A few people possibly believe that science fiction is real and that Isaac Asimov actually built robots for a galactic federation. That’s cool, they have a rich mind space. The rest of us understand science fiction as a shared illusion for our mutual enjoyment. Part of humanity’s exchange of wealth. In their play, children learn the rules for fiction, when to step into day dream and when to put it aside. It’s surprising that philosophy finds the barrier difficult to negotiate.
When the moon hits your eye
like a big pizza pie
When Dean Martin sings that the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, he is not describing a physical collision between your face and moon rock. We understand that the description is poetical, metaphorical. The moon seems larger and more significant because love has bent your perceptions. He sings that the world is perceived through our emotions and expectations and that reality is to some extent mediated. I am not sure why there isn’t a Chair of Moon Pizza at some American university – there are plenty of positions held by people who believe this:
Serres often returns to an idea he derives from the writing of Auguste Comte, namely, that human societies pass through the equivalents of something like the three states of matter, solid, liquid, and gaseous. If the classical world was focussed round the analysis of solid forms, and nineteenth-century physics was taken up with the fluid dynamics of water, fire and steam, the twentieth century has been concerned with the sciences of communication.
Certainly, if you don’t think too hard about it you could say that the late C20th was concerned with communication – if you pay no attention to aeronautics, alternative energy, built environment or any other concern that doesn’t fit your preconceptions. To then say that human society has become gaseous, well that’s amore.
At the centre of Serres’s account of the softening of matter into meaning is the experience of hearing. This may be because the organs of hearing in most mammals closely approximates to an imaginary apparatus which Serres frequently uses to characterise the operation of the senses, that of the black box, a term that seems to derive from the mathematical analysis of filtering networks by Wilhelm Cauer in the 1940s.
Note that hearing resembles Serres’ black box, rather than the imaginary box being constructed to resemble hearing. The model precedes the actual. By the same kind of magic used by children to turn cardboard boxes into castles, the senses are turned into mysterious zones filled with ghosts and demons of which men shall know nothing. Note also how science is adopted as a passing illustration. There’s a political term invented by Stephen Colbert – truthiness. I think we need an equivalent for the vague employment of scientific data ‘from the gut’ in social science literature. What about factiness?
Now, I love metaphysical gobbledegook. I love Theosophy and media ghosts and other kinds of science fiction, for what it is – fiction. But as an adult I realise that it is not the basis for navigating the real world. Certainly Dean Martin has as much to tell us about hearing as Serres – that frequency is not the same as pitch, that we attend to what we find important, that soundscapes are constructed yada yada. We can still open the box. I think the wise philosophers are ahead of this, they have a spirit of play that irritates academia, which then tries to cripple them into hard positions (apart from that goat Lacan.)
One of the difficult things about the work of Michel Serres is that it shuns unilateralism, the taking of stands and occupation of positions. This means that it is almost impossible to say what his work might be for or in favour of, what in the end and all things considered would come down on the side of.
As if that wasn’t the whole idea.
Speculative fiction is crucial in starting lines of enquiry. It is not in itself a line of enquiry because it is based on poetry and metaphor. Derrida and Vonnegut are both pretty, but their dreams are not for fact.