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The Itinerant Theorist: Nature and Knowledge/Ecology and Topology in Michel Serres

Author(s): Paul A. Harris

Source: SubStance, Vol. 26, No. 2, Issue 83: An Ecology of Knowledge: Michel Serres: A Special
Issue (1997), pp. 37-58
Published by: University of Wisconsin Press
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3684695
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The Itinerant Theorist:
Nature and Knowledge/Ecology
and Topology in Michel Serres

Paul A. Harris

thattheworldis comprehensible.
It is nolongerincomprehensible

Exchangeas the law of the theoretical

universe,the transportof
conceptsandtheircomplexity, theintersection
andoverlapping of
domains ... represents,
in whichobjects,thingsthemselves,
passing diabolically complex networkofinter-information.
(HermesII, 15; cited in Harari and Bell, xxiii)

Theory on the Slipping Edge

Michel Serres might be termed an itinerant theorist because of the

restless nature of his intellectual work. Serres has labored in several fields,
including molecular biology and science fiction, topology and painting,
linguistics and anthropology. In his writings he has wandered from ancient
Rome to the disastrous Challenger launch, from the flooded banks of the
Nile to polar floes in the Northwest Passage; he has passed by Oedipus's
fateful crossroads and disappeared down manholes into bubbles of chaos;
he has assumed various guises, including parasite, navigator, and tour
guide. The "itinerant theorist" appellation also applies because Serres
produces theoretical itineraries, in the triple sense of the word: a route, a
record of a journey, and a guidebook. He seeks through these itineraries to
weave together the fabric of knowledge into a "pattern that connects" (as
Bateson called it) humans and the world. What Serres says of the Odyssey
holds true for himself as well: "The global wandering, the mythical adven-
ture, is, in the end, only the general joining of these [discrete] spaces, as if
the object or target of discourse were only to connect, or as if the junction,

SubStance 37
38 Paul A. Harris

the relation, constituted the route by which the first discourse passes"
Like Odysseus, Serres pursues intricate routes in the hope of getting
back to the place where he truly belongs. But for Serres, the desired des-
tination is not the domestic domicile and the familiar dog. Serres seeks
something broader, more encompassing-what could be called the proper
ecological niche for humans. In his vision, humans belong to the world in
a simple, fundamental sense; ultimately, Serres insists, "nothing distin-
guishes me ontologically from a crystal, a plant, an animal" (Hermes,83). In
Serres's writing, this ontology joins up with a view that process, instability
and disorder constitute the primary "state" of things, resulting in a world
that at times comes to resemble Ovid's metamorphic natural order where
animals, humans, things and ideas constantly turn into one another. Where
does Serres himself figure in this world? "I am a whirlwind in turbulent
nature" (Hermes, 121); "Who am I? A tremor of nothingness, living in a
permanent earthquake" (Contract,124).
While these proclamations clearly serve a rhetorical function, they also
bring to the surface a strong undercurrent of Serres's thought: a desire to
efface the edge of difference between language and representation, to fuse
knowledge and being. This aspect of Serres's work finds its most explicit,
dramatic expression in TheNatural Contract,which culminates in a celebra-
tion of Serres's experience of the 1989 Loma Pieta quake in northern
California. "I tasted joy during the earthquake that terrified so many
people around me," Serres confesses. "All of a sudden the ground shakes
off its gear: walls tremble, ready to collapse, roofs buckle, people fall,
communications are interrupted, noise keeps you from hearing each other,
the thin technological film tears . . . " (124). Serres seems to have felt a
sublime if not erotic joy: "I saw her [the earth] formerly with my eyes and
my understanding; at last, through my belly and my feet, through my sex
I am her" (124). Transported out of his mind and engulfed by his body,
Serres found in this moment an "ecstasy" in his visceral connection with
"the background noise, the rumbling world" (124).1

Nature and Knowledge/Ecology and Interdisciplinarity

The sublime shock that Serres testifies to feeling during the earthquake
figures as an irruption in the rhetoric of knowledge. The fissuring ground
where the edges of the Pacific and North American tectonic plates slip past
one another provides Serres with the appropriate setting for a new com-

SubStance#83, 1997
The Itinerant
The ItinerantTheorist
Theorist 39

prehension of the world. One could say that Serres attempts to evoke an
intimate, visceral knowledge of nature in order to redefine the nature of
knowledge. In her review of The Natural Contract, Malina Stefanovska
points out that "in his writing, rather than being posited as an outside
object, Nature is acknowledged as an inside force which breaks that dis-
course, and opens it up to a vigilant poetic meditation" (163-64). The
paradox involved in creating such a discourse is, of course, how to figure
nature in such a way that it appears "inside" the discourse as if it came
from outside it. And by extension, this paradox is related to a fundamental
tension that drives Serres's writing, which wavers between a desire to
forge an unmediated connection with the world and his ongoing project2to
weave together an encyclopedic discourse that restores our connection to
the world. But because it is the nature of knowledge in its institutionalized
state to become increasingly specialized and insular, the very erudition
that distinguishes Serres from his contemporaries is, ironically, precisely
what threatens to insert a certain distance between the philosopher and the
Thus Serres's conception of knowledge as such, over and above the
sheer range of his learning, is absolutely essential to his work. For Serres,
knowledge is not aboutsomething; it is not of the order of representation or
critique. As played by Serres, the philosopher's role is to develop neither
an ontology nor an epistemology exclusively, but an ecology in which
things and ideas interact. As a writer, Serres resembles the proverbial
spider in its web: in spinning out the threads of his itineraries, Serres
engineers the "transport of concepts" whose "intersections and overlap-
pings" are a part of "the very tissue in which things themselves are im-
mersed." The web as a whole comprises what Serres calls the "diabolically
complex network of the inter-information network." Consequently,
Serres's writing displays a distinctly woven texture: his essays are hybrid
offsprings, or, in Bruno Latour's apt metaphor, they enact "a crossover,in
the genetic sense, whereby characters of one language are crossed with
attributes of another origin" (Latour, 90-91), splitting off and exchanging
entire portions and hereditary characteristics.
This method enables Serres to practice a specific kind of interdis-
ciplinarity. Rather than creating "interfaces" between given, static fields,
he imbricates them in one another, revealing their hidden morphological
analogies and negotiating local passages between them.3 Serres is thus able
to mold disciplinary knowledge into a supple field, an "encyclopedic epis-
temology," in which he performs operations of "chance and invention"
(Harari and Bell, xxix). Serres speaks almost literally when he stipulates

