Little Dramas Staged / Projective Theory of Technology

Michel Serres: Revolution Cognitive et Culturelle (engl. translation)

(translated by Aoife Rosenmeyer)

In prep school classes there always came a day which we called ‘the day of inversion’. On that day….the elders [the teachers] had to kowtow to the wind of retribution. But this only lasted for a day. And whatever happened in this reversal, it was never the case that the weakest in the class had to explain mathematics to the best, let alone to the teachers. Well, dear friends, that day has arrived. I did not imagine that at my age I, inexpert, should be required to talk about new technologies to the best experts in my country. So I believe I will introduce my proposal by saying that you are going to have a very uncomfortable hour. Anyway, let’s get to work.

I do not know any living being, cell, tissue, organ, individual or perhaps even species, of which we cannot say that they store information, that they expand information, that they emit it and they receive information. And given this quadruple characteristic ….. of beings, one could try to define life in this way. But we cannot do it because plenty of counter-examples can be found, but in short, I know of no object in the world, atom, crystal, mountain, planet, star, galaxy, of which one could not say again that it stores information, it deals with information, they emit and they receive information. So there’s this quadruple characteristic in common between all the objects of the world, living or inert. So in our ‘sciences dures’, where previously one only spoke of forces and energy, there has, as of late, been talk of what we generally call ‘soft’. Hard sciences are engaged also with the ‘soft’.

That said, I also don’t know of any human association, be it a family, a farm, a village, a metropolis or a nation, of whom or which one cannot say again that they store information, treat information, emit it and receive it. So here is a characteristic which is in common between the humanities and hard sciences, that is to say, ultimately, common to our existence and to our environment to such an extent that the day we invented an object that treats, stores, emits and receives information, I mean the computer, at that moment we invented something which one could call a universal device. why? Well because to a certain extent it mimics the things of which I have just spoken. Which things? Well everything, thus the universal character of this device which is not universal because it can do anything or could do anything, but also because it mimics the comportment, the behaviour, the profile of the things of this world.

Change, cultural or cognitive but primarily practical revolution! Because in the olden days when I was young – naturally it was the iceage then – if I went in somewhere, into any shop it could be, I could recognise the trade of anyone by observing their appearance and the position of their body. If I saw a man in a leather apron [working metal] I said, there’s a blacksmith. If I saw someone equipped with a plane I said ‘there’s a carpenter’. If, for example, I saw a woman with a white blouse with red and green marks on it [with] an alembic I said look, there’s a chemist or a pharmacist. Behind a teller’s counter I would say a banker or a post-office worker. Today, wherever I go, I see a man or a woman leaning over their screen in the middle of typing on their keyboard, and I can no longer distinguish their trades. This is universality accepted once again. As a result there has been a practical revolution in relation to jobs, a cultural revolution in relation to language, for you know it doubtless, that between the previous edition of the Académie Française dictionary and that of today there was a difference of 20,000 words. […] this is a growth and a difference that has never existed in any language I history. And most of these words are operational, working words, most of these words are scientific.

Revolution? I was invited to reflect in front of you on this revolution of which I have just spoken, at least from a practical point of view and the point of view of the four characteristics considered. So I am going to do it in three ways. First of all I am going to try to describe this revolution in terms of time, then in space and finally how it effects us, men and women, who deal with this new technology.

So for a start, time. When I spoke earlier about this quadruple function of storing, treating, emitting and receiving information, I had in mind something that also happens between a medium and a message, for example. And if you consider, please, this simple link between medium and message. This link has its own history. And in this first part I’d like you to consider that history with me. If we stand at a distance to understand the novelties of today, and this distance will be large enough so that I go to the point where humanity had not yet invented writing. At the time of this oral stage, because it was, in effect, what you would call an oral stage, not in Freud’s sense but in the linguistic sense – in this era of the oral stage the medium was the human body. It was the brain, the whole of the body. And ultimately the storage, treatment, emission, it was ultimately the body, the memory, the voice, the circulations in the brain, in short the whole of the human organism receiving and emitting information, remembering information and treating it itself. If we leave this oral stage and consider that suddenly a significant revolution takes place, let’s say around the first millennium before Christ, 500 or 1000 years before Christ, a revolution concerning writing.

