Algebraic Concepts Characterized / Architectonic Articulations / Lectures


Manuscript for the New Materialism Conference in Warsaw “Performing Situated Knowledges: Space, Time, Vulnerability” 21 -23 September 2016


My paper will relate Serres’ personification of Sisyphus to the naive and intuitive notion that the role of „information“ be a kind of „elementary patch“—not really an element and not really a particle either, more like a mixture of both, pieces of an enormous puzzle perhaps—patches which one can expect to fit together neatly and smoothly and with no need to apply force, if only enough care is invested in figuring out how the patches must be arranged so as to continue and complement each other. These patches of information are to show the way things fall into place „just as they ought to,“ naturally. It is the very vulnerability of this intuitive idea that Serres’ re-reading of Sisyphus is capable of appreciating. All existentialist praise of Sisyphus has neglected, Serres maintains, that there can be no reckoning about Sisyphus without his host; and his host, so Serres tells us, is the stone. The object that determines Sisyphus as a subject. Sisyphus is not the modern hero, a hero whitewashed, and emancipated, from power and ambition. He is not the hero who, stripped from the burden of ever effecting anything at all, exists face-to-face with pure necessity and can therefore guard, in the manner of a bureaucrat, a notion of righteousness that rests in the sheer repetition of routine. The myth’s character does not become a modern hero because he has been punished and corrected by the Gods for the cunning, ruse and mischief, with which Sisyphus had challenged them in ever new attempts to reconcile transcendence and immanence; he is not a post-Christian crucified, without resurrection, he is not a modern savior. To Serres, Sisyphus is the personification of someone who values the object as the reception of news, neither good nor corrupt, simply as the appearance of something extrinsic to the heretofore manifest wholeness of the web of relations. Sisyphus plays a central role in Serres’ novel humanism, because he renders novelty communicable. This communication is the contribution of the excluded third to the bipolar idea of communication between sender and receiver, between origin and destination, between source and reception.




„From the darkness of times, out of the hollows of the underworld, from an abyss of pain, a report recurs that some thing will keep returning here—and all we do is talk about the man who keeps taking it away from there, we Narcisses’.” (Michel Serres, The Five Senses)

Sisyphus, the story of the ruse-ful human who played his games with the will of the Gods, and who was punished, eventually, by Thanatos – God of death and the afterlife – with a sentence that predicates Sisyphus to roll uphill a heavy stone, only to pick it up the next day where he had, already, the day before. For centuries Sisyphus has been received as a figure expressing the fall of mankind, the expulsion of humanity, due to the human striving for mastership; in the modern era of the 19th century, Sisyphus turned into the epitome for a tragic humanism, a non-narcissistic and non-anthropocentric attitude where human nature resides in orienting thought entirely face-to-face with pure necessity, and to think of oneself thereby as guarding a notion of righteousness that rests in the sheer repetition of a routine, without wanting anything at all. Serres gives a novel turn to this genealogy, and maintains that Sisyphus tale teaches us about how non-anthropocentric thought can constitute a novel humanism: Sisyphus stands for a human subject that subjects not to history, nor to something transcendent, but to the object. He stands for a subject whose work is genuinely humane to the degree to which it is pointless in ever concluding something – not as the acceptance of tragedy, but as the reception of a report that initiates the possibility for knowledge.

The legend of Sisyphus actually reports that something will keep returning, “here”. The object is what is being re-ported– an object with no other reference than an indexical one, “here”, here some thing keeps returning. What? That is the puzzle. But there is a secular aspect to the Sisyphus tale. It is that this sort of “puzzling” is no longer to be an apocalyptic puzzling, one for which at the end of time there would be revelation, one where revelation, true insight, would demarcate – indeed, bring about – an end to time as it passes. It is an objective puzzle, and the object is what we subject to. And by subjecting to the object, the object – itself indeterminate but determinable – is being constituted. To such a notion of the object, there is a direction, a goal, an objective. What is puzzling about it is that where this direction, this objective, is heading to – it is this objective place that is at stake in Sisyphus’ puzzling dealings. To Serres, it is the place of hominiscence, the place where the nature of humanness originates from. It is a place that is indeterminate not despite but because it is determinable in myriads of ways and manners: it is the entropic place from which order, as the negative to entropy (negentropy) is being wrested   as time passes on.

To Serres, Sisyphus is the personification –  a mask of generic humaneness – of someone who values the object as the reception of news. Such news are neither good nor corrupt, what they “bring” is simply a report of, or the appearance of, something extrinsic to the heretofore manifest wholeness of the web of reasonable relations. A report as every invention brings about, makes appear, something new – Renaissance perspective, infinitesimal calculus, thermodynamic apparatus’ like the steam engine, they have all endowed the domain of what can objectively referred to with aspects that had been dubbed “mystic”, “exclusive”, “alchemic” and the like before. Sisyphus plays a central role in Serres’ novel humanism, and, I will try to argue, this is not because he were gifted with inventiveness but because he renders novelty and inventiveness communicable. This communication is the contribution of the excluded third to the bipolar idea of communication between sender and receiver, between origin and destination, between source and reception.