SubStance#83, 1997
40 Paul A. Harris

that "knowledge as such is a space of transformation" (Parasite,100). In

another context, Serres has called this space the "tiers-instruit,"the instruc-
tion one receives in a third place. The tiers-instruitoccupies a between-
space; it is a threshold or boundary to be crossed, the space "through
which one makes a transit" (Le Tiers-Instruit,25).4 Serres's method, its
flexibility and mobility, generates a transdisciplinary perspective that is
inherently global.
Serres's global perspective expresses itself on the one hand through
the huge claims that pepper his writing: in various places, Serres simply
posits that all language originates in noise; that Zola discovered ther-
modynamics; that "geometry begins in violence and in the sacred" (Her-
mes, 133). But for Serres, "global" applies not only at the level of knowledge
but also at the level of the subject and object of knowledge: the theater of
his philosophy is the globe itself. Serres believes that the ecological dimen-
sion has been suppressed in critical theory because "our culture abhors the
world" (Contract,3); it is interested in knowledge in opposition to or per-
haps even at the expense of the natural world. But as the extensive damage
done to the biosphere becomes more undeniably discernible, the very line
between nature and culture begins to disappear. Simultaneously, the bio-
sphere enters the noosphere, the field of knowledge: "Global history enters
nature; global nature enters history; this is something utterly new in
philosophy" (Contract,4). This event manifests itself in critical theory and
cultural studies as the addition of ecology as a fourth term in the
race/class/gender series (Conley, 77). In her introduction to The
EcocriticismReader:Landmarksin LiteraryEcology,Cheryll Glotfelty puts the
matter in terms that directly echo Serres: she writes that ecocriticism shifts
the inflection of "the world" from encompassing the social sphere ex-
clusively to "an immensely complex global system, in which energy, mat-
ter, and ideasinteract" (xix; original emphasis).
From the global perspective Serres takes in The Natural Contract,the
nature of knowledge changes as the nature of nature undergoes fundamen-
tal change. Major upheavals in terrestrial ecology mean that ideas neces-
sarily interact with the biosphere. "Suddenly a local object, nature, on
which a merely partial subject could act, becomes a global objective, Planet
Earth, on which a new, total subject, humanity is toiling away" (5). In the
global ecology, metamorphosis-previously the dynamic force that gives
us new organisms-occurs at the level of the species. Humanity is "no
longer swallowed up like a dimensionless point"; it "exists as a collectivity,
transcending the local" (17-18).

SubStance#83, 1997
The Itinerant Theorist 41

Finally we have reached such sizes that we exist physically. The thinking
individual, having become a beast collectively, is now joined to others in
multiple ways and turns to stone. [... ] At last we exist on a natural scale.
Mind has grown into a beast and the beast is growing into a [tectonic] plate.
Serres sketches a new conception of humanity as a geo-body-politic, and
points toward a "geopolitics" inflected not through geography but geol-
ogy. The change in metaphor displaces humanity from its primacy as the
subject of history that imposes itself on the world; rather, the species is a
natural force whose eruptions change the course of global history, both
natural and cultural. In this cartography, the topographically discrete ter-
ritories of surface geography give way to topologically embedded,
stratified layers fissured by earthquakes. (Topological mapping, as we
shall see, is central to Serres's ecological model.)
This evolution of humanity to a global scale demands a new relation
between humans and the environment. The social contract on which so
much of western culture rests must be replaced by what Serres calls "the
natural contract." Serres's notion of the natural contract grows out of his
work on Lucretius and Epicurean philosophy, which opens a passage be-
tween social contract and natural context. In La naissancede la physiquedans
le texte de Lucrece, Serres explicates the premise behind the Epicurean
vision: social laws and writing derive from natural laws, because "history
is a physics and not the inverse. Language is already in bodies" (Naissance,
186; my translation). This interpenetration of the semiotic and the material
represents a literal extrapolation of the Lucretian conceit that compares
atoms and letters: "That atoms are letters, that connected bodies are
phrases, is no doubt not a metaphor, it is that without which there would
be nothing in existence" (ibid.,185; my translation).
The appeal of the Lucretian model for Serres clearly stems from its
positing an essential freedom at its base. This cosmology casts both cultural
and natural evolution as processes of perpetual transformation; unpre-
dictable mutations occur because there are no global or completely deter-
ministic "laws." "Nature does not code the universal," Serres writes, but
"the clinamen," the unpredictable sway that throws atoms off their deter-
minate courses and initiates change. The dinamen introduces a ripple in
the fabric of the world that spreads outward: it "performs the first coding,
it initiates a new temporality, writing, memory, reversibility and
negentropy" (Naissance,186; my translation).

