Michel Serres and Pollution

I read these meditations of Graham Harman and Bruno Latour on the subject of ‘waste’ with interest.

In The Natural Contract (1992), Michel Serres defines ‘pollution’ as the act by which human subjects define themselves apart from the world of relations, thereby enacting the epistemological bifurcation of ‘knowing subject’ from ‘known object’ that is characteristic of Modernity. Pollution is the excrescence of a contract that is sealed between humans contra the world or in neglect of the world. It defines the propriety of the human subject as an act of aggression and land-grap. Thus, just like animals who urinate on their territory to mark it as their own, just like a thief who leaves excrement behind in the house he has ransacked, just like a child who spits in the salad bowl in order to ensure only he can eat the rest:

[…] no one else ventures again into the places devastated by whoever occupies them in this way. Thus, the sullied world reveals the mark of humanity, the mark of its dominators, the foul stamp of their hold and their appropriation. (The Natural Contract, p.33)

But for Serres this also means that pollution is a utopian gesture, since it is deferring the responsibility that is incumbent upon us all to ‘progressively compose’ (Latour’s terminology) a pluralistic common world in which we all – present and future generations – might hope to live. Pollution is an act of inhabiting the world in violence against the world and in violence against the entities that have an ethical right to inhabit that world. For Serres, then, ‘peace’ and ‘beauty’ (what we might now understand in Latourian terms as ‘diplomacy’) can only arise through the construction of a ‘natural contract’ between humans and the world, in which pollution would be dispersed. This of course is an early version of what Latour calls a ‘political theology’ of Nature, or a ‘Gaian politics’, as Latour himself suggests in the final of his Gifford Lectures of 2013.

In the video, when asked when an object turns into waste, Harman says the following:

I suppose it turns to waste when it detaches itself from its use value or detaches itself from its surroundings. Which is interesting because, for me, an object is precisely what it is when it detaches itself from its surroundings. So in a sense, objects and waste are two sides of the same coin. There is a non-relational aspect to both of them.

I don’t think Serres would agree. For him, ‘waste’ is not a positive metaphor for an ‘object’, since for Serres an object is a ‘quasi-object’ and cannot withdraw from relations as Harman supposes. Where Harman sees in Garbage City a metaphor for objects, Serres would see it (I think) as the Valley of Hinnom, that Gehenna in which objects are burnt up precisely because they have lost all relation to the common world and all relations within the common world.

Also interesting in the context of this blog, I think, is Serres’ thinking about the relation of religion to pollution. We find interesting thoughts on this in his Malfeasance (2008). In that text, Serres first of all identifies a stratum of ancient (read: Girardian) religion that ‘is always characterised by sacrifice, that is, by blood polluting the land’.

What smells of burned flesh, which bone yards did they leave behind? Did they know that their passage was marked by garbage of whose function they might have been unaware. They were purifying, so they said.’ (Malfeasance, p.15)

But what about Christianity? Does Serres have a place for religion as a site in which relations can be ‘instituted’, just like Latour does in the guise of his ‘religion as a mode of existence’?

Serres notes that in Christianity we  have motifs of the ‘clean’. But these are potentially as polluting as the Garbage City of Cairo, for in removing the material and historical trace – a ‘political theology’ of Nature , we might say – they threaten to remove us also from the space and time of the present, thus re-imposing a contract that neglects the ethics of representation that all beings demand. In the Mass, for example, the blood has shifted to wine and water, and the whole operation is conducted on white linen: ‘nothing dirty is left, only what is clean and proper. At the altar as at the hotel?’ (p.18). In the case of the resurrection, there is literally no body located in the ground at all: ‘his departure leaves nothing behind on earth. There is nothing there, not the least scrap of cloth, not the smallest relic, not the smallest mark implying a story’ (p.19). The risen Christ is pollution-free. ‘With the resurrection of the new god Jesus Christ, there is no longer any marked place. There is no more space, no more history, no more time’ (p.20). What is left are utopian motifs, our future hope being invested in ‘the heavenly Jerusalem, completely absent from this world’ (p.20). For Serres, Christianity enacts an ambiguous movement: becoming a person of ‘clean evil’ (‘le mal propre’) via the forgiveness that Christian grace offers is a hair’s breadth away from becoming a ‘malpropre’ (a ‘sleazy, dishonest, despicable person’, in the French idiom), precisely because such a gesture threatens to remove us from the sort of relationality that is secured through the common world in favour of a non-material and non-historical, that is ‘utopian’, realm.



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