Hors-Là: how to address the vicarious space of conductivity ?

Guy de Maupassant has invented a character called Horla, which the protagonist in his short story keeps encountering in a peculiar kind of shadow. Horla is a phantom that is transparent (passive, lets shine through) but not without an irreducible lucidity of its own. It sits in front of the mirror and it catches, before the mirror can actually do so, the images the mirror is about to reflect. Michel Serres, the polymath writer who has been pursuing, for more than five decades, the project of a natural philosophy of communication, writes about this peculiar character:

“What a strange shadow: it is and is not, present and absent, here and elsewhere, the middle which ought to be excluded but cannot, hence contradictory. This is why he [Maupassant] calls him Horla”.[1]

Horla, this is, to Michel Serres, the character of a kind of spectrality that actively sums up all projections that could possibly be reflected, in a kind of summation whose total is indefinite, and because of that, determinable. What is at stake with this proposal by Serres?

Let us approach indirectly. There are phenomena that are to be considered as genuinely simulacral but nevertheless real, as Mark Hansen has beautifully put it in a talk on his project of a speculative phenomenology.[2] The question he raised thereby is of interest to media theory at large: how to address philosophically the particular kind of “spectrality” at work in communication media, and how to address the rendering of appearances (that technical spectra afford in quantum physics-based science, chemistry for example or electro-engineering)? The predominant question with regard to quantum physics is that of location and the point of view of the observer. But in order to address the active role of those spectra, as a kind of impersonal agency, we will have to complement that question with one that asks about how to think of the temporality involved in such observations. For such observations are, in a strict sense of the term, mediagenic: they are observations engendered by mediation, by resorting to a middle ground “that ought to be excluded but cannot”[3].

While there clearly is an emerging common sense with regard to the importance of attending to the temporality dimension at work in quantum-physical “positivity” (the “eventfulness” of probability spaces, the “massive activity” in particle physics (radioactivity) and in chemistry (molecular bondages), there are many proposals of how to do so. – Serres interest in Maupassant’s character Horla lies in that it impersonates cryptographically the source of a peculiar kind of originality. It is an originality that affords tracing back lineages and hence gives birth to continuity, but the afforded tracing is not one that heads for a beginning that would reside in some transcendent beyond. It affords a kind of tracing within a space that opens up from and co-extends with just such tracing. It is a kind of originality, hence, of which we might feel inclined to call it vicious, because by all apparent evidence it appears to be circular (just consider the vocabulary of quantum physics: radiating activity, returning frequencies, extension in phases etc). We must also consider that the agency at work in this self-referentiality indeed is attributed, by Maupassant and also by Serres, “character”. We seem to have good reason, hence, for rejecting to even consider such a space as a space (one that springs from circular tracings and that is to coextend with the lineages that are thereby being traced): both notions, that of “character” as well as that of “vice” (in “vicious”) are words with primarily moral connotations.[4]

Surely, the positivity at stake in quantum physical phenomena cannot be grounded, ultimately, in moral categories: this would indeed force philosophy to sacrifice its own knowledge of how to articulate and maintain  space for hesitation, by demanding accounts that are considerate and capable of withstanding scrutiny, accounts which demand intersubjective, methodical evaluation and argument rather than subjection to absolute authority. Is Serres indeed, with his proposal to conceive a space that were capable of accommodating this fabulous character, Horla, with this peculiar, paradoxical “transparent lucidity,” suggesting that philosophy make this sacrifice?

The notion of the vicious circle in reasoning was given the general sense of “a situation in which action and reaction intensify one another,” according to the etymological dictionary, by 1839.[5] An agency that were caught up within such a space of vicious circularity would inevitably be a dangerous agency, a corrupting one, a pretentious one, one that mocks any idea of perfection – from which all moral notions of justness, righteousness, balanced valency etc are inevitably being derived. Lets pause and remember: how can phenomena that are genuinely simulacral but nevertheless real possibly be approached by philosophy in a gesture of reclamation rather than capitulation, this was our starting point. And how can Serres’ proposal of a space called hors-là, (out, there) possibly be of service to this?

The space which is at stake here is mediated by Horla the fabulous phantom. By attributing this character to technical spectra, Serres indeed affirms that the quantum space of a physics of light is a space where intensification is triggered, where interferences show up and cannot be entirely reduced, where the directed beams of reflection are thwarted and go in all directions, diffractively. It is a noisy, a querulous space, but it is also a rational space (quantum physics does support a certain kind of mathematics). Yet it is that of a rationality within which no one particular order can be purified (quantum physics involves probabilistics and complex numbers, numbers whose rationality is constituted by imaginary units). A particular order, out of this pool of what we could call abundant orderality, can only be exposed before the noisy background of all of this exposed order’s “others”,  all those other possible orders with which the one exposed has originally been mixed up and from which it has set itself apart. And it is exactly this crystallizing kind of separation process  from within an entropic orderality of mingled bodies  that Serres’ proposal of a space called hors-là serves to address. How so? By rendering this mingled bodies measurable, in maps drawn by ciphered graphisms (cryptography and topology)[6]. Like this, what appears within moralist terms as the space of vicious circularity thereby turns into the space of objective vicariousness: Horla, the source of self-referential originality which Maupassant’s fabulous character impersonates for Serres, is vicarious in the literal sense of “taking the place of another,” [7] from Latin vicarius “that which supplies a place; substituted, delegated,” from vicis “a change, exchange, interchange; succession, alternation, substitution”.[8] But this taking of a place, in the quantum physical space of light’s radiating activity, is not the taking away of a space that had been occupied by something else: it is the generative exposition of a temporal order as a contraction among pre-specific orders (an active frequent-ing). The generative exposition of a temporal order that is set apart before the background of its own originality, namely the noisy ground of all of this order’s others    that querulously keep manifesting the   generic pool of the all which the exposed order originates in   and from which it has set itself apart as a specific order. It can be rendered apparent only by a spectrum that mediates, from the position of the excluded third, such separation of negentropic order relative to an entropic background.


Technicity rather than logistics: the vicarious space of an electric circuitry

The space indexed by Horla needs no longer be regarded as the corrupt space of a vicious circularity: it can be addressed critically as a vicarious space of an electric circuitry. Originality in terms of such a space, hors-là, provides for an in that ‘indexes’ an out without making positive statements, epistemological or ontological, about this in or this out. This space itself, the space of a physics of communication, is neither out nor in, neither here nor beyond, neither past nor future, neither physical (in the classical, pre-quantum sense) nor metaphysical (in the classical or the modern sense): it is the vicarious space that is, continually but diffractively and intermittantly, being sourced through indexing an out in an in. Hors, là. Out there, here. The positivity of quantum physics can only be addressed in a vicarious domain of a representation where the reference relation is indefinitely intermitted by substitutes. Substitutes that supply places from indexing what has not been indexed before: the space of this vicarious domain co-extends with the tracings of its own point zero, its own mathematical, metrical “originality”.  

Of just such strange “nature” is the quasi-physical domain that communication channels have been establishing, for real and this for nearly a century now: channels are literally technical spectra, they render apparent a certain generic order which can be observed only before a “plentiful background” of noise (entropy), rather than one of an empty tabula rasa. Serres illustrates this idea of a plentiful background with the color spectrum, where white light stands for such a “plenty” because it expresses any color at all, and this in a material, physical manner: “white light” is, ultimately, radiating nuclear activity of quantum-physical mass. Within such “materiality”, channels are established for ‘surfing’ on top of the singled out frequencies, but nevertheless amidst the massive agitation of what is technically called Brownian motion. The space of such generic and entropic materiality must be considered as having as many formats of coordination as it has channels: a communicational web, a ‘pan-centric’ (rather than centralized or de-centralized) network. This is what Serres proposes to address as hors-là, a space of conductivity sourced from indexing.

It is a vicarious space of substitutional operators, a space hence bare of signification, sense, and undetermined with regard to meaning. Not because it would be empty in the sense of “lack “as a substantive, but in that of “lacking” as a kind of frequentative preposition: the zero neutrality of white light lacks in that it leaks, in the same sense as spectra lack in that they leak, and such leaking is accessible only through measuring its frequent happening (a frequency). The formality in this vicarious space that is one of communicative conductivity is spectral, it lacks in that it leaks. White light is percolating not because it lacks color, but because it is “abundantly full” of color. This vicarious space is a space where points are indexes that point actively, points that are literally pointers.

Let us come back now to our initial concern, namely that of raising the question of temporality for phenomena that are genuinely simulacral, rendered and merely apparent, but that must, nevertheless, count as real. We can see now how channels, within such a vicarious, indexical space of electro-magnetic conductivity must be considered as countering the reversible time of classical physics as well as the irreversible passing of time in thermodynamics (and in dialectical history)!

Communicational channels provide for passage that “goes, within time, upstream,” and that establishes spaces of relative and locally sustainable reversibility as particular temporary “niveaus” or “plateaus”: the generative exposition of a temporal order before a noisy background of abundant orderality (the entropic stream of time that passes, the 2nd Law of thermodynamics).[9]

Serres has another legend to illustrate that what is at stake hereby  is a novel notion of vulnerability. I would like to conclude with merely reading the beginning passage to you. It is from his Second Book on Foundations, called Statues.

Sphinx and Oedipus

The sphinx – What animal stands on four feet at dawn, Oedipus, man who is passing by and who will die if he doesn’t reply or find the answer to the riddle? Oedipus – Doubtless man, who before walking or standing crawls, a small child, on four legs like an animal. A childish answer. But before man, the animal itself, quadruped like you. Although you lie down in the avenues or before the temples, showing your king’s face or your young woman’s chest or even spreading your bird’s wings, your four legs are obvious to see, oh wildcat. Man and brute mixed can remain quadruped. The sphinx – What animal stands on two feet at noon, beneath the shadowless sun? Oedipus – Man, of course, a biped like me, adult, standing, a walker, wandering, with a mobile niche, or like you, with a king’s face and queen’s breasts […]

The sphinx – What animal stands on three feet when night falls? Oedipus – The man, again and always, who leans on a staff of old age when fatigue and age arise. Every animal that walks, to the best of my knowledge, does so on an even number of legs, therefore no beast, no monster, oh sphinx, could live on three feet. The non-living, the dead, the inert are necessary for that. Only the object, the thing in equilibrium can stand in front of or after the animal and the man, static tripods, pyramids or tetrahedrons with triangular sides, the results of human labor. They can be called statues since they stay up all by themselves: your shadowless questions only bear on statues or equilibria. […]

The sphinx – Oh, Oedipus, do you know why you’re risking death? Oedipus – Yes, I’ve known for a little while now; the decipherers of riddles, my fathers, believed themselves to have gotten out of the difficulty for having heard me answer ‘man’ to your questions. They didn’t even consider the fact that we were risking our lives, the both of us. If I don’t answer or am mistaken you’ll kill me; if I say the truth you’ll die. We’re having a dialog on pain of death. What are we gambling, as though at the dawn of history? Our lives. If I die you’ll sacrifice a man; if you die I’ll sacrifice a mixed body of man and animal: here’s the first progress. The sphinx – New and unexpected Oedipus among the diviners of riddles of ordinary mothers and fathers, why don’t we take up the question again? Oedipus – It consists precisely in mixing animal and man. Your riddle resembles your body. It’s always necessary to guess the man concealed behind the animal. The sphinx – Give me some time, Oedipus, before my death. Oedipus – Forget that man that crawls as a quadruped during his childhood, soon to be standing, senile so quickly. Why not say he’s still on four feet when the embalmers lay him out on the alabaster table shaped like a stretched-out lion to empty him of his entrails and organs? What can he be compared to in his mummy wraps? What dull foolishness! The sphinx – Recount again and take your time; save me. Oedipus – Here’s the time: this day in which the sun rises, like a godsend, running to its zenith and falling to the western horizon, which everyone takes to be a short life, mysteriously measures our entire history and gives the laws of hominization.


Michel Serres, Statues, Second Book on Foundations, Bloomsbury 2016 [1987].


[1] Serres, Atlas, Merve, Berlin 2005 [1994], 59.

[2] This text is based on the response I was invited to give to Mark Hanson’s keynote lecture „“Entangled in Media, Towards a Speculative Phenomenology of Microtemporal Operations” at the Philosophy After Nature Conference in Utrecht, September 2014.

[3] Serres, Atlas, 59.

[4] According to, “vicious” means “unwholesome, impure, of the nature of vice, wicked, corrupting, pernicious, harmful,” when applied to a text “erroneous, corrupt,” from Anglo-French vicious, Old French vicios “wicked, cunning, underhand; defective, illegal,” from Latin vitiosus (Medieval Latin vicious) “faulty, full of faults, defective, corrupt; wicked, depraved,” from vitium “fault”.


[6] This is really the overall theme of Serres book Atlas – he discusses how we can exercise a kind of map making for the globalizing world, where maps do not depict territorial order but communicative order. Such map making combines „prophecy with geometry“: it demands that calculations based on stochastic integrals, statistical mappings and probabilistic predictions be graphed out, and treated in geometric and constructive terms as well, no longer exclusively in analytical and deductive manners.

[7] This is the core theme of Serres book Le Parasite (1980), where he discredits the idea of a restoration of a balance as the ideal successfulness of communication, and instead begins to theorize a natural economic order that is genuinely communicative, where the sun must count as the ultimate capital. Capital, then, can no longer be thought of as the exploitative accumulation and concentration of resources. It must be addressed as the primary source of all kinds of banks of energy-information that nature organizes in. It is a very early view of a world naturally globalized through communication, an idea Serres picks up, in its ethical implications, in Le Contrat Naturel (1990).


[9] This is, very generally, the theme in Serres’, L’Incandescent, Paris, Le Pommier 2003, where he introduces the concept of „Exodarwinism“ to refer to such temporality.

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