Michel Serres’s Five Senses
The text that follows is an expanded version of a paper given at the Michel Serres conference held at Birkbeck College in May 1999. The text is copyright Steven Connor, 1999.
Once words came to dominate flesh and matter, which were previously innocent, all we have left is to dream of the paradisaical times in which the body was free and could run and enjoy sensations at leisure. If a revolt is to come, it will have to come from the five senses! Michel Serres, Angels: A Modern Myth, trans. Francis Cowper (Paris, New York: Flammarion, 1995), p. 71.
I will be using this talk to read through Serres’s Les Cinq sens, quickly summarising and exemplifying his argument or style of argument in each of the 5 chapters of which the book consists: Veils, Boxes, Tables, Visit, and Joy. It is a book in which Serres attempts to remake or redeem the body, which is to say redeem it from the condition of addiction, or subordination to the word-become-flesh. His is not a present but an evanescent body, a body which builds itself anew through its senses. Even as the body depends on its senses, they are the body’s power of exceding or being beside itself. I will ask about the kind of temporality the senses comport, and suggest that there is a monism of the manifold in Serres’s exclusion of negativity, pain and death.
Serres has spoken of his distaste both for the hermeneutics of critique and suspicion, and for the phenomenology of Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty, both of whom he finds risibly thin and bodiless. In his conversations with Bruno Latour, he suggests that Les Cinq sens actually had its origin in a kind of laughing revulsion from the emaciated nature of phenomenology:
When I was young, I laughed a lot at Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception. He opens it with these words: “At the outset of the study of perception, we find in language the notion of sensation…” Isn’t this an exemplary introduction? A collection of examples in the same vein, so austere and meager, inspire the descriptions that follow. From his wondow the author sees some tree, always in bloom; he huddles over his desk; now and again a red blotch appears – it’s a quote. What you can decipher in this book is a nice ethnology of city dwellers, who are hypertechnicalized, intellectualized, chained to their library chairs, and tragically stripped of any tangible experience. Lots of phenomenology and no sensation – everything via language…My book Les Cinq sens cries out at the empire of signs. (Michel Serres with Bruno Latour,Conversations on Science, Culture and Time, trans. Roxanne Lapidus (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995), pp. 131-2.)
Les Cinq sens is part of the turn which Serres’s work undertook during the 1980s from a certain kind of philosophically respectable and recognisable commentary to the work of invention, a work characterised by lightness, freedom, associativeness, caprice. `There is a time for abstract science and then another one for things…the works of my youth…I henceforth find old, precisely because they are very learned or strictly under surveillance. Luckily, the more one writes, the younger one becomes. Finally, no more surveillance; finally, I can play truant – no more school at all’. (Ibid, p. 100.) Les Cinq sens insists on the gymnastic possibility and need of the mind. It is the book in which Serres begins to stretch his limbs, to burst into flames, the book in which he first makes his scandalous approach to things. In it he declares that the world exists.
So I will be saying that it is a book that marks a significant point in Serres’s writing. But in marking a break, a break-out, an exit or an inclination, a rift in the fabric of Serres’s work, it also folds itself back into that fabric, leading everywhere into it, a work which, we have begun to become accustomed to recognising, consists of little else but these these saltations, these leaps of faith, intuition or inclination. After Les Cinq sens, Serres’s work would never be quite the same: `never the same after that never quite the same but that was nothing new…never the same but the same as what for God’s sake’, as we read in Beckett’s That Time. (Samuel Beckett, Collected Dramatic Works (London: Faber and Faber, 1986), p. 390.) `Everything that you do is “in the midst” ‘, suggests Bruno Latour to Serres, and wins his simple consent, glad, as it may be, or weary, in the words: `All right’.
Les Cinq sens consists of five chapters, entitled `Voiles’, `Veils'; `Boîtes’, `Boxes'; `Tables’, `Tables'; `Visite’, `Visit'; and `Joie’, `Joy’.
No book on the senses can avoid evoking Condillac’s famous, fabular statue, the thought-experiment at the beginning of the Essay on the Faculties, in which Condillac imagines a statue deprived, in turn, of every sense but one. But Condillac’s statue, or the procedure which produces it, functions in Serres’s text as a menace, or as a philosophical disgrace: it represents the threat of subtraction or abstraction, of analysis itself. Serres’s aim is not to start with the statue and gradually to animate it, by draping it, one by one, in the separate senses, giving it interiority, movement. This action of clothing, one might imagine, is the exact equivalent of Descartes’s sensory striptease, the action of systematic doubt in which he attempts to strip away from reason all the gorgeous, questionable habiliments of the senses, stripping away indeed the flesh itself, and then the bones, leaving finally, exposed to its own view, exposure itself, self-exposure itself.
