Posts Tagged ‘Michel Serres’

Remembering Michel Serres (1930-2019): on angels, messages, and television sets

Monday, June 3rd, 2019


Responding to the challenges of the present. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

The tributes have started to pour in from every direction. “No one is ‘surprised’ by a death  in the 89th year of life, even today. That his readers in many countries must have experienced the news of the death of Michel Serres on Saturday as a painful incision thus means – even if we, the successors and heirs, do not want to admit this – that an epoch of the spirit has come to an end is where one generation (not a ‘school’) of independent thinkers has responded to the challenges of the present – one last time from France and Europe for the world.” So wrote Stanford’s eloquent and eminent Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht in Die Welt over the weekend. That’s a rough translation. You can read “Der letzte Geistes-Gigant, (The last giant of the spirit”) in German here.

Dan Edelstein, chair of Stanford’s Division of Literatures, Cultures, and Languages, confessed to a “grande tristesse.” He continued:  “I occasionally audited Michel’s classes when he still taught at Stanford. My favorite memory was when he stood up one day in mid-sentence, walked over to the white board, and wrote something in ancient Greek. Then he sat down, without bothering to comment on it. I’m not sure any of us could even read what he’d written, but it felt like we’d just witnessed the passing of an age.”

Derek Schilling, a former Stanford faculty member and now chair of the French Department at Johns Hopkins’ University, where Serres once taught, wrote this in a letter to Edelstein: “There were no thinkers of his generation fully comparable to Michel Serres, so original and idiosyncratic was his poetic approach to knowledge, and so firm his belief in the communicability of thought and in the exigencies of style. The breadth of Michel’s teachings, and the wisdom and openness to interdisciplinary inquiry that came along with them, were to mark generations of students and colleagues. Not all of them picked up a Gascon accent, though each would carry something of that particular music with them through the years.”

Chance meeting with lasting effects: Winchell and Serres

Another former Stanford faculty member, James Winchell, recalled meeting Serres long ago:  “When I first arrived at Stanford in 1988, I had yet to ‘check in’ at the Dept. of French & Italian (semester had not begun) and not all colleagues were back on campus yet. So I was taking a long walk around the quad and in the eucalyptus groves and in the distance I saw a white-headed figure pedaling toward me on a bicycle. As he rode up his hair stood out à la Einstein and he pulled up and said without pause, ‘Vous êtes James?’ (We hadn’t met during my ‘job-candidate visit’ because he wasn’t on campus at that time.) I of course replied in the affirmative, and received the warmest welcome to my new faculty from one of my two most prestigious – and least pretentious – colleagues. Michel even visited my class on occasion, and would afterward comment on my whiteboard visuals.” (Photo at right commemorated the occasion.) His more formal Facebook tribute, in French and English:

Hommage à Michel Serres: Comme m’arrive à l’esprit de plus en plus de ces jours, je me rassure que les atomes, les sémences et les particules (y inclus ses paroles, ses pages, son corps, et les reflets du souvenir chez ses étudiants et ses amis), qu’il a distribués si généreusement pendant toute sa vie, se ramasseront dans une turbulence aussi cosmologique et bien branchée que celle qui la précède: Comme chez Lucrèce, De rerum natura.”

In English translation: “As occurs to me more and more often these days, I find reassurance that the atoms, seed-grains, and particles (including his words, his pages, his body and the reflections in the memories of his students and friends), which he sowed so generously throughout his life, will gather themselves into a turbulence as galactic and pluri-formed as the one preceding it: As in Lucretius’ On The Nature of Things.”

I commented over the weekend that I had interviewed him for the only English-language video he had made – but it’s apparently not the only English-language interview. One appeared online over the weekend. Hari Kunzru‘s Q&A was commissioned by Wired, but then never published, considering it “to French.” The interview at London’s Hazlitt hotel in Soho took place on January 10, 1995. James Flint  made a third. “Serres kindly spoke in English and I have retained most of his quirky phrasing.” A few excerpts:

HK: Why are angels important for someone thinking about new media and communications?

MS: In my book about angels I try to put a short circuit between the very ancient tradition of angels in monotheistic or polytheistic traditions and the jobs now about messages, messenger and so on. I think that this connection, between ancient time and new time is very interesting to understand. On one hand, the ancient forms and ancient traditions, and on other hand, the new and the real jobs about medias. Because our job – your job – is to receive messages, to translate messages, and to send messages in some respect. Your work is about messages. You are a messenger. I am a messenger. I am a professor. You are a journalist. Our job is about messages.

