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[Nettime-bold] Karim Benamar: Self-restraint in the Desire for Knowledge

Self-restraint in the Desire for Knowledge

Karim BENAMMAR, Faculty of Cross-cultural Studies,
Kobe University

Thinking begins when the desire to know is freed from any 
compulsion to dominate 
(TI, 186)(1)

  Philosophy, and epistemology in particular, is a self-
reflective exercise insofar as the thinker applies understanding 
and imagination to question the existence, validity, and kinds of 
knowledge attainable by the human mind. Philosophers have often 
sought to limit the ground, scope and aspirations of knowledge, 
but they have done so predominantly in order to survey the 
totality of the realm of attainable knowledge or to preserve the 
inquiry from error. The challenge posed by the work of Michel 
Serres is to conceive of a knowledge which would embody the 
practice of self-restraint, not with the purpose of avoiding 
error, but instead out of a desire to withhold from domination 
and exclusion.  Michel Serres, sailor, mathematician, historian, 
philosopher, aesthete and staunch defender of French language and 
culture, has written twenty-one books so far in his search for 
this new kind of knowledge. Serres' writing can be divided into 
three chronological categories: his earlier epistemological 
analyses, published as the Hermes series; a middle period of 
literary essais which include Genese, Detachment, Les Cinq Sens 
and Statues; and his most recent books, Le Contrat Naturel, Le 
Tiers-Instruit and Atlas, which focus on pressing contemporary 
issues (2). In Le Contrat Naturel, Serres argues, with obvious 
parallels to Rousseau, about the need to establish a notion of 
humanity which includes our planet, and to renegotiate a "natural 
contract" which stresses our interdependence with the natural 
world. "When the hairs on the philosopher's head have turned 
white", Serres has said (3), "it is time to write about 
education", the theme of Le Tiers Instruit. Le Tiers Instruit is 
neither a treatise on education nor a set of principles for the 
upbringing of young people, but a meditation on the kind of 
knowledge we hope future generations will pursue. In a recent 
interview (4), Serres acknowledged that the possibility of 
philosophical wisdom, the fate of the earth and the future of our 
knowledge hold more fascination for him today than the analytic 
and epistemological 
questions that fascinated him when he was young. 

 In this paper I will focus on the notion of self-restraint in 
the desire for knowledge put forward by Serres in Le Tiers-
Instruit. I believe that his search for a radically new knowledge 
which would not based on domination and exclusion is of great 
philosophical importance, and that it deserves our attention. I 
find the notion that the desire for knowledge ought to restrain 
itself both compelling and puzzling. It is compelling because the 
notion of self-restraint can provide a matrix for the interaction 
of human intelligence with the natural world. Yet it is puzzling 
because it is never quite clear what it would mean for the desire 
to know to restrain itself, nor where such an internal imperative 
would spring from. While I wholeheartedly endorse the direction 
and tenor of Serres' philosophy, I am critical of his description 
and analysis of the 
principle of self-restraint.

 I will begin by presenting Serres' argument in some detail and 
linking it to some of the recurring themes in his earlier works. 
Serres proposes several notions of self-restraint; indeed, he 
analyses the notion of self-restraint in most human endeavors: in 
ethics, epistemology, science, aesthetics, ecology, philosophy, 
law, and religion. I will show that the notion of self-restraint 
in the desire to know, which may at first sight appear to be an 
epistemological problem, is treated by Serres as an ethical 
injunction. More surprisingly, perhaps, this ethical injunction 
itself appears to rest on an aesthetic principle. The structure 
of the argument thus proceeds from an aesthetic principle to an 
ethical injunction, to conclude on the status of the theory of 
knowledge. While an argument that seeks to find an extrinsic 
foundation for a theory of knowledge is not exactly original in 
philosophy, this particular focus on the interaction between the 
ethical and aesthetic is interesting.  There are two main points 
I want to make in this paper: first, I want to stress the 
continuity in Serres' thought and show that the notion of self-
restraint finds its roots in Serres' earlier appeals against an 
epistemology dominated by power and exclusion. Second, I will 
argue that Serres' appeal to an aesthetic principle undermines 
his whole argument and more readily helps us to prove the very 
opposite of his position. While this paper does not directly 
address questions about ecology or the relationship of humanity 
to nature, it does examine how theoretical, philosophical 
discourse can discuss 
ecological issues.

 The last third of Le Tiers Instruit begins with nature and the 
wisdom attributed to King Solomon: "There is nothing new under 
the sun". Serres imagines that the temperature of our temperate 
earth will increase or decrease dramatically, wiping out species 
and diversity. Under the frozen expanses or the torrid desert 
sun, there will be nothing new; the weather here functions as a 
metaphor for the unlimited expansion of a single law. Serres' 
various appeals to moderation and self-restraint all seek to 
counter the threat of a single law in science or philosophy 
obliterating everything before it and ruling uncontested. 
Instead, Serres champions diversity at every level, and a 
"philosophy of mixed bodies"(5) which strives for balance between 
the various elements of our 

 The key metaphor here is the sun, which figures prominently in 
King Solomon's phrase, conjures up the specter of a scorched 
earth, but also represents epistemological clarity. According to 
Serres, "The theory of knowledge has never ceased to take the 
emission or expansion of light as its primary model" (TI, 247). 
Since the emission from a light source is theoretically infinite, 
we can note the relevance of the metaphor for unlimited 
expansion. In Les Cinq Sens, Serres tried to show how fundamental 
the senses other than sight are to knowledge of objects in the 
world, and consequently how limited a theory of knowledge based 
on the sense of sight alone really is (6)..  The other important 
metaphor is the interplay between the two meanings of the French 
word temps, which means both 'time' and 'weather'. Serres uses 
this double meaning to point to the two limits to endless growth: 
the weather, or the limit of the ecological adaptability of the 
earth; and time, which allows self-restraint by forgiving 
misdeeds and breaking the cycle of retribution. Although Serres' 
style makes it difficult for us to unravel all the strands of his 
discourse and its many metaphorical meanings, the many 
repetitions of his main appeal to self-restraint allow us to 
reconstruct the thrust of his argument 
without fear of misinterpretation.

 Self-restraint arises almost naturally from an ethical 
principle: according to Serres, "no doubt humanity begins with 
holding back" (TI, 180). In order to hold back, the endless 
striving for power and control must be restrained. Against 
Nietzsche's main contention in On the Genealogy of Morals (7), 
Serres claims that "humanity becomes human when it invents 
weakness - a strongly positive value" (TI, 185). Note the stress 
on the idea of invention, which Serres distinguishes from 
discovery; the claim is that we should not assume the existence 
of weakness but rather create it ourselves. Indeed, all the 
theoretically negative aspects which diminish an overwhelming 
desire or thirst for power are 'transvaluated' into positive 
elements. To refrain from doing even though it is in one's power 
becomes the guiding ethical principle: "Morality first requires 
abstention. The first obligation is caution; the first maxim: 
before doing the good, avoid the bad" (TI, 184). Even in ethics, 
the preponderance of an exclusive law should be challenged; 
against Kant, Serres holds that: "The wise person therefore 
disobeys the unique law of expansion, does not always persevere 
in his own actions and thinks that to make his own conduct a 
universal law defines not only evil but also madness" (TI, 184). 
 In discussing knowledge, Serres plays on the etymological 
kinship between 'reason' and 'reasonable': "To be reasonable 
means to withhold from the full capacity of one's reason" (TI, 
186). Or, in Serres' most naked and dogmatic assertion of self-
restraint: "Reason puts aside some reason to restrain itself" 
(TI, 184).The scientific endeavor is, predictably, the area in 
which runaway reason can do the greatest damage: "Unified, mad, 
tragic, science is winning, and will soon reign, but as the 
winter wins and reigns" (TI, 187). Again, the solution lies in 
self-imposed moderation: "Science will become wise when it will 
restrain itself from doing all it can do" (TI, 188).

