Ethico-Political Agency beyond Dichotomies. Contracts, Interminglings, Intra-Actions. Michel Serres with Feminist New Materialisms

Essay, 2021

15 Pages, Grade: 75






The predicament of our moment (Anthropocene, Chthulucene, Capitalocene…) calls for disruptive ways of thinking and acting. A (re)reading of Michel Serres and feminist new materialist theoreticians can lead us towards creative, realistic, and pluralistic ways of understanding human and nonhuman agency, as both Serres and FNM attempt to subvert the conventionalism of the (so-called) modernist thinking, by effectively problematising the Cartesian subject1 and its objectification of nature as passive (or ‘gendered’, as Iris van der Tuin puts it). Such a reading can be a fruitful endeavor to and help to mend the age-old schisms between the castrating dichotomies shaping contemporary thought, as the one between human and nonhuman agency.

Serres, as well as FNM present an understanding of agency as something relational, part of a conglomeration, amalgamation. The agency of nature is the ongoing enactment of the world, interrelations of elements, acting and responding. Nature is not the mute, passive ground of human action. And we are living in a Spaceship Earth, as some contemporary and posthumanist thinkers like Žižek and Sloterdijk say. But before Žižek, Sloterdijk, and FNM, Serres was producing texts like The Natural Contract, which is immensely rich with themes that contemporary posthumanist and materialist thought focus on, like co-existence and equality between human-nonhuman agencies, a distrust in linguisticism, unlearning the reductive ‘umbilical thinking’ which dictates human mastery over Nature. Serres, first and foremost, focuses on the question of ethico-polticial agency in the face of global environmental crisis.

Serres treats the question of agency in a way that aims to traverse the paradigm of dualisms and aims to present it as something that is moving, transforming and re-invented.2 Thus, the question of agency, or human-nonhuman, from a Serresian stance, is approached as a possibility, inclination, invention. This kind of theorising entails a ‘denaturalising’ of nature – or as Haraway does, introduce notions like naturecultures or nature-culture continuum, for the sake of healing the (linguistic) wound and cover the artificial distance that has been ‘lying between’ this dichotomy.

The project of de-centralisation (also a prominent practice of New Materialisms) requires, as Serres in The Natural Contract (1998, p. 33) tells us, to “forget the word environment… It assumes that we humans are at the center of a system of nature. This idea recalls a bygone era, when the Earth… reflected our narcissism, the humanism that makes of us the exact midpoint or excellent culmination of all things.” His position is subversive and critical of the idea of mastery, which “only lasts for the short term before turning into servitude; property, similarly, has a rapid ascendancy or else ends with destruction. This is history’s bifurcation: either death or symbiosis” (ibid.). The social contract theory has brutally and abruptly transitioned from ‘nature’ to ‘culture’, emptying “the object of all agency” (Watkin, 2020, p. 342): “This abrupt transition from nature to culture is the sort of ‘calendar pathos’ that Serres condemns so roundly in The Birth of Physics, and that he counters with his own understanding of the complex eddies, counter-currents and percolations of time.”

Serres, by proposing a Natural Contract, undertakes ‘a legal philosophical work’, as Bruno Latour (2014, p. 4) puts it, and proposes an anti-reductionist treatment of Nature and nonhuman agency. Nature cannot be understood as merely human nature which is “reduced to either history or reason. The world has disappeared. Modern natural law is distinguished from classical natural law by this nullification. Self-important men are left with their history and their reason” (Serres, 1998, p. 35). For Serres, nature is an active agent which encompasses all the conditions of human nature, “its global constraints of rebirth or extinction, the hostelry that gives us lodging, heat, and food. But nature also takes them away from us as soon as we abuse them. It influences human nature, which, in turn, influences nature. Nature behaves as a subject” (p. 36): Here is an instance of the (primary) Serresian act of reversal of the subject-object positions. This reversal reveals his opposition to the discursive culture of anthropos, and its dispositif that maintains the status quo within which both human and nonhuman agencies are alienated – and through this alienation it perpetuates itself. One of the deadlocks of modernist tradition is that it cannot escape the phallogocentric construction of agency “as an umbilical, non-metaphorical yardstick of all other claims to agency, making agency into a black and white opposition between the utter conscious self-possession of the subject and the total passive inertia of the object, an emphatically abstractive dichotomy” (Watkin, 2020, p. 311). Watkin characterises this view with an “object blindness and a consciousness fetishism” (ibid.). The anthropocentric obsession with human agency brutally obfuscates the agency of the nonhuman and quasi-object. One of the premises of Serres’s thought is the attempt to establish a certain equality between different agents, and the medium of a Natural Contract aims to reveal such theoretical possibilities. Regarding human and nonhuman interaction, Serres writes (1998, p. 39):

