A Science of Exceptions: On Michel Serres’s “The Birth of Physics”

By Christine WertheimAugust 14, 2018

A Science of Exceptions: On Michel Serres’s “The Birth of Physics”

The Birth of Physics by Michel Serres

IN THE BEGINNING was the Word … But which word? By cultivating a deeper understanding of the sources that shape it, Michel Serres addresses this question in The Birth of Physics, recently published, in David Webb and William James Ross’s translation, by Groundworks, an imprint of Rowman & Littlefield producing English translations of foundational but forgotten texts at the origins of contemporary thought.

While questions about the birth of language might at first seem out of place in a text ostensibly about physics, such anomalies are the norm for Serres, who has made a career of idiosyncratic textual interpretations and of weaving disparate disciplines together. In addition to five chapters on the topic of physics, Serres devotes one chapter of his book to history, another to morality, and yet another to language, all of which together Serres presents as a reading of the ancient poem De Rerum Natura. Indeed, as we will see, Serres’s views on poetry and language add a much-needed perspective to contemporary linguistic studies; however, in order to understand this, we must begin with the birth of physics.

It is a fact universally acknowledged that the ancient Greeks developed no formally systematized science. Though Aristotle advanced complex theories of the natural world and Euclid formulated a sophisticated mathematics, common wisdom agrees that the Greeks found themselves unable to apply the latter’s breakthrough to the former’s, a frustration that would leave their physical conjectures as mere speculations without experimental validity. By Serres’s account, this fact has achieved a certain status, much like Jane Austen’s declaration about unmarried men of good income; it has become local myth, bound by the prejudiced conceptions of modern science and its history. Serres confronts this myth, proposing that the Greeks did achieve a full-fledged theory of physics to which a mathematics could be, and in fact was, applied. However, as he attempts to show in The Birth of Physics, this ancient practice would hardly resemble the modern science we recognize today, until the discovery of thermodynamics in the late 19th century, and the even later discoveries of information theory and open systems in the second half of the 20th.

The giants of this alternative ancient science were not Euclid and Aristotle, but Archimedes and Lucretius, a first-century BCE poet-philosopher-scientist whose only known book, De Rerum Natura (On the Birth of Nature), aimed to popularize the moral and natural philosophies of Epicurus. A six-book epic, De Rerum Natura presents a naturalistic account of the physical origins, overall structure, and destiny of the universe, which includes an atomistic theory of matter and an evolutionary thesis of life-forms. Though lost for centuries, De Rerum Natura has nonetheless served as a major source of inspiration for both the development of modern science and to many philosophers and literary writers, ranging from Bergson and Whitehead to Flann O’Brien and Alfred Jarry, whose ‘Pataphysics is clearly modeled on Lucretian and Epicurean ideas.

Later thinkers often paint Epicureans as self-centered hedonistic pessimists, but this is to take their work out of context. In the last centuries BCE and the first of the Common Era, ancient Mediterraneans could be fearfully superstitious, believing that human life is governed by godly whim and that, in death, we are tortured for our earthly sins — an atmosphere highly conducive to the rise of the new Christian faith. Near perpetual violence, including civil wars, mass executions, and economic chaos, plagued the first 40-four years of Lucretius’s life. In sharp contrast to the violence surrounding Lucretius, the teachings of Epicurus cast the aim of life not as conflict and the striving for power but as pleasure conceived as tranquility, achieved by limiting desire and banishing fear of the gods and of death, which Epicurus argued ended life absolutely. Such a gospel of fearlessness and human finitude held popular appeal and communities of Epicureans flourished centuries after Epicurus’s death; like his master before him, Lucretius detested conflict and war, preferring in its stead a quiet life of friendship and intellectual pursuits. Importantly for Serres, Lucretius’s pursuits would couple Epicurus’s irreligious ethics with an unsparingly materialist metaphysics, drawing on the previous work of Democritus, progenitor of ancient atomism. Lucretius outlines this science in De Rerum Natura.

Like Democritus, Epicurus rejected the existence of Platonic forms, arguing that the world’s basic constituents are neither figures nor laws, but indivisible particles of matter, called atoms, and the space through which they move. Therefore, he argued, we could explain all phenomena in atomic terms — not only the natural, but the social, historical, and ethical as well. Rather than seeking the universal laws or forms into which phenomena may be shoehorned, the atomist approach aims to explain how true innovations emerge and how new things are born. The problem for this approach is not universality but Genesis, or, in other words, birth. For atomists, a worldview that conceives the cosmos as governed by rigidly deterministic, all-embracing, law-bound sequences of cause and effect, is one in which everything has already been decided and nothing new emerges. Serres calls this the mindset of martial law, a perspective built on the rule of Thanatos and Mars, dominated by war, death, and blind fate, and which serves as the framework of majoritarian physics. In opposition to this, according to Serres, Lucretius and other Epicureans would propose a Venusian approach to knowledge, based on the premise that randomness and chance play a real, even primary, role both in human affairs and in physics. Thus, Serres identifies at the foundation of science an “axiom of choice” between these two frames: the former structured by (a belief in) universal, deterministic, unchanging laws, and the latter shaped by the robust roles of novelty and chance. For Serres this choice “is of such historic importance […] that perhaps nothing greater can be imagined.” Unfortunately, historically, “Western science has continuously chosen otherwise than Lucretius.”

Serres book aims to reorient us toward the Venusian approach by demonstrating how this minor tradition has always been interwoven into the major approach, deflecting it constantly and imbuing it with life through the works of Da Vinci, Bernoulli, Pascal, and Lagrange, among others, and above all, in that of Epicurus, Archimedes, Lucretius, and Leibniz. In doing so, Serres suggests that after the last 150 years, since the paradigm shift effected by thermodynamics, information theory, open systems, and the various forms of nonlinear mathematics, this minor strand may at last be transforming into the major, though he recognizes the martial approach’s determination to fight their cause.

As Serres interprets Lucretius, the Venusian approach proceeds from the premise that “nothing is born of nothing.” In the beginning, there is not simply a void. In the beginning, there is the abyss and there are atoms, in swarming, quasi-infinite multitudes. Together the atoms and the abyss comprise the original chaotic disorder from which order or form, both synonymous in Serres’s conceptual universe, will be born. Thus this physics poses the fundamental question: how do forms or ordered events arise from the eternal formless chaos?

In the atomist framework, chaos can be modeled in two ways: either atoms fly around in all directions, colliding everywhere but not yet conjoining to form higher-order complexes, or they all flow in one direction, never touching but always moving in a homogeneous way, like water down a stream. Serres calls this latter model the “laminar flow,” and he spends some time arguing why it is compatible with the former, an argument that, though sound, I will not rehearse here. Instead, I want to focus on the laminar flow, if only because it has had the greatest effect on both modern literature and certain contemporary, albeit minoritarian, ways of conceptualizing language.

Though Democritus proposed the original idea of atoms, he could not account for how they conglomerated together to form more complex compounds. Epicurus attempted to address this issue by suggesting atoms have both a regular tendency to move in one direction and a random but necessary inclination to occasionally “swerve.” The tendency to move in one direction is often explained as the result of the atoms’ “weight,” with the course of their motion conceived as a downward “fall.” However, as Serres argues, in the void all orientations are equal; there is neither an up nor a down. What matters is not the direction of the movement, but that all particles move in a regular, homogeneous way, without deviation, in the laminar flow — that is, until some random atom serendipitously swerves, until some adventitious individual, purely by chance, declines to follow the well-trod path. Lucretius calls this swerve the clinamen, and it is this concept for which he is known in linguistic circles.

