rick Dolphijn (London: Bloomsbury, 2018) 127-146, 132.

[28] Although Deleuze arrived at Vincennes later, in 1969, Serres still struck up with Deleuze his closest intellectual friendship, affirming in a 1995 interview that ‘Deleuze was my best friend. I admired him. I loved him’ (IHK).

[29] ‘Durant ces jours à l’université de Clermont, il régnait une sorte de lyrisme dans lequel nous baignions tous’.

[30] ‘je me suis retrouvé président de séance. […] C’était moi le patron ! Je me suis bien amusé. Mais je n’ai jamais appartenu à un groupe quelconque’.

[31] ‘la seule fois où je suis entré en politique, vraiment’.

[32] ‘l’ambiance était positivement violente, et surtout plus mensongère, plus fausse, avec cette tripotée de grands bourgeois de gauche posant aux révolutionnaires’.

[33] ‘Je ne cassais plus les cailloux, et c’était déjà beaucoup. […] Non, j’ai toujours été très content de faire ce métier. Sauf que je n’avais pas d’amis dans ce milieu.’

[34] ‘Quand je me suis marié, par exemple, j’ai invité tous les ouvriers de l’entreprise familiale’.

[35] ‘J’ai toujours été un « petit »‘.

[36] ‘Exclu du système, j’ai ouvert la boutique « Michel Serres ». Et je dois dire que je ne m’en suis pas trop mal sorti. Au final, c’est une exclusion qui m’a plutôt bien réussi’.

[37] Before the appointment at Stanford Serres held visiting professorships at a range of U.S. universities including Johns-Hopkins, Buffalo, New York and The University of California Irvine, and the University of Austin, Texas (Pan 69).

[38] This is a rather free translation of ‘Le très médiatisé philosophe Michel Serres’, from the rather negative review of Serres’s Le Contrat naturel by Jérôme Lamy, ‘L’écologie sans politique’, Le Monde diplomatique, January 2019, p. 26, available at https://www.monde-diplomatique.fr/2019/01/LAMY/59414

[39] Jean Cazenave, ‘Deux philosophes Français aux Etats-Unis’, Apostrophes 21 July 1989, Available at https://www.ina.fr/video/CPB89007713

[40] For more information, see Céline Savard, Répertoire numérique détaillé : Fonds Pierre Perrault(P319), available at https://www.archives.ulaval.ca/fileadmin/documents/Documents/Repertoire_numerique_P319Perrault.pdf

[41] The figure is quoted on Rick Dolphijn, ‘Introduction’, in Michel Serres and the Crises of the Contemporary, ed. Rick Dolphijn (London: Bloomsbury, 2018) 1-10, 1.

[42] Steven D. Brown, ‘Michel Serres. Science, Translation and the Logic of the Parasite’, Theory, Culture & Society 19:7 (2002) 1.

[43] Ian Tucker, ‘Sense and the Limits of Knowledge: Bodily Connections in the Work of Serres’, Theory Culture Society 28:1 (2011) 149-160, 149.

[44] Steven D. Brown, ‘The Theatre of Measurement: Michel Serres’, in C. Jones and R. Munro (eds.), Contemporary Organization Theory (Oxford: Blackwell, 2005) 215–27, 218.

[45] William Paulson, ‘Michel Serres’s utopia of language’ Configurations 8:2 (2000) 215–228. 215.

[46] ‘plus nous avançons dans les connaissances plus nous découvrons avec joie un monde meilleur : en effet, plus nous le constituons comme tel’.

[47] ‘Je crains moins ceux qui vivent sous drogue que ceux qui marchent sous langue.’

[48] ‘pour moi, les décisions politiques étaient synonymes de morts en masse.’

[49] ‘je n’ai jamais été considéré comme un spécialiste d’aucun domaine ou d’aucun problème’.

[50] This point is made on Antonello, ‘Celebrating a Master’ 167.

