by Ashraf Jamal
Published 22 years ago, Michel Serres’ Le Contrat Naturel – The Natural Contract – prophetically reminds us of the dark consequences of urban densification and the interior life, a life sound-proofed, locked in chat rooms, the better to affirm our blithe yet catastrophic separation from the world all about us. Trapped within the yeah-saying language of science, the normative language of bureaucracy, and the sensational language of the media, we, today, “communicate irrepressibly,” notes Serres. “We busy ourselves only with our own networks. We have lost the world. We’ve transformed things into fetishes or commodities, the stakes of our stratagems; and our a-cosmic philosophies, for almost half a century now, have been holding forth only on language or politics, writing or logic.”
We encounter nature and its catastrophes via the teat that is the internet. Such is the degree of our estrangement, we have lost the capacity to grasp the threat that envelops us. As Serres witheringly reminds us: “If there is a material, technological, and industrial pollution, which exposes weather to conceivable risks, then there is also a second pollution, invisible, which puts time in danger, a cultural pollution that we have inflicted on long-term thoughts, those guardians of the Earth, of humanity, and of things themselves. If we don’t struggle against the second, we will lose the fight against the first.”
The question is: have we not already lost the battle? Europe 22 years ago “weigh[ed] at least a quarter-billion souls. Not only in body weight, but in its crossed networks of relations and the number of world-objects at its disposal. It behaves like a sea,” and like a sea an element unchained and mutinous. When unevenly distributed, “skyrocketing demographic growth becomes stuck together in giant units, colossal banks of humanity as powerful as oceans, deserts, or icecaps, themselves stockpiles of ice, heat, dryness, or water; these immense units feed on themselves, advance and weigh upon the planet, for worse and for better.” Global inequality shows up this polluted and sullied world, a world marked by “the foul stamp” of privilege, hegemony, and the “exclusive appropriation of things.” This exclusiveness, as Serres reminds us, is none other than parasitism, a parasitism that must be vanquished if the earth is to survive us. Thus: “parasites have to become symbionts; the excesses they commited against their hosts put the parasites in mortal danger, for dead hosts can no longer feed or house them. When the epidemic ends, even microbes disappear, for lack of carriers for their proliferation.” Hence Serres’ invocation of “a natural contract of symbiosis and reciprocity in which our relationship to things would set aside mastery and possession in favour of admiring attention, reciprocity, contemplation, and respect; where knowledge would no longer imply property, nor action mastery, nor would property and mastery imply their excremental results and origins.”
It is here, in this natural contract of symbiosis and reciprocity that we find the health of our present and our future survival as a species, as diverse yet intersecting communities, and as active agents of epistemic, psychic, and cultural betterment In drawing our attention to the sullied or excremental root of systems based on self interest – be they interests vested in the ego, nation, region, or god – Serres compels us the more to learn to reconfigure and transform these parasitic investments, for the simple reason that, inevitably, these investments kill the host that feeds them – be that host an idea, a thing, or lebensraum. Diversity, interpenetration, ceaseless crossings and re-crossings are critical, for a living form or being to thrive requires the perpetual estrangement of the known. Here “knowledge would no longer imply property, nor action mastery.” Rather, through the divestiture of one’s inheritance, the opening up of closed networks, and the erasure of all provenance and value, one begins – as a thing multiple, as that which multiplies – to revivify the accumulated waste which we have perceived as ballast. “There is nothing weaker than a global system that becomes a single unit. A single law corresponds to sudden death. The more plural an individual becomes, the better he lives: the same is true for societies, or for being in general.”
Embarking with Michel Serres, we enter upon the concerns of this colloquium, one forged in the very midst of a global economic, cultural, and seismic catastrophe, a catastrophe marked by psychic atrophy born from resistance to and yet the appearance of change, and by the manipulation of resources without thought for the generative value of manipulation or innovation. True: things appear to alter; true: novelty is king. And yet, what urgently needs to be addressed is the very basis for alteration and innovation. Diversity framed by a culture of consumption means little, indeed nothing. It is not a matter of being spoilt for choice; rather, what matters all the more critically is the matter of choice. And it is here that Nicholas Bourriaud’s conception of the postproductive meets Michel Serres call for a symbiosis and divestiture in the very making of change. In setting aside mastery and possession as the defining quality of a relationship – be it to things or people – we begin to recover a far richer basis for the production of things and meanings. What has become forcefully evident, particularly over the past decade and counting is the evidence that novelty and innovation – in this case in the arts – is the result of the canny use and abuse of existing forms, for today, as Bourriaud reminds us, we find “the eradication of the traditional distinction between production and consumption, creation and copy, readymade and original work. The material [manipulated] is no longer primary. It is no longer a matter of elaborating a form on the basis of a raw material but working with objects that are already in circulation on the cultural market, which is to say, objects already informed by other objects.”
