In Hermès V, Michel Serres speaks of the Northwest Passage, the sea route through the Canadian Arctic Archipelago.1 It is a place where the earth, sky, and water alternately melt and freeze together. As the seasons turn, the passage appears and disappears again; the archipelago breathes. This means that when we want to navigate the archipelago, we cannot follow the same path as we did the year before; we must find our way anew. Keeping in mind the dangers that the drifting icebergs pose, one quickly realises we cannot know and map our path completely in advance, nor can we rely on mere accident and contingency, and gamble our way through.
Our path is a possibility among others. As the French philosopher Henri Bergson has shown, the possible is not cast into the past as a reflection of what exists.2 Instead, it looks toward the future. Possibility is not less than what is real; it is not a possibility lacking existence, but more than what is real, a virtuality to actualise and compose with and that is never exhausted or completed. In this way, we can speak of new paths through the archipelago, of possibilities that do not yet lie in wait for us to be revealed, like a secret behind a curtain or a key underneath a rock, but that must be actualised or constructed. The path through the archipelago is only a path, our version of it.
Possibility, understood as virtuality takes us to a world that is always in the making, to the world-as-archipelago. This is a world in which knowledge and reason do not rule; we cannot know our path in advance. Resisting mere randomness, we shift from a model of knowledge to a model of belief. Belief is knowledge in the making, a cultivation of trust to the point that we are willing to act on it. Possibility cannot be faced with dogmatism, scepticism, or mere critique; it invites us to build trust in this world and in our collaborators.
Trust itself, of course, remains vulnerable and in the making; things will never be ‘100% trustworthy’. The only certainty that possibility brings is that another way is possible. Success or failure is not guaranteed. One can build trust and gain confidence, but not to the point of believing everything will work out fine. In this sense, possibility brings relativity to the table. It is the insight that our path through the archipelago is one possible path among many others. Failure and success, to paraphrase Ye, ‘got dirt on each other like mud wrestlers.
The point is not that the success of one possible path goes hand in hand with the failure of another but that the success of one path goes hand in hand with the failure of that same path. This provides a hint as to how we are to assess it: it does not suffice to proclaim ‘it worked!’ or ‘it works!’ as this is already too much of a fait accompli and too little of a path in the making. Will it work? Is it working? These are expressions that display hesitation and take us away from our steering wheels, out of the control rooms where we safely kept our distance from the arctic breeze, beckoning us to get closer to things, getting in touch with them, touching them and getting our hands dirty. It will not only take our minds but our bodies and all that we have to sense and respond to the fluctuations of the archipelago. The rigour of our path is perhaps best understood as elasticity —a rigorous concept without that stiff upper lip that intertwines all things plastic and malleable with resilience and immunology. It is not enough to merely state the possibility of other possibilities. One must compose with them, actualise and construct them, talking the walk and spurring the becoming of their continuity.
- Michel Serres, Hermès V. Les Éditions de Minuit, 1980[↩]
- Henri Bergson, ‘The Possible and the Real’. In: The Creative Mind. Translated by Mabelle L. Andison. New York (The Philosophical Library) 1946. p116, 121) [↩]