Book Reviews / Lectures / Pre-specificity / Projective Theory of Technology / Thinking as an Algebraic Mechanist

On Michel Serres’ book The Natural Contract (1990): “Cosmoliteracy – the Alphabetization of the Nature of Thought”

This is the manuscript of my talk at the joint annual conference of the Society for European Philosophy and the Forum for European Philosophy, September 3-5 2014 at Utrecht University, with the annual theme: Philosophy after Nature.

Cosmoliteracy – the Alphabetization of the Nature of Thought

by Vera Bühlmann

A-cosmic philosophies have only language or politics, writing or logic. But we are acting physically, Michel Serres maintains in his 1990 Book The Natural Contract.[1] He thereby seems to launch a direct attack to Enlightenment and Post-enlightenment philosophy, which appears to share, in all its diverse guises, that cosmology, seeking to comprehend cosmological nature, must remain speculatively rational, and hence, uncritical, in a manner that contradicts the general order of knowledge modern philosophy seeks. As Kant put it: to study cosmology systematically seems all set up for producing antinomies. Not cosmology then can be critical philosophy’s ambition, only cosmopolitics – a cosmos (an overall order) that is rooted in an anthropological ‚nature’. Today, this gesture of philosophical anthropocentrism is met with increasing suspicion and distance, while we can at the same time observe a renewed interest in celebrating speculative thought in a manner that seeks to liberate rationality from the anthropological or historicist straight jacket which a Principle of Reason that claims to be totally functional to a higher telos has imposed upon it.

Michel Serres’ book has genuine contributions to make to this emerging interest in speculative materialism/realism. For him The Principle of Reason describes not an ideal order that is to serve as a „natural“ frame of reference on which a politics that extends to the level of the global needs to rely on, but „a natural contract“. A contract „which embodies both reason and judgement“ (p. 90). He maintains that modern philosophy was not able to consider a global nature, that for it, nature was always local whereas as far as the collective is concerned, it lives only in global history. But history, Serres maintains, remains blind to nature (p.7). All it knows is subjective wars, dialogical combat. Serres begins his book with a discussion of Goya’s painting where two fighting men do not realize that they are both being swallowed up by quicksand. The subjective wars and dialogical combat cannot know how to deal with the new form of violence all of humanity is beginning to experience in the phenomena that indicate climate change, and the possible extinction of animal and plant species, a form of violence which Serres calls objective. Dialectical history has tried to invade the tribunal site where Being is distributed, he maintains, but the combating parties have thereby changed position so often, over the course of time, that the predicative theory of the ontological square has turned into a historical force itself: the two diagonals across which the dialectical positions run hence and forth, and unceasingly exchange places, have thereby picked up speed and erected the square to pivot around vertical axes: Battling over how, in the name of nature, things are to be defined and addressed, has turned from an originally juridical site, where the distribution of proper rights of things according to their kindred, general and individual nature were at stake, into an emergent form of violence that appears to strike back against the imposed logical classifications and local orders that all compete in their aspiration to become referential, and to expand from local onto global scales. Disturbed, dynamized and furious, the Earth responds to this historical force. It begins to tremble and threatens to swallow up the combatants together with all those who watch the spectacle and place their bets on one of the parties. Humanity, so Serres, has become a physical variable and it is high time to begin thinking in these terms (p.17).

We ceaselessly inform global Nature with our movements and energies, Serres maintains, and it in turn informs us of its global change by the same means. The exchange of information of which Serres speaks is physical: „Our technologies make up a system of cords or traits, of exchanges of power and information, which goes from the local to the global, and the Earth answers us, from the global to the local.“ (p. 109) It is the exchange of information that gives birth to a kind of physics, he dares to consider, whose order is probable and complex, rather than elemental and predicative. It is physics born from communication, which is at the same time – reciprocally and without ever falling to rest within one state of reciprocal correspondence – a physics of communication.

