By Janell Watson


The Montréal Review, May 2024

French philosopher Michel Serres (1930-2019) is known for incarnating his thought in characters from literature and mythology.1 He claims that his personages are not conceptual (as in Deleuze and Guattari’s conceptual personae), but rather are “true incarnations.”2 He names a book series for Hermes, messenger to the gods and, for Serres, an incarnation of communication technology and information theory. The introduction to the newly translated Hermes I: Communication features the faithful wife of Homer’s Ulysses, Penelope, who, Serres suggests, weaves the network graph which maps the paths along which Hermes travels, as he distributes messages among the gods.3 Serres places Penelope “au poste théorique,” at the theoretical position, on the job as theorist, doing the theory work.4 Ancient Penelope the weaver, incarnation of the topological graph, is a proto-mathematician. It could be said that Hermes, god of communication, and Penelope, weaver-mathematician, embody applied and theoretical information science, respectively.

By his own admission, Serres prefers stories peopled by characters with bodies over disembodied abstract concepts. He considers thinking through characters to be more modern than thinking with concepts. “I was uneasy with concepts,” he confesses. “The abstract idea, in its formality, always seemed to me to belong to an outdated way of thinking.”5 Classical thought privileged the necessary universal truths of pure reason whereas, he argues, modern thought contemplates the contingencies of the singular. The stories of literature and mythology recount the contingent circumstances encountered by singular characters, just as relativity, quantum mechanics, and chaos theory study the contingencies, singularities, and uncertainties of modern science. Thinking through characters is modern, Serres argues, because narrative characters like Hermes and Penlope embody his “philosophy of contingency and event.”6

Serres compares his philosophical characters to Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, “a character that already exists” and who “comes from a distant past,” but whom the philosopher “transfigures into a contemporary who speaks and announces something truly new.”7 Hermes and Penelope, as Serres’s contemporaries, announce the arrival of information theory, global communication, and ubiquitous computing, which are truly new in the history of science and technology. He recasts Hermes and Penelope as incarnations of global information technology, reincarnating them from their minor roles in Homer’s Odyssey, an ancient narrative in which he finds “an encyclopedia” which “describes a world across a philosophy of communication.”8

Serres schematizes the history of technology by associating its three major epochs with the Greek gods Atlas, Prometheus, and Hermes. Atlas and Hercules are the gods of the age of agriculture, characterized by simple machines such as wheels, axes, hammers, pulleys, and levers, that allowed humans to carry heavy weights and shape solid forms. This was the age of cold work, and of the reversible time of clocks and mechanisms. During the industrial age, Prometheus, Vulcan, and Maxwell transformed things with liquefying fire. This is the age of thermodynamics, of hot societies, and of the irreversible time of thermodynamic transformation. As god of communication in the age of information, Hermes displaces Prometheus, the god of the heat engines that dominated the previous age of industrial production.9 Serres defied the orthodoxy of his time when, in the late 1960s, he argued that the age of communication had superseded the age of industrialized production. Louis Althusser was particularly outraged by Serres’s prioritization of communication over production, represented by the triumph of Hermes over Prometheus.10

Serres’s historical schema suggests that the god of fire was poorly chosen as a title for Bird and Sherwin’s biography of Robert J. Oppenheimer, American Prometheus, which was the basis of Christopher Nolan’s 2023 film, Oppenheimer.11 The thief of fire belongs to the previous epoch of industrial production, which was enabled by thermodynamics, the science of heat. Oppenheimer instead belongs to the current epoch of information technology, in which thermodynamics is supplemented first by relativity and then by quantum mechanics. Wary of the uncertainties and contingencies of quantum theory, Einstein remains closer to Prometheus than Oppenheimer, herald of the age of information technology, broadly defined. Fire had already been stolen from the gods by the time Oppenheimer became Hermes, by leading the scientific team that weaponized the new theories of the information age, resulting in the first atomic bombs.

