- Michel Serres’ Great Story: From Biosemiotics to Econarratology
From the background noise, nothing follows. Or sometimes. But that’s another story.(Serres, “Exact and Human” 14)
From the five volumes of his Hermès series (1968–1980) and through to The Natural Contract in 1990, Michel Serres has rooted the origins of human language firmly in the rhythms and calls of the natural world.1 To date, the Anglophone reception of this complex and varied oeuvre has been slender to the point of emaciation, but one area where he has received some small fraction of the attention he deserves is in his elaboration of a theory of semiotic meaning in dialogue with information theory and fluid dynamics.2 Since 2001, however, Serres has been expanding his account of biosemiotics3 with four key texts (2001, 2005, 2007, 2009) that move into the area of narratology, developing a new non-anthropocentric humanism in terms of what he calls the ‘Great Story’ (Grand Récit) of the universe.
In developing a narrative of the universe, this new departure begins to show us how the powerful tool of narrative identity can be brought alongside Serres’ existing biosemiotics to challenge and shape the way we understand the ‘non-human’ world. It also affords a way to revitalize the hitherto anthropocentric notion of narrative identity at a moment when solutions to the most important global questions must increasingly surpass the bounds of narrowly human and cultural worlds. This article will argue for using the Serresian Grand Récit as a way to extend narrative identity into the area of ecology, showing how it offers new ways of rethinking the dichotomies of nature and culture and the human and non-human that go beyond deconstruction and asking whether ‘the story of the universe’ can be thought of as a subjective or at least a double genitive, told by a universe that does not rely on humans to ventriloquize it. I will then address the objection that the Grand Récit is a totalizing account of history that cuts against the grain of Serres’ own resistance to universal models and metaphors.
The Great Story
Serres’ account of narrative in general will be familiar to readers of his earlier work on Lucretius and the clinamen. In The Birth of Physics he argues, in information-theoretical terms, that meaning emerges as an [End Page 171] aleatory, local deviation in the ‘window’ between two modes of chaos: monotony and white noise (La Naissance 181/Birth 146). In the same way, in his later work he understands narrative in terms of the interplay between two elements: a relatively constant line (which in Rameaux he calls the format) and unexpected deviations in that line which he pictures as the kinks and twists of a branch. Like the information-carrying signal that sits on the spectrum between monotony and the chaos of white noise, so also the growth of a story takes place under a double tension: the necessity of using pre-established forms in order to communicate in a way that can be understood, and an obligation to rupture, deviate from and remake these forms because simply repeating them would hold no message at all (Récits 154). It is in the tension between format and variation that stories emerge, tracing a continuity, branch-like, through haphazard, contingent and chaotic points (Récits 153).
Like a growing branch, a developing story need have no final end point, predetermined or otherwise (we are a long way with Serres from the Aristotelian mythos, and also from any deconstructive weak messianism), and though its eventual form may seem to have a certain retrospectively apprehended teleological balance, its growth is a series of contingencies. We must, Serres insists, quell the prophetic instinct to project the end of the story from its beginning, as if a single intention held together its disparate parts, and instead force ourselves to think of a repetition or rule without finality and without anthropomorphism (Récits 188).
Though stories are lived prospectively as contingent, they are recounted retrospectively as what Serres calls a quasi-necessity, and it is as such a retrospective, necessary-seeming narration that he introduces us...