I don’t make my abstractions from some thing or some operation, but throughout a relation, a rapport. A reading of my books may seem difficult, because it changes and moves all the time. This changing, these transformations, wanderings, criss-crossings, in each trip follow or invent the path of a relation.
—Michel Serres and Bruno Latour, Conversations on Science, Culture, and Time (1995)
So forget the word environment commonly used in this context.
—Michel Serres, The Natural Contract (1990)
This conference is dedicated to dialogues between the environmental humanities and the boundary-defying philosophical thinking of Michel Serres (1930-2019). At least since the English translations of key texts in Hermes: Literature, Science, Philosophy (1982), The Parasite (1982), The Natural Contract (1990), Genesis (1997), The Troubadour of Knowledge (1997), or The Birth of Physics (2000), Serres’ poetic and transgressive exploration of interdisciplinary borderlands and confluences has been recognized as foundational for emerging fields such as literature and science, the posthumanities, science and technology studies, and media ecology. Effortlessly interweaving philosophy of science with literature, myth, geography, history, meteorology, politics, media, and art, his work is mercurial in the best of ways: “We have to imagine a foundation with wings on its feet!” (Conversations). With a penchant for the poietic processes of the natural world, the baseline of his thinking is an appreciation of complexity, of the ways in which contingency generates newness modelled on the turbulent dynamics of oceans, storms, rivers, flames, clouds, atoms, tectonic plates, and animal collectives. Committed to the incessant circulations between nature and culture, the global and the local, the natural sciences and the humanities, Michel Serres’ books provide an evocative cartography for rethinking the relations among humans, environments, technology, and knowledge, in particular in times of eco-systemic disruption and uncertainty.
Positioning Michel Serres as a pioneer of interdisciplinary environmental thinking, the title of this conference takes its cue from Serres’ own description of his work as “a general theory of relations” (Conversations). His methodology proceeds from the multiplication of relational operators such as Hermes, the parasite, the instructed third, quasi-objects, the troubadour, angels, or the North-West Passage, all of which to different degrees highlight modalities of translation, disruption, emergence, and transformation. Building on Serres, the aim of this conference is to explore relational encounters on two levels: methodologically through interdisciplinary dialogue; thematically through a focus on human-environment relations. Confronted with the urgent need for new narratives, concepts and transformative, future-oriented practices in response to the systemic challenges of the anthropocene, relational thinking continues to gain traction in current humanities debates aimed at denaturalizing and complicating the concept of “the environment.” What is needed is a reconceptualization of the environmental as not the human negotiation or conservation of an exterior “nature” but a comprehensive mode of generative, contingent, and situated exchange processes among humans, other-than-humans, technology, knowledge systems, and the material conditions of the physical world. The implications of this shift pertain as much to epistemology and poetics as to ecology and ethics.
We have to invent new relations between humans and the totality of what conditions life: the inert planet, the climate, living species, visible things, invisible things, science and technologies, the global community, morality and politics, education and health … We are leaving our world for other worlds, possible ones, and will have to abandon a hundred passions, ideas, customs and norms brought about by our narrow historical duration.
—Michel Serres, Branches (2020)
This conference extends an invitation to think beyond and with Serres to mobilize his work in relation to disciplines and fields that include media studies, design, literature, history, classics, sociology, philosophy, and psychology. Our international contributors attend to the ecological paradigms that inform both his polyphonic prose and hybrid subject matter to explore modes of generous, reciprocal, and ethical encounters for urgent, transdisciplinary, and experimental responses of the arts and humanities to ecologies in crisis.
to a new aesthetics: one that's marine, land, air, burning, living, plant, floral, fertile, leafy, bushy, exuberant, animal, female, faunlike, fecund, bifurcating, proliferating, seasonal, womblike, diverse, composite, disparate, fragrant, winey, singing, dancing, enthusiastic, animated, whirling ... in love and human.