Writing is the first medium that is outside of the human body, be it a velum medium, animal skin or paper, papyrus. (The word papyrus being equivalent to the word bible, you know.) And the invention of a form of writing on this medium, first of all in symbols and a bit figurative and later abstract with 24 letters, the alphabet, and it’s this latter that I consider.

Because from this moment the connection between medium and message has changed. That is to say that at the moment of the invention of writing, then, everything changed in our civilizations. And everything changes to such an extent that the spectrum of change is broad enough that I could rapidly consider it […..]

The first thing to change are cities. Cities can only be organised from the time when you are in a position of being able to write. Why? Because one can write laws, and law becomes stable, thus the Hammurabi code for example, the invention of written law, the invention of large cities and metropoles, and all of a sudden, the invention of the state. The state is probably a descendent of writing. But state, law, metropolis, and almost immediately there is a second abstract invention which is linked to that of writing, and that is the invention of money. An in effect money is a way of writing on a medium of bronze or copper, a drawing or a value, and this money is sufficiently abstract to all of a sudden replace all the complete, numerous and complicated details of bartering. It was very difficult to exchange a cow for a drink of milk, but it is very easy to agree on the rate of what is called general equivalence, for money is abstract enough to represent nearly all the objects in the world that one can buy or sell.

So invention of cities, invention of law, invention of state, invention of money, facilitation of commerce, invention of geometry. We historians of science know that one can link the invention of geometric display to the fifth, sixth century before Christ, maybe even seventh, as a descendent of writing. But even more, a bolt of lighting from the rapid growth was in an ecumenical field that had been entirely defined, entirely occupied by polytheistic religions. The bolt of lighting was the extraordinary invention of monotheism, with the literary prophets of Israel and the invention of what one would call, from then on, the religions or religion of the book. The literary religions, from the Torah for our Jewish friends, the bible for our Christian friends, the book of the Qur’an for our Islamic friends. Monotheistic religions are essentially descendants of writing. If you look then at the whole breadth of this spectrum and you will see that our civilization is entirely descendant from writing: politically, legally, commercially, pedagogically, I forgot to talk about pedagogy because [……..] is a descendant of writing. Why? Because every instructor or every teacher has, at their disposal, Homer’s Odyssey, which they do not have to know by heart, and they can pass on to their children the different content regarding professions. Pedagogy, science, geometry, religion. You see now, that the spectrum of this revolution is in fact considerable, and it is all the more stable and all the important that I am going to repeat it all of a sudden, and I am gong to repeat it something like two millennia later, when the second revolution concerning the link that I mentioned between medium and  message, the human body, then the paper or parchment and the message, that is to say the information which one wants to store, treat, emit and receive.

The second revolution relating to this link is the invention of printing around about the 15th, 16th century and as soon as printing is invented the revolution relating to this new technology, new technology number two, is exactly the same as the spectrum I’ve just described for the first revolution, and in effect, you can see it, at this time Venice becomes a city of the world. There is a sort of globalisation of Venice around the Mediterranean, commerce begins to change completely  thanks to the invention of the cheque, of the bank, of dealing with accounting, accounting dates from this epoch, commerce, law, the birth of that which one would later be able to call capitalism. It is all born there, at this time, an epoch that was descendant from printing. But above all the birth of what we would call modern science, that is to say experimental science, which is no longer the Greeks’ abstract science, quick descended from writing, but at the time of the Renaissance it is in effect descendant of printing. But at the same time an extraordinary crisis among religions because it is the Reformation, the reform is born at precisely this moment. Why? Because Luther begins the reform by saying his famous thesis: No man is more than a bible in the hand [?? I don’t know what line Serres is referring to]  and he was making a sign of holding in his hand the printed bible. And from then on the printed bible was at the disposal of a whole […] who all of a sudden did not have to refer to an organised authority, but who were free themselves, and this freedom is going to go as far as questions of political order, it is the beginning of democracy, democracy in the modern sense. And all of a sudden in this second revolution concerning the linkage between medium and message, we have once again considered a complete transformation of the totality of culture and civilization.

