Topologies: Michel Serres and the Shapes of Thought

Topologies: Michel Serres and the Shapes of Thought

Steven Connor

This paper was written for the ‘Literature and Science’ conference held in Ascoli Piceno, Italy 20-22 May 2002. It appears in Anglistik, 15 (2004): 105-1`7


As commentators on Michel Serres are fond of observing, his work is concerned with connections, mediations and passages. His tutelary spirit is Hermes, the god of messages and crossroads. His work self-consciously and even programmatically inhabits intermediary spaces: between culture and science, between past and present, myth and physics. But, as the title of the fifth and concluding volume of his Hermès sequence – Le Passage du nord-ouest(Serres 1980) – tries to indicate, there is no simple or invariant form in which such mediation takes place. To bring together culture and science requires the following out of complex, unpredictable, forking paths. Attempting to find the Northwest Passage which leads between culture and science means making out the very space in which one will operate, rather than the bringing together of two homogeneous blocks of material in a given, already-inhabited space. Serres warns us – the us in question being principally those in the humanities who may inhabit, not so much the outside of science as its adolescence – that we may need to think and learn more of the nature of time and space before settling the question of the space and time of science: ‘The classification of the sciences orders them in a space and the history of sciences arranges them in a time, as if we knew, in advance of the sciences themselves, what space and time mean’ (Serres 1980: 23).

In what follows, I try to estimate the novelty, the possibility and the limits of Serres’s intensely topological mode of thinking. In the first section, ‘Phases, States’, I distinguish three periods in Serres’s work, emphasising the increasing importance of topology in it. I suggest that Serres goes far beyond the flat topography, the impoverished views of space and territory to be found throughout the cultural and social sciences. Relating his uses of topology to the ‘material imagination’ of Gaston Bachelard, I suggest that Serres’s topologies are complexes of space and time, matter and process, rather than merely matricial forms. In the second section, ‘Histories’, I consider the kinds of historical poetics to which this topological view may give rise, considering in some detail Serres’s use of the metaphor of kneaded, or folded time. In the third section ‘Shape of Shapes’, I consider critically Serres’s attempts to use topology to provide an integrated view of the contingencies of history and space. Though I conclude the final section, ‘Ethics and Topology’ by affirming that Serres’s work represents a huge and still largely ignored resource for thinking historically about the relations between science, technology and culture, I also suggest that we need not, and probably should not, take it on its own account, particularly when it moves from description to ethics. Paradoxically, perhaps, what Serres increasingly makes of his own work need not be what can most valuably be made of it.

Phases, States
I have indicated that three broad periods may be distinguishable in Serres’ work. The wk of the 1960s and 1970s, as represented in his principal achievement of these years, the five volumes of his Hermès sequence, can be seen as a series of preliminary mappings of connections between culture and science. In this first phase, Serres writes theoretically and speculatively, seeking to demonstrate links and mutual determinations between scientific and cultural phenomena. In these works, a cognitive space in which culture and science might meet is being predicted, prepared, projected. What follows during the 1980s is a sequence of books, running from Le Parasite (1980), throughGenèse (1982), Détachement (1983), Les Cinq Sens (1984), Le Contrat naturel (1990) to Le Tiers-Instruit (1991b), in which Serres plunges into the complex, mixed, unpredictable milieux intimated in the writings of the first phase. Instead of carefully mapping the terrain, Serres traces out unpredictable, even vagrant itineraries through landscapes not given in advance.

The third phase of Serres’s work was announced and inaugurated by Eclaircissements, the series of conversations with Bruno Latour which proved to be a best-seller in France; the English translation, Conversations on Science, Culture, and Time (1995) is probably the work by which Serres is still best known to his English-speaking readers. In these conversations, Serres reviews his earlier work and, rather unexpectedly, given his earlier emphasis on open, chaotic and non-totalisable systems, promises a synthesis in his work to come.

I want to finish drawing this navigational map, this inventory – fluctuating and mobile – before I die. Once this work is done it will be clearly seen that all the rapports I traced out either followed or invented a possible road across the ensemble of movements from place to place. (Serres and Latour 1995: 105)

The subsequent works of the 1990s exhibit a twin concern with the nature of information and the global. So one may mark out three phases in Serres’s work: projection; immersion; and synthesis. In the third phase, Serres seeks to be at once inside and outside the topics, the places and subjects about which he writes. The sudden swerves of object and argument are still there, but Serres now seeks to articulate the ways in which local and global phenomena have become imbricated in the emerging culture of information. The effort to synthesise the local and the global heightens Serres’s preoccupation with a form of thought that has been operative in his work from its beginning: that of topology, or dynamic space.

