Michel Serres with Bruno Latour, Conversations on
Science, Culture, and Time. Ann
Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995. Pp. 204. ISBN 0-472-09548-X,
(hardback); 0-472-06548-3, no price given (paperback).
Michel Serres (ed.), A History of Scientific Thought. Oxford: Blackwell, 1995. Pp.
viii+760. ISBN 0-631-17739-6. £75.00, $100.00.
Michel Serres is one of the best-known philosopher-critics in France,
and his name is likely
to draw many readers to these two books. With sales of 50,000
copies of his La Légende
des anges (1993; trans., Paris, 1995), 100,000 copies of
Le Contrat naturel (1990; trans.,
Ann Arbor, 1995) and 300,000 copies of Le Tiers-instruit (1991;
Serres's official eminence (he was elected to the
Académie Française in 1990) is more than
matched by contemporary popularity. Originally trained in mathematics and
undertook doctoral research with Gaston Bachelard – and it shows.
Even at his most
allusive, Serres's dexterous prose often slips into neat axiomatic
and Euclidean certainties,
while one can see much of both his aggressively anti-epistemological stance
and his easy
traffic across the science–poetics divide as an effort to
distance himself from his former
mentor. But, like Bachelard, Serres has a commanding range, is hugely prolific
– if one may say this of one of the ‘Immortals’ –
with a glee and innocence that one associates with the rank amateur.
Serres, a professor of the history of science at the Sorbonne,
is no amateur. ‘History of
science’, he has said, ‘that's my trade’. So it
may be, yet many, hearing of his forays into
the history of angelology, the natural rights of trees, the iconography
of Tintin and the
moral status of airport terminals, are entitled to ask whether Serres is
to be trusted. Put
another way, should one take Serres seriously? The question is worth asking
at the outset,
for there is little more aggravating than intellectual energy and enthusiasm
one feels with
hindsight to have been misplaced. How many readers of Michel Foucault,
were shocked to find him saying in his last lectures that he admired Diogenes
the shameless philosopher who masturbated in the Athenian public square,
pour épater les
bourgeois, so to speak? Maybe Foucault's oeuvre was
a similar snub from a
maître-penseur – a kind of masterpation, if you will.