HK: I’m interested in what you say about history. People conceptualise the present day as a time when there has been a rupture with the past. You are deliberately making a link between the two.

MS: The problem is to think about the historic link between ancient time and the new world because this link is cut. Many people think about our time without reference to traditions. But if you read the amount of books about angelology in the Middle Ages, if you translate certain words into modern language you see that all the problems were about translation, about messages. These are exactly our problems. When you put a short circuit, you obtain sparkles and these sparkles give light to the traditions and our jobs.

HK: Part of the effect of using the trope of the angel to understand communication seems to me to invest our world, the modern world with a sense of the sacred. Would you agree with that? Maybe you would make a distinction between the sacred and the spiritual.

MS: Yes, the spiritual. My first point was to understand and to clarify our jobs in a practical way. But I avoid in certain the spiritual problems. I prefer to speak about logical problems or practical problems. The problem of good and evil for instance is very easy to explain when you see that the messenger or channel is neutral, and on a neutral channel you can say I love you or I hate you.

HK: The channel itself is neutral.

MS: Yes, and the problem is not spiritual. The problem is to explain why with the same channel, the same messenger, you can get bad or good results. You see?

HK: Perhaps. You’re saying your book is a book of ethics.

MS: In many ways, yes you are right.

HK: But you’re saying we should approach ethics not in terms of some a priori sense of the spiritual, but framed in terms of transmission and communication.

MS: Yes. I can give an example of ethics. I am a professor, and when I give a lecture, in the beginning I am Michel Serres, I am the real person who speaks. I must make a seduction for my students. I may begin with a joke, for example. After that I must disappear as a person on behalf of the message itself. The problem of disappearing as myself to give way to the message itself is the ethics of the messenger. Do you see what I mean?

HK: So you reduce your own subjectivity

MS: Yes, the reason why angels are invisible is because they are disappearing to let the message go through them.


MS: Exactly. If you read medieval angelology you find exactly the same demonstrations because all the problems for angelology – what is a message? who are the messengers? what is the messenger’s body? – like Saint Thomas Aquinas, the early church fathers, the Pseudo-Dionysius, and so on. In the beginning of my book I quote the problem of the sex of the angels. Everybody smiles about this problem, but it is a serious one, a problem about transmission.

HK: A serious functional problem.

MS: Exactly.

HK:  This is what I began to find when I looked at scholastic philosophy. Having thought it was full of ridiculous problems about angels on pinheads I found that serious problems were simply framed in this vocabulary.

MS: You are right. I was very surprised to find that in the beginning of my career.

HK: Let’s talk about television. You return again and again to the negative things that TV brings us. I’m interested to know whether all media is a form of pollution, or whether its just the mass media, which makes the viewer or listener passive. I am interested in the possibility of two-way media, two-way means of communication, an interactive form. Do you think that would be less socially damaging than the mass media?

MS: In the beginning of our history many centuries ago, the Greek fabulist Aesop said that the tongue was the best and the worst thing in the world. This very ancient sentence is exactly the same for us. It is so for the tongue, for language, but also for very sophisticated channels of communication and for instance your question about the TV is a good question because TV is one of the best channels in the world to have information, to have education, to receive instruction, to have OpenUniversity, to have a good lecture, to discover the world. It is the best channel, but on the contrary, do you know that in the US now a typical teenager has seen 20000 murders already in his life, already at fourteen years old? It is the first time in history that we teach murder to children in this intensive way. It is the best channel and the worst at the same time, and it is not a discovery because Aesop told us this centuries ago. I think it is a paradox of communication. When all channel is neutral it can carry the best message and the worst.


JF: Ballard remarks that Britain and perhaps France because we have relatively few channels, we are more mediated than the US because there are so many channels and it’s on all the time like wallpaper.

MS: The increasing number of channels doesn’t really change the situation. whether you have ten or two hundred channels, they all say the same thing. The reality doesn’t change.

Read the whole thing here.

Postscript on 4 June from Maria Adle Besson, who directs the Ivy Plus European Leaders – The Forum of European Leaders in Paris (we’ve written about her here and here): An exceptional philosophical storyteller, an encyclopedist in love with life, curious of connections, odd or secret links between things. I had the chance to meet Michel Serres at Stanford when he became an ‘Immortal’ and attend a few of his eclectic lectures across the years. The last one was on the Bearded Men of the 19th Century, where he intertwined Marx with Monet, Darwin,Victor Hugo, Freud, Zola, Renoir… Disrupters of the age of inventions all had beards; we were left to draw our own conclusions. In France, I called him several times to organize an event around him; his responses often threw me off. ” I am in the middle of the vineyards, in my country, I can smell the …, I hear… ” ” What do you mean, ‘open’ the conference? How does one ‘open’ a conference?” While his head followed all evolutions, his feet stayed grounded in the past, nature, the land and the French language.