My interest in Serres’ approach with this is less a strengthening of facticity against conceptual instrumentalizations and agoratic competition; in fact, quite inverse. A physics of communication, if we think it with Serres[2], can open up a path for thinking the process of hominization beyond any presumed predication of the human. A physics of communication allows a materialist approach to hominization in a manner in which neither cosmology nor cosmopolitics seem fit to account for. Serres sets Spiritedness and Materiality into a peculiar relation – equipollence, (equality in force, power or validity), a relation which brackets the essentialist question regarding nature out from the scene of action. For such a communicational physics, the questions of who sent the messages, are they reaching their destination, and what or who avails over a faithful process of transmission, can be bracketed along with the question of nature’s essence. A communicational physics, and the corresponding materialist view on hominization, neither seeks a one determinative answer, nor does it neglect the questions – „Can we practice a diligent religion of the world?“ ask Michel Serres (p.48). Diligence is decisive. Because such a nature has no subjects, it is not in an elementary way predicative, it is predicative only in a rational and reciprocally symmetric way: it is the relation between energy and information that predicates such a nature’s individuations. Nature itself has no property, and it can neither be possessed nor mastered. It distributes conditions of nativity and natality that are, in principle, universal, although they manifest locally in myriads of ways.

Of course this sounds quite miraculous, but the trick (if I may say so) is that Serres communicational physics treats Nature like cosmology treats energy: as the invariant magnitude that is conserved in all the transformations that happen in time and manifests in space – whatever it may be, this „energy“, or this „nature“. Nature does not feature as a variable, within this equation, but neither does it feature as constants (coefficients) – unlike the conventions of much of todays actual physics. Serres suggestion is so radical, neither classically materialist nor classically idealist, because it maintains that nature consists in the form-bearing charges that are being exchanged in the communication between the two poles of a delicate and critical, because genuinely unlikely, relation of equipollence: that between the Earth and Humanity. I want to suggest in my paper that we could call cosmoliteracy that knowledge which constitutes the diligence, or negligence, in which science articulates this one relation that matters above all others. The acuteness and sensitivity in which it does this determines the richness in qualities, and the capacities of coexistence for them, that can be supported by the „nature“ as it is conserved throughout earthly and human activity. In his little booklet praising Ilya Prigogine’s critique of the principle role of closure in thermodynamics, and implied therein, thermodynamics’ dismissal of relations of equipollence, Michel Serres stresses Prigogine’s point: order out of fluctuation, he says, this is not something new, but rather the very definition of novelty.[3] If we settle with this peculiar relation, equipollence, we can find a manner of relating to „modernity“ such that it might find a way of continuing with itself in the terms of its own values: namely neglect of authority claimed on no other grounds than those of tradition. We must leave the domain of global history for the domain of global nature, Serres urges. Scientific knowledge is knowledge which responds to its object, the Earth. But it neither possesses nor masters it, it acts as an equal to it in terms of force, power, or validity. Scientific knowledge and the Earth are the same in effect or signification.

This sameness is a sameness that rests within itself, but that never actually comes to rest, it is a sameness that is vibrantly catching up to itself, it never ceases seeking to comprehend all that it in its virtual actuality encompasses. Michel Serres notion of the Earth is a delicate one, a fragile one that draws, by all we know from experience, from genuine unlikeliness – it is a mistake to assume that rationality and the real are the most proximate in kind.[4] They are genuinely unlikely. The relation of equipollence infinitarily strives to manifest as a reciprocal equivalence between the two, the Rational and the Real, an equivalence which is never naturally given. They can be in discord, and indeed, whenever one side is considered to be more powerful than the other, such discord arises. One side then acts upon the other in violent manners because it knows it has, if needed, supplementary alimentation to resort to. Such discord, the breakdown of this equipollence, this is called „pollution“ Serres tells us (p.24). Garbage proliferates only in this gap between the real and the rational. We have so much pollution, so much garbage today, because Reason acts violently upon the world – it is not enough that each thing have sufficient reason, reason must be given back, rendered. As Serres puts it: There must be an equity of exchanges (p.90). The sameness that rests in genuine unlikeliness,   is   not   in any other way but in the activity within a network of cords that strives to bond all that factors within it. „It’s an equation of optimization, symmetry, and justice,“ as he puts it (p.89). That is why to consider reason, rather than law, as natural is a short circuit that conceals that reason is always founded on a judgement. It neglects, that every judgement is preceded by a trial. And Judging is equivalent to weighing, Serres insists (p.87), it operates upon the most efficient algebraic method, that of proportional analogy of an A : B = C : D. According to this algebraic method, the resolution of equations is possible – in increasingly diligent and complex manners, historically speaking. If we don’t restrict the numerical domains which are „allowed to count“, then equations whose terms are raised to arbitrarily high powers   all yield solution spaces of n solutions. If this is ignored, reason prevents new cosmical resolutions of this only equation that matters – the reciprocal bonds between Earth and Humanity – from being speculatively articulated.

