First Meditation on our Ways of Knowing

And my interfering epidermis, so sensitive to the slightest shaking of the ground. This receptivity is comprehensible. For like the atoms of things, the ego radiates with valences. An octopus, equipped with eight tentacles, a starfish, Briareus or Vishnu with a hundred arms, a neuron adapted to a hundred synapses … everything happens as though the ego - echo of a thousand voices - throughout its life was sweeping across the periodic classification of the elements, taking on in passing more and more numerous connections. Carbon and oxygen me, gold, silver and metal me, even rare earth. The value of someone, that is to say his health, is measured by the number and the quality of his valences. Through these pseudopod bunches, at the extremities of which delicate sensibility takes place, he picks up, receives and welcomes others, sometimes thusly equipped. Through these emanating channels, he sometimes becomes others, becomes his male or female neighbor. He caresses her, he offers to penetrate her, she refuses or accepts. I think, therefore I flow into an other.

I think like the wounded man on the road, especially as, Samaritan, I’m passing here through a country that considers me to be a public enemy, the excluded and hated other. Here I am other facing an other whose two egos come together. Not taking himself for a subject, the first doesn’t turn the other into an object, thrown, at a distance, before: sympathetic, he knows his suffering, transports him, anoints him, bandages him, pays for his care, gives him life again; and becomes his fellow man, his neighbor in the superlative, with no more distance, skin to skin in some way, at the least pitying look at the imploring face. The two valences go in concert.

When I caress my girlfriend, my eyes magnify her gaze, my sense of touch clothes and exalts her skin that glorifies mine. The ego lives and has value from creating ego in others who can, then, pay it back tenfold, in life and value. Without this creativity of others, toward them and through them, with them and in them - valences radiate along the paths opened up by prepositions - the ego, sickly, autistic, sick, castrated of its valences, without value, devoid of health … annihilates, breaks, destroys the ego of others. Like the torpedo fish, to which the narcissus owes its name, the egoist strikes the neighbor down with narcotic torpor. The only things that exist around him are objects, well-named since he projects or rejects them. Then, hell is other people. Contrary to this pathetic destruction, I think, therefore I become he or she about whom I am thinking.

Now here today are other neighbors, constituents of the Biogea: the sea, my lover; our mother, the Earth, become our daughter; this beautiful breeze which inspires the spirit, a spiritual mistress; our light friends, the fresh and flowing waters; and our brothers, the living things … are henceforth no longer objects. Scholars or not, we presuppose, almost unbeknownst to us, that puritanical distinction between the subject, me or we, and said objects. We suffer from an ego armored with walls, with turtle shells, incapable of caressing. I prefer the Good Samaritan to this autism with its saurian or serpentine epidermis, the Good Samaritan with his velvety touch, whose access to the wounded man, lying in the ditch, testifies to a simply human sensitivity to the neighbor; his open behavior indicates a talented lover’s skin. Subjects, we pave the world, I mean hell, with objects, named thus by us because thrown before us, rejected, better, disposable: trashcan-Earth, polluted air, dead seas, factory farmed fowl, feet welded into the cement, an unclean world, sewage fields, soiled by us for us to appropriate them. Destroyed by a collective that’s narcissistic in its turn.

That the subject, collective or personal, determines objects in this way defines the reason of an admirable, useful science, to which we owe comfort and lucidity, but henceforth outdated; formerly admirable, its rational triumph hesitates today before unreasonable limits. This exact and precise process of objectivizing things lasted three centuries and amounts to one aspect, one face, a partial work of reason, which today has more and better to do before the certain agony of things and men, an agony due, precisely, to this objectivization, due, in turn, to the definition of a subject deprived of valences. Decision and exclusive division: on one side, this subject, personal or collective, royal; on the other, the passive and submissive objects, reduced to a few dimensions of space, time, mass, energy and power, almost naked, undressed, bloodless. Simplistic and naive, implacable, of an unparalleled cruelty, this way of knowing accompanied fields of knowledge that today we find easy: the sciences said to be hard, objective, whose royal supremacy, until recently uncontestable, is drawing to an end. We are changing paradigm.

In a different way more difficult, subtle and complete, the life and Earth sciences, henceforth put in the center of cognition, take over. They practice a more sharing, open, connected way of knowing, in which he who knows participates in the things he knows, is even reborn from them, tries to speak their language, listens to their voices, respects their habitat, lives the same evolutionary history, is enchanted by their narratives, limits finally, through them or for them, his power and his politics, so oddly named after the city, from which the Biogea is absent. The life and Earth sciences are once again sewing together the tear that was separating the subject and its objects. Dare I say that they become human from it? Yes, I am what I think which is also me; I am who I caress and what I feel. Unburdened of its exclusive prerogatives and having decided to give up a part of them, the knowing subject objectivizes itself, the object cognitivizes itself.

