Philosopher and science historian Michel Serres calls for indulgence for young people, forced to reinvent everything in a society overturned by new technologies. Interview with Pascale Nivelle de Libération, following his magnificent speech at the Académie Française a year ago.
Michel Serresa graduate of the Ecole Navale and Ecole Normale Sup, visited the world before explaining it to generations of students. A science historian and philosophy graduate, a former companion of Michel Foucault, with whom he created the Experimental University Centre of Vincennes in 1968, he followed René Girard in the United States, where he is still teaching, at over 80 years of age.
This adventurous teacher, an academic like no other, scrutinizes the transformations of the world and of mankind with his benevolent blue eye. His subject of predilection: the young generation, which is growing up in a world in turmoil, prey to changes comparable to those of the end of Antiquity. The planet is changing, they are changing too, they have everything to reinvent. "Let's be indulgent with them, they're mutants," implored Michel Serres, who is also severe on his generation and the next, who will leave Western societies in the lurch. Interview.
You announce that a "new human" has been born. Who is he?
I call him Little Thumb, for his ability to text with his thumb. It's the schoolboy, the student of today, who is living through a tsunami as the world is changing around them. We are currently experiencing a period of immense change, comparable to the end of the Roman Empire or the Renaissance.
Our Western societies have already experienced two great revolutions: the transition from oral to written, and then from written to printed. The third is the equally major shift from print to new technologies. Each of these revolutions has been accompanied by political and social changes: during the transition from the oral to the written word, for example, pedagogy was invented. These are also periods of crisis, such as the one we are experiencing today. Finance, politics, schools, the Church... Name one area that is not in crisis! There isn't one. And it all rests on Little Thumb's head, because the institutions, completely outdated, no longer follow. She has to adapt at full speed, much faster than her parents and grandparents. It's a metamorphosis!
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This mutation, when did it start?
For me, the great turning point was in the years 1965-1975, with the peasant break, when nature, our mother, became our daughter. In 1900, 70% of the French population worked the land, today they are only 1%. The living space has changed, and with it the "being in the world", that German philosophers like Heidegger ...thought they were immutable. The countryside, a place of hard work, has become a place of holiday. Petite Poucette knows only the Arcadian nature, it is for her a land of leisure and tourism that she has to take care of. The future of the planet, the environment, global warming... everything is being shaken up, threatened.
Let's take the example of language, which always reveals culture: not so long ago, a candidate for theTeacher Training College was asked about a 19th century text that spoke of harvesting and ploughing. The unfortunate man did not know the whole vocabulary! We couldn't punish him, he was a Little Thumb who only knew the town. But that's not why he wasn't as good as the previous generations. We had to ask ourselves what knowledge and transmission was.
This is the big question for parents and teachers: what to pass on between generations?
Already, Thumbelina and Tiny Thumb no longer speak my language. Theirs is richer, I can see it at the Académie française where, since Richelieu, the dictionary of the French language is published about every forty years. In the previous century, the difference between two editions was 4,000 or 5,000 words. The difference between the most recent and the next will be about 30,000 words. At this rate, our successors will very quickly be as far away from us as we are from Old French!
This applies to all areas. In the previous generation, a science teacher at the Sorbonne passed on almost 70% of what he had learned on the same benches twenty or thirty years earlier. Pupils and teachers lived in the same world. Today, 80% of what this teacher learned is obsolete. And even for the remaining 20%, the teacher is no longer indispensable, because one can know everything without leaving home! For my part, I find this miraculous. When I have a Latin verse in my head, I type a few words and everything happens: the poem, the Aeneid, Book IV... Imagine how long it would take to find all this in books! I no longer set foot in a library.
The university is going through a terrible crisis because knowledge, accessible everywhere and immediately, no longer has the same status. And so the relationship between students and teachers has changed. But personally, this does not worry me. Because I have come to understand over time, in forty years of teaching, that you don't pass on something, you pass on yourself. This is the only advice I can give to my successors and even to parents: be yourselves! But it is not easy to be yourself.
You're saying that institutions are outdated?
Remember Domenech who failed miserably to coach the French team for the World Cup. Don't blame him. There is no longer a teacher, no longer a party leader, no longer a pope who knows how to make a team! Domenech is ahead of his time! Deep reforms are needed in all the institutions, but the problem is that those who are diligent in carrying them out are still dragging their feet in the transition, trained by models who have long since vanished.
An example: the Great Library was built at the same time as the Internet was being invented! These great towers on the Seine remind me of the observatory built by the maharajahs near Delhi, when Galileo, at exactly the same time, was developing the telescope. Today, there are only monkeys in the Indian observatory. One day there will be only monkeys in the Great Library.