Therefore my conclusion is rather simple, it consists of saying: if, today, we have, or we are today experiencing a revolution which relates precisely to the same linkage of medium and message, that is to say, the four operations of which I spoke earlier, well we are going to find around us the same kind of revolution. We know that globalisation, it is here, the transformation of money, of commerce, indeed, volatile money, it is here. Crises relating to science, indeed. Of course, it is entirely clear today that a professor of science, whatever science that may be, who teaches in a university, teaches around about 60%, let’s say 60% of the content of what he teaches, he did not learn himself while at university. So the scientific revolution is every bit as considerable as the two that I have just mentioned. But also the revolutions concerning pedagogy, you know that the crisis of schools and of pedagogy today is considerable, and probably difficult to resolve. And also a crisis of religion, it’s not worth going into detail on this subject because newspapers have been full of it for the past ten years.

As a consequence, the revolution in which we are living, the world we are currently in with its turbulences, these turbulences resemble the turbulent times which I have just described, because the first revolution regarding this linkage has taken place, in the same fashion as the second revolution, and we receive the same kind of spectrum [of change]. At school we learnt most often that the major revolutions were about the ‘hard’, […..?], and a lot was said about an industrial revolution, we spoke a lot about an economic revolution in the middle ages, the invention of the windmill, the invention of forging, or the progress that was made with steam engines from the beginning of the 19th century. If you make a comparison between the description I just completed of the fundamental consequences of revolutions relating to the ‘soft’, that is to say, to do with the treatment of information, the comparison is staggering! It is when revolutions take place in relation to information that civilizations are really turned over, remaking themselves in a new manner.

So thus, in relation to time, my first part is now over. In relation to time I mean to say that today we are living in a period comparable to that which the Middle East experienced in the first millennium before Christ, or that which Europe experienced around the 15th and 16th centuries. That is to say that today we perhaps do not realise how extraordinary novel the times we are living in are, in the times we are thinking, considering and interacting with each other. I will talk more about this later.

I promised to talk about time and I also promised to talk about space. But I cannot talk about space globally speaking. I want to talk about it by choosing a term, a little detail and by trying to be precise about it. Everyone knows the word address, and I’d like to analyse the word before you.

If you ask me for my address, I’m going to reply with the classic response, 133 place de la Republique, 11th arrondissement of Paris, for example. And this address refers to a well known space, which is a space where we can define markings, points of identification or we can define latitudes, longitudes, or the divisions of nations, the divisions of regions, the divisions of municipalities and the distances between the houses – 128, 145, 235 etc. This space – you know if better than I, you recognised it immediately – is Euclidian space, a Cartesian space which refers to known points of reference. This space, this is the space we have lived in. And I am happy to say, simply as a provocation, that this space, I will show you that we have abandoned it, and that this space, of past times, which was the space of my address, more simply put, it was the space of networks. In past times we lived in a space where there was a network of coordinates, and in effect there were networks of air traffic corridors, of sea routes, road networks, these networks that dated way back, since Rome covered western Europe in a network of roads we call ‘Roman’. And then even before, in the fifth century BC the Greeks were intelligent enough to invent the notion of latitude, and soon, a bit later, longitude. As a result the space of networks was the space of the past.

But which space do we live in today? I’ll come back to my address. The word address today, if you ask me again, I’d reply that at the address I just gave you earlier I only receive ads, so I immediately empty the contents of my letterbox into my rubbish bin, so it’s not at all the place where I receive or deal with or store or place information. What address am I am for these four operations? Well it’s simple, 06 20 02.. well, portable telephone, and then at michel.serres@wanadoo.fr when it concerns my electronic address.

