Michel Serres and Coenaesthesia

I know that I’m not an intellectual in the true sense of the word.  I like to dance way too much and I read way too slowly.  This means that more often than I’d like, but then this is a lie, I discover someone whose works/writings are amazing and I am ashamed that I was theretofore unaware of it.  Michel Serres is one of these writer/persons.  The lie I mentioned above is that I actually live (in an academic sense anyway) for such discoveries.  I remember not so many years ago having a similar experience related to Jean Baudrillard.  Why is it always French philosophers?  I don’t even read French, although I did finally achieve the high pass in French reading that was required for my PhD at Chicago.

Okay, more to the point here.  I recently discovered the existence of Michel Serres book “The Five Senses” (1985, 2009) with the amazing subtitle “a philosophy of mingled bodies.”  Clearly a must-read given my interest in the senses and my regular teaching of courses on the senses.   It arrived yesterday and today I simultaneously devoured the intro and saag chicken at Kathmandu Restaurant in Nederland (talk about a wonderful discovery of a strangely out of place place) and now I am enthralled with the opening pages of the book itself.  I had to stop however when I read the following paragraphs.

Who was this ‘I’?

It is something everyone knows, unemotionally and as a matter of fact.  You only have to pass through a small opening, a blocked corridor, to swing over a handrail or on a balcony high enough to provoke vertigo, for the body to become alert.  [Serres is referring to a personal anecdote of being trapped in a porthole of a burning ship.] The body knows by itself how to say I.  It knows what extent I am on this side of the bar, and when I am outside.  It judges deviations from normal balance, immediately regulates them and knows just how far to go, or not go. Cœnesthesia says I by itself.  It knows that I am inside, it knows when I am freeing myself.  This internal sense proclaims, calls, announces, sometimes howls that I like a wounded animal.  This common sense apportions the body better than anything else in the whole world. (p. 19)

Coenaesthesia … common sense … amazing.

Sam Gill – August 27, 2010

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