from the forthcoming book, Warsaw Surfaces: Transpositions, Objects, Shadows.
‘I was inside. I was outside. Who was this “I”’? asks Michelle Serres in The Five Senses describing most vividly the trauma of spatial experience that has profoundly affected his thinking. Remembering his being caught between two elements, the fire and the water, on a burning ship on high seas, he pins down the location of ‘self’ in the corporeal moment of realization, the situation of being in-between. That profound experience has also shaped his thinking about thinking, about bodily knowing: ‘The thinking “I”’ – he notes further in the book – ‘quivers along the spine, I think everywhere.’ And he continues this reflection on embodied, sensible thinking that is contingent on his position in relation to objects present around him: ‘Knowing things requires one first of all to place oneself between them. Not only in front to see them, but in the midst of their mixture, on the paths that unite them.’ This knowing demands not merely a con-frontation, but an intimate, close contact with the surface of things, surface on surface, ‘skin on skin’ – a kind of immersive enquiry that is ‘situated between’. In this enquiry, ‘the skin is the place where exchanges are made, [where] the body traces the knotted, bound, folded, complex path, between the things to be known.’
The skin is neither abstracted nor stable, it is a fixed entity, Serres contends in his philosophy of mingled bodies. It is alert, perceptive in ‘a variety of contingency: in it, through it, with it, the world and my body touch each other, the feeling and the felt, it defines the common edge. …Contingency means common tangency: in it the world and the body interact and caress each other.’ This contingent situation of enquiry in the midst of which I am positioned is not a homogeneous medium but a mixture, where things, bodies and thoughts ‘mingle with each other’ and where ‘I mix with the world which mixes with me.’ And it is the skin that ‘intervenes between several things in the world and makes them mingle.’ Mixture is a coming together, unfolding. It is a condition of ‘occupation of place’ where ‘everything meets in contingency, as if everything had a skin.’ This common tangency reveals positions and proximities, adjacencies and a multiplicity of types and forms of our enquiring mingled bodies. And in this revealing, or unveiling as Serres calls it, thinking surfaces.
‘I was inside. I was outside. Who was this “I”’?
M. Serres’ words from The Five Senses, pp. 19, 76, 80, 83.
THE UNIVERSITY of EDINBURGH Edinburgh College of Art
THE UNIVERSITY of EDINBURGH MORAY HOUSE SCHOOL of EDUCATION