– Michel Serres, Biogea (2012)
The world is a vortex of vortices, interlacings or networks of waves.
– Michel Serres, The Birth of Physics (2000)
Dolphins and bees communicate, and so do ants, and winds, and currents in the sea. Living things and inert things bounce off each other unceasingly; there would be no world without this interlinking web of relations, a billion times interwoven.
– Michel Serres, Angels: A Modern Myth (1995)
We are submerged to our neck ,to our eyes, to our hair in a furiously raging ocean. We are the voice of this hurricane, this thermal howl, and we do not even know it.
—Michel Serres, Hermes: Literature, Science, Philosophy (1982)
At stake is the Earth in its totality, and humanity, collectively. Global history enters nature; global nature enters history: this is something utterly new in philosophy.
– Michel Serres, The Natural Contract (1995)
My body is an exchanger; of time. It is filled with signals, noises, messages, and parasites. And it is not at all exceptional in this vast world. It is true of animals and plants, of air crystals, of cells and atoms, of groups and constructed objects. Transformation, deformation of information.
– Michel Serres, The Parasite (1982)
I have no idea, or am only dimly aware, where its individual sites may be, I’ve no notion of its points, very little idea of its bearings. I have only the feeblest conception of its internal interactions, the lengthiness and entanglement of its connections and relations, only the vaguest idea of its environment.
-- Michel Serres, Genesis (1997)
I believe that these spaces between are more complicated than one thinks.
– Michel Serres, Conversations on Science, Culture, and Time (1995)
World-Objects and the Programming of Nature
Timothy Barker is Professor of Media Technology and Aesthetics at the University of Glasgow. Working in the tradition of media archaeology, and spanning the fields of media theory, art theory and the philosophy of technology, he conducts research that is fundamentally interested in developing an understanding of the human through an understanding of technology. In particular, he has explored the ways that both old and new media technologies have facilitated the potential to generate new experiences and philosophical concepts of time and memory. He is the author of two books, Time and the Digital (Darmouth College Press, 2012) and Against Transmission: Media Philosophy and the Engineering of Time (Bloomsbury, 2017), both of which outline a media philosophical approach for addressing questions of time and mediation in the contemporary world. Michel Serres’ thinking has inspired a great deal of Barker’s work to date, including the way he understands mediated exchange, the relationship between media and ecology and questions concerning technology and time.
Pantomime at the Cosmic Convivia: Michel Serres Commedia dell’Arte as a Comedy of Professions in the light of Environmental Humanities
Vera Bühlmann studied English Literature and Language, Philosophy and Media Studies at Zurich University and Basel University. She is professor for architecture theory at TU Vienna, where she directs the research unit Architecture Theory and Philosophy of Technics (ATTP). Among her recent publications are Information and Mathematics in the Philosophy of Michel Serres (Bloomsbury, London 2020), "Cosmoliteracy and Anthropography" in Rick Dolpjin (ed.), Michel Serres and the Crisis of the Contemporary (Bloomsbury, London 2019), Die Nachricht, ein Medium: Städtische Architektonik, Generische Medialität (Birkhäuser, Basel 2014); a Report on the Algorithmic Condition (with Felicity Colman, Iris van der Tuin, Aislinn O’Donnel, EU HORIZON 2020, nr. 732407); Printed Physics (ambra, 2012), Domesticating Symbols (Birkhäuser, 2014), Coding as Literacy (Birkhäuser, Basel 2015) and Symbolizing Existence (Birkhäuser, 2016).
Hermetics, Pareidolia, Healing: A Natural History of Centaurs
Since moving from UK/Italy to Australia in the 1980s, Paul Carter has written extensively about the poetics of decolonisation (The Road to Botany Bay 1987, The Lie of the Land 1996, Ground Truthing 2010, Decolonising Governance: Archipelagic Thinking (2018). Mixing cultural critique and creative practice, he has documented his extensive radio work and urban art in such publications as Material Thinking 2004, Dark Writing 2008, Places Made After Their Stories 2015 and Absolute Rhythm 2020. His critical engagement with the creative ecologies of migration is evident in Amplifications 2019 and Translations 2021. Paul is Professor of Design (Urbanism), School of Architecture and Urban Design, RMIT University, Melbourne and co-director of the Aboriginal-owned cultural consultancy Nyungar Birdiyia.