Even as he insists on the narrative quality of his characters, Serres simultaneously claims that they function as “operators,” in a mathematical sense.12 As defined in Britannica online, a mathematical operator “indicates an operation to be performed,” and “may be regarded as a function, transformation, or map” (“map” here being a mathematical term). What happens to a story when its characters become mathematical operators? Serres claims that, as operators, his characters allow “the banal” to turn into “the universal.”13 In what sense does Oppenheimer-Hermes function as an operator? The movie Oppenheimer stages the everyday life of an ordinary scientist caught up in a transformational moment of the evolution of human technologies. The protagonist Oppenheimer-Hermes, as messenger, connects the scientists and engineers gathered at the Los Alamos Laboratory to the larger Manhattan Project as well as to other research centers, building a network that encompasses science, the military, and governments. In Nolan’s film, the Oppenheimer character reenacts the contingent encounters and cluster of events that lead to the weaponization of science. It should be noted that Serres himself does not compare Oppenheimer to Hermes, but Serres does name Hermes as god of the information age, and explains the role of information theory in the development of nuclear weapons.

Information and work

Bringing an end to the aspirations of the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century rationalists, twentieth-century science betrays humanity, argues Serres in “Betrayal: The Thanatocracy,” an essay on the nuclear arms race. An early reader of information theory, Serres describes the entry into the modern age of communication as the moment at which information begins to operate at the entropic scale of physical work. Information involves only small energies at the negentropic scale, in order to produce speech, writing, theory, or software. Work requires energy at the entropic scale, in order to accomplish the physical, mechanical, or energetic labor of “ploughing, forging, melting, transporting, building, etc.”14

With the creation and detonation of the atomic bomb, theory operates at a new scale of magnitude. Science discovers how to translate the small negentropic energies of information into the large energies of physical work: “theory has moved forward to the entropic scale. It has the power to unleash the megatons of hurricanes.”15 These two energy scales, negentropic and entropic, are separated by many magnitudes, a gap calculated by Leon Brillouin as a coefficient of 10-16.16 The new ability of science to translate theory into the magnitudes of work at the entropic scale made the atomic bomb possible.

Serres identifies an ancient analogue to the translation of information into work. Human speech, an early form of information transmission, has long been used to dominate others, he argues. “Speech was an order as soon as an ordered practice was sought,” he writes. Upon acquiring speech, humankind was “transformed into a political animal, that is to say, despotic.” The best “speechifiers” and “scribes” took up “the monopoly of legitimate violence,” and were able to cross “the unfillable gap between the two programs,” the program of speech-information and the program of labor: “Theory had to dominate life to be in a position to dominate the world.17 The smooth talkers and persuasive writers enslaved the biological energy of plants, animals, and fellow humans, in order to produce wealth and power for themselves. Dominant individuals and groups reigned by way of their mastery of information, by way of political order words. Any biological organization—a patch of vegetation, a pack of wolves, or a human society—includes a quantity of information. Biological life translates information into energy that can be made to produce. Speech, an early human technology of communication, was already a machine for transforming information into labor, allowing for negentropy to operate the scale of entropy. “Theory, at that very moment, already espoused the possible annihilation of the living in general. Directed toward the world, adapting, as they say, to the environment, speech, before getting there, passed through a dangerous threshold where the inevitable monster, lurking, awaited it: the death instinct. And tomorrow’s holocaust was engraved, at theory’s origin.”18 Serres thus traces the roots of nuclear holocaust to the earliest mechanisms of prehistoric primitive exploitation. “What is history?” asks Serres. “Nothing but the childbirth, in blood and tears, of this translation” from information into labor “that took ages to speak the very language of the world.”19 Oppenheimer-Hermes and his team of theorist-Penelopes translated low-energy information into the highest scale of destructive energy ever deployed by humans. Equating Oppenheimer with a Greek god suggests the archaic origins of the first atomic weapon, through the above-described mechanisms for transforming negentropic energy to the entropic energy at the scale of work—in this case, the work of mass destruction.

False gods of the modern world

The strategy of building a nuclear weapons arsenal as a deterrent was proposed as a means of preventing future world wars. Serres prefers cultural strategies over the display of military weapons as a means to avert violence. Identifying strong links between ancient and modern humans, Serres argues that cultural formations such as language, literature, philosophy, and religion are “social technologies” that enable humans to manage the constant interspecies violence that could destroy communities, if not the entire human species. Rites, myths, and tales pass from generation to generation.20 This is why figures such as Hermes or Prometheus remain among us, recognizable as our “contemporaries.”