In fact the book begins with a parody of the Cartesian question: where is the soul? Serres’s answer is that the soul is not to be located in one solitary and invariant quasi-position in the body, the pineal gland, but rather in the contingencies of the body with itself, and with its environment. The soul of the pilot of a ship extends coenesthetically into the whole of his vessel, just as the driver parking a car feels his fingertips extending all the way to his front bumper, and the amputee continues to occupy the empty space of their severed limb.
The soul is to be found also in the way in which the self touches itself.
I touch one lip with my middle finger. Consciousness dwells in this contact. I start to explore it. Often consciousness conceals itself in folds, lip resting on lip, palate closed on tongue, teeth against teeth, eyelids lowered, tightened sphincter, the hand closed into a fist, fingers pressed against each other, the rear surface of one thigh crossed on the front face of the other, or one foot resting on the other. I bet that the homunculus, tiny and monstrous, of which each part is proportional to the magnitude of sensation, swells in those automorphic places, when the skin tissue folds upon itself. By itself, the skin takes on consciousness…Without this folding-over, this contact of the self with itself, there would be no internal sense, no body of one’s own, or even less coenesthesia, no body image, we would live without consciousness, featureless, on the point of vanishing. (Michel Serres, Les Cinq sens (Paris: Hachette, 1998), p. 20.)
Commentators on the skin, such as Didier Anzieu, have frequently observed its duality, which allows us both to touch and be touched at once. But, for Serres, this self-touching is never merely symmetrical. At every touching of oneself, every contingence, soul or consciousness crowds disproportionately on one side or other of the transaction, and is relatively absent from the other. When I cut my fingernails, I am more in my right hand than in my left; but you cannot touch your hand with your shoulder, no matter which hand is in question (though another person’s shoulder can touch your hand). Serres returns to this question in Le Tiers-instruit in 1991 (everything in Serres’s writing crosses its own path sooner or later). There he argues that the world is sensible because it lists, because it has orientation or laterality; everything has a left hand or a right hand, it leans in certain directions, pulled into shape, gait or posture by gravity or conductivity or impulse, or lack or habit.
There is no such thing as balanced indifference. There is no center or axis; it cannot be found, or is absent.Orientation can thus be said to be originary, invariable, irreducible, so constantly physical that it becomes metaphysical. (Michel Serres, The Troubadour of Knowledge, trans. Sheila Faria Glaser and William Paulson (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997), p. 15.)
This means that all of us are lop-sided, hemiplegic, carrying around with us a Siamese twin, an intimate stranger, who is and yet is not of our flesh. The condition of anosognosia, first described by Joseph Babinski in 1908, in which a patient denies ownership of a paralysed limb or other portion of themselves is only the intensification of this split condition. Everything on our left is a not-self. But, in this sense, our sinister self, our gaucheness, is distributed unequally and intermittently across different portions of the body. Whether `self’ resides, or is touched off, is our right hand, that which actively touches, and is therefore white, or transparent; wherever `not-self’ or less-than-self, that which is touched, which cannot touch back (the shoulder, the foot) is found, it is black, alien.
But these relations, though formalisable as a black and white dichotomy, in fact are mobile. For one thing, we have more than two hands. To some degree, whenever we touch, we grow a temporary hand. V.S. Ramachandran reported a neurological correlative for this effect in patients whose hands had been amputated but who reported intense sensation in their missing hands when their faces and upper arms were stroked. The reason for this seeems to be the proximity of hands and face on the sensory map draped over the surface of the cerebellum, which allows a vacated or inactive area of hand sensation in the brain to be colonised by neighbouring areas (the proximity of genitals and feet on the map accounts for the orgasmic sensations in the feet experienced during sex by those with leg amputations). (V.S. Ramachandran and Sandra Blakeslee, Phantoms of the Brain: Human Nature and the Architecture of the Mind (London: Fourth Estate, 1999), pp. 25-38.)
Just as the map on the cerebellum is being shown to be much more plastic and revisable than we ever thought, so we are continually rewriting the map of inner and outer, self and not-self, on the surface of our skins. In Genesis, published in 1982, Serres had evoked the gymnastic condition of the body-become-hand as the image of a kind of blankness, an indetermination, and thus readiness to be absorbed in thought, contemplation or experience; like the body of the dancer, like the thought of the inventive rather than merely critical thinker, the hand is a flight of forms from possible to possible:
The hand is no longer a hand when it has taken hold of the hammer, it is the hammer itself, it is no longer a hammer, it flies transparent, between the hammer and the nail, it disappears and dissolves, my own hand has long since taken flight in writing. The hand and thought, like one’s tongue, disappear in their determinations….Inventive thinking is unstable, it is undetermined, it is un-differentiated, it is as little singular in its function as is our hand. The latter can make itself into a pincer, it can be fist and hammer, cupped palm and goblet, tentacle and suction cup, claw and soft touch.So what is a hand? It is not an organ, it is a faculty, a capacity for doing, for becoming claw or paw, weapon or compendium. It is a naked faculty. A faculty is not special, it is never specific, it is the possibility of doing something in general. To talk about the faculties of the soul is a great misnomer, when we are differentiating between them: the soul is also a naked faculty. It is nakedness. We live by bare hands. Our hands are that nakedness I find in gymnastics, that pure faculty, cleared up by exercise, by the asceticism of un-differentiation. I think, un-differentiated. Thus I am anyone, animal, element, stone or wind, number, you and him, us. Nothing. Nobody. Blank. Bare. (Michel Serres, Genesis, trans. Geneviève James and James Nielson (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995), pp. 30, 34-5.)
