Monday, September 16, 2013

Michel Serres' The Quasi-Object: Hunt-the-slipper

Today in class, we spent a lot of time trying to figure out what whether or not the quasi-object is a "hybrid," which would help us understand quasi-objects. For his part, although he cites Serres, does not do a great job explaining the quasi-object. In We Have Never Been Modern, he writes,
"Of quasi-objects, quasi-subjects, we shall simply say that they trace networks. They are real, quite real, and we humans have not made them. But they are collective because they attach us to one another, because they circulate in our hands and define our social bond by this very circulation" (Latour 89, italics mine)
I tried to emphasize that the main feature of quasi-objects was its circulation through a very loose reference to Serres' introduction of the concept in his astounding book, The ParasiteBook in hand and the internet as my further resource, I am now prepared to explain my reference with the hope that the concept may be further expanded in a meaningful way.
In the above we see a depiction of a children's parlor game, "hunt-the-slipper." Hunt-the-slipper serves as a relay for Serres for describing quasi-objects.
I found a great summary of "hunt-the-slipper" in the form of a nursery rhyme
ALL the players but one - are called cobblers,
and sit on the floor in a circle a few inches apart.
Then the customer comes and says:
"Cobbler, cobbler; mend my shoe.
Get it done by half-past two."
She hands one of the cobblers an old slipper, and turns away.
When she has counted up to ten she comes back,
but is told the slipper is not ready.
"I must have it," says the customer.
"Then you must find it," all the cobblers reply.
At that the search begins.
Each cobbler passes the slipper to their neighbour
hiding it from sight as much as possible;
but should the seeker spy it and call out the name
of the cobbler who has got it.
That cobbler must take her place, and brings it to be mended again.
The slipper must not stop in one place, but must keep passing round the circle, one way or the other.

The slipper functions here as the "quasi-object."  Serres writes,
"This quasi-object, when being passed, makes the collective, if it stops, it makes the individual. If he is discovered, he is 'it' [mort]. who is the subject, who is an 'I' or who am I? The moving furet weaves the 'we', the collective; if it stops, it marks the 'I'" (225).
The key point about this understanding of the quasi object is, for Serres, that the object "isn't played alone" (225). If not mistaken, this is what Scott was trying to get at when he said that we cannot just describe the object "as such" "in itself."  This is also, by the way, why Serres says we haven't "made" the quasi-object. "We" haven't made the quasi-object because the quasi-object makes us (even if, empirically, we made the object we call 'ball' in English). This will be explained better in a moment.
Serres argues that a ball "over there, on the ground" is nothing, stupid, no meaning, no function, and no values (225). The bodies that "play" it are "for" the ball and Serres argues that in the case of playing with balls (like basketball, for instance), "playing" amounts to "making oneself the attribute of the ball as substance" (226). While Andrew may disagree with this rather ontic and analogic way of thinking of play (restricting play to "game," as he put it to Kyle, rather than in Battaile's more radical sense), this image will help us in understanding how the quasi-object forms the "collective" for Serres and, as Serres' student, probably Latour.
Today "we" as a class made a big deal out of who the "we" was. While Latour doesn't address this problem directly, Serres does:
"The "we" is not a sum of the "I's" but a novelty produced by legacies, concessions, withdrawls, resignations of the "I."  The "we" is less a set of "I's" than the est of the sets of its transmissions. It appears brutally in drunkenness and ecstasy, both annihilations of the principle of individuation. This ecstasy is easily produced by the quasi-object whose body is slave or object [. . .] The quasi-object is found to have this decentering. From then on, he who holds the quasi-object has the center and governs ecstasy. The speed of passing accelerates him and causes him to exist [. . .] Participation is the passing of the "I" by passing. It is the abandon of my individuality or my being in a quasi-object that is there only to be circulated it. It is rigorously the transubstantiation of being into relation. Being is abolished for the relation."
Ignoring for a second the Catholic rhetoric in the last sentence (we could critique the hell out of Serres and many other radical contemporary thinkers for the rhetoric they borrow from religion: Virilio immediately comes to mind), one pole of Serres discussion of the quasi-object explains how the 'I' is individuated from the 'we': by being "it," by stopping the circulation. This might fail as analogy, but lets think of language or words as quasi-objects. They circulate all over the place; indeed, the English language (and Language) in general binds human beings as a collective. But my composition I am working on right here right now is tending toward an "I," tending toward individuation even as I recognize the infinite iterability of every statement I make.
On the other hand, we have Serres explanation of how the collective is 'formed' (but NOT from already constituted individual "I's." Instead, the 'we' is formed by the speed of the circulation of the quasi-object such that it becomes a relation (a "social bond" as Latour puts it).
While I'm sure this post has at once complicated the idea of the quasi-object, I hope it also has helped in contextualizing Latour's use of Serres' concept. Serres' text has to be one of the most rich texts I have ever read because he draws such potent theoretical insights from something as simple as a French Fable (parasite as concept is drawn from a fable of La Fontaigne's).
What I like about Serres as opposed to Latour is even thought he refers to the discourses of science, it serves as an imaginative relay. Hayles has written an article explicitly critiquing Serres loose us of science, but I'm not sure this is always a flaw (although this is different from a former position I have held). Furthermore, whereas the tone of Latour is very confident in his project of "unveiling" (and yet not a kind of "unmasking" of a modern's 'false consciousness' of its condition; it is indeed interesting that he uses the very Heideggerian flavored 'unveiling' to discuss his method--but this is a side concern), Serres is less convinced that he has unveiled something and is self-reflexive in a, one might say, "postmodern" way. Before giving us the "Theory of the Quasi-Object," Serres reflects on the previous pages and asks the right questions:
"The problem with the preceding meditations is that they do not say distinctly enough whether they are a philosophy of being or of relation. Being or relating, that is the whole question. It is undoubtedly not an exclusive one. I still shall not decide whether the parasite is relational or real, whether it is an operator or a monad" (Serres 224).
Its Serres' commitment (paradoxically) to the space of indecision that sets him apart, I think, from Latour. Furthermore, it sets us apart from Serres, as we were trying to de-cide whether Haraway and/or Latour was engaged in an "epistemological" or "ontological" project: luckily we left this question open. This question (and distinction) will come back to haunt our discourse, however, when we get to Bryant and Harman, who argue that the mistake of "correlationism" comes down to adhering to Kantian epistemological model (at least epistemology is formed in the first two critiques -- thank you Scott for pointing this out). We mistake epistmological questions for ontological ones.
Being and relation, objects inside of objects, the circulation of quasi-objects: these lay out some of the key questions of object-oriented thought and, frankly, primary questions of philosophy.

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