The Forces of Humanity: Michel Serres’ Natural Contract
No longer the heroic individual, the subject, the tribe or society, mankind through relentless population growth has become equivalent in power to the tectonic plates of geology. Through the brilliant metaphor of the “…dense tectonic plates of humanity,” Serres has reconstituted humankind’s relationship to the earth. In Serres’ model, humanity has become a natural force as potentially destructive as any earthquake or meteor strike, as any tsunami or forest fire. Humanity becomes environment: “from now on there will be lakes of humanity, physical actors in the physical system of the Earth. man is a stockpile, the strongest and most connected of nature. He is a being-everywhere. And bound.” (P 18) Nations and continents are weighed upon by humanity: “Europe weighs at least a quarter-billion souls…it behaves like a sea.” (P 16) Humanity through its sheer volume, its size, exists as a physical force.
Humanity, through mechanistic and disinterested science has conquered nature. The Cartesian and Baconian project of the production of order, of mastery of the natural, of the cultivation and control of nature through mathematical reason and science has come to full fruition and we no longer experience ‘nature’ as natural any more. The developed world, living in cities, no longer has direct experiential connection to our own sustenance. “The climate never influences our work anymore.” (P 28) We industrially cultivate land to provide us with what we need. Any land that can’t be cultivated has long been relegated to the realm of the ‘useless,’ now only to provide places to pollute without affecting us individually or in our collectivity: the wasteland of the deserts and the polar ice caps. The essential in our societies takes place indoors: we no longer have a relationship with nature: “we communicate irrepressibly. We busy ourselves only with our own networks.” (P 29) Wild weather, geo-thermal disasters, and other forces of nature now collide with the plates of humanity. We only notice ‘nature’ when it ‘misbehaves,’ reminding us of its existence.
Serres is suggesting that we have moved from cosmologies where ‘God’ is at the center of the universe, to where ‘man’ is at the center, and that now, we must move to a model where the Earth and its things must be at the center and humankind at the edges. Or as he puts it, “…things all around and us within them like parasites.” (P 33). The parasite is, of course, abusive by nature. The parasite destroys its host even though that means the extermination of the parasite itself. Serres posits a contractual metaphor for our relationship to the earth when he says: “law tries to limit abusive parasitism among men but does not speak of this same action on things. If objects themselves become legal subjects, then all scales will tend toward an equilibrium.” (P 37) At this point we haven’t included the ‘world’ in our legal models. To Serres, objects must become legal subjects for any change to occur. The objects of the world can’t be relegated to forms of appropriation.
A call to arms then!
Back to nature, then! That means we must add to the exclusively social contract a natural contract of symbiosis and reciprocity in which our relationship to things would set aside mastery and possession in favor of admiring attention, reciprocity, contemplation, and respect; where knowledge would no longer imply property, nor action mastery, nor would property and mastery imply their excremental results and origins. An armistice contract in the objective war, a contract of symbiosis, for a symbiont recognizes the host’s rights, whereas a parasite-which is what we are now-condemns to death the one he pillages and inhabits, not realizing that in the long run he’s condemning himself to death too. (P 38)
Serres may be an optimist in making this call. What makes him think that there’s something we can do to stop environmental destruction? Can a parasite change its parasitic ways? Can natural forces do anything other than what they do? If humankind is a parasitic natural force then what makes anyone think that this could change? How fated are we to our own ‘natures?’
Serres is saying that in our exclusively social contracts we have left the world out of our plans. A natural contract would ostensibly re-establish a relationship between humanity and the objects of the world we live in. So, perhaps we are not parasites by nature, but have become parasitic by dismissing our relationship to the world. Maybe we need to reconsider the Cartesian mind/body dualism as something more disjunctive: a mind/body/world ‘tri-alism’ (? maybe trichotomy? Hmmm). Maybe we have made a split artificially between mind and body and the environment around us. Many currently would say in response to the Cartesian project that the mind and body have never been separate and that we should go further to say that the mind, body and world have never really been separate. What constitutes the boundaries between these so-called separate entities? By focusing on the mind/body ‘split’ and its reconstitution we have been leaving the world out of the equation. Human being has been dis-placed and needs to find its place in the world again. If we are to move away from a parasitic reality the world has to become central to us.