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As for politics, it's a big mess: there are no more parties, only machines to get presidents elected, and even more ideals. In the 19th century, 1,000 political systems were invented, from Marxists to utopians. And then nothing, it's weird, isn't it? It's true that these systems caused 150 million deaths, between communism, the Shoah and the atomic bomb, something that Petite Poucette won't know, and good for her. I deeply believe that the world today, for us Westerners, is a better place. But politics, as we can see, no longer offers any answers, it is closed for inventory. Having said that, I don't have any answers either. If I had them, I would be a great philosopher.
The only way to deal with the consequences of all these changes is to suspend judgment. The idealists see progress, the grunts see disaster. For me, it is neither good nor bad, neither progress nor catastrophe, it is reality and we have to deal with it. But we adults are responsible for the new being I am talking about, and if I had to do so, the portrait I would draw of adults would not be flattering. Petite Poucette, you have to be very kind to her, because she is entering the era of the individual, alone in the world. For me, loneliness is the photography of the modern, yet overpopulated world.
Have cultural affiliations not become more important?
For centuries, we have lived off our belongings, and this has led to many disasters. We were Gascons or Picards, Catholics or Jews, rich or poor, men or women. We belonged to a parish, a country, a gender... In France, all these groups have exploded, even if we see the emergence of neighbourhood groups, communities around sport. But that does not constitute people. I'm a rugby fan and I love my club in Agen, but it's still folklore, an opportunity to have a good drink with real friends... As for fundamentalisms, whether religious or nationalist, I think of them as dinosaurs. Ma Petite Poucette has Muslim, South American and Chinese friends, she meets them in class and on Facebook, at home, all over the world. For how long will she still be made to sing "Let impure blood drink our furrows"?
How do you respond to those who are concerned about young people's development in the virtual world of new technologies?
In this respect, Petite Poucette has nothing to invent, the virtual is as old as the world! Ulysses and Don Quixote were virtual. Madame Bovary made love virtually, and perhaps much better than most of her contemporaries. New technologies have accelerated the virtual but have in no way created it. The real novelty is the universal access to people with Facebook, to places with GPS and Google Earth, to knowledge with Wikipedia. Realize that the planet, humanity and culture are within everyone's reach, what immense progress! We live in a new space... New Zealand is here, in my iPhone! I'm still dazzled by it!
What we do know for certain is that new technologies do not activate the same brain regions as books. It evolves in the same way that it revealed new abilities when we moved from the spoken to the written word. What were our neurons doing before the invention of writing? Cognitive and imaginative faculties are not stable in humans, and that's very interesting. At any rate, that's my answer to the old grumblers who accuse Little Thumb of having no memory and no synthetic mind. They judge with the cognitive faculties that are theirs, without admitting that the brain evolves physically.
Space, work, knowledge, culture have changed. And the body?
Petite Poucette will not be hungry, not thirsty, not cold, probably never hurt, nor even afraid of war in our latitudes. And she will live a hundred years. How can she be like her ancestors? My generation was trained for suffering. Judeo-Christian morality, which is wrongly called doloristic, simply prepared us to endure pain, which was inevitable and daily. It has been that way since Epicurus and the Stoics.
Do you know that Louis XIV, an unusual man, screamed in pain every day of his life? He suffered from an anal fistula, which was only operated on after thirty years. His surgeon trained over 100 peasants before... Today, it's a scalpel and eight days of antibiotics. I am the last client of my dentist who refuses anesthesia, he can't believe it! Not suffering any more, it's an extraordinary change.
Besides, we look much better today. When I was little, peasants were all toothless at 50! And why do you think our ancestors used to make love with their clothes on, in the dark? Morals, Puritanism? That's a laugh! They were simply horrible. Bodies covered with pustules, scars, pimples, it couldn't look good. The strawberry, that collar worn by the nobles, was used to hide the glands that burst because of the smallpox! Petite Poucette is pretty, she can get naked, and her boyfriend too. When we take a picture of her, she says "cheese", while her great-grandmothers used to whisper "petit pomme d'api" to hide their spoiled teeth.
These are telling anecdotes. For it was in the name of modesty, and therefore of religion and morals, that they were hiding. This is no longer the case. I also believe that the fact of being "chosen" when one is born, because of contraception, because of abortion, is capital in this new state of the body. We were born blindly and in pain, they are expected and surrounded by a thousand cares. This does not produce the same adults.
The new individual has a very long life ahead of him, it also changes the way of understanding existence...
A long life ahead and also behind him. The world's most cultivated man of previous generations, the uomo di cultura, had 10,000 years of culture, plus a little bit of prehistory. Petite Poucette is 15 billion years old, from the big bang to Homo sapiens, the Great Story is no longer the same! And we have entered the era of the anthropocene and hominescence, man having become the major actor of the climate, of the great cycles of nature. Did you know that the human community today produces as much waste as the Earth emits sediment through natural erosion. Isn't that staggering? I am surprised that today's philosophers, who are mainly concerned with current events and politics, are not interested in this global balance sheet. Yet this is the great challenge of the West, to adapt to the world it has created. A beautiful philosophical subject.