SubStance#83, 1997
42 Paul A. Harris

Eco-Pedagogy/Cultural Contract

The dinamen, then, is a physical law that conditions and resonates

through the noosphere, biosphere, and atmosphere. It upholds an anti-
deterministic philosophy of free will and acts as a guarantor of contingen-
cy, novelty and difference. In a typical crossover reading, Serres treats
Lucretius's poem as a physics treatise that announces a "creative science of
change and circumstance" that in turn "breaks the chains of violence,
interrupts the reign of the same," which characterize the ethos of modern
science (Hermes, 100). Lucretius uses physics as a basis to explain and
justify humanity's place in the world. The physics of the clinamen portrays
a fluid, dynamic world in which the "individual" or "system" is seen as
temporary form of emergent order within a pervasive, swirling chaos.
Similarly, in TheNatural ContractSerres searches out a "strong and simple
science [that] will tell me the moment of denouement, of being stripped
bare and untied, the moment of true casting off... from this earth toward
the void" (Contract,115).
This science can only germinate if institutional structures are
rethought, of course. As is so often the case, Serres incorporates ethical and
pedagogical issues into his interdisciplinary inventor's laboratory.5 In an
approach reminiscent of Gregory Bateson, Serres diagnoses the "cultural
pathologies" inherent in the organization of knowledge that inscribe lines
of power and the insistence of desire in destructive ways. Serres sees
predominant western educational practices informed by "the narrow
finitude of an instruction that produces obedient specialists or ig-
noramuses full of arrogance," leaving minds prey to "the infinity of desire,
drugging tiny soft larvae to death" (Contract,96) 6 For Serres, a science that
will enable us to "cast off" with maximum freedom from constraint simul-
taneously must be predicated on our accepting the finitude of our being
and ecosystem.
In order to fulfill "the natural contract," knowledge must always
operate on several levels and be embedded in multiple contexts. Conse-
quently, Serres depicts the natural contract as a rope woven out of three
strands: the definition of a field or object of work; a link with a subject; an
intersubjective linkage. In Serres's account of these three strands, we can
see how the natural contract brings together the concepts, discourses and
domains that have always been central to his work:
these practices concern, respectively, form, energy, and information; they
are, if you will, conceptual, material, and judicial; geometric, physical, and
legal. Bonds of knowledge, of power, and of complexity. All in all, its triple

SubStance #83, 1997

The Theorist
The Itinerant 43

stresslinksme to forms,to things,and to others,and thus initiatesme into

the world,and society.(Contract,
abstraction, 107-08)

The natural contract implicates us in a complex set of interlocking practices

premised on an urgent awareness of the multiple linkages between local
action, global history and the biosphere. Serres's conception of the natural
contract clearly does not espouse a simple championing of or return to
"nature,"but points the way toward a new kind of ecological discourse.
This discourse could be characterized as what William Paulson calls
"cultural ecology." Cultural ecology, like Serres's work, situates
knowledge in a complexly layered space where it interacts with nature and
culture.7As Paulson puts it, the "recursive and multilayered contextualiza-
tion" of knowledge that defines cultural ecology "is itself a form of
knowledge, designated in different sites by terms such as ecology, context
theory, cybernetic holism, or complex adaptive systems" ("Cultural Ecol-
ogy," 27). Informed by an epistemology common to all these sites, cultural
ecology eschews any critical stance or privileged purchase on the world: it
has "neither existence nor meaning outside of [its] relation to this techno-
economic environment" (ibid., 27). The turn marked by cultural ecology
parallels that taken by cultural anthropology: if the latter supplants a
universal notion of the human with localized analyses of "culture," espe-
cially as it is expressed through narratives, then cultural ecology compli-
cates the nature/culture binary by treating natural systems as being always
imbricated in cultural formations, and social categories as necessarily con-
strained by organic ones. Cultural ecology yokes together scientific
knowledge and cultural studies in a single discourse-exactly what Serres
has done all along.


As we have seen, the conceptual underpinnings of Serres's ecological

and interdisciplinary discourse rest in its ability to move fluidly between
the local and the global. One could say that Serres enmeshes a rhetoric of
the local in a web of global connections. A sampling of Serres's rhetoric
shows how extensively it favors chaos and contingency, the local and the
circumstantial; at the same time, he draws out analogies between very
disparate disciplines on a global, conceptual plane by demonstrating that
an isomorphic set of structural relations persists in or between two dif-
ferent discourses. It is therefore crucial to understand Serres in terms of the

SubStance#83, 1997
44 Paul A. Harris

"space" in which his work's itineraries unfold. From our discussion it is

dear that this space exhibits certain properties: it accommodates local con-
tingency within global consistency; it is not a fixed topography with dif-
ferent regions (i.e., disciplines) but a malleable surface, subject to being
stretched and folded (discourses are constantly mixed together). We could
say that Serres works both in and on this type of space: it not only informs
all his writings, but he has also theorized this space explicitly.
On the global level, Serres's work derives from an encounter with
structuralism-not the structuralism of linguistics or anthropology but a
mathematical structuralism. Serres's concept of structure comes from the
work of Bourbaki, the mathematicians' collective that attempted to sys-
tematize all mathematics into abstract syntactic relationships. In the first
Hermesvolume Serres defines structure as
an operationalset of undefinedmeaning... bringingtogethera certain
numberof elementswhose contentis not specified,and a finitenumberof
relationsof unspecifiednature,but whose function,and certainresults
concerningthe elements,arespecified.(Citedin Paulson,Noise,32).8
Nothing of the content or nature of the elements need be known; only the
relations among them. Thus Serres insists that in his work, "I only describe
relationships. . . . let's be content with saying it's 'a general theory of
relations."' (Conversations, 127).
The discourse that provides Serres with the means to map out a
generalized space of relationships is topology. This "space" spans relations
and configurations in the spaces of nature, discourse, and culture. Topol-
ogy accommodates itself to these adaptations because it offers a supple and
quite abstract vocabulary of relations and transformations. Topology is
concerned with properties of space that remain constant under transforma-
tions; it analyzes the boundaries of spatial configurations. In abstract
terms, topology poses problems of spatial relations through questions such
as: "What is closed? What is open? What is a connective path? What is a
tear? What are the continuous and discontinuous? What is a threshold, a
limit?" (Hermes,44). The conceptual nature of topology imagines "space"
as being supple and malleable rather than rigid and fixed. Serres likes to
draw a contrast between topology, "the science of nearness and rifts," and
metrical geometry, "the science of stable and well-defined distances" (Con-
versations,60). Topology thus provides a kind of syntax and vocabulary for
figuring abstract relationships between terms in the nodes and passages of
the "inter-information network."

SubStance#83, 1997
The Itinerant Theorist 45

Once language itself is imagined as a network, then its space can best
be understood in terms of topology. A central and immensely productive
axiom in Serres's study of Lucretius is that "thesemioticis aboveall a topol-
ogy" (Naissance,179; his emphasis). In the linguistic field, topological rela-
tions are most visibly expressed in prepositions. Topology in general and
prepositions in particular share concerns with modes of linkage, and are
therefore intrinsic to figuring the space-between. In order to describe the
most intricately configured spaces,
one must use between,in, throughwith circumspection. . . operatorsof
flexions or declinationsthat designate. .. connectionsand relationsof
vicinity,proximity,distance,adherenceor accumulation,in otherwords,
Topology is intrinsic to Serres's cultural ecology because it informs his
notion of culture. Topology provides a means of conceptualizing ecologies
as networks of relations or the tissue or weave of connections between
different spaces within a given context. "In general a culture constructs in
and by its history an original intersection between such spatial varieties, a
node of very precise and particular connections" (Hermes,45). Topology
elucidates the formative boundaries and constitutive limits that define cul-
ture because a given topology acts as a system of constraints on what forms
are allowed. The incest prohibition, for example, can be figured in terms of
the distinction between open and closed spaces central to topology:
"Enclosed" meansisolated,closed,separated;it alsomeansuntainted,pure
and chaste.Now, thatwhichis not chaste,incestus,canbe incest.Theincest
prohibitionis, then,literallya localsingularityexemplaryof this operation
in general,of the globalprojectof connectingthe disconnected,or the op-
posite,of openingwhatis closed... (Hermes, 45)

Textual Operators

So far I have traced an itinerary through Serres's work primarily

around the categories of ecology and topology. Now I want to explore how
these dimensions of Serres's writing can be translated into the context of
American literary theory and ecocriticism. A central methodological issue
in ecocriticism is how to approach literary texts from an ecological
standpoint. In its early stages of development, ecocriticism has tended to
take a somewhat thematic angle on this issue, asking how nature is repre-
sented in a text, the role of setting, the ethical and ecological values upheld,
and so on.10But moving beyond the level of representation, we may ask

SubStance#83, 1997
46 Paul A. Harris

what an ecological concept of texts themselves would be. Here William

Rueckert offers a view that resonates with Serres's Epicurean outlook:
Rueckert posits that "a poem is a stored energy, a formal turbulence, a
living thing, a swirl in the flow," and that "poems are part of the energy
pathways that sustain life" (Rueckert, 108). In the greater ecology of
Serres's work, literary texts do indeed function as "formal turbulences" or
"energy pathways." They are embedded in a transdisciplinary setting
where they serve as what Serres calls "operators," nodes that establish
links across scales and levels of life and between domains of experience
and knowledge. Seen through the lens of Serres, fictional discourse is not
only semio- or psycho-logical but eco-logical as well: it expresses the logic
of oikos,home; fiction negotiates a place and passage in the world.11
The question simply becomes, of course, how one implements such
general pronouncements. What theoretical model enables the text to func-
tion as a vital energy in some ecology? What method of reading opens the
semiotic dimension onto the ecological? And, given Serres's pursuit of a
discourse where "nature is an inside force that breaks that discourse," we
need to ask what the literary contributes to such a discourse. These ques-
tions all hinge on the relation between the semiotic and the "natural"or the
material, a problem to which Serres's work provides a powerful response.
Here it becomes crucial to reassert Serres's basic modus operandi: all
knowledge circulates in an encompassing ecology. "Things" in this ecol-
ogy, such as philosophical concepts, literary texts, and scientific theories,
are configured as topologies.
This method enables one to move fluidly from "within" the text to
mobilizing the text in some larger web of relations. The topological ap-
proach "within" a text identifies the patterns that function on and connect
all its levels: topology adduces homologies among the figures, style, form
and theme of a work, even revealing how these patterns are replicated in
the often inert categories of setting and plot. Put differently, one could say
that Serres shows how to search out the underlying autopoietic principles
of a text: how do the metrical, metaphorical and formal dynamics display
self-similarity? The difficulty in reading or perhaps adequately appreciat-
ing Serres is that he does not set out to demonstrate isomorphic structural
patterns that obtain across different textual levels; rather, he presumes
them from the outset, treating them as a text's primary "operators."Once a
textual operator is adduced, it can move inside the text or set the text in
play with other discursive fields. Generally speaking, an operator for Ser-
res is a concept or trope that opens cross-disciplinary passages and
transcodings. Operators thus can move within a discourse or across boun-

SubStance#83, 1997
The Theorist
The Itinerant 47

daries in any direction. Mathematical and scientific terms and concepts

also serve as operators; for Serres they remain less useful "as an object or a
domain [in themselves] than as a set of operators, a method or strategy for
working on formations different from itself' (Hermes,39).
Because Serres does not grant primacy to any single discipline, he uses
operators to effect translations in either direction between the natural
sciences and literature: how does a scientific term work as an operator in or
on a text; or conversely, what is the physics displayed in a text? For in-
stance, a major thrust of Serres's analysis of De RerumNatura is to recon-
nect Lucretian physics and poetics: to answer "why this physics text is a
poem" by performing an "application of the physics of textures to the text
that announces it" (Naissance, 168; my translation). Serres uses several
strategies to fulfil this task, from generating a language that crosses over
physics and poetics through wordplay (e.g., "vers"and "verseau")to iterat-
ing a spiral pattern common to turbulent flows, several images in the text,
and its overall form.12The danger of ignoring the physics in Lucretius's
poem is that "it cuts Lucretius off from the world," whereas a transdiscipli-
nary treatment of the text marks how its poetics, physics, ethics and
metaphysics all replicate one another and are woven together in the body
of the work. In weaving together the different dimensions or "spaces" of a
fictional text, then, Serres simultaneously demonstrates how literature
weaves together the fabric of culture and, without recourse to theological
explanation, defines humanity's place in a natural order. In the Epicurean
world Lucretius depicts, "the science of things and the science of man go
hand in hand, in identity" (Hermes,121).

