Michel Serres: The Natural Contract (1990)
A Systems Library, Vol. 22
“We must decide on peace amongst ourselves to protect the world, and peace with the world to protect ourselves.” — Michel Serres
Systems science seems, at first sight, to be an exclusively Anglo-American affair. Indeed, the lion’s share of the bandwidth captured by systems matters seems to be devoted to thinkers writing from a British or US-centered lineage. In this Systems Library we also want to foreground perspectives from other intellectual traditions. At present there are already a few volumes on the shelves that reflect Eastern and continental European perspectives. It should come as no surprise that also the French (wary as they are of anglophone cultural hegemony) founded a distinctive tradition in systems science. In this review we reflect on that through the work of Michel Serres (1930–2019).
I’m going to preface this review with a somewhat longer introduction. Michel Serres deserves to be better known as a systems thinker. But for the uninitiated it’s perhaps not obvious how to find an entry into his work. The Natural Contract, originally published in 1990 and revised in 2008, is one of the most widely read books in a legacy that encompasses 45 major publications. Which does not mean it is a straightforward read. Perhaps it’s helpful to briefly frame Serres’ philosophical project first.
Serres the outsider
Michel Serres is an outsider. Despite the commercial success of some of his books and, later in life, a prominent presence in the mass media, Serres never really established a significant following (unlike contemporaneous French thinkers such as Foucault, Deleuze and Derrida, for instance).
A number of elements may help to explain that state of affairs. Serres read mathematics and philosophy but never made common cause with the philosophical mainstream of the day (be it existentialism, phenomenology, Marxism or psychoanalytics). He wrote his doctoral thesis on the work of then unfashionable 17th century polymath Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. His teaching posts — principally at Paris Sorbonne and at Stanford — were peripheral to core philosophy curricula.
Additionally, Serres hailed from a worker family in the south-west of France. In his book Pantopie he recounts an anecdote that played out when he passed for his final exam at the elite Ecole Normale Supérieur: “As is customary, after the final exam, the president received me in the ‘confessional’; I remember that he congratulated me and then added this sentence: “Mr Serres, I could not put you in a league of excellence, as with your accent you are not employable throughout the country.”” The misgivings were mutual; throughout his life, Serres identified with small folk and outcast-explorers, not with the establishment.
But the main reason for Serres relative isolation in the French intellectual landscape is simply that his work is unclassifiable. He was at bottom a generalist whose thinking oriented itself more to the key scientific breakthroughs of the post-war years — modern mathematics, information theory, the A-bomb, the genetic code, the contraceptive pill, the computer, the internet — than anything else. Serres thought these developments heralded a new phase in the evolution of humankind. Consequently, one should risk to become unmoored in the process of envisioning the fundamental nature of that new world. The late 21st century philosopher should not be a disciplinary specialist, but a pantopian who roams across and beyond all domains of knowledge uncovered by humankind. In his unquenchable curiosity and disregard for the strictures of academia, Serres reminds me of the father of analytic psychology, C.G. Jung.
Then there is his style of writing, likely to catch even the most experienced reader off guard. Is it literature or philosophy? The narrative modulates between the personal and the scholarly, meanders between variegated areas of knowledge, and revels in surprising, poetic imagery. However, the poetry isn’t there to enchant us with its lyricism; Serres’ is a language of invention and the poetry is an emergent property of its fluidity and fleet-footedness.
Another unusual feature of his way of thinking and writing is that, considered over his long career, it seems to present itself as an all-embracing commedia dell’arte that unfolds around an outlandish cast of characters — the parasite, Harlequin, the messenger god Hermes, Thumbelina, the troubadour of knowledge (‘le tiers-instruit’), and others. These characters are (in the main) not concepts in disguise, but exemplars. They stand for an experience, characteristic for a particular setting in space and time. Thumbelina (Petite Poucette in French) is the young teenager who was born with the digital revolution and taps on her mobile phone from morning to night; the troubadour of knowledge stands for whoever genuinely learns and submits her/himself precariously to the vortex of creation: the pantopian philosopher, the artist, but also the seafarer who is at the mercy of oceanic currents, and the pair of starry-eyed lovers.
