“Less a juncture to control than an adventure to be had” – Working with Michel Serres and Mikhail Bakhtin (2005)

Image: “Abyss” by Alpha Coders

While working on my section for the forthcoming Routledge International Handbook of Interdisciplinary Methods, I stumbled upon an old essay on researching with Michel Serres and Mikhail Bakhtin. It is one of three essays that I wrote in 2005/2006 for the social theory module of my MSc in Human Geography Research Methods at the Open University. I had stopped being a Fashion student in 2003 and had worked on my own for two years to develop a theoretical project. At the same time, I was negotiating the future of my art practice and how it might sit within an academic framework as a “method”. The MSc, and especially this module, gave me the opportunity to explore a lot of different theories and experiment with my writing. There are quite a few essays and working papers that I have never published, but am thinking of re-editing for teaching use. When I ran the Theory Surgery at the British Library café, the Serres/Bakhtin essay often came in handy as an example, and I was planning on publishing it, however I gradually became unsure about it, because I felt I had moved on in theoretical and stylistic terms. Looking at it now, I think it already shows some of my current themes, although I would probably turn to different philosophers now for the same questions due to the growing influence of feminist/queer/postcolonial critique on my work. Despite this shortcoming, I feel that it still offers some useful prompts, which is why I have decided to upload it after 12 years on my hard drive. Here, then, is some vintage Mutable Matter – even including adorable references to Open University ‘audio-cassettes’!

Less a juncture to control than an adventure to be had –
Working with Michel Serres and Mikhail Bakhtin (pdf)


What is it like to work with the ideas of Michel Serres and Mikhail Bakhtin as a researcher, especially as an early career researcher? How might their ideas and experiments affect you at various stages of your research, from asking questions to writing for particular audiences? In this essay, I  focus on themes in their work that resonate with my own project, which considers the relation between the human and nonhuman in method, and also incorporates sensory methods. The themes of communication, invention and responsibility are discussed through Serres’ and Bakhtin’s non-linear philosophies, represented through the gods Hermes and Janus respectively. After some more project focused discussions, I end on a set of general observations on the relationship between theory and method or ‘practice’.

Quote of the week

Image source: Stanford University

As part of my research for my article on Bakhtin & materiality, I once again end up reading the work of Michel Serres (particularly the book ‘L’Incandescent’, which has unfortunately not been translated into English yet). I never seem to be able to write about Bakhtin without also writing about Serres. More about this in the near future… In the meantime, a quote from a 2003 Serres interview, which is timely in many ways…

‘A philosopher has to make three journeys: the first one is encyclopedic, the second encompasses the world (a philosopher who refuses to look at the oceans, the poles and the equator ignores the world!). The third takes places amongst humans… This third journey is two-fold: one has to have friends everywhere, be in dialogue with everyone, and it is necessary to travel to the heart of the diverse social groups. In my opinion, one gets a better impression of society from the bottom than from the top (from the top, one sees nothing but skulls [ crânes ]).’

Of spoken and unspoken salads – An accidental encounter with Michel Serres

It’s my first hour in Geneva. After checking out that the CERN Open Day really is happening and not a fabrication of my wishful thinking, I’m strolling into the next best bookshop to see whether they have any books by Michel Serres that have not been translated into English yet. You can imagine my surprise when – I’m just about to walk through the door – I am greeted by the following poster:

For a moment, I am frozen – is this really happening? Is this some weird form of telepathy?! Spooky… A few seconds later, I am ‘in there’ checking out what this poster is all about – probably he wrote a new book. On closer examination I find out that Michel Serres is going to give a talk in this very space in a just few days! What a fantastic coincidence! Is this a wink of fate to tell me: hey, your project may be delayed by tons of red tape, but you will meet one of the people who continues to inspire it/you?

I have to digest this first, so I wander upstairs to the philosophy section. To my further luck, a friendly librarian knows all about Michel Serres’ work and explains a few things to the improperly initiated ‘anglo-allemande’. After some naughtiness involving my credit card and a very potato-heavy meal (read: fries, one of the few affordable vegetarian options in Geneva apart from specially prepared bacon-free roestis with fried eggs), I go back to the youth hostel to find out – via internet – if Monsieur Serres will be at other any other convenient places, as I would have to leave for London before his Geneva date. I am, again, lucky (sort of, as I had to prolong my stay by one day), as I find a public debate at a theatre in Lausanne – which was where I met Michel Serres. Of course, I could not talk to him – after 5 days of (not) sleeping at a youth hostel, not eating properly and acquiring sunburns from falling asleep in random places around Lake Geneva during the daytime, only my first sentence in French remained with me: Je m’appelle Angela. Which is all he needed to know to sign my copy of his book! Even my carefully phrased explanation for being there (‘J’aime vos salades’ – speaking both as an appreciative cook and an appreciative researcher) did not surface, but what the heck, I was there to listen to him, not the other way round! ;)