Stripped by highwaymen - my ancestors and contemporaries - you are begging for mercy below the ditch that runs alongside my route; I hear you, subject Biogea, thrown below, oh, my neighbor. I weigh on her who weighs on me, I think like her.

Michel Serres from Biogea  (2010 - 2012)

Burning Rats

“Just as alone in his hermitage as yours truly, but miles from here, madam, south of us, in that strange Mediterranean devoid of tides, a colleague keeping watch off Vulcano Island, in the Aeolian Islands, also known as the Lipari, not far from the shores of Sicily, I’m talking about the days of the wooden navy and about places I imagine without ever having sailed there, a colleague, as I was saying, one fine morning saw, while he was tranquilly cleaning the lenses of his lamps with a shammy in his lantern room, an ugly dismasted hull come straight toward his rock. He gestured, shook his handkerchief, to no avail; the boat, holding course, came closer, closer…. My colleague rushed down the spiral staircase four at a time, took down the semaphore signs at a run, left by the door onto the rock, and unfurled all he could of the green, red and turquoise blue surface so that the imbeciles would turn as quickly as possible. ‘My word, everyone on board is drunk,’ he said to himself.”

“He, my colleague, was the imbecile, when he realized, but then quite late for his ignorant landsman skin, that it was a matter of what was called in those days a ghost ship, not that of the Wagnerian circus, but of those unfortunate boats on which the crew was no longer able to reason with the small beasts and on which, entirely in reverse, said beasts feasted on the organs and bones of all the sailors, including the skipper and the ship’s boy for dessert. It even sometimes happened that a few last survivors lowered the whaleboat and left the rodents as the sole masters of the ship. Every man for himself! And here came the hull invaded by four-legged sailors with mustachioed snouts and pink tails drifting with the winds and in God’s hands. In those days, lookouts from every ship would steer clear of them, crossing themselves, when they encountered those ill-fated boats from afar.”

“Come on, Monsieur Arhan, you exaggerate. I don’t believe in ghost ships.”

“At the time of my Navy service, I myself saw, on land, a poor quartermaster, on guard in a sort of fallout shelter, come out one morning quite injured. A power failure had locked him in the cellar for the night, the airtight doors blocked by the automatic locks. Blindly and barehanded, for twelve solid hours he had to fight those beasts from hell, certain of which would jump on his face, attacking his soft parts and eyes, while others ate his calves. Fortunately, they weren’t very numerous. A swarming pack would have devoured him before midnight, completely raw. He spent two months in Morvan hospital.”

“I’m getting back to my boats. When the hellish new passengers no longer had anything for their teeth to gnaw on - hawser, barrel, dried cod, biscuits or sailors - they would end up, starving, dying with open mouths, rabid, or by killing each other so as to eat one another, like cursed shipwrecked people. We kill one another, you know, madam, us and the rats, the only animals that murder within their species.”

“You know,” said old Arhan with a nervous motion of his pipe, “when there’s no longer anything but humans on the Earth, like the rodents of the lighthouse and boat, when we’ve destroyed every other living species, at the rate that this disaster is going today, who’ll eat what, I ask you, aboard our ghost planet? We’ll devour each other between brothers and sisters on this cursed ship. And drink the blood of our cousins. When is it due to arrive?”

“I am getting back, madam, to my Italian lighthouse. Letting go, at once, of the whole load of pennants, my colleague bolted flat out to lock himself in his stone tower at the very moment that this yacht of rotten wood crashed with a great noise on the lighthouse rocks - the entire rest of his life, the keeper heard, after this fracas of shattered sterns, the immense rumbling of the rats whose enraged mob cries drowned out, at a stroke, the background noise made by the sea, even calm - and that tens of thousands of animals, fasting since forever and a day, rushed and disembarked all together, like a syzygy tide flowing at Mont Saint-Michel, and galloped at his heels to devour him, pea coat included. He went through the door, didn’t have time to close it, didn’t succeed under the weight of the invasion in barricading it, climbed the steps fast as the wind with these millions of creatures at his heels, already trampling them, crushed two or three, finally reached the lantern room, slammed the iron leaf behind him, slid the three bolts, and, before collapsing with breathlessness and terror, battered with a bar the five or six intruders that succeeded in penetrating with him all the way upstairs into the glass cockpit of the lantern room. End of the first act.”

“Scene now. A pretty sea, gentle wind, spring clouds, booms and ratlines broken in disorder at the lighthouse’s foot, and the entire hillock islet now covered with this moving swarming, of an innumerable depth, and above all - oh, my eardrums - the enormous rumbling of the rodents attempting to climb the tower, covering almost all of it, filling at least the totality of the volume of the spiral staircase…. Was the door of the lantern going to hold? Howling and sticky, a mass was pushing it and, behind the fragile panel, my poor colleague panting. That, madam, is the entire story: all of a sudden, without warning, alone against an army. You think you’re calm, cleaning your things with a nanny-goat skin, and, suddenly, the downpour of rats…. Who’d believe it?”

