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Configurations 8.2 (2000) 215-228

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Michel Serres's Utopia of Language

William Paulson

Shortly after reading Le parasite in Paris in 1980, I wrote to a fellow graduate student back in the States that Michel Serres would be "the theorist for the eighties." I had him pegged for at least as much influence and attention as was then enjoyed by Barthes, Derrida, Foucault, or Lacan. Twenty years, many new books, and many translations later, Serres is indeed somewhat more known in the English-speaking world than he was then, but my prediction, even allowing an extra decade for its fulfillment, was still about as wrong as could be. We are gathered in this volume to honor a prolific academician, creative thinker, and eloquent writer--but not a household word in the humanities community. Why so? Why have the works of Michel Serres not become crucial references for students and scholars in the humanities, and why have their English versions not reached the large audiences that several of his books have enjoyed in French?

The voice of humility whispers, "bad translations?"--since I've had a hand in at least two of them. But no: I wrong my collaborators, at least. To be sure, it's impossible to re-create all the conceptual and aesthetic effects of Serres's writing in another language; all of us who have translated him would be the first to admit that there are inevitable losses, and that no foreign versions will preserve all the attractiveness of his French. Yet if pedestrian translations were frustrating a great desire to read Serres, reviewers would be crying out against them--whereas what reviews we manage to get are generally positive. The real problem with the translations is that they usually are not reviewed in the most visible or influential publications, and they are not exactly flying out of the bookstores. [End Page 215]

No, the problem with the writings of Michel Serres is that they do not correspond to the expectations of the humanities community. They do not provide justification or material for the task of cultural critique. Instead of offering exhortations or techniques useful in denouncing conventional language and culture as manipulative or oppressive (or in praising emergent, avant-garde productions for carrying out such denunciation), Serres tries to demonstrate, in ever renewed ways, that the writer's task is to reach the world, to convey something of its extrahuman beauty and structure to the minds of readers so that they can think in new ways and through new words about the times and places in which they live.

Serres is thus an artificer of words who does not believe that the world revolves around words, language, and culture. He does a brilliant job of writing and embodying an idea that the literary humanities do not want to hear about, and he writes with a refinement and difficulty that few people have the background to follow--and he does little to make the task easier for them. His philosophical stance and language thus have a decidedly utopian character, belonging to no place, in that they do not seem to correspond to the existing readership communities for serious work in the humanities.

This is more than a matter of spurning academic conventions such as footnotes, or even of not conforming to the current theoretical doxa of academic oppositional intellectuals. The community with which Serres's writings are out of step extends beyond the doors of the academy. In an era when so much of our attention, in the citified and specular Western world, has been given over to simulacra, mediations, simulations, to the particular corners of the cultural world over which people still seem to have some control--at least of their choices as consumers and private persons--Serres's work tries to speak to the whole world, to the reader and subject of knowledge as potentially a citizen in all senses of the entire world in all dimensions. He may, in other words, be right to say that theory, philosophy, and urbanity leave out vast parts of the world, of...


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