Work

Michel Serres, ‘Work’, pp.86-90, in:
Serres, M., Schehr, L.R., 1982. The parasite. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore.

p.86

What is work? Undoubtedly, it is a struggle against noise. If we allowed things to happen without intervening, stables would fill up with manure, the fox would eat the chickens, and the phylloxera would cross the seas to dry out the vine leaves. The channel is filled with mud.

Things mix; don’t move, don’t stir with the spoon; the sugar will sooner or later dissolve in the water. Sometimes there are convenient, useful mixtures, but most of them are obstructions or en­ cumbrances. To work is to sort.

Contrary to what is said in both classical and con­ temporary philosophy, men are not the only ones who work. We are never that exceptional. Animals work, as do living organisms.

What I mean by that is that life itself works – that it is life through its struggle against the tendency to death, through sorting, through the activity of Maxwell’s demon.

[Maxwell’s demon is a thought experiment created by the physicist James Clerk Maxwell in which he suggested how the Second Law of Thermodynamics might hypothetically be violated. In the thought experiment, a demon controls a small door between two chambers of gas. As individual gas molecules approach the door, the demon quickly opens and shuts the door so that fast molecules pass into the other chamber, while slow molecules remain in the first chamber. Because faster molecules are hotter, the demon’s behavior causes one chamber to warm up as the other cools, thus decreasing entropy and violating the Second Law of Thermodynamics.]

The organism gets order and energy, chews them up, sorts them, classifies them, and re-forms its own order and its own energy, eliminating the losses.

What is production in a factory? People will say that I am projecting our own organization of work into a natural system. Maybe so. I tend to think that here we are not finding a cause and an effect, but two parallel effects or a circle of cause-effect. I no longer see the difference between the bee and the architect.

p.87

The chaos of the zero state, before the first day, endures throughout the week and even enters paradise. The spider’s web loses the angles of its spirals; the plots of sorrel and cabbages are trimmed by the hare; there is no honey with­ out wax and no discourse without obscurity.

Living systems are at work, are work. The act of writing this book and the life of the one writing it are one and the same action. This writing and this body.

Death is the end of work. Life is work, simply, and work is life itself.

Certain pale, cadaverous shades move about, wandering in a world like some netherworld, almost dead already, and even greedier, thirstier, for fresh blood, the blood of those who work. Innumerable vampires and bloodsuckers attached in packets to the rather rare bodies of the workers.

Life needs work so much that, to survive, one must work oneself or look elsewhere. One can accept being derivative. It is thus that the parasite condemns himself to death or at least to disappear if Ulysses does not come by.

p.88

The work of life is labor and order but does not occur without borrowing from elsewhere. It makes order here but undoes order there. And it reinforces disorder and noise.

One parasite chases out the other, as one disorder chases out the other. The master will plunder, not the sor­rel, but the courtyard and the farmyard . The replacement parasite changes the key, changes order, adds a mediation. He eats the poultry that peck at the grain. He devours the fauna that devour the flora. It is not that he changes positions in the garden itself, but rather that he adds one loop to the parasitic system. He increases its complexity.

The human parasite is of another order relative to that of the animal parasite: the latter is one, the former, a set; the latter is time, the former, history; the latter is a garden, the former, a province. To destroy a garden or to destroy a world.

The Greek word for “chaff” or “weed” is zizania – that is to say, “discord.” The introduction of zizania; weeds, discord, the hare. This book, as you have seen, is the book of evil, the book of the problem of evil.

p.89

The newborn is chased out by its mother. Birth is an exclusion; childbirth, a dismissal – a discharge. Ostracism, quarantine, banishment.

The old, the dying, the hurt, leave the feast of life. They pay back the nitrogen cycle and the environment with the four basic atoms that they had borrowed plus a few rare earth metals that made them hard. Return to the world and one payment. Return to dust, suddenly ceasing to parasite the vital banquet. The dying are excluded from the host-world, chased from paradise.

Between these two discharges, between these two meals, we never stop working: excluding mildew to drink the fruit of the vine, ex­cluding the hare to eat the sorrel, removing disorder and the noise of the world to impose our own order. Never ceasing to chase beings from their paradise and always chased by others from our own.

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