Random swerving brings change by whipping the uniform flow into an increasingly turbulent state, just as a wind at sea can gradually lash up a storm. One of Serres’s key points is that, in the atomist perspective, turbulence is order. Order is turbulence. In other words, order and form, here, are not conceived of as fixed “platonic” figures, but rather as quasi-stabilities in dynamic flows, just as the whorls in water flowing around rocks appear as semi-stable forms (hence Serres’s repeated admiration for Da Vinci’s drawings of aqueous turbulence). If order, as turbulence, arises gradually from chaos through concatenating deviations that whip quiet flows into tumultuous storms, its birth is not a one-time event, but an eternal happening. “Nature has no [ultimate] beginning; it is always in the process of being born.” In this model, there is no universal time or space. Rather, new, tumultuous phenomena with their own time-spaces are perpetually born to live out their duration before decaying again into the ever-surrounding chaos from which, at a different time and in another place, other phenomena and worlds, each with their own singular time-spaces, perpetually are born to live and die at their own pace and in their own way. As with water-whorls, what appears as stable is only a local phenomenon enduring across a limited space for a limited time. Chaos is the only eternal “universal.”

We see then, and Serres is at pains to reiterate, that the ancient atomist model differs remarkably from modern atomics. Here, the fundamental cosmic substances are not solids but liquids — what Serres calls “vaporized clouds of liquid” — and the founding scientific disciplines are not the studies of solid bodies and closed systems, but the sciences of liquids, flows, and open systems: hydro-statics and thermodynamics. This resonance with more recent scientific developments explains the renewed importance, in today’s context, of Venusian science, first rigorously formalized by Archimedes of Syracuse (c. 287–c. 212 BCE).

For Serres, the mathematical formalization of atomist science begins with Archimedes's approach to calculating the angle of the tangent to the circle.

In the course of his work on the topic, Archimedes was compelled to deal with a phenomenon in which, as one approaches the limit (the exact point where the line touches the curve), the measure of the angle approaches, but never reaches, zero. In this situation, there then exists an infinitesimal angle whose existence can be assured but cannot be quantified, no matter how fine our observational tools. Thus, it is in the shadow of this infinitesimal angle that the concept of the “atom,” as a smallest possible, but immeasurable amount, finds a rigorous mathematical foundation in Archimedes’s work.

The master of Syracuse would evolve a whole geometry of conics and spirals — what Serres calls vortices — employing his methods to limits, infinitesimals, and differentials a millennium and a half before Descartes and Leibniz. Widely acknowledged as the progenitor of hydrodynamics, Archimedes developed, alongside his geometry, a physics of liquids that focused on turbulence and open systems rather than stasis and closed systems. As Serres points out, in his life and his work, Archimedes always found himself surrounded by water — externally and internally. It was on the basis of his physics of liquids that he would build numerous practical devices for manipulating water, such as levers, screws, and even sea-going war machines for defending his beloved city. Through Archimedes, Serres demonstrates the concrete reality of an ancient approach to mathematized physics, only belatedly rediscovered in the 19th and 20th centuries with the (re)birth of thermodynamics, dynamic systems, and information theory.

Spirals and vortices over straight lines and planes; dynamism over stasis; open systems over closed; the local over the global; the generic over the universal: our knowledge has arisen from the observation of nature’s gestures and, above all, from those infinitesimal and unobservable motions where the tiniest deviations introduce difference into sameness, heterogeneity into homogeneity. These differences build and build as ever more deviations cascade into full-blown turbulence, which constitutes the atomist concept of “order.” Such, Serres argues, is the Venusian model — a demonstration of his overall thesis that “natural science,” or applied physics, “is already well formed in ancient atomism.”

