MICHEL SERRES’ ROME (1): the pluralist hypothesis

Michel Serres begins ROME with a very moving dedication:

With the present book and, if my life isn’t too hard, with some others to follow, I express my gratitude to the community of historians that welcomed me thirteen years ago when the pressure group then in power expelled me from my former paradise: philosophy. Thereby making my life hard.

ROME was published in France in 1983, and has just been published in English translation. In my opinion it is one of his best books, presenting itself as a pure theory of multiplicities in the form of a free commentary on the first book of Livy’s THE HISTORY OF ROME.

I was living in Paris when I read ROME by Michel Serres when it came out in 1983. This was in the middle of the decade stretching from 1980 to 1990, a period of very intense and creative philosophical activity in France. It seemed that all the questioning and intellectual effervescence of the previous decade had finally led to a new way of doing philosophy, outside the old limits and constraints.

In the same year Deleuze’s first volume on the cinema, THE MOVEMENT-IMAGE, was published, and two years after, in 1985, came the second volume, THE TIME-IMAGE. Also published around that time: 1983 Lyotard’s THE DIFFEREND, 1984 Foucault’s THE USE OF PLEASURE and THE CARE OF THE SELF, 1985 Serres’ THE FIVE SENSES. Alain Badiou’s seminars were devoted to elaborating his ontology, published in BEING AND EVENT in 1986. Lyotard’s seminars were devoted to the sublime, the unrepresentable, and art. Deleuze’s seminars moved from the cinema (1981-1985) to Foucault, followed by the publication of his FOUCAULT in 1986. Bruno Latour’s THE PASTEURISATION OF FRANCE was published in 1984, and Laruelle’s UNE BIOGRAPHIE DE L’HOMME ORDINAIRE in 1985.

I had been lucky enough to move to Paris in 1980, the year Michel Serres published THE PARASITE, the first book in his imaginal turn. Immediately preceding it was the series of five HERMES books, presenting a form of epistemology that was trying to move beyond the history and philosophy of the sciences and to speak in multiple voices.

After the publication of HERMES V: THE NORTHWEST PASSAGE (1980), the last book in the series,  Serres began to publish a new series of books written in a more imagistic style. These imagistic books advocate a form of pluralism, but as the series evolves this pluralism is increasingly mixed with René Girard’s monistic theory of mimetic desire.

We know that the agon between pluralism and a unitary narrative is a constant trait of Serres thinking. This struggle, which has become clearer with time, is present even in Serres’s early imagistic pluralism of the 80s. Girardism is a monism. It is regrettable that Serres preferred Girard’s rather one-dimensional theory of desire to that of Deleuze and Guattari, which would seem more convergent with Serres’ own pluralist vision.

It is interesting to compare the works of Michel Serres of this decade (in fact from 1980 to 1993, when Serres synthesised the work of his preceding periods in a “third” book of foundations: THE ORIGINS OF GEOMETRY) to the books of “non-philosophy” published by François Laruelle. While Serres breaks with the monology of scientism, and attempts to speak in multiple tongues, of which the language of science is only one, Laruelle clings to an incantatory scientism. Laruelle’s scientism is a throwback to the earlier Althusser, this problem highlights the dogmatic, nostalgic, monistic side of Laruelle that I have always rejected.

You will get no satisfying answers to these questions from the official Anglophone Laruelleans, because each of them sutures their version of (non-)philosophy to one particular language (politics, psychoanalysis, religion, art). Raising the question of Laruelle’s scientism with insistence will only get you condescension, bluff, or denial, or else get you ignored, ostracised, or insulted. This behaviour of the Laruelleans gives some credence to Girard’s theory of mimetic violence, and so shows one of the multiple domains of application of ROME’s theses. The market niche of “Laruelle” is their Rome, to be defended at all costs from incursions from the outside.

The whole movement of Serres’s ROME is from the war and violence of thought to a democracy of thought. This is the same movement that Laruelle has been advocating. However, there is no mention of Serres in Laruelle or the Laruelleans. They subscribe to the uniqueness hypothesis: there is only one non-philosopher. It is this uniqueness hypothesis that defines them as a warlike movement.

Michel Serres himself suffered from the power tactics of such warlike intellectual communities and movements. As we have seen, in the opening dedication of ROME he tells us of his gratitude to the community of historians that welcomed him when he was banished from philosophy.

I express my gratitude to the community of historians that welcomed me … when the pressure group then in power expelled me from my former paradise: philosophy. Thereby making my life hard.

Serres indicates from the beginning that this book is no mere academic exercise, it is not just ancient history: he is theorising his own life and career and ours, in this book, as well as the dynamics of society and the interplay of pluralism and mimetic violence. This story is still happening. Rome is founded on violence, a scapegoating and exclusion.

Serres tells us that the mimetic cronies, members of a “pressure group” with its party lines and strategies of power, expelled him from his “former paradise”, philosophy. We all know these groups, who occupy a niche as if it were their private property, their territory, and exclude everyone else. There are not enough places to go round, so only the cronies are invited. Many people who love philosophy suffer the same fate as Serres, expelled by those who love success, comfort and power, status and money, more than philosophy. ROME is also Serres’ history and our own.

