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  • Trekking Time with Serres
  • Niran Abbas
Review of: Maria Assad, Reading with Michel Serres: An Encounter with Time. SUNY Press, 1999.

Michel Serres is one of the few philosophers who can genuinely lay claim to the title of “specialist generalist” (Dale and Adamson). He began his adult life in the merchant navy, going on to study physics and mathematics. He wrote his first book on Leibnitz, followed by the Hermes series which is comprised of five volumes intersecting literature, science, and philosophy, and later, studies on Emile Zola, Jules Verne, Lucretius, the history of Rome, the origins of geometry, and the future of education. In all he has published more than twenty-five books in the last thirty years, about five of which have been translated into English. At present he is Professor in History of Science at the Sorbonne and Professor in the Department of French and Italian at Stanford University.

Michel Serres’s numerous books provide a multidisciplinary approach that brings together the study of literature, philosophy, ecology, poetry, and modern scientific thought. He has been envisioned by many as a voyager between the arts and the sciences, an “enigmatic ventriloquist, at once so close and so absent” (Delcò 229), a thinker, as theorist and critic Maria Assad states, who “invents” through translation, communication, and metaphor. Reading Serres can be a “reading challenge” (9). After all, Serres produces books made of other books that, he claims, have nothing to do with invention or creativity. In Serres’s vision, humans belong to the world in a simple, fundamental sense; ultimately, he insists, “nothing distinguishes me ontologically from a crystal, a plant, an animal” (Hermes 83). So how and why can we read him in this context? While these proclamations clearly serve a rhetorical function, they also bring to the surface a strong undercurrent of Serres’s thought: a desire to efface the edge of difference between language and representation, to fuse knowledge and being.

“In science,” Werner Heisenberg states, “the object of research is no longer nature in itself but rather nature exposed to man’s questioning, and to this extent man here also meets himself” (“Representation” 131). As Norbert Wiener explains in his book Cybernetics, this development devastated the positivistic tendencies of “that still quasi-Newtonian world of Gibbs” (92). It replaced that semi-classical view of time and order “by one in which time... can in no way be reduced to an assembly of deterministic threads of development.” Or in other words, “There is no set of observations conceivable which can give us enough information about the past of a system to give us complete information as to its future” (93). According to Serres, human history has been constructing—through religions, mythologies, traditions, and cultures, and above and beyond any individual biological death—what he calls a “collective immortality” in the historical sense of this expression. This construct functions on the basis of two interconnected activities in space and time: efficient operating techniques construct the world; sociocultural technologies construct time. This formula defines our episteme as a dynamical system for which the information of its state is given by the “operative techniques” (of pre-Cartesian and modern natural sciences); its evolution over time (its dynamic), on the other hand, is initiated and nurtured by “the sociocultural technologies” (the human sciences) (Assad 110–11). Assad’s book on time is devoted to what Serres would call a passage between science and literature. “New” knowledge lies in the inbetween, or the passage between fixed points of knowledge. In this challenging context, Reading with Michel Serres is a provocative look at Serres’s use of time in his encyclopaedic narrative using “dynamical” systems theory. The grouping of the chosen texts is intended, as the author states in her introduction, to provide “a global approach to Serres’s thought, so that a progressive development becomes visible, from chaotic multiple to circumstances, to dynamical statues, to a portrait of dynamical cultural systems that create time as an operating factor in their inventive drive” (Assad 5).

The central problem for contemporary philosophy is to relate to one another the varying conceptions of time that are developing in individual disciplines. The different approaches to...

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