Michel Serres

A unified theory of mental pollution.

Photo from karavanepapou.blogspot.com

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Michel Serres, an eccentric French philosopher, has written the first truly philosophical work of the mental environmentalist movement, a radical re-conception of pollution that hones the Adbusters critique. The big idea of his book, Malfeasance: Appropriation Through Pollution?, is that animals, humans included, use pollution to mark, claim, and appropriate territory through defiling it and that over time this appropriative act has evolved away from primitive pollution, urine and feces, to "hard pollution", industrial chemicals, and "soft pollution", the many forms of advertising.

"Let us define two things and clearly distinguish them from one another," Michel Serres writes, "first the hard [pollutants], and second the soft. By the first I mean on the one hand solid residues, liquid gases, emitted throughout the atmosphere by big industrial companies or gigantic garbage dumps, the shameful signature of big cities. By the second, tsunamis of writings, signs, images, and logos flooding rural, civic, public and natural spaces as well as landscapes with their advertising. Even though different in terms of energy, garbage and marks nevertheless result from the same soiling gesture, from the same intention to appropriate, and are of animal origin."

The importance of Michel Serres' contribution to mental environmentalism is that he is the first to philosophically ground mental environmentalism upon a unified theory of pollution that explains how advertisements are an extension of toxic sludge. Until now, the mental environmentalist argument has been that just as polluted rivers are a necessary byproduct of creating paper so too are polluted mindscapes a byproduct of creating consumers. While this argument is still true, and Serres makes a similar point in his book, Serres has managed to do something even more profound: he has shown why one cannot be an environmentalist without also being a mental environmentalist. In closing the gap between physical and mental toxins, Serres has closed the gap between physical and mental ecology.

"The captain who unloads waste in the high seas has never seen, or rather has never let, the countless smiles of the gods emerge; that would be too demanding, or even creative. Shitting on the world, has he ever seen its beauty before? Did he ever see his own beauty? And so, he who dirties space with billboards full of sentences and images hides the view of the surrounding landscape, kills perception, and skewers it by this theft. First the landscape then the world."

Beyond simply being a philosophical treatise, Malfeasance is a passionate rallying cry. Suddenly aware that the earth is being claimed by the soft pollution of corporations, Serres does not hide his anger. And that is the final way in which his book is a mental environmentalist work, it does not argue for acquiescence but yells for dramatic social revolution.

"It makes me suffer so much that I need to say it over and over again and proclaim it everywhere; 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? Companies fill the space now with their hideous brands, waging the same frenzied battle as the jungle species in order to appropriate the public space and attention with images and words, like animals with their screams and piss. Excluded from those outskirts, I no longer live there; they are haunted by the powerful who shit on them and occupy them with their ugliness. Old Europe, what ignorant ruling class is killing you?"

Micah White