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.

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.


“The Sonnet Is Dead”, a sonnet by Joanna Cleary

From the Summer 2018 issue of Temz Review here is a sonnet (of course) by Joanna Cleary. I like its ironic treatment of contemporary lit crit certainties. And of course, the poem itself subverts the title:

The Sonnet is Dead
By Joanna Cleary

The sonnet is dead; we’ve talked it to death.
Love is complicated, political.
And what could be more complicated than
a sonnet? They are always ironic,
my professor said sternly to the class.
Always. The idea is ironized
in the sestet. I was still half-asleep,
retracing my pen over the octave,
thinking that it first could have been written
on a day as rain-splattered as today,
and the poet could have walked home slowly
with both feet wet from stepping in puddles
as sunlight appeared in the sky again
to touch water drops shining on cobwebs.

David Monacchi: “Fragments of Extinction”, the sounds of vanishing nature

With the prospect of mass extinction in the news, it seems a good time to reflect on the loss of soundscapes. In Ireland, the corncrake and the curlew were once the background sounds of daily life; now they are nearly vanished.

I have posted before about nature recording artists such as Gordon Hempton and Chris Watson who have captured soundscapes in the natural world that one hopes will not vanish altogether. I came across David Monacchi and his Fragments of Extinction project.

Monacchi records (and streams) soundscapes from the dwindling number of intact, untouched forests around the world. What makes his work especially compelling is the clarity with which he illustrates how these ecosystems have a panoply of harmonious acoustic niches, across species and genera. The best way to get a sense is this short video:

L.M. Sacasas on accusations of romanticising the past.

At The Frailest Thing blog, L.M. Sacasas identifies something I’ve often noticed and wish there was a handy word for:

Steven Pinker and Jason Hickel have recently engaged in a back-and-forth about whether or not global poverty is decreasing. The first salvo was an essay by Hickel in the Guardian targeting claims made by Bill Gates. Pinker responded here, and Hickel posted his rejoinder at his site.

I’ll let you dive in to the debate if you’re so inclined. The exchange is of interest to me, in part, because evaluations of modern technology are often intertwined with this larger debate about the relative merits of what, for brevity’s sake, we may simply call modernity (although, of course, it’s complicated).

I’m especially interested in a rhetorical move that is often employed in these kinds of debates:  it amounts to the charge of romanticizing the past.

So, for example, Pinker claims, “Hickel’s picture of the past is a romantic fairy tale, devoid of citations or evidence.” I’ll note in passing Hickel’s response, summed up in this line: “All of this violence, and much more, gets elided in your narrative and repackaged as a happy story of progress. And you say I’m the one possessed of romantic fairy tales.” Hickel, in my view, gets the better of Pinker on this point.

In any case, the trope is recurring and, as I see it, tiresome. I wrote about it quite early in the life of this blog when I explained that I did not, in fact, wish to be a medieval peasant.

More recently, Matt Stoller tweeted, “When I criticize big tech monopolies the bad faith response is often a variant of ‘so you want to go back to horses and buggies?!?’” Stoller encountered some variant of this line so often that he was searching for a simple term by which to refer to it. It’s a Borg Complex symptom, as far as I’m concerned.

At a forum about technology and human flourishing I recently attended, the moderator, a fine scholar whose work I admire, explicitly cautioned us in his opening statements against romanticizing the past.

It would take no time at all to find similar examples, especially if you expand “romanticizing the past” to include the equally common charge of reactionary nostalgia. Both betray a palpable anxiousness about upholding the superiority of the present.

Reminds me of David Cooper’s “shouting about humankind being part of nature may mask a fear that it is nothing of the sort.”  One wishes for a handy German term.  Or some other neologism.

” To Be Perfect Is to Have Changed Often”

It’s been a while since I posted anything linking to Adam deVille’s blog but I was struck by the title of the book he considers here. I am curious to find out the context of this phrase of the soon-to-be-canonized Newman:

To Be Perfect Is to Have Changed Often: The Development of John Henry Newman’s Ecclesiological Outlook, 1845–1877 by Ryan J. Marr (Fortress Academic, 2018), 234pp.

About this book the publisher tells us this:

This study approaches John Henry Newman’s writings on the church from a fresh perspective by examining the development of Newman’s ecclesiological outlook over time. It demonstrates that it can be misleading to refer to Newman’s “Catholic ecclesiology” (singular), because such an approach gives the impression that Newman maintained a stable ecclesiological perspective during his Roman Catholic period. In reality, Newman’s outlook on the church underwent significant developments over the last four decades of his life. As a result of various events in his life, including the Rambler affair and his experience of the First Vatican Council, Newman slowly developed an ecclesiological outlook that counterbalanced the authority of the pope and bishops with a robust account of the role of theologians and the lay faithful in the reception and transmission of church doctrine. Whether consciously or not, Newman left his ecclesiological writings open for further development on the part of theologians who would follow after him.

The always-interesting deVille has a a forthcoming book on the radical (yet also traditional) structural reforms he holds the Catholic Church needs to make to fundamentally address the crisis of sexual abuse and the associated abuse of trust and power. Presumably this book draws on Newman’s thought on these matters.

Apologetic temperance

At The Frailest Thing, LM Sacasas has a post on digital detox provoked by this New York Times piece by Kevin Roose. The whole thing (in both cases) is worth reading. I found this Sacasas observation resonated:

It’s always interesting to me to note the preemptive framings such pieces feel they must deploy. They reveal a lot about their rhetorical context. For example, “I confess that entering phone rehab feels clichéd, like getting really into healing crystals or Peloton.” Or, more pointedly, this: “Sadly, there is no way to talk about the benefits of digital disconnection without sounding like a Goop subscriber or a neo-Luddite. Performative wellness is obnoxious, as is reflexive technophobia.”

The implicit fear that commending tech temperance might earn one the label of neo-Luddite is especially telling. Of course, the fear itself already cedes too much ground to the Luddite bashers and to the Borgs, who use the term as an a-historical slur.

Those of us who have reservations about the direction technology takes us often adopt this apologetic, throat-clearing tone. The fear of seeming Luddite or in some way anti-progess haunts us. Why? Why is this fear so intense?

One could speculate. One could speculate that our culture is replete with rather vapid yet pervasive buzz about disruption, change, the folly of trying to keep things the same. Change is the only constant, that sort of thing.

Or maybe it is something totally other.

You are not alone: the word “sonder”

I recently came across the word “sonder”

Coined in 2012 by John Koenig, whose project, The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, aims to come up with new words for emotions that currently lack words.[1][2]Related to German sonder- (special) and French sonder (to probe).[3]

(neologism) The profound feeling of realizing that everyone, including strangers passed in the street, has a life as complex as one’s own, which they are constantly living despite one’s personal lack of awareness of it.

I am not that sure how I feel about it. As with solastalgia I am somewhat suspcious of the resort to neologism. I have a nagging sense that there is another, already existing word for this… perhaps I should think of a word for this nagging sense.