(Of and In It) Five Senses (Michel Serres)

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Michel Serres stands out as one of the French philosophers whose work has shaped the discourse of philosophical aesthetics. Unlike the case of Heidegger, who haunts this text, body and corporeal sensation are figures that steep the thought reflected in The Five Senses: A Philosophy of Mingled Bodies. While Serres has organized each chapter around a single sense, the bigger picture speaks to the mingling of the senses with each other and the mingling of the body into the world. There’s a lot in this book to aggravate critical readers, most importantly a too-cute style that mixes philosophy and aesthetic confession. At a certain point, I simply gave up. I skimmed through a lot of the material, which might very well be the point intended by the author, i.e. to think is to skim, skip, and swim.

The grand approach adopted by Serres is empiricist and realist, based upon a foundational confidence about or belief in the world of sense that is independent of human consciousness. About language, Serres writes many harsh and unfair things. (He might just as easily have imagined it as a sixth kind of sense.) Against the prison house, the noise, and the anesthesia represented by language and representation, Serres wants to open up philosophy to corporeal sensation in ways that remind me of Luce Irigaray, only more phallogocentric.

For me, the main highlights that I want to carry away from my reading are these. They have to do with the values of hardness and softness, in particular with the idea of being soft, not hard, combative, and dialectical (pp.73-5). Hard and soft are the terms Serres uses to talk about scale and energy. The hard would refer to large scale impersonal, largely entrophic energy-forces that comprise the subjects of the various natural sciences (physics, meteorology, biology), the overwhelming forces of a hard given that tear at human muscle, sting the eye, and burst the ear. In contrast, the soft would refer to small scale human-energies, to the kinds of filters that transform large-scale energy by encoding it into information and into meaning. Hardness unbalances and disorients softness, while the latter contains and smooths out the former, maintaining a kind of equilibrium or balance (pp.112-15).

A pagan form of natural religion runs along with the text. Serres lingers around the ruin of a Greek temple dedicated to the god Hermes, sensitive to the crowd of tourists (they represent society, language, noise) who disrupt his meditations, waiting for the gods of healing. The fundamental belief is that belief has less to do with gods or God and more to do with the existence of the world (103), the world given as grace (p.83), our body in its perception of the divine as mediated via the religion of the world versus the religion of the collective (118). Music and religions silence combine along with Eucharistic mixings (pp.122, 177ff) as the text veers away from logos into mythos (p.183).

Not entirely unwelcome to a scholar of religion, the import of “religious” or “spiritual” upshot into this kinds of discourse is not entirely clear. My guess is that it has to do with a kind of gnosis or “self-awareness” Serres recommends that we “replace the straight line with a point in that indeterminate place, constituted by passing through the birth scuttle that [he] previously called the soul.”

Which means what?

The promise here is nothing less than self-transformation. The point is to transform ourselves into “radiant beings –or radiolaria,” to float and to dive for a million years,  to become “a little less rational –emotive and tender” (p.320-1). Seraphic state and “ruagh” [sic] or ruach. In the end, I would be more than happy to do without this kind of “resurrection—or  rebirth” as a form of aesthetic philosophy (p.345).

But by rebirth Serres means something human. More easy to assess than these rhetorical appeals to the gods is the philosophical upshot. Inventing new figures,” both corporeal and conceptual, is held up as a form of aesthetic-scattering-aesthetic-mingling, “intelligence” that allows the human subject to “breathe,” “swim,” “jump,” and “dance” (p.320ff). In other words, for Serres, the philosophical upshot of aesthetic attention comes down to knowledge, i.e. to better understanding, swift thought, elegant proofs, deep meditation, serene plains of wisdom, off-center ideas (long and crooked), apt expression, literal language, calm and transparent style (p.324-5). Before one turns to the gods, maybe it indeed makes more “sense” to turn to the world, to the hardware and human software that constitute our experience of and in it. Or maybe that’s what the turn to the gods has always been about.

I wonder if there are other ways to do this kind of work, ways that are not so pious, not so high-minded, not so centered, not so Christian. Something with a little more humor and a lot more self-deprecation falling just short of resurrection. This kind of writing represented by Serres is intended to open us up to reality, to something ultimate at the kernel of our experience of and in the world. I would have settled for another kind of holiness, something more Talmudic, hyperreal and penultimate, an aesthesis of ideas one step removed and actually off-center.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish though and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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