Topology may be defined as the study of the spatial properties of an object that remain invariant under homeomorphic deformation, which is to say, broadly, actions of stretching, squeezing, or folding, but not tearing or breaking. Topology is not concerned with exact measurement, which is the domain of geometry, whether Euclidean or non-Euclidean, but rather with spatial relations, such as continuity, neighbourhood, insideness and outsideness, disjunction and connection. In Serres’s work, topology is also connected with aspects of ‘projective space’, or space centred in the phenomenology of the subject, which typically involve questions of right and left, before and behind, above and below. Thus a triangle is topologically equivalent to a circle, a cube is topologically equivalent to a sphere and, less intuitively, perhaps, a doughnut is equivalent to a teacup and a two-holed doughnut to a teapot. Because topology is concerned with what remains invariant as a result of transformation, it may be thought of as geometry plus time, geometry given body by motion.

Topology grew from the realisation that it was possible to formalise spatial relations mathematically, for example through Descartes’s discovery, later recalled by Leonhard Euler, that, for any given solid polyhedron, the number of vertices plus the number of faces minus the number of edges will always equal 2. From insights such as this grew the practice of algebraic topology, which represented and manipulated its shapes and structures, often, after the work of Bernhard Riemann, in more than three dimensions, mathematically. But, no matter how abstract it may become, topology remains fundamentally bodily. One of the reasons for the persistence of topological thinking in Serres’s writing may be that topology marks and maintains the meeting of abstract and concrete, the activities of analysis and the primary operations of touch and moulding. So Serres sees, and uses topology as a way of maintaining what itself might be thought of as the topological equivalence between the shape and space of the body and the more abstract projections of algebraic topology, between the sensible and the intelligible. Reading Descartes as the philosopher of the solid, for example, Serres reads the unity and distinctness of spirit and sense, as Descartes does, topologically. ‘Spirit is the spirit of solids, senses are the senses of liquids…the soul and the body have a common edge, in the punctual singularity of the little pineal gland, the cicatrice of their distinction and their unity’ (Serres 1980: 43).

In order to grasp the suggestive power of the figure and example of topology for Serres, it is necessary to take the measure of another argument, that is articulated so frequently through his work as to determine its tone and quality. Serres assumes that every metaphysics is founded upon a physics, a particular theory of the operation of forces and materials. Indeed, in a number of places, he seems to come close to arguing, like his sometime teacher Bachelard, that there is a specific ‘patron’ element or state of matter for every era of thought. Bachelard sees the possibilities for scientific and poetic thought as constrained archetypally and ahistorically within the grid of the four elements. For Bachelard, every thinker and writer has his defining matter, just as, for the medieval world, every physical body had its defining humoral complexion; thus, for example, Nietzsche is to be regarded as preeminently a philosopher of air and eminence rather than of fire, water or earth. Bachelard sees it as the job of the scientist and artist to educate matter, to lift it into a higher, purer condition, like the alchemist. Serres, by contrast, sees matter as historical and history as a kind of matter in movement between different states, solid, liquid and volatile. The world of classical physics was preoccupied with and governed by solid objects. The new physics which opened up during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, which was matched by the emphasis on flux to be found in the philosophy of Bergson, became interested in liquids, in movements, in processes of change and exchange, thermodynamic, electrodynamic. Serres’s Atlas (1994) sets itself the task of mapping the shape, which is to say, the state of matter, of the contemporary world of communication and information. For this, we need an understanding of space governed not by either of the previous alternatives, of solidity (say, Comte) or fluidity (say, Bergson), but by the labile, intermediary form of the textile –

veil, canvas, tissue, chiffon, fabric, goatskin and sheepskin… all the forms of planes or twists in space, bodily envelopes or writing supports, able to flutter like a curtain, neither liquid nor solid, to be sure, but participating in both conditions. Pliable, tearable, stretchable…topological. (Serres 1994: 45)

But the idea of fabric is itself a transformation or fluctuating phase of a more general volatility. Elsewhere, Serres suggests that the predominating state of matter in the contemporary world is gaseous rather than textile: ‘The system’s “matter” has changed “phase,” at least since Bergson. It’s more liquid than solid, more airlike than liquid, more informational than material. The global is fleeing towards the fragile, the weightless, the living, the breathing’ (Serres and Latour 1995: 121). Over the course of Atlas, the figure of the textile will modulate into that of the flame, with the final sentences of the book envisaging the space of global communications and passages as a dancing flame, like the flame of Pentecost which conferred the gift of speaking in tongues (Serres 1994: 279). The figure of the flame is anticipated in the chapter ‘Solides, Fluides, Flammes’ from Le Passage du nord-ouest:

Let us suppose that a camera might have been able to film the west coast of Brittany over millions of years, with its indentations and its islands, and that we could project this film over several minutes. We would see a flame. We would see the edge of the sun. The protuberances of its corona have the form of a sea-coast. The Iroise has the profile of a flaming fire, frozen by the Ocean or indeed by the slowness of the time which is ours. (Serres 1980: 51-2)

If history is marked by the movements, not from element to element, but between different states of the same element, then time (temps), as Serres often takes pleasure in pointing out, becomes indistinguishable from temperature – or weather (temps). Solidity is just another way of naming speed; the fixed forms or forms without relation which Serres explored in his book Statues (1987) are simply gelid blazes, systems at a lower state of energy: ‘Objects are flames frozen by different time-scales. My body is a slightly slower flame than this crimson curtain. which consumes the logs. Some things, for example stones, are slower still, while others, like suns, are more agitated: a thousand times make their edges pulsate’ (Serres 1980: 53).

Later in Atlas, Serres proposes a series of homologies for the three time-substances, or states of matter. The sequence which runs from solid through liquid to volatile correlates with a sequence which runs through the terms form,transformation and information. First there was the age of mechanics and geometry, the determination and manipulation of distinct forms. Then, in the age of thermodynamics inaugurated by Carnot and others, there is the generalisation of transformation, or the conversion of forms of energy: heat, light, movement, electricity, magnetism. Finally, there is the era of information, in which forms and forces give way to and even start to be understood as quanta of information. This sequence of typical states of matter parallels a sequence of different attitudes to or conditions of time, running from the reversible time of Newtonian equations, through the one-way, entropic time of the second law of thermodynamics, to the negentropic, or sporadically reversible time of chaos theory (Serres 1994: 127). One might even map this sequence on to the three phases I have distinguished in Serres’s work, in terms of a progression through parts of speech. A first phase involves the definition and manipulation of solids and substantives. A second concerns itself with verbs and actions. In the writing of the last decade, in which Serres recommends and attempts to bring about an expansion of categories and dimensions in philosophical writing to take account of the emerging topological conditions and sensibilities of the modern world, everything comes down to, or perhaps, rather moves through, prepositions, those intermediary or angelic parts of speech:

Has not philosophy restricted itself to exploring – inadequately – the ‘on’ with respect to transcendence, the ‘under’, with respect to substance and the subject and the ‘in’ with respect to the immanence of the world and the self? Does this not leave room for expansion, in following out the ‘with’ of communication and contract, the ‘across’ of translation, the ‘among’ and ‘between’ of interferences, the ‘through’ of the channels through which Hermes and the Angels pass, the ‘alongside’ of the parasite, the ‘beyond’ of detachment… all the spatio-temporal variations preposed by all the prepositions, declensions and inflections? (Serres 1994: 83)

The list Serres gives us alludes characteristically to a number of his own works, L’interference (the second volume of his Hermès sequence), The Parasite, Detachment and Angels, thereby looping together his topologised history of spatial thought with his own efforts to open up the oblique and branching ‘North-West passage’ between culture and science. However, this ‘final stage’ also makes it clear that the three stages or states of Serres’s work I have distinguished cannot in fact be arrayed in a row in this way, or tabulated, distributed cartographically on a flat plane. Because they are topologically related, solids, liquids and gases are all transformations of each other, rather than forming a line or sequence.

One of the most important of Serres’s applications of topological thought is to thinking about history. In place of the line of history, Serres proposes a series of different figurings of time, based on dynamic volumes, or topologies. Time is seen as a river, forking, branching, slewing, slowing, rolling back on itself. It can be a flame, leaping out and resiling. It can even be a crumpled handkerchief, in which apparently widely separated points may be drawn together into adjacency (Serres and Latour 1995: 60-1). All of these structures involve apprehending time as what David Bohm (1980) called an ‘implicate order’, as a complex volume that folds over on itself, and in the process does not merely transform in time, but itself gathers up and releases time, as though time were like the intricately folded structure of a protein.

‘Physics and history are founded in the same time’, writes Serres (1991a: 267) in his Rome, a book in which Serres confronts and attempts to outflank imperial, foundational and progressive time. This leads him to a remarkable, extended reflection on a further metaphor for time and history, the kneading of dough. Kneading is seen as a woman’s art, conflating it with the complex imbrications of the developing fetus – indeed, embryology should be thought of as a kind of topology, Serres observes in Atlas (1994: 47-8). Serres is not the only contemporary philosopher to have been concerned with the action and implication of the fold. In one of his rare acknowledgements of the work of a contemporary, Serres approves Deleuze’s generalisation of the metaphor of the fold in his study of Leibniz (1993): ‘This is what the classical or baroque age discovered, along with Leibniz and his calculus: the infinitesimal germ of form, the topological atom of the fold, beside the algebraic or ensemblist atom of the element; from this moment and this philosophy on, everything is folding, as Gilles Deleuze has rightly said of it’ (Serres 1994: 49). Perhaps both Serres and Deleuze have behind them both, as well as Leibniz, a memory of the remarkable evocation of kneading in Bachelard’s La Terre et les rêves de la volonté (1948). In his chapter on the soft matter of the earth, Bachelard sees the workings of oils, creams and doughs as derivatives from what he calls an ideal of primary ‘paste’, ‘the perfect synthesis of stiffness and softness, a marvellous equilibrium of yielding and resisting forces’ (Bachelard 1948: 78). Bachelard’s discussion of this primary paste occurs as the first in a series of discussions of dreams of terrene matter, as these are played out between the alternatives of the hard (rock, crystal, diamond, iron) and the soft (clay, putty, oil). It is the ideal of such a paste which allows Bachelard to posit the existence of a new kind of cogito, or sense of self. In between the neutral cogito of mere self-knowing and the more active kind of self-recognition which arises in the ‘phenomenology of the against’ the sense of straining or striving against things (and perhaps before both of these allotropes of the cogito), there is ‘a cogito of kneading’ – ‘un cogito pétrisseur’ (Bachelard 1948: 79). The action of kneading is a process that turns slack mud, mire or waste into a dough or paste that is taut with potential, whether as nutriment or cement. Mixing in is vital to this process, in particular the addition of oil, butter or other fatty substances to powder or flour. The aim of kneading is to blend together the joined and the disjoined, breadth and depth, the virtue of oil’s smooth spread and the density of pulverised substance. In kneading, one repeatedly folds the outer skin of the substance inwards, until it is as it were crammed with surface tension, full of its outside. The result, for Bachelard, is no mere mixture, but a tonic mass, full of tensile potential: the strudel dough that can be drawn out almost indefinitely. The action of kneading makes the material alive because it invests it with energy. One seems literally to put work into the substance one kneads, inducing kinetic potential into the previously dead substance. When one kneads dough or clay, it is as if one were winding a spring. A lump of worked dough is a negentropic niche in things. Time has been folded in to it along with work and air, and so, having undergone a transition from an in-itself to a for-itself, it has a future. Dough is quickened mass: not amorphous, but incipient of shape, not slack but charged. Erotic life may begin with the caress, but without the action of kneading, moulding your partner into new life, eros cannot be long protracted. The body is quickened as the soil is quickened, by turning it over, by folding it into itself, with the addition of air. When air is folded into pastry, time is folded in too: the time of growth, of the swelling of the soufflé, the breathed-in dish. In one sense, the skin is the antagonist of a kneaded world, for the skin is what holds individual lives separate and aloof; it is integument which guarantees the integrity of shape, and signifies the suspension of decomposition that is all life. But skin, which Serres always represents topologically, also holds the dream of the kneaded body, the dough-body, the cogito pétrisseur.

Although Serres uses the automorphic self-touching of the skin as a way of reflecting on what Deleuze calls the ‘inclension of the soul’ (Deleuze 1993: 3; Serres 1998: 20), he is interested in much more than the curvature of the cogito. The discussion of baker’s dough in Rome is an image of the complex overlayering of time in history, an image not of time moving on and dissipating, but of endlessly regathering itself: ‘The system grows old without letting time escape; it garners age – the new emblems are caught up and subsumed by old ones; the baker molds memory…Time enters into the dough, a prisoner of its folds, a shadow of its folding over’ (Serres 1991a: 81). Serres imagines trying to map or model the involutions of the dough as it is moulded, perhaps by making a mark and plotting its changes of position in three or more dimensions through successive stretchings and foldings. To those who can think of progress only as the extension or unrolling of a straight line, the trajectory of this point relative to other points in the dough would very quickly become undetermined, irrational, as seemingly random as the flight of a fly. This apparent unassimilability to the spatial intelligence occurs because

we simple blind people, simplistic, short-sighted, have not imagined implication, inclusion, fold; we have never known what a tissue is, never noticed or listened to women, never known what a melange might be, and never understood, or even imagined, time (Serres 1991a: 82).

In the folding and refolding dough of history, what matters is not the spreading out of points of time in a temporal continuum, but the contractions and attenuations that ceaselessly disperse neighbouring points and bring far distant points into proximity with one another. The totality of these foldings would assume the fractal or fluctuating forms of natural structures, rather than the straight lines of the geometrical imagination:

The route from local time to global time, from the instant to time, from the present to history, is unforeseeable; it is not integrable by reason, as analysis has shaped it. It seems to go crazily, no matter where, and drunkenly, no matter how. If the baker knew how to write, she would lazily follow the fly’s flight, the capricious foldings of proteins, the coastline of Brittany or of Ile d’Ouessant, the fluctuating fringe of a mass of clouds. (Serres 1991a: 82).

