Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Natural Contract

“What language do the things of the world speak, that we might come to an understanding with them, contractually? But, after all, the old social contract, too, was unspoken and unwritten: no one has ever read the original, or even a copy. To be sure, we don’t know the world’s language, or rather we only know the various animistic, religious, or mathematical versions of it. When physics was invented, philosophers went around saying that nature was hidden under the code of algebra’s numbers and letters: that word code came from law.

In fact the Earth speaks to us in terms of forces, bonds, and interactions, and that’s enough to make a contract. Each of the partners in symbiosis thus owes, by rights, life to the other, on pain of death.” (Serres, p.39)

“There are one or several natural equilibria, described by physical mechanics, thermodynamics, the physiology of organisms, ecology, or systems theory; cultures have even invented one or more human or social equilibria, which are decided on, organized, and maintained by religion, laws, or politics. But something is missing: we are not conceiving, constructing, or putting into operation a new global equilibrium between the two sets of equilibria.

Social systems, which are self-compensating and self-enclosed, press down with their new weight, that of their relations, object-worlds, and activities, on self-compensated natural systems, just as in the past natural systems put social systems at risk, in the age when necessity triumphed over reason’s means.

Blind and mute, natural fatality neglected, back then, to sign an explicit contract with our ancestors, whom it crushed: now we are sufficiently avenged for this archaic abuse by a reciprocal modern abuse. It remains to us to imagine a new, delicate balance between these two sets of balances. As far as I know, this just weighing is at the origin of the verb “to think” (penser), as well as of the verb “to compensate.” Today this is what we name thought. This is the most general legal order for the most global systems.” (Serres, p.37-38)
Both of these quotes come from Michel Serres’ book The Natural Contract. I think that Serres' work offers a beautifully synoptic perspective of the issues that we've discussed in this course. The notion of code, which figures so heavily in today's communication technologies, is a fascinating and troubling one to unpack philosophically. It seems simple; you just give things names and then you can use the names to describe the things. Ok, fine. But check it out: the things are never quite well-enough described by their names. This might be fine if we hadn't imported Platonic assumptions about the absolute ideality of truth into our modern theories about nature. Where's Ockham when you need him?!

Even when we add more and more names, the things escape; there is always more to them, there is an irreducible uncertainty that permeates, haunts, our sense of certainty, and of mastery, of control over our experiences in the world. This sense of control, argues Serres in this wonderfully concise, yet lyrical little book, is at the crux of the issue of where we have come from, and where we are going, as a species. “Cybernetics is back,” he exclaims:
“For the first time in history, the human or worldly world is united in facing the worldwide world, without play, reminder, or recourse for the whole of the system, just as on a ship. The governor and the helmsman with his governail become identified in a single art of governing. The helmsman acts in real time, here and now, on a local circumstance from which he counts on obtaining a global result; it is the same for the governor, the technician, and the scientist. When scientists, gathering their local models into a totality mimicking the Earth, plan some intervention, they speak of steering committees and pilot projects.” (Serres, p.43)
The cybernetic control is a control figured by the helmsman, who steers the ship on the basis of his best ability to gather and comprehend the information, aided by the full wits of his crew, who know that their survival depends upon everyone’s full cooperation. Another sailor-philosopher, Buckminster Fuller, coined the term “Spaceship Earth” to capture the moment that Serres is also describing; a moment in which it falls to us to “imagine a new, delicate balance between these two sets of balances.”

This image of a meta-measurement; a weighing, not between two weights, but between two balances, seems to me to offer us an excellent metaphor for relationship in general, and I would suggest using the notion of Marriage as a corrective on our tendencies to think about relationships in abstract terms, as if they were confined to their local instantiations. Marriage is relationship as a global condition: “til death do us part.” As such, Marriage figures for us a relationship that is eternal, a relationship whose unity transcends even the mortal beings residing at/as its termina. We, the undersigned, the signators of a Marriage contract, simply by agreeing to participate in something that transcends us, accept the principle of our own innate replaceability; our own mortality. Marriage is thus a relationship whose only ends lies in the ever-looming propensity for its constituents -its signators, their co-conspirators, and their inheritors; namely us (or anyway, those of us who are Married, or who desire or plan to get Married- to fail. To fail at observing and forging, maintaining and reproducing, desiring and communicating about, the set of integral balances whose inter-supportive stabilities amount to what Serres calls equilibria. Which means, again, a double- or meta-equilibrium: between our desires and our conceptions, our predictions of the effects of these desires’ realization; and with the equivalent equilibrium in our partner.

