The late Michel Serres on angels and messengers

At the start of this month, the French thinker Michel Serres died aged 88. He had an eclectic range of interests, as evinced by his Wikipedia page:

Over the next twenty years, Serres earned a reputation as a spell-binding lecturer and as the author of remarkably beautiful and enigmatic prose so reliant on the sonorities of French that it is considered practically untranslatable. He took as his subjects such diverse topics as the mythical Northwest Passage, the concept of the parasite, and the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger. More generally Serres was interested in developing a philosophy of science which does not rely on a metalanguage in which a single account of science is privileged and regarded as accurate. To do this he relied on the concept of translation between accounts rather than settling on one as authoritative. For this reason Serres has relied on the figure of Hermes (in his earlier works) and angels (in more recent studies) as messengers who translate (or map) back and forth between domains (i.e., between maps).

This 1995 interview with Hari Kunzru (although the transcript is a little confusing to follow) is worth reading. Here are some of his thoughts on angels and new media/communications, and touching on our misconceptions about scholastic philosophy:

 

HK: Why are angels important for someone thinking about new media and communications?

MS: In my book about angels I try to put a short circuit between the very ancient tradition of angels in monotheistic or polytheistic traditions and the jobs now about messages, messenger and so on. I think that this connection, between ancient time and new time is very interesting to understand. In one hand the ancient forms and ancient traditions and in other hand the new and the real jobs about medias. Because our job – your job is to receive messages, to translate messages, and to send messages in some respect. Your work is about messages. You are a messenger. I am a messenger. I am a professor. You are a journalist. Our job is about messages.

HK: I’m interested in what you say about history. People conceptualise the present day as a time when there has been a rupture with the past. You are deliberately making a link between the two.

MS: The problem is to think about the historic link between ancient time and the new world because this link is cut and many people think about our time without reference to traditions. But if you read the amount of books about angelology in the middle ages, if you translate certain words into modern language you see that all the problems were about translation, about messages. These are exactly our problems. When you put a short circuit, you obtain sparkles and these sparkles give light to the traditions and our jobs.

HK: Part of the effect of using the trope of the angel to understand communication seems to me to invest our world, the modern world with a sense of the sacred. Would you agree with that? Maybe you would make a distinction between the sacred and the spiritual.

MS: Yes, the spiritual. My first point was to understand and to clarify our jobs in a practical way. But I avoid in certain the spiritual problems. I prefer to speak about logical problems or practical problems. The problem of good and evil for instance is very easy to explain when you see that the messenger or channel is neutral, and on a neutral channel you can say I love you or I hate you.
HK: The channel itself is neutral.

MS: Yes, and the problem is not spiritual. The problem is to explain why with the same channel, the same messenger, you can get bad or good results. You see?

MS: Yes, the reason why angels are invisible is because they are disappearing to let the message go through them.
[We have a conversation about whether the tape recorder is working]

MS: You are terrified of it?

HK: I spoke to Daniel Dennett for two hours and none of it was recorded.

MS: I think it was a bad angel in the middle of your conversation. That was a good example. That machine is a token of communication, a channel.
[laughter]

MS: Exactly. If you read medieval angelology you find exactly the same demonstrations because all the problems for angelology – what is a message? who are the messengers? what is the messenger’s body? – like Saint Thomas Aquinas, the early church fathers, the Pseudo-Dionysius, and so on. In the beginning of my book I quote the problem of the sex of the angels. Everybody smiles about this problem, but it is a serious one, a problem about transmission.

HK: A serious functional problem.

MS: Exactly

W; This is what I began to find when I looked at scholastic philosophy. Having thought it was full of ridiculous problems about angels on pinheads I found that serious problems were simply framed in this vocabulary.

MS: You are right. I was very surprised to find that in the beginning of my career.

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“loneliness, the toxic by-product of freedom which generates ad-hoc, fragile communities among people who have escaped conventional backgrounds and who, after dreaming of cosmopolis, wake up atomized.”