When I asked the University to invite him for a major event in Paris, insisting that he was a major figure in France, the answer was: “He does not have an email. We cannot invite him. Who has heard of someone without an email address?”

Sad that after René Girard, another great man in the humanities disappears from my inner intellectual and affective landscape. 

Au revoir to Stanford’s Michel Serres (1930-2019), one of France’s foremost intellectuals and master of the “grand récit”

Saturday, June 1st, 2019

Resident Socrates (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Michel Serres, one of France’s leading public intellectuals, died today in his native land. He was 88. The longtime faculty member at Stanford and immortel of the Académie Française, had a regular radio spot, and the publication of his many books (he had written at least 60) was an event. We’ve written about him here and here and here and here

“Why do I speak on the radio? It’s very simple,” he explained to me. “A class that I teach may have 25 students; a radio audience 4 million. That’s interesting for a professor who is trying to raise the level of cultural life.” I was, to my best knowledge, the only person to ever record him in an English-language interview. See the short youtube video below. I also had the privilege of attending one of his small classes for a quarter back in 2009.

According to his friend, Robert Pogue Harrison, “For the last 150 years, Western philosophy primarily has been a story of telling philosophers that they cannot do this, that or the other. They cannot synthesize, philosophize, cannot tell the grand story.” This idea of the grand récit, he said, “is distinctly non-postmodern, maybe even non-modern.”

“His is the ‘yes we can’ of an older concept of the philosopher. Yes, philosophers can—even in our time—tell the grand récit.”

The comment is from my 2009 interview here. Here’s more from the article:

Serres was born in 1930 in Agen, on the Garonne river in southwest France, the son of a bargeman. Friends say his humble country origins are key to understanding the richness of his thought and his fundamental decency.

He was studying mathematics at the Naval Academy when he found Simone Weil‘s Gravity and Grace. Largely because of that book’s impact on him, he left the academy and turned to philosophy. He entered the famous École Normale Supérieure (which Weil had attended) in 1952; he received a doctorate with a thesis on Leibniz’s philosophy in 1968. He was appointed to a chair in the history of science at the Sorbonne, where he taught for many years.

To tell the grand récit, said Harrison, Serres must trawl “the natural sciences, genetic science, all new biotic, evolutionary, cosmological discoveries” as well as the history of science, philosophy, literature and religion and bring them to bear on philosophy, concocting “a coherent theory of where we are in human knowledge.”

“And he’s doing that. Especially in the last five to seven years, his work of synthesis is very compelling.”

Serres weaves the history of science, mathematics, thermodynamics, chaos theory, Balzac, Proust, Zola and Chateaubriand into his reflections. His thinking perhaps is better known for its roads than its destinations, whether he’s discussing le tiers-instruit, the third element between antitheses, or the pervasive relationships between parasites and hosts in human affairs or bridges.

It’s impossible to present the full Serres banquet—there are too many dishes for that—but perhaps it’s possible to offer the tiniest hors d’oeuvre: an ongoing concern of Serres has been the nature of time. He said the nature of time is more like the experience of closing your eyes, when images, thoughts and memories come to you in a jumble.

In his book-length interview with Bruno Latour, Conversations on Science, Culture and Time, he compares time to a handkerchief. Flattened on a table, the distance between points can be measured. But crumpled in one’s pocket, he wrote, “Two distant points suddenly are close, even superimposed.” If torn, two points that are close will suddenly become distant—time becomes topology, rather than linear geometry.

“As we experience time—as much in our inner senses as externally in nature, as much as le temps of history and as le temps of weather—it resembles this crumpled version much more than the flat, overly simplified one.”

Incidentally, he was one of two immortels at Stanford. The other, his friend and colleague René Girard, died in 2015. Read the rest of the article on Michel Serres here.  My youtube video interview below.