Becoming Melville/Olson

If we want to adhere to Serres's modusoperandiin writing about him,

then we do not seek to "apply" his work to something. It is rather a
question of crossing Serres together with other work. One makes "Serres"
an "operator" in a hybrid discourse whose texture and method owe as
much to his example and method as his specific theoretical claims. In order
to translate Serres into the context of American literature and theory, then,
I will briefly read Melville's Moby-Dick in terms of the ecological and
topological aspects of Serres's work.13 The novel lends itself to Serres's
approach for several reasons: its incorporation of several discourses, its
combination of social vision and natural philosophy, and the self-similarity
of its different spaces, from the depiction of the ocean to the work of

SubStance#83, 1997
48 Paul A. Harris

whaling, from its syntactical patterns to its view of social relations. One
could also say that for Melville, as for Serres, nature remains intractable to
analysis; Melville, too, seeks to figure nature as an interior force that ir-
rupts from the outside. Finally, in more abstract terms, the "space" of
Moby-Dick-both its textual space and the physical geography-displays a
distinct, continuous topology.
Melville's writing has been analyzed in terms of topology by Charles
Olson, who is one of the few kindred spirits of Serres in American litera-
ture and criticism. Like Serres, Olson pursues a vision of truly interdiscipli-
nary knowledge and draws on several fields in formulating conceptual
models, which are then translated into their wider cultural implications.
Speaking of his un-disciplined pedagogical practice at the Black Mountain
School, Olson proclaims, "if there are no walls, there are no names ... and
the work of the morning is methodology. How to use yourself and on
what" ("Present Is Prologue," 40).14And Olson's writings on Melville are
among the few possible American analogues to Serres's work.
Both Olson and Serres find in late nineteenth-century mathematics a
discourse of the continuous that expresses a new relation between the
subject, space and the world. Olson extrapolates from Lobatschewsky and
Riemann a vision of space in which

Nothing was now inert fact, all things were there for feeling, to promote it,
and be felt; and man, in the midst of it, knowing well how he was folded in,
as well as how suddenly and strikingly he could extend himself. . . was
suddenly possessed or repossessed of a characterof being, a thing among
things, which I shall call a physicality. ("Equal,"47-48)

This vision of the human's in-folded physicality follows in the Lucretian

spirit of restoring humans to nature. Serres extrapolates from Lucretius a
view of the human as a temporary swirl or eddy that emerges against the
negentropic stream of time: "I am a disturbance, a vortex in turbulent
nature," Serres proclaims; "The wrinkles on my brow are the same as the
ripples on the water" (Hermes,121).
The continuous, fluid space in which Moby-Dickunfolds and Serres
works runs counter to our Cartesian habits of thought and writing, which
operate in a world of discrete objects and separate fields. But the discursive
fields of Melville and Serres, one could say, function according to a distinct
physics. Olson confronts the difference it makes to operate in a world with
a continuous topology: "What is measure when the universe flips and no
part is discrete from another part except by the flow of creation itself, in
and out, intensive where it seemed before qualitative, and the extensive
exactly the widest, which we also have the powers to include?" ("Equal,"

SubStance#83, 1997
The Itinerant Theorist 49

48). How do relations between things work in a world where there is no

impact between solid bodies, no clear demarcation of the boundaries of
discrete things? What do terms (used by Olson) like "action" and
"physicality" mean when we are in a continuous field of energies? And, on
another level, what kind of discourse expresses or embodies this world?
Here Melville's forays into cetology-often disdained by literary
critics who see them as not literary-play a crucial role, for they help
adduce a physics of the continuous. At the same time, of course, the chap-
ters reveal the limits of natural science as a form of knowledge; Ishmael
constantly reminds us that the mystery of the whale lies outside this dis-
course. Still, just as Lucretius uses Epicurean atomism as a basis for ethics,
Melville's cetological chapters lay a certain foundation in physics for the
metaphysics of the whale. This is in large part because Melville creates a
cetology that exceeds natural scientific knowledge. For instance, Ishmael
provides a topological theory of one of the more mysterious aspects of the
whale- the internal composition of its forehead. Topology is often thought
of as geometry on rubber sheets, because it entails stretching and folding
surfaces; the boundaries of inside and outside in topology, of container and
contained, can be constantly folded and transformed. In meditating on the
whale's "battering ram," its formidable forehead, Melville formulates a
remarkable thesis involving a continuous contact between its interior and

considering... theinexplicablemannerin whichhe now depresseshis head

altogetherbeneaththe surface,andanonswimswith it high elevatedout of
the water;consideringthe unobstructedelasticityof its envelop;consider-
ing the uniqueinteriorof its head;it has hypotheticallyoccurredto me, I
say, thatthose mysticallung-celledhoneycombstheremay possiblyhave
some hithertounknownand unsuspectedconnexionwith the outerair,so
as to be susceptibleto atmosphericdistensionand contraction.If thisbe so,
fancythe irresistiblenessof thatmight,to whichthe most impalpableand
destructiveof all elementscontributes.(285)
The imposing "battering-ram," then, turns out to be a permeable
membrane, a topologically continuous surface that connects inside and
outsidein the manner of a Moebius strip. The alternating movement of the
head beneath and then out of the water is conveyed by the rhythm of
Melville's series of phrases, and both image and style mimic the oscillating
"distension and contraction" of the lungs and the elements. The intricate
interiority of the lungs becomes the in-folded extension of the outside air.
Clearly, in Melville's cetology, the boundaries between scientific
knowledge and philosophical speculation become effaced.

