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  • Serres Reads Pynchon / Pynchon Reads Serres
  • Hanjo Berressem

Elective affinities. . . . to fold onto each other two texts that have similar diagrams and thus to open up a field of intricate resonances: Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon (New York: Holt, 1997), a text about the genesis of America, and Michel Serres’s Genesis (Genesis. Trans. G. James & J. Nielson, Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1995), a text about the science & philosophy of surveying.

Serres Reads Pynchon

In his book Genesis, Michel Serres develops a philosophical geometrics in which straight lines are equated with the line of reason:ing that cuts through and thus wounds a more primary—both physical and psychic—multiplicity. As Serres states, linking this fundamental multiplicity to the concepts of chaos and noise: “The straight line of reason... must turn its back on... chaos.... What noise does the classical age repress, to what clamor does it close its ears, in order to invent our rationalism?” (20-1).¶ In the book’s rhetorical matrix, the straight line is the figure of the age of reason and progress, and the work of rationalizing is quite literally understood as surveying and as road-work; the cutting of a concrete visto—an epistemological highway—through an inherently multiplex nature. As Serres notes, “we construct a real which is a rational one, we construct a real, among many possibilities, which is a rational one, among other possibilities, just as we pour concrete over the ground” (25). The ultimate aim of this rational project, a.k.a. the Enlightenment (at least in one of its many versions), is—as the Frankfurt school had already diagnosed, in particular in Adorno’s and Horkheimer’s The Dialectic of the Enlightenment—to gain dominion and control; to create, in the words of a neo-Adornian such as Jean Baudrillard, a state of overall operational simulation, in which the real has become—or is treated as—the rational.¶ One might well argue that this equation is what not only Genesis, but all of Serres’s work most consistently argues against—especially in its link to political exploitation and to a state of deadly stasis—and it is this “disenchantment of the world” that Serres’s most vitriolic rhetorics are directed against. As he argues in Hermes III, rationalism has become thanatocratic, a sentiment also echoed in Genesis: “the stable chain of the rationalists only expresses... their desire of domination. The empire is never more than some inflated local, a part that took the place of the whole.... There is reason there, there is violence there. There is order and growth there.... This chain is the chain of reason, this chain is the chain of death.... Rationalism is a vehicle of death” (72-3).¶ As the “other” to the rational line, Serres envisions a living chain that is defined not by necessity (Aristotle’s ananké as the basis of rationalism), but by a more complex combination of chance and probability (what Aristotle called tyche and automaton respectively). This fragile, tangled up, twisted and knotted chain is related to unpaved paths—like those used by Native American people—rather than to concrete highways. Based as they are on maze-like meanderings and the politics of soft transfers, the geometrics of this chain evoke an eco:logical, “feng shui” science that honors rather than wounds the natural contours of the landscape.¶ Because such unpaved, winding paths are often temporary and thus fluid and dynamic, they de-linearize not only space but also time. They grow over and vanish, like the wake of a ship on the ocean, or like traces of footsteps on the smooth space of the prairie. As Serres states, “here then is the chain: white sea or white plain, background noise, surge, fluctuation of the surge, bifurcation, repetition, rhythm or cadence, vortex. The great turbulence is constituted, it fades away, it breaks. And disappears as it came.... This chain is not the chain of reasons.... Here we are in liquid history and the ages of waters. It is the chain of genesis. It is not solid. It is never a chain of necessity. Suddenly, it will bifurcate. It goes off on a tangent. It surrenders to... the...

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