In Les Cinq sens, the white or blank hand/body gives way to a more variegated form. Now, the soul is inscribed in the coming and going of subjectivity on the surface of the skin as the residue of its contingencies, the play of light and shadow, of the whiteness of subjectivity and the shade of objectivity.
It remains to draw or paint. Isolate if possible, the secret little zones where the soul is always in residence, the corners or folds of contingency, isolate too, if possible the unstable zones where the soul knows how to play with another as though with a ball, mark out the spheres and slabs which become subjects only when face to face with objects, the dense and compact regions which remain objects always, alone or facing those which objectify them, deserts lacking in soul, black; this drawing rarely marks off compact zones, for these explode, fuse and flee in narrow strips of colour, forming hills, chimneys, passages, corridors, flames, zigzags and labyrinths, look at the changeable, wavelike and fugitive soul on the skin, on the surface, streaked, crowded, tiger-striped, zebra-striped, barred, troubled, constellated, gorgeous, torrential, and turbulent, incendiary. (20)
Serres himself is what he calls a corrected, or completed left-hander, a natural left-hander who was compelled to write with his right hand. The result is the condition of the bicameral chimera or hermaphrodite, the one who can cross to the other side of himself, who can write two-handed. (Serres, Troubadour of Knowledge, pp. 17-20.) But this chimera-like condition can belong to us all. The crossing of the left hand and the right hand in the individual body is the condition for the meeting of the body and the world.
Skin is central to the `philosophy of mingled bodies’ that Serres inaugurates here because of the principle of contingence:
in the skin, through the skin, the world and the body touch, defining their common border. Contingency means mutual touching: world and body meet and caress in the skin. I do not like to speak of the place where my body exists as a milieu, preferring rather to say that things mingle among themselves and that I am no exception to this, that I mingle with the world which mingles itself in me. The skin intervenes in the things of the world and brings about their mingling. (97)
The skin, and touch signify, finally, for Serres, a way of being amidst rather than standing before the world, that is necessary for knowledge. Knowledge, which has previously and traditionally thought of itself as an unveiling or stripping bare, is offered here as a kind of efflorescence, an exploration amid veils, a threading together of tissues. `Tissue, textile and fabric provide excellent models of knowledge, excellent quasi-abstract objects, primal varieties: the world is a mass of laundry’ (100-1) Serres dreams of a one-to-one map of the world, reproducing all its fractal singularity, that would be its skin, in what he calls a `cosmic dream of an exquisite cosmetic on the skin of each thing’ (36). For Serres, the cosmic and the cosmetic remain in intimate communication with each other: nothing is deeper than adornment.
We thus encounter what will be something like a principle of functioning of Les Cinq sens; the effort to separate the senses out, displaying them adjacent to each other, like countries om a map, plan or table of correspondences, will be gently and repeatedly precluded by the requirement to knot them together. It will emerge that each sense is in fact a nodal cluster, a clump, confection or bouquet of all the other senses, a mingling of the modalities of mingling. Thus, in Voiles, we hear of a sequence of six allegorical tapestries from the Chateau de Boussac in the Musée de Cluny known collectively as the Lady with the Unicorn. These tapestries depict the different senses in turn. There are six and not five of them since medieval philosophy decrees the existence of a sixth, unifying or common sense, the sense of selfhood, whereby the self apprehends itself as itself. This Serres identifies with the skin and the faculty of touch: the skin, he says, `carries the message of Hermes’. Where topography is visual, `topology is tactile’ (99). The skin encompasses, implies, pockets up all the other sense organs: but, in doing so, it stands as a model for the way in which all the senses in their turn also invaginate all the others.
The second chapter, `Boîtes’ concerns sound and hearing, sometimes thought of as the most libertine and promiscuously sociable of the senses. And yet in this chapter are to be found some of the most ill-tempered and unsociable things that Michel Serres has ever written. The setting or frame for the chapter is the ruined theatre of Epidaurus, in which Serres sits in the early morning, seeking in its gathered silence a cure from the racket, not only of human noise, the immense exchange of communications, but also the interior noise of the body, its incessant exchange of messages to itself.
