Michel Serres, ‘Potential’, pp.33-66, in:
Serres, M., Burks, R., 2011. Variations on the body. Univocal Publishing, Minneapolis.
No seated professor taught me productive work, the only kind of any worth, whereas my gymnastics teachers, coaches and, later, my guides inscribed its very conditions into my muscles and bones. They teach what the body can do.
Do you want to write, do research, live a work-producing life? Follow their advice and example, namely: that nothing can withstand training, the ascesis of which repeats rather unnatural gestures (the drop kick, the tennis serve, the Fosbury flop, yoga…) and makes effortless the necessary virtues of concentration (basketball, the high jump), courage (rugby), patience, the mastery of anxiety, in the mountains for instance; that no work can be produced without observing the same rule, quasi-monastic, by time schedule as the high level athlete: a life subjected to the body’s rhythms, a strict sleep hygiene, a drug-free diet; that the researcher who cheats or lies neither finds nor invents, just as the high jumper neither cheats nor lies with gravity… this iron law turns its back on every practice on the part of the collectives whether professional, political, media, academic… that crowns mobsters and puts the mediocre in power.
Whatever the activity you’re involved in, the body remains the medium of intuition, memory, knowing, working and above all invention. A mechanical procedure can replace any of the understanding’s operations, never the actions of the body.
He who has the ball thus learns the role of the victim and to escape it passes the ball off to others, but this must be done under the right conditions, so as not to bring the punishment down upon his comrade.
Yes, the noble sport, that of guides, which makes bodies blossom and teaches the physical and moral virtues, is opposed to the ignoble sport, that of money, which cultivates the contrary virtues and spreads fascism. Competition is excellent, when it improves people but atrocious when obeying a certain social Darwinism whose ideal of the strongest, purely animal, reverses the process of hominization, which from its origin progresses, on the contrary, by protecting the weak.
For the most part, sports clubs, in fact, never win a single championship; by far most athletes never wear a medal around their neck… in their vast majority, athletes lose: this is what their ascesis teaches; losing, to be sure, against the others, but winning in the things themselves and for oneself…. […]
What can our bodies do? Almost anything. How many of the learned, on the contrary, announce that the hominin body, feeble and placed by nature in the weakest position among all the living, cannot do very much.
Only animals know bounds, those set by instinct; without instinct, men pitch their fragile and mobile tent, with neither solid wall nor protection against the unlimited. Who knows what the body can do?
Like all trials, pain presents two sides, positive and negative: it tortures and comforts, weakens and increases, diminishes the body and knowledge to the point of destruction, ennobles all we’ve learned and reinvents health. Whatever pity I feel for suffering, including my own, and however unconditionally I seek to assuage it, the fact remains that suffering tests the limits of the body in the same way as does exercise: the latter in an active way, the former, passively.
Any given tissue can, in fact, be torn, except at the site of the scar; once past the reaction to the microbe, you can no longer die from it. What does not kill makes stronger, and how can this strength be acquired without running the risk of destruction? Infectious diseases create antibodies and, in the long run, transform parasites into symbionts.
Pessimism, a luxury of the old and blasé rich, retreats before optimism, the combat philosophy of the weak when faced with adversity. What do the poor have left, except a heart for fighting?
The optimism of exercise and combat remains true up until its turnaround, quickly withdrawing when it justifies social Darwinism and the exploitation of men by their fellows. So how do we negotiate suffering? Positively and negatively, like violence.
The body survives by turning this double blindness to good account. It doesn’t cheat, but remains silent; it tells the truth, but we don’t listen to it very well.
However, just as confession is accompanied by insincerity, and thought doubled with the shadow of the unthought, so the body performs certain gestures all the more easily when they unfold from the least amount of attention possible. Of course, the body isn’t deceptive, but it’s only at ease in a certain obscurity, a tomb of secrets. How freely do we breathe when this function, voluntary or involuntary at will, does without this latter?
We run, walk, piss, perform complicated tasks better… while thinking about something else.
What consciousness stiffens, forgetfulness makes flexible.
Learning then drives gestures down into the blackness of the body; thoughts too, besides; knowing is forgetting. Supple virtuality and the passage into act demand a kind of unconsciousness. To inhabit your body better, forget it, at least in part – and to give it orders as well.
Consciousness and the ego, first pathologies, are opposed to health’s divine unconsciousness. What is the unconscious? The body. Better: the body in good shape.
Likewise, the silence of the organs requires muteness from all of them, while the slightest discomfort mixes into transparent health a drop that renders all of it turbid; for the most local pain occupies and recruits the totality of the body, while pleasure, exclusive, requires its complete collaboration, without so much as an irksome speck in the heel of the shoe.
As a necessary condition, the good demands unanimous cooperation; while evil merely requires, as sufficient condition, a single individual’s least act or even intention.
Yet, mysteriously, the body can, often, thwart these laws of statics. By playing its game off-equilibrium, by confronting its limits… it succeeds in establishing another high seat, in the instability. But if it can construct this new state off-equilibrium from the previous equilibrium, it’s conceivable then that life itself from the start became established by means of an initial deviation comparable to this one in every respect. This position, exposed several times over – this secret enveloped within singular existences and life in general – causes the body to leave behind the domain of the real to enter into potential. Yes, the body exists in potency, in every sense imaginable.
[discussion of vices]
Nothing in all this has to do with the body; everything in it, on the contrary, refers to numbers: the vices, intellectual, invite discourse. We drug ourselves above all with numbers and language.
It beats, my ribs heave, my heels strike the ground, my hair flutters with the movement. But the whole of life, too, moves: for plants grow and their fertilisine takes flight, algae float and mushrooms spread, but less than bacteria do. Furthermore, life doesn’t merely change place, it changes.