A few weeks back I came across a brief review in the New Yorker by Peter Schjeldahl of the current Whitney Biennial, which turned out to be a condensed version of this longer piece. The money paragraph, so to speak, is the same in both versions:

 

 

The cause of all the anguish is obvious: Trump. The predominant effect is one of creative entropy, a defensive huddling in political or coterie formations that are pointedly indifferent when not hostile to outsiders. Catalogue entries for some Native Americans in the show term fellow-citizens who lack tribal blood “settlers.” At the same time, the artists are trapped in a cultural élite by their education, employing sophisticated forms that are inaccessible to the general public. If politics is about winning power through persuasion, much of the art at hand hardly qualifies as political. Instead, it suggests the virulence of the classic American malaise: loneliness, the toxic by-product of freedom which generates ad-hoc, fragile communities among people who have escaped conventional backgrounds and who, after dreaming of cosmopolis, wake up atomized.

This applies well beyond the art world, or even the political world, or even the America of Donald Trump (or anyone else) ; it has become the classic Western malaise, the escape from “convention” into sheer loneliness.

“The decline of industries left woodland open to destruction” – Oliver Rackham on how industry saves woodland

That the natural world is rarely entirely “natural” is a bit of a truism, one I’ve reflecting on since reading “Curlew Moon” by Mary Colwell. It is tempting to idolise “wild nature” without reflecting that, for a long long time, human activity has moulded nature (and vice versa of course) in ways more complex than simple exploitation and ruination. Here is a germane quote from Oliver Rackham, from his magisterial “Woodlands”:

 

The thesis that woods were destroyed by heavy industries cannot be sustained. On the contrary, wherever there remained a big concentration of woodland, there is an industrial or urban use to account for its preservation. It was the ‘unexploited’ woods that disappeared from the map. Industries, however, are liable to sudden death through technological change or foreign competition, leaving their woods unemployed. In Cornwall the woods, when the tinners had finished with them, reverted to domestic use, leaving charcoal-hearths (p.166ff) as witnesses to their industrial phase.

Disused industrial woods could pass to other industries. Northern and western coppiced oakwoods were taken over by an expansion in leather-tanning, which used bark and could be combined with other industries using the wood. Others produced pit-props for holding up the roofs of coal mines. The Chiltern woods, as the London market for billets and charcoal declined, were gradually taken over by a mechanised furniture industry. So thoroughly were they converted from coppice and pollarded wood-pasture to timber production that by the nineteenth century this was regarded as the normal state of a beechwood.

The rise of shipbuilding would have found a use for the oaks no longer wanted through the decline of timber-framed building. Specialised underwood trades expanded, especially in southern England, to take advantage of increasing markets for mass-produced hop-poles, barrel-hoops, and other industrial, agricultural and domestic artefacts; this was probably related to the replacement of mixed underwood by chestnut. Indeed, Collins has termed this ‘the golden age of English woodlands’.

The decline of industries left woodland open to destruction. Coed Glyn Cynon was still very much alive in the 1810s, when again there were complaints that its valleys had been ‘stripped of their grown timber’. After the iron industry had died, it seems to have produced pit-props and then passed to modern forestry, which lasted for only one generation of planted trees. On the Ordnance Survey of c.1870 the South Welsh valleys were still one of the biggest wooded areas in the British Isles; by 1950 the woods had faded away, mostly into moorland. In Kent and Sussex, although there is still plenty of woodland left, much was grubbed out in the nineteenth century, the golden age of hop growing. Elsewhere, woods were saved by agricultural recession and fell into disuse or were used as pheasant shoots, until the great onslaught of the 1950s

“Crossing the Jordan”, Matt Alberswerth

 

From the journal Prometheus Dreaming ,  I liked this poem by Matt Alberswerth which has strong echoes of Ted Hughes:

 

 

Crossing the Jordan

Did the fish hear me when my ankle broke the surface of the water?

They followed your steps with their glassy eyes.

What moved the branch as I walked beneath it?

It was a hungry wind.

When it touched my hair did I feel cold and scared?

Only as scared as you should. Only as cold as you were.

Were my feet cut by the creek’s rock bed?

It drank what blood there was.

Something warned me as I crossed water. What warned me?

It was a barred owl.

What warned me?

A horned grebe.

What warned me?

A fox, its belly full of stars.

At the middle of the river, the water was up to my knees. What saw me?

The fox kept watch, its belly full of stars.

How did I know?

You saw its shadow from bridge. It was cast by the moon.

What did I see?

You saw the fox was a wolf. Mother of darkness, specked with snow.

What did I see?

You saw the she-wolf drag the moon down.