Surprisingly, the theatre of Epidaurus, having the form of an immense ear or auditory pavilion marked out in the ground, visible from space, funnelling sound to its centre, comes to be a sinister image for Serres. He compares it to another remarkable theatre at Pinara, in which an amphitheatre opens on to a cliff occupied by the dead, buried standing up.
Hearing is understood in this chapter, in which the duality promised in the French word entendre is powerfully at work, in terms of a work of transformation. Hearing takes what Serres calls the hard, le dur, and converts it into information, le doux, or the soft (141-9). This exchange is effected by the senses, or by the work of sensation, which, in turning raw stimulus into sensory information, also make sense of the senses, effecting a slight declination, or deflection within the word sens itself: sense becomes sense. These transformations are effected in every organism by a series of processes of transformation which Serres is wont to call `black boxes’. He means by this processes whose intial conditions are known and whose outcomes are known, but whose actual processes of transformation remain inaccessible to view or understanding.
Performing the work of many black boxes, each receiving and reintegrating the output from other black boxes, we are all of us therefore in the condition of Orpheus, who takes the inchoate cries and howls of the natural world and turns them into music. But music, for Serres, is not the simple and once and for all transformation of noise into information, of the natural into the cultural. Rather it is the looping, labyrinthine interchange of the hard and the soft. The labyrinth of the ear, with its complex invaginations of inner and outer, represents not a single diaphragm, or site of one-way transmission, but a complex, on might say fractal, landscape of transformations and recursions, which itself transmits as well as receives. Uncoil the cochlea, Serres suggests, and one finds a kind of piano, sounding out high and low frequencies: the ear receives vibrations, says Serres, but also broadcasts them, to a sensory apparatus, or third ear, which must in turn receive and integrate them (183). The ear is no more to be located in one place than the skin. For Serres, the body itself is caught up in a process of hearing, which implicates skin, bone, skull, feet and muscle. Just when we thought hearing was going to be put in its place, Serres evokes its own mingled or implicated nature. Just as the ear consists in part of a skin, so the skin itself is a kind of ear, which both excludes and transmits exterior vibrations:
At the beginning, the whole body or organism raises up a sculpture or statue of tense skin, vibrating amid voluminous sound, open-closed like a box (or drum), capturing that by which it is captured. We hear by means of the skin and the feet. We hear with the cranial box, the abdomen and the thorax. We hear by means of the muscles, nerves and tendons. Our body-box, stretched with strings, veils itself within a global tympanum. We live amid sounds and cries, amid waves rather than spaces the organism moulds and indents itself…I am a house of sound, hearing and voice at once, black box and sounding-board, hammer and anvil, a grotto of echoes, a musicassette, the ear’s pavilion, a question mark, wandering in the space of messages filled or stripped of sense…I am the resonance and the tone, I am altogether the mingling of the tone and its resonance. (180-1).
It is necessary for the body to form and retain itself in its complex and always transitory entirety, like the red spot on Jupiter, or the weather-system formed out of pure movement, like the whorl of the ear itself, if it is not to be subjected to one of two fates: violent dissolution by and into pure materiality on the one hand, or rarefaction into the softness of information on the other. These two alternatives are embodied mythically for Serres in the persons of Orpheus and Eurydice. Orpheus, the originator of music, is finally torn apart, subjected to auditory extinction, in the sparagmos or dismembering effected by the howling Bacchantes. For Serres, analysis of this final moment of the Orpheus myth is supererogatory, since it represents the mutilating or dissective work of analysis itself, which leaves Orpheus a mere talking or singing head (173). Eurydice, on the other hand, is spectralised by the excess of information: for Serres, she is the body captured by language, and thereby rendered so soft and nebulous, as to be no more than a shade, or a name. Between the two, in the musical condition of transition, there is the body, not an object, but a work of sensation, neither shade nor dismembered corpse, but a complex knot, niche or enclave within flux. Orpheus, singing the name of Eurydice, attempts to harden or substantiate her form, bequeathing to death her numbness, redeeming her from the muteness of mere language into speaking embodiment.
The raising of Eurydice by Orpheus is precisely the work of cure and remaking that Serres sets out to effect in this work. Orpheus invokes: raises with the voice the body into speaking substance. It is important to distinguish Orpheus, who risks and eventually loses, from Ulysses, who is exposed to the disintegrative power of sound, but keeps himself immune from it, by binding himself to the mast, and thus wins. Orpheus visits the underworld, and loses: `visit’ is a word that will become important later in Les Cinq sens.
There are three kinds of hearing offered in this chapter. There is first of all propriocentric hearing, the hearing of oneself, the gurgling of the viscera, the cracking of the bones, the thudding and pulsing of the blood, even the firing of the neurones, to which all of us are continuously exposed and that for most of the time, unless we are subjected to the rending tortures of tinnitus, we integrate unconsciously without effort. Then there is the hearing that constitutes the social contract: the blaring bedlam of the exchange of noise and signals, signals and noise. In fact, the first is the model for the second. In both of these cases, hearing attempts to close itself upon itself, in a circuit of self-hearing, tightening the coil of the ear. There is the hearing of oneself that forms the model increasingly for all communication: `We can neither speak nor sing without the feedback loop which ensures that we hear our own voices’ (140). This is autistic acoustics, a hearing deafened by itself.
