Michel Serres – Biogée: Making the sound of the world heard


French philosopher Michel Serres has long studied our relationship with the environment: the reasons why we damage it, and the necessary emotions that reconnect us to it. In his book Biogée, he abandons the current pervading catastrophism to write a celebration of the world.


“How do sailors save themselves from a storm? And bargees from a flood? How do climbers get themselves out of crevasses? How do lighthouse keepers guard against an invasion of rats? How do scientists manage the fire and the bombs of volcanoes? What do the breeze, the tumultuous rivers, the screaming of the wolves and the silence of proliferating microbes have to say?” That is how Michel Serres sums up his latest book, Biogée, published by Éditions Dialogue in September 2010. A book in which the French philosopher, who is also a sailor, mountaineer, scientist and mathematician, intends to

make the soundtrack of the world and the voice of the living heard.

Why? To make us understand how Biogée (from the Greek bio, life, and gaia, the earth), our environment, is affected by our scorn for nature and things. But Michel Serres is not here to make accusations: he calls for a joyful rehabilitation of the relationship between man and nature.

We are not the only ones to write and speak

Biogée strikes us first through its title: the word does not exist in French, nor in any other language. The philosopher made it up to evoke the fact that

Life inhabits the Earth and the Earth mingles with Life.

For Michel Serres, Biogée, life and earth, is the sum of the living creatures inhabiting the natural environment. It is, as a matter of fact, another more poetic and more concise way of saying “environment”. Biogée is about making the sound of the world heard, reconnecting the reader with its voice and its beauty. “The whole idea was to give a voice to the things that never speak. The water and the sea, the fire and the volcano, the earth and the steel, the air and the wind.” To give a voice to the Biogée which “has been silent since the beginning of time.” To show how similar men and things are. In fact, Michel Serres thinks that the source of our industrial, technological and environmental problems is to be found in the scorn that mankind has developed for “things”. In an interview on radio station France Culture, he explains that it is a tradition, in French and Western philosophy, to consider objectification and reification as negative processes, as a way of denying the dignity of the person you objectify. “As I grow older,” the 82-year-old philosopher says,

things have taken on major importance for me. We are not the only ones to write, to speak, to communicate.

Who would not be impressed to know it was recently discovered that when a tree feels threatened by a disease, it sends chemical signals to other trees to warn them? His almost animistic vision of nature, in which things should not be considered as objects but as subjects which emit signals too, sets the ground for a poetic book that summons all the voices of nature, and also calls for an awakening of human conscience. It is an emergency, and Serres, who loves nature so much, knows it.

« We must take care of the whole of the Biogée, which we have endangered and which is now putting us in danger, » is how Catherine Frémont, a critic of Serres’s work, understands the situation. “This might just be the reason why I became involved in philosophy: I am a child of Hiroshima.”

A declaration of peace and joy

But Michel Serres did not choose catastrophism to convey his idea. In fact, he resorted to a format that is almost as striking as the title of his book: a blend of poetry, short stories, philosophical and juridical reflection, etc. It is an unconventional book where essay and literature mingle, a work of philosophy that also resorts to emotions and the pleasure of writing. The book is divided into six chapters: “Sea and rivers”, “Earth and mounts”, “Three volcanoes”, “Winds and meteors”, “Fauna and flora” and “Encounters, loves” and constantly travels between different literary forms and elements – although Michel Serres, a former sailor who grew up on the banks of the river Garonne, is definitely a “man of the water”. Describing this unusual format, Michel Serres says that it may be striking to a contemporary reader but that it in fact follows in the footsteps of an old French tradition. Diderot, Voltaire and Montaigne did not separate stories and essays, they used both with the same talent and enthusiasm.

Biogée also follows in the footsteps of Michel Serres’ own work and is the last in a series of books dedicated to the relationship between man and his environment. In the first one, Le Contrat naturel (The Natural Contract), Serres developed the idea that since we all are subjects of law, maybe nature should be too. In the second one, Le Mal propre (Clean Evil), he explained why we pollute: because it is a way of claiming that the world is ours. And in La Guerre mondiale (World War), he evoked the war that we are leading against the world. In the past, these positions have drawn much criticism: Serres was repeatedly accused of being a deep ecologist who loved our planet even more than mankind itself. The Natural Contract was written in 1987, at a time were ecology had already emerged as a movement but had not reached the whole of society – and in particular public opinion. But things have now changed. Literary critic François Busnel, in a piece about Biogée, asks a very pertinent question:

What would we say if, today, a trial was to oppose the Gulf of Mexico and British Petroleum, the polluting company? With this catastrophe, the visionary character of Michel Serres’s work [in The Natural Contract] becomes obvious.

With Biogée, the philosopher has chosen poetry as a way to reconnect with the beauty of the world: probably the most powerful tool to bring us to want to protect it. The book ends in an apology of joy, the joy of knowledge, and the joy of being part of nature. Storms, eruptions and earthquakes may sometimes render this relationship difficult, but at the end of the day it is all very invigorating, says the philosopher. “As I kept writing about the war we are leading on the world, I figured that maybe the natural contract was a treaty of peace that we needed to write.” Here it is: Biogée, a declaration of peace and joy.

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