In relationship, therefore, qua relationship, we communicate. To communicate, we must adapt ourselves to the use of established lines of transmission, techniques of transcription, and codes of interpretation. Each of these factors influences the others: we interpret our experiences and desires partly according to the existing possibilities of transcription and transmission; codes that find their stability in their relatively solid infrastructural networks of transmission, from trade routes to cable lines. But the interpretations we make contribute in turn to the evolution of these collective codes; not only by changing habits of interpretation, but also by changing the ways in which we build the transmission networks that support them. The ways in which we learn techniques of inscription, like writing, are likewise influenced by the ways in which our desires and experiences perceive and engage with the structures of established codes, and the lines of transmission that may or may not support them. Successful technical innovations can find ways to manifest as improvements to this correspondence between interpretive codes and lines of transmission. All of these patterns have of course been mapped and studied ad nauseum by inspiration-seeking capitalists (which is not to denigrate their importance!) My concern here is not to find laws governing the derivation of profits, but rather those which might be applied to the metaequilibrium Serres describes.

To that end, we can define the difference between Marriage and mere relationship in terms of communication: communication-as-relationship is generally thought of in terms of single equilibria, which mappable and can thus be described as symmetries. The transferrence of signals between subjects, in which the sender’s in-tentions are symmetrically-balanced by the listener’s at-tentions, provides the basic relational symmetry structuring most philosophical and scientific theories of communication. This symmetry is precisely what allows ‘transmission-models’ to separate sender from receiver (they can now be dealt with separately-but-equally, by projecting the symmetry’s continuity over time) in order to focus more closely on the transmissions themselves. Claude Shannon’s 1948 paper defined ‘information’ according to a ratio between ‘signal’ and ‘noise', and this new abstraction allowed us to forget that we had already been dealing with abstractions in the form of symmetrically-isolated ‘transmissions,’ and set the stage for the subsequent, ruthless drive to eliminate noise and perfect signal transmission. Information became a commodity.

We can modulate from here directly into James Carey’s historiography of the telegraph, in which he identifies the demand of the nascent wire services for “a form of language stripped of the local, the regional; and colloquial. . . . something closer to a 'scientific' language, a language of strict denotation in which the connotative features of utterance were under rigid control.” (p.210) Innovation demands abstraction, but the concomitant standardization leads directly to commodification. Carey of course recognizes the parallels here between his findings and the theoretical predictions of Marx, Benjamin, and the Structuralists:
"After the object is abstracted out of the real conditions of its production and use and is transported to distant markets, standardized and graded, and represented by fully contingent symbols, it is made available as a commodity. Its status as a commodity represents the sundering of real, direct relationship between buyer and seller, separates use value from exchange value, deprives objects of any uniqueness (which must then be returned to the object via advertising), and, most important, masks to the buyer the real conditions of production. Further, the process of divorcing the receipt from the product can be thought of as a part of the general social process initiated by the use of money and widely written about in contemporary semiotics; the progressive divorce of the signifier from the signified, a process in which the world of signifiers progressively overwhelms and moves independently of real material objects." (Carey, p.222)
But we should look in detail at the connection that emerges here between commodification as “the sundering of real, direct relationship between buyer and seller” (think also: sender and receiver) and domination, which gets figured in this quote by Carey as a domination of abstractions (signifiers) over the “real material objects” that they represent. We are inclined to dismiss this oppression. We don’t even recognize it as such. We’re taken in by the humanistic tendency to define suffering as an infringement on basic human rights to, for example, food, water, shelter, and of course, more abstractly, freedom, or self-determination. Furthermore, we can see that such human suffering, where it exists, appears to result from macro-systemic patterns of behavior, which we define in a global sense, as being imposed structurally by something called “global capitalism,” which is said to pervade human behavior across scales and socioeconomic classes. Marxist rhetoric, like rhetoric in general, as Socrates was kind enough to point out, persuades us to swap one abstraction for another.