What language do the things of the world speak, that we might come to an understanding with them, contractually? But, after all, the old social contract, too, was unspoken and unwritten … To be sure, we don’t know the world’s language … the Earth speaks to us in terms of forces, bonds, and interactions, and that’s enough to make a contract. Each of the partners in symbiosis thus owes, by rights, life to the other, on pain of death.

Serres sees the human-nonhuman relationship as parasitic where “the parasite takes all and gives nothing; the host gives all and takes nothing. Rights of mastery and property come down to parasitism.” The one-way ‘parasitic arrow’ of the subject-object relation, is (with the politically correct term) unsustainable and more realistically, violent and destructive – its discourse is one of the Cixousian Selfsame, its history is that of phallocentrism: “History, history of phallocentrism, history of propriation: a single history. History of an identity: that of man’s becoming recognized by the other (son or woman), reminding him that, as Hegel says, death is his master (Cixous and Clément, 1988, p. 79). As Watkin (2020, p. 308) states, this parasitic paradigm manifests the need for a new kind of relationship symbolised this time with a double-headed arrow that “implies a mutuality of subjects and objects … Objects, as we saw in Serres’s pragmatogony, create subjects and communities just as much as subjects manipulate objects.” The Serresian Natural Contract is thus, what humans owe to the nature; a kind of legal identity, a ground for reciprocity and symbiosis: “man must give that much back to nature, now a legal subject” (Serres, 1998, p. 38). Here, the notion of the ‘quasi-object’ should be introduced because as Watkin (2020, p. 313) explains, it effectively blurs the dichotomy of subject and object: “Subjects can inhabit the place of quasi-objects… and quasi-objects can inhabit the place of subjects … As Serres was already claiming in Le Système de Leibniz, ‘the subject is both subject and object at the same time. The object is both object and subject’. This interchangeability strains at the limits of the vocabulary of subject and object.” Watkin also reminds us “to think of agency not in terms of conscious intention but in terms of the four operations” (receiving, storing, processing and emitting information) which make the “subject/object dichotomy unthinkable, not that there are never any subjects and objects but that they are unceasingly substituting for each other” (ibid.).

Revelles-Benavente et. al (2019, p. 2) define NM as an “ethico-political and onto-epistemological turn that is deeply committed to de-centralizing knowledge production and focusing on processes transversing hierarchies of power relations that organize diverse forms of life … a methodology of situating material-discursive practices that form specific socio-cultural phenomena via a relational ontology.” This relationality produces different elements through intra-actions. And the challenge of New Materialism, as Hekman puts it, “is to do what the postmoderns claim but fail to do: to deconstruct the language/reality dichotomy by defining a theoretical position that does not privilege either language or reality but instead explains and builds on their intimate interaction” (2010, p. 3). NM is also one of the strongest fronts in current feminist thought. Especially Barad, led the so-called ‘material turn’ in feminist academia, by declaring that linguisticism harmed subversive or revolutionary philosophical endeavor:

Language has been granted too much power. The linguistic turn, the semiotic turn, the interpretative turn, the cultural turn: it seems that at every turn lately every “thing” – even materiality – is turned into a matter of language or some other form of cultural representation … Language matters. Discourse matters. Culture matters. There is an important sense in which the only thing that does not seem to matter anymore is matter (Barad, 2003, p. 801).