[51] As I wrote this book I began making a list of all the areas and thinkers in which a reader of Serres is challenged to be competent. The no doubt incomplete list ran to a daunting thirty-one items by the time I set it aside in mild despair: Bachelard, Balzac, the Bible, biosemiotics, Bourbaki, Carpaccio, chaos theory, Comte, cybernetics, Deleuze, Descartes, Dumézil, eco-theory, fluid dynamics, Galileo, Girard, Hergé, information theory, La Fontaine, Leibniz, Lucretius, Molière, Monod, non-linear dynamics, theories of the origin of language, topology, geometry, algebra, Rousseau, Jules Verne, Simone Weil, and Zola.

[52] ‘Pourquoi, au détour d’un paragraphe, se trouve-t-on chez les Romains, puis chez Jules Verne, puis chez les Indo-Européens et, hop ! embarqué dans la fusée Challenger, avant définir sur une rive de la Garonne ?’

[53] Steven Connor, ‘The Hard and the Soft’, a talk given at the Centre for Modern Studies, University of York, 26 November 2009. Available at http://www.stevenconnor.com/hardsoft/

[54] Connor, ‘The Hard and the Soft’.

[55] ‘Or, une des premières choses qui frappent le lecteur lorsqu’il entame son périple dans l’œuvre de Michel Serres, et peu importe par où il commence, est sans aucun doute son hermétisme !’, Pierre-Marc Gendron, ‘Le Voyage extraordinaire : la méthode et le discours de Michel Serres’, MA Thesis, Département des littératures, Faculté des lettres, Université Laval, 2007, 260.

[56] Rene ten Bos calls Serres’s style ‘shamelessly poetic’ in Rene ten Bos, ‘Nawoord’ in Michel Serres, Muziek (Amsterdam: Boom, 2012) 187–96, 187.

[57] Alan Murray, Michel Serres: A Brief Introduction (Kindle ebook).

[58] Jacob Vivian Pearce, ‘Review: Michel Serres, The Five Senses: A Philosophy of Mingled Bodies’, Perspectives: International Postgraduate Journal of Philosophy 3:1 (2010) 88-95, 88.

[59] Not by a long stretch. In 2013 Serres called for a strike from the English language (see Sébastian Dubois, ‘Michel Serres: «Je lance un appel pour faire la grève de l’anglais »‘, La Dépêche 20 October 2013, available at https://www.ladepeche.fr/article/2013/10/20/1735337-michel-serres-lance-appel-faire-greve-anglais.html

[60] The two volumes in question are Keith Moser, The Encyclopedic Philosophy of Michel Serres: Writing the Modern World and Anticipating the Future (Augusta, GA: Anaphoral Literary Press, 2016), and Rick Dolphijn (ed.), Michel Serres and the Crisis of the Contemporary (London: Bloomsbury, 2018).

[61] ‘Je n’ai pas l’équivalent de cette idée qui est attachée au nom de certains philosophes comme leur trouvaille : le clinamen d’Épicure, le morceau de cire de Descartes, la volonté générale de Rousseau, la chair de Merleau-Ponty, la déconstruction de Derrida, le mimétisme de René Girard, etc. Je n’ai pas de logo, pas de marque. Or une philosophie ne se diffuse que si elle a un logo’.

[62] See Jacques Derrida, ‘Ponctuations: le temps de la thèse,’ in Du droit à la philosophie (Paris : Galilée, 1990) 439-460, 452 ; ‘The Time of a Thesis: Punctuations,’ trans. Kathleen McLaughlin, in Alan Montefiore (ed.), Philosophy in France Today, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983) 34-50, 44.

[63] Antonello, ‘Celebrating a Master’ 167.

[64] ‘Serres n’a pas été lu pour lui-même mais selon les intérêts particuliers de chaque lecteur. D’où un vrai problème’. Masataka Ishibashi, ‘Entre le Japon et Jules Verne : Une relecture de Jouvences sur Jules Verne’, in François L’Yvonnet and Christianne Frémont (eds.), Cahier Michel Serres (Paris : Editions de l’Herne, 2010) 178-187, 178.

