The Natural Contract - Michel Serres

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Studies in Literature and Sciencepublished in association with the Society for Literature and Science

Editorial Board

Chair: N. Katherine Hayles, University of California, Los AngelesJames]. Bono, State University of New York at Buffalo Clifford Geertz, Institute for Advanced Study Mark L. Greenberg, Drexel University Evelyn Fox Keller, University of California, Berkeley Bruno Latour, Ecole Nationale Superieur des Mines, Paris Stephen]. Weininger, Worcester Polytechnic Institute Titles in the series

Transg;ressive Readings: The Texts of Franz Kafka and Max Planckby Valerie D. Greenberg

A Blessed Rage for Order: Deconstruction, Evolution, and Chaosby Alexander]. Argyros

Of Two Minds: Hypertext Pedagogy and Poetics by Michael Joyce The Artificial Paradise: Science Fiction and American Realityby Sharona Ben-Tov

Conversations on Science, Culture, and Timeby Michel Serres with Bruno Latour

Genesis by Michel Serres The Natural Contract by Michel Serres


The Natural Contract

Translated by Elizabeth MacArthur and William Paulson



English translation copyright by the University of Michigan 1995 Originally published in French as Franois Bourin 1992 All rights reserved Published in the United States of America by The University of Michigan Press Manufactured in the United States of America

Le Contrat Naturel by Editions


Printed on acid-free paper 1997 1996 1995 4 3 2 1



ClP catalogue recordfor this book is availablefrom the British Library.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Serres, Michel. [Contrat naturel. English] The natural contract p. cm.

/ Michel Serres;

translated by Elizabeth

MacArthur and William Paulson. ISBN 0-472-09549-8 (alk. paper). - ISBN 0-472-06549-1 (pbk. : alk. paper) 1. Environmental sciences-Philosophy. 2. Environmental responsibility. I. Title. GE60.S4713 363.7-dc20 1995 95-2685 CIP The publisher is grateful for partial subvention for translation from the French Ministry of Culture. Illustration facing page 1: Museo del Prado, Madrid.

Men Fighting with Sticks

by Goya. Copyright

For Robert Harrison,

...casu quodam in silvis natus ...(Livy 1,3)

Translators' Acknowledgments

It has been both a signal pleasure and a daunting task to translate the writing of Michel Serres, himself a consummate translator of ideas from one idiom to another. We have tried to make our English version clear and fluent, while still preserving something of his inimitable style, word play, and breadth of meaning. The range of domains to which Serres refers, often simultaneously, poses particular challenges to the translator, and we found our selves consulting sailors and classicists, lawyers and mathemati cians. We would like to express our gratitude to the following people who gave us advice: Robert Bourque, H. D. Cameron, Stephanie Castleman, Herve Pisani, Jacqueline Simons, Stephen Simons, Katherine Staton. We also read with profit Felicia McCarren's translation of chapter 2, "Natural Contract," which appeared in Critical Inquiry 19 (Autumn 1992): 1-2l. Above all we would like to thank Michel Serres for his generous help in a number of lengthy faxes and a sunny conversation in Santa Barbara. His cooperation enabled us to avoid several mis readings and to clarify in English some difficult passages in the original French. We take full responsibility for the misreadings and infelicities that remain.


War, Peace Natural Contract Science, Law Casting Off

1 27 51 97

War, Peace

A pair of enemies brandishing sticks is fighting in the midst of a patch of quicksand. Attentive to the other's tactics, each answers blow for blow, counterattacking and dodging. Outside the paint ing's frame, we spectators observe the symmetry of their gestures over time: what a magnificent spectacle-and how banal! The painter, Goya, has plunged the duelists knee-deep in the mud. With every move they make, a slimy hole swallows them up, so that they are gradually burying themselves together. How quickly depends on how aggressive they are: the more heated the struggle, the more violent their movements become and the faster they sink in. The belligerents don't notice the abyss they're rush ing into; from outside, however, we see it clearly. Who will die? we ask. Who will win? they are wondering-and that's the usual question. Let's make a wager. You put your stakes on the right; we've bet on the left. The fight's outcome is in doubt simply because there are two combatants, and once one of them wins there will be no more uncertainty. But we can identify a third is sinking. For here the bettors are in the same doubt as the duelists, and both bettors and duelists are at risk of losing collectively, since it is more than likely that the earth will swallow up the fighters before they and the gamblers have had a chance to settle accounts. On the one hand there's the pugnacious subject, every man for himself; on the other, the bond of combat, so heated that it