The image of history not as an inert or given shape, exposed and disposed to the investigating eye, but a dynamism, folding over automorphically on itself, makes the dough, as it had been for Bachelard, an image of the activity of thought or knowledge, as well as of the nature of its object. Serres describes this kind of knowledge as the opposite of analysis, or the separating of things one from another (for topological transformation disallows cutting). It is, or would be ‘a knowledge that multiplies gestures in a short time, in a limited space, so that it renders information more and more dense, until it forms a rarer place that sometimes becomes a dark solid’ (Serres 1991a: 78). It is an image of time gathering into history, but also the image of the way in which time is thought, in time. It is as though history gains its shape from the ways in which it reads itself or gathers itself up, as we say, reflexively, as well as the ways in which its time happens to fall out. History is the shape that time can take and the shape that historical reflexion (doubling back, doubling over) will make of it.

The kneaded dough is only one in a huge ensemble of images for fluctuation that Serres has allowed to propagate across and between his works, which includes, skins, textiles, bags, tapestries, kimonos, rivers, coastlines, clouds, vortices, mountain-ranges and flames. But it is also a kind of metametaphor, which figures the topological generation of metaphor itself. Indeed, it may even be an image for the relations between Serres’s different works, in which it is similarly extremely hard to mark out any clear and determinate progress from origins to ends, so full is that work of anticipations, dawdlings, accelerations, rewindings, recapitulations. The more Serres writes, the more he finds himself crossing the path of his own sylleptic footsteps.
Shape of Shapes.
Bachelard emphasises the oneiric dynamism of the hand that is involved in any action in, and upon, the world, shaping the dough, or bringing to bear the black matter of the graphite on the white matter of the paper, in order that the paper may be ‘roused from its nightmare of whiteness’ (Bachelard 1988: 52). Serres inherits and vastly diversifies Bachelard’s focus upon the hand as the active and fluctuating intermeidary between mind and world. In Genesis, Serres uses the hand as an image of pure possibility, a readiness to take any shape, as occasion demands. The hand

[c]an make itself into a pincer, it can be fist and hammer, cupped palm and goblet, tentacle and suction cup, claw and soft touch. Anything. A hand is determined accordingly. 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…We live by bare hands. (Serres 1995: 34).
Serres frequently associates a certain openness of thought with a kind of gymnastics, which ‘undifferentiates the body…seeks to put it into the state of a bare hand. It turns the body into a hand, a subject, a pure faculty’ (Serres 1995: 35). In Le Tiers-Instruit, Serres adds to this ‘white’ potentiality of the bare hand, the moment of tremulous, alert, attentive waiting of the goalkeeper for the penalty shot: it is ‘free of direction. With unknotted, floating threads, all knots open and uncut, arms and legs white, head empty’ (Serres 1997: 23). At the other extreme from the possible body open to all the directions and shapes that it may take, is the body scored and criss-crossed with all the forking paths that it has taken in actuality. The wrinkled body of the old man or woman is like a river at the end of its course, having traced its fluctuating itinerary through an irregular landscape, and ending its days laden with silt and gravel, its energy diffused into the bronchial branches of its delta, scarcely able to draw breath. This is a not a body open to every possibility, but a body ‘saturated with singularities’ (Serres 1997: 33). Serres calls this shape of all possible shapes, or sum of all directions, an ‘ichnography’.

These two alternatives, of the white, subjective body that is poised to take any shape, and the dark body, in which every shape has been actualised and objectified reappear throughout Serres’ work from the early 1980s onwards. In a topological sense, they are equivalent. What differentiates them is the fact of time, or, given Serres’s spatialisation and topologisation of time, their different positions upstream and downstream of the river. It thus makes no sense to postulate a landscape within or against which the movement of the river, downstream in the direction of time, or upstream, against the flow of time, might be measured. In the foldings and refoldings of the fabric of time, the idea of an invariant surface on which the folding might be taking place, or of the clock which would tick off the time which elapses while it takes place are mere fictions. The truth yielded by a topological apprehension of time is that there is no such invariant background. The lesson of the folding metaphor seems to be that the background is a local effect of the foreground, which is continually folded in to it. Serres sees the river running chaotically through a landscape that it itself forms as it moves. The absence of a background means that time neither gathers nor drains away for Serres; rather, it churns, swirls, plaits, folds. One might see the whole of Serres’s topological enterprise, in fact, as negentropic: as the effort to track the eddies and recoils of the river of time as it turns upstream.

