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Michel Serres
Science, Translation and the Logic of the Parasite

Steven D. Brown











LONG A mainstay of contemporary European poststructuralism, the work of Michel Serres has as yet failed to find an audience amongst British and North American social scientists. This despite the appearance of his name in the opening dedication to Bruno Latour’s The Pasteurization of France, its recurrence throughout the footnotes and supporting text of Deleuze and Guattari’s seminal A Thousand Plateaus (1988), and, moreover, his founding influence upon Actor-Network Theory (Callon, 1980;
Latour, 1993; Law, 1997). This lamentable situation is compounded by the fact that the two dozen or so books which make up his oeuvre (only half of which have as yet been translated into English) deal in a sustained fashion with one of the most pressing contemporary issues – namely the reformulating of the once great and now weatherworn Enlightenment divisions between self and collective, society and nature, the scientific and the literary, myth and politics. In an age where the rhetoric of interdisciplinarity is commonplace, it still shocks to encounter work where the deliberate crossing (and re-crossing) of disciplinary boundaries is seriously put into
practice. A typical Serres text will, for example, move from information theory to myth by way of examples drawn from literature or art. Or else bring the ancient and the modern world into juxtaposition through detailed exegesis of Lucretius or Liebniz. In Serres’ work philosophy is made to inhabit hard science as myth is brought to life within social science. Jules Verne intermingles with Plato and Thales. Don Juan and La Fontaine rub shoulders with Descartes.
This may at first sound like the very worst kind of postmodern carnival, yet Serres’ border crossings are always rigorously structured. He proceeds from the notion that disciplinary and conceptual divisions, although
complex and provisional, may be analysed by exploring potential channels or ‘passages’ that run between them. Communication runs through these passages, but does so only at the risk of potential distortion, in the course of which messages become transformed. Serres understands this transformation as both a necessary risk which must be taken to communicate at all and, more importantly, as a possible source of invention. He dubs the particular division between science and the humanities as the ‘Northwest Passage’, referring to the twisting and convoluted coastlines that separate the great Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Serres’ point is that such a divide is there to be traversed – it is ‘an adventure to be had’ (Serres with Latour, 1995: 70) – but this requires undertaking the most testing of journeys, one that will involve much doubling back and complex navigation.
One also requires a range of tools. In his early work, notably the Hermes series of books, Serres draws on mathematics and information theory, often liberally, to model the variety of interdisciplinary problems he addresses. His essay on ‘The Origin of Language’ (in Serres, 1982a), for example, uses a model of the progressive filtering of signals from noise by way of a chain of conversions (or ‘rectifications’) to explicate not only Freudian repression, but also as a means of understanding Freud’s relationship
to 19th-century science. Now it is the apparently freewheeling fashion in which Serres generalizes models which has attracted the greatest critical ire (Hayles, 1989, 1990; Sokal and Bricmont, 1997). Such criticisms are, however, often based on a profound misinterpretation of what Serres is actually seeking to achieve. As he puts it in a discussion with Bruno Latour, the utility of the models he draws upon is that they enable a way of conceiving provisional connections between otherwise disparate phenomena:

[M]athematics teaches rapid thought. Whoever writes x can mean simultaneously
1, 2, 3, the infinite, rationals and transcendents, real and complex numbers, even quaternions – this is an economy of thought. When you reproach me with ‘Structure isn’t enough; you’ve got to add all the intermediate steps’, this is not a mathematical thought. Philosophers love intermediate inferences; mathematicians gladly dispense with them. An elegant demonstration skips the intermediate steps. Indeed, there is a slowness particular to philosophers that often strikes me as affection and a speed to
mathematical thought that plays with amazing shortcuts. (Serres with Latour, 1995: 68)

Here Serres indicates an important aspect of his methodological approach – an approach that he broadly characterizes as ‘structural’.

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