Life doesn’t merely move and change, it exchanges: by means of the metabolism and the diverse transactions negotiated with its environment, life fights against disorder. These commonplaces, though necessary for the definition of life, aren’t sufficient to account for another dimension. Our body exchanges, moves, of course; it changes, indeed. But not always according to a plan, nor along linear time, nor to defend itself from the growing entropy – either in movement or throughout its development or against degeneration.
Abandoning one group of forms, my body adopts another. Its metamorphoses distinguish it from other living things. Here, the body varies in quite a new way. It would be better, in fact, to give this process – unforeseen by the life sciences – a new name. Bacteria, mushrooms, plants or animals, human included, live by metabolism; mankind is distinguished from them by its metamorphism.
How do we define a body given over to so many poses and signs: when and under which form is it itself? How do we get beyond so many differences according to the person: when and under which form is it us? These multiple postures prevent us from saying. My body and our species don’t exist so much in concrete reality as “in potency” or virtuality.
Philosophies and political theories frequently exhaust themselves trying to define freedom, because in their descriptions and determinations constraint or necessity always reappears like a disquieting and contradictory twin. To free oneself from this labyrinth, it’s enough to start from the body and its singular life. Then, all power must, in every circumstance, stop short of the body’s integrity; with hands free and plenty of elbow room, it has the right to move as it pleases; it must be able to control its own nature, and therefore its capability. Its virtuality is thus opposed to all power. Freedom is defined by the body and the body by potential.
Fables, stories in which all living things give signs, teach profound things. La Fontaine began his last book with “The Companions of Ulysses”; metamorphosed into animals, these companions decline to become human again, confessing thereby that they have finally found their definitive point of equilibrium, their true character, their fundamental passion. This is how and why men can become animals, why their respective bodies imitate a species, and how fables are written.
Fairy tales fascinate children because, endowed with a hundred degrees of freedom, their bodies lend themselves, as much as those of gymnasts and dancers, to every possible transformation, and because this capability, almost infinitely supple, lets them understand from within, by a delighted coenesthesia, the workings of the magic wand, which are less illusory than virtual, less inspired by sorcery than a pedagogy of the possible.
Let’s summon, here, to the child’s side, male and female dancers, athletes and gymnasts, hunters and fishermen, people of all trades who work with their hands, the deaf and the mute, the timid and the uneducated, in brief, the throng of all those who philosophy, ever since it took the floor, has cut off from speaking. This first metamorphosis transforms the body as much as the body wants and can: and it can do many things that astonish the mind.
At work our entire lives, death occasions our fall into a genus, into the specialty of a corporation, by impelling us toward membership, whose devouring passion hardens our habits, freezes our gestures, prefers the dryness of bones to supple flesh and soft skin: this is why we represent it with the aid of a skeleton. It transforms us into a wooden framework, whereas life continuously opens up choice.
Fighting against the stiffenings of age requires that the individual – should that individual wish to remain one – refuse the comfort of inhabiting his category, that he resist therefore that second metamorphosis, by opposing to speciation, creaking with scales and leather, the suppleness of his velvety singularity, or better, that he stay available for any possible simulation, on condition that it remain reversible: the individual agreed to become a fish, this morning, in order to slip between the piers of the bridge, with fast waters, but he must be able, this evening, to become a fox again, when researching and thinking, or a grasshopper, if dancing.
Immobile like flora, animated and fauna, primordial as element, finite and feet planted in a place, thorax extended to the horizon, head cloud and light, neurons flying through the vast universe, from the mountain to the stars, pores shivering next to the fireplace; contracted, dilated, dense and rare, dissolved, liquid and forged by the hammer and furnace of metamorphosis, I am nothing other than the other things, plus the other men in the world.
The other makes my flesh, their flesh blended with mine: this, this thing right here, haunts my body, and this animal too, but this one, the other, above all, enters into my body, one so mixed, so crossbred and penetrated that, lost in the very middle of that great crowd that effaces me, I vanish like a bit of vapor.
Metamorphoses of the enamored body: universal love passes through sand, floral games and animal races; those in love begin this way, with the desire for things and the world, before crowning one another in corporal ecstasy in God.
What then is an author, if not this life-producing body? In natural history, the tree is no mere plant genus; it bears the five kingdoms and all the families.
But this flood of terms and images remains empty and this book incomplete, because a male is writing it. Women alone know what the body can do: produce another body, one resembling her own and different from it. Since I’ve had no experience of the stunning process by which a mother’s womb multiplies an egg into thousands of billions of diverse and ordered cells, what do I, in truth, know of production? Nothing worth mentioning; I should have stepped aside. The male body speaks through the wind; fertile, heavy, real, the female conceives, carries, delivers, nurses; her body lives at least twice. The word flies, flesh produces.
In the silence of health, the body – absorbed in its capacity for omnitude – knows nothing of membership. Illness causes it to fall into a description.
Only syndromes exist, the healthy don’t say a word. Thus, we aptly say the physically fit body, in the singular: it can, then, do anything, that is, produce a thousand possible metamorphoses.
Abandoned, back stretched out and muscles relaxed, blind and silent, mouth half open and eyes closed, defenselessly delivered over, arms arching around the head, breathing reduced and regular… here is another sought after non-posture: unknowing, white, re-posed or pre-posed, universal, from which, by waking, the body will be poured, in several hours, into the chain of real gestures, of defense and capture. The night and the siesta bring it back to virtuality.
You are, precisely, abandoning all act so as to pour toward the viscosity of the virtual: less passive than potential.