However, 06 20 etc as regards my mobile phone and michel.serres@yahoo.something no longer refer to the space in question. They no longer refer to the space that I have just described. They refer to a space – please stop saying that new technologies have shortened distances, it’s stupid! No, no, new technologies have taken us from one space into another, from a Euclidian space into a new pace, from a Cartesian space into a new unmarked space, a space which is not markable, from a topological spce to a space without distances. Distance must be redefined, or distance is to be reapplied onto a basic topology. We have changed space. I want to say to you about this, then, as I was asked to do, cultural revolution, I want to draw at least two or three significant cultural consequences from this. I don’t know… me, I spoke earlier about space which referred to given points. These points were generally points of concentration. I don’t know, when I leave my house and I go towards the Latin Quarter, for several years I lived with the erection of the four large towers of the Grande Bibliotheque [the French National Library]. I saw this with some distress, this location where millions of books were concentrated, at a time when I only have to press a key on a search engine to have whatever text I want and which saves me the trouble therefore of going on a journey to one of these locations of concentration. I thought, irresistibly, of the sun dials which the maharajas of Delhi constructed during the 19th century in the suburbs of their capital in order to appreciate with great accuracy the grandeurs of the sky, while in so doing they were unaware, the poor people, that 10,000 kilometres away Gallileo was going to invent the telescope, rendering their constructions completely obsolete. And yet we know that we have enough space on the web to dispense with … today troops of monkeys cry and play around those sundials, I think that the national library, maybe, if our climate warms up enough….

This was the place of concentration that we don’t need any longer. What is a campus? It’s a place for the concentration of professors, students, living accommodation, laboratories and amphitheatres. And do we really need this now that we live in a new space? Do we really need all these concentrations? What am I doing here? You are concentrating, so I could have stayed at home and done an e-conference as they say today. There’s really no need for this kind of concentration. We don’t live in this kind of space any longer.

The second cultural consequence, I spoke earlier of legal or political consequences, and I’m going to take two examples that clearly show that we are no longer living in this space. At least one legal example, so, coming back if you please to my address. Address, the prefix is ‘ad’, our English friends put two ‘d’s, and then there is ‘directus’ in Latin. This directus marks direction and distance, which is for geometry, but this di-rectus, this is rectus which means to say, law. Therefore, the space in question was a legal space, a space of law. And if you say 133, place de la Republique, you are designating a location, [endroit, i.e. in-law in French], where, if you have not paid taxes, the customs men can come demand that and make you pay that which you owe to the state. That’s what it is to live in a space that is first of all geometric and then of law as a consequence. But what is more, this law of directus, rectus which means law comes from the Latin word rex which means king. So therefore it is a geometric space, of course, with Euclidian distances etc., also a legal space, it’s also a political space because if you haven’t completed your military obligations, if you have committed a crime or an offence, well the police can take themselves to your address to take you with them to military service, can take you to the prison that you deserve for ??. As a result, it is a legal space. There you are, we are there.

Changing space consists of first of all changing law, secondly politics. And if we have changed space, then, we have to conclude that maybe we are in a kind of legal no-man’s-land. And it’s true. It is true in effect that the web, or the majority of the places where you are working are, for the moment, legal vacuums.

And these legal no-man’s-lands, it’s impossible to apply the law from outside in some way, the law from another space, onto this space. However, it happened in the past, in the Middle Ages, the forest, then spaces of no law. The web is a kind of forest in the sense of the Middle Ages, and then, in these forests, because they were a space of no law and the guardians of the law did not go there, well one indeed believe that the pillagers, the assassins, the muggers, all the people who did hangable offences were going to occupy this forest, because they were risking nothing in relation to the police and the authorities. And as a result the honest people passed through these kinds of places with difficulty, unless they were escorted. They were navigating a space of no law, like we are today. But one day it so happened that brave travellers discovered that these great criminals were in a costume, they were wearing a kind of green smock with a sort of green hat and they all obeyed a chief, you recognise my story, it was Sherwood Forest, thank you, and the chief was called Robin Hood [‘Robin des Bois’ in French, lit. ‘Robin of the Woods’]. And do you know what it means Robin of the Woods? Because everyone knows Robin Hood, but I believe that I have to teach you what the words mean here! Of the Woods, that means, of a place, because the woods are not of the law, they are of no law, it is a space with an absence of law, but Robin is the one wearing the dress – the dress of the magistrate. This is the new law. That is to say, what is going to happen with every new technology is that far from applying an exterior law to this place of no law, it is absolutely necessary that from that place, uniquely from that place, originating and originally from that place, a new law emerges. Which by the way will be – all the forms of law that we know are born in this fashion, even Roman law was born, I know of twins born of a wolf, suckling the teats of a wolf, you don’t need to know much Latin to know that wolf means leu. It’s linked to the Latin lupa, which means prostitute, the two were sons of a prostitute in the forest, they were in a place of no law, and the foundation of Rome came from there, that is to say, the new law.