 Serres finds in ecology a concept which vindicates self-
restraint: "Yet now we discover this old evidence anew: the Earth 
cannot give to all its children that which the rich wrestle from 
it today. There is scarcity" (TI, 192). Scarcity, itself a lack, 
a negative value, disrupts the equation in which endless progress 
is equated with endless growth. Self-restraint then becomes the 
response to the realization of this situation. There are both 
theoretical and practical aspects to self-restraint: 
theoretically, self-restraint is a part of reason itself; in a 
practical sense, it is the adaptation of the human race to 
compelling circumstances out of a spirit of survival. Moreover, 
self-restraint is found both at the individual and communal 
level: "We have to restrain ourselves, each of us individually 
but especially as a group, and invest part of our power in 
reducing our power" (TI, 186). The foundation of the ethical 
group lies in communal self-restraint: "To enjoy power and not 
take advantage of it is the beginning of wisdom, of civilization"
(TI, 192).

 When Serres looks at the basis of our laws, he finds that they 
are founded on the principle of retribution. Justice is based on 
compensation, on vengeance, on the eternal return of the 
vendetta. This cycle of retributive violence is bound to continue 
endlessly, since it is a closed system, an eternal recurrence of 
crime answering crime. To break out of this ever-recurring cycle, 
Serres proposes the statute of limitation, a legal concept which 
allows for the essential working of time by voiding criminal acts 
after a certain period. By introducing a non-reversible element 
into a closed system, we destroy its cyclically repetitive nature 
(8). According to Serres: "This has concerned law, but also 
morality, politics and theology: the pardon is the foundation of 
ethics, clemency the foundation of power, self-restraint covers 
justice and controls our destiny (TI, 216). This last quote shows 
the extent to which Serres considers these fields to be 
intertwined by the notion of self-restraint. Clemency and self-
restraint are the non-reversible elements which break up the 
endless cycles of vengeance or accumulation of power. 

 While Serres appeals to self-restraint in ethics, ecology and 
politics, he finds it already present in art. To the accumulation 
of power or the will to dominate, Serres opposes the work of 
art:"The work of art, timid, weak, fragile, lost, waits to be 
discovered, shines softly as a crystal in a crevice, and 
fortunately, does not propagate. The work itself holds back" (TI, 
189). Just as non-reversible elements break up an eternal cycle, 
so the originality and uniqueness of the work of art breaks up 
the propagation of copies. The inimitable work of art does not 
fall under the domination of the single law: "Fortunately, and by 
definition, the inimitable has no imitators and thus neither 
spreads nor propagates itself" (TI, 189). The original and 
inimitable work of art is beautiful precisely because it is free 
from the compulsion to dominate; it is this principle which 
Serres suggests we make the basis of thought: "When science and 
reason will have attained beauty, we will no longer 
be in any danger" (TI, 190).

 There is essentially nothing new in preaching self-restraint in 
our interaction with the environment or in our scientific 
progress, even though there is now overwhelming evidence that 
humankind will face an uncertain future if our mad growth is not 
drastically contained in the decades to come. What singles out 
Serres' argument is the level at which he stakes his claims, 
since he demands nothing less than a radical reconception of 
thought itself. The remarkable thing about Serres' interest in 
ecological issues is that it has enabled him to express in a 
practical and relevant sense the abstract longing for another way 
of thinking which haunted his earlier writing. In Rome, in which 
he discussed the bloody foundation of the city using the first 
book of Livy, Serres wrote: "We still have to found a city, a 
science or knowledge which will no longer be founded, like ours, 
on death and destruction. Aside from the dreary repetitions of 
history, there remains only this single task" (9).  In 
Detachment, we read:

"All things are emptied of their reality through rivalry. Every 
science is void of its truth through rivalry. You who fight for 
your truth possess only the truth of the contest. You who fight 
for knowledge possess only the knowledge of the battle. Soon, 
there will be only one science, the science of battles. The 
science of all sciences will only be an immense strategy, the 
space of knowledge lies in the hands of the soldiery" (10). And, 
a few pages later: "I am dreaming: outside our knowledge there 
exists a learning sealed off by our 
very science, killed by our very language" (11).