With this material turn which has led to criticisms and fruitful debates within the queer/feminist academia3, the theorists referred as ‘feminist new materialists’, attempt to move beyond the historicist, (phallo-) anthropocentric, classifixationist sphere, using tools and methodologies such as anti-representationalist, non-hierarchical, pluralistic, diffractive analyses, de-centering and generationalism, towards an interactionist ontology: “to interpret [Derrida’s] ‘there is no outside of language’ as ‘there is no outside of Nature’ … new materialisms do not apply theory, but, in an anti-representationalist mode, de-hierarchize the distinction between theory and application/practice altogether” (van der Tuin, 2011, p. 8).

‘Mattering’, in Barad’s agential realism, “is the ongoing intra-active differentiating of the world” (quoted in Rachev, 2016). Agency is enactment – “‘doing’ or ‘being’ in its intra-activity … the enactment of iterative changes to particular practices – interative reconfigurings of topological manifolds of spacetimematter relations – through the dynamics of intra-activity” (quoted in Colman, 2018). Thus, from a Baradian view, dealing with agency entails performing shifts, movements, (quantum) leaps, jumps, entanglements and transformations: “Time and space, like matter and meaning, come into existence, are iteratively reconfigured through each intra-action, thereby making it impossible to differentiate in any absolute sense between creation and renewal, beginning and returning, continuity and discontinuity, here and there, past and future” (Barad 2007, p. ix). In a similar vein, Jane Bennett (2010, p. 21) defines agency as congregational: “While the smallest or simplest body or bit may indeed express a vital impetus, canatus or clinamen, an actant never really acts alone.” It is surprising and productive how Bennett treats the notion of agency through ‘efficacy’ and collaboration: “A lot happens to the concept of agency once nonhuman things are figured less as social constructions and more as actors, and once humans themselves are assessed not as autonoms but as vital materialities” and “Any specific thing … is neither subject nor object but a ‘mode’ of what Spinoza calls ‘ Deus sive Natura ’ (God or Nature)” (ibid.). Rosi Braidotti (2019, p. 104), via her critical posthumanist stance, treats agency as an ethico-political subjectivity, and answers the question “What does it mean to say that subjects are relational?” as Firstly, that the agency commonly reserved for subjects is not the exclusive prerogative of Anthropos. Secondly, that it is not linked to classical notions of transcendental reason. Thirdly, that it is de-linked from a dialectical view of consciousness based on the opposition of self and others and their struggle for recognition. The knowing subject is not Man, or Anthropos alone, but a more complex assemblage that undoes the boundaries between inside and outside the self, by emphasizing processes and flows. Neither unitary, nor autonomous, subjects are embodied and embedded, relational and affective collaborative entities, activated by relational ethics.

It is crucial to observe that the ethico-political agency of our moment is precisely a product of this kind of relationality and the lack of determinate subject-object positions. Indeterminacy is indeed a significant notion in FNM, as Barad writes, “The existence of indeterminacies does not mean that there are no facts, no histories, no bleeding – on the contrary, indeterminacies are constitutive of the very materiality of being, and some of us live our with pain, pleasure, and also political courage…” (quoted in Revelles-Benavente, 2018, p. 86). The agents of FNM intra-act through fluid and performative, queered positions: “a subject position is never fully fixed; in its fluidity, it works against the grain of the dominant discourses of malestream society and feminisms based on identity” (p. 87).

