System Seminar: Michel Serres ‘The Parasite’

Michel Serres’s work provides an engaging insight with regard to the notion of system. Whether through a reading of his early work on thermodynamics, information theory, noise and sensation or through reading him parallel with recent articulations on matter and meaning in the new-materialisms. Serres, as with DeLanda, Barad and Haraway, brings together a mixture of philosophies of language with materialism, materiality and meaning emerging out of each other. I have really only begun to get my head around the key themes but will continue to explore him in relation to Deleuze and DeLanda, my theory of aesthetics as emergence, sensation and geophilosophy. For now I just wanted to outline some very basic ideas in relation ‘The Parasite’, which was the selected reading for a recent system seminar.

Definitions of the parasite:

1. To one side of (para) the location of the event (site) – the medium or being through which communication must pass.

2. The ‘static’ that interrupts the transmission of a message.

3. The uninvited guest or ‘social’ parasite.

4. A living organism that takes without giving as it infects its hosts

5. The one who is always near to food, close to the meat

6. A thermal exciter, that which catalyses the system to a new equilibrium state

For Serres, the parasitic relation is the basic atom of all interaction, all entities relate, communicate, interrupt, filter and flow as a mixture of the material components of the parasitic or through the parasite of linguistic representation. Central to this characterization of relations is the noise that interrupts the message, he says ‘Noise calls for decipherment; it makes a reading of the message more difficult. And yet without it, there would be no message. There is, in short, no message without resistance’.

Some quotes from Serres and Steven Connor (who has a fantastic essay on Serres’s theory of the ‘Hard and Soft’ full essay here).

‘Sight gazes without seeing at a world from which information has already fled. Representation, a still ornamental species in the process of extinction, provokes gawking admiration in the public parks and gardens where onlookers congregate. Touch sees a little. It has heard’. (Five Senses, Philosophy of Mingled Bodies)

‘There is only one type of knowledge and it is always linked to an observer, and observer submerged in a system or in its proximity. And this observer is structured exactly like what he observes. His position changes only the relationship between noise and information, but he himself never effaces these two stable presences. There is no more separation between subject on the one hand, and the object, on the other (an instance of clarity and an instance of shadow). This separation makes everything inexplicable and unreal. Instead, each term of the traditional subject-object divide (in the same way as I am, who speak and write today): noise, disorder and chaos on the one side; complexity, arrangement and distribution on the other. Nothing distinguishes me ontologically from a crystal, a plant, an animal, or the order of the world; we are drifting together toward the noise and the black depths of the universe, and our diverse systemic complexions are flowing up the entropic stream, toward the solar origin, itself adrift. Knowledge is at most the reversal of drifting, that strange conversion of times, always paid for by additional drift; but this is complexity itself, which was once called being. Virtually stable turbulence within the flow. To be or to know from now on will be translated by: see the islands, rare or fortunate, the work of chance or of necessity’. (The Origin of Language)

Michel Serres’s work has been formed by two forms of scientific thinking, the thermodynamics of the nineteenth century, and the information theory of the middle of the twentieth century. The most important thing about thermodynamics is that, for the first time, time entered into the things of science, as the great reversible equations of Newtonian mechanics and the thermodynamic theory of Sadi Carnot, gave way to the understanding, following the work of Rudolf Clausius and William Thomson, that heat only flows from hot to cold, that heat, like time, has an irreversible direction. The great, sobering discovery of nineteenth-century thermodynamics is that matter is not just sunk in and subjected to time, but is internally riddled with it. Time is stored in and emitted by matter, rather than matter being buried in and propagated by time. The stone is not bowled along by the river, the river percolates slowly through the stone. (Steven Connor, Hard and Soft)

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