This kind of thinking, which attempts to first define (morally) ideal situations (which are always more difficult to impose in practice than to imagine in theory, owing again to the irreducibility of perspectival differences), and then define present in terms that reveal the possibility of this outcome, corresponds to what James C. Scott called Seeing Like a State, by which he meant seeing a complex reality in terms of its simplified abstract representations. Alfred Korzybski, in the 1930s, summed up this error with the pithy phrase, “the map is not the territory,” but his writings have not been very closely studied, and his influence has unfortunately been largely forgotten. One of Korzybski’s most salient proposals, that we should, on the basis of scientific findings develop and adopt ‘anti-Aristotelian’ habits of thought and behavior, was taken up, in a way, by Havelock in his Liberal Temper, when he describes the strange continuity, in the new humanistic doctrines of the Enlightenment, of the old metaphysical suppositions of the Classical era:
"when the cause of liberty was fought for in France and America under banners inscribed with the doctrine of the rights of man, the battle was conducted on behalf of those same convictions about the eternal nature of man's soul. The majestic language of the Declaration of Independence, appealing to the testimony of self-evident truths as before a bar of eternal justice, still used the formulas congenial to men who believed in a natural law written in the heavens and wished to use it to support the equally metaphysical conviction that all men as individuals have innate and inalienable rights. . . . The problems and the vocabulary were still Platonic and Aristotelian." (Havelock, p.15)
This problem is one that we could (and did, through this course) trace all the way through Western history, from Plato to Amartya Sen, whose sophisticated (sic) treatment of this subject draws out for us the implications of these properly philosophical issues to our everyday ethical and relational lives. It comes down to a basic misconception about the role of reason, of logical thought, in relationship, communication, and life. Sen makes it clear that because no one can occupy a priviledged position vis a vis their other community members, economic partners, or legal disputants, rationality needs to be understood as something much more multifaceted and complex than what any given rational agent can see from their (or any other imagined) point of view:
“what may appear to others as clear examples of ‘unreason’ may not always be exactly that. Reasoned discussion can accommodate conflicting positions that may appear to others to be ‘unreasoned’ prejudice, without this being quite the case. There is no compulsion, as is sometimes assumed, to eliminate every reasoned alternative except exactly one.” (Sen, p.xviii)
But if guiltily/angrily/prophetically blaming the imagined anti-community of “capitalism” doesn’t seem to have offered much in the way of solutions to the complex and massive set of problems that we so readily attribute to “it,” of precisely which radical interventions might our alternatives consist? For me, the answer here can’t be critical one. It will never be enough for us to point our fingers and say, “the problem is...” Critique in general, I’d argue, isn’t radical, it’s conservative; if not directly of the states of affairs and/or of discourse that it seeks to challenge, then indirectly, insofar as it is always mobilized in defense of preexisting ideological positions that get activated in response to a perception of a challenge or threat from the entity at whom the critique gets directed.

Instead, we should carry out our actions as if in adherence to a doubled-injunction: survey, integrate and assimilate -i.e. research, study, and understand- the scattered and fragmentary linguistic matrices of culture, history, science, economy, etc.; and compile, create, and disseminate novel concepts, constructions, and collaborations that emerge from this work. The balance it difficult, because it’s not a balance that can be thought of as in spatial terms (and hence abstracted) i.e. as a symmetry. In other words, it can’t be ‘perfected’ in the static sense of that term. Rather, it is a balance between (and among) balances. If it were to be figured as a symmetry, it would be as an impossible, spatiotemporal symmetry; a reciprosymmetry. Because such a symmetry cannot be represented abstractly (in any known medium), it could constitute an effectively transcendental goal for any number of co-aspirants. I would call any ensuing community simply ‘society’; not to imagine it in the way that Benedict Anderson describes, but just to indicate that this would be a community constituted by the imagination of each participant, freely, but not in isolation. Rather than reifying such an entity, we could perhaps simply agree to disagree about it. We have to realize that this agreement, as trivial as it seems, is absolutely crucial one for us to begin to understand, if we are to survive on this planet together. We need to figure out how to make room for both freedom and necessity, in our hearts and minds. We need to recognize that we are all here in this together, flying through the universe on Spaceship Earth, and it’s gonna be a matter of sinking or swimming, and the operating manual for this thing is really, really huge. I think that this is what Serres means by a Natural Contract. Married people might know what I’m talkin about ; )
“Here then, is the form of contemporary society, which can be called doubly worldwide: occupying all the Earth, solid as a block through its tightly woven interrelations, it has nothing left in reserve, no external place of withdrawal or recourse on which to pitch its tent. Society knows, moreover, how to construct and use technologies whose spatial, temporal, and energetic dimensions are on the scale of worldwide phenomena. Our collective power is therefore reaching the limits of our global habitat. We’re beginning to resemble the Earth.

Thus our de facto unified group borders the world, to which it is equipotent, just as the solid and mobile deck all but touches the surface of the waves, separated only by the stanchions of the guardrail. Everyone sails upon the world like the ark upon the waters, without any reserve outside these two sets, that of men and that of things. So here we are, underway! For the first time in history, Plato and Pascal, who never went to sea, are both right at the same time, and here we are, constrained to obey shipboard laws, to pass from the social contract to the natural contract. The social contract long ago protected mobile social subsets in a broad and free environment, equipped with reserves that could absorb any damage, but a unified, compact group that has reached the strict limits of objective forces requires a natural contract.” (Serres, p.41-42)


Anderson, Benedict, Imagined Communities: reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism. London: Verso, 1991.

Carey, James, Communication as Culture. New York and London: Routledge, 1989.

Havelock, Eric, The Liberal Temper in Greek Politics. Yale University Press, 1957.

Korzybski, Alfred, Science and Sanity. Institute of General Semantics Press, 1994.

Scott, James C., Seeing Like a State: How certain schemes to improve the human condition have failed. Yale University Press, 1998.

Sen, Amartya, The Idea of Justice. Harvard University Press, 2009.

Serres, Michel, The Natural Contract. Trans. Elizabeth MacArthur and William Paulson. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1995.

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