Michel Serres: “Old Europe, what ignorant ruling class is killing you?”

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One of France's most prominent intellectuals – an inconnu in America (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Few people in the U.S. know Michel Serres – and it’s too bad.  He’s one of two immortels we are lucky to have on hand at Stanford; René Girard is the other member of the elite Académie Française.  Heaven knows René is not well enough known  in the U.S., either – I’m told that I was the first to review any of his books in the mainstream press a year or two ago, a record that, to my knowledge, remains unchallenged.  Shocking when you consider that both are among France’s best known public intellectuals – Michel even has a regular radio spot (and a blog, too – it’s here).  I wrote about him two years ago here.

So I was pleased to see this article from last month on Adbusters, for his new book Malfeasance: Appropriation Through Pollution?, published a few months ago by Stanford University Press. In it, Michel has developed “a unified theory of pollution,” and has written “the first truly philosophical work of the mental environmentalist movement.”  I didn’t know there was such a movement, but here goes:

“Let us define two things and clearly distinguish them from one another,” Michel Serres writes, “first the hard [pollutants], and second the soft. By the first I mean on the one hand solid residues, liquid gases, emitted throughout the atmosphere by big industrial companies or gigantic garbage dumps, the shameful signature of big cities. By the second, tsunamis of writings, signs, images, and logos flooding rural, civic, public and natural spaces as well as landscapes with their advertising. Even though different in terms of energy, garbage and marks nevertheless result from the same soiling gesture, from the same intention to appropriate, and are of animal origin.”

One of the most amazing and admirable things about this amazing and admirable man is his relentless, disciplined, and systematic approach to writing.  As I wrote here:

The observant may notice that, although Serres speaks extemporaneously, in front of him is a pile of typed pages. They are not notes but full lectures. He writes about 40 pages between classes, so it is all fresh in his mind when he speaks. Occasionally during his lecture he will pause, flipping through a dozen pages to catch up to his spoken words.

For the last few years, each course he has taught has turned into a book; for example, this year’s Écrivains, savants et philosophes font le tour du monde. This spring’s class—not surprisingly, perhaps, on writers and writing—is slated to be another book.

I’d heard his last year’s class discussed waste, garbage and feces – I didn’t know what he made of it.  As it turns out, his new book, Malfeasance, is a “passionate rallying cry.” It is the second form of pollution that concerns him most.

“It makes me suffer so much that I need to say it over and over again and proclaim it everywhere; how can we not cry with horror and disgust confronted with the wrecking of our formerly pleasant rural access roads into the cities of France? Companies fill the space now with their hideous brands, waging the same frenzied battle as the jungle species in order to appropriate the public space and attention with images and words, like animals with their screams and piss. Excluded from those outskirts, I no longer live there; they are haunted by the powerful who shit on them and occupy them with their ugliness. Old Europe, what ignorant ruling class is killing you?”

(Oh, oh, oh! I did a very rare English interview with him on video – don’t miss it here. I’d embed it if I could, but I can’t … so I won’t.)


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