[65] ‘on a souvent l’impression d’avancer à contre-courant, de faire violence à la nature même de l’œuvre, en résumant la pensée de Serres’. Posthumus, ‘La nature et l’écologie chez Lévi-Strauss, Tournier, Serres’ 200.

[66] Niran Abbas, ‘Introduction’ in Niran Abbas (ed.), Mapping Michel Serres (An Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2005) 1-9, 7.

[67] Connor, ‘The Hard and the Soft’.

[68] William Paulson, ‘Swimming The Channel’, in Abbas (ed.), Mapping Michel Serres 24-36, 31.

[69] Paulson, ‘Swimming The Channel’, in Abbas (ed.), Mapping Michel Serres 24-36, 31.

[70] Paulson, ‘Swimming The Channel’, in Abbas (ed.), Mapping Michel Serres 24-36, 31.

[71] This is the conclusion reached by Jean Ladrière in his ‘Préface’ to Anne Crahay’s Michel Serres : la mutation du cogito, Genèse du transcendantal objectif (Brussels: De Boeck, 1988) 9-16, 14.

[72] Connor, ‘The Hard and the Soft’.

[73] ‘Operator’ is the preferred term of those who seek to engage with Serres’s figures of thought. Sydney Lévy argues that in his books Serres ‘has constructed, if not precisely concepts, cognitive “operators”- means of understanding that are at once inter-disciplinary and trans-disciplinary’ (Sydney Lévy, ‘Introduction: An Ecology of Knowledge: Michel Serres’, in SubStance 26:2 (1997) Special Issue: An Ecology of Knowledge: Michel Serres, 3-5, 3) , and Pierpaolo Antonello insists that ‘Noise,” “parasite,” “hermaphrodite” are heuristic operators and “philosophical characters” (Antonello, ‘Celebrating a Master’ 167) in the same way that metaphors and models are explanatory devices in scientific discourse. However, the term lacks the richness that Serres gives to ‘figure’ in Le Gaucher boiteux. The only of Serres’s contemporaries to use the term ‘figure of thought’, though in a very different sense to Serres himself, is Alain Badiou who, in Conditions, argues that ‘mathematics was for Plato always a singular figure of thought’ (Alain Badiou, Conditions, trans. Steven Corcoran (London: Continuum, 2008) 109) and in Handbook of Inaesthetics that ‘dance instead integrates space into its essence. It is the only figure of thought to do this’ (Alain Badiou, Handbook of Inaesthetics, trans. Alberto Toscano (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2005) 63). Neither of these senses are what Serres intends by the term.

[74] ‘Ce livre veut et va décrire les figures de pensée. […] qu’est-ce que penser, sinon, au minimum, effectuer ces quatre opérations : recevoir, émettre, stocker, traiter de l’information?’

[75] ‘la vie évolutive opère par émergences, par synthèses inattendues. Comme le Grand Récit, elle explose d’inventions. Elle produit des figures.’

[76] ‘l’existence ordinaire du corps, animal, végétal ou humain, produit sans cesse de telles sommes, de telles synthèses, de telles figures, de telles émergentes nouveautés’.

[77] ‘[t]ous émergent du mouvement de l’Univers, de la vie, du corps, des cultures, en somme de la pensée.’

[78] This affinity will be explored at length in Chapters Four and Six.

[79] The branch [‘rameau’] is the image of deviation or inclination that Serres chooses to describe the turns and twists of the Great Story. See above all Rameaux.

[80] ‘éléments, constellations, plantes, bêtes, nymphes, dieux, idoles, et leurs douces sœurs jumelles, les idées’.

[81] ‘ports, gestes, postures et mouvements’.

[82] ‘au moins dans le virtuel d’une expérience indispensable à nos métamorphoses éducatives […] ils miment le monde et la vie, au sens de la recréation’.

[83] ‘Ce retour en spirale de l’idée vers la figure ne peut plus passer pour une régression sotte, comme une impuissance à conceptualiser, mais constitue, au contraire, un progrès cognitif, un gain de réalité‘.

