Sacred Dirt

By Susan StewartSeptember 22, 2011

Malfeasance: Appropriation Through Pollution? by Michel Serres

IF ONLY THE MAGICAL ETIOLOGIES of consumerism were true — oranges grow in the produce aisle, milk flows from the dairy case, shirts and shoes emerge online. However, a deeper look into the origins of these products is sure to darken your view. Take, for example, the cell phone. Its battery and other parts have likely been manufactured in the Special Economic Zone of Shenzhen, China, an area once known for its fertile, hilly farmland. The Shenzhen landscape has been bulldozed flat; the rain runs black with acid and, despite recent experiments with electric taxis, and state propaganda promising the greening of the city, it is often not safe to breathe outdoors. The air inside the enormous complexes, where cell phones, tablets, and other electronic devices are assembled for a variety of brands — including Apple, Hewlett Packard, Dell, Motorola, and Nokia — likely isn’t any safer. Migrant workers from the countryside reside in company-provided dormitories. Their performance is measured in seconds. The only way they can make a living above a subsistence level is by taking on illegal amounts of overtime. One worker perished of exhaustion after a 34-hour shift. At least 17 workers committed suicide in 2010 and 2011; one, as I write in late July, as recently as a few days ago. China’s overall suicide rate is high compared to other countries, but the factory owners’ decision to string nets around the upper stories of these industrial complexes indicates a different kind of business as usual.

Beyond this grim point of origin, your phone is likely to have a troubled afterlife. Use it in public in confined spaces and you’ll be sure to get attention from other people: you’ll be keeping them distracted when they would like to concentrate and awake when they would like to rest; your conversations at a distance will take precedence over their face-to-face conversations. Even if such “mental pollution” does not trouble you; your physical health will be answering to your phone. Researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology issued a report this spring describing how cell phone signals can disorient bees and may be the primary cause of the widespread catastrophe of colony collapse that has been progressing since the 1970s. Sad for the bees, you might think, and you may even realize it has been a while since you have seen a honeybee. Some might argue that constant non-ionizing radiation next to the brain does not conclusively cause brain cancer or change brain glucose metabolism (counter to a recent announcement from the World Health Organization), but you and your fellow animals nevertheless need to eat to live: honeybees fertilize 70 percent of the 100 crops most often used for human food.

Finally, when a cell phone is traded in for a new one, consider where the plastic, lead, and lithium of the old one will go; someone is going to arrange for the outdated phone’s disposal — you may even yourself take the time to deliver it to a recycling center, but where and how will the recycling come about? If you take your old phone to a responsible organization, you could help reduce the disastrous environmental and human consequences of mining throughout the world; if you let it fall into less scrupulous hands, it may end up dumped in Nigeria or back in China. 


Everything comes from somewhere and everything has to go somewhere: the cliché is true, and sounds conscientious, but in fact the vagueness of “somewhere” is part of the problem. What is tragic about environmental degradation is not the degradation itself; to frame the ruin of the natural world as “tragedy” implies that intentions by supernatural forces — that is, forces other than human ones — are involved. If we follow such an assumption to its end, there’s little that could have been done, and can be done about the degradation we now witness or ignore. Instead, the worst aspect of this ongoing and deep-rooted sequence of calamities is a lack of self-knowledge on the part of its human protagonists. 

Michel Serres’s Malfeasance: Appropriation Through Pollution?, a small-format paperback of less than a hundred pages published for the first time in English this year, aims at nothing less than fully to understand and to remedy this lack of self-knowledge. In France, where Malfeasance first appeared in 2008, Serres’s title was Le mal propre: a pun on le malpropre, which, written as one word, means “dishonest” or “despicable.” Separated into two words in his title, the phrase signifies “clean evil.” Serres’s groundbreaking, impassioned argument is that our “cleanliness is our dirt”: our desire to possess the world by “cleaning” or claiming it for ourselves and then throwing the consequent dirt and detritus beyond the bounds of what we deem “propre” has brought about, he claims, the ruination of ourselves and our world. He describes how we are severed from the rest of nature to the point that we suffer an accelerating, self-perpetuating, and alienating symbiosis between forms of material pollution — such as industrial waste and toxic dumps — and forms of mental, or metaphysical, pollution — such as the monotony of muzak, the squawking of mandatory televisions in public spaces, and the relentless commands and demands of advertisements in every view. If our dependence on cell phones presents a typical instance of the interrelations between material and mental pollution, their use is only a small part of what seems to be our universal and rampant desire to fill our environments with more and more manmade objects and stimuli.