„When physics was invented“ Serres tells us, „philosophers went around saying that nature was hidden under the code of algebra’s numbers and letters: that the word code came from law“ (p.39). But for Serres, law prevails over the rationality of science, which is why law precedes geometry and algebra. Modern philosophy’s mistake may have been to institute a principle of reason that is supposed to found law, but that of the philosophers of antiquity was to insist that legal contracts depend upon language, and that we can pinpoint natural law in the logical or grammatical order of words and concepts. With this unfortunate insistence, that subjects algebra to an order of language considered as ideal and perennial, the birth of physics has been delayed for almost two millennia, Serres maintains, because no one has paid attention to how the Earth speaks to us in the physical terms of forces, bonds, and interactions. Physical terms are enough, he insists, to make a contract between intellect and its partner, the Earth, a contract that informs, and hence gives criteria of regularity (p.39). Nature, to Serres, is that very contract. It is the web of exchanges of information, technical and not, manmade and not, in which the physics of global nature is born out of communicative activity. In it, we must assume, everything counts without exception (p.112ff). The urgent question is not how to separate that which ought to count from that which doesn’t. It is the Real that needs to be accounted for by Rationality, not any presumed notion of the True.

It is this gesture of treating issues of subjectivity and identity within the registers of jurisdiction that is prudent rather than foundational, that Serres can develop a literally materialist view on hominization: „The process of hominization ‚takes‘ in us,“ he maintains, „the way a crystal undergoes a phase change and solidifies“ (p.101). With the advances in algebra and number theory, rationality acquires new capacities – this at least is how I can make sense of the „phase changes“ of which he speaks. Does becoming human consist of forever unbinding so as to bind elsewhere and otherwise? Is this the nature of thought? Do we cast off from our local customs to join the universal only to change cords, he asks? (p.101)

The nature of Thought, like the nature of Earth, must be considered as universal, not as general. To remain within the registers of generality establishes what Serres calls a political Thanatocracy[5]. Its power is based on betrayal, Serres maintains already in an early essay in the Hermes Books, which reigns by distributing death in the name of protecting life-in-general, bios. Thanatocracy betrays humanity from becoming human: it administrates the stock of rational potency encoded into general forms, while decoupling these specified rational potencies from their real source, which is the power of abstraction. It is only in relation to death that one can deal with a given situation in a manner in which „everything counts“. It is the vivificaiton of life by death that produces intelligence and diligence. If scientific terms are identified as lawful terms, rather than considered as terms that need to be resting within the probabilistic spectrums dealt with in jurisprudence, then there is only negligence, no diligence. Then science imposes: That or this doesn’t count. The universal rights modern politics has produced in this manner are not universal because they erect a general order, an order where a particular Rationality controls the Real, and hence a hierarchical and dynamical order, not one of equipollent radiating actuality.

