Reading: Michel Serres — Variations on the Body (trans. Randolph Burks)

Michel Serres is probably my favourite philosopher. Of the crop of post-68ers, Deleuze, Foucault, Derrida, all the names that are almost compulsory to be able to at least nod knowingly about if one wants to seem relevant in the contemporary dance milieu (to speak nothing of elsewhere) he goes strangely unmentioned. Possibly it’s changed in the last few years, but it was for me only by hanging out with some philosophers in Auckland and Melbourne who were dead keen on Serres that I know of him at all, as I am pretty certain I’ve not come across him otherwise, or not in a way that I can pin down as notable.

It’s because he wrote on dance, specifically ballet, that think so highly of him. Or perhaps it’s because when I first encountered him he wrote so beautifully, so poetically, so unlike every other philosopher, sometimes incomprehensibly (though never in the way that say, Derrida or Lacan did). I photocopied all the books of his I could find in the University library: The ParasiteRome: The Book of Foundations, Hermes: Literature, Science, Philosophy, of course Genesis … his brilliant essay Gnomon: The Beginnings of Geometry in Greece in A History of Scientific Thought: Elements of a HIstory of Science (along with every other essay in there, especially Catherine Goldstein’s Stories of the Circle), photocopied because otherwise impossibly expensive. Even by the affordable prices of Germany, I can seldom afford what translations exist of his work: Variations on the Body caused me to wince and look the other way when I handed over the cash, and it’s tiny, a mere 162 pages. Beautifully bound and presented though, which honestly makes up for a lot for me when it comes to buying academic-ish texts; it’s really a book to hold and enjoy the tactile pleasure of the embossed cover and heavy paper.

This translation then, by Randolph Burks (member of the Unemployed Philosophers’ Guild: The Lens Grinders) I have in two versions: latterly this printed one, an actual book; formerly a pdf which I think I snagged on the most excellent blog devoted to Serres. Same translation, different work. The French version is lavishly illustrated, something of a habit for Serres (Angels: A Modern Myth, for example). The English translation in book form is entirely bereft of illustrations, a compromise to getting it printed at all, which likely indicates the relative popularity of Serres compared to other French philosophers. The illustrations and photographs are not careless decoration, so the printed translation actually is substantially a lesser work, despite the work of Burks, who I think – based on the other translations I’ve read – makes me feel like I’m reading Serres without a go-between.

Serres does have his problems: there’s a distinct heterosexual male perspective in both his choice of words and choice of metaphors, similes, examples, which if nothing else shows his age (83, born in 1930), and Variations on the Body, with long sections devoted to romanticising mountaineering as an understanding of the philosophy of the body seems prone to this more than others. Ah, but it’s beautiful, it’s really not frequent for philosophy to make me smile with joy, but Serres, he does it all too often. He sometimes writes in a way which reminds me quite a bit of Chuang Tzu’s The Inner Chapters. So I’m enjoying this book immensely and think I will take seriously my desire to go on a Serres bender.

Michel Serres — Variations on the Body (trans. Randolph Burks)
Michel Serres — Variations on the Body (trans. Randolph Burks)