the anabasis of michel serres: hermes-trickster knowledge and the ambivalences of modern communication technology
Serres was thus not only outside the main political and intellectual currents of post-war France, like Marxism, phenomenology, psychoanalysis or structuralism, but took up a position against most of the classical figures of modern Western rationalism, in particular Descartes, Kant, and Hegel, tracing instead his own genealogy through Montaigne, Pascal, and Leibniz.
Modern philosophy, even social science, is much about ‘methodology’, but Serres has little patience for conventional methods. Charging (neo)Kantianism at its core, he refused the primacy of concept formation, populating his works instead with complex, figurative characters (personnages), taken from mythological or literary sources. These figures, like Hermes, Don Juan, Proteus or Arlequin had the advantage of being widely known, concrete but also complex, through which Serres could express and elaborate his ideas. This recalls the way Max Weber developed ideal-types in his sociological classic The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, considering Bunyan or Benjamin Franklin as steps towards such a spirit, even though Weber was not known to Serres, as for a complex set of reasons he was hardly known in France until recently.
Another crucial methodological tool was his use of language. While refusing to develop concepts, words mattered to Serres, more than for those constructing an artificial and unintelligible terminology. His approach lay through the ‘royal road’ of etymology. He consistently explored the original meanings of terms he found helpful, convincingly demonstrating that the wisdom behind coining words is a primary starting point for any serious thinking, instead of assigning arbitrary meanings to constructs, refusing the structuralist dogma of arbitrary signs.
A similarly striking, though potentially more problematic, methodological device is the importance attributed to algorithms, procedures, and codes. For Serres such techniques are important as they enable connections between concrete and universal, local and global, outside abstract formalisations, divisions and exclusions, and generalising deductions. Such procedures are ‘supple and agglutinant’, having the character of ‘walking one step at a time’ (Watkins 2019; see also Serres 2014b: 85-6). These metaphors are particularly interesting, as they evoke the practice of walking and features of the ‘walking culture’ that existed before settlement and the Neolithic (Horvath and Szakolczai 2018), thus during the development of human language for many thousand years; and also agglutinating languages that build complex word structures around few short roots. Intriguingly, the mother tongue of John von Neumann, developer of game theory and computer programming language was Hungarian, which is agglutinating, and he famously quipped that computer language really should have been based on Hungarian.
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