But there is also the hearing that puts one apart from oneself, the hearing that doubles or remakes the body, just as the hand extends and exceeds itself and the body to which it belongs and which it is.
The I thinks only when it is beside itself. It feels really only when it is beside itself. The linguistic I is shrunk down to the large memory of language, the indefinite integral of others, the closure of its open group, freezing itself in habit…I only really live beside myself; beside myself I think, meditate, know, beside myself I receive the given, vivacious, I invent beside myself. I exist beside myself, like the world. I am on the side of the world beside my talkative flesh.The ear knows this space. I can put the ear on the other side of the window, projecting it great distances, holding it at a great distance from the body.
Lost, dissolved in the transparent air, fluctuating with its nuances, sensible of its smallest comas, shivering at the least derision, set free, mingled with the shocks of the world, I exist. (119)
This kind of exposed hearing, which breaks the circuit of hearing-oneself, constitutes the third form of audibility:
In myriads, things cry out. Often deaf to alien emissions, hearing is astonished by that which cries out without a name in no language. The third cycle, initiated by the rarest of hearing, and which requires that one be deaf both to oneself and to the group, requires an interruption of the closed cycles of consciousness and the social contract, may already be called knowledge. (141)
There is no question of merely opening oneself to the inhuman, or the natural, of bypassing the black box, not least because the exposure to things in themselves is what forms the black box. (The senses are in things, are in the self-sensing of things.) Our house of experience, which includes not just each individual body, but also what Serres calls the `orthopedic sensorium’ (190) of our social structures, must remain sufficiently open, the social ear sufficiently labyrinthine to allow the capture of the unintegrated, or the disintegrative, and the rapture of the ear by what forms and deforms it.
Hearing is finally the unlocalisable mediation, or labyrinthine knotting together of these two kinds of process, or the two sides of the black box, exposure and integration.
Tables begins with a bottle of wine, a bottle of 1947 Yquem, shared with a friend. This wine will flow throughout the rest of the chapter that follows it, a chapter that is concerned to evoke and celebrate the most despised, the least aesthetic of the senses, taste and smell combined. It is perhaps unsurprising that Serres finds these senses the most refractory to, and therefore the most despised by language. French, Serres observes, has no word, other than the specialised `anosmia’, for the lack of taste. The absence of the very word for the absence of taste redoubles, redoubles the authority of the language that has no need even to mark this deficiency (254). Taste and smell open what Serres calls the `second mouth’, the mouth displaced and overtaken by the first, golden mouth, the chrysostomos, of language. This second mouth is characterised by gift, grace, dispensation, opening, rather than accumulation. Smell and taste differentiate; though what they differentiate is always itself composite.
Odour is spirit, the work of transformation, or transubstantiation, which Serres prefers to read through the action of cooking rather than alchemy, therefore not as refinement or purification, but as the work of combination or alloying of substance.
Serres conjures up a grotesque primal scene, a mingling of different philosophical banquets which include Plato’s Symposium, the Last Supper and the banquet of Don Giovanni. In it, the petrified, linguistic body, reduced to the condition of a statue or robot or automaton, is no longer able to smell or taste. The statue, or mobile talking head, its limbs creaking, its tongue and nostrils parched with dialectic, dines off the menu: the women who do the cooking off-scene, also do the eating. But opposed to the statue is the body of Christ. The incarnational metaphor has two sides for Serres. Considered in its perfected form, the body of the Assumption, the raised or resurrected body, stands for the Word-Made-Flesh and the Flesh-Made-Word of the annunciation – in other words, the statue. `When it is saturated by the word, the body loses its antique graces: [grace] flees the body when the word becomes flesh’.
Set against the body of the Assumption, the body raised up into language, is the body consumed at the Last Supper. This body, which circulates in the form of bread and wine, is not a fixed, but a mobile transubstantiation. It signifies the grace or gratuitousness or givenness of what Serres calls `le donné’. The world abounds: `le monde abonde’. How, Serres enquires, can the eye requite the sun for its light, how can the palate repay the vine? Set against the classical table of correspondences or equivalences, language as restricted economy, there is the table at which eating and drinking takes place, which exceeds this economy, Serres claims. Smell and taste are apt carriers of this transformative mobility, this metabolic circulation of elements which transform as they circulate. Smell and taste, themselves an irreducible composite, form the body as what Serres beautifully calls a `bouquet of vicariances’.