Serres the systems thinker
Serres’ interest in science and his generalist temperament predispose him quite naturally toward systems thinking. Underlying is a fundamentally relational worldview. One of the godfathers of systems theory, Gregory Bateson, famously quipped that we erroneously tend to see our hand as a collection of five fingers. A systems view understands it as four relations between pairs of fingers. Now listen how Serres talks about soccer: “In rugby or football, everyone looks at the team, nobody looks at the ball. But the important thing is the ball, it is the ball that makes the team. It is the pass that makes the relationship between people, and a team only exists through the ball, through the pass. This is what I call a ‘quasi-object’, an object that is made to circulate between the members of a group: the ball, money, words.” For Michel Serres the world is made up of relations, and messages passed across these relations (Hermes’ job) and background noise muddling these messages (the parasite’s contribution).
Another hallmark of this philosopher’s systemic outlook is his focus on potentiality, the generative seed from which new things may emerge. To stay somewhat longer with the soccer ambiente: in his book The Troubadour of Knowledge, Serres foregrounds the figure of the goalkeeper just before a penalty is about to be kicked. What interests him there is the goalie’s embodiment of pure potentiality, a ‘position blanche’ which renders possible all other positions. Occupying this ‘void’ is less a matter of ‘taking a position’ than it is of ‘exposing oneself’. With Serres there is always an existential element linked to this posture of potentiality. But it necessarily also resonates with political questions. Because how do we decide what corner of possibility space we want to move into? Once the goaltender has punctured this tense equilbrium, there is no holding back. Kinetic energy propels the body forward. Similarly, there is path dependence in all of human affairs. The juggernaut of scientific reason presses on relentlessly. But in that process it may bring about grave challenges that demand us to reassess our position and constrain what we set in motion.
A related theme in Serres’ thinking is how the small may engender the large, how a minute shift may bring about a momentous transformation. This reminds us of the insights from chaos theory and complexity science. Lucretius (c. 99-c.55 BC), the Roman poet-thinker who presented an atomistic cosmology in his De Rerum Natura, is a fixture in Serres’ oeuvre. Lucretius thought that the world was brought into being by a minute deviation in the rain of atoms (the ‘clinamen’) that formed the origin of the universe. The idea that an infinitesimal shift away from equilibrium or symmetry may open up a new reality, resonates widely in the oeuvre of the French philosopher.
Finally I want to point out Serres’ habit to trigger figure-ground reversals. Systemically speaking this is a matter of reframing, of re-assessing boundary judgments to mark off what is inside and outside of a system. Serres is skillful in drawing attention to what is in the background, to what is outside of our purview. Very often this makes for a dramatic change in perspective. One of his motto themes, for instance, is ‘noise’ (in French: la noise). It’s the background hum we usually don’t perceive. Serres foregrounds this as a state of pure potentiality. Indeed, for Serres, noise is metaphysical; it is the ground of our being, it is the archè that tends to drop from our consciousness. Noise is not a phenomenon itself, but every phenomenon is separated from it, like a silhouette on a backdrop. Serres: “ … it is the very reverse of power, rather it is capaciousness. (…) We cannot predict what will be born from it. We cannot know what is in it, here or there. No one knows, no one has ever known, no one will ever know how a possible coexists with a possible, and perhaps it coexists through a relationship of possibility.”
These systemic fingerprints — the figure-ground reversal, a relational perspective, nonlinear change, a focus on generative multiplicity and potential — also mark The Natural Contract.
A cybernetic excursion
Despite Serres’ outsider position, his way of thinking also has some distinctively French traits. We can put elements of these in relief through a cybernetic lens. Let’s return for a moment to the early days of systems theory, right after the Second World War. Prominent in that early (and officially sanctioned) history is the work of the American Cybernetics Group that was established as a result of their repeated encounters at the Macy Conferences. Between 1946 and 1953 a group of eminent thinkers — including Norbert Wiener, John von Neumann, Gregory Bateson, Margaret Mead and Warren McCulloch — put in place the foundations of the novel, cross-disciplinary science of cybernetics. They wanted to understand the properties of feedback control in purpose-driven technological, biological and social systems.
