MICHEL SERRES is a French philosopher who specializes in the history of science and whose work attempts to reclaim the art of thinking the unthinkable. Born in 1930 in Lot-et-Garonne, Serres is a member immortel of L’Académie française and has been a professor at Stanford University, in the heart of Silicon Valley, since 1984. He’s authored more than 60 volumes that range in topics from parasites to the “noise” that lingers in the background of life and thought. Serres’ writing is like a slow night of constant drinking, taking us irreversibly to places we didn’t know we were heading towards.
In 1985 he published Les cinq sens, a lament on the marginalization of the knowledge we gain from our fives senses through science and the scientific mind. So it came as somewhat of a surprise for his observers when Serres came out in unrestrained support of online culture, particularly Wikipedia, in the first years of the 2000s. “Wikipedia shows us the confidence we have in being human,” he said in 2007. Whether through technology or our own bodies, the world of information is only ever accessible through mediation (Serres often deploys the Greek god Hermes and angels in his writing). His most recent book, Petite Poucette (2012), or “Thumbelina,” is an optimistic work that discusses today’s revolution in communications and the cognitive and political transformations it’s brought about. “Army, nation, church, people, class, proletariat, family, market … these are abstractions, flying overhead like so many cardboard effigies,” Serres writes in Petite Poucette. It’s been on the French bestseller list since its release and has sold more than 100,000 copies. It’s a sort of love letter to the digital generation, and surprising in many ways. One of these is that almost no one in the English-speaking world has ever heard of it. In this conversation with 032c’s contributing editor Hans Ulrich Obrist, Serres muses on the dawn of our new era.
HANS ULRICH OBRIST: I want to start by talking about Petite Poucette.
MICHEL SERRES: I’m all ears.
The book is so optimistic about the 21st century. How did writing it come about?
It came to me both slowly and quickly. First, it had been a long time since I had written books on communication, which is to say on Hermes, the god of communication, and on “the parasite” of, or the barriers to, communication. These are concepts I’ve been working on for a very long time. Second, I’ve been teaching for the past 35 years at Stanford, in the middle of Silicon Valley, and so I’m well informed about the field’s new technologies, industries, and startups. My background on these issues is both theoretical and practical.
I spoke a lot about Hermes with Bruno Latour, at the time when you and him published Conversations on Science, Culture, and Time (1995). Even as early as the 1980s you talked about this era of communication in the journal Hermes. In a sense, you predicted it.
It wasn’t exactly a prediction because the ideas were already in the air. And it was well before the 80s, since the first Hermes was published in the 60s. At that time we could already see that blue-collar work was being replaced by white-collar jobs. We could already see that industry was changing, that jobs in the service industry were starting to replace manufacturing jobs across the market. It was clear that communication was gaining on production and that our societies were already starting to shift. I was very sensitive to those changes as early as the 1960s and 70s, and of course they accelerated, and when computers and new technologies arrived they experienced a vertical growth.
“We need a Tocqueville for the 21st century.”
In Petite Poucette you talk about three distinct revolutions, and you say we’re in the middle of one, Can you talk about the revolution we’re currently experiencing and the consequences it brings?
I’ve spoken of three revolutions from a historical perspective. The first was in the first millennium BC, when writing emerged in an oral world. The second was printing in the 15th century, with the advent of Gutenberg and the book. It seems to me that our revolution, the digital one, is the third. It’s a revolution that rests on the medium/message binary, in other words, on hard/soft. At the “oral stage,” the information medium was the human body and the message was oral. The medium later became paper and the message was written, or printed. And today the medium is hardware and the message is electronic – it’s the third revolution.
Each of these revolutions – that of writing, that of printing, and ours – has transformed practically all aspects of society. Each brought about financial changes, industrial changes, new jobs, changes in language, in science, and even in religion. With writing emerged the religion of the book, and Christianity followed Judaism. When printing appeared it was the Protestant Reformation that surfaced in reaction to Catholicism. Each time there was a revolution in almost every field, and today we can also expect a crisis to affect all similar sectors.
I recently spoke with Adam Curtis, the great British filmmaker who works for the BBC. He talked about institutional crises, and how there are practically no large institutions that aren’t experiencing a crisis today. In England, the crisis of the BBC is worth noting. Is this linked to what you’re describing? What might these institutions be replaced by?