It seems clear enough from the first three sections how the book is going to be structured. They deal, in turn, and in series, with skin and touch; with hearing; and with taste and smell conjoined. Between the third and fourth sections of the book, something happens, a kind of lurch, or swerve, an inclination, or clinamen, in Lucretius’s term. In one sense, things seem to be going too fast: there are two chapters left, and only one sense remains to be dealt with, that of sight. But there is also a slowing down: for in fact we wait in vain for an exposition of sight in either of the two last chapters, or not in any daylit, head-on kind of way. Neither chapter completes the formation of the homunculus undertaken through the other chapters.
In fact, vision has appeared throughout Les Cinq sens as a negative reference point for the other senses. Where the other senses give us the mingled body, vision appears on the side of detachment, separation. Vision is a kind of dead zone, as the petrifying sense, the non-sense, which it is the role of the other senses to make good or redeem. Thus, we hear of the work of vision undertaken by Pierre Bonnard in paintings such as the Nude in the Mirror and The Garden in the chapter on Voiles:
The eye loses its preeminence in the very domain of its dominance, painting. At its extremity, impressionism returns to its really originary sense, that of contact. The nude, ocellated like a peacock, recalls us to the weight and pressure of things, to the heaviness of the column of air above us and its variations. (35)
However, vision itself is at length redeemed in the chapter entitled Visite. This chapter is concerned, to all appearances, not with looking, but with voyaging. In other words, Serres seems in this chapter to be deflecting the French `sens’ – sense – into another direction, in fact, into direction, itself.
The sensible for Serres, means the changeable, that which is capable at any moment of a change of direction:
Sensible has a sense comparable to that of adjectives with the same termination. It reveals the always-possible change of direction. The magnetised needle thus enacts sensibility. At the minute and ubiquitous solicitations of quality, dimension and intensity, sensibility trembles, fluctuates and scans with dancing excursions the spaces through which it is showered and summoned by things, by the world, and by others…Open like a star, or quasi-closed, like a knot to all directions, mobile in every dimension and scanning everywhere, sensibility gives itself, indefatigably, to this dancing excursion, a functional intersection until the very hour of its death. (404-5)
It is this which allows vision to make its appearance, or to speak its appearance, but obliquely, in the word ‘visit’. `The term “visit” and the verb “to visit” mean at first looking and seeing; they add to it the idea of itinerary – the one who visits, goes to see‘ (334) Visiting, is, so to speak, vectorial vision, itinerant or excursive vision, vision on the move.
In general, the bearer of the look, in traditional philosophy, does not move: it sits down to look, through a window at the blossoming tree: a statue posed on affirmations and theses. But we see things rarely in a condition of arrest, our ecological niche incorporates innumerable movements…The earth turns, our global position of vigil lost its stability long ago, even the sun, the giver of light, is in motion, en route to some other part of the universe. (405)
Looking as visiting is therefore the sense that involves deflection, displacement, and gathers into itself the redirection or deflective nature of all sense experience:
Displacements for the purpose of seeing borrow pathways, crossings, intersections, in order that scrutiny may focus on the detail or pass into a global synthesis: changes of scale, sense and direction. The sensible, in general, holds together all senses, all directions, like a knot or general intersection…Visitation explores and details all the senses of the sensible implicated or compacted in its knot. How could one see the compacted capacity of the senses if one separates them? We have visited this capacity without dissociating the senses of the word visit. (406)
Visiting the senses, in the way that this book attempts to do, partakes of the action of the senses themselves, as they visit the world, in actions of excursion, or self-exceeding:
Spirit sees, language sees, the body visits. It always exceeds its site, by displacement. The subject sees, the body visits, surpasses its own position, goes out from its role or word …The body goes out from the body in all senses (dans tous les sens), the sensible knots up this knot, the sensible in which the body never persists in the same plane or content but plunges and lives in a perpetual exchange, turbulence, whirlwind, circumstance. The body exceeds the body, the I surpasses the I, identity delivers itself from belonging at every instant, I sense therefore I pass, chamelon, in a variegated multiplicity, become halfcaste, quarteroon, mulatto, octoroon, hybrid…We have visited the compacity of the given. (408-9)
The final chapter offers us yet another candidate for the sixth or common sense: this is the sense of bodily joy, or ecstasy. Here, Serres evokes astonishingly the seraphic pleasures of self-exceeding, to be found, for example, in the pleasures of swimming, of running, in the human fascination with the trampoline, or in the playing of rugby. Here, the body becomes itself in playing with, or transforming itself.
The body is the site of the non-site: a teeming plurality which overruns and overrules every vicious and narrow dichotomy; but this is guaranteed by the most implacably dichotomous way of arguing that is imaginable. On one side language, science and corporate rationality: on the other side the life of the body. On the one side the global, on the other, the play of locality. On the one side, the statue; on the other, the veil, the visit.