This model, however, does not constitute a universal, for the fact that the archetype is itself turbulence means that no phenomenon ever repeats exactly; every event — be it physical, historical, political, ethical, or linguistic — is unique. Experimental sciences are always sciences of exceptions, and even the most rigorously mathematized formulation is never an idealized form existing apart from the matter in which it incarnates. Formalizations are simply models: approximate, idealized descriptions that help make sense of phenomena, but which are always in need of revision. We see, then, that the atomist perspective conceptualizes not only nature and order quite differently, but also mathematics. Rather than seeing mathematics as comprised of autonomous forms, this “other,” Venusian approach, per Serres, sees it as composed of multiple systems of representation, providing models through which we learn by manipulative play. As Charles Peirce suggested much later, electrical circuit diagrams and chemical notations serve as excellent examples of this.

For Serres, as for Epicurus and Lucretius, physics is only a starting point, a field in which to develop a general model of phenomena. Whether historical, political, social, ethical, or linguistic, all phenomena follow the same path: first, there is chaos, composed of atoms and the void; next, there is the clinamen, or declination, giving rise to increasing turbulence, or order, as deviations build on deviations to produce flowing dynamic systems; finally, everything decomposes again into the eternal and omnipresent chaos. With this in mind, Serres then poses a new question: How can this model be applied to a science like linguistics? If order in the physical world begins with random, swerving atoms, how does ordered, or sensible, language begin? To put it another way: What is the First Word?

For Lucretius, atoms are letters and letters atoms. Just like atoms, letters move through the voids in chaos, until at last one unexpectedly declines. Just as in nature, where all physical substances can be constituted from a finite set of primary atoms (carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, et cetera), all the words of a tongue can be composed from a finite collection of letters (A, B, C, et cetera). Atomists base their belief in atom-letter synonymity on these simple analogical facts. So, it follows, just as one chemical substance transforms into another by removing some components and adding in others (it matters not here how these processes occur), the same applies to words. Lucretius himself cites the Latin words lignum and ignus, “wood” and “fire,” as an example; fire is a partial anagram of wood, thereby showing that wood can be transformed into fire by a rearrangement of its letters. (We can see here how the pre-Socratic theory of elements — fire, water, earth, wind — mixes with our modern conception of purely chemical elements.) For Lucretius, this relationship is neither coincidental nor a mere pun, but a living demonstration of the isomorphism between atoms and letters. Just like atoms, “[l]ettered combinations do not make valid formations in every arrangement,” and most configurations are nonsensical, or what Serres calls “Monsters.”

Yet how do well-ordered, meaningful arrangements of atom-letters, begin? How do words arise from noise? Serres answers:

The singular pitcher [the laminar flow] pours one sense [nonsense]. Here are words, the pointing of the arrow towards or turned towards (tournée vers), as we say. All the arrows parallel, universal. In the same space as the area of verto, to turn, to return, to change direction and even of the vertex, vortex of water and turbulence […] Now the versus is not only a preposition or an adverb, for questions of place. It also describes lines and ranges […] in short parallels; lines, writing, prose; verses, poetry, rhythm, metric […] A parallel ordering for things and for words, is not given from the off. To form it, we need something like a rotation, an angle which turns on a preexisting field which, itself, fundamentally, has no meaning, […] the interlaced letters can only be formed by the vortex, vertex […] The first word formed by the atom-letters is vers, the index of a sense, the arrow of a vector, it is a line, a poem, ordered parallels turning […] the first transverse indicates vers, and sense is present.

Reading De Rerum Natura as itself a species of turbulence, Serres deduces from the poem’s tumultuous turns that the vers, the turn-toward-verse, causes sense to be born from the non-sense of noise. In other words, the inclination to make sense actually makes sense — it turns from and in the non-sense, making it into sense. In fact, the turn away from noise is an index of sense itself, thus does chaos veer toward vers/e. So, the vers is the verse is vertex is vortex. As versus is “a preposition for questions of place,” the inclination to veer away from the non-position of disorder is the pre-position to a position, or the stating of a (pro)-position. The vers, the turn-toward-verse, causes Sense to birth itself form the non-sense of noise.