On the other side of the Atlantic a similar group was formed, albeit 20 years later: Le Groupe des Dix (The Group of Ten). Michel Serres was part of it, as were other high-profile intellectuals and politicians (not a single woman, however). The collective’s composition betrays a purpose that was different from their American counterparts: the ‘Ten’ wanted to inform political decision-making by insights from contemporary science, notably cybernetics, information theory and neurobiology. In addition the French also philosophically set themselves apart from their American peers. The latter’s version of cybernetic thinking generally reflected a machine paradigm. The idea was that living systems could be modelled by the same feedback mechanism and goal-seeking properties programmed into technological artifacts.
French thinkers such as Edgar Morin (°1921) and Michel Serres diverged from this position, however. Rather than to assume that Nature is analogous to technology, they reaffirmed the distinctive nature of Nature. And in doing so they concluded that biological systems were essentially self-productive, therefore able to endogenously maintain complexity while exporting entropy to their environment. Serres’ thinking in this area was heavily influenced by insights from information theory. The conception self-evidently also echoed Maturana and Varela’s theory of autopoiesis. And it extrapolates to the sympoietic theory of life proposed by Lynn Margulis (1938–2011) which holds that Nature is an emergent property of recursive interaction among autopoietic organisms, biogeochemical flows and solar energy. The ‘French’ understanding of Nature therefore aligns itself with an important conceptual shift, from a first-order cybernetics that sees natural systems maintaining equilibrium by feedback mechanisms, to a conception that pivots on second-order systems — recursively nested from the microbial to the planetary scale — that have the capacity for self-production and hence for learning and cognition. We will see how these important ideas also found their way into Serres’ Natural Contract.
The Natural Contract opens with a typical Serresian flourish: a description of a harrowing scene painted by Francisco Goya (1746–1829). Two men are fighting each other with clubs, knee-deep in a quagmire of mud. The outcome of the brawl seems clear: both antagonists will perish. The more violently they clash, the more quickly they will be swallowed by quicksand.
In Serres’ reading this scene becomes a layered allegory for the relationship between humankind and its planetary habitat. Armed conflict has been the engine of history. However, war is not merely a ‘primitive’ state of men going down by the hand of other men. War is a (de jure) process that takes place within a legal framework: declaration, conflict, armistice. This framework was born from necessity as it put the lid on an endless cycle of vengeance. Serres hypothesises that there lies the origin of the social contracts that regulate societies. He then proceeds, characteristically, by zooming out and bringing into focus the silent, unnoticed background against which armed conflict has always taken place. The mud in Goya’s painting symbolises this background. This is quite simply the world which now makes itself felt in response to the increasing weight of human presence on earth. Foreground and background are swept up in reinforcing feedback mechanisms: the more fiercely we compete, the more assertively earth makes itself felt. ‘Subjective violence’ engenders ‘objective violence’. A new condition announces itself for humanity, a limit state of history.
Serres: “We must therefore, once again, under threat of collective death, invent a law for objective violence. We find ourselves in the same position as our unimaginable ancestors when they invented the oldest laws, which transformed their subjective violence, through a contract, into what we call wars. We must make a new pact, a new preliminary agreement with the objective enemy of the human world: the world as such.”
This is the natural contract. Indeed, “we must decide on peace amongst ourselves to protect the world, and peace with the world to protect ourselves.”
In the second part of the book Serres builds on this opening gambit. Contracts are systemically distinctive artefacts. They have a homeostatic function. Contracts canonize, thingify and stabilize relationships. They acknowledge an essential equality between signatories, codify obligations, and seek to balance interests of the parties. Similarly, “the natural contract recognises and acknowledges an equilibrium between our current power and the forces of the world.”