This book derives its demand and its joy from its refusal of language, its delirious flight beyond, or recoil backwards from language. Language, we hear time and again, makes one into a statue, identified variously with the statue of Don Giovanni, with Condillac’s senseless statue. It petrifies one’s skin, it empties one’s mouth of taste, it occupies the body.
We have lost hopelessly the memory of a world heard, seen, perceived, experienced joyfully by a body naked of language. This forgotten, unknown anaimal has become speaking man, and the word has petrified his flesh, not merely his collective flesh of exchange, perception, custom and power, but also and above all his corporeal flesh: thighs, feet, chest and throat vibrate, dense with words. (455)
But Serres also comes bizarrely to depend upon a reified or statuary idea of language itself. Language abstracts, makes the things of the world insubstantial, it alienates us from sensation. Language, in the memorable metaphor which Serres supplies in the closing pages of the book, is like a vast sea in which the things of the world have been irretrievably drowned, like an Atlantis or Titanic. But this metaphor, which insists on language’s inundation, on the deathliness or petrifaction of the living, joyful body effected by language, itself enforces such a petrifaction in ts own monochromatic or reifying view of language. Language is here an essential, absolutely homogeneous principle: its nature and effects universal and unvarying. Like the ocean, language is all one thing as far as the eye can see and as deeper than did ever plummet sound. Discourse is deluge; it is itself deluged in homogeneity.
Serres’s own language denies in its use what his language maintains, namely the emptiness, abstraction and rigor mortis of language. Language, for Serres, is nothing less, nor anything else, than logos (technology, Serres says in Angels, is techne become logos, just as phenomenology signifies appearance which speaks itself, which becomes the speaking of itself – Michel Serres, Angels: A Modern Myth, trans. Francis Cowper (Paris, New York: Flammarion, 1995), p. 71.) But Serres’s language is always more, and other, then this. It is a language full of device and address, brimming with undigested material, spiky with the kind of hardness that Serres finds in music. His is the effort to incarnate, with the very language that he insists is toxic or paralysing. `Yes, I have lost my Eurydice: I want to create a body present here and now, but I have only pure abstraction, this vocal emission, soft: Eurydice, Eurydice, I wanted so much to give you life and all I could write was philosophy’ (171). It is possible, it insists against the current of what Serres insists, pushing upstream against the flow that converts the hard into the soft, for language as music, to remain open to the unintegrated: language can be a kind of typanum between the human world of linguistic addiction and the world of the given, the donné, which can take the impress of the hardness of things (the howling of animals, the breaking of stones), even as it transmits and translates them.
In the end, the body is not merely the body: not mere mass, which must be subjected to a work of transformation, or analysis, or understanding. Despite the insistence upon incarnation, and the recurrence of Christian images of resurrection in the book (the book begins with a passage describing Serres’s escape from a burning vessel which is a violent kind of parturition, and ends with the words `resurrection, or renaissance’), the body does not rise again in Serres’s work. This is because the body, or more particularly the senses, is never a mere object, but itself a kind of work. The body is the work of transforming mere sensitiveness into sense and sensibility both: the body is its work of transformation. There is no chance of getting back to the body, since it is the nature of the human body to be self-organising and therefore self-surpassing. In the end, Serres’s work is founded upon the unbreachable continuity of this work os self-transformation and self-organisation which the body conducts through sensation, and the work of organisation undertaken by Serres’s own writing about the body: the body forms itself, he writes, like a book. In folding sense over sense, translating flesh into word, Serres mimics and participates in the work of self-translation, self-complication, undertaken by sensation itself.
In the final section of the chapter entitled Joy, Serres suddenly relaxes the severity of his denunciation of language. For our epoch, he says, is no longer the epoch of language. What dominates now are the code, the algorithm, information. Where language sought to fix and petrify its objects, distributing them in patterns of invariant conversion and exchange, information dissolves the object, by operationalising it. The body which has become a series of genetic codes is no longer a linguistic body, but a source of production; no longer locked in place, but rather disseminated and multiplied. Language loses its three dimensions of power: the referential (taken over by science), the seductive (taken over by media and advertising), and the performative (taken over by the power of technoscience).
The era of the linguistic animal has come to a close. It is this death, or supersession of language which Serres wants to claim has made this book, this way of seizing the body in language, repeatedly said to be impossible, suddenly, though perhaps only for the time being, possible. Les Cinq sens, says Serres, `celebrates the death of the word’ (455). It is this death which makes possible, indeed imperative a new way of knowing. It seems to pardon language. Language has become redundant in the era of information and technoscience. This redundance, this ragged spectrality, makes possible a return to the primal adventure of philosophy, faced with and able to start out once again from the bottomless mystery of the givenness of things, now, and perhaps just for now, apprehensible otherwise than as the mere task or antagonist of the linguistic subject-protagonist: `Forgetful, detached, the subject plunges into the unforgettable world.’ (461) language is subsumed in the body’s powers of self-invention. `Every time an organ – or a function – is freed from a previous obligation, it invents’ (460-1), Serres observes: the hands, freed from the work of locomotion in homo erectus, occupy themselves in making tools; the mouth, freed from the need to grip and seize, invents speech. Freed from the fucntion of naming, categorising and distributing, language-memory becomes available for a similar self-reinvention.