In PANTOPIA: from Hermes to Thumbelina (2014), a series of interviews containing much autobiographical material, Serres tells us a little more about the circumstances surrounding this incident. He recounts how one day he was seated in a restaurant with six other philosophers (among them Martial Gueroult, Georges Canguilhem, Louis Althusser, and Michel Foucault). Foucault suggested a game of “telling the truth”, replying to the question “What would you have wanted to be, if you hadn’t been a philosopher?”. Canguilhem insisted that the answer be submitted by secret ballot.

Each of us took his sheet of paper, and I wrote “Nevertheless, a philosopher”. When the seven votes were opened, all of them except mine said “Minister”… I found that tragic. Pathetic. These guys confessed that finally they had only one desire: power… There was some discussion and it transpired that the most interesting job was Minister of the Interior. Not Foreign Affairs, not Justice, not Education. Minister of the Interior. Unanimously.

These are the sorts of people who later expelled Serres from his paradise, even if it was not these particular people. In fact, Serres indicates that one of them was responsible: Canguilhem. Serres traces their rupture back to the day of the oral defence of his thesis on Leibniz, in 1968. Canguilhem had always been like a second father to him, but he broke with Serres that day. The next year Serres obtained a post teaching the history of science:

I was told that this was provisional, but in reality I found myself banished from philosophy at the university. I had to teach outside my profession. I was used to having five hundred students in my philosophy class, and in one stroke I had only a handful in history of science.

Fortunately, this expulsion did not put an end to Serres’ career as he was in fact welcomed by the community of historians. We may add that he was also welcomed as a philosopher by a far wider intellectual community and by the philosophical reading public, both in France and abroad. He was able to “find refuge” in the United States, teaching in the universities of Baltimore, Buffalo, New York, and later in Stanford.

Undaunted by the attempts to make his life hard, Serres prefers softness and gratitude. He practices a generous thought, acknowledging affinities and influences. His maxim is pluralism in all domains.

Serres also thanks René Girard who welcomed him “in similar circumstances”:

With this same book, I thank René Girard, who, in similar circumstances, welcomed me, a quasi-refugee, into the hospitable America and who then taught me the true ideas developed here.

Serres has been subjected to more than one exclusion, he has been the object of a series of exclusions. But he has also been welcomed by a series of inclusions. He has known misfortune, and has been been lucky. Serres was cynically set aside, excluded, expelled. Yet he does not seek revenge, he practices naiveté, hospitality and inclusion.

Non-philosophy is about real life and concrete experience, it is not just a matter of abstract discussion. Michel Serres became administratively and objectively a non-philosopher because of an expulsion. No doubt he was already subjectively and creatively a “non-philosopher”, that is to say a philosopher not enamoured with power.

Serres, in his series of five HERMES books (from 1969 to 1980), developped an information paradigm, that was meant to pluralise reason by finding it in all disciplines and in all things. According to Serres, every being emits, receives, treats, and stocks information. Nevertheless, this information paradigm is itself in danger of becoming a Monomyth, a unifying thread in what Serres calls the Grand Narrative, the unified story to which all our sciences contribute.

Paradoxically, this process of unification is what he describes in his book ROME, describing the formation and foundation of the city of Rome, out of sacrificial violence. The multiple, the plural, the diverse, the different are what is sacrificed.

ROME is the “first book of foundations”, the book of the first foundation, that of the collective, founded on a murder:

So Romulus kills Remus, and he founds Rome. I want to recount that foundation; I want to know what it signifies; I want to understand this gesture and, perhaps, the city (ROME, 9).

The founding of ROME begins with murder. This is yet another death in the series from the Trojan War to Hiroshima and beyond, what Serres calls the “thanatocracy“.

Serres’ method is naiveté, a non-method, he does not know in advance, he suspends judgement and lets the noise of history evacuate his ideas.

I’m going to do it naively; I arrive at the Tiber’s banks without ideas, without methods, without arms, alone (9).

The stakes will be to return to the legendary source of Rome and to reboot history in the direction of peace rather than war.

And what if we – hallelujah – had the freedom to fix the rudder anew, to change course on the rose of the legend, what if we could rewrite the program, another time in a completely different direction, renaissance?

ROME moves from the monist mimetic violence described in the first chapter, “1 BLACK BOX: The Trampled Multiplicity”, to the pluralist peace of the last chapter, “8 IN THE FIELD: The Multiplicity in Peace”. The true foundation is not the violence of tragedy, but the peace of multiplicities.

Beneath history is tragedy. Beneath Livy, in him, Corneille and Shakespeare write and read. But even lower, beneath tragedy itself, is the foundation of sand and straw, the peaceful multiplicities, without murder, without putting to death, beneath the motionless summer sun. Here lies the foundation; I hardly dare to say reality (234).

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