Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Reading :: Hermes

Originally posted: Wed, 29 Jun 2005 18:43:15

Hermes : Literature, Science, Philosophy

by Michel Serres

Michel Serres' work is often praised (or condemned) as "poetic," beautiful in the French, and almost impossible to translate because of the high quality of the prose. That's probably true. Although the stories and metaphors that Serres uses seem to translate fairly well, the prose in this translated version tends to be dense and not terribly enjoyable. And unfortunately the high density of metaphor and allegory tends to obscure rather than productively illustrate Serres' points.

Nevertheless, the book is interesting and, with patience, rewarding.

I came to Serres because he was so influential to Bruno Latour (whose prose, unlike Serres', tends to be translated in ways that retain his style) and Michel Callon. Callon is said to have borrowed the notion of translation from Serres' Hermes volume 2, which sadly does not appear to be translated into English in its entirety. Nevertheless, this collection gives us an idea of what we are missing. Most interesting is Serres' discussion in Chapter 2 of Aesop's fable "The Wolf and the Lamb". Serres detects an arborescence: a genealogical tree or ordered structure. The wolf is upstream from the lamb and more powerful than it; but he pretends to be downstream, wronged by it (p.19). The structure organizes the game-space: "Without a set provided with an ordering relation, there would be no game" (p.20). And this game is called dialectic: "Stable structures and dialectical processes are inseparable" (p.21). Dialectic assumes and provides the structure. It imposes order under the guise of explaining it. So should we stick with the dialectic or attack the ordered structure? (p.22).

(Alert readers will detect some of the same thought here that guided Deleuze & Guattari -- absolute limits, flows, and arborescence.)

In the next chapter, Serres discusses Jules Michelet's La Mer (1861), in which Michelet proposes a chain of beings, an ontogeny, a phylogeny (p.29). It sounds half-baked the way Serres describes it. But it interests Serres because of these accounts. For instance, Michelet describes the Carnot cycles, the cycles in the northern and southern hemispheres flowing from warm to cold spots. The Carnot cycles are named, of course, after Sadi Carnot, who labored to develop a theorem that became the second law of thermodynamics -- a theorem that, as Engels says, summarizes the work of a steam engine and on which subsequent steam engines were based. The world, then, is a steam engine by this reckoning. But it is also many other sorts of machines. "The world is a static machine, a compression engine, an electrical engine, a chemical machine, a steam engine; the world is an organism -- all without contradiction" (p.35). Serres uses this text to make his own argument, not about the world, but about method:

It is not necessary to introduce methods to read this text: the method is in the text. The text is its own criticism, its own explication, its own application. This is not a special case; it is one that is perfectly generalizable. Why should there be a dichotomy between texts, between the ones that operate and the ones that are operated upon? There are texts, and that is all. (p.38)

This does sound quite structuralist (and in the book I borrowed from the library, someone penciled in the word "structuralist" next to this passage).

Well, let's skip a bit, because much of what Serres discusses is not relevant to my projects (and this blog, ultimately, is all about me). I mentioned that Serres was one of Latour's biggest influences and that he provided the origin for what actor-network theorists call translation. Translation is touched upon late in the book (p.132), but not really explicated. Black boxes are discussed but not explicated (p.80). The reversibility of time is discussed but not explicated (p.71). On the whole, alas, I see a lot of seeds but not much fruit for my project here. Nevertheless, as I said at the beginning of this review, the book can be rewarding with patience. Not everything has to be fruit.

Blogged with Flock

No comments: