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The Theatre of Measurement: Michel Serres Steven D. Brown |











The philosopher and historian of science, Michel Serres, has an established
reputation within several fields. Across the humanities, Serres is known as the
author of critical studies which situate authors such as Emile Zola, Jules Verne
or La Fontaine in relation to a broader cultural and scientific field. His audacious
claim that the arts prefigure science, or rather that the work of art may in
some sense translate between cultural problematics and scientific formalizations
has helped to renew an entire field of studies in ‘Literature and Science’ (see in
particular the journal Configurations). Conversely, in Science and Technology
Studies (STS), Serres’ notion of translation is recognised as one of wellsprings
of Actor-Network Theory (ANT). As such, his work has served as an essential
resource for theorists looking to resituate science as part of the hybrid networks
which cut across the division between politics and nature. Finally, within
the heterogeneous literature on Information Systems, Serres is recognized as
offering a distinctive account of information and communication and of the
globalization of ‘message bearing systems’. His beautifully illustrated text
Angels: A Modern Myth stands alongside contemporary work by Pierre Levy
and Geoffrey Bowker.
What then of organization theory? In recent years a steady stream of ‘French
thinkers’ such as Foucault, Lyotard, Derrida and Deleuze have all been co-opted into the field, sometimes under the overly broad rubric of ‘the postmodern’, but more usually as touchstones which enable a speaking in the name of ‘critique’ (see the adroit summary by Jones, 2004 on the case of the reception of Derrida). According to Sørensen (in this volume), Serres is next in line. That remains to be seen. But what is clear is that the co-option of Serres presents particular challenges.
Whilst the Foucauldian or Deleuzian oeuvre defies ready summary, there
are at least clear points of division and routinely established categories in the
work with which to engage, along with a burgeoning secondary literature. The
Serresian oeuvre, by contrast, varies wildly in terms of project, technique, style,
method and content. What to make of a writer who authorizes himself to veer
between topics as diverse as the Diogenes’ encounter with Alexander the Great,
the Columbia space shuttle disaster, the origins of geometry, the operation of Charles de Gaulle airport, rats meals, the foundation of Rome, and the work of Hergé (creator of Tin Tin)? A writer whose best known work in English resembles a coffee-table book and whose recent work in France includes starring in a series of television advertisements for a telecom company?
William Paulson, responsible for some of the English translations of Serres’ work, and one of his most astute Anglophone commentators, sums up the difficulty of the reception of Serres in the following way (albeit within the English literature graduate school model):
Michel Serres is no ticket to the Ph.D.-and-tenure express: if you don’t know his work,
no one will flunk you on general examinations or turn down your manuscript because
you haven’t ‘situated yourself’ with respect to his ‘problematic’, and if you study him,
you won’t find an applicable method that you can use in turning out your own dissertation and books on schedule. In the present state of the disciplines, Serres is
extracurricular: you have to read him on your own time. (Paulson, 1997: 1)
A given text by Serres can appear to be endowed with such a radical specificity,
a narrowed and focussed ambition, that it is difficult to see what – if anything
– could be extracted and put into general circulation. Detachment (Serres, 1989),
for example, consists of four meditative essays that read almost as mininovellas,
organized under the headings ‘Farmer’, ‘Sailor’, ‘Wanderer’, ‘Friar’, which encompass questions of history, epistemology, cartography and ‘objectivity’.
There is certainly nothing like a ‘model’ to be found here, as that term is usually understood. Nor is there anything that conforms especially to expected notions of ‘method’ (but note Serres’ fierce rejection of such a charge in his conversations with Bruno Latour, 1995). Much as one might be carried away with the seductive power of the homologies, analogies and unexpected, almost fantastical juxtapositions that Serres works through (here, rats steal from the farmer’s table, and over there, the receiver extracts a surplus from the sender’s message), it is difficult to know just what to do with Serres when the cover closes back on the book.
My aim then in this chapter is not to construct preferred readings or strategies that make Serres ‘relevant’ for the thinking of organization, nor to provide a comprehensive overview of his work (see, however, attempts by Abbas, 2005; Assad, 1999; Brown, 2002, 2004; Latour, 1987; Serres and Latour, 1995). Rather I will demonstrate, through a reading of a single piece by Serres, how some of the lines of thought developed in that text are necessarily entangled with and refracted through some of Serres’ major works.

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