Postscript on June 3: The video below was picked up and described by Radio France International here

“Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard” goes into its third printing – and sparks some reflections in Zürich’s “Neue Zürcher Zeitung”

Thursday, January 17th, 2019

Some good news! Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard is going into its third printing in its first year! Here’s some more good news: an article in Zürich’s Neue Zürich Zeitungone of Europe’s most highly regarded newspapers. The piece is by one of the continent’s leading intellectuals, Stanford’s own Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht

The first few paragraphs in a rough, off-the-cuff translation by a German-speaking friend of ours. An excerpt from: “Equality, Desire, Violence and the Restrained Presence of René Girard”:

A few weeks ago the French magazine Le Point invited Peter Sloterdijk to a conversation about the protest movement of the yellow jackets and their relationship to President Macron. With his learned and yet very decisive point of view, the philosopher activated an unconventional line of intellectual positions: in addition to  Mikhail Bakhtin‘s thesis on the transformation of Carnival moments into violence, and to Alain Peyrefitte‘s identification of social immobility as the heritage of absolutism, and to Elias Canetti’s theory on the dynamics of people in masses, he also referenced–most of all–the vision of the French-American anthropologist René Girard, who is rarely cited in his own homeland, a vision of working out  collective tensions through the attack and murder of a “scape goat.” Sloterkijk’s interlocutor could only with difficulty hide his outrage over this application of an analysis of the present situation.

Sepp Gumbrecht (Photo: Reto Klar)

With his left-liberal aligned reaction, the news would have no doubt fit well, to hear that the Silicon Valley billionaire and original Facebook investor Peter Thiel offered, for the coming Winter quarter at Stanford, a seminar on the conflict between “Statehood and Global Technology,” a course that was supposed to be derived from Girard’s theory and a course with such unusual resonance among the students that the university had to implement conditions for acceptance into the class.  Around 1990 Thiel had in fact taken several Girard Seminars, and to this day Thiel likes to amaze his interlocutors with the comment that he owes his life-changing engagement with  Facebook to these Girard seminars. In view of Sloterdijk, Thiel and their antagonists, it is  increasingly evident that there is a  pattern of tension between the way eccentric thinkers trust Girard’s intuitions and a mostly unfounded refusal to even acknowledge them. Against this blockade, in a new biography which is widely celebrated in many websites in Silicon Valley, Cynthia Haven has described how Girard distanced himself from all political positions, and described his shock at his own insights, a shock he shared with his most vehement opponents.

Haven’s conclusions and the peculiar ambivalence that she references confirm my memories from the 1990s, when I met with René Girard as a colleague at Stanford almost daily. Despite the warning brought from Germany by an eminent literary scholar that Girard’s dark theory corresponds to a powerful sense of character engraved in his face, I learned to know a professor who fascinated the youngest students in particular, and who consistently avoided competitive situations. Not from a feeling of uncertainty or self-doubt at all, but rather because as a prophet he was convinced of the truth of his insights. He in fact felt called to point out these insights repeatedly, and yet expected no personal admiration, never courted agreement, and never held it against me for instance, when I reacted with skeptical commentary. Already in 2005, when he was accepted into the forty “Immortals” of the Académie Française, Girard heard from afar the powerful encomium of his friend Michel Serres and reacted to our congratulations with a rumpled brow. Nonetheless, he seemed to want to say, no one could avoid the evidence of what he had to say.

The articles goes on to discuss Robert Pogue Harrison’s “Prophet of Envy” in the New York Review of Books (“the central organ of the American East Coast intellectuals”), the intensification of internet envy with FaceBook, and more. Read it here.

Not enough good news for you? The Claremont Review of Books article is up. Did we mention we’re getting lovely letters? Enough! We’ll share more tomorrow.

Czesław Miłosz and the “soft pollution” of the mind

Saturday, March 5th, 2016

A thousand pages of Milosz.

When I drove to the Stanford post office and collected the heavy parcel with thick brown-paper packaging, I knew by its heft what it was, even before I saw the Polish stamps.

Miłosz i Miłosz was published two years ago by Kraków’s Księgarnia Akademicka, but I didn’t quite believe it until I finally had it in my hands. The volume, nearly a thousand pages edited by Aleksandr Fiut, Artur Grabowski, and Łukasz Tischner, includes the talks given on the centenary for the Nobel poet Czesław Miłosz in 2011. (I wrote about the occasion here and here and here.)

And there, on page 109, is my own “Miłosz in Purgatory” – or “Miłosz w czyśćcu.” An excerpt (in English):

At Queens College in New York City, someone in the audience asked [poet Robert] Hass what it was like spending decades translating Miłosz. He responded in a heartbeat: “Like being alive twice.”

