I have started to work through some of Michel Serres’ books (The Parasite, Statues, Troubadour of Knowledge, Conversations with Latour etc.). Serres was Foucault’s student and then colleague and he worked with Foucault on the structure of ‘The Order of Things’.
I must say although Serres’ books can be exasperating in their dizzying interdisciplinarity and meanderings, I like his lampooning of academics who (like me?) work through commentary, interpretation and criticism. For example, he hates the way journal articles and academic books rely so heavily on presentation skills (self-management) of references, the citing of others, rather than invention, rather than doing stuff. He’s a breath of fresh air. For example:
If the researcher is in his niche, if he has his method, his cup of tea, his pressure group, he stops producing and starts reproducing (Serres 2007: 165)
As someone who started out with a degree in literature, I also find his mixing up of mathematics, hard science, social science and the humanities stimulating if often baffling: ‘very little literature strays from science’ (211).
I can see some parallels with Foucault’s early work (including heterotopia) in emphasis on:
‘a way of thinking that was both formal and relational …so I never arrived at a beginning, an origin, a unique principle of interpretation – all of which are classically seen as making coherence, system, meaning. Instead, I arrived at a cluster of relations, differentiated but organised’ (Serres and Latour, 1995: 101).
My first encounter with Serres’ work was through his popular short book ‘Thumbelina’ which I tried (in a previous blog) to relate to Foucault’s (1970 ) first account of ‘textual’ heterotopias that breaks the boundaries of customary ways of thinking as outlined in his preface to ‘The Order of Things’. In the preface, Foucault cites the now famous passage from Borges, a baffling classification of animals found in an imaginary Chinese Encyclopaedia, that ‘shattered all the familiar landmarks of my thought – our thought’.
(a) belonging to the Emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) sucking pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied (j) innumerable. (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (l) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies (Foucault, 1970: xv).
Foucault is confronted with a text that goes beyond merely juxtaposing the unusual, a text with a complete lack of ‘common ground’, a frightening disorder.
Foucault’s thought here is nothing like the formal theory of relations that Serres performs across his works, connecting threads from disparate sources, but I would argue that the impact of the passage from Borges on Foucault raises questions that Serres goes onto address in a different way:
On what ‘table’ according to what grid of identities, similitudes, analogies have we become accustomed to sort out so many different and similar things? (Foucault, 1970: xix)
In ‘The Order of Things’ Foucault goes on to trace the history (archaeology) of the fundamental codes of culture in the specific human sciences related to language, nature and the economy. In contrast, Serres goes on to mix up and relate different codes across sciences and elsewhere, to discover/invent a new order of things. For instance in his conversations with Bruno Latour (1995), he speaks of a theory of ‘means, of relations, of rapports, of transports, of wandering’ as a ‘contemporary manner of thinking’.
Serres’ whole approach to philosophy is to invent rather than interpret, criticise or judge and he does this through ‘cross-breeding’. Borges’ text shatters order which prompts Foucault to question how we have customarily put things together. In contrast, Serres breaks open those customs, mixes everything up, demonstrating bewildering connections, relations.
Serres urges us all to mix things up, for example, trying out a new menu each day as we open up our computers, ‘as if from a strange planet’. For Serres, the Internet encourages experimentation. The web prompts us, has the potential, to invent a new order of things.
Foucault, M. (1970)  The Order of Things, Andover, Hants: Tavistock
Serres, M. (2007) The Parasite. University of Minnesota Press.
Serres, M. (2015) Thumbelina: The Culture and Technology of Millennials. London: Rowman & Littlefield.
Serres, M. and Latour, B. (1995) Conversations on Science, Culture, and Time. University of Michigan Press.