Friday, March 05, 2004

Reading:: Conversations on Science, Culture, and Time

Originally posted: Fri, 05 Mar 2004 23:51:07

Conversations on Science, Culture, and Time

by Michel Serres, Bruno Latour

Michel Serres, the "maverick" French philosopher who became one of Bruno Latour's chief inspirations, is the focus of this book-length series of interviews conducted by Latour himself. Since I'm reading quite a bit on Latour right now, I had to pick up the book. And I'm glad I did, although based on these interviews, I don't admire Serres nearly as much as Latour appears to.

In these interviews, Serres is quite clearly managing his image as a maverick -- declaring boldly that he has "neither masters nor disciples" (though later he urges a pedagogy in which his insights should be passed to students); that intellectual work is best done individually and in seclusion rather than through discussion (though he edges toward a dialogic understanding throughout and warms to discussion under Latour's prodding); that philosophers and scientists have manufactured a split and he is the bridge between them (though he eventually acknowledges others' work, including Latour's, that covers the same ground); that he doesn't bother reading other philosophers (though he eventually demonstrates that he has). At times thoughtful, bombastic, and rash, Serres also has some very interesting ideas that have clearly influenced Latour's. And obviously his style has as well. More on that in a minute.

As much as Serres has influenced Latour, Latour seems to want to confirm his own reading of Serres' work. So when they talk about modernism, for instance, Serres is clearly uncomfortable making statements -- he professes to understand little about modernism as philosophy defines it, and even less about postmodernism -- and Latour tends to lead Serres by defining the two, sketching his notion of amodernism, and pushing Serres into agreeing with it! But at other times, Latour seems too unwilling to press this elder philosopher on his sometimes rash statements, such as the one about discussion. Latour is more interested in Serres' understanding of time and his style of writing.

Style, in fact, is one of the more interesting topics under discussion. Serres' style is often described as "poetic," both by his critics and his admirers. He and Latour agree that coming from either side, the description is insulting. Rather, Serres says, style functions as a substitute for the rigorous mathematics he studied in his youth, mathematics that are not flexible enough to constitute the philosophical method he needed. Style, as Latour remarks, reveals methodology. (One suspects that Latour is talking about himself as well.) In particular, Serres' works repeatedly use figures such as Hermes, the Troubador of Knowledge (sounds like a Rush album, doesn't it?), and Jupiter to embody and explicate the tensions across cultures and histories. As he explains, religion forms one of the most basic connections among people and their objects, so drawing on figures from religion helps to surface these connections. Similarly, Serres likes to bring together similarities from different eras: fluid dynamics in contemporary studies and in ancient texts, the Challenger accident and sacrifices to Baal. He sees time as a handkerchief that one can crumple in such a way as to connect any point to any other -- events as parts of fluctuating networks -- and thus calls into question the themes of cultural-historical development that make such as big part of Marxist approaches. "Time develops more like the flight of Verlaine's wasp {speeding, unpredictable, erratic] than along a line, continuous or regularly broken by dialectic war" (p.65). (Not coincidentally, he also has harsh things to say about the Stalinists that dominated French universities during his graduate days.)

As the quote above implies, development is not his only angle of attack against Marxism. He also deplores dialectic, which he calls "the logic of the masters" (p.38), the imposed conditions that constrain too many discussions. And of this logic, he says:

Dialectics recites a logic so impoverished that anything and everything can be drawn from it. In it you have only to set up a contradiction, and you will always be right. Ex falso sequitur quodlibet -- From the false comes anything. Ever since the invention of classical formal logic we have known that it's possible to deduce anything, true or false, from contradiction, from the pairing of true and false, and that this deduction is valid. This is the source of the dialectical ensemble of constructions, of deductions -- each more valid than the last, but totally without interest. Even in their logical trappings war or polemics remain sterile. (p.155)

Apart from the impoverishment of dialectics, he implies that this method seeks to settle the past -- but the past is never really settled; dialogues, artifacts, and indeed all aspects of our world are not homogeneous and synthesized but rather heterogeneous and lumpy. Artifacts are themselves aggregates of scientific and technical solutions, contemporary only in their assemblage (p.45), polychronic (p.60). For this reason he says that the past, like the future, is unpredictable (p.87). One can see strong affinities to Bakhtin's work here -- though Serres has appeared to rashly condemn all dialogue.

All in all, this book was very interesting, partially because it served as a primer to Serres' works (which I shall have to pick up sometime) and partially because it gave me insight into Latour's thoughts -- both his influences and, through his questions, his current stands.

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