[84] ‘singulier, original, unique en son genre, marginal même si l’on veut, inattendu en tout cas, un personnage concentre, à soi seul, tout un monde, le synthétise et souvent le commence’.

[85] ‘ne viennent qu’en petites dernières le long d’une série de figures plus nourricières’.

[86] Derrida uses the term ‘philosopheme’ across a number of different texts, sometimes in apposition to ‘philosophical idea’, ‘concept’ or ‘metaphysical concept’ (see, for example, Du droit à la philosophie, Voyoux and ‘La mythologie blanche’ in Marges de la philosophie). In addition, Theodor Adorno claims that ‘Auschwitz confirmed the Philosopheme of pure identity as death’ (Theodor Adorno, Negative Dialectics, trans. E. B. Ashton (London: Routledge, 1990) 362), and Badiou refers to ‘the philosopheme of the One’ (Badiou, Conditions 181).

[87] See Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, What is Philosophy?, trans. Hugh Tomlinson (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994).

[88] René Girard, ‘Introduction’ in Michel Serres, Detachment, trans. Geneviève James and Raymond Federman (Athens, OH : Ohio University Press, 1989) viii.

[89] The term ‘global intuition’ is also used by Raymond Aron in Introduction to the Philosophy of History. For Aron, ‘we do not need reflection: what we are is revealed to us at each moment by a global intuition made up of multiple sensations’ (Raymond Aron, Introduction to the Philosophy of History : An Essay on the Limits of Historical Objectivity (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1961) 56. Whereas Aron’s global intuition is a mode of self-awareness, Serres’s begins with an apprehension of reality and the natural world.

[90] ‘Vous me direz, à juste titre, qu’Aristote ne justifie rien et ne constitue pas un argument ; et je vous répondrai que mon but n’est pas d’avoir raison à toute force, mais de produire une intuition globale, profonde et sensée.’

[91] ‘Certains grands inventeurs confessent avoir reçu leur intuition définitive en une seule nuit, une semaine, une année admirable’.

[92] ‘[q]uelque activité à laquelle on se livre, le corps demeure le support de l’intuition, de la mémoire, du savoir, du travail et surtout de l’invention’.

[93] Deleuze’s image of thought has distant affinities with what we call a ‘worldview’, but it is less about what we believe than how we believe everything we believe. It is not a list of doctrines but a set of assumptions about how knowledge works and what counts as ‘truth’. It is our image of thought that ‘determines our goals when we try to think’ (Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, trans. Paul Patton (London: Continuum, 2001) xvi), and that gives us a reason to think in the first place. Our image of thought is ‘implicit, subjective, and preconceptual’ (Deleuze and Guattari, What is Philosophy? 61); it encompasses our commitments that are so basic we do not even consider them commitments but simply ‘the way things are’ or ‘common sense’. An image of thought therefore precedes and grounds thought as the ‘prolegomena to philosophy’ (Gilles Deleuze, Negotiations, 1972-1990, trans. Martin Joughin (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997) 149). Deleuze does not stress the corporeality or the naturalness of An image of thought need not incorporate the body or resonate with the natural world, as Serres’s global intuition does.

[94] ‘tout grand changement de savoir ou d’intuition, de rapport au monde, correspond à une crise sur le concept ou la réalité de la nécessité’.

[95] ‘Nous devons aujourd’hui accomplir un effort théorique aussi bien qu’existentiel : tenter de vivre et de comprendre le contenu et l’enjeu de cette ancienneté nouvelle’.

[96] Foucault readily admits that his own writing depends on ‘conditions and rules of which I am very largely unaware’ (Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (London: Routledge, 2002) xv), and he affirms that we cannot adequately describe our own archive (i.e., our own historical moment) because we are part of it (Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge and the Discourse on Language, trans. A. M. Sheridan-Smith (New York: Pantheon Books, 1971) 130).

[97] ‘L’intuition commence et commande, l’abstraction la suit et la démonstration, enfin, se débrouille et rattrape, pédestre, comme elle peut’.