Starting from affinities, rather than identities: This is perhaps one of the strongest fronts of FNM. Haraway, as Iris van der Tuin emphasizes often, laid the seeds of this frame of thinking with her notion of situated knowledges, and more recently, with her notion of ‘making kin’. Again, affirmative in approach, FNM’s engagement with an active, agential matter does not entail an opposition to what other feminisms (or postmodernists, poststructuralists…) have done or tried to do before – first and foremost, as van der Tuin’s generational feminism demonstrates, FNM engages in conversations with pasts and futures equally, without accusing or negating, but through waves and cascades: “the new materialism is not a paradigm shift or a rewriting of … the linguistic turn,” says Iris van der Tuin (2011, p. 1): “These two seemingly opposite epistemological tools are both grounded in an epistemology of recognition, whereas the new materialism wants to move away from such linguisticism.” Van der Tuin emphasises that the so-called material turn should not be seen as opposing the linguistic turn, as otherwise, it will fall into the trap of the “rhetoric of the ‘science wars’ and becomes accusatory itself” (ibid.). One of the predominant features of FNM is, then, is overcoming the hindrance of this discursive sphere, the illusion of the passive matter of the umbilical thinking which Serres was opposing. With this treatment of subject-object, human-nonhuman agency, Serresian thought and FNM share an unconventional ground for theorising. This theoretical framework, thus, queers the perceptions of temporality and fixated binaries and dichotomies.

Serresian distributed agency and/or ‘spectral understanding of agency’, as Watkin (2020, p. 312) puts it, has strong implications of bodily and sensual intra-actions, whether he makes use of them as metaphors or not. And he perceives the lingusiticism of modernist thought as a hindrance for proper interactions with the world. As in Haraway’s notion of ‘making kin’, Serres’s distributed agency prioritises a ground of equality between participants in the web of intra-action, and senses have a crucial place in his writing, as in The Five Senses, where his aim is “to show that the development of language has both veiled and overtaken the primacy of the senses” (Pearce, 2010, p. 88-89):

The Five Senses is a not only a reaction against the importance of the philosophical question of language, but against language itself. “The linguistic school is a school with no sense of smell, and no taste”. But this is more literal than figurative. “We refer to a thing, but there is no name for the smell”. This is one of Serres’s main points about human beings—we have forgotten that as Homo sapiens we are “he who knows how to taste. Sagacious: he who knows how to smell. All of these things are vanishing under the weight of logic and grammar” … The cataloging nature of science and information technology has marginalised our relationship with the empirical and the authenticity of the experiential … In an interview in 1991, Serres stated that he “would go so far as to say that a form of knowledge has been lost, an empirical form, blotted out by the linguistic and virtually algebraic revolution” (ibid).

The implications of this negating ‘linguistic and virtually algebraic revolution’ can be explored via feminist thought, particularly via Haraway’s notion of situated knowledges, where she questions the god-trick (of the phallocentric gaze), the view from above of the so-called objective positions, critiquing claims of an absolute, conquering neutrality, with its gaze from nowhere. The god trick has “a perverse capacity … to distance the knowing subject from everybody and everything in the interests of unfettered power” (quoted in Rogowska-Stangret, 2018). This invading, omnipotent gaze “is claimed to be immaterial while materializing what it embraces (particularly how bodies matter: which bodies have which meanings, which bodies are deprived of meaning, and how bodies … materialize), it is claimed to have the capacity to see, but is itself unseen, ‘to represent while escaping representation’” (ibid.). This transcendent signifier constructs our subjectivities, bodies, and meanings, thus hides the potent power of a sensible, sensitive, ‘respond-able’, ‘response-able’ ethical agency. Gaze is about space, it moves, objectifies, transforms –transports things into tools, for proper meaning-making process. Sight is constructed, as a content is being moved towards an ‘object’ to access (or form) its reality: “Vision is always a question of the power to see – and perhaps of the violence implicit in our visualizing practices. With whose blood were my eyes crafted? … How to see? Where to see from?” (ibid.).

Presenting the world/nature/object of study as inactive is how power relations enslave, colonize, and dominate. Feminist projects attempt to recognize how power works and acknowledge that they do not rule over or control the world … feminist situated knowledges open themselves for new, unexpected, unthought-of, and surprising forms of knowledge production, which may unfold from interrelated material-semiotic worlds (ibid.).

