Crisis (Serres, part 1)

The easiest way to write a blog is to quote at length from great writers. Or even to copy great slabs of their effort without attribution. Both methods would get you a job as an opinion columnist in many respected newspapers.

My turn today. Michel Serres is off the charts as a thinker and writer. Completely incomprehensible to read at first, you might spend 10 years feeling like you're deciphering Linear B. But as a philosopher he writes 'algebraically' (his own description), meaning that he weaves together disparate ideas from the entire spectrum of human knowledge, and then removes all of the scaffolding. Just as you do in algebra, where you can make fast progress very quickly because the connections are all assumed. If you're knowledgeable in each of the different areas Serres chooses for his writing, his work acts quite literally as an atlas or map that immediately makes visible all of the pathways between our knowings. While for others it will read like, well, Linear B. He's utterly unlike any philosopher either today or at any time previously in history, not least because of the sheer breadth of his insight.

As a sampler, his "The Birth of Physics" reinvigorates atomism, the old Greek version. The version that we cast aside as we apparently got cleverer, by building machines costing billions of dollars to smash the poor atoms into smaller and smaller bits, looking for their 'true' reality. Like understanding an octopus better by subjecting it to increasingly vigorous sessions in a kitchen blender. Serres notes that there are always those who want to isolate the essential building blocks of reality, as if they existed - in ancient Greek times it was earth, air, fire and water, and today we have the periodic table.

His description of the dominant equilibrium-based models of our thermodynamic era goes as follows:

Extreme fluxes arise from harnessing reservoirs accumulated across the globality of times, and from the exhaustion, in a minimal time, of quasi-eternal stocks.

Extreme fluxes of globalised transport, energy and so on - all of the modern energy-intensive industries that are based on thermodynamic models, fuelled by vast reservoirs of coal and oil (mostly), accumulated over millions of years. A dramatic, alternating fast forward and fast reverse, fed by time itself.

The genius of Serres is to not stop where most others do, by shuffling these ideas off into the sciences, with society off to the other side, but to understand that what we do in our sciences resonates fully with what we do everywhere else in our societies. And vice versa. Models of understanding cross boundaries, the boundaries we usually make between the world/science and society are artificial. So:

Without doubt, the dominant illness over the last century or more, times of fire and flood, has been manic-depression.

Serres is not throwing around vague analogies here between manic-depressive illness and thermodynamic technologies, he sees these as part of the same development. The culture of enormous energies, unleashed into enormous fluxes of speed and activity, is also the culture of alternating crises of mania and depression, boom and bust, euphoria and gloom. The two go together, these technologies and these behaviours are two sides of the same coin. The culture of speed and crash.

Crisis, in the same way, is an extreme notion, a singlular point, high or low, either a peak of ecstatic exasperation after a sudden escalation, or a hollow of drought, of exhaustion.

In reaction to all of this energy and speed (fire and flood, fire and water - the steam engine Carnot cycle that started the whole thermodynamic era), some of us retreat to what we think of as a more natural existence, in tune with the 'environment'. But:

...this would mean returning to the ancient reservoirs, to the general stores of weak circulations. In a word, quitting fire and water to recover air and earth: leaving industry and its energies for agriculture and its slow meta-stabilities. Sailing and tilling. The proposeed choice between perpetual movement, impossible without destruction, and a perennial invariance. Materially: either fire or earth. Equilibrium or dynamism.

Almost impossible to find an area of modern life that isn't ravaged by these endless, repetitive cycles of boom and bust, around an apparent equilibrium point that never actually arrives. Economies, news cycles with their alternating euphoric good news and devastating tragedy, soap opera dramas with their deaths and weddings. We tend to think we're clever when we recognise that these cycles do seem to repeat, so that wisdom apparently is to ride the cycle through its high and low points. Never does it occur to us that there's a path that ignores this existential ping pong, fuelled by quickly depleting reservoirs of natural and human energy, coal and oil, tradition and custom.

The new science escapes the dilemma. Everything is conceived by it as a deviation from is the instance...Theory and practice of circumstance...

The middle way is not an average of the extremes but that POISED spot between things. The space of continuous and ongoing evaluation and invention. Of presence rather than of euphoric or calamitous end-points. Fire evaporates the flood, while at the same time being extinguished by it if it oversteps its bounds. To be endlessly between things, rather than assume one extreme end of some duality. Not either/or, but and. Always and.


  1. Nick,
    Apropos "that POISED spot between things" and "presence", people who work with animals say that it is impossible to "communicate" with them unless you are very calm and centered within yourself.

  2. You mean school teachers? ;)

  3. You mean school teachers? ;)


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