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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