Theorising itself, for Barad (2012, p. 153), is an activity of the senses: “a form of experimenting, is about being in touch. What keeps theories alive and lively is being responsible and responsive to the world’s patternings and murmurings.” Via the notion of performativity, Barad offers a new method of seeing, a physical optics, one different from the representationalist ‘geometrical optics’ which has always focused on “questions of correspondence between descriptions and reality (e.g., do they mirror nature or culture?) to matters of practices/doings/actions … I shift the focus to … questions of diffraction rather than reflection” (ibid.). Haraway before Barad described diffraction as a ‘more subtle vision’ that reveals “where the effects of difference appear” (ibid.). As Geerts & van der Tuin (2016) write, “to rephrase this in more Irigarayian terms: Thinking diffractively steps out of the phallogocentric, reflective logics of producing the Same all over again by acknowledging the differences that exist, while at the same time pointing at where the problematic reductions and assimilations of difference have taken place.” ‘Reflexivity’, for Haraway, traps us in the dichotomy and distinction between the real and the figural but diffraction is “about making ‘a difference in the world’ by paying attention to ‘the interference patterns on the recording films of our lives and bodies’” (ibid.). Similarly, Barad’s diffractive reading has the potential to reveal diffraction patterns which shed light to the boundary relations. It is important to see that the “the relation of the social and the scientific is a relation of ‘exteriority within.’ This is not a static relationality but a doing –the enactment of boundaries– that always entails constitutive exclusions and therefore requisite questions of accountability” (2003, p. 803). Barad, by performing diffractive reading, aims to contribute to the ‘theoretical tool of performativity’: “I offer an elaboration of performativity—a materialist, naturalist, and posthumanist elaboration—that allows matter its due as an active participant in the world’s becoming, in its ongoing ‘intra-activity.’ It is vitally important that we understand how matter matters (ibid.).

Serres, particularly in works like The Five Senses, aims to “save the body from the addiction of language … For Serres, the body is not simply an extended object. It is a fleeting experience … Serres wants to separate out the senses but also show how they interconnect. He knots them together as mingled bodies” (Pearce, 2010, p. 89). This kind of recognition of the body and the senses and the ability of a holistic agency seem to bring Serres and Haraway closer, as both perceive the subject as something that knows (performs the knowing) by placing itself between things. Serres (2008, p. 80) writes, “in the midst of their mixture, on the paths that unite them… Touching is situated between, the skin is the place where exchanges are made, the body traces the knotted, bound, folded, complex path, betweens the things to be known.” This ‘placing in between’ is like the Harawayian “making-with and tangled-with tentacular ones which are gripping and stinging for an ongoing generative Chthulucene, each is a sf string figure of multispecies becomingwith. These science art worldings are holobiomes, or holoents, in which scientists, artists, ordinary members of communities, and nonhuman beings become enfolded in each other’s projects, in each other’s lives; they come to need each other in diverse, passionate, corporeal, meaningful ways. Each is an animating project in deadly times. They are sympoietic, symbiogenetic, and symanimagenic (2016, p. 71-2).

Within the climate of eco-political crisis, FNM can potentially carry forward the Serresian framing of human-nonhuman relations and the notion of Natural Contract, by reshaping it in the light of tools and methodologies like the Baradian ethico-onto-epistem-ological knowledge production, performative and diffractive analysis, Harawayian situated knowledges and making-kin, and also van der Tuin’s notion of generationality. The feminist project cannot be divorced from the ehico-political, and its so-called materialist turn is significant in setting up the parameters of coexistence of agencies beyond phallocentric linguisticism. Our ‘Spaceship Earth’ demands that its crew, as Sloterdijk (2018, p. 35) says, “must in fact have a vital interest in the maintenance of livable relations within the interior of the vessel.” Regarding the notion of a Natural Contract, the very idea of a contract could be seen as obsolete and even phallocentric, as it maintains the conventional male position which sees the other as something inherently passive. From a feminist standpoint, it is perhaps indispensable to question why Serres adopted a contract theory. “Idealism,” he writes, “presupposes a fight from which we would emerge the victors” (2018, p. 32). But does not a natural contract do the same? Not really – as what Serres is doing is moving away from the idealist and/or animist positions, towards a kind of materialism and realism that practice symbiosis:

The act of knowledge doesn’t link an active subject-pole to an other, a passive object, but rather both participate together in this act in which the games are shared, even if the latter of these two agencies only takes on a humble role. This agency plays the first move and, with each renewal of the game, always plays the first move.4 … Things decide at least as much as methods. The real awakens the act of knowing that awakens it. Its faculties are joined to ours in a self-perpetuating cycle … Idealism amounts to a form of parasitic dominance. Realism practices symbiosis, plunges into the things and collaborates with them. Connaissance, whose prefix links, in its genesis, subjects with the innermost qualities of objects, takes its place among our symbiotic acts (p. 33).

Elsewhere, most beautifully, he writes,

The universal flood of noise – sounds, music and discourse mixed together, presto e fortissimo, erasing the silence – destroys the old agency of the ‘I’, the way a thin and fragile vase would explode by dint of vibrations, to the profit of a transparency thrown towards the perpetual present, forming an exterior with any interior, weaving relations without reserving any substance for itself, sparkling multiplicities without any nucleus. Formerly a dense seed or dark bit of gravel, single and hard, the self becomes multiple, criss-crossed, mosaic and shimmering. This is the charm of our grandchildren, closer to Montaigne and La Fontaine, harlequins, than to Descartes and Kant, dark, sad and profound. They no longer have or no longer are the same subjects. What could be worrying about that since such changes have so often adjusted the soul, white and fluid, aquatic and adjustable, possible and contingent? This morning, their innumerable smile succeeds the old cramped confinement. I bequeath to them the rare music and the silence (Serres, 2019, p. 266).

The way we tell stories matter. For Bruno Latour (2014), it is indispensable to form a common geo-story in dealing with the Gaia. The co-existence and harmony of agents is obfuscated by the scientific worldview, which invented “the idea of a ‘material world’ in which the agency of all the entities making up the world has been made to vanish” (ibid., p. 13). For Latour, this is ‘a zombie atmosphere’ in which “nothing happens any more since the agent is supposed to be ‘simply caused’ by its predecessor. All the action has been put in the antecedent … The consequent could just as well not be there at all … their eventfulness has disappeared” (ibid.). Latour, proposes a different ontological approach, by embracing a common source of agency which he calls a metamorphic zone “where we are able to detect actants before they become actors; where ‘metaphors’ precede the two sets of connotations that will be connected; where ‘metamorphosis’ is taken as a phenomenon that is antecedent to all the shapes that will be given to agents” (ibid.).

The Earth is neither nature nor a machine. It is not that we should try to puff some spiritual dimension into its stern and solid stuff—as so many romantic thinkers and nature philosophers had tried to do—but rather that we should abstain from deanimating the agencies that we encounter at each step. Geo-physiology as well as geo-morphology, geo-physics, geo-graphy, geo-politics should not eliminate any of the sources of agency—including those generated by former humans, those I call Earthbound—if they want to converge toward a common geostory (p. 14).

Latour’s metamorphic zone has ethico-political significance as it has the potential to create a common world that is needed for proper politics and this common world must be “progressively composed” and we cannot do this if “what is to be composed is divided into two domains, one that is inanimate and has no agency, and one which is animated and concentrates all the agencies” (ibid.). Latour observes that this specific division “has made politics impossible … It’s also what accounts for our utter impotence when confronted with the ecological threat” (p. 15) The so-called reconciliation of two separate spheres (natural and cultural) forces us to maintain two distinct realms of necessity and freedom:

Even the establishment of a contract implies that there are two parties to the deal: nature and humanity. And nothing is changed when the two parties that are forcefully unified are both understood as ‘parts of nature’ … Neither the extension of politics to nature, nor of nature to politics, helps in any way to move out of the impasse in which modernism has dug itself so deeply. The point of living in the epoch of the Anthropocene is that all agents share the same shape-changing destiny, a destiny that cannot be followed, documented, told, and represented by using any of the older traits associated with subjectivity or objectivity (ibid.).

