032c, Issue #20 — Winter 2010/2011


The Neolithic Age is over!

France’s MICHEL SERRES is, true to French form, a philosopher as ­influential as he is controversial. Here the originality of his thought shines through our conversation on parallel ruptures in science and philosophy, and the conceptual ­geographies of Berlin.

GD/CR: You say we live in revolutionary times.

Michel Serres: We are in the middle of an extraordinary human and environmental transformation, without really being aware of it, one that can only perhaps be compared with the Renaissance, the fifth century BC, and even the Neolithic age. For example, if there are no more peasants today, when did peasantry ­begin? In the Neolithic age. We can now say that in the year 2000, the Neolithic age is over. But who announced this in the news­papers? We didn’t read in any paper that “the Neolithic age is over”!

And we are equipped in our thinking for this change?

No. What we see are many turning points – physical, environmental, agricul­tural, medical, demographic, etc. All these events are profoundly significant; they touch human life and human behavior, the space around us. In 1800, eight per cent of the population lived in cities, meaning that prior to that, the number was even smaller. Today, 50 to 70 percent of the population is urban. This is not the same type of humanity. It’s not the same body or space, the same agriculture, the same transmission of messages.

How do these changes affect life?

There was a change on a human level, a change in bodies, in medicine, in our professional activities. Take pain for example – we kept producing more analgesic and pain­killing medication until a certain moment when pain, which was once a necessary and daily experience, began to disappear. Today we re­gularly meet people who have never ­suffered from pain.

What is the consequence of a pain-free society?

I don’t know of any religious, philoso­phical or historical morals that are not founded on the experience of pain. So if, by chance, pain begins to statistically disappear, on what will we found morality?

You are not a moral philosopher, but rather a “searcher of encyclopaedic interest.” Would you describe your philosophy as open, fragmented, even fragile?

Yes, the models that I employ are generally fluid and rather complex mosaics. I come from a scientific background, and contemporary science is now oriented towards different models than it has been in the past, and they are all more contingent, more mosaic-like in nature. In our grandparents’ anatomy manuals from 1935, we can find illustrations of the hips, the lungs, and the knees – these were geometric and des­criptive diagrams. Today anatomy manuals contain images made by nuclear magnetic resonance of the hips of a 15-year-old girl, the hips of an old man in his eighties, and the hips of a pregnant woman. Today science penetrates very precise singularities and is no longer schematic. The great geometric designs have completely disappea­red from science, even though they governed philosophy from Hegel until Bergson. They had big diagrams about history that now make us laugh – from a cognitive point of view we simply no longer have that mindset.

How do your metaphors, or “characters” as you call them, relate to this? Does Prometheus represent solidity, and the messenger Hermes communication and thus fluidity?

One day I said: Prometheus is finished, it is now Hermes who is going to reign, and all the philosophers considered me to be a traitor. Prometheus was mostly involved with industry, and Hermes was occupied with messaging, and the difference there is that of the hard and the soft. I’m in the process of ­writing a book that will be called À Propos Du Doux (On Softness). Our civilization is much more soft than it is hard, and here the image of Berlin comes to mind. There is hard architecture, but the weeping willows, the Spree, the cycling – they are “soft”. Modernity is soft, and the message is soft, software is not hard. The modern object is not the steam engine, it is the computer, the mani­pulator of messages. The soft is a good phi­losophical concept.

You have also said that there is perhaps no philosophical response to the questions posed by quantum physics. How so?

To me, chaos theory is more important today than the old physics of the 1930s. Since the Renaissance until recent times, all cognitive models were attached to mathematics, to physics, to mechanics, to chemistry, in other words to the “hard” sciences. But other sciences are now gaining in importance – life ­sciences or earth sciences such as geophysics or biochemistry. Tomorrow there will be an industrial revolution that will break away from the hard and grab hold of the life sciences and earth sciences. This will imply a major change in the “activity of knowing,” but also in industry and consequently in politics.

Is that why you are so skeptical about politics?

I am not a politically involved philosopher in the sense that Sartre was. Everything that I have told you shows that the world has changed enormously, but that our political institutions have not. I don’t really want to involve myself with a team of dinosaurs. I find that today there is such a discrepancy between the political world and the real world that the political does not really interest me. Real things take place outside of politics today.

How does this rupture translate into the environment?

Sometimes I see this architecture and say to myself, “Oh, that was the era in which we still believed in geometry.” Now we believe more in botany. Berlin, again, is an extraordinary city because it is very behind in its buildings, but very advanced, as advanced as is possible, in regards to its lakes, forests and trees – there is grass everywhere. It is the first advanced city that juxtaposes the old and the new worlds. Berlin architecture from the 1930s still clings to geometry, with its cubes and its cylinders that are the residue of geometric thinking from the Nineteenth century. But in which European city can one feel calm, or can one cycle or walk freely? I would very happily live in Berlin. It is the city of tomorrow, with its neverending contrasts, and if I had to provide a photograph of my philosophy I would take an aerial view of Berlin.