Serres’s study of the interface between human nature and the rest of nature is the culmination of his career-long meditation on the relations between forms of life. From his foundational research regarding the interactions of parasites and hosts, to his numerous studies of subjects as diverse as myths of origins, depictions of angels, stories of Hermes, the functions of bridges and statues, and experiences of synesthesia, Serres has been preoccupied less with phenomena than with the connections between them: he is our great philosopher of mediation. With his emphasis on the tenuous, he continually underscores alternatives to culture as we have received it. His preferred form is the fable, yet the morals of his stories arrive on the wings of his slightly humorous, elliptical, and resolutely non-didactic style.

Serres’s project in Malfeasance is typically both descriptive and prescriptive. As a descriptive account, it is designed to be as a “Stercorian Atlas” of the “hundreds of marks, stains, and signposts” left by the growing human appropriation of nature. As a prescriptive treatise,Malfeasance extends the argument of Serres’s 1990 book Le Contrat naturel, where he posited that to survive, and thrive, human beings would have to overcome their internecine hostilities, imagining themselves as one species, unified by the necessity to establish an accord with nature. Stating that we now find ourselves at a crossroads as a species, he plaintively explains that he is writing for “the next generation.” 

In this new meditation, Serres makes specific suggestions, both “practical” and ideological, toward pursuing a way of life that would make a “natural contract” possible. Above all, he recommends the dissolution of property rights and a fresh commitment to “uncover” nature’s particular beauties. In one of his few concrete proposals, he asks that we pursue a “triple liberation”: “let us liberate space, let us liberate our souls, and let us liberate at least one site.” Although Serres is not often specific, this aphorism is hardly utopian. Every day there are examples of liberating space, soul and site: someone restores the native species of a local stream damaged by chemical run-off; or turns a vacant lot of trash into a community garden; or home-makes the necessities of life whenever possible, and purchases only goods manufactured under non-exploitive conditions. 

Sweeping as Serres’s account is historically and geographically, his suggestions of this kind are strangely intimate. His first concern is to develop a change in our attitude toward nature. His negative prescription to abandon property and his positive prescription to reveal the earth’s beauty, compelling as they are, suggest not broad social or political commitments, but something closer to a Stoic’s self-possession. In his concluding pages, Serres speaks of the continuity between the temporary dwellings of the exiles in the Hebrew Scriptures and the “homelessness” of Christ, who must find shelter in the “privacy” of the believing follower. He suggests that in a world that belongs to no one, Mundus, res nullius, man belongs to no one, homo nullius, and thus we now find ourselves governed by self-given laws. If this is a lonely prospect for humankind, it is also one that, unlike theodicy, places the solutions to our dilemma in our own hands.

As this brief survey of religious accounts of human dwelling suggests, Serres’s historical framework is loosely presented: the first half of the book, “Urine, Manure, Blood, Sperm: The Lived Foundations of Property Right” sets out a narrative of the development of property. The second half, “Garbage, Images, Sounds: Matter and Signs” has a vatic agenda as Serres explores the intersections between pollution’s hard, material, and soft, mental states. His method is not based in analytical philosophy, sociological research, or environmental policies. He constructs his survey from the perspectives of both “hard” sciences and “soft” cultural analyses, yet he owes far more to the visionary historical reasoning of thinkers like Giambattista Vico, Fustel De Coulanges, and his contemporary colleague at Stanford University, René Girard. 

