This article was written on 16 May 2014, and is filled under New Ecologies.

Dueling on Quicksand: On Michel Serres’ The Natural Contract

Goya, Duel with Cudgels 1820-3

Fight with Cudgels’, c. 1820–1823. Oil mural transferred to canvas. 123 cm × 266 cm (48 in × 105 in). Museo del Prado, Madrid. Public domain. Courtesy wikimedia.

Michel Serres begins The Natural Contract with a chapter simply titled “War, Peace.”  Right away, something is afoot here signaling that this will not be a story about opposition as usual, not a story, that is, about conflict and violence as a dualistic arrangement, let alone about war as limited to the divisions we’re used to of man against man.  Rather, Serres selects an image by the painter Francisco Goya (1746-1828), which depicts “the duelists knee deep in the mud.”  “With every move they make,” he continues, “they are gradually burying themselves together.  How quickly depends on how aggressive they are….  The belligerents don’t notice the abyss they’re rushing into” (NC 1).

All of the issues addressed in this book are included in Serres’ use of this image.  These issues can be put generally as having to do with: scale, time—and the harder one to surmise—what we might loosely call technology.  Even though Serres is harking back to a more primitive episode of war in the Goya image, The Natural Contract on the whole identifies what we might call a new old kind of war.  This book is full of what he calls “cybernetic” loops (42), historical returns of a sort, to what he calls “the earth…violently calling us back” (39).  But what Serres details is neither the Hobbesian kind of pre-civilized war of all against each, where willing citizens transfer the rights of war to the sovereign. In this way, as Hobbes has it, the people transcend so-called natural violence, transcend, that is, the status of a multitude.

Similarly, Serres rejects Rousseau’s general will, which he calls “an exclusively inter-subjective social contract of constant reciprocal surveillance and agreement…about what is appropriate to say and do” (45).  Hobbes and Rousseau’s contracts are not only subjective but are also of course social.  In that way they are entirely anthropocentric.   They are likewise juridical contracts, presumed to bring institutional order to what Serres calls “things themselves” (3), “the earth” (39), “the world” (11), “climate” (28), “weather” (27), “mobile atmospheric system[s]” (27), “gigantic [read:  biotic and non-biotic] masses” versus “the outmoded ‘I'” (17).  Keeping in mind the point of  Goya’s duelists, the natural contract is quite literally predicated on terrestrial violence, the slow but persistent motions of “quicksand” (1), the “marsh” (1), the “mud” (2), or simply, “muck” (7).

The key word displacing that word social in our usual sense of the social contract is of course nature here.  But it’s an encounter with nature that is no longer pushed into the back ground as romantically archaic or historically non-existent.   Serres’ “nature” is no longer co-operatively removed from civilized culture; nor does it accommodate ownership, inertly supporting the routines of research and industry, the lie of private-property-as-peace.  Today the earth no longer accommodates legal, scientific, or philosophical mastery, but has instead become armed against precisely those kinds of too human activities.  Serres thus widens the frame beyond human-to-human forms of belligerence to include the consuming muck beneath the duelist’s feet and into which they are unknowingly sinking by clubbing one another to death.  In fact—viewed from this “third position” (1) of “objective” (11-12; 15), or what Serres also calls geographical violence—humanity’s last act of violence is a kind of suicide pact where, in its turn, the earth subsumes those pretending to fight over it.

So to the first of the three general issues I mentioned—that of scaleThe Natural Contract is fairly straightforward.  Serres writes not of battles but of battlefields, with a literal emphasis on the word “field,” as in “the fields of oats… devastated by knightly battle [but] excluded from noble struggled ” (emphasis mine,10).    Traditionally, he observes, “we never speak of the damage inflicted on the world itself by these wars, once the number of soldiers and the means of fighting grow in strength” (10).  But, Serres continues, “the subjective war of so-and-so against so-and-so suddenly counts very little….  What is at stake now”—that is, now that the means of war have changed, say, from clubs, bullets, and bombs, to the earthly and atmospheric forces of nature—is a war, as he puts it, of “things rather than people” (10).  This emphasis on the thinging of war, or better, the arming of things, is the first consequence of discovering our new (and old) obligations to the world:  the current epoch is not about the world at war.  Rather, the current age of violence harkens worldly-war in the objective sense, a war not only over geography but also war within the violence of things themselves:  ecology, in its most capacious sense, both at and as war.