Comparing modern socio-economic hierarchies to those of the ancients, Serres portrays contemporary global elites as false gods. Citing Bergson, he argues that “the collective fabricates gods.”21 Ancient and modern collectives make gods through public displays of violence. Serres cites the example of “the mechanism of apotheosis,” which “consists in deifying a dead emperor: the gods are born of cadavers and murders.” False gods emerge from piles of corpses, especially as a result of human sacrifice. What was the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, if not an immense ritual of human sacrifice, presented as a spectacle, images of which were repeatedly reprinted and rebroadcast through the mass media, around the world? Dropping the atomic bombs in 1945 deified Oppenheimer, alongside the leaders of the victorious United States and its allies. Oppenheimer the movie recreates the spectacle of human sacrifice, portraying the mass murders carried out by the Allies, even though the film only shows the flash of light and mushroom clouds, discretely leaving the cadavers off screen. “These spectacles repeat, with a stunning precision, the rites of archaic religions,” writes Serres of televised violence in general, though his remarks apply to this 2023 film. Dramatically and rhetorically, Serres asks, “Are we aware that we live in a polytheistic era and that a sacred terror similar to that of archaic religions is invading our collectives, admittedly advanced as far as science, technology and reason go but thus returning to backward times?”22 The false gods created by the deployment of atomic weapons are regressive figures. Their most modern technology carries out an ancient form of barbarous slaughter—human sacrifice.

Crime and punishment

The comparison of Oppenheimer to Prometheus could be justified by evoking the punishment meted out by the other false gods. The false gods of the Atomic Energy Commission, which held the 1954 hearings recounted by Bird and Sherwin and dramatized in the film, punished Oppenheimer, even though he oversaw the successful completion of the Los Alamos mission. However, Oppenheimer’s punishment is procedural rather than corporeal. The result of the trial was the revocation of his security clearance.23 This is an information-age punishment: Oppenheimer’s access to secured information was cut off. Unlike Prometheus the fire thief, the body of Oppenheimer, messenger god of the Manhattan project, remained intact. He was, moreover, only punished for suspected political affiliations, not for crimes against humanity and the environment. The false gods of Hiroshima merely distanced themselves from their messenger god.

Janell Watson is Professor and Chair of the Department of Modern and Classical Languages and Literatures at Virginia Tech. She is the author of two books: Guattari's Diagrammatic Thought: Writing Between Lacan and Deleuze and Literature and Material Culture from Balzac to Proust: The Collection and Consumption of Curiosities. In 2013, she co-authored The Deleuze and Guattari Dictionary.

1 Christopher Watkin, Michel Serres: Figures of Thought (Edinburgh University Press, 2020), 189-192.

2 Michel Serres, Pantopie: de Hermès à la petite poucette (Pommier, 2014),73

3 Michel Serres, Hermes I: Communication, trans. Louise Burchill (University of Minnesota Press, 2023), 5-15.

4 Michel Serres, “Language and Space: From Oedipus to Zola,” in Hermes: Literature, Science, Philosophy, eds. Josué V. Harari and David Bell (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983), 49.

5 Serres, Pantopie, 72.

6 Serres, Pantopie, 85

7 Serres, Pantopie, 72.

8 Michel Serres, Hermes 2: Interference, trans. Randolph Burks (2021), 60.

9 Michel Serres, Atlas, trans. Randolph Burks (2021), 60-61; Michel Serres, Hominescence, trans. Randolph Burks (Bloomsbury, 2019), 65-68.

10 Serres, Pantopie, 124-125.

11 Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer (Vintage Books, 2006); Christopher Nolan, dir. Oppenheimer (2023, Universal Pictures).

12 Serres, Pantopie, 74.

13 Serres, Pantopie, 74, 78.

14 Michel Serres, “Betrayal: The Thanatocracy,” trans. Randolph Burks, Public 48 (2013), 29.

15 Serres, “Betrayal,” 30-31.

16 Leon Brillouin, Science and Information Theory, second edition (Dover Publications, 2013), 118.

17 Serres, “Betrayal,” 29-30.

18 Serres, “Betrayal,” 30.

19 Serres, “Betrayal,” 31.

20 Michel Serres, Statues: The Second Book of Foundations, trans. Randolph Burks (London: Bloomsbury, 2015), 6-7.

21 Michel Serres, The Incandescent, trans. Randolph Burks (Bloomsbury, 2018), 16; Henri Bergson, The Two Sources of Morality and Religion (MacMillan, 1935), 275.

22 Serres, Incandescent, 16.

23 Philip Ball, “J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Social Responsibility of Science,” The Lancet, vol. 402 (August 5, 2023), 441.



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