What did I do when I saw the moon fall?

You dunked yourself in the water.

Did the cold water choke me?

It did and it does.

When the dark water cloaked me, did I feel cold and scared?

Only as cold as you were. Only as scared as you should.

“My Life by Water” – a found poem by M. Stone

I greatly enjoyed M Stone’s found poem “My Life By Water”, constructed using… well, you can follow the link to find out – and does it matter? It stands on its own merits as an evocative piece of writing with some interesting juxtapositions.

MY LIFE BY WATER
I rose from marsh mud.
I knew a clean man
I married
in the great snowfall.
Consider at the outset—
I am sick with the Time’s
tradition.
Keen and lovely man,
alcoholic dream.
I lost you to water, summer.
Now in one year
my life is hung up.
July, waxwings
hear
something in the water.
Along the river,
the graves—
traces of living things.

Writer M. Stone

I’m thrilled that my found poem “My Life by Water” is included in the new issue of Unlost Journal! Many thanks to the Editors.

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“Machinery” by Robert Wrigley

On what would have been my father’s 87th Birthday this poem by Robert Wrigley seems fitting. It captures something of the tension between the worlds of literary endeavour and the practical, literal workaday world ; a world with, as Wrigley writes, its own evocative vocabulary and moments of poetry:

Machinery

by

 

My father loved every kind of machinery,

relished bearings, splines, windings, and cogs,

loved the tolerances between moving parts

and the parts that moved the parts,

the many separate machines of machinery.

Loved the punch, the awl, the ratchet, the pawl.

In-feed and out-feed rollers of the thickness planer,

its cutter head and cutters. The barrel and belt sanders,

the auger, capstan, windlass, and magneto.

Such a beautiful vocabulary in his work, words

he knew even if often he did not know

how they were spelled. Seals, risers, armatures.

Claw, ball-peen, sledge, dead-blow, mallet,

hammers all. Butt, mitered, half-lap,

tongue and groove; mortise and tenon,

biscuit, rabbet, dovetail, and box: all joints.

“A poem is a small (or large) machine

made of words,” said William Carlos Williams.

“To build the machine that makes the machine,”

said Elon Musk. Once my father repaired

a broken harpsichord but could not make it sing.

The chock, the bore, the chisel. He could hang a door,

rebuild an engine. Cylinders, pistons, and rings.

Shafts, crank and cam. Hand-cut notches

where the hinges sat. He loved the primary feathers

on the wings of a duck, extended and catching air,

catching also the tops of the whitecap waves

when it landed. Rods, valves, risers, and seals.

Ailerons and flaps, yaw control in the tail.

Machinery, machinery, machinery.

Four syllables in two iambic feet. A soft pulse.

Once I told him what Williams said,

he approached what I made with deeper interest

but no more understanding in the end.

The question he did not ask, that would have

embarrassed him to ask, the question I felt sure

he wanted to ask, the one I was too embarrassed 

to ask for him, was “What does it do?”

Eventually the machine his body was broken,

and now it is gone, and the mechanically inclined

machine in his head is also gone,

and most of his tools. The machines that made

the machines are gone too, but for a few

I have kept in remembrance. A fine wood plane

but not the thickness planer, which I would not know

how to use. A variety of clamps I use to clamp

things needing clamping. Frost said

“poetry is the sort of thing poets write.” My father

thought it was the sort of thing I wrote,

but what mattered to him was what it did.

What does it do, and what is it? 

A widget that resists conclusions.

A crank that turns a wheel

that turns. A declaration of truth

by a human being running at full speed

in a race with no one, toward nowhere

except away from the beginning and toward arrival.

Once my father watched the snow

and noted how landing on the earth it melted.

He said, “It’s snow that doesn’t know it’s rain.”

 

“We have to remind ourselves constantly we are not saviours”: Jean Vanier RIP

Another appreciation of Jean Vanier, which ends with this quote from Vanier himself:

We have to remind ourselves constantly that we are not saviours. We are simply a tiny sign, among thousands of others, that love is possible, that the world is not condemned to a struggle between oppressors and oppressed, that class and racial warfare is not inevitable. have to remind ourselves constantly that we are not saviours. We are simply a tiny sign, among thousands of others, that love is possible, that the world is not condemned to a struggle between oppressors and oppressed, that class and racial warfare is not inevitable.