Thursday, July 14, 2005

Reading :: The Natural Contract

Originally posted: Thu, 14 Jul 2005 18:21:51

The Natural Contract

by Michel Serres

The Natural Contract, published in French in 1992, appears to have significantly influenced Latour's later Politics of Nature. Like that later book, this one argues that the pro-ecology movement should abandon the modernist divide between culture and nature, humans and their environment, in favor of an understanding in which the two are inextricable. "So forget the word environment, commonly used in this context. It assumes that we humans are at the center of a system of nature" (p.33). Rather, Serres strives for a symmetrical view in which there are no a priori or positional differences between humans and others.

But surprisingly -- and not so surprisingly, if you think about it -- this line of argument leads to familiar terrain that seems to have less and less to do with ecology. For instance, Serres continues his campaign of sideswipes against contradictions and dialectic (p.11, 50, 64, 81), which is now linked to and blamed for the problem at hand.

... this long war is still called history, and its law is dialectics, or the law of tribunals, which has nothing to do with the world, only with the exquisite disputes indulged in by refined men among themselves. So law prevails over the sciences, even globally, and that means that the laws of the world of men prevail over the laws of the world of things. In the end that means that people will look down on the world of things. (p.81)

This discussion of dialectics comes in the context of a "virtual contract" between humans, one that Serres contrasts with the "natural contract" that he says must be struck among all groups in the ecology. Along those lines, he provides some meditative passages on the "virtual contract" and its origins. I was more interested by a line of argument that Serres makes on the question of privacy. Serres claims that

when everyone knows everything right now about everybody and lives by this knowledge, you have antiquity's notion of freedom and the ideal city, and also the ideal of modern philosophers since Rousseau, the ideal of the media and social science, of the police and bureaucracy: poll, clarify, inform, make known, expose, report. A terrifying nightmare, one that if you've lived in small villages or large tribes, you'll want to avoid all your life, for it is the height of enslavement. Freedom begins with the ignorance I have and wish to preserve of the activities and thoughs of my neighbor, and with the relative indifference that I hope they harbor for mine, for want of information. (p.68)

The freedom of Athens was a freedom that came from busybodies, neighbors who spied on neighbors and told everyone else what they found out! "Everybody played the part of spy and inquisitor for everyone else" (p.69). Freedom is slavery in this context -- the freedom of equal participation in government comes at the price of continual, distributed monitoring. So Serres sees the development of specialties such as law enforcement and prosecution to be an enormous plus: "Better to have the policeman and the prison, these highly visible, specialized organs, recognizable by the uniform and the bars, than the omnipresent eyes and ears of one's associates and of those all-seeing strangers who represent the virtual contract and act on its behalf" (p.69). Specializations can be black boxed, and we gladly do so rather than wading through all the arguments involved with understanding them. But of course this sort of specialization carries its own dangers; we've seen a recent blogospheric upsurge in fact-checking the media, for instance.

The Natural Contract, like Serres' other books, contains no cites, just allusions. It's not as heavily metaphorical as The Parasite but it's not a walk in the park either. Check it out if you're interested in ecological philosophy, symmetry, or influences on Latour's later work.

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