This crucial recalibration of the scale of violence cannot be separated from the second issue I listed above, that is, the issue of time.   I’ve already noted that Serres’s own analytic in the book uses a cybernetic structure, which should get us thinking in thematic terms about the problems of historical progress and regress, if not also about the finitude of humanity as a species.   The Natural Contract thus demands an uncanny return to more earthly dependant sensibilities, a time of sailors and peasants, temporal mutation (19).  Thus Serres describes both his own book and the current historical moment as sharing a kind of “deferred feedback loop”:  as working through the “literally symbiotic art of steering or governing by loops, lows engendered by these [loopy] angles…that engender, in turn, other directional angles” (42).  This way of wrestling with today’s more capacious cartography’s of violence—or better, wrestling within them—puts both individuality and humanity in the context of a larger and more fluid ecological net, as the presiding image of warring on quicksand suggests.  To the extent that the historical loops Serres has in mind do not portend peaceable outcomes for the species, the human being as such may be seen as existing at one fairly brief moment in the passage of what he calls “cosmic” temporality.  But the very possibility of experiencing cosmological time, especially insofar as it also is a time of uncontrollable earthly violence, is nothing if not technically dependent.

This third item, that of a technology, is therefore also inseparable from the issues of war’s scale and its mutations of time.  In some ways, as I’ve intimated, technology is the most nettlesome aspect of thinking through contracts as Serres describes them, since contracts themselves are by nature (recall Hobbes’s emphasis on the use of print to make promises binding) established according to changes in our technological means.  Contracts are events not only of mediation, of course, but are also, less obviously, media events.  This latter realization presents two other items of interest:  one is the kind of species vulnerability that Serres signals throughout The Natural Contract, and that the image of warring on quicksand so neatly sums up; a second thing to note is the way that contract as media event brings technology to bear on Serres’ own book, perhaps itself, a wholly other kind of writing than what the disciplines usually allow.

In the first instance, technology brings humanity more proximate to so-called nature, even if that proximity is catastrophic for the species, as it is, under the expansive heading Serres gives us of ecological war.  It must finally be said that our machines have given life to objects in a way that alters, if not more likely condemns, the life of we who made them.  Thus the “we” in question in the subtitle of a tantalizingly titled chapter simply called “we” is neither a simply human, natural, or technologically determined one.  Serres writes, for example, about Galileo’s trial, where the scientist breaks the republic’s legal contract, thereby revealing the possibility of thought “without a subject.”  Such a techno-scientific breakthrough shows how “objective reason prevails over the reason a subject can speak, [and] decides without you or me having anything to do or say”  (85).  Galileo is, in this sense, both a superb scientific thinker and one who, through the revolutionary uses of what we should simply call new media (or if you like, tools, or technology), must necessarily break with the state.  As we’ve already seen, when Serres is addressing technology he is addressing less the issue of nature turned toward this or that sovereign power by an opposite group than he is the fact of nature and machine recombining so as to objectify the blind historical assumptions that societies can either separate from one another, or in turn, divide themselves from the earthly dynamics through which (rather than over which) they now have to fight.

So technology today both produces and provides full knowledge of humanity’s (natural?) end:  arming the atmosphere, whether by default through industrial carbon emission, or by design through military alterations of the environment (recall agent orange, cloud seeding, radiological bullets, one could go on) means that soldiers and civilians are commonly subordinate to the ground over which we used to fight.   But second, in making the connection between the natural contract and technology Serres is saying something important about representation—and therefore, his own writing—and the contemporary realities of war.  Indeed, as if by design, an initial question The Natural Contract raises is simply:  what kind of knowledge is this?  How many different kinds of discourses wind through this short text (I stopped counting at a dozen), like the ropes, the cords, the laws, and alternatively, the cartographies of violence Serres describes?  We find in this book history and philosophy, as expected, and geography; but there is also fiction, diary writing, memoir, and what two of the blurb writers on the back cover rightly call poetic meditation.  Though philosophically rigorous in places, the writing here is also unapologetically aesthetic.  In that sense, Serres puts squarely on the table the question of what kinds of knowledge we’re willing to entertain in the aftermath of our previous contractual forms of not just of human, social, and legal bindings, but also of philosophical ones.  Whatever your disciplinary home within the comforts of the humanities—and surely those comforts for most of us have long passed—in the case Goya’s duelists, and equally, the case academic turf, The Natural Contract goes beyond the moribund technology of clubs.

–Mike Hill

Michel Serres, The Natural Contract, trans. Elizabeth MacAurhur and William Paulson (Ann Arbor:  University of Michigan Press, 1995).




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