Science produces generalizations, but the true power of science does not derive from the stocks of potency stored and encapsulated in generalizations. It derives from abstraction. Abstraction doesn’t extend in dimensions, it opens up dimensionalities. It is categorial, not classificatory. Generalizations render, they map abstraction’s power into temporal and spatial relations, but Abstraction itself transcends time and space. It concentrates around en empty center, it considers both the negativity and the positivity of a considered vertical axis. The universal can never be represented in global terms, because it is present only in abstraction – it is not only categorial, it is cardial, it transcends time and space because it pulsates in a natural heart that nourishes both parties of the natural contract, the Earth and Humanity.[6]

Neglecting the difference between abstraction and generalization, the „universal properties“ of modern science have produced a general order which maintains itself only by first (1) producing pollution, garbage, a vile rest that rumors latently, subterrean or climatically, and that begins to attack this order violently from behind its own back, and then (2) secondarily, by propagating its programs of pacification against which no one dares to object, because objective violence, for this general order, means objective guilt. And guilt is the lever with which an order where a particular Rationality controls the Real betrays both, the Earth and Humanity.

Let me only briefly point out some indexes of how we could go further in making sense of Serres’ postulate that „hominization takes‘ in us the way a crystal undergoes a phase change and solidifies“. What I am currently trying to develop in my work is that we could reconsider the role of „writing“ in the history of humanist thought within the registers of algebra as cryptography, a kind of information-based alphabetization in which the characters capture not voiced sound, but radiation. With Serres, we can comprehend of such characters as the algebraic forms that capture processes of crystallization. Algebra would not be subservient to language, then, it would be language – the language in which we find articulated in the world all the crystallizations of forms that emerge out of fluidity. Knowledge, then, is neither prophetic nor evangelic, it simply narrates actuality. Where global history tries to find a global horizon, a kind of Master Integral for all that happens, global nature tries to find rationalities that can account for cases whose cause appears in-determined. It is clear that imagining such a cosmoliteracy is a speculative endeavor, but let me try to make a first case for it here.

The world within which such bondage is articulated is a world in which particles radiate and are nor entirely stable, they bond and decay. Serres responds to this with his strong notion of the cord: The cord is capable of establishing three practices, he tells us (p.107ff), which regard: form (conceptual, geometric, knowledge), energy (material, physical, power), and information (judicial, legal, complexity). Responding to this radioactivity of the world, Serres Natural Contract is literally meant to conserve conditions of cordiality which organize the electrostatic force of a communicational physics. A cord is capable of (1) marking out a field and surround it with flexibility. This is what it means to define an object in terms that are cordial, rather than determinative. (2) It attaches a subject to this object, as if to its knowledge or property. (3) It informs others contractually of the situation produced by the enclosure. Hence the cord is, as Serres calls it, „a triple tress“ of information, form and energy – the curly cord is to him the very texture of the material fabric of cordiality. The cord, as Serres elaborates, „initiates me into abstraction, the world, and society“ (p.108). He continues: „Its channels pass information, forces, and laws. […] In a cord can be found all the objective and collective attributes of Hermes. When flexible, it embraces topology only to describe geometrical forms once it stiffens.“ (p.108) But it is material, this cord, it initiates a spectrum – „brief little pulls, low energy levels (amplitudes) to convey information,“ and „when continuously pulled taut, it transmits force and power, high energy levels“ (p.108).

Thus, of course it is a poetic gesture to describe the cord in Serres’ cordiality as a triple tress; but it is also a precise name, namely for an electromagnetic field: information, form and energy are needed to articulate not only a curl’s lively and never properly tamable activity, but also the alert rather than dynamic activity that results from the propagation of waves, arranging vibrantly but continuously the quantum particularity of exchangeable charges. With this, we have a starting point from which we can consider how Serres can think that hominization, within conditions of cordiality, „takes‘ in us the way a crystal undergoes a phase change and solidifies.“

Crystallization is the process of forming a reciprocally symmetric – pure or broken – structure from a material fluid. It is an extensively-studied field because depending on local-yet-universal conditions, a single fluid can solidify into many different possible Appearances with different properties. This ability of a solid, rather: its group of atoms, particles and electrons, to exist in more than one reciprocal body (chrystal form) is called polymorphism. The final form of the solid is determined only abstractly, by the universally valid conditions under which the fluid is being solidified – locally, conditions such as the chemistry of the fluid, the ambient pressure, the temperature, and the speed with which all these parameters are changing. Crystalline structures occur in all classes of materials, with all types of chemical bonds. A chemical bond is an attraction between atoms that allows the formation of chemical substances that contain two or more atoms. The bond is caused by the electrostatic force of attraction between opposite charges.[7]

Translated into our communicational physics, the natural contract would characterize an electromagnetic field between The Earth and Humanity, as poles of opposite charges. But what can we take from this for a materialist view on hominization? Let me try to disentangle this peculiarly „univocal analogy“ of Serres.