Clearly, Hass is more attuned to the Pacific mystic who was struggling to come to terms with the fierce surf, the sea-worn cliffs, and a fate that would have been unimaginable to the younger self who wrote “Dedication” in Warsaw. As Miłosz wrote in “Magic Mountain,” a poem that has inevitable resonances for Californians:

So I won’t have power, won’t save the world?
Fame will pass me by, no tiara, no crown?
Did I then train myself, myself the Unique,
To compose stanzas for gulls and sea haze,
To listen to the foghorns blaring down below?
Until it passed. What passed? Life.


Jagiellonian University: an intimidating venue.

Miłosz survived into the age of globalization—an era that has seen the collapse of time and space. Or, as Russian scholar Valentina Polukhina describes it, “a period in which our long history has been put into single storage.” As a cause and effect of that storage, “Today’s world is not monolithic: discrete events, fragmented thinking and perceptions, ideas of good and evil are so confused that the only proper response is apocalypse.”

The more commonplace response is instead an enormous loss of inwardness. Miłosz also was alarmed by it. During the Berkeley centenary event last March, a woman mentioned a talk Miłosz gave to a graduating class in New Mexico in 1989. I located a copy. While his comments might not be surprising today, it’s important to remember they were made more than two decades ago, and prefigure Michel Serres’s very recent writings about “soft pollution”:

“Pollution of the environment is today at the center of universal attention. There is, though, another kind of pollution which does not seem to be anybody’s concern … I speak of the pollution of the mind by the image of the world imposed upon citizens by advertisements, television, cinema, newspapers, radio and imposed in such a manner that their victims do not realize to what extent they are conditioned. As today there are no clear criteria for forbidding anything, the freedom of the market is the supreme law.”

A happenstance Californian.

A champion for “second space.”

We forbid nothing. We have an endless array of choices at all points of life but very few criteria on which to base those choices. Hence, we are unable to make our choices “meaningful,” and this breeds the nihilism that afflicts us. Believing in “progress,” we are unable to get our utopias up and running. We sense a diminution of our cosmos. Miłosz replied by crying out for “Second Space.” Yet today many seem tone deaf to the rhythms of his life, and can only transpose his nuances into the key of doubt – even more frequently, we project our current moral chaos onto Miłosz, and so misunderstand him.

Have we become allergic to the medicine he offers? It’s an antidote more needed in America, where he spent four decades of his life, than perhaps anywhere else – and it is from that perspective that I speak, a perspective that is both foreign and familiar to those in Poland.

Order your own here, if you’re a Polish speaker. Worth your złoty.

Voilà! The French Revolution online – in an avalanche of archives and images

Thursday, February 27th, 2014


Way back in 2006, Prof. Dan Edelstein was having dinner with Michel Serres and Sarah Sussman, curator of the French and Italian collections at Stanford Libraries. The prominent French intellectual and member of the Académie française had just given a talk that mentioned digitalization, and so the topic came up later over wine.  Said Dan, “I was working on my book on The Terror, and mentioned how incredibly useful it would be to have the minutes of French revolutionary parliamentary debates – in French known as the Archives parlementaires – available in full-text, searchable form.”  Together, the three fantasized about bringing online the stunning collection of images that the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (BnF) had compiled in 1989 – at that point, the images were gathering dust on useless laser disks.

APVoilà!  By dessert, they had decided to pitch a proposal to the BnF. Michel Serres, who served on the BnF board, would deliver it when he returned to Paris. A month or so later, they got an enthusiastic reply from the then-director of the library, Agnès Saal, and the collaboration with Stanford took off. (She went on to become the director of the Pompidou Museum, and the project was subsequently adopted by the current president, Bruno Racine).  It’s featured on the pages of the Smithsonian, here.

To understand what this resource represents, it helps to realize that the Archives parlementaires is a multi-volume collection (102 and counting) of primary source documents, mostly newspapers and official publications, that provide blow-by-blow accounts of the debates that took place in the National Assembly, and then, from September 1792 onward, the National Convention. “They make for gripping reading: not only do you have access to the speeches themselves, but also the shouted interruptions from other deputies, and even a general sense of how the assembly was reacting – applaudissements, murmures, bruits,” said Dan. (The Russian Revolution had its own equivalent – we wrote about it here.)