Latour sees the crucial political task as distributing agency “as far and in as differentiated a way as possible—until, that is, we have thoroughly lost any relation between those two concepts of object and subject … The prefix ‘geo’ in geostory does not stand for the return to nature, but for the return of object and subject back to the ground –the ‘metamorphic zone’– they had both believed it possible to escape” (ibid.).

Latour’s notion of a common ‘geo-story’ reminds Stacy Alaimo’s caution “against just telling the story of a thing, rather to consider the story in relation to our own ethical entanglement and agency” (quoted in Colman, 2018). For Alaimo, we are responsible for our material intra-actions. Revelles-Benavente writes that agency, for FNM, is thus, not only a methodological tool but also an “ethical modality by and with which practitioners can be attendant to the political generated by the entanglement of matter” (ibid.). Forming our common geo-story requires the kind of ‘life-and-death autodidacticism’ Sloterdijk (2018, p. 35) talks about. In current planetary crises, as the crew of the spaceship Earth, we have to teach ourselves how to travel in space: “The true conception of the conditio humana is thus: life-and-death autodidacticism.”

But how does FNM contribute to a step forward within the field of New Materialisms? Revelles-Benavente et al. (2019, p. 97) point out that while sharing some characteristics, different branches of New Materialism, ACT, OOO and FNM have major differences “with regard to the role they assign to the association of things and relations. ANT focuses on networks and relations, OOO on things, and, most comprehensively, FNM on intra-active processes”. In FNM, the intra-active processes “play on the mutual constitution of relations and relata and emphasize their simultaneous co-constitution in an eternal ouroboros … and ontology … cannot precede epistemology. Both are effects of the same process that has been described as ‘diffractive’ by various (feminist)5 authors” (ibid.).

The relationist and nonreductive characteristic of Serresian thought meets FNM on the basis of affirmative, nonhierarchic, pluralistic understanding of agential intra-actions. Indeed, pluralism is a prominent Serresian approach, as he declares: “No single word, neither substantive nor verb, no domain or specialty alone characterises, at least for the moment, the nature of my work. I only describe relationships.6 For the moment, let’s be content with saying it’s ‘a general theory of relations’” (quoted in Watkin 2020, p. 398). Watkin writes that Serres’s figures of thought pertain to relations: pluralism highlights a more subtle relation between two seeming opposites … Serres holds that inclination is the basis of all relations … all the genera of Serres’s figures of thought concern federation, or putting-into-relation, in one of three ways: they reflect on the possibility of putting into relation, they effect or operate a putting into relation, or they draw the philosophical, ethical or political consequences of putting into relation (ibid.).

The way FNM values intra-action between nature and culture over one-sided parasitic paradigm, its emphasis on co-existence, intra-dependency, and interchange, connect it in several directions, with Serres’s work. Re-defining and re-framing the ethico-political agency in our time requires producing diverse, disruptive, and queered understandings of body and senses, and through diffractive readings and situated positions, we have to re-invent what it means to be human and/or nonhuman, but also, simultaneously, find ways to act response-ably – e.g. through extending a Natural Contract towards nonhuman animals, as their torment is a crucial part of our common geostory. Often quoted by vegan activists, Jeremy Bentham said (quoted in Speakingofresearch): “The question is not, Can they reason?, nor Can they talk? but, Can they suffer? Why should the law refuse its protection to any sensitive being?” What Patricia MacCormack did was precisely calling for a Serresian Natural Contract that will neither “torment nor fetishize the non-human others … MacCormack demands with passionate conviction that we deploy forms of imagination that go beyond species hierarchy” (Braidotti, 2019, p. 140). Speciesism destroys ‘the shared materiality’ of all bodies Bennett (2010) talks about. Bennett insists that as ethical subjects we must distribute value generously, to other bodies. To conclude, by returning to and moving forward with Serres (1982, p. 72-73), what is a body?