SubStance#83, 1997
50 Paul A. Harris

The passage also underscores the scaling nature of this space. Scaling
implies self-similarity across different scales, the embedding and connec-
tion among different scales in a single context. Since it seeks passages
connecting the local and the global, scaling is a primary feature of Serres's
work. Olson sees scaling as an intrinsic part of topological thought, for
only the topological "explains Melville's unique ability to reveal the very
large ... by the small" ("Equal,"49). The power of the whale's forehead,
for example, results from a linkage across scales, an interconnection be-
tween the "impalpable" air in the lungs, the "elasticity" of the forehead
"envelop," and the whale's fluid motion.
Filtered through the lenses of Serres's work, the tropes of Moby-Dick
become a set of topological operations. Several tropes and images in the
novel can be read as versions of a topological operation known as the
"baker transformation" or "horseshoe." As its name indicates, the baker
transformation takes a space and stretches it out one way, then squeezes it
in another, and then folds it over. This kind of spatial kneading is enacted
in "A Squeeze of the Hand," the chapter in which Ishmael relates how the
whale's sperm, once cooled down, becomes lumpy, and the lumps must be
squeezed until the sperm returns to liquid form. Just as the baker transfor-
mation constantly changes the topology of a shape, Ishmael's stretching
and squeezing involves a phase change from solid to liquid. The human
body is also transformed, as it molds itself to the activity until Ishmael's
hand traces the intricately curved contours of the shapes for which con-
tinuous topologies are known: "After having my hands in it for only a few
minutes, my fingers felt like eels, and began, as it were, to serpentine and
spiralize" (348). The "serpentine and spiralized" shapes figured in the
image provide an example of what Olson calls "the elliptical and hyper-
bolic spaces" Melville creates ("Equal,"50).
The most enigmatic, dynamic and formidable "force" in the complex
topology of Melville's space is Moby-Dick. Several striking descriptions of
Moby-Dick simply swimming express the continuous, enfolded nature of
space in this world. The most autonomous presence in the ocean, the one
who brings its fluid force to a head or dense point, Moby-Dick nevertheless
remains immersed in his encompassing, fluid element. When the crew is
pursuing Moby-Dick, Ishmael recounts how "his entire hump was distinct-
ly visible, sliding along the sea as if an isolated thing, and continually set in
a revolving ring of finest, fleecy, greenish foam" (447). Spatial distinctions
blur here: the whale is both above and below the surface, and the boundary
of the whale's form is marked by the intricately patterned foam ring whose
delicate texture replicates the honeycombed interior of the hump. Moby-

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The ItinerantTheorist
The Itinerant Theorist 51

Dick's swath through the water becomes a concert of forces, hues, and
patterns: "Before it... went the glistening white shadow from his broad,
milky forehead, a musical rippling playfully accompanying the shade; and
behind, the blue waters interchangeably flowed over into the moving val-
ley of his steady wake; and on either hand bright bubbles arose and danced
by his side" (447). Following Serres, we may break the description down
into its prepositional linkages, and discover a constant folding over:
"before" and "behind" give way to "accompanying" and "interchange-
ably"; the dynamics of Melville's syntax transform a description of the
whale swimming into an evocation of the medium that envelops the whale;
the whale and ocean merge in an entangled play of forces.
The harmonious resonance of elements (air bubbles, flowing water, a
supple body) and forces in the passage persists amid a highly turbulent
motion. This combination of resonance and turbulence is another example
of scaling: one of the major insights provided by models of turbulence in
chaos theory is that fluid turbulence displays an intricately nested, self-
similar pattern of swirls within swirls.'5 Thus the churning waters stirred
by the immense whale actually comprise a complex internal order and
economy of forces. Precisely this form of turbulence is one of Serres's
favorite tropes, for it signals a disorder that harbors a different form of
order. Translating Melville's imagery back into Serres, we might liken the
description of Moby-Dick swimming to Venus rising from the waves,
"Venus turbulente,"16 an image Serres uses to express the emergence of
order (Venus as an avatar of Eros) from chaos.17
For Olson, Melville's concrete physical descriptions of this kind reveal
nothing less that "the actual character and structure of the real itself." The
structure of a real made up of a "flow . . . in and out, intensive," is
composed most essentially of a tension between motion and rest. As Olson
points out, Melville joins "the feeling or necessity of the inert... to the
most instant and powerful actions" ("Equal,"51). An exemplary passage in
this regard is Melville's expression for how Moby-Dick moves in the water:
"A gentle joyousness-a mighty mildness of repose in swiftness, invested
the gliding whale" (447). The texture of the real, Olson argues, is composed
of a "flexible inertial field" ("Equal," 52). Topology is critical to under-
standing the nature of forms in this medium because it provides a means
to perceive and describe fluid, dynamic shapes defined less by distinct
outline than scaling properties. Topology thus sharpens perception and
simultaneously conceptualizes the spatial attributes of perceived shapes
because it makes one "able to discriminate and get in between the vague

SubStance#83, 1997
52 Paul A. Harris

types of form morphology offers and the ideal structures of geometry

proper" ("Equal,"49).
Olson's formulation is particularly interesting in a contemporary con-
text because it reads like an anticipation of the proclamation Benoit Man-
delbrot18makes in the opening of TheFractalGeometryof Nature: "Clouds
are not spheres, mountains are not cones, coastlines are not circles, and
bark is not smooth, nor does lightning travel in a straight line .... Nature
exhibits not simply a higher degree but an altogether different level of
complexity." Mandelbrot thus proposes that fractal geometry provides a
"morphology of the 'amorphous'"'(1). The scaling properties of fractals are
what enable such a morphology to emerge; irregular shapes like clouds
and mountains have a consistency, a degree of roughness that obtains
across all scales, expressed as their fractal dimension.

Topology and Impalpability

However, there is a crucial difference in inflection between Mandel-

brot's rhetoric and that of Serres and Olson. For Mandelbrot, fractal
geometry represents a new, better mathematical language of nature: simple
equations can be iterated to produce magnificently complex forms that
resemble "nature" more closely that Euclidean geometry. I would place
Serres's use of topology and fractals differently though; his work upholds
a metaphysics in which morphological discourses reach limits where an
essential formlessness or opacity of the world is revealed. Or rather, in his
Epicurean meta-physics, there is no "bottom" or minimal building block in
the world because "the clinamen performs the first coding": beneath the
foundation is a ground, but it is always in the process of a shearing away;
the eddy's temporary stability emerges out of a primary turbulence.
If read through Serres rather than Mandelbrot, the discourse of math-
ematical exactitude that fractal geometry represents harbors its own ver-
tiginous undoing. Even as scaling indicates a new way of perceiving
spatial order and form, the very nature of scaling also harbors a quality of
groundlessness or impalpability. The movement "down" scales, through a
process called recursive deletion, brings one into a realm of imperceptible
dust. Take the iterative operation that generates the Cantor set, for in-
stance: begin with a bar, cut out the middle third; then cut out the middle
third of each resulting bar, and so on-"ad infinitum,"as the textbooks say.
The only trouble is, one cannot simply keep going on infinitely in any
embodied sense-one meets instead with the dissolution of the spatial