The third essay reframes the envisioned equilibrium as a new stage in the relationship between science and law, reason and judgment. The project of scientific reason seeks limitless freedom to deploy itself. Human laws, at the service of various powers that be, have tried to curb this expansionist drive. The trial against Galilei was just one telltale flashpoint in a long conflictual relationship. However, the growing power and efficacy of the exact sciences were able to overrule this situation. Reason rose above judgment. Today, in the context of a global pandemic, we acquiesce when scientists advise politicians to sidestep constitutional rights. Serres suggests that our predicament invites us to think differently here. Rather than one dominating the other, reason and judgment have to enter into a positive cycle. “Thus it is better to make peace by a new contract between the sciences, which deal relevantly with the things of the world and their relations, and judgment, which decides on humans and their relations. It is better to make peace between the two types of reason in conflict today, because their fates are henceforth crossed and blended and because our own fate depends on their alliance. Through a new call to globality, we need to invent a reason that is both rational and steady, one that thinks truthfully while judging prudently.”
At this point Serres introduces a new character, which will turn to be the protagonist in his next book, Le Tiers-Instruit, published in 1991. The troubadour of knowledge, a novel kind of sage, models this hybrid reason with courage and wisdom. (S)he is the product of a process of education that gave her the courage to expose herself, to cast herself off. Listen how eloquently Serres brings the third essay of The Natural Contract to a close:
“We must learn our finitude: reach the limits of a non-infinite being. Necessarily we will have to suffer, from illnesses, unforeseeable accidents or lacks; we must set a term to our desires, ambitions, wills, freedoms. We must prepare our solitude, in the face of great decisions, responsibilities, growing numbers of other people; in the face of the world, the fragility of things and of loved ones to protect, in the face of happiness, unhappiness, death. To deny this finitude, starting in childhood, is to nurture unhappy people and foster their resentment of inevitable adversity. We must learn, at the same time, our true infinity. Nothing, or almost nothing, resists training. The body can do more than we believe, intelligence adapts to everything. To awaken the unquenchable thirst for learning, in order to live as much as possible of the total human experience and the beauties of the world, and to persevere, sometimes, through invention: this is the meaning of equipping someone to cast off.”
This might have been a fitting conclusion to Serres’ ruminations on the contract with Nature. But he presses on with a moving meditation on the experience of ‘casting off’ and the role of cordiality, concord, contract in navigating that transition into a new world. The philosopher conjures unforgettable images: a ship that unmoors in the port of Brest while a couple — woman on the quay, man on the departing vessel — continue to be connected by the graceful parabolas traced by an apple exchanged between them; the launch of spacecraft Ariane from its base in a rainforest; the pre-dawn departure of a party of mountaineers from a high hut in the Alps. The cord that ties the climbers together becomes a powerful simile for the relational import of the contract: “The term contract originally means the tract or trait or draft that tightens and pulls: a set of cords assures, without language, the subtle system of constraints and freedoms through which each linked element receives information about every other and about the system, and draws security from all.”
Today our technologies offer a system of cords, of exchanges of forces and information with the Earth. We ceaselessly inform with our movements and energies, and the Earth, in return, informs us of its global change. For better of for worse, we are doomed to live contractually with the Earth. This demands vigilance and diligence, a decisive break with our contemporary negligence. It also demands a rekindling of love, for our mother. In the book’s final pages, the philosopher bursts into a paean to the painfully beautiful manifestation of pure potentiality:
“Indescribable emotion: mother, my faithful mother, our mother who has been a cenobite for as long as the world has existed, the heaviest, the most fecund, the holiest of material dwellings, chaste because always alone, and always pregnant, virgin and mother of all living things, better than alive, irreproducable universal womb of all possible life, mirror of ice floes, seat of snows, vessel of the seas, rose of the winds, tower of ivory, house of gold, Ark of the Covenant, gate of heaven, health, refuge, queen surrounded by clouds, who will be able to move her, who will be able to take her in their arms, who will protect her, if she risks dying and when she begins her mortal agony? Is it true that she is moved? What have we not destroyed with our scientific virtuosity?”
“Separation is sometimes a loving solution”
Two different conceptions of Anthropocene politics have emerged in our days. The ecomodernist view affirms that human presence is a decisive force that shapes the fate of Earth. Therefore we have to develop the technological armature and global governance structure to support our roles as planetary stewards. Ecological posthumanists, on the other hand, resist this managerial perspective and propose a more modest stance of accommodation between humans and non-humans. For them the distinction between the natural and the social has always been a figment of the modern imagination. These rival interpretations frame the Anthropocene therefore as either consummation or abandonment of modernity.