But it is possible to dispense as easily as Serres would wish with progressive or sequential time? Can the thought of the eddy, the crumple or the fold be possible otherwise than as local resistances to a global law of uniform passage from one state to another? To believe so would surely be to read against the grain Maxwell’s parable of the demon, who is able to reverse time and create new reserves of energy by a simple and costless exercise of sorting one kind of molecule from another. Serres’s effort to show how time is inscribed in and punctuated by different kinds and states of matter leads him to deny all difference between time and its traces, precisely the thing that he criticises Hegelians for when he remarks to Bruno Latour that to see time as linear is to mistake the means of measuring time for time itself (Serres and Latour 195: 60-1). Of course, there are good reasons to reject the doctrine of a single, simply and homogenous time, elapsing at a constant rate; but Serres seems to underestimate the difficulty of dispensing with the background assumption of the irreversible elapse of time. Just as there are no ‘out-of-body experiences’ that are not experienced in terms of the body (as floating in mid-air, or passing through tunnels, for example: who has ever reported becoming a gas or a glass of water), so there are no imagings, topological or otherwise, of the workings of time which do not depend upon the background assumptions of linearity and irreversibility. The tape recorder makes it possible to imagine time slowed, reversed, looped, granulated, because it retains the idea of a line or sequence. Again, Serres says that living in time makes contradiction possible, the experience of feeling young and old at once, for example. But his example disproves his point, since one can only feel young and old at once by dint of the very fact that one is not, the fact that one is already older than one is young. Of course, one can walk eastwards on a west-bound ship, but one can only be said to be walking eastwards because of the westerly movement. Even the celebrated ‘non-linear’ equations of contemporary theories of chaotic systems only disprove the law that systems evolve at a regular and proportionate rate, such that outcomes can be safely predicted from initial conditions; far from disproving linearity as such, these systems and their equations depend on it. The most important loss in Serres’s topologising of time is the non-assimilability of time within thought. One cannot ever become coextensive with one’s time, taking it up into one’s thought without residue, for time, the time that passes and carries us out of existence, is the irreducible background and horizon to human thought and perhaps all existence.

It is through the ichnography, the absolute maximum of all variations, that Serres attempts to take time up absolutely into thought. However, since Le parasite, Serres has been ambivalent about the idea of the ichnography. At times, it is an image of the drive to occupy all space which would constitute the triumph of noise, violence, fear and collective furor. Serres repeatedly recoils from this frightening dominion of noise and chaos into the subtle, shifting milieux – literally mid-places or middle grounds – of local variegations and instabilities, between the white of total possibility and the black of totalised actuality. He has been moved also to define the space of life as a fragile exception to or withdrawal from the noise of random possibility and disorder. Where matter tends to propagate through all space, life is always contained in folds or pockets of locality. Matter is skinless; life is always provided with a protective epidermis: ‘surrounded by a membrane, the cell lives less in itself or for itself as at home with itself [chez soi]. No membrane, no life: a universal theorem of biology’ (Serres 1994: 43).

But at other times, and increasingly in the work published during the 1990s, from La Légende des Anges (1993) to the most recent Hominescence (2001), Serres has sought to find a way to embrace or inhabit ichnography, or to project the shape that might be formed by the imbrication of the localised, pocketed life and delocalised global matter-information. For the era of information seems to have actualised the volatile state of matter anticipated in Serres’s historical schemas. Where, in an earlier work like Les Cinq Sens, Serres seemed to share Paul Virilio’s lament for the loss of limited, weighty, orientated body-space and the ‘pollution of life-size’ (Virilio 1997: 58), these later writings welcome the opportunity offered by the society of information to transcend and transform the localised conditions of embodiment. Instead of having to be here or there, in this or that particular location, in the pocketed life of the cell, the organ, the body, the ego, the tribe or the species, the era of information and networks allows us to be here and there at once. The Dasein or being-there of existence becomes, to borrow the phrase which Serres himself borrows from a Maupassant story about a man haunted by his other self, a being ‘hors-là’ (Serres 1994: 61-85) – a phrase which English probably needs a cloud or combinatoire of terms to render: an out-there; a with-out; a here-there; an outside in; a there-beyond.

In books like Angels, Atlas and Hominescence, the total map of passages and messages and transformations, the hypertopology of historical possibilities, has become identical with the world of total communications. The word has become flesh, and the flesh has become the electronic word, in a passage from incarnation to what Serres proposes to call ‘carnation’ (Serres 2001: 79). One might say that such a network, or network of networks is a body without a shape; it is rather a shape without a body, the non-existent shape of all possible shapes. And yet, amid the restless passages of form, the body is repeatedly glimpsed, as the foot of Venus is seen amid the flux of forms in the painting of La Belle Noiseuse in the Balzac story which Serres analyses so extensively in Genesis. Ultimately, the fullest and most variegated topology of all rejoins that of the ‘living body’, at once empirical and perfected:

What I seek to form, to compose, to promote – I can’t quite find the right word – is a syrrhèse, a confluence not a system, a mobile confluence of fluxes. Turbulences, overlapping cyclones and anticyclones, like on the weather map. Wisps of hay tied in knots. An assembly of relations. Clouds of angels passing. Once again, the flames’ dance. The living body dances like that, and all life. (Serres and Latour 1995: 122).