 The concern with the destructiveness of a single science or a 
single knowledge has remained, but the difference with the 
earlier work is that Serres now clearly identifies the evil as 
the law of unlimited growth, and proposes an answer. It is an 
answer and not a solution, because it does not solve the problems 
that arise from unlimited growth or domination by a single 
principle. It is not an argument, not a final move in the game; 
rather, it is an attempt to rewrite the rules. Serres' answer is 
situated outside of the territory of the rule of unlimited 
growth, since it stipulates that this growth should never be 
allowed to take place. Serres' answer is to stay well clear of 
the founding premise of the law of unlimited growth: do not 
succumb to the rhetoric of domination or you will be doomed. The 
appeal to self-restraint is thus not properly speaking a 
solution, either practically or philosophically; it is a call to 
reinterpret the way we think about knowledge and power, a summons 
to think anew, to desire knowledge without the compulsion to 
dominate.  Since Serres' claims are so important, and because 
they point towards a fundamentally different way of thinking, it 
is vital that we understand the way his argument progresses. I 
claim that Serres' argument leads him to assert that the 
necessity for self-restraint ultimately rests on the formulation 
of an aesthetic principle. As we have seen, Serres appeals to 
self-restraint in the exercise of power, in the desire for 
knowledge, in scientific research, and in our interaction with 
the environment. Restraint is theoretically a negative value, 
since it is withholding from action; in this sense, it is a 
restrictive factor. Yet by closing off the open-endedness of the 
law of unlimited expansion, it also becomes a defining factor. 
The law of unlimited growth of knowledge or power is a law onto 
itself, since it requires nothing else but limitless expansion. 
By restraining ourselves from occupying the total space, by 
withholding from limitless expansion, it appears that we 
acknowledge a higher, 
extrinsic principle of control. 

 Yet what makes Serres' characterization of self-restraint 
paradoxical is its reflexivity, since power or reason restrains 
itself: "reason puts aside some reason to restrain itself" (TI, 
184). The restrictive and defining principle is part of reason 
itself; its action occurs internally. In other words, if total 
control of anything by a law of unlimited growth includes 
controlling itself (for example by curbing its own action when it 
endangers its own foundation), then a law controlling itself 
exhibits total control at a higher level. Since the agent, the 
agency and the object of control are all the same, reason or 
power grows at the same time that it limits itself. 
Paradoxically, then, reason controlling itself would be more 
powerful than unbridled reason. Moreover, if the principle of 
control is truly inherent in reason itself, then reason cannot be 
controlled by outside principles of any kind, including ethical 
ones. This is not, however, the way Serres' argument progresses. 
His first appeal is ethical: "Morality first requires abstention. 
The first obligation is caution; the first maxim: before doing 
the good, avoid the bad" (TI, 184). The exhortation to withhold 
from using one's power can be compared to the ethical imperative 
one is placed under in the face-to-face in Levinas. The face of 
the other is itself an imperative which forces me to assume 
responsibility for my deeds and those of others, irrespective of 
the real balance of power between us at the moment. Ethically, it 
seems that we can at least conceive of a law which requires first 
of all that one withhold from the full exercise of one's power. 
 Serres, however, does not ask us to believe in such an ethical 
imperative by a leap of faith. He proposes instead an aesthetic 
principle: that which is inimitable has no imitators and 
therefore does not propagate itself. It is a novel an interesting 
philosophical move to link self-restraint in an ethical or 
epistemological sense to the aesthetic value of a work of art. I 
claim that Serres has staked the very intelligibility of his 
ethical imperative on its being able to be modelled on an 
aesthetic imperative. According to his description, this 
imperative could take two forms: that of the aesthetic desire to 
create a work of art; or that of the status of the work of art 
itself as an inimitable object. I now want to argue that neither 
of these two kinds of aesthetic imperative will render the 
ethical imperative intelligible, and 
therefore that neither will solve Serres' problem.

