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 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

“Our actual selves must now wear the false heroics of disease: every patient a celebrity survivor, smiling before the surgery and smiling after it” – Anne Boyer on the inspirational imperative

I posted before about the inspirational imperative, the the endless pressure to be “inspirational” as the response to stress, distress and setbacks.   This passage from Anne Boyer’s New Yorker essay “What Cancer Takes Away”  therefore  resonated:


People with breast cancer are supposed to be ourselves as we were before, but also better and stronger and at the same time heart-wrenchingly worse. We are supposed to keep our unhappiness to ourselves but donate our courage to everyone. We are supposed to, as anyone can see in the YouTube videos, dance toward our mastectomies, or, as in “Sex and the City,” stand up with Samantha in the ballroom and throw off our wigs while a crowd of banqueting women and men roars with approval. We are supposed to, as Dana does in “The L Word,” pick ourselves up out of dreary self-pity and look stylish on the streets in our colorful hats. If we die later, as Dana does, we are supposed to know that our friends will participate in a fund-raising athletic event and take a minute, before moving on to other episodes, to remember that we once lived.

We are supposed to be legible as patients while navigating hospitals and getting treatment, and illegible as our actual, sick selves while going to work and taking care of others. Our actual selves must now wear the false heroics of disease: every patient a celebrity survivor, smiling before the surgery and smiling after it, too. We are supposed to be feisty, sexy, snarky women, or girls, or ladies, or whatever. Also, as the T-shirts for sale on Amazon suggest, we are always supposed to be able to tell cancer that “you messed with the wrong bitch!” In my case, however, cancer messed with the right bitch.

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.

#AshWednesday with Evelyn Waugh in New Orleans, 1949

Via the Evelyn Waugh Society online I came across this from Waugh in 1949. It captures the falseness of the dichotomy betweent the fleshy pleasure of Mardi Gras and the asceticism of this day:

Ash Wednesday; the warm rain falling in streets unsightly with the draggled survivals of carnival. The Roosevelt Hotel overflowing with crapulous tourists planning their return journeys. How many of them knew anything about Lent? But across the way the Jesuit church was teeming with life all day long; a continuous dense crowd of all colours and conditions moving up to the altar rails and returning with their foreheads signed with ash. And the old grim message was being repeated over each penitent: “Dust thou art and unto dust shalt thou return.”

“Weren’t you delighted to see such beauty as hers?” : Introducing St Pelagia the Harlot

In “Of Martyrs, Monks, and Mystics: A Yearly Meditational Reader of Ancient Spiritual Wisdom”by Charles Ringma and Irene Alexander, I came across this quote from The Life of St. Pelagia the Harlot. Click on her name above for the rest of the story:

“Some of the other bishops asked my superior, Nonnus, whether he had any edifying comments for them, and without delay our holy bishop began to tell them something for the instruction and salvation of all who were listening. As we were all listening with enjoyment to his holy teaching, suddenly there passed by in front of us the foremost actress of Antioch, the star of the local theatre. She was seated on a donkey and accompanied by a great and fanciful procession. She seemed to be clothed in nothing but gold and pearls and other precious stones. Even her feet were covered with gold and pearls. The male and female slaves accompanying her were extravagantly clothed in costly garments, and the torcs [metal neck rings] round their necks were all of gold. Some of them went before, others followed after. The worldly crowd could not get enough of their beauty and attractiveness. As they passed by us the air was filled with the scent of musk and other most delicious perfumes, but when the bishops saw her passing by so immodestly, with her head bare, and the outlines of her body clearly visible, nothing over her shoulders as well as her head, and yet the object of such adulation, they all fell silent, groaned and sighed, and averted their eyes as if being forced to witness some grave sin. The most blessed Nonnus, however, looked at her long and hard, and even after she had passed by he looked after her for as long as she remained in sight. Not till then did he turn round and speak to the other bishops. “Weren’t you delighted to see such beauty as hers?”

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.