AP2One problem: the Archives parlementaires is a rather difficult source to use. Who can read it from start to finish to find a passage of interest? “If you’re interested in a particular theme, problem, or law, there’s no obvious way to find all the relevant debates within the hundred and two volumes. So this is why I was so eager to have a digitized version,” said Dan. “Instead of fishing around, somewhat blindly, for interesting passages, keyword searches allow you to jump right in wherever the topic you’re interested in might be addressed. It also enables more sophisticated text mining: for instance, counting the number of times certain names or words are used in different periods; or even, identifying all of the times when deputies cite a passage from Rousseau’s Social Contract.”

And what of us who are unlikely to think of the Archives parlementaires at all?  Dan says all of us “will probably be even more blown away by the amazing work that the BnF did re-digitizing over 14,000 images dating from the time of the French Revolution. These images bring back the baroque and often pornographic flavor of political culture at the end of the 18th century. They reveal the hatreds, hopes, fears, anxieties, and fantasies of French men and women during this ‘heady’ time – no pun intended. Because the BnF marked up the images with a remarkable degree of metadata, it’s fairly easy to find images relating to any individual, revolutionary moment, theme, or place might be interested and, simply by entering a search term.”

So go for it.  The French Revolutionary Digital Archive is here.

(All images from the French Revolutionary Digital Archives.)


The questionable utility of the dancing bear, or, the future of the humanities

Saturday, November 2nd, 2013

The role of the humanities in our society

The New York Times’ article,  “As Interest Fades in the Humanities, Colleges Worry,” once again decries declining enrollment.  I don’t understand why this should come as a surprise to anyone. The humanities are devalued everywhere you look in our society – so why should kids study them?  The humanities are prized only when we can hook them up to consumer interests, make them turn a coin, demand that they entertain us.  There’s always the implicit threat that if we can’t get the bear to dance, the poor old fellow will be put down.

In the world of education, we value humanities only if we can team people onto digital projects that make cool onscreen images or turn them into rap lyrics to make them palatable for the kids. I applaud a lot of these efforts, and appreciate their intent, but they’re rather beside the point.  Coolness and likability aren’t the reason Ovid was exiled, why Osip Mandelstam died scavenging a rubbish heap in a transit camp, why Reinhold Schneider was slated for trial and probable execution had the Third Reich not fallen first, or why André Brink was banned in South Africa.  And it certainly wasn’t why Joseph Brodsky, when I studied with him, made us memorize hundreds of lines of Robert Frost, W.H. Auden, Thomas Hardy, and others – in fact, it made him distinctly unfashionable; some kids fled the class rather than make the effort.  William Shakespeare can be mutilated, but he can’t be tamed.  As one teacher said, after a student had made a snarky, sophomoric comment about Hamlet:  “Mister, when you read Shakespeare, Shakespeare’s not on trial. You are.”  And that is the point.


Censored in South Africa (Photo: Creative Commons)

The tacit, self-calming assumption behind our continual cuts in the arts and humanities has always been always that the eternal things are durable, and will survive our neglect.  However, these values must be inculcated and passed on – a baby isn’t born appreciating the subtleties of Piero della Francesco or Raoul Dufy, after all.  Anything that isn’t fed eventually withers.  (I know; I have a garden to prove it.)  I’m told by those who teach that we now have a generation of young people who, in large measure, no longer ponder the terms of their existence or question their reason for being.  Tomorrow is for another pizza, ace-ing the PSAT, or another video game.  The “Holocaust” is a description of a description of Black Friday sales; the Civil Rights movement has something to do with … what?  Will I be graded on it?  I know, I know – it’s the “same old,” isn’t it?  But a serious study of history, another one of the humanities, would show that civilization is a delicate, perishable thing, appearing and disappearing throughout the centuries, and we can never take its continuance for granted (read Constantine Cavafy, Zbigniew Herbert, or the memoirs of Nadezhda Mandelstam). When we don’t pass it on, we break a fundamental chain of civilization. We’ll pay the price down the road … wait, we already are – but it’s not taking the form we had anticipated.

Reinhold-SchneiderI’m also tired of cheesy efforts to defend the humanities, which pander to the standards of our society, which are themselves a broken fence in need of repair. In any case, the fence is broken, in part, by the abandonment of literature, art, and music as the commitment of a civilized society, rather than a “frill.” I’m not saying a Haydn string quartet will save your life, but what often passes for music when I’m put on “hold” when calling my credit card company might be seen as the shocking invasion of psychological space that it is.  Sloppy thinking is everywhere, and not the province of one political party or the other – and the fact that it is inevitably attributed to the “other” in itself shows what a bad pass we’ve come to (it’s something that might have been corrected with an introductory study of Carl Jung, or René Girard, for that matter). Our political life is riddled with clichés that should be jeered offstage, because it’s a nasty way to use your Mother Tongue.  Technology, which has the power for good, has accelerated our race to the bottom, just as nuclear power, which could rescue nations, propels us toward annihilation.