Given the miscegenation of materials, their prolix and permissive interaction, how then sustain a belief in the singularity of things or ideas? As Bourriaud notes, “artists … program forms more than they compose them: rather than transfigure a raw element … they remix available forms and make use of data.” Thus, “to use an object is necessarily to interpret it. To use a product is to betray its concept.” This betrayal is twofold, for it reveals the excremental origins of the concept and it estranges it. A consequence of this strategy which, given the oppressiveness of the object-world, is that it defers to memory in the instant that it institutes a forgetting. In time, of course, what was regarded as a primal memory or a primal drive ceases. For Serres, unlike Bourriaud, this is not necessarily a good thing because the age of simulacra has “eradicated long-term memory, the thousand-year-old traditions, the experience accumulated by cultures.”
Here lies the rub, certainly the conflict which might emerge from this colloquium: How integrate and sustain the best in tradition in a culture that is virulently post-traditional? How restore the valence of the cosmic in these a-cosmic times? How address the virulent intercession of synthetic and natural filth? How imagine a newfangled wellness – dare I say “purity” – in this abraded, infected, and confected culture which we call home? Given that we have exhausted – or certainly in the process of exhausting – our natural resources, believing that we could thrive in the domain of the synthetic alone – does this mean – 22 years after Serres’ vision – that we are caught on the cusp of death or symbiosis?
Certainly it seems to me at least the here in South Africa we are confronted more by the convulsions and paroxysms of a dead and dying idea; more so than by the lived symbiotic force of the innovative. Then again, as Nietszche reminded us, the dead always outnumber the living and that, perforce, cannot stopper the will to life. “Adversity,” as Serres concludes, “is no longer attacking just our body … adversity is now attacking that which attaches and binds us all together and connects us universally, our earth and our species, complete sums of our cords and alliances. Since Nagasaki we have our disappearance in our power, and the danger curve is rising exponentially. Though I have been deaf ever since the dominators of this world began thundering shamelessly, I hear, and I’m not the only one, the revealing hissing of air strata driven down by enormous falling rocks. Individual, local, ancient, and primitive death is being succeeded by a modern, specific, and global death, our collective worldwide horizon.” That said, and given a state of “distress” which comes to distinguish the mind of Michel Serres, he nevertheless asks: “Is this modern death going to awaken us from scientific sleep, and for what other casting off toward what excellence or virtuosity? Will it give back to us as much intelligence as the inventors of the sciences received in the past from its archaic sister? The more pregnant the death, the more capable our efforts, the greater the scope of our object-worlds.”
By further compounding the paradox Serres returns us to the crux of this meditation. Spurred by the seemingly insuperable nature of the catastrophe which has befallen us, a catastrophe of our own making, we can, nevertheless, survive our demise as beings, as thinkers, as artists. This pregnant death, as we well know in this mediatized and mediated world, is the condition which afflicts Japan. However, as Serres reminds us, this affliction also harks back to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Japan, prior to the recent nuclear and tidal horrors which have befallen it, was a society that sought to recover its shattered hermeticism in a post-atomic age. Global lore tells us that Japan did recover and through science and virtuosity made a craven technological beggar of the earth. Today, in the aftermath of a geological, tidal and nuclear catastrophe, the scale of which is barely imaginable, we find ourselves suckling at the teat of CNN and BBC world amongst other informatic systems, in the hope of discovering some promise of recovery. Pregnant with death, in other words, we compel ourselves to invoke new possibilities that could ease the backlash of a disaster with apocalyptic dimensions.
Serres: “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, squealing and snapping like metal or crystal; the world, finally, comes to me, resembles me, all in distress. A thousand useless ties come undone, liquidated, while out of the shadows beneath unbalanced feet rises essential being, background noise, the rumbling world: the hull, the beam, the keel, the powerful skeleton, the pure quickwork, that which I have always clung to. I return to my familiar universe, my trembling space, the ordinary nudities, my essence precisely to ecstasy. Who am I? A tremor of nothingness, living in a permanent earthquake.”
Earth quake, sea quake, nuclear meltdown, these are peculiar grievous material realities which are experienced in Japan, but they are also conditions which all of us in varying degrees experience as a fallout of national and global abuse. Here, in South Africa, a country with its own propensity for thriving in spite of manifold and impending disaster, the question is: How do we move, and how move forward? Much has been spoken in the news of the capacity of the Japanese to hold onto some acculturated order and mutual respect, but, in a society such as ours, intrinsically loveless and ruthless, how must we forge ahead, and how, given the admittedly complex nature of our psychic wiring, do we make sense of our distress?
Ashraf Jamal is an author, critic, essayist. He teaches Art History & Visual Culture at Rhodes University.
Bourriaud, Nicolas. Postproduction. New York: Lukas & Sternberg, 2002.
Serres, Michel. The Natural Contract. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995.