 Let us consider first what kind of drive produces a work of 
art. The aesthetic compulsion to create consists in excluding 
competing aesthetic principles completely, and in totally filling 
up aesthetic space. We could say that the aesthetic imperative 
demands complete control over the internal aesthetic principles 
of a work and the exclusion of any rival principles. Perhaps some 
artists will find this imperative either too radical or not 
radical enough; they may also feel that it does not describe 
their artistic inspiration very well. Let me therefore propose 
some examples: twelve-tone serial music, which was developed at 
the beginning of this century by Schoenberg and others, does not 
allow the aesthetic principles or rules of tonal music to 
influence the composition at all. Indeed, the twelve-tone system 
would literally not exist unless it systematically and completely 
excluded the musical conventions of tonal music. In painting, the 
Cubists with their focus on multiple perspectives broke radically 
with existing conventions about the representation of space. And 
in literature, the French chosiste novels of the post-war period 
stuck to their own radical principles of writing, which would be 
totally alien to, say, the 
magical realism of Garcia Marquez.

Or let us take Serres' own example, mentioned in Le Tiers 
Instruit but discussed at length in his book Genese: in Balzac's 
short story The Unknown Masterpiece, the painter Frenhofer seeks 
to create the ultimate painting of reality, taking as his subject 
a female nude (12). When the painter dies, we finally get a 
description of 'la belle noiseuse'; only a 'delicious' foot is 
recognizable, emerging from a chaos of colors and forms. Serres 
regards this chaotic depiction of reality as a vindication his 
'philosophy of mixed bodies' seeking to describe the 'noise' of 
the world. But more pertinently, this example stresses just how 
uncompromising the self-imposed aesthetic principles of the painter are.

 The force of the aesthetic imperative, when it is powerful 
enough not only to produce a work of art but to produce a 
masterpiece which redefines art, lies in its compulsive desire to 
exclude everything but its own principles. This does not 
necessarily mean that the artist disregards or despises earlier 
works of art and aesthetic currents, but rather that the 
domination of a single, obsessive law and the exclusion of other 
possibilities is necessary within the aesthetic context of the 
creation of a particular work. In other words, the creative 
impulse, in order to be productive, can never be democratic. The 
principle of the single law applies to the aesthetic impetus 
which constitutes the genesis of the work of art, and to the 
maniacal determination to actualize a particular project. The 
compulsive nature of thinking, in this sense, is akin to this 
aesthetic compulsion. Thought pursues the object of thinking 
relentlessly, with the same maniacal conviction, and perhaps with 
the same ultimate goal as the aesthetic imperative, namely to 
produce the beautiful. In scientific research, problems are 
preferably solved by the most simple but also the most elegant 
solution. The fact that an aesthetically beautiful solution is 
considered superior shows the importance of exclusive aesthetic 
principles and points to 
the close connection between thinking and aesthetics (13).

 But, one may object, Serres does not want to stress the 
similarity between the aesthetic drive and the unrestrained 
desire for knowledge. Instead, he takes great care to insist that 
the work of art is inimitable: that it cannot spawn a generation 
of copies and therefore does not seek to expand its own 
domination. Yet this is for all intents and purposes an 
artificial definition; to be inimitable, in Serres' definition, 
is to achieve such an exalted position that the work cannot be 
copied. The inimitable work of art is prized out of this world. 
While a work of art does not directly seek to be imitated, it 
seeks to project and maintain the criteria and environment 
necessary to judge it; these in turn allow it to be criticized, 
copied or parodied. We judge a work of art in some sense by the 
distance it takes from its most able copies; to some extent, 
therefore, the possibility of aesthetic judgement of a work of 
art rests on the 
possibility of it being copied.

 Consequently, both aesthetic imperatives are a dead end for 
Serres. The first, the aesthetic compulsion to create a work, is 
in fact a direct counter-example to the notion of self-restraint. 
More damagingly, it also provides a clear model for thinking 
which maniacally strives after its own resolution, and even 
scientific thought makes use of its stringent and exclusive 
aesthetic principles. The second, the notion of the work of art 
as an inimitable object, is controversial. If it is truly 
inimitable, the work prizes itself out of the realm of aesthetic 
judgement and comprehension; if, however, it is imitable at any 
level, it cannot, on Serres' own account, be exemplary of self-
restraint and cannot support an ethical imperative. 