Rant over.  Whew!  Not to worry!  I’m back on my medication now.  More on this subject in the coming days…from better minds than Humble Moi!  I’ll start with one of them, Michel Serres, of Stanford and the Académie Française.  I’ve featured it before, and recently, but if you haven’t seen it, please listen to his description of the fate of the humanities.  It’s not pretty.


Michel Serres calls for a strike – against the English language

Wednesday, October 23rd, 2013
Resident Socrates (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

In quieter times (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

The French have always been protective of their language against the foreign invasion of words.  “Weekend,” “internet,” “football” make their regular incursions against the proud tongue of the Gauls, and are repelled, with mixed results.

Now France’s preeminent public intellectual Michel Serres (we’ve written about him here and here) has joined the fray.  In today’s Telegraph:

“There are more English words (in adverts) on the walls of Toulouse than there were German words during the Occupation,” said philosopher Michel Serres, a member of the Acadamie française [sic], the state body which aims to protect the French language.”

“I want to invite the French to go on strike. Each time that advertising is English, you don’t buy the product, each time a film’s title is not translated, you don’t go into the cinema,” he said in an interview with la Depeche du Midi newspaper.

The spelling error in a leading British newspaper makes a good case for the English taking a few more French classes – and when, oh when, will foreign diacriticals be an established style rule for newspapers?  It looks so insular when we refuse to honor the spelling of foreign names.

In any case, one Englishman fired back:

Stephen Clarke, the Paris-based English author whose novel The Merde Factor sees its hero battling with the anti-Anglais brigade, wrote a stinging reply to Mr Serres’ boycott call in a blog for the Telegraph:

“It is pretty thoughtless to compare advertising posters that we are free to ignore completely with Nazi proclamations informing people that they will be shot if they are found out of doors after curfew or sent to death camps if they belong to certain ethnic groups.

He’s threatening retaliation – a ban on all French words and expressions on the other side of the Channel.  No more gâteau for the English. Let them eat cake!

Meanwhile, here on the Pacific, Humble Moi had the honor of catching Michel Serres for one of his very rare English interviews – in fact, it’s the only one I’ve been able to find online:

Congratulations, Robert Harrison, Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres de la République Française!

Saturday, September 28th, 2013
He deserves it. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

He deserves it. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Robert Pogue Harrison had a surprise when he arrived back at Stanford after his Italian summer.  In his mailbox, an official-looking letter had arrived from the French Minister of Culture, Aurélie Filippetti,  awarding him the diploma and bestowing the honorific title of “Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres,” one of the highest cultural honors France offers.

The award was established in 1957 to “recognize eminent artists and writers and those who have contributed  significantly to further the arts in France and throughout the world.” In the past, it has awarded  T.S. EliotVáclav Havel, and Seamus Heaney, along with George Clooney, Frederica von Stade, Bono, and Sean Connery.  Think of Robert maybe as a cross between Havel and Clooney.  We’ve written about him before here and here and here and here.  He is one of Stanford’s most prolific and eminent authors, contributing to the New York Review of Books, oh, here and here and here.

Robert is the author of The Body of Beatrice (1988), Forests: The Shadow of Civilization (1992), The Dominion of the Dead (2003), and Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition (2008). All acclaimed and widely respected. His next book, Juvenescence: A Cultural History of Our Age, will be published by the University of Chicago in Autumn 2014. “It’s hard to characterize succinctly what it’s about,” he said to me. “What kind of age are we, culturally speaking, at this time? How old are we in this particular age?”

His esteemed books notwithstanding, he may be best known as the host (and founder) of Entitled Opinions, a weekly radio talk show that explores literature, ideas, ancient and modern history – all aspects of human experience, really. His guests are Stanford faculty and the scholars, writers and thinkers who visit the campus. (All the programs are available on the Entitled Opinions website.)


All three, please. Ta very much.

It’s not entirely a surprise that Robert, who is Rosina Pierotti Professor of Italian Literature, has come to the attention of France in recent years. Three of his books have been translated into French.  Moreover, in Paris two years ago, he gave a well-received series of lectures at the prestigious Collège de France, founded by Francis I in 1530, on “Le phénomène de l’âge – Littératures modernes de l’Europe néolatine.”

