The first-hand knowledge of Michel Serres

How to approach this book on the five senses (that aren't really five after all)? I loved it, but it's so hard to explain why. It's more the ideas it gives birth to than what's in it. But let me try:

Take your index finger and place it on your bottom lip.

Do it! You have to do it, or you wont understand this post. Please do it.

Now, without moving, fix your attention on feeling your lip through your finger (do it, take your time, close your eyes if it helps). OK? Now, shift perspective, and feel your finger through your lip. Isn't that amazing?! One moment you are in your finger, feeling your lip - another moment you are in your lip, feeling your finger! Your consciousness, your self-awareness is somehow shifting place, moving from inside your lip and outside your finger to inside your finger and outside your lip. Yet only one event, one touch, is actually happening. So where are you? In this encounter, this relation, this instance of first-hand knowledge, you are both the knowing subject and the known object. You are outside and  inside.

When your finger touches your lip, that is your body sort of folding back on itself, and your self-awareness emerges from within that folding. Of course, not only from that single folding alone - but from the innumerable foldings immersing your whole body: sounds, touches, smells, visions - the air around you, the particular places where your bottom touches the chair you are sitting on, or where your shirt hangs on your shoulders, or in the muscles that strain your eyebrows as you read of the screen, the way you fold your tongue in your mouth. There is no 'you' apart from these complex processes.

This is familiar stuff to those who read too-much-to-be-healthy 'postmodern' theory: There are no stable essences (there is no essential 'you'), and where there appear to be such essences, these are only constituted through violent differentiations and cutting-offs - which nevertheless always leave a trace of the rejected within themselves - however, there is no alternative and so we might as well 'get on with things'. The essence of the self is in other words constituted by a kind of pretense, an unconscious exclusion of something unwanted. In this sense, whenever we claim to know the essence or nature of anything, we are doing violence to something else by excluding it. Violence is at bottom what makes us able to imagine something stable and peace-like.

Interestingly, Michel Serres rejects this view of violence as fundamental and somehow necessary for things to be what they are. Yet he doesn't believe in stable essences either. In a way, he seeks to portray a Reality that is characterized by difference as something harmonic rather than something violent, a philosophy that is radically inclusive rather than dialectic or exclusive. Serres is completely opposed to any idea that violence is a necessary part of Reality as such. Commenting on this, one otherwise positive reader of him has complained that "there is a hole in Serres' philosophy where negativity should be." (How there can be a 'hole' that isn't in itself negative is another question).

For me, this lack of basic negativity signals not a 'lack' in Serres, but rather a subtle overlap of interests with theologians Serres allegedly has not even read. One reason is, as is mentioned above, that Serres seeks to view difference as harmonic rather than violent, as somehow positive rather than negative. This has been a major (of course contested) theme for metaphysical theology over the last decades. Secondly, Serres describes Reality where everything is always being mediated through something else, always  intermingled, hybrid, mutating, emerging. For him, the constitutive in-between - relation, mediation, communication - is Reality's fundamental characteristic. Anyone who have skimmed an issue of the journal Modern Theology would recognize how this resonates with contemporary concerns in Christology and general theological interests in incarnation, sacramentality, mediation, translation, etc.

Serres himself seems blissfully unaware that the paganism he celebrates is already redeemed and made even-more-itself by Christendom. If he does know, it doesn't trouble him. His style is wandering, suggestive, and at all costs avoids enmity and rejection. His flowing descriptions of mundane experiences are unparalleled as far as I know. Perhaps the best thing I can say about this book is this: reading Serres' poetic philosophy-of-Everything makes me want to stop reading and just go and experience the world in all its infinite, mundane, nitty gritty wonder. And, of course, do a doctorate in theology. And then retire and be a gardener. As planned.


  1. Hi Stefan,

    Thanks for this post - I really enjoyed reading it and reading through the style and approach you take in your work, life, gardening and reading.

    I first connected with Serres's work in a similar way - it sparked something that was different than a lot of the other philosophy I was reading at the time. In some ways, it simply intrigued me and I decided to follow that intrigue and ended up starting www.michelserres.com to act as a hub for a wider network of people scattered all over the place.

    I'll post a brief comment on the site and link to your post.

    Also, I'm working on a paper for possible presentation in April at Syracuse - the committee is still in the sorting phase of paper presentations. If you're interested, here is a link to the paper in draft form: https://docs.google.com/viewer?a=v&pid=explorer&chrome=true&srcid=0BwdCyIKE0_D-MWM1NjIxMDQtZTY3MC00NWFhLTgzMDYtNDY5YTkyN2YzMDE0&authkey=CN7ziMQF&hl=en

    I'm totally OK if you don't finish it. Take care.

  2. Thanks. For an example following the final paragraph - and I just recently discovered this -, see Catherine Pickstock's essay "Liturgy and the Senses" in the newly released "Paul's New Moment".