As a consequence, changing place has considerable cultural consequences, which touch both justice and politics. And you know without a doubt, I believe that some of you men, like me, fell in love last week with a woman, whom I shall quickly praise in passing, to show you to what extent politics can change. This Madame Huart, born in Liege, in her 50s, wife of a certain Eddy, Flemisch, administrator by profession, writes, on the 10 August 2007, in a blog, that she is sad to see the division of her country into two rival factions, the Walloons and the Flemish, well French speaking and Flemish speaking, and she would like Belgium to remain united. She says just that, and then she transfers her little text onto a petition site .be, you can visit it if you wish, and then by the following Wednesday she has 40,000 signatures. The month afterwards she has 100,000 signatures and at the end of November she has 160,000 signatures, and she organises a march in Brussels that amasses 40,000 people.  If you do a comparison between a man of politics who, for his whole life, for dozens of years, has to seek followers and may scrape together 600,000, and this woman who is only Madame Huart, in the same way as I am Michel Serres, any old person, and all of a sudden she gathers 160,000 supporters in a few weeks. It’s clear! Therefore you see that new technologies allow a new law, as I’ve just told you, the new, without a doubt, this is Madame Huart, beginning with a h, who is a swallow announcing the democratic summer which I have been hoping for for dozens of years, here it is.

Therefore you see that changing space is not nothing, that is to say, you asked me for a cultural revolution, there it is, the revolution is, in effect, of politics, justice, of habitat. To inhabit a new space is not innocent. It has complex consequences from a point of view of human relations, of politics and of law. I’ll pass over the other consequences, it’s not the time to talk about them here, time is going too fast.

First part, time, and we have become aware of the novelty of the times in which we are living today. Second part, space. We are not aware that burdening space, changing our habitus, that is to say, our manner of fixing ourselves in that space, and all of a sudden human relations too, and that has implications, will have implications on rights, politics, human relations etc. We can talk about this if you want to put questions later.

And now cognitive. Third part, man. Have new technologies repercussions for our way of living, and, above all, for our manner of knowing. Before one could talk about the definition of our rapport with living objects, objects in the world, with life sciences, and previously, also, one can talk about the moment from which, when I saw to what extent trades had transformed, as much linguistically as practically. And let’s come back to ourselves, if you please. When we were in philosophy class, traditional professors taught us all that the human condition was comprised of what we used to call three faculties. The faculty of memory, of imagination and the faculty of reason. And these faculties have been differentiated, philosophers have described them over time… in the three forms. And then there were the cognitivists who moved it forward little by little, the biologists, biochemists, the neurons, in order to know exactly how these three types of activity functioned at once. I’d like to choose one of them, a bit at random, and try to analyse it in front of you, according to these new technologies. Let’s take memory, for example.

You remember that earlier I distinguished between three revolutions: the oral stage, the written stage, the printed stage and now today, the new stage which we’ve just entered into. At the time of the oral stage, we would come together in the evening to listen to the bards singing. And bards were Greek singers who recited the Odyssey in front of peasants or in front of royal courts – and by the way, it is thought that Homer is not really the author of the Odyssey, he’s simply the author who put the ensemble of traditions that the bards at the time of the oral stage had gathered in writing, about… At that time the bards had a considerable memory, because they were capable of recounting the voyages of Ulysses across three thousand, four thousand, five thousand verses. And with this memory were traditions that we can recognise perfectly. If, for example, we open any of Plato’s dialogues, it nearly always begins in the following manner: a passer-by recognises a friend in the street or in the public square, stops him, and says to him, ‘Hey, I know you! I’m sure I’ve been told that you were present on the day of Socrates’ death’. The other turns around and says, ‘Ah yes, I know you, yes yes, I was present at Socrates’ death, and in fact I was with him during his last hours’. ‘Ah’, he says ‘do sit down and tell me what Socrates said.’ And the other agrees to sit down and describes what Socrates said, and it goes on for 245 pages. You know that the person who is telling this, what Socrates said, takes 245 pages. You know that the person who is retelling this event is not adding a single comma to the words that Socrates said throughout the whole night before he drank hemlock. They had some memory.