Through the whistling of the west wind that enveloped Creac'h like a flapping tunic, while said first lady was having coffee in the watch room, she thought she heard the shrill commotion of that appalling mob seeking to devour everything.

“The second act, Monsieur Arhan?”

“Scene, again. From the harbor master’s residence on land, at Milazzo I believe, without being able to guarantee it, it was of course impossible to see, in the evening, out in the open sea, the flashes of the lighthouse. Stuck next to the lenses, hungry, thirsty, without sleep due to fright, my colleague couldn't light the lamp: the sparking device was outside the lantern room, on the side with the rats. Who, from the Sicilian shore, could have guessed the adventure? The officials raged, saying that the keeper was failing in his duties. 'Is the bastard drunk?’ 'No, sick,’ said his substitute colleagues, better-speaking than those slanderers. And the lighthouse remained in the dark. Navigation became dangerous again in the region, and the Strait of Messina sea lane - Charybdis and Scylla, madam! - wasn’t far from there. Something had to be done quickly, for no arriving ship could know that the signal had gone out. No AVURNAV at that time, nor radio or Internet, nor that infernal GPS that could, certainly, lead us to paradise.”

“At the end of the night of waiting, still hoping that the keeper would relight, they fitted out some dingy or other to go and have a look on the scene. And they saw, yes, the leaning, ripped-open wreck, almost upright on the rock, the foremast fallen across, the beam demolished, the boom broken, in the midst of scattered planks; and on the aft wall: Danae, from Liverpool.” “No!” exclaimed old Arhan, “my colleague’s tower didn’t receive a shower of gold that morning, but a flood of cries! For they also saw, no, rather heard, the infernal pullulating; the lighthouse moving with life and vibrating with deafening howls. I have difficulty believing what the witnesses said on their return: the rats, having climbed clutching one over the other, were piled up along the tower and were forming, outside, from top to bottom, up to the lantern room to which they couldn’t hoist themselves without slipping, a kind of colossal vibrating column, howling to the skies from starvation.”

“Impossible to disembark, as you can imagine. They crossed themselves, the way the lookouts who passed that horror formerly did on the open sea; they returned to land and wondered what to do. What would you have done, madam? What would I have done myself to fight against that tide, to defeat the invincible armada?”

Arhan left the first lady of France in suspense for a moment.

“The third and final act?” she said.

“Then, the stroke of genius: I no longer know which quartermaster, the son of a butcher from the neighboring village on the coast, rushed into the harbor master’s in the morning, shoved the guard aside, and, stuttering his sentences, so much were the words crowding against his teeth, suggested that a tugboat should set sail at once ('An idea my little sister had,’ he said, 'you know, the piquant brunette, the one in love with the keeper, who’d so much like to marry him.’) with a barge crammed with bones and rotting meat in tow. His father would get them at the renderer and bring them right away with the horse. The harbor master, understanding nothing of all this, considered the sailor crazy, but embarked with him on the barge. Everything had to be tried.”

“They got underway to the ghost lighthouse; arriving within sight of it, they maneuvered in circles, slowly, so that the barge, at the end of the towline and full to bursting with the remnants of the rendering, would land, in its turn, by gently hitting the rocks; it touched them, caressing them with its quarter on land. Drawn, lured, intoxicated by the abominable odor of meat as infernal as their rabidity, the rats, seeing the end of their Ramadan, undressed and emptied the lighthouse in a lightning-fast stampede, hurtling down the stairs, freeing the islet, racing in carnage to the boat and, piled on, filled it to the brim at the risk of sending it to the bottom. Then, the quartermaster, having a quiet laugh, cut the cable, and the rats, mustaches, paws and mouths red with the blood of the rotting meat, became the sailors of a second ghost ship, wandering once again with the wind and on the pretty sea. Onto which the tug’s pumps then poured tons of gas in a stream.”

“'Take the torch, sailor, and set fire to those pests, God dammit!’ 'I too remember,’ recounted later the owner of the tug and barge, having shouted that order, 'I remember the infernal clamor emitted by that swarming and scorched city, plunged in crimson flames that shot up, instantaneously, as high as the lighthouse. Fanned by a gust of wind, the giant and reeking fire ship drifted out into the open sea for a long time; vanishing behind the horizon, in front of the setting sun, one would have thought it a second erupting Stromboli. The girl in love had a good idea. Love doesn’t only move the stars, it also lights volcanoes.’”

“They plied the oars toward the lighthouse, where they picked my colleague, gone mad, up off the floor of the lantern room. For a long time, he remained in an asylum where his ears still resonated with the innumerable rumbling of the rats pushing in mass behind the shaky bolts ready to come loose.”

“For a long time he didn’t dare open when someone was knocking at his door.”

From that day on, the lady of the waterside feared seeing the rebirth, come from the western horizon and making for her, of a ghost swarming with little beasts.

for Differends ‏@differentends