  • It treats the human like crystallography treats the crystal: as an encrypted abstraction, arcane in essence, but encipherable and decryptable, and effective in these very operations. The name, crystals or humans, is but an auxiliary concept that does not itself explain anything. In Crystallography, the Earth is studied in terms of crystallization, and crystallization is studied in terms the cases that can be found by experiment and attentiveness to how the Earth speaks. This reciprocal articulation of one in terms of the other never comes to rest, because of the genuine unlikeliness that constitutes this relation of equipollence. Both poles prosper in their power with which they can, together, account for the apparent richness in phenomena with which they concern themselves. In that same manner we could study the Earth in its mutually reciprocal relation to Humanity. This would then be anthropography rather than anthropology, studying the patterns in which social nuclei are bound together in relational forms of collectivity.
  • Just like crystallography remains entirely undecided with regard to what energy is supposed to be – all it needs to assume is that the amount total of energy in the universe be invariant, and likewise with regard to what matter in itself is supposed to be – an anthropography too must remain entirely undecided with regard to questions of essentiality. It needs to assume what life is as little or as much as crystallography needs to assume what energy is. And it needs to be predetermined about what vitality or spiritedness is as much or as little as the latter needs to be predetermined about what materiality is.
  • Crystallography works with graphical notations that can be precise or imprecise. The structural fabric of this notation, with which it speculates and experiments, is graphical only because there is scripture which its graphisms articulate. But, and this is the decisive point, this scripture is not meant to represent anything, all it   must be taken to do is to conserve reciprocal symmetry in the relations it articulates. There is a notion of law involved, but they don’t represent nature, they are universal but virtually so, like algebraic formula. They are actualized within the constraint of locally particular conditions that are symbolically manifest in the forms of Perhaps we can say, nature so conceived is universal and genital, while it is kindred and specious only in the articulated terms and articles of this contract.

So am I, in my reading of Serres, suggesting to combine alchemy with mysticism, in the name of new science – the science of communicational physics by computational means? I readily admit that this cannot easily be refuted. But then, are these not flagwords brought forward to call to reason – and hence, effectively, to terminate – any of the attempts of formulating new forms of speculative materialisms/realisms? My interest was to lay out how Serres idea of a Natural Contract, which departs from insisting that issues of climatic and environmental concerns must be addressed in the terms of law and philosophy, rather than those of an ecology or a politically expanded version of al-biology (Biopolitics), has something important to contribute to this emerging interest in the role of speculative experimentation and their conditions of computability. So let me recite what seems to be this core contribution: There is a „reciprocal transformation of cause into thing and fact into law,“ Serres maintains. „It describes the double situation of scientific knowledge: its arbitrary convention, as all speculative theory, and the faithful and exact objectivity that underlies every application.“ (p.22).



[1] „We have lost the world. We’ve transformed things into fetishes or commodities, the stakes of our stratagems; and our a-cosmic philosophies, for almost half a century now, have been holding forth only on language or politics, writing or logic.“ Michel Serres, The Natural Contract, p.29.

[2] i.e. not as a kind of a second nature, as is often done when thought to operate upon a genuine and primary nature, eg. in cybernetic’s second-order approaches, or the logicist’s metalanguage approaches.

[3] Michel Serres, Anfänge. Merve.

[4] cf. Michael Potter, Reasons Nearest Kin: Philosophies of Arithmetics

[5] cf. Michel Serres, “Verrat: Thanatokratie,” in Hermes III: Übersetzung, trans. Michael Bischoff (Berlin: Merve Verlag, 1992 [1974]).

[6] There are interesting proximities between Serres and Luce Irigaray’s later work on Air, and on the role of Mary.

[7] cf. on „crystallization“

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