But this memory, which has been lost for a long time, as the techniques of writing and printing did not come into usage everywhere [at once], so it is clear that in the Middle Ages, when Albert the Great was giving classes at the Sorbonne, his students were standing in front of him, hands behind their backs, listening to what Albert the Great said on the matters of cosmology or physics, and each of them would have been able to reproduce the totality of what he said, their cosmology master, to the letter, eight days, eight years, twenty years later, precisely and exactly. They had memory. The first catastrophe was the invention of writing. From the time when writing appeared – and by the way all of Platonism is the struggle against Socrates who did not want to write and who honoured a living word, against Plato who wanted to write and who honoured the dead word, lying on parchment. This bust-up is fairly well known, because it caused that philosophy, but at that time there was a considerable loss of memory. A loss that we in fact attest to every morning, because if we are listening to a conference, or various spoken statements, we take notes lest we forget what the orator or the president says in front of us. As a result we do not possess sufficient memory to reproduce what happened there, as we did during the oral stage.

Therefore, first stage, loss of memory. But this loss of memory is nothing like the catastrophe of the Renaissance, when the very invention of printing brought about the complete loss of contemporary memory. We have the manifest proof of this because Montaigne wrote in a text so well known you will have parsed it, this text, when you were at school, without understanding it, as little as I did at the time: ‘I prefer a well made head to a full one’ [je préfère une tête bien faite à une tête bien plein], right? That’s what Montaigne said, what did he mean by that? He simply meant that a historian in his time who wanted to work on his discipline, was obliged to know Tacitus, Livy, Herodotus, Plutarch, Dion[?], etc by heart. He had to know the whole of the library off by heart, why, because it is not accessible! It is accessible in manuscript form in Auxerre [?], in Rome, in three, four libraries, in Paris at the Sorbonne and maybe in Oxford. As a result, he has to know it by heart. If you were a physician, you had to know all of the Presocratics, the Greeks, Aristotle etc. But from the time when there was printing, there was no longer a need to know by heart. It was enough to know by heart the place where the book was on the shelf. What an economy! Catastrophe, complete loss of memory, we prefer a well-made head to a full one. But, all of a sudden today we have, on the web, all the information. As much as the National Library plus Wikipedia, well, you know better than I do what there is. We no longer have need of memory. We don’t have memory any longer. We don’t have memory at all. How is it, that there is a faculty, of which it was said that it was essential to the human brain, yet we can measure its disappearance.

So, in order to try and understand what this loss means, we must analyse the word loss. We have lost memory, but what have we gained? Because losing is the opposite of gaining. And in order to explain the difference that exists between losing and gaining from a cognitive point of view, I will gladly call on something that one of my old professors, who I admired a lot, a professor of pre-history called [??] told us, when he described what loss meant, miming a little. He said ‘in the past we were quadrupeds. We were on all fours, and then some event, which evidently took millennia, made us stand up on two feet and then’ he said ‘ our fore-limbs lost the function of carrying’. ‘Yes’ he said, ‘it’s true that they lost the function of carrying, but in relation to the horse’s hoof, in relation to a crab’s pincer, in relation to the organ at the end of the forelimbs of animals, look at the miracle which took place – the hand was invented.’ And by the way he had written a book on the hand, and he said ‘the hand’, here, ‘is a universal tool!’ There you are, it’s a universal tool, that is to say that with the hand, which doesn’t do anything, even in comparison with the crab’s pincers, in comparison with the squid’s tentacle, or in comparison with the horse’s hoof. It doesn’t serve one function; it does everything. With a hand one can wave, one can hold a hammer, one can caress their girlfriend and one can play the violin, well… And maybe tomorrow our descendants will invent other gestures or other functions for the hand, it’s a universal tool. We lost something that was formatted; we discovered the universal. Yes, but at the time when we were on all fours, the mouth had the function of gripping, it caught what was to eat, it caught prey. Yes, but as soon as the hand appeared, the hand was charged with this function of gripping, therefore the mouth lost this function of gripping completely. […]

This demonstration concerning cognition, which I have limited simply to memory, but which one could extend to imagination and reason, should persuade you that the cultural revolutions of which I’ve spoken are now entering into a considerable cognitive revolution, and that it is not the same manner of knowing since the medium has changed, or rather since the connection medium-message has evolved in this fashion.