 To conclude: I have analyzed Serres' appeal to self-restraint 
in ethics, ecology, epistemology and aesthetics. I have shown 
that the notion of self-restraint is important because it could 
provide the basis for a radically new way of thinking, and point 
beyond our conception of knowledge as domination and exclusion. 
This knowledge has been referred to and hinted at in Serres' 
earlier work, but only since his newfound interest in ecological 
issues has it come to be identified with the law of unlimited 
growth. Serres' notion of self-restraint does not present us with 
an immediately intelligible imperative, as the face of the other 
does in Levinas. Rather, he proposes that the ethical injunction 
be based on the aesthetic principle of an inimitable work of art. 
 I have shown, however, that neither the aesthetic compulsion to 
create nor the concept of the inimitable can provide Serres with 
a foundation for the ethical injunction to self-restraint. I also 
note that the principles underlying aesthetic compulsion in fact 
seem to prove the very opposite of Serres' point, namely that 
thinking which is compelled to dominate is similar to the 
compulsive development of an aesthetic credo. Until it can be 
shown that self-restraint is either an inherently human 
characteristic, or that it can be achieved by modelling our 
behavior on some existing system of thought, we shall have to 
enjoy the compulsive nature of our thinking and suffer its 
consequences -a situation for which the world of art again
provides a fitting analogy.

1. Michel Serres, Le Tiers Instruit (Paris: Francois Bourin, 
1991). Henceforth cited as TI; all translations are my own.
2. Michel Serres, Hermes I - La communication (Paris: Minuit, 
1969), Hermes II - L'interference (Paris: Minuit, 1972), Hermes 
III - La traduction (Paris: Minuit, 1974), Hermes IV - La 
distribution (Paris: Minuit, 1977), and Hermes V - Le passage du 
Nord-Ouest (Paris: Minuit, 1980); a selection from these volumes 
of collected papers has been translated as Hermes: Literature, 
Science, Philosophy, trans. & eds. J.V.Harari and D.F.Bell 
(Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982); Genese (Paris: 
Grasset, 1982); Les Cinq Sens (Paris: Grasset, 1985); Statues 
(Paris: Francois Bourin, 1987); Detachment, trans. Genevieve 
James and Raymond Federman (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1989); 
Le Contrat Naturel (Paris: Francois Bourin, 1990); Le Tiers 
Instruit (Paris: Francois 
Bourin, 1991); Atlas (Paris, Julliard 1994)..
3. Lecture on Le Tiers Instruit delivered at the Alliance Francaise
in Kyoto, Japan, on June 12, 1991.
4. Serres' latest book is a series of interviews with Bruno 
Latour: Michel Serres, Eclaircissements (Paris: Francois Bourin, 1992).
5. The subtitle of Les Cinq Sens is "philosophy of mixed bodies, 
volume I".  Serres has referred to a second volume in preparation.
6. Michel Serres, Les Cinq Sens, passim.
7. Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, trans. Walter 
Kaufmann and 
R.J.Hollingdale, ed. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage, 1967).
8. This introduction of a non-reversible element parallels the 
introduction of non-reversible time in physics and chemistry, as 
described by Ilya Prigogine and Isabelle Stengers in Order out of 
Chaos (New York: Bantam Books, 1984). Prigogine and Stengers cite 
Serres' work on thermodynamics repeatedly and wrote the 
postscript to the English edition of the Hermes series, Hermes: 
Science, Philosophy. 
9.Michel Serres, Rome (Paris: Grasset, 1983), p. 114; the translation
is my own.
10. Michel Serres, Detachment, trans. Genevieve James and Raymond 
Federman, p. 
11. Ibid., p. 59.
12. Michel Serres, Genese; Honore de Balzac, The Unknown Masterpiece.
13. See for example: Deane Curtin, ed., The Aesthetic Dimension 
of Science (New York: Philosophical Library, 1982); Edward 
Teller, The Pursuit of Simplicity 
(Malibu: Pepperdine University Press, 1981).


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