In the end, Serres seeks the same kind of vast, encompassing synthesis of relations and inter-implications as did Leibniz, the subject of hiss first book (1968), who is not only the originator of the grandest possible attempt to harmonise the infinite and universal with the infinitesimally particular, but also perhaps, in his invention of what he called analysis situ, the true originator of topology. Serres claims that, in the transcending of the conflict between the local and the global, ‘Leibniz’s Monadology replaces the space of Descartes’ (Serres 194: 129). What draws or drives this effort is what I have called a ‘monism of the manifold’.(Connor 1999), a plenitopia of included middles in which no exceptions or exclusions or residues can be tolerated. Serres sees such a world, and the forms of knowledge to which it may give rise, as maximising possibility and invention. But it would be possible also to read this vision of the shape of things to come as a suffocating nightmare of omnicompetence. What such a vision seems to lack is precisely lack itself – the possibility of exposure to chance, mischance, error, weakness, exhaustion, forgetting, death. Or rather, insofar as it includes and operationalises all these things, as continuous, but homogenous possibility, it lacks the deficiency, the falling short, which have previously represented the limits of all systems.

We can identify here a version of that will to occupy all space which Serres elsewhere sees as a kind of horror or furor. Serres’s ever more inclusive topologies of time, space and information will not let time be an outside, or other, or a negative. Topological thinking, and the idea in particular of the integral of shape, the impossible shape of all shapes, the sum of all trajectories, seems to allow one to cup time cheiromantically in one’s hand, to draw it in as the flame draws in the oxygen that is its medium.

Ethics and Topology
Since Le Passage du nord-ouest, the last of the Hermès volumes, Serres has begun giving a more emphatic ethical dimension to his syntheses of science and culture. The reason for preferring a vision of topological time to a system of linear time is because the latter is founded on and sustained by violence. Linear time is formed out of the monotonous rhythm of argument, contradiction and murder. Hegelian dialectics claim to use contradiction to give momentum and direction to history, but Serres sees only tautology and deathly repetition in this process. Seeking to defeat one’s opponent, or slaughter one’s enemy succeeds only in putting one in their place, as a future victim to be defeated or slaughtered in one’s turn. This world of endless conflicts, upheavals and usurpations is, for Serres, ultimately static. All analytic thinking, all thinking which distinguishes and separates, which aims to effect a clean break with the past and a pure leap into the future, detoxified, unencumbered, shriven, is complicit with this violence. The linear time which seems to be a product of these antagonisms is in fact blindly, savagely autistic, an endless trampling of the mud of the battlefield.

Serres’s all-including topology, his time of folding, aims to provide an alternative to this nightmare of homogeneity, in the possibility of invention, novelty and peace. Innovation springs, not from attempting to separate oneself from history, but from maintaining the possibility of rereading historical continuities, of revisiting the uncompleted past and being revisited by it, with new mutations of understanding emerging as the result. What seems surprising in all this is the overcoherence of Serres’s denunciation of linear structures and analytic thought. Chance, changeability, the subtle fluctuations of cause and effect, all seem scorched away from this aridly invariant historical formula. But once one relaxes the mesmerising grip of Serres’s fables and diagrams, it is not at all hard to think of exceptions to his rule that linearity is nothing but homicide, and that succession must always equal the denial and annulling of time. Such a view involves a vast overgeneralisation of certain features and consequences of Western history. Its revulsion against all that is abstract, fixed and statutory itself inflicts the narcosis of abstraction. Serres has taught us too well to accept such petrified models.

On the other side, there seems in Serres’s recent work to be a correspondingly large overestimation of the likely ethical and political outcomes of cultivating more subtle and inclusive thoughts of the shape of things. Serres accepts that the new vertical or airborne space of global communications is a bigger threat than ever for those who are starved, bombed, or brutalised from above. But he is seemingly unable to imagine any kind of regulation of the economy that produces on the one hand a technologised utopia and on the other hand destitution. Indeed, his work is suspicious of the calculative or appropriative thinking that would establish such an economy, since, he agues, it has always led to the sacrifice of a weak or dispensable minority for the greater good of the majority, a good defined by that majority itself. Against this, he proposes, astonishingly, the invention of a new ‘non-sacrificial economy, which refuses even the smallest loss’, modelled on the injunction of Matthew 18.12, to leave one’s flock of 99 sheep in safety in order to find the one sheep that is lost (Serres: 1994: 241). It is hard to see how such an economy really would emerge from the new integral that Serres proposes, the shape of shapes, or man-made Godhead that he sees being embodied in contemporary technological society. Mapping, modelling and other exercises of orientation and location are doubtless important, but it is hard to agree that they constitute in themselves the new form of ethical relatedness that Serres projects towards the end of Atlas:

By a virtual extension of geography, a fundamental form of knowledge since we inhabit this world as living beings like flowering trees and the animals in a valley, towards a new cartography, containing virtual spaces… let us trace out the map, real and imaginary, unique and double, ideal and false, virtual and utopian, rational, analytic, of a world where the Alps can change place with the Himalayas, such that their forms reply to each other, and that the callings from here correspond to the groanings of the excluded there. This map of tendering – as verb and adjective – displays and demonstrates morality, concrete, reasonable and true. (Serres 1994: 262-3).

The ethical claims for synthesis, a holistic grasping of the complete shape of things, which seem increasingly to complete and justify Serres’s rapprochement of science and humanities, fact and value, may in fact be the coarsest and least compelling aspects of his thought. The very power to integrate complex phenomena which the idea of topology offers may be its weakness, in a world in which the acceptance and management of discontinuity may be a better hope than the effort to see and entertain every possibility.

Serres’s topological mode of thinking offers huge possibilities of transformation and renewal for thinking and writing in the humanities and in science, as well as offering a model for how they might begin to include each other. His work makes it clear how crudely mechanical or frankly magical (the same thing perhaps) our conceptions of the nature and workings of social life and time can be. Characteristically, and superbly, he has done this, not through critique, but through the invention of new shapes of thought. Nick Bingham, for example, has argued that we may be able to rouse ourselves from dulling contemporary fantasies of the ‘technological sublime’ through Serres’s idea of the binding mobility of the quasi-object, which holds together complex societies as the movement of the ball may be said to focus and bind together the movements and purposes of two opposed teams (Bingham 1999). Serres’s work offers to contemporary thought the same kind of reinvigoration that the work of Bergson did a century ago, except that, where Bergson attempted to make a clean break between the fixative illusions of spatial thinking, in favour of a thought in motion, Serres offers ways of thinking time spatially and morphologically. For the historian of ideas, forms and feelings in particular, Serres’s versatile development of Bachelard’s insight into the material imagination – the imagining of the material world, and the materiality of the imagination – offers a thesaurus of shapes of thought and thoughts of shape that promise huge enrichment to historical thought. Bachelard’s explication of the poetics of matter and space could only take shape in a reserved space of dream and reverie, set aside from the forms of scientific knowledge that formed the subject of his earlier historical analyses. Serres’s topologies of space and time disclose and project new and more inclusive, less sequestered forms in which to hold together science and culture, and to incubate new forms of historical poetics. His greatest contribution will assuredly have been his restlessly inventive cultivation of the spatial and topological imagination, the ways in which we project how and where we live, as embodied beings who are nevertheless incapable of not being beside themselves, not living beyond the here-and-now of their bodies, not being taken up in the flamboyant dynamics of topology. Michel Serres has always spurned schools and disciples; and it may be that we can do most with his work, by effecting a partial break with it, by declining to accept as definitive the ethical and political shape within which he encloses it.


Bachelard, Gaston (1948). La Terre et les rêveries de la volonté. Paris: José Corti.
———————– (1988). ‘Hand vs. Matter.’ In The Right to Dream, trans. J.A. Underwood (Dallas: Dallas Institute Publications), 51-3.

Bingham, Nick (1999). ‘Unthinkable Complexity? Cyberspace Otherwise.’ In Virtual Geographies: Bodies, Space and Relations, ed. Mike Crang, Phil Crang and Jon May. London and New York: Routledge, 244-62.

Bohm, David (1980). Wholeness and the Implicate Order. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Connor, Steven (1999). ‘Michel Serres’s Five Senses‘.

Deleuze, Gilles (1993). The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque. Trans. Tom Conley. London: Athlone Press.

Serres, Michel (1968). Le Système de Leibniz et ses modèles mathématiques. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.
——————— (1980a). Hermès V: Le Passage du nord-ouest. Paris: Editions de Minuit.
——————— (1980b).Le parasite. Paris: Grasset. Trans. Lawrence R. Schehr as The Parasite (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982).
——————— (1982). Genèse. Paris: Grasset.
——————— (1983). Détachement: apologue. Paris: Flammarion.
——————— (1987) Statues: Le second livre de fondations. Paris: François Bourin.
——————— (1990) Le Contrat naturel. Paris: François Bourin.
——————— (1991a) Rome: The Book of Foundations (1983). Trans. Felicia McCarren. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
——————— (1991b). Le Tiers-instruit. Paris: François Bourin.
——————— (1993) La Légende des Anges. Paris: Flammarion.
——————— (1994). Atlas. Paris: Editions Julliard.
——————— (1995). Genesis. Trans. Geneviève James and James Nielson. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
——————— (1997). The Troubadour of Knowledge. Trans. Sheila Faria Glaser and William Paulson. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
——————— (1998) Les Cinq Sens. Paris Hachette. (First published Paris: Grasset, 1985).
——————— (2001) Hominescence: Essais. Paris: Le Pommier.

Serres, Michel and Latour, Bruno (1992). Eclaircissments. Cinq entretiens avec Bruno Latour. Paris: François Bourin.
———————————————— (1995). Conversations on Science, Culture, and Time. Trans. Roxanne Lapidus. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Virilio, Paul (1997). Open Sky. Trans. Julie Rose. London: Verso.