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Book Review of Michel Serres' ROME: THE FIRST BOOK OF FOUNDATIONS

by Terence Blake

(1) THE PLURALIST HYPOTHESIS

Michel Serres begins ROME with a very moving dedication:


With the present book and, if my life isnt 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: THE FIRST BOOK OF FOUNDATIONS was first published in France in 1983, and has
recently 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 Livys
THE HISTORY OF ROME.
I was living in Paris at the time I read ROME by Michel Serres when it came out in 1983. This year
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 traditional limits
and constraints.
In the same year Deleuze's first volume on the cinema, THE MOVEMENT-IMAGE,
MOVEMENT-IMAGE was published,
and two years after, in 1985, came the second volume, THE TIME-IMAGE.
TIME-IMAGE Also published around
that time: 1983 Lyotard's THE DIFFEREND,
DIFFEREND 1984 Foucault's THE USE OF PLEASURE and THE
CARE OF THE SELF,SELF 1985 Serres' THE FIVE SENSES. Alain Badiou's seminars were devoted
to elaborating his ontology of multiplicities, 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, and
then to Leibniz and the Baroque as thought andart of multiplicities in 1987. Bruno Latour's THE
PASTEURISATION OF FRANCE was published in 1984, and Laruelle's UNE BIOGRAPHIE DE
L'HOMME ORDINAIRE in 1985.
The key idea that kept recurring during this period was pluralism and multiplicities.
(2) SERRES'AGON
I had been lucky enough to have moved to Paris in 1980, the year Michel Serres published THE
PARASITE, the first book in his imaginal turn. Abandoning the academic style of a purely
conceptual presentation in terms of theses and arguments supported by explicit quotations and
bibliographical references, Serres gave free reign to an imagistic poetic style. This stylistic break
comes from Serres' desire to think and write in his own name, to do philosophy rather than just talk
about philosophy. His new styles privileges allusion instead of quotation, image instead of concept,
story instead of argument, personal thought instead of commentary.
Immediately preceding THE PARASITE was the series of five HERMES books, presenting a
form of pluralist 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 books
do not only advocate a pluralist epistemology and ontology but try to enact it, giving a performative
dimension to Serres' pluralism. However, as the series evolves this pluralism is increasingly mixed
with Ren Girard's monistic theory of mimetic desire, thus creating a tension within Serres thought
between his espousal of plurality and an attempt to construct a more unified account that would still
remain faithful to the pluralist inspiration..
We know that this 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 earlier
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. A high point in this influence of Giard's theories on
Serres' thought is to be found in his STATUES: THE SECOND BOOK OF FOUNDATIONS
(1987).
(3) NON-STANDARD PHILOSOPHY
It is interesting to compare the works of Michel Serres published during this decade (in fact from
1980 to 1993, when Serres synthesised the work of his preceding periods in a third and final book
of foundations: GEOMETRY: THE THIRD BOOK OF FOUNDATIONS) to the books of "non-
philosophy" published by Franois Laruelle during the same period. 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. Laruelles monological scientism is in
contradiction with his more pluralist presentations, and to this extent represents a regressian to the
structuralism and the theoreticism of the earlier Althusser. This problem highlights the dogmatic,
nostalgic, monistic side of Laruelle that he is only beginning to move beyond in his turn towards a
"non-standard" philosophy.
Michel Serres philosophy is "non-standard" from THE PARASITE onwards, and his ROME is a
very impressive contribution to a non-standard philosophy of history.
(4) DEMOCRACY AGAINST WAR
The whole movement of Serres's ROME is from the war and violence that scands Roman history
from its mythic beginnings to a democracy of thought and action imaged in a final scene. This is the
same movement that Laruelle has been advocating. However, there is no mention of Michel Serres
in Laruelle's works or in those of the Laruelleans. They subscribe to the uniqueness hypothesis: that
there is only one non-philosopher. It is this pretention to uniqueness 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 represents no mere academic exercise, it is not
just a reflexion on ancient history: he is theorising his own life and career and ours, as well as the
dynamics of society and the interplay of pluralism and mimetic violence. This same story is still
happening. Rome is founded on violence, a scapegoating and exclusion.
(5) EXCLUSION
Serres tells us at the outset 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 thought and try to turn it into a market 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
itself. 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 hadnt 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: Georges 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.
(6) INCLUSION
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 Ren Girard who welcomed him "in similar circumstances":
With this same book, I thank Ren 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 multiple 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 imitate his
persecutors, he does not seek revenge, he practices naivet, hospitality and inclusion.
Non-philosophy is not a new academic specialisation, or a new market niche. 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 at all
enamoured with power.
(7) INFORMATION
Michel Serres, in his series of five HERMES books (published from 1969 to 1980), developped an
information paradigm, that was meant to pluralise reason by finding informational multiplicities in
all disciplines and in all things. According to Serres' paradigm, every being emits, receives, treats,
and stocks information. Nevertheless, this information paradigm is itself in danger of becoming a
Monomyth, a totalising thread in what Serres calls the Grand Narrative, the putative unified story to
which all our sciences contribute.
Paradoxically, it is this process of unification that he analyses 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 to create unity.
(8) THE FIRST FOUNDATION IS WAR
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 naivet, a non-method, he does not know in advance, he suspends judgement and
lets the noise of history evacuate his ideas.
Im going to do it naively; I arrive at the Tibers banks without ideas, without methods,
without arms, alone (9).

(9) THE NEW FOUNDATION IS PEACE


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: THE FIRST BOOK OF FOUNDATIONS 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).