And to finish I would like to talk to you about all the faculties in general. To finish with cognition and also to finish my paper as the hour is up. There was once a town, which was called Lutetia. It was not yet called Paris. The date – the second or third century AD; politics – Emperor Decius, ruling from Rome; law and policing – Emperor Decius had decreed that across the whole empire the first Christians be persecuted, executed, put into prison and delivered to the lions. And then, in Lutetia, via the intermediaries of the British Isles and Ireland and Brittany, as you know, not from the east but from the west, Christianity appeared, from the first century, in Lutetia. And one evening the first Christians gathered in one room, we do not really know where in the city of Paris, and they had just elected their bishop, in what the Elysees was then. And this bishop was named Denis. (The name is not important.) And it was evening, afternoon, and the first Christians were gathered in a room, as we are today, and they were listening attentively to what their bishop was telling them, he was where I am now, and was preaching to them, I don’t know very much about what he was saying to them, but above all they had closed all the openings, all the doors, all the windows, in case of the terrifying possibility that the Roman Legion would force their way into the room and persecute them, throw them into prison. And piously they were following the speech by their bishop Denis when all of a sudden the drama occurred. The doors and windows were rammed, the Roman Legion broke into the room and the centurian passed along the central aisle, mounted the dais, pulled out his blade and cut the neck of the bishop Denis, whose head rolled onto the ground.

Horrified stupefaction, fear, but! A miracle. Bishop Denis bends over and takes his head in his two hands – when my grandmother told me this story I said ‘But how did he manage to find his ….?’ [miming eyes and hands]. You laugh, but ‘that was it, the miracle’ said my grandmother! Bishop Denis takes the head and presents it to his [? …. ] and of course the Roman Legionnaires, including the centurion, fled, horrified when faced with the miracle in question, a miracle that you can admire at the Pantheon [in Paris] painted by a painter of the Academy who I believe was called Bonnat, but which is known as the miracle of St. Denis, which is portrayed, and which is to some extent in all the memories of the story. So there you have the story with which I’d like to finish. When you sit yourself down in the morning in front of your computer, your head is like that of St. Denis. Because in your head are the faculties of which I’ve just spoken: there is memory, there is imagination, there is reason, you have a hundred thousand bits of software for doing operations which I doubtless don’t do in your head, but your head has been objectivised. You have lost your head. To such an extent that the modern man is a man who can parody the famous title of Musil’s novel, I’ll happily call him The Man Without Faculties. From now on the faculties are there, you’ve lost them, they are there in front of you, and all the knowledge, all the imagination, all the rational functions are there in front of you. You have St. Denis’ head at your disposition.

Very well. Now the question, which is the final [eperentoire, et perentoire/péremptoireand trenchant and decisive question: but what remains on your neck? And if you look at the painting in question by Bonnat which I’m describing, Bonnat put a sort of transparent and slightly incandescent light over the decapitated head of St. Denis. What remains on our necks? Well, ladies and gentlemen, I’d like to conclude this paper with a catastrophic word. New technologies have condemned us to become intelligent. We have become intelligent, that is to say, when we have knowledge in front of us, when we have imagination in front of us,  but yes! We are condemned to become inventive! To become intelligent, that is to say, live transparently (?), that is to say that we are at a distance from knowledge, at a distance from imagination, at a distance from cognition in general, and all that remains for us is inventiveness. This is at once catastrophic news for [gruyants/grognants/bruyants??…. ], but it is news that enthuses a new generation. Which is to say that today, without a doubt, intellectual work is obliged to be intelligent work and not repetitive work like it has been until now.

Thank you.

One thought on “Michel Serres: Revolution Cognitive et Culturelle (engl. translation)

  1. Pingback: How to theorize technology today? | monas & nomos

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