Like these thinkers, Serres often relies on etymological arguments and historical parables. Exploring the roots of “le mal propre,” for instance, he finds a number of source words. He begins with lieu (place), a term that he claims, following a nineteenth-century dictionary of Latin etymology, is derived from the Latin locus and, before that, the Greek topos, and alludes to female genitalia: Sic loci muliebres, ubi nascendi initia consistent (“woman’s places, where the beginnings of birth are situated”). Serres thereby traces the boundary-making activities of families, tribes, and villages to the birthplace of individuals. Two further terms preoccupy him: lustrare, which suggests going around a periphery in order to inspect such boundaries; and closure, signifying to clean, to shut a space and throw unclean phenomena out beyond its edges. Out of this cluster of meanings he builds his arguments regarding the human propensity to create significance through practices of inclusion and expulsion. 

As for parables, according to Serres, the history of property goes as follows: Like most animals, human beings use their bodily excreta — urine, manure, corpses, and sperm — to appropriate places. Sacred places are “polluted” by such excreta and must be bounded off from it, just as they are concurrently defined by being vulnerable to it. Men in particular deploy their urine and sperm to establish the outlines of their property, including their women, in order to mark and claim it. Property then passes to the family and tribe. Sacred spaces require blood sacrifices and the spilled blood of sacrifice in turn defines the limits of such space. As part of this sacrificial expenditure, monuments to the dead are built that “celebrate the shame of the massacre of innocent children by unspeakably cruel fathers.” These excreta — urine, sperm, blood, corpses — are used to mark and claim more and more space as they accumulate; they in turn increase the number of “subjects of appropriation” — individuals, families, and nations that come under proprietary claims. 

Natural law becomes positive law, according to Serres, by evolving from these practices of sacrifice, invasion, crimes, and stinking, excremental trash to the “soft signs” of the signature on paper, the logo, the brand, and the re-appropriation of what has already entered the economy. He describes us at the end of this long process of rationalization, sporting the logos of those corporations that have ruined our air and water and exploited the labor of our bodies: “the victims stand in line to multiply the advertising that targets them.” And he points to how our “data,” held by the state, banks, cell phone companies, internet providers, hospitals and department stores subjugate the rest of our agency, holding us hostage to the soft realities of consumerism and, although he does not mention them, so-called “social” networks.

Serres’s argument about the origins of material pollution raises disturbing implications that remain unconsidered. Throughout the book, he reveals that pollution is not merely a by-product of industrialization, but a fundamental human, indeed animal, activity: a practice at the heart of our establishment of the sacred and our desire for meaning. If these practices are indeed rooted in the depth of our animal nature, it is unclear how we could expect to overcome our fierce instincts to mark and claim territory and instead adhere to an ethic of withdrawal and refusal of ownership. Yet, these are the solutions Serres poses to our current predicament. 

Worried readers will also notice that Serres’s claims reframe benign neglect into more insidious forms of self-destruction. Following out his preliminary parable, one might conclude that such developments as the nuclear industry’s consistently inadequate consideration for safety stems from an unconscious, or perhaps semi-conscious, desire to claim more and more territory. His readers similarly will wonder if global practices of “fouling the nest,” whether they occur on the level of swimmers who urinate in the pools where they are swimming or engineers who fail to consider the effects of geology on the operation of nuclear power plants, indicate a kind of species self-hatred.

Serres realizes that such pollution without limit, like the globalization of signs, paradoxically ends in a form of territory-marking that de-territorializes the earth: a universe of endless signs with no attributable makers or claimers. In other words, it can hardly by now be a secret that the proliferation of marking is bound to end in erasure. When “regulations” ensuring human safety are attacked as “impediments to progress,” it is not at all evident where we are going and to what purpose. Nature will persist, even if solely in its mineral form, and thereby begin again; it is our species and our companion species that will disappear. 