The difference between these worldviews can also be translated into cybernetic terms. Ecomodernism embraces Gaia, the cybernetic gestalt first proposed by James Lovelock (°1919) in the late 1960s: Earth as a single homeostatic system whose biosphere and atmosphere are coupled by feedback loops that stabilise it against perturbations. In other words, Earth is living-like; it is able to maintain itself in a state far from thermodynamic equilibrium, as living systems do. As global stewards, or as pilots of Spaceship Earth, we have to become proficient in mimicking and complementing these feedback mechanisms to counteract anthropogenically driven environmental change.
Ecological posthumanists resist the idea of a ‘command-and-control’ relationship between humans and Earth. The underlying cybernetic template of their thinking is sympoietic. In her book Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (2016), Donna Haraway (°1944) writes: “Sympoiesis is a simple word; it means “making-with.” Nothing makes itself; nothing is really autopoietic or self-organizing. (…) earthlings are never alone. That is the radical implication of sympoiesis. Sympoiesis is a word proper to complex, dynamic, responsive, situated, historical systems. It is a word for worlding-with, in company. Sympoiesis enfolds autopoiesis and generatively unfurls and extends it.” Earth and all it carries form a collaborative, intelligent assemblage. It is self-productive and self-inventing, open to contingency and otherness.
Cybernetically speaking, Serres’ vision in The Natural Contract steers a middle way between these two competing visions. As already pointed out, French thinkers confirmed the self-productive, autopoietic properties of Nature. But in Serres’ case this does not entail some kind of merger of nature and culture. There is not one system that humanity has to control or mesh with. Rather there are two distinct systems of systems which are self-regulating in themselves. The point of the natural contract is precisely to offer the traît d’union between these two operationally closed sets of equilibria. The human world faces, but does not merge with the worldwide world. Serres does not talk about cybernetics as a managerial ploy: “The helmsman acts in real time, here and now, on a local circumstance from which he counts on obtaining a global result.” The cybernetic intervention is local; it invites diligence and vigilance to observe its global ramifications. This contractual face à face is not about control. Neither is it about conflation. Serres: “Separation is sometimes a loving solution.”
Michel Serres’ The Natural Contract was published two years before the establishment of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC), and ten years before the term Anthropocene was brought into circulation. His vision of fragile humanity tethered to the surface of vulnerable Earth continues to beckon as an invitation to reinvent ourselves. He would wholeheartedly endorse a question left in suspension by Isabelle Stengers and Vinciane Despret: “But how do we take back up a collective adventure that is multiple and ceaselessly reinvented, not on an individual basis, but in a way that passes the baton, that is to say, affirms new givens and new unknowns?”
In writing this review-essay, I have thankfully relied on The Natural Contract’s English translation by Elizabeth MacArthur and William Paulson (based on the original edition from 1990). Other references used are:
Hannes Bergthaller (2020) A Tale of Two Systems: Anthropocene Politics, Gaia, and the Cybernetic Image of the Planet, unpublished paper.
Steven Brown (2003) Natural Writing: The Case of Michel Serres. Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, Vol. 28, N°3, pp. 1–9.
Donna Haraway (2016) Staying with the Trouble. Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Duke University Press.
Audronė Žukauskaitė (2020) Gaia Theory: Between Autopoiesis and Sympoiesis, Problemos; Vol. 98, pp. 141–153.
More to read in the Systems Library:
Vol. 21: Henk Oosterling: Resistance in Times of Ecopanic (2020)
Vol. 20: Ray Ison and Ed Straw: The Hidden Power of Systems Thinking (2020)
Vol. 19: Andreas Weber: Enlivenment (2019)
Vol. 18: Luc Hoebeke: Making Work Systems Better (1994)
Vol. 17: Donella Meadows: Thinking in Systems (2009)
Vol. 10: Edgar Schein: Humble Inquiry (2013)