Steven Conner on Michel Serres and the hard and the soft.

We seem to have been talking a lot about information and noise. Below is a lengthy passage from Professor of English, Steven Connor’s recent talk on the hard and the soft in the work of the French philosopher Michel Serres. We can see that a simple notion like the hard and the soft, in the right hands can become a very complex and fascinating object of investigation.

Link to the complete article here

” One of the strangest and most intriguing of the problems involved in bringing together the two scales or ‘energy-budgets’, the entropic and the informational, is that it seems at once to take place on the scale of entropy and on the scale of information. In the case of thermodynamic systems, the relations of noise and information, or order and disorder seem to be of the order of physical facts. But, when commuted to the order of the soft – of language, say, or of literature – then the difference between the hard and the soft does not seem hard, but rather soft, which is to say, easily reversible. Depending on the observer, Finnegans Wake is either noise or the most exquisitely filtered, filigreed, lacy, high-definition information. How is it that information emerges out of primal noise? The closest  Serres, or perhaps anyone comes to an answer to this is in ‘Origin of Language’, where Serres writes ‘The whole theory of information and thus, correlatively, that of noise, makes sense only in relation to an observer, who finds himself linked in being to them’ (Serres 1977, 264). So where does this observer-eavesdropper come from? Serres looks like he is going to answer this question when he says ‘Who, here, is the observer? The simplest thing would be to say that, for our own organic system, we are the observer or observers in question’ (Serres 1977, 264). But this is not, even, as good an explanation as it may first appear. Is this observer an effect of noise or information? Is it on the hard side, or the soft side of things? And if so, in relation to what further observer, mooted, imputed, or muted, exactly? Does the system begin to do this work of self-mollifying unobserved, or is it its own observer? Does it give rise to the observer that gives rise to it?

In the ‘Boxes’ chapter of The Five Senses, Serres comes at this problem by arguing for the difficulty of understanding the nature of reception. If one tries to imagine what happens on the inside of a black box – in the very quick of the transformation from noise to information – one finds oneself unable to imagine quite what is happening during the reception. As soon as I have received something, it seems already to have been transformed into what has been received, which is then ready for onward transmission. In is therefore always forced to imagine a further coupling, on one side of which is noise, on the other side of which is information, or, in other words, a box on the inside of the box. The observer is in the box, the observer is the box, the observer is the operator, the discriminator, the integrator, but is also produced by what it produces.

Serres has also begun to emphasise the ways in which, in passing over into the soft, the indefinite, the incandescent, we are not stepping outside history, or marking a definitive or decisive break with what has come before. For we have come to appreciate that, wherever we may look, in the genome, in the molecule, in the vibrating particle, there is no brute, inert, formless matter to be found, but rather that coding, information, writing, goes all the way down, and all the way back.

But, once again, who has memory? Tradition replies: humans, in their cognition, their mnemonic faculty, their traces, written, engraved or drawn, those they decipher. No, for things themselves memorise, by themselves and directly. The past is inscribed in them, it is enough to decipher it from them… We are in want of a general theory of marks, traces and signals to go with the physics of forces, to teach us to remember the world and remember as it does, to write on it and like it. Things are also symbols. There is more than chemistry in chemistry. Why does this element react or not in the presence of some other element? Why does it choose it in this way? What ‘faculty’ in it makes election? Large masses write, molecules read. And, even more then inert matter, living matter writes, reads, decides, chooses, reacts – one would have thought it long endowed with intentions. An hour of biochemistry will quickly persuade one of the refined shrewdness of proteins. (Serres 2003, 70, 73)

This means that ‘Hard things display a soft side; material, of course, they engram and programme themselves like software. There is software [logiciel] in the hardware [matériel]’ (Serres 2003, 73). History does not move uniformly from the hard to the soft, or only one filament of its current does. For in doing so, it also moves backwards, to the disclosing of its generative origins. Moving from the hard to the soft discloses the softness of the hard in the first place. Is history itself not thereby ‘softened’ – turned from the line in which one distinct and finite state gives way to another to another shape of relation, characterised by foldings-over, infiltrations of earlier and later?

Serres occasionally offers hints that, rather than taking the world as the mute object of knowledge, we might find in the objects of our knowledge models of our way of knowing:

Phases are phases, they are not phases alone, they are models of knowledge. They are not solely objects. A cloud is cloud, it is not solely an object. A river is not just an object, neither is an island nor a lake. Likewise the noise of the sea. As I proceed further along, a harmony is taking shape, unexpected. The phases, gaseous, liquid, solid, the clouds, the river, the jagged coastline, the plateau, all of them express par excellence a given mode of knowledge, they construct the world I am in. I can imagine the point at which the description of phenomena and that of knowing will knit together. The world carries in itself its gnoseology. It is no longer incomprehensible that the world is comprehensible. (Serres 1995b, 112)