Going Too Far, Research Time, 09/10/2013

A post without a clear argument today. Call it a meditation. My job applications continue for the 2014 academic year, as I make the best case I can that I should have a full-time tenure-track philosophy position in ten months’ time. The waiting is the hardest part.

When I discovered that Michel Serres had written a book called Le Tiers-Instruit, I was afraid that he had anticipated my own conclusions, that he had described an ecological virtue ethic, a paradigm of the ecological person. It turns out that his book explores a very different path, but it contains meditations that are related to the idea.

I don't know what to make of this
jacket. All I know is that it makes me
admire Serres more than I do already.
Serres’ writing is of a peculiar style. I have compared him to Nietzsche, and that comparison stands. He doesn’t write in the typical scholarly style of advancing a clear thesis in tightly argued language and rigorously sourced research. There are very few footnotes in a Michel Serres text. I could say more accurately that Serres writes in meditations and ruminations. They are philosophically profound, and reflect a life of long learning. He refrains from footnotes and copious sourcing, I think, because the footnotes would become too copious. He composes every paragraph drawing on a encyclopedia worth of works from the history of literature, science, and philosophy. The sources, learning, and erudition are all in the back end. What we see is a relaxed poetry of concepts.

It’s very dangerous to write this way. It risks being seen as a crank or a fool. Or even worse for a career as a university scholar — a poet. Yet he does it anyway, I think because after decades of work writing according to the conventions of scholarship, he’s earned the right to get weird. Having already proven his intelligence and learning, Serres can let his writing do more than simply argue. Argument and logical rigor is important to philosophy: it’s how we make ourselves understood, how we make our principles and ideas explicit and clear. Serres’ writing in Le Tiers-Instruit is far from explicit, but it’s very clear.

Tuesday night, I read a meditation that could be said to unite the ethical lessons of Aristotle with the ethical lessons of ecological science. He describes the terrible destruction that can occur when one order of being or life achieves dominion over an entire planet. He understands destruction as the loss of the ability for novelty, new directions in movement and life, to appear. A planet that grows too cold freezes; growing too hot, it boils; in a world that floods, everything drowns.* Humanity today constitutes one of these dominants, as everything on Earth lives in direct response and reaction to human activities and institutions. We have achieved the dream of every animal and dominated the Earth entirely.

* A clear euphemism here. The ecosystems of oceans, when they function most vibrantly, are intensely creative places. The only force more powerful than creativity and adaptation in ocean realms is the violence and murder of daily life undersea. I’m reminded of an Antarctic diver interviewed in Werner Herzog’s Encounters at the End of the World who studies the micro-organisms of the deep sea. He believes that organisms adapted to amphibious and entirely terrestrial conditions to escape the horrifying brutality of the ocean. The film includes footage of micro-organisms killing and eating each other. That kind of death is unspeakably horrifying.

But dominance forces the world into a drab uniformity: everything is a variation on human institutions and activities. To fight for total dominance is animalistic, a desire that in our moral lessons we hold more brutal than humans at our best. Serres advocates an attitude of holding back from dominance, stepping back from the role of Earth’s totalitarian species, giving other creatures some room to breathe. He calls true wisdom knowing the full extent of one’s powers and holding back from using them.

Serres writes, “In expanding, good itself, just like the sun, quickly becomes evil.”

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