A diagnosis – in the medical sense of the term – of your first question would be to say, yes, all of our institutions are experiencing a crisis today. Of course this is particularly apparent in media organizations: the newspaper, the book, etc. But look at universities, too, for example. Today’s higher education is also facing a major crisis, because online courses are taking over. What will become of our universities, which used to be concentrated locally but today don’t really need to be as much. All these types of institutions are in a crisis, including the political ones. We can now look clearly at this from the diagnostic perspective and analyze the changes with lucidity. But your second question is about prognosis: Which society, or which institutions, will replace them? I don’t know how to answer that question yet. I believe that what we need most today is a great political philosopher capable of inventing new institutions. So for the time being, I don’t quite know how to answer your second question.
“I would rather a well-made than a well-filled head.”
The other day on the radio you talked about how Tocqueville is your hero. You spoke about how extraordinary it is that even though he was only in the United States for a few months he really grasped it when he wrote Democracy in America (1835/1840). Is there a Tocqueville for the 21st century?
We need a Tocqueville for the 21st century. Exactly.
Who could be these political philosophers of the 21st century? Do you see any emerging?
I would not like to die without having tried to answer that question. This is the question I would like to work on.
That’s fantastic! Perhaps it could be the subject of an upcoming book.
This is what I’m studying at the moment. In the 19th century there were many inventors of political philosophy: the Utopian Socialists, Marx, and many, many more. In the 20th century there was a great void in political philosophy, and we are still experiencing it today.
Are new technologies giving birth to a new human being?
That’s right. Already at the time that printing was invented Michel de Montaigne wrote in his Essays (1580), “I would rather a well-made than a well-filled head.” He had noticed this peculiar thing, which was that the head – as a thinking subject – was changing. The feeling at the time of the printing revolution was that a new way of thinking was emerging, and proof of this is that mathematical physics came about around this time. Today, too, a new way of thinking – and quite simply, a new head – is emerging. You can see it in the computer: It holds your memory and a lot of your operating system. As a result, there are many old brain functions that are being replaced by the computer, and thus the head is changing. That’s the new human being. The thinking subject is changing, but our way of being together is also shifting. When you take the subway in London or in Paris you see everyone on their phone, and they’re completely transforming the community that once was the subway’s. People are calling their neighbor – their virtual neighbor, that is – on the phone. Two things are changing: the thinking subject and the community as subject.
“The Internet today is a space of no law”
You explain so pertinently that networks are of a previous era, and that we don’t have the same idea of references today. In fact, we’re in a topological space without any distances. What does this space mean for the future?
Before, when you’d give me your address in London, it was a code that referred to a space on the map of London, or on the map of the British Isles. This map was drawn according to what we call metric geometry, which was used to define distances. With new technologies, distance disappears. Distance is not only shortened today, as it was with a horse or a plane, it’s eliminated altogether. As a result, your new address – which is the address of your mobile phone or your computer – functions regardless of where you are, and sends messages no matter where your correspondent resides. As a result of this kind of proximity we no longer live in the same space as our parents did. Our space has changed, and of course this change of space plays a decisive role in many things, particularly law. Do you remember the forest where Robin Hood lives?
Robin Hood! Yes, it’s a place of no law.
Exactly. I think that the Internet today is a space of no law. When travelers went into the forest, they suddenly realized that the thieves and criminals who were in the forest obeyed Robin Hood. And Robin Hood has an extraordinary name, because Robin means “he who wears the magistrate’s robe,” “he who wears the judge’s robe.” So Robin Hood – in French it’s Robin des Bois, or “Robin of the woods”) – means “he who makes law in a place of no law.” It’s extraordinary. I think that out of this place of no law that is the Internet there will soon emerge a new law, completely different from that which organized our old metric space.
In this context the recent [Edward] Snowden case is fascinating. It’s caused such a ruckus in terms of legal detentions and the dynamics of what is free. What are Western democracies? How do you see the Snowden case?
That’s exactly it. It’s precisely the sort of crash, or collision, between the former law and the new law, between the past place of no law and the new law.
How do you see Wikileaks and [Julian] Assange in all this?
It’s the same thing. Inside the space that is the Internet there exists a law that has nothing to do with the law that organizes the space we previously lived in, and as a result, there is a reciprocal ignorance and struggle between these two laws. From a certain point of view, those who inhabit the Internet, as I do and as you certainly do, are quite supportive of this freedom, of Wikileaks, for example.
“Wikipedia is greatly changing social relations, human relations, and pedagogical relations.”
You’re passionate about Wikipedia because it’s a democracy of knowledge. You link it to Paul the Apostle.