position, outside their squabble: the marsh into which the struggle


The Natural Contract

inflames the audience, enthralled to the point of joining in with its cries and coins. sand, the water, the mud, the reeds of the marsh? In what quick sands are we, active adversaries and sick voyeurs, floundering side by side? And I who write this, in the solitary peace of dawn? Achilles, king of war, struggles against a swelling river. Strange, mad battle! We don't know if Homer, in book 21 of the the hero. In any case, as he throws the innumerable corpses of adversaries vanquished and killed into the current, the level rises so that the stream, bursting its banks, reaches up to his shoulders to threaten him. Then, shaken by a new terror, he casts off bow and saber; his free hands raised toward the heavens, he prays. Is his triumph so total that his repugnant victory is transformed into defeat? In place of his rivals the world and the gods burst into view. some other hero, whose valor comes from laurels won in limitless, History, dazzling in its truth, unveils the glory of Achilles or But aren't we forgetting the world of things themselves, the

Iliad, takes

this river to be the mounting tide of furious enemies who assail

the victors for propelling the motor of history. Woe to the van quished! A first step toward humanization came from proclaiming the victims of this animal barbarity more blessed than the murderers.

endlessly renewed war. Violence, with its morbid luster, glorifies

As a second step, now, what is to be done with this river, oncemute, which is starting to burst its banks? Does the swelling come from the springtime or from the squabble? Must we distinguish two battles: the historical war waged by Achilles against his ene mies and the blind violence done to the river? A new flood: the level is rising. Fortunately, on that day, during the Trojan War, fire from the heavens dried up the waters; unfortunately, without promising any alliance. River, fire, and mud are reminding us of their presence. Nothing ever interests us but spilled blood, the manhunt, crime stories, the point at which politics turns into murder; we are en thralled only by the corpses of the battlefield, the power and glory of those who hunger for victory and thirst to humiliate the losers;

thus entertainment mongers show us only corpses, the vile work

War, Peaceof death that founds and traverses history, from the


and from academic art to prime-time television.

Iliad to


ture. In the present era, murderous winners are admired some what less, and despite the glee with which killing fields are put on display, they draw only unenthusiastic applause: these are, I pre sume, good tidings. In these spectacles, which we hope are now a thing of the past, the adversaries most often fight to the death in an abstract space, where they struggle alone, without marsh or river. Take away the world around the battles, keep only conflicts or debates, thick with humanity and purified of things, and you obtain stage theater, most of our narratives and philosophies, history, and all of social science: the interesting spectacle they call cultural. Does anyone ever say

Modernity, I notice, is beginning to tire of this loathsome cul

where the master and slave

fight it out?

Our culture abhors the world. Yet quicksand is swallowing the duelists; the river is threatening the fighter: earth, waters, and climate, the mute world, the voice less things once placed as a decor surrounding the usual specta cles, all those things that never interested anyone, from now on thrust themselves brutally and without warning into our schemes and maneuvers. They burst in on our culture, which had never formed anything but a local, vague, and cosmetic idea of them: nature. Planet Earth. What was once local-this river, that swamp-is now global:

Climate Let us propose two equally plausible interpretations of the stable high-pressure zones over North America and Europe in 1988 and

1989.could easily be found in the decades for which we have records, matic system varies greatly, and yet fairly little, being relatively invariant in its variations: quick and slow, catastrophic and mild, they shouldn't surprise us. regular and chaotic. Rare phenomena are therefore striking, but The first interpretation: a similar sequence of hot dry days

or inferred for the millennia beyond human memory. The cli


The Natural ContractSome stone blocks that hadn't moved since the gigantic flows

of the receding Ice Age, at the end of the Quatern