Archive for October 31st, 2011

Future of humanities? “Death,” says Michel Serres, and pauses. “Maybe.”

Monday, October 31st, 2011
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Resident Socrates (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

A few days ago I wrote about Michel Serres new book Malfeasance.  But I didn’t have a chance to post the video, on that post or an earlier one.  Now I can.  It’s below.

He is a member of the Académie Française, one of its 40 immortels, and he is one of the most recognized public intellectuals in France.  Not here.  Why?  He’s not comfortable in English, and teaches his Stanford classes in French.  This video is one of the rare opportunities to hear him in English.

He comes to the sunny California for only a couple quarters a year, and has been doing so for decades – he’s here now, in fact. I had a chance to drop in on a class recently, the German Library is crowded, and not with the usual student types.

As I wrote in 2009:

His class attracts an eclectic and loyal coterie beyond its enrolled students—three decades is time enough to accumulate a following. A typical class might include a Silicon Valley mogul and his wife, a prominent publisher from Paris, a Stanford physics professor emeritus.

“Michel Serres presents his lectures in the form of fascinating questions, which he gradually answers and makes you feel as if you were participating in the thought process. His thinking is innovative and dynamic,” said Hélène Laroche-Davis, professor of French and film studies at Notre Dame de Namur University.

Alix Marduel, a former internist at Stanford and now a Palo Alto-based venture capitalist, said that Serres brings one thing that is AWOL in most philosophical discussions: passion….

“They are very well known as writers, but they have problems in France because they are unclassifiable. These kinds of people are disappearing. They don’t exist anymore—people who have encyclopedic knowledge, people who know civics, math, communication, science, anthropology. They are the rare and last humanists—what humanists used to be in the 16th century,” said Audrey Calefas, a doctoral candidate who has been Serres’ personal assistant for several years at Stanford (“out of friendship, really,” she added).

Enjoy the video (that’s Humble Moi in the red sweater in the opening shot):