Wikipedia is the direct and free access to knowledge in its entirety. A lot of my students in America have been asking me for 10 years now, “Why should I pay so much for my studies when they only give me access to information that I’ve already had for two days?” It’s immediate access to knowledge. It’s also transforming jobs. Let me give you an example. Say, you’re ill and you go see your doctor. In the past the doctor was competent and you were clueless. You had no information about your illness. Before going to see the doctor today you go to Wikipedia to inform yourself about your symptoms. As a result, and I say it in Petite Poucette, there’s a presumption of qualifications, and a presumption of incompetence. The relationship between doctor and patient is changing, as is the relationship between teacher and student, and so on. Wikipedia is greatly changing social relations, human relations, and pedagogical relations.
Your idea of the quasi-object is that it’s neither object nor subject. It’s a relation. The other day I had my Blackberry in my hand and wondered if it’s a quasi-object. Do you see the iPhone and the Blackberry as quasi-objects?
They’re certainly quasi-objects, but they’re almost intelligent quasi-objects as well. Almost intelligent! It’s a relational object, which means that you and I are connected together right now because of it.
How was the idea of the quasi-object born? I first read about it in The Parasite, which came out in 1980. Had it already appeared in Hermes?
Well I’m a bit like the English. I was born in southwestern France and played rugby often growing up. I was very passionate about the ball, about what the ball represents. By analyzing the ball’s function in the game of rugby I came to the idea of the quasi-object, through sport, by watching and playing with the ball.
That’s beautiful. So you had an epiphany through rugby?
And an object is also an object that would rather be an object and not a thing. I’ve been reading about the Gulf of Mexico, which is becoming a judicial entity that can defend itself. I’m curious about the idea of the judicial dimension of the object and the quasi-object.
That’s the subject of another book I wrote, The Natural Contract (1990). In it I try to explain that the idea of the subject of law is starting to transform itself today, and that natural objects can become subjects of law. For example, Yellowstone Park could undertake legal action against someone who polluted it. This is starting to pass into law. I have news from several countries in which they are starting to think about this question, saying that certain natural objects can become subjects of law.
It’s a very important idea in terms of environmental solutions.
It’s decisive for the environment. A new step in Western law.
I was speaking with the artist Philippe Parreno recently, and he spoke about how certain films, or forms, or artworks can behave in the way quasi-objects do when they’re put into circulation. Can art be a quasi-object?
It always has been to a certain extent, because it’s enabled a relation to a given society. It’s created a society, even. Some quasi-objects are artworks, such as religious objects, and can bring a community together at once. In some sense, it has always been one of art’s functions. There’s no doubt about it.
Philippe also wondered if the quasi-object can produce reality?
Oh, of course! When a quasi-object unites a community, that community becomes real – that community is born. The quasi-object creates the community. Yes, yes, it creates. The virtual often creates the real, my friend! Us humans spend our lives making the virtual real. What is a coin? It’s a quasi-object. It’s virtual because it can be transformed into anything. Money is a “general equivalent,” and yet there is nothing more real than money today. There’s no doubt about it. And at the beginning it was a quasi-object.
You’ve often collaborated with others, and conversation is an important practice in your philosophy. Do you believe that we can invent new forms through collaboration, or even through friendship?
Yes. Certainly. I think it can be done. The key to inventing through conversation is to ensure that the conversation is not … a sort of fight to the death between two set opinions. Each participant in the conversation must be free and open.
I’m curious whether the parasite engages in acts of resistance. How do you see notions of resistance in a world of new technologies, where the exterior no longer exists to a certain extent?
I’m not sure I know how to answer that question, as it should be. The word “resistance” for us French is intricately linked to the Second World War. You remember the Résistance against the invader? And so from that point of view, of course. But the word “resistance” has several meanings as well. With regards to parasites, we have discovered that certain bacteria are resistant to antibiotics. In this case, the parasite has evolved and has become a symbiont. And so there’s a sort of evolution of the parasite, which is at first dangerous, and can kill, and then all of a sudden it becomes collaborator and then symbiont. In the end, perhaps resistance is a process that occurs between parasitism and symbiosis. That’s my answer.
Do you think it’s possible to link art with ecologic justice?
It could very well be today’s fundamental evolution of art, which means coming back to an inspiration that was quite a traditional one, but also anew – to open oneself up to living species, to open up to life and to nature.
I was speaking recently with Doris Lessing, the writer from London, and she spoke about the idea that there are always unwritten books. Books that we didn’t dare write or that we didn’t have time to write, or maybe it was because of circumstances outside of the book. You’ve published over 60 books. What are your unrealized or utopian projects?
Again, there’s still a problem that I’d like to solve: our political institutions. There’s no doubt that it’s the book that hasn’t been written and that I would like to write.