Before Serres approaches his solution to this dilemma, he uses the second half of his book to retrace some of the argument of the first half, pursuing more deeply the shift “from urine to garbage” under which “what we throw away is a new way to mark our territories.” He describes humanity as an invasive species, one determined to become the master and possessor of nature as our exponential growth distorts all natural growth. For Serres, whose childhood and youth took place in the milieus of farm and sea, the destruction of rural spaces and fouling of the oceans are not only physical, but also aesthetic and moral disasters: he conjures the spectacles of a filthy countryside packed with pig farms and oceans full of trash, and he despairs as he describes the encroaching effects of billboards: “how can we not cry with horror and disgust confronted with the wrecking of our formerly pleasant rural access roads into the cities of France … Old Europe, what ignorant ruling class is killing you?” 

Strangely, Serres, so well known for his research into the history of science, does not emphasize the role of technology here. But as he traces how “vital excrement” becomes “chemical waste” — solids, residues, liquids and gases, gigantic garbage dumps — through our “appliances,” he indicates that he sees the purpose of technology as “rigging out,” or serving as prostheses for, our bodily forces. For example, a hammer is “the forearm plus the fist” and clothing is “an augmentation of hair and skin.” The links between self-aggrandizement, greed, and the aggregating, accelerating forces of technological development, the consumer’s demand for novelty and the ever-expanding detritus of planned obsolescence — all could play a role in Serres’s parable of marking and claiming, but he leaves that discussion for another day. 

He does, however, draw an analogy between the materiality of hard pollution and the “hardness” of the forms of knowledge used to address it: “statistical measures and proportions; geological and atmospheric samplings, chemical analyses, estimates from biology or natural history … the so-called hard sciences, plus economics.” He also mentions that “if you pollute, you pay; money equals waste,” concluding that “economists, politicians, and lawyers team up and play in Freud’s anal stage.” This scores a clever point, but Serres seems to have underestimated the power of economics in environmentalist discourse. 

Indeed, when it comes to decisions about the natural world, the prognostic, estimating “science” of economics is not a method among methods; by now it is the determinant of all value — the epitome of a soft science with a hard consequence. This is a recent, but ubiquitous, development. As the historian Eduardo Canedo has shown in his studies of the rise of deregulation in the United States, for example, state policy toward the environment turned between 1970 and 1975 from a rights-based outlook, which guaranteed basic access to clean air and water for all, to an economic outlook, which allowed for the trading of air pollution emissions and various practices of offsetting costs determined by businesses themselves. To see the prevalence of the economic frame that underlies environmental policy since this turn, we need only consider the bizarre, yet commonplace, reversal whereby environmentalists, who intervene least in nature, are considered to be “radicals” and global capitalists, who intervene most in nature, are considered to be “conservatives.” 


There is no question that Serres’s description in Malfeasance is a vivid call to arms, and his remedies go beyond earlier moral arguments for the elimination of property made by Proudhon and Marx: he rails not only against private property, but also against collective property — indeed, against the notion of property, the “propre,” itself. Yet, following out the moral logic of Serres’s call to appreciate the world’s beauties, I would argue that he has made a serious error in basing much of his discussion on economic metaphors. That one of our foremost philosophers of the environment succumbs to this mode of “cap and trade,” contractual thinking is yet another indication that mere calculation rules. 

The limits of an economic framework first appear in Serres’s discussion of myths of telegony (the widely held belief that offspring might inherit traits from a parent’s previous mates) and the practice of adultery as a means of undermining the law’s gendered property claims. His tone in this section is light and he never fully links his themes of women as “places” and the polluting powers of the “propre” that first emerged in his discussion of lieulustrare, and closure. For example, the avuncular Serres advises his next generation (male) reader: “here’s a friendly suggestion: wash before making love and belonging to another; but she will not really love you until she loves your own smell.” This playful critique of sexual “propriety” could have led to a discussion of the consenting dissolution of boundaries that sex manifests. After all, one’s smell, like one’s DNA, as Serres explores in the last pages of his book, is truly one’s own and to possess it is not to deplete the store of anyone else’s; indeed, to share it might lead to a happy increase.