We could go on and on, swerving letter by letter and from phoneme to phoneme, as Serres does, demonstrating the power of the clinamen to slip along the tongue, generating all by itself a world by association, but we do not have to agree with Serres that the first actual word is “vers/e,” or even that there is a First Word. What matters is the method — that sense is formed “in the most natural way […] [b]y a change in sense,” which takes place within the non-sense of the atomic-letter-filled voids surrounding everything. Sense forms from an inclination, a swerve, or change in orientation of some random element or elements. To cite an example that Serres attributes to both Aristotle and Rabelais: an N can become a Z when it falls or leans. This example focuses on the visual aspect of letters, but we may also take note of their sounds and their aural declinations. For instance, after a lifetime of hearing the continuous sound of frogs, which in French say “kwa-kwa,” or “kekese-kekese,” the outsider writer Jean-Pierre Brisset sensed a mutation. Kwa-kwa easily deviates into quoi-quoi, and kekese-kekese softly declines into qu'est que c’est, phrases that in French both mean “what?” By a slight shift in orientation within the noisy flow of the laminar-frog-song, an atomic question is formed: What? What is? What is it? What is (it) here? From an aimless wandering void, an orientation toward sense arises. Again, we see the same pattern: first, chaos and noise, then deviation, a momen mutatem, which grows into full-blown sense.

The significance, ultimately, is not the conclusion but the approach — the attitude toward language, treated neither as a set of rules and forms to which a tongue must conform, nor as a mere network of binary oppositions. In Serres’s complex Lucretian perspective, language is conceived as a materially informed phenomenon within which sense continuously merges, emerges, and reemerges from non-sense, whether visual or aural, through cascades of tiny, material deviations building slowly into complex, dynamic forms. We now know this is the model for many phenomena, both material and informational. Why not also the linguistic? Why do we not conceptualize language after this model in the contemporary world? Why do we not see apparently stabilized, rule-bound language as mere pockets within an overall tumult of tongues?

In fact, several serious language analysts have expressed similar ideas, albeit using different terminologies and discourses. For instance, Gilles Deleuze and Jean-Jacques Lecercle — philosophers of language who specialize in “outsider writers,” or what the French call for litteraire — have written extensively about that delirious aspect of language in which words seem to speak us rather than we to them, as in Victorian Nonsense and the works of the fou, including Brisset, Roussell, Wolfson, and Artaud. For all of these writers, sense constitutes only a small portion of language, which is largely composed by arrangements that make non-sense, or even no sense at all. The philosophical term for this kind of language is delire, a synonym for linguistic turbulence in the Serresian sense. A psychoanalytic theory of language under the heading of lalangue also locates linguistic turbulence as a more generalized state of language than the “normal” stabilized forms.

Above all, we can look to Alfred Jarry: avid reader of Lucretius and amateur scholar of late 19th-century British experimental science. In his novel The Exploits and Opinions of Dr. Faustrol: ’Pataphysician, Jarry invents a whole new science, called ’Pataphysics, whose main tenets are that nothing repeats and every event is unique. For ’Pataphysics, science is not the study of rules and laws but of exceptions, of which there are three kinds: the anomaly, the clinamen, and the zyzygia. The “as … if” precedes the “as … is” — in other words, the imaginary precedes reality. Though birthed from a novel, ’Pataphysics now boasts a full-fledged college with worldwide branches, where hordes of international scholars write learned papers about unique phenomena and how to produce them. Thus, finally, the world comes full circle; what was once seen as mere poetry produces a novel from which a genuine science of exceptions is born. What more proof of Serres’s theses do we need?


Christine Wertheim is a poet, performer, critic, curator, crafter, and collaborator teaching at CalArts.

LARB Contributor

Christine Wertheim is a poet, performer, critic, curator, crafter, and collaborator teaching at CalArts. She has eight books including three poetic suites, The Book of Me, mUtter-bAbel, and +|’me’S-pace; experiments in auto-bio-graphy fusing graphics and text to explore the potentialities of the English tongue. In performance these become a unique form of S(w)Ound poetry.


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