Roots Bloody Roots, Research Time, 04/10/2013

So today, I picked up a copy of Michel Serres’ Le Tiers-Instruit from my campus mailbox. Well, the English title is The Troubadour of Knowledge, but the subtleties of translation are difficult with Serres. I wasn’t kidding when I compared him to Marcel Proust and Albert Camus last time I wrote about him. Lately, Serres’ writing style reminds me of Nietzsche, particularly the Nietzsche of Also Sprach Zarathustra; difficult to translate, idiosyncratic, philosophical analysis through methods of narrative, allegory, and symbolism, all of which is underlaid with a profound understanding of scientific and mathematical principles and concepts. 

I picked up this book as a result of a small crisis of confidence as I was preparing my ecophilosophy book manuscript. My original composition had referred to Serres’ 1990 book Le Contrat Naturel (English translation 1995 as The Natural Contract), and this peculiar figure of Le Tiers-Instruit, literally translated as The Instructed Third or 3rd-Instructed. He described this figure using contrary terms that were difficult to parse. I included him in my own analysis of the ecologically/ecocentrically virtuous person as a starting point, but concluded that the tension of contradictions in the concept made it difficult to put into practice. I made a terrible facepalm when I discovered, during my revisions, that he had written a follow-up book that specifically explored that concept. Had Serres beaten me to a description of ecological virtue by two decades?

The more eccentric images I find of Serres on the internet,
the more I want to see how he crafts his public image in his
own country. I have a feeling he must have to compete with
Alain Badiou. If he does, I'm definitely Team Michel.
It seems that he hasn’t, happily for me. Le Tiers-Instruit seems, at least after reading the first third of the book as of this writing, seems a reiteration of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Émile, a philosophy of education that includes some elements of his earlier ecological thinking, but also moves toward the ideas he’d develop over the 1990s in philosophy of science. 

He has a very interesting analysis in the book so far, though, which I may incorporate into various parts of the ecophilosophy manuscript anyway. He discusses the human relationship with origins, which is very important to my own analyses in the utopias project. The more of Serres that I read, I’m increasingly convinced that if part of my philosophy career can include translating, or perhaps I should say transmogrifying his ideas to North American debates in ecology, ethics, politics, and theory of science, I’ll have done some good work.

I’ll discuss one aspect of these ideas abut origins so far today, and perhaps another aspect on Monday. One stereotype of French philosophy, at least still prevalent in North American philosophy/theory departments and programs, is that it’s dominated by voices, figures, and styles like Jacques Derrida, Gilles Deleuze, Michel Foucault, and Serres. But while these figures may have been influential in North America, during the 1980s, their works were totally renounced in France. The rise of socially conservative liberals* in the French intellectual scene (I’m thinking of Bernard Henri-Levy, Maurice Clavel, André Glucksmann, and most importantly for this post, Luc Ferry) vilified and repressed the country’s radical thinkers. The goal of the socially conservative liberals was to take back French universities for old-school enlightenment humanism. The radicals, they said, had hijacked the tradition of French philosophy to endorse moral relativism and defend totalitarianism on the grounds of preserving cultural differences. The only way to preserve democracy against this theoretical attack was to return to universalism and the image of one true unified reason.

* Yes, this is a thing that makes sense, at least conceptually. 

The French radical philosophers were incredibly complex and multifaceted in their thought. But the ideas that defined them, according to the socially conservative liberals, was that the Enlightenment tradition contained a hidden imperialism, the suspicion of anyone who was so convinced that they had discovered the truth that their mission was to spread this truth to all others, and that views which diverged from that truth had no value. Essentially, the idea was that Enlightenment humanism was a philosophy of a secular missionary. The socially conservative liberal response was not to respond to this critique intelligently, but to bury it. 

Serres’ The Natural Contract explored how to change our perspective so that our concerns grew beyond care for humans, and to care for nature, and followed this program to very ontologically deep and complex territory. Luc Ferry (Minister of Education for the conservative Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin and President Jacques Chirac 2002-4) responded with The New Ecological Order. This book literally denounced all philosophies of environmentalism as totalitarianism, and environmental activists as fascists who would return humanity to medieval conditions by elevating the rights of insects, plants, and ecosystems to equal standing with humans.

As much as I dislike Luc Ferry as a philosopher, I have to
respect his frankly fantastic hair.
Ferry’s book was a remarkable critique insofar as people actually took it seriously. His attack on environmentalism was based on a ridiculous mistake. Bear in mind, I am simplifying his argument. The book was a well-researched documentation of the earliest self-identified ecologists, a group of German life scientists and geographers working during the Nazi era: one among them Walther Schoenichen, mangled their research into propaganda. Ecology's basic idea is that living organisms interact in deeply integrated relationships where destabilizing events could unpredictably cause cascading catastrophes. Nazis could make use of it for their romanticizing propaganda about the purity and authenticity of our Black Forest. Therefore, environmentalism (ecology's discoveries turned into activism) is an inherently fascist belief.

Ferry conceived of himself this way. He wrote as a defender of humanity along the classical Enlightenment model: humans are the only free creatures, the only creatures that can escape being determined by our birthplace and heritage, that can define themselves. He saw environmentalists as trying to root humanity in a specific place from which we should have no ambition to leave.

There are some environmentalists who have thought like this. But they’re the retrogrades of the philosophy. Serres picks up the matter in Le Tiers-Instruit, which I can conceive as a response to Ferry’s critique. Aside from The Natural Contract's more profound concern of redefining what humanity can be (which is the focus of my own ecophilosophy project), in the later book, Serres discusses how humans relate to their roots. We are born in a place, and we have no control over the initial conditions of our existence. We can depart from these initial conditions, but that genesis will always be a part of us. Even after we've left, we are still departing in reaction to the conditions of our origin. So even the Enlightenment vision of the man who can emancipate himself from his roots depends on those roots. They’re the launchpad from which he springs into his new life. We won’t have a complete understanding of human nature if we don’t include the potential for free self-development alongside our dependence on our conditions of origin. 

One of my favourite films is Five Easy Pieces. Jack Nicholson stars as a man who’s spent his entire life running away from his past and his current obligations. Even as he succeeds in starting multiple new lives with no reference to his origin (a Las Vegas pianoman for a showgirls revue, a roughneck oilman of the California interior) his birthplace and family history remains a part of him, the world whose gravity he’s trying to escape. Sometimes he succeeds, sometimes he’s drawn back. But the ability to free himself from his past depends on the nature of the past from which he runs.

No comments:

Post a Comment