My body is an exchanger of time. It is filled with signals, noises, messages, and parasites. And it is not at all exceptional in this vast world. It is true of animals and plants, of air crystals, of cells and atoms, of groups and constructed objects. Transformation, deformation of information. I thought that the exchangers were intermediaries, that interference was on the fringe, that the translator was between instances, that the bridge connected two banks, that the path went from the origin to the goal. But there are no instances. Or more correctly, instances, systems, banks, and so forth are analyzable in turn as exchangers, paths, translations, and so forth. The only instances or systems are black boxes. When we do not understand, when we defer our knowledge to a later date, when the thing is too complex for the means at hand, when we put everything in a temporary black box, we prejudge the existence of a system. When we can finally open the box, we see that it works like a space of transformation. The only systems, instances, and substances come from our lack of knowledge. The system is nonknowledge. The other side of nonknowledge. One side of nonknowledge is chaos; the other, system. Knowledge forms a bridge between the two banks. Knowledge as such is a space of transformation.



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Revelles-Benavente, B. (2017) “Material knowledges: Intra-acting van der Tuin’s new materialism with Barad’s agential realism” et. al (2020) Feminist New Materialisms, Activating Ethico-Politics Through Genealogies in Social Sciences, MDPI.

Pearce, J (2010) Michel Serres, The Five Senses: A Philosophy of Mingled Bodies, accessed 18 May 2021,

Rachev, R (2017) “Agents Against Agency”, New Materialism (website), accessed on 18 May 2021,

Rogowska-Stangret, Monika (2018) “Situated Knowledges”, New Materialism (website), accessed 18 May 2021,

Serres, Michel (1995) Conversations on science, culture, and time / Michel Serres with Bruno with Latour; trans. Roxanne Lapidus, The University of Michigan Press. (1998) The Natural Contract, trans. Elizabeth MacArthur and William Paulson, The University of Michigan Press. (2018) The Incandescent, trans. Randolph Burks, Bloomsbury Academic. (1982) The Parasite, trans. Lawrence R. Schehr, The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Sloterdijk, P (2018) What Happened in the Twentieth Century?, Polity Press, UK.

Speaking of Research Animal Rights Philosophy (website):

Watkin, C (2020) Michel Serres, Figures of Thought, Edinburgh University Press.


1 Nathalie Sinclair in “New Materialist Becomings and Futurities: A Panel Intra-view” (2020, p. 148) mentions Fred Moten’s ‘very convincing’ analysis of the embedded factor of racism in philosophies and how they determine the so-called knowing subject, and she says, “I think that the ‘yes, and’ of new materialism can help avoid an appropriation of non-Western philosophical ideas and instead allow me to think both, as precisely as possible, at the same time.”

2 Serres in conversation with Bruno Latour (1995, p. 117), said that the goal of good philosophy in action was “to invent the transcendental space, the conditions, for possible inventions of the future. The invention of possible inventions.”

3 Some examples are Judith Butler in Bodies that Matter and Sara Ahmed in “Imaginary Prohibitions: Some Preliminary Remarks on the Founding Gestures of the ‘New Materialism’”.

4 Italics mine.

5 Brackets mine.

6 Emphasis mine.

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Ethico-Political Agency beyond Dichotomies. Contracts, Interminglings, Intra-Actions. Michel Serres with Feminist New Materialisms
Staffordshire University
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michel serres, feminist new materialisms, karen barad, bruno latour, anthropocene, the natural contract, human agency, nonhuman agency
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Ilgin Yildiz (Author), 2021, Ethico-Political Agency beyond Dichotomies. Contracts, Interminglings, Intra-Actions. Michel Serres with Feminist New Materialisms, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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