The debate started sufficiently weird: a man looking like Michel Foucault (if he’d had the chance to age) and another man, looking like Michel Serres walked in and sat down together in the audience (greetings from a parallel universe?). After a while the presenter announced that there had been a train derailment on the same line that Michel Serres had taken. Quickly, he added that the philosopher was not in the affected train, but would be delayed by approximately three quarters of an hour. Phew! Relieved, everybody got up again to have some more drinks. I chatted to a few people about Michel Serres, at least as much as my rusty French allowed me to. I was curious how people of the francophone world perceived him and what made them come to the debate. Most people answered that they had read about this event in their local newspaper and were curious. The lady sitting next to me even cut out the article and brought it along. She explained that the person who wrote the article would also be tonight’s presenter. About an hour later, we were ushered into the auditorium again, and there he was, Michel Serres, joking with the audience and the presenter about ‘his’ derailment: ‘Did I get derailed? Perhaps, I also got a bit derailed, I don’t know…’ Then he went straight into talking about his latest book, ‘Le Mal Propre’, which is about pollution. He started by sort-of-responding to he first chapter in the book, entitled ‘Urin, Manure, Blood, Sperm’: ‘So why does a philosopher occupy himself with urine, you may ask’. He explained that as a philosopher, he is not interested in how we pollute – that is not enough for him – but why we pollute. Territorial markings evidently helped him think it through. In the book, Serres distinguishes between hard and soft pollution, which he both sees as forms of appropriation (and vice versa). Examples for hard pollution are industry effluents or car fumes. Examples for soft pollution are advertising, branding, loudspeaker announcements and, I would suggest, gene patenting. If you have to face the billboard bombardment and endless loudspeaker announcements on the tube everyday, you’ll know what he means about pollution. Serres acknowledges, however, that appropriation may also have positive effects – in some (rare?) cases.

Throughout his talk, Serres drew on many historical examples (or his own historical theories) as well as liguistics, and it felt, not necessarily to support his points, but to illustrate them in a manner which allows us to see them from his perspective (there is a difference, I believe). What I like about all of his work (well, what I have read so far) is the way he provides me with a multitude of mental images, some of which morph according to the angles he chooses to approach his subject with – or according to the way I morph these images myself. So, if you are a very visual thinker, too, you might find yourself in the same situation: you might not necessarily agree with what he writes or says, but you might suddenly have some tiger stripes glued to your mental image of pollution (or a nike symbol sprayed across it), and this is something that might lead you to change your image altogether (green stripes?) – not necessarily into this direction, but another. Or you might decide to banish these stripes onto a mental asteroid of your choice and reinforce your old pollution-sphere. Enough visual thinking… Has anyone else had similar experiences reading his work? Anyway…

Towards the end, Michel Serres talked about his ‘utopia’: that he would like to see an independent body representing the four elements (water, air, fire, earth) plus the ‘living/life’, instead of meetings of people just representing their nations’ interests, adding ‘I believe that in history there had not been progress without utopias’. A Q&A session followed. A young girl got up and asked the first question – I was very impressed! Her question was about the environment (could not understand all of it), and Michel Serres gave her an example from the local environment that illustrated his answer. Two questions later, a man (who sounded a bit drunk) made people gasp and laugh, because he accused Serres of diverting from his path of a philosopher of science to become, as far as I understood, an eco-warrior-type anarchist (I think the word militant was in there somewhere), and also asked him why he had written a book like his last one. Serres defended himself by saying that the word ‘ecology’ was not in any of his books and that this book dealt with ‘philosophy of right’. I thought it was quite amusing that somebody accused a philosopher of ‘daring’ to talk about worldly issues! How dare a philosopher reflect on what is happening around us! ;) Another gentleman tried to provoke Serres by accusing him of not practising what he preaches: after all, he is drinking from a bottle of branded water. So now the philosopher is not alert enough about his closer surroundings! Altogether, there was a nice variety of questions, ranging from the aforementioned polemic attacks to worries about immigrants being portrayed as ‘pollutants’ in the media, emotional borders and what Serrres means by ‘lieu miserable’ at the end of his book.

Unfortunately, at that point, my ability to think any more French had started to leave me, and my much neglected stomach was screaming for attention. Luckily, nobody thought of any more questions, so I could dig out my emergency liquorice bar and chill out in the foyer, thinking ‘thank you for the salad’!