However it came about, the honor, which is competitive and selective, is quite a coup. He will get a fancy little medallion and ribbon (see photo at right), which will be pinned to his left breast during a ceremony at the French consulate in San Francisco later this year.

Robert has been an invaluable inspiration to many over the years, persuasive in his thinking, passionate in his convictions, wise in his insights.  One of my own cherished memories of him was when he opened up a rather staid workshop on Hannah Arendt with a talk on “passionate thinking”:

The “overwhelming question” in the humanities, he said, is “How do we negotiate the necessity of solitude as a precondition for thought?”

“What do we do to foster the regeneration of thinking? Nothing. At least not institutionally,” he said. “Not only in the university, but in society at large, everything conspires to invade the solitude of thought. It has as much to do with technology as it does with ideology. There is a not a place we go where we are not connected to the collective.

“Every place of silence is invaded by noise. Everywhere we see the ravages of this on our thinking. The ability for sustained, coherent, consistent thought is becoming rare” in the “thoughtlessness of the age.”

He  is known as a brilliant scholar  – but among insiders, he is also celebrated as a loyal friend and a generous colleague.  In an academic environment renowned for egotism, Robert has been tireless in promoting others – not only the work of the great (for example, René Girard and Michel Serres, immortels of the Académie Française, are his friends as well as colleagues at Stanford), but also students, younger colleagues, the humble and the obscure.  I sat in on his Dante class last year; I know he is a gifted teacher as well.

The Ordre des Arts et des Lettres was confirmed as part of the Ordre National du Mérite by President Charles de Gaulle in 1963, adding to the luster of the award, which is competitive and selective. The order has three grades:  commandeur, officier, and chevalier.  From chevalier, one can rise within a few years to officier, and then commandeur.

But so far, Robert likes the title he’s got. Is it Chevalier Robert or Chevalier Harrison? Either way, it has a certain ring to it.  “I’ve always had a chevalier gallant complex,” he joked.  Does he award bestow anything beyond a medal?  “I’m looking for a horse.”  So we thought we’d find him one, here at right.  It’s a white one.

Postscript on 9/30:  Look what we found online!  Robert’s talk on “passionate thinking.”  Enjoy.  I know I will.



He’s a winner! Michel Serres gets the Dan David Prize

Sunday, February 17th, 2013

Relaxing at Stanford (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Michel Serres is a winner.  But then, we knew that already.  We’ve written about him here and here and here.

Here’s the latest evidence:  He’s one of the five winners of this year’s Dan David Prize, which was announced last week by the Dan David Foundation and Tel Aviv University. The other winners include Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of The New Republic, and Esther Duflo, a French economist who studies poverty in the Third World and has been active in the fight against malaria, and epidemiologist Alfred Sommer, and Sir Geoffrey Lloyd, a Cambridge historian of the philosophy of ancient Greece.

Haaretz described Michel Serres as “a French scholar whose work on the atrocities  of war has helped seal his reputation as one of the greatest French philosophers living today.”

Each year, three $3 million awards are made in three dimensions: past, present and future. Serres was recognized in the present dimension under “Ideas, Public Intellectuals and Contemporary Philosophers” Wieseltier represented “the present,” too – so they’ll split the million.

Here’s what the David Prize people had to say:

Michel Serres is a French master thinker of the old school, with an intimate knowledge of the western tradition in philosophy and science, from its origins to the present, a passionate curiosity about the present and the willingness—and the ability—to enter productively into discussion of a vast range of current questions. His career began with an enormous and penetrating investigation of Leibniz’s use of mathematical models, which continues to be a standard work, and rapidly developed into a series of inquiries: into the history and nature of mathematics, epistemology, moral philosophy and humanity’s relations with the natural world.

In the great tradition of French intellectuals, Serres has analyzed scientific, philosophical and fictional texts, deftly and reaching original conclusions.  He has led more recent efforts to preserve a French tradition in philosophy, concerned for moral and social questions. …

Serres is an eloquent, even seductive writer. Both in France and in the United States, where he has taught for many years at Stanford, he has been a compelling and charismatic teacher, and his lectures and publications have reached large audiences around the world. His combination of deep learning and profound thought with the desire and ability to address the public has become rare.

The award ceremony will be held at Tel Aviv University on June 9.  I’m proud that I appear to have the only video interview with him in English:

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

Monday, October 31st, 2011

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):