Jeffrey J. Cohen & Julian Yates
Stow Away on Noah’s Ark
Jeffrey J. Cohen is Dean of Humanities at Arizona State University and former co-president of the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment. His research examines strange and beautiful things that challenge the imagination, phenomena that are alien and intimate at once. Cohen is widely published in the fields of medieval studies, monster theory, and the environmental humanities. His book Stone: An Ecology of the Inhuman received the 2017 René Wellek Prize in comparative literature from the American Comparative Literature Association. In collaboration with Lindy Elkins-Tanton he co-wrote the book Earth, a re-examination of our widest home from the perspectives of a planetary scientist and a literary humanist. With environmental humanities scholar Stephanie Foote he co-edited The Cambridge Companion to Environmental Humanities. With Julian Yates he co-wrote Noah's Arkive (2023).
Julian Yates is H. Fletcher Brown Professor of English and Material Culture Studies at the University of Delaware. He writes about things in all their creaturely strangeness. Yates is widely published in the fields of early modern studies, posthumanism, and material culture studies. His books include Error, Misuse, Failure: Object Lessons from the English Renaissance, finalist for the Best First Book Prize from the Modern Language Association; What’s the Worst Thing You Can Do to Shakespeare?; and Of Sheep, Oranges, and Yeast: A Multispecies Impression, winner of the Michelle Kendrick Memorial Book Prize, Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts (SLSA).
Urgency and Multiplicity: The Crossed Lessons of Michel Serres
William Paulson is the E. L. Walter Collegiate Professor of Romance Languages and Literatures, Emeritus, at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor (USA). A scholarly specialist in French literature of the 18th and 19th centuries, he has also spent much of his career attempting to place the literary humanities in larger or unconventional contexts: information and systems theory, cultural studies of science, new media and their effect on the experience of time. His books include The Noise of Culture: Literary Texts in a World of Information (1988) and Literary Culture in a World Transformed: A Future for the Humanities. He also published several articles on Michel Serres and collaborated in the translation of two of Serres’s books: The Natural Contract and The Troubadour of Knowledge. His latest book manuscript, entitled Thinking in Real Time, is currently under review.
Exploring Michel Serres’ Bestiary: HumAnimal Relations and/in the Natural Contract
Stephanie Posthumus is a professor in the Department of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures, at McGill University, Montreal, Quebec. Her research examines ecological thinking, the animal question, plant agency and posthumanism in 20th and 21st century French philosophy and literature. She has published articles on Marie Darrieussecq, Marie-Hélène Lafon, Michel Houellebecq, Michel Serres and Michel Tournier in various print and online journals. Her co-edited essay collections include French Thinking about Animals (2015) with Louisa Mackenzie, French Ecocriticism: From the Early Modern Period to the Twenty-First Century (2017) with Daniel Finch-Race, and “Études végétales/Plant Studies” with Rachel Bouvet for L’Esprit créateur (2020). Her most recent co-authored book, Climate Change Scepticism: A Transnational Ecocritical Analysis (2019) with Greg Garrard, Axel Goodbody and George Handley investigates the relationship between climate science, political policy and contemporary European literature, whereas her book French Écocritique: Reading Contemporary French Theory and Fiction Ecologically (2017) establishes the foundations of an ecological literary approach.
On Site @TU Dresden
November 9, @Albertinum
November 10-12, @IHD Lecture Hall
For details, see program.
Participation is free; everyone interested is welcome. Please register by October 31, 2022 if you would like to attend the event as a listener.
For program, see below.