SubStance#83, 1997
The Itinerant Theorist 53

form. This is the thrust of Brian Rotman's thesis in Ad Infinitum: a "cor-

porealized mathematics," Rotman argues, necessitates "a radically new
conception of iteration [that] replaces the endless repetition of the orthodox
picture, the iteration of the same, by an entropic diminuendo" (10-11).
Thus, rather than thinking of self-similarity across scale extending infinite-
ly down, the components involved in the iterative operation

areseen to dissipate,fadeout and becomeindeterminateas countingthem

intobeingis everfurtherprolonged-an indeterminacy thatseemscloserto
our actual experienceof iterationthan any transcendentallymysterious

Returning to the fluid world of Serres-Olson-Melville, we could say

that even as topology enables one to discern complex forms in a supple
medium, the fluid nature of the medium itself effaces the contours of forms
and leaves one at sea. The topology and physics of the world soon merge
into a metaphysical and overtly mystical realm. Ecology confronts its own
limits, beyond which lie paths leading to a return to various forms of
animism or a silence, a respectful distance. The way in which physicality
merges into mysticism in Melville is made clear in "The Whiteness of the
Whale," where whiteness functions as an irreducibly plural sign, both a
bodily quality and an uncanny signifier that points into a void. Similarly,
Melville's last depictions of Moby-Dick imbue his tremendous physical
presence with a nebulous quality. On the final day of the chase, the whale
emerges from the waters in a much more chaotic manner: "Suddenly the
waters around them swelled in broad circles; then quickly upheaved, as if
sideways sliding from a submerged berg of ice, swiftly rising to the surface
... and then ... a vast form shot lengthwise, but obliquely from the sea"
(464). The abrupt motion and tangential movement of the whale signals his
imminent disappearance beyond the sailors' ken.
Even though he is the most discernible form amid the amorphous
depths of the ocean, Moby-Dick finally dissipates into an impalpable trace.
"Shrouded in a thin drooping veil of mist, it hovered for a moment in the
rainbowed air; and then fell swamping back into the deep" (464). The mist,
the last visible trace left by the whale, is the exemplary sign of its irreducib-
ly mysterious nature. In the chapter entitled "The Fountain," Ishmael ob-
serves that when the whale "is hidden in the snowy sparkling mist
enveloping it," one cannot distinguish that cascading water from the mist,
nor can one ever tell whether the spout is air or water or-Ishmael's

SubStance#83, 1997
54 Paul A. Harris

hypothesis-"nothing but mist" (313). The boundaries of the whale's form

and the nature of its expelled breath suddenly become entirely nebulous,
cloudy. At bottom, this image awakens "thick mists of dim doubts" in
Ishmael's mind, "doubts of all things earthly" (314). Beneath the complexly
folded surface of Serres's writing there lies a similar skepticism. Serres sees
the texture of the world as an irreducible, constantly shifting multiplicity.
By nature, "[The multiple] is perhaps somewhat viscous" (Gen?se,19). As
Maria Assad points out, this statement "undermines the certainty of
being": it hesitates to pronounce ("perhaps somewhat") reality anything at
all-even "multiple" or "viscous" ("Tropography," 281). A viscous multi-
plicity, composed perhaps, of... nothing but mist.
One very concrete reason that the real seems elusive, if not illusory, is
the transience of all "things." In the turbulent world of the continuous,
temporary forms of order ultimately return to chaos: "the vortices will
come undone . .. all these disturbances will return to the original stream-
ing" (Hermes,121). Serres's image replicates the last sight we have of the
Pequod: "And now, concentric circles seized the lone boat itself, and all its
crew, and each floating oar, and every lance-pole, and spinning, animate
and inanimate, all round and round in one vortex, carried the smallest chip
of the Pequod out of sight" (469). For Melville, the vortex swallowing the
Pequod is on the one hand an image of the self-destruction inherent in the
drive for mastery Ahab embodies in the novel; on the other hand, the
vortex is a gateway of both death and life, as Ishmael emerges from it on
Queequeg's coffin. Similarly, for Serres, the dissolution of the vortices of
life represents a "natural process," part of the cycle of life in a dissipative,
entropic stream of time.

Home At-Las(t)

Serres recombines discourses and knowledges into new configura-

tions, negotiating passages and creating openings in the fabric of culture, in
order to create niches in a landscape adapted to the changing conditions of
the contemporary world. In this respect, Serres practices cultural ecology at
its etymological roots (ecology, from oikos,Greek for house). At the core of
the quickly growing interest in eco-criticism is the simple sense-produced
by complex factors-that now, as humanity becomes a quaking presence in
the biosphere, it must come to realize anew that the earth is our home and
demands care. Ecological discourse is capable of contributing to this care
because it represents a cultural site where technological development,

SubStance#83, 1997
The Itinerant Theorist 55

scientific knowledge and a higher ethical (if not spiritual) calling can con-
verge within a set of reality, pleasure and moral principles alike. 19 Verena
Conley, for instance, yokes together feminist discourse, Guattari's
"ecosophy," and a critical evaluation of technologies in order to show that
"the world... needs to be treated with tact, and treated with patience" (89).
A central challenge facing cultural ecology is to reimagine our home in
terms of how technologized and virtual environments intersect with the
biosphere. This project is at the heart of Serres's Atlas (1994), a narrative
framed as a journey that explores both virtual spaces and various
geographies in order to fold together the natural, textual and the tech-
nological. Here a more worldly Serres offers a kind of retropsective resum6
that weaves together several strands of his work. But the maps drawn in
Atlas also include unexpected sites: the last sojourn recounts a journey to
Tibet inflected through the lenses of Tintin, the abominable snowman, and
Chuang Tzu's butterfly dream. This trip is less like a New Age spiritual
quest into a comic-book Buddhism than a revamped journey across the
tundra searching out Frankenstein's monster; but Serres seeks out a more
beneficient relation between human and machine, flesh and digital
domains. His Atlas comprises a "cartedu Tendre-verbe et adjectif," a map
both of tender in the adjectival sense and the verb tendre, to hold out, to
pitch a tent or spread a sail. In short, Serres seeks to stretch out and across
spaces in order to move toward the next fold, a possible and more tenable
In the conclusion of Italo Calvino's InvisibleCities,Marco Polo, peering
into Kublai Khan's imperial atlas, searches out "an opening in the midst of
an incongruous landscape, a glint of lights in the fog, the dialogue of two
passersby meeting in the crowd." Using these components, Polo seeks to
"'put together, piece by piece, the perfect city, made of fragments mixed
with the rest, of instants separated by intervals, of signals one sends out,
not knowing who receives them"' (164). In answer to Khan's entropic
vision that "'the last landing place can only be the infernal city,"' Polo
articulates a new creed:

There are two ways to escape [the inferno of the living]. The first is easy for
many:acceptthe infernoand become such a part of it that you can no
longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and
apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of
the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space. (165)

SubStance#83, 1997
56 Paul A. Harris

Serres, sharing his longtime friend Calvino's vision, has done much to
preserve value amid the constant encroachments of destructive narrow-
mindedness in institutionalized knowledge. Combining a classical training
and sensibility with an ability to absorb contemporary trends and exper-
tise, Serres offers tools necessary to find and preserve the differences that
can make a difference.
LoyolaMarymount University


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1. The ecstatic experience Serresrecounts was not shared by others, of course. For
a very different account of the Loma Pieta quake, see Brown, Cyclesof Rockand Water
2. Apparently, Serres sketched out his entire intellectual project and map of
knowledge at a very early stage in his career, and his voluminous work has adhered
to this vision quite strictly.
3. For Serres's critique of the "interface" metaphor, see his remarks in a
workshop in Livingston, ed., pp. 251-58. For Serres's vision of interdisciplinary pas-
sages, see especially HermesV: LePassagedu Nord-Ouest(Paris:Minuit, 1980).
4. For a treatmentof the in-between as a conceptual operatorfor interdisciplinary
work (in which Serres is treated briefly), see Batt (1994).
5. For one of Serres's more explicit meditations on pedagogical issues, see
"Literatureand the Exact Sciences."
6. Compare Serres's analysis with Bateson's discussions of cultural pathologies
in "Conscious Purpose versus Nature" in StepsToAn Ecologyof Mindand "'Timeis Out
of Joint,"the Appendix in Mind andNature.
7. Paulson's notion of "culturalecology" no doubt has been shaped in part by his
extensive work on Serres. See his chapter on Serres in TheNoise of Culture(pp. 30-52).
8. For an explication of Serres's concept of structure, see Paulson, Noise, p. 32f.
9. For an example of how Serres studies the topological relationships expressed
in prepositions, see the treatment of Maupassant's tale "TheHorla" in Atlas,pp. 61-85.

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58 Paul
Paul A.
A. Harris

10. For an overview of the questions ecocriticismposes about texts, see Glotfelty.
11. See Serres'sremarksin "Languageand Space"on Oedipus("thisis a discourse
that weaves a complex ..., that connects a network, that traces a graph upon space"
(47)) and TheOdyssey.
12. Here I would disagree with the critiqueHayles (1990)makes of Serres.Hayles
observes that Serres's own essays display a spiral form, but she insists that the tur-
bulence at the heart of Lucretianphysics "cannotbe modeled as a spiral, which is far
too orderly to express its extreme complexity." Hayles claims that "Serresdoes not so
much express turbulence, then, as tame it" (202). This seems to read Serres against
rather than with the grain of his discourse; one might say that Hayles, in literalizing
the spiral metaphor into a spatial model or geometric figure, tames the noise and
turbulence of Serres. For a different treatment of the problem of how Serres attempts
to write turbulence, see Assad (1991).
13. For a fruitful reading of Melville in terms of Serres, see Alexander Gelley's
use of Serres'sparasite in reading Melville's TheConfidence-Man, in Gelley, pp. 79-100.
14. The first time I heard Serres speak I wondered, echoing Olson's phrase, how
to use Serres and on what. Serres'sthought can induce a drug-like effect-I remember
his lecture evoking a futuristic city composed of elements from ancient metropolises,
combining realistic detail and a fantastic conception in a way reminiscent of an in-
visible city of Calvino's. Initially, I tried to discern the argument Serres was present-
ing, and the flow of his language and the train of his thought seemed utterly
opaque-especially given the limitations of my French. But once I listened with a
more subconscious, holistic form of attention, his city began to take shape before me
as an abstract structure with the intricately filigreed texture of a fractal. In retrospect,
after the talk, and then later in reading the version of the talk distilled into prose, it
was hard to retrace the connection between the original words and this elusive im-
pression they formed in the mind's eye.
15. This insight is not a "discovery" of chaos theory, however. As Mandelbrot
(1983)points out, Lewis Fry Richardsonactually described the self-similarity of eddies
linked by a cascade in turbulent flow in a 1926 paper.
16. The phrase, which appears on the back cover of Genese,is cited and explored
by Assad in depth. Assad even sounds like a combination of Olson and Melville when
she characterizes the trope of genesis/chaos as "that tumultuous chaos that is the
nurturing, primal plasma of stochastic moments of invention" (279).
17. For a detailed examination of this trope in Serres, see Assad (1991).
18. Serres has voiced the impact that reading Mandelbrothas had on his work in
several places.
19. An instance of this sort of convergence between technological, scientific, and
spiritual interests from a scientist is Stuart Kauffman's At Home in the Universe:The
Searchfor the Lawsof Self-Organization and Complexity,in which Kauffman expresses
"the hope that what some are calling the new sciences of complexity may help us find
anew our place in the universe, that through this new science, we may recover our
sense of worth, our sense of the sacred." More than new scientific knowledge, these
scientific ideas ostensibly are to provide "a new way to think about origins, evolution,
and the profound naturalness of life and its myriad patterns of unfolding" (Kauffman,
4-5). The intriguing aspect of Kauffman's rhetoric is the extent to which it is inflected
through capitalism-economics and the flows of capital are constant illustrative ex-
amples of the "laws" Kauffman evokes-and technology-simulations in virtual
space are the basis from which several of Kauffman'slaws derive.

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