It seems incongruous that Les Cinq sens should end with such an account of epochal loss and inauguration. For the book Les Cinq sens, perhaps like the five senses themselves, seems to have no memory, no sense of temporal progression. Like so many other Serres texts, the time of the text forms a kind of climate, or weather-system, shifting, recoiling, gathering, intensifying, diffusing: time, in French temps, as Serres frequently observes, is already available to be thought of as a kind of weather. Serres proposes no chronology of sense development, for example, as others working on these questions have sometimes been tempted to do. It is unclear whether or not the senses are merely before time – primordial, before reason, language and the categories of linguistic time – or multitemporal, belonging to the crumpled or folded time, the temporal complexion, that Serres evokes in his discussions with Bruno Latour.
Serres celebrates abundance, increase, invention: the body is, repeatedly and in the end, the principle of propagation. Serres will have it no other way. The senses are the body forming and reforming itself. As such the body is a miraculous nook in the flux, a negentropic eddy or swirl in the current that traverses it yet which it delays.
Les Cinq sens moves: in moving through its material, the senses, it also moves through itself. It begins and ends with this auto-contingency, this self-touching, that faces outwards and inwards, backwards and forwards, at the same time. In doing so, it disobeys the fundamental law of time, the law of entropy or going out. Its vitalism refuses limit, suffering, degradation, exhaustion. In the celebration of grace, gratuity, giving, expenditure, abundance, over equivalence and conservation, and therefore also dying out or depletion, Les Cinq sens denies the equivalence of the first and second laws of thermodynamics, the law of conservation and the law of decay. Serres ignores the mortality of the body, the fact that the body is the carrier or amplifier of entropy as well as its temporary remission.
In the Boîtes chapter, Serres imagines with a kind of horrified amusement Socrates heroically speaking right up to the instant of his death. Serres cannot believe that the imperium of language should seek to abut so closely upon death, suffuse every last atom of existence, leaving open no chink of grace, no space of animal existence before death. It is for this reason that language, for Serres, is death. But Serres proposes here another kind of exceptionless plenitude, a plenitude that allows no exteriority, nothing that cannot be gathered up and redeemed in the self-renewing abundance of time. Where Socrates encroaches upon death, Serres incorporates it. In both cases, death is denied. Serres is bitterly opposed to the warlike Hegelian dialectic which, in its way of subduing time to a line, actually denies time, cancelling its contradictions. But Serres’s own irenic, peace-loving testimony to abundance and redemption works as a kind of atemporal or multitemporal dialectic, and exhibits its own stalling effect. Despite his homage to the pleasures of company, literally the breaking of bread together, and of conversation, the world of Serres’s senses is a unsociable world; where are the others in all of this contingency of self with self? The answer is, perhaps, that Serres refuses the anthropomorphism of alterity, refuses to close the system of relations off with the claustrophobic or finally autistic calamity or catastrophe of the self in its relations to the human other.
Something is omitted in Serres’s abundant and all-inclusive celebration of the senses. That something is loss, depletion, mortality, omission. There is an abhorrence in Serres’s senses, a hole where negativity should be. If the sensitive body is excursive, if its nature is to list or lean into the wind, to go out from itself, this advance is into the condition of its own mortality, into its own slow going or going out, against a background of finally invariant and unremissable degradation. Serres makes us aware of the direction or itinerary of the senses, of the sens in the sens. But we may hear another variant in this transformation of the senses into themselves. The word sens is after all only the merest modulation of the mouth away from sans. The senses acquaint us and themselves with the condition of their own decay that will leave us sans eyes, sans ears, sans teeth, sans everything. French would allow us to say it in the following motto: Les sens ont le sens du sans. The senses have the sense of the less. The senses move towards lessness. They list to the leastmost. The senses take lessening’s course. The lessons of the senses, like those of the Mock Turtle, are aptly enough so-called, for they get less and less.
Serres celebrates the ceaseless unravelling and reknitting of the body, in the principle of giving out, dépense, that is always itself renewed, that can never give out. There is no place, no time for this in Serres’s five senses, which, in their ceaseless coming and going, are always, as we have seen, on the increase, rather than come and gone in no time. This intolerance of the exteriority represented by death and degradation, makes for a certain paradoxical claustration in Serres’s work, makes it a monism of the manifold. There is nothing Serres can do with it, because there is nothing anyone can do with it, this slow going, this ungraspable, unknowable, unignorable squandering of energy that in the end is what we will have amounted to. There is nothing we can do with it, though it has everything to do with us.