Instead, however, in arguing for a new kind of species being independent of the claims of ownership, Serres suggests we substitute a notion of “tenancy” for one of ownership. Taking up the situation of women treated as property, Serres demands “women must re-appropriate the organs of their own bodies, while the male should finally be content with the eminently modern role of tenant.” To follow Serres’s etymological method, we inevitably notice that the word “tenancy,” in English, French, and other Romance languages, is rooted in the Latin tenere, to hold, and indicates an occupation in time. 

Women may escape the permanent claims of property under Serres’s new frame, but the notion that women lacked possession of the organs of their own bodies is misguided. To then suggest a “tenancy” where men, and supposedly female lovers as well, would take residence in women for a limited period of time — as serial adultery is “a liberation from appropriation” — is condescending to women and men alike. Should these “tenants” pay rent? If so, this liberated form of love-making seems indistinguishable from prostitution, and Serres’s route out of sexual property ends up resembling one of the most ritualized exchanges of women between men. Even if Serres envisions a “gift” economy, wherein a woman gives her “tenant” the occupancy of her person, we are still in the realm of exchange value, restricted economies, terms and arrangements. We can witness every day the disastrous consequences of John Locke’s notion that mixing our labor with the state of nature legitimates our property claims, but we nevertheless might find Locke’s assertion of some use here: “Every man has a property in his own person. This nobody has a right to, but himself.” The inalienable rights of our own nature can be transposed from the inalienable rights of nature herself. 

Serres also seems led astray by economic thinking when he considers art only in terms of its thing-ness or commodification. Thinking of the bombardment of the soft pollution of advertising and public noise of various kinds on our everyday senses, he concludes that “images, colors, music, and sounds” are “excremental, invading and polluting space just as much as the stifling stench of carbon dioxide and tar.” But just as the willed, consenting transformation of desire into sex, romance, and love involves emotions and practices that are only enriched the more they are expended, so is the willed, consenting, sensual apprehension of works of beauty, whether natural or man-made, a practice that adds to existence, rather than reducing or confining it. 

Sexual and aesthetic activities are only two of many universal human practices — others might be learning, play, charity, gardening — that counter, indeed founder, the rule of economic metaphors, for these practices reward through expenditure, and the more they are “spent,” the more they are renewed. Indeed, in any reasonable world this central facet of non-pecuniary, incalculable human activities would make them of the highest value: often reversible, since they do not “count,” they also do not deplete the resources of nature and can even augment them. Meanwhile, advertisements may exploit the term “priceless,” but true pricelessness is immaterial and cannot be destroyed. As Serres suggests in asking us to uncover the beauties of nature, nature’s primary resource for us is aesthetic, available for our disinterested contemplation. Like all living things, we must draw materially from nature, but are we so alienated from our material needs that we cannot judge what is sufficient to them? Are we so ignorant of the needs of the rest of nature that we cannot imagine restoring what we have taken? 

Serres’s by turns disgusted, angry, and gentle little book shows the path away from the “appropriation” of nature, but it could go farther. It is a little less absurd to imagine we are tenants , holders, of the earth than to imagine we are its owners, but it is still absurd — as absurd as imagining we can hold tenancy of another person. Serres makes the powerful point that even the term “environment” leads us astray with its anthropomorphic center in the human figure. Anthropomorphism, however, is our specialty and our free creation; we are the only audience for our tragedy. Until we grasp that nature is in and for itself, and that we are but a small and brief part of it, our privacy and mystery continuous with its own, we will indeed be driven to self-destruction. Yet what are our powers of self-consciousness and self-government for — our willing, consenting, and imagining — if they cannot reverse our course?

LARB Contributor

Susan Stewart’s most recent books are Red Rover, a book of poems, and The Poet’s Freedom: A Notebook on Making, forthcoming in December from the University of Chicago Press. She is the Avalon Foundation University Professor in the Humanities at Princeton.


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