Serres’s study of the interface between human nature and the rest of nature is the culmination of his career-long meditation on the relations between forms of life. From his foundational research regarding the interactions of parasites and hosts, to his numerous studies of subjects as diverse as myths of origins, depictions of angels, stories of Hermes, the functions of bridges and statues, and experiences of synesthesia, Serres has been preoccupied less with phenomena than with the connections between them: he is our great philosopher of mediation. With his emphasis on the tenuous, he continually underscores alternatives to culture as we have received it. His preferred form is the fable, yet the morals of his stories arrive on the wings of his slightly humorous, elliptical, and resolutely non-didactic style.
Serres’s project in Malfeasance is typically both descriptive and prescriptive. As a descriptive account, it is designed to be as a “Stercorian Atlas” of the “hundreds of marks, stains, and signposts” left by the growing human appropriation of nature. As a prescriptive treatise, Malfeasance extends the argument of Serres’s 1990 book Le Contrat naturel, where he posited that to survive, and thrive, human beings would have to overcome their internecine hostilities, imagining themselves as one species, unified by the necessity to establish an accord with nature. Stating that we now find ourselves at a crossroads as a species, he plaintively explains that he is writing for “the next generation.”
In this new meditation, Serres makes specific suggestions, both “practical” and ideological, toward pursuing a way of life that would make a “natural contract” possible. Above all, he recommends the dissolution of property rights and a fresh commitment to “uncover” nature’s particular beauties. In one of his few concrete proposals, he asks that we pursue a “triple liberation”: “let us liberate space, let us liberate our souls, and let us liberate at least one site.” Although Serres is not often specific, this aphorism is hardly utopian. Every day there are examples of liberating space, soul and site: someone restores the native species of a local stream damaged by chemical run-off; or turns a vacant lot of trash into a community garden; or home-makes the necessities of life whenever possible, and purchases only goods manufactured under non-exploitive conditions.
Sweeping as Serres’s account is historically and geographically, his suggestions of this kind are strangely intimate. His first concern is to develop a change in our attitude toward nature. His negative prescription to abandon property and his positive prescription to reveal the earth’s beauty, compelling as they are, suggest not broad social or political commitments, but something closer to a Stoic’s self-possession. In his concluding pages, Serres speaks of the continuity between the temporary dwellings of the exiles in the Hebrew Scriptures and the “homelessness” of Christ, who must find shelter in the “privacy” of the believing follower. He suggests that in a world that belongs to no one, Mundus, res nullius, man belongs to no one, homo nullius, and thus we now find ourselves governed by self-given laws. If this is a lonely prospect for humankind, it is also one that, unlike theodicy, places the solutions to our dilemma in our own hands.
As this brief survey of religious accounts of human dwelling suggests, Serres’s historical framework is loosely presented: the first half of the book, “Urine, Manure, Blood, Sperm: The Lived Foundations of Property Right” sets out a narrative of the development of property. The second half, “Garbage, Images, Sounds: Matter and Signs” has a vatic agenda as Serres explores the intersections between pollution’s hard, material, and soft, mental states. His method is not based in analytical philosophy, sociological research, or environmental policies. He constructs his survey from the perspectives of both “hard” sciences and “soft” cultural analyses, yet he owes far more to the visionary historical reasoning of thinkers like Giambattista Vico, Fustel De Coulanges, and his contemporary colleague at
Like these thinkers, Serres often relies on etymological arguments and historical parables. Exploring the roots of “le mal propre,” for instance, he finds a number of source words. He begins with lieu (place), a term that he claims, following a nineteenth-century dictionary of Latin etymology, is derived from the Latin locus and, before that, the Greek topos, and alludes to female genitalia: Sic loci muliebres, ubi nascendi initia consistent (“woman’s places, where the beginnings of birth are situated”). Serres thereby traces the boundary-making activities of families, tribes, and villages to the birthplace of individuals. Two further terms preoccupy him: lustrare, which suggests going around a periphery in order to inspect such boundaries; and closure, signifying to clean, to shut a space and throw unclean phenomena out beyond its edges. Out of this cluster of meanings he builds his arguments regarding the human propensity to create significance through practices of inclusion and expulsion.
As for parables, according to Serres, the history of property goes as follows: Like most animals, human beings use their bodily excreta — urine, manure, corpses, and sperm — to appropriate places. Sacred places are “polluted” by such excreta and must be bounded off from it, just as they are concurrently defined by being vulnerable to it. Men in particular deploy their urine and sperm to establish the outlines of their property, including their women, in order to mark and claim it. Property then passes to the family and tribe. Sacred spaces require blood sacrifices and the spilled blood of sacrifice in turn defines the limits of such space. As part of this sacrificial expenditure, monuments to the dead are built that “celebrate the shame of the massacre of innocent children by unspeakably cruel fathers.” These excreta — urine, sperm, blood, corpses — are used to mark and claim more and more space as they accumulate; they in turn increase the number of “subjects of appropriation” — individuals, families, and nations that come under proprietary claims.
Natural law becomes positive law, according to Serres, by evolving from these practices of sacrifice, invasion, crimes, and stinking, excremental trash to the “soft signs” of the signature on paper, the logo, the brand, and the re-appropriation of what has already entered the economy. He describes us at the end of this long process of rationalization, sporting the logos of those corporations that have ruined our air and water and exploited the labor of our bodies: “the victims stand in line to multiply the advertising that targets them.” And he points to how our “data,” held by the state, banks, cell phone companies, internet providers, hospitals and department stores subjugate the rest of our agency, holding us hostage to the soft realities of consumerism and, although he does not mention them, so-called “social” networks.
Serres’s argument about the origins of material pollution raises disturbing implications that remain unconsidered. Throughout the book, he reveals that pollution is not merely a by-product of industrialization, but a fundamental human, indeed animal, activity: a practice at the heart of our establishment of the sacred and our desire for meaning. If these practices are indeed rooted in the depth of our animal nature, it is unclear how we could expect to overcome our fierce instincts to mark and claim territory and instead adhere to an ethic of withdrawal and refusal of ownership. Yet, these are the solutions Serres poses to our current predicament. .. read more: