Of Thumbs and Heads: A Comment on Michel Serres’ “Petite Poucette”

Michel Serres’ Petite Poucette, is a strange little book. Written as a “love letter to the networked generation,” it celebrates the digital savviness of his grand children and their peers. Petit Poucette is the fairly tale character known in the English speaking world as little Tom Thumb. The title is thus a pun on the agility with which the fingers of our digi-kids dash over the touch screens of their mobile devices. And while Serres embraces quite wholeheartedly the liberating potential of digital technology, he writes with great disdain about the current state of our media system and its effects on the younger generation. “We, the grown-ups,” Serres writes in the opening pages, “have turned our society of the spectacle into a pedagogical society whose omnipotent, miserable rivalry increasingly pushes schools and universities aside.” The trope “society of the spectacle” of course is a standard French reference to the ‘classical’ media system (the situationist Guy Debord coined it). Serres thus bemoans both the seductive power of the attention-devouring media spectacle and the incapability of the institutions of (higher) education to effectively struggle against their factual deterioration and loss of social significance. The problem is, says Serres, that they seem stuck in the past; unable and unwilling to cater to the needs of the Petites Poucettes.

For Serres, Petite Poucette doesn’t just stand for a new generation but represents a new kind of human being. While the exact circumstances of her coming into being remain in the dark, whatever gave birth to her had something to do with digital technology. To illustrate what is going on, Serres refers to Jacques de Voragine’s medieval besteller Légende dorée, that includes the story of St. Dionysios, the first bishop of Paris who was captured by the Roman army and sentenced to death by beheading on top of what was later to be called Montmartre. Half way to the top, the lazy soldiers decide to avoid the strenuous ascend and cut off his head on the spot. The bishop’s head drops to the ground. Miraculously, though, the decapitated Dionysius raises, grabs his head, and continues his ascent head in hands. The soldier flee in shock and horror.

The point Serre is trying to make here is that today, Petite Poucette is holding her head in her hands as well. She is decapitated in the sense of having her intellectual, cognitive capabilities externalized into devices whose memory is thousands of times more powerful than ours. Which leads Serres to the question:

“What then is it that we keep on carrying on our shoulders after being decapitated? Renewed and living intuition. Being ‘canned’ [in the computer, SO], pedagogy releases us to the pure pleasure of invention. Great: Are we damned to become intelligent?”

And here is where Serres sees the main problem with our institution of (higher) education: in being unable or unwilling to adjust to this new empty-headed yet agile-thumped generation that doesn’t need knowledge as stock any more (as it always has it at hand anyway) but knowledge as process that feeds intuition, invention innovation.

While the reader begins to wonder if he hasn’t accidentally picked up a particularly embarrassing publication by a French “social innovator and frequent TEDx-speaker” who happens to share the name of one of France’s most eminent philosophers, Serres begins to share his ideas on what could be done to turn the university into a place that would be more accommodating to the evolutionary advances of Tom Thumb and Petite Poucette. Here comes another historical analogy, again a Parisian one yet this time closer to the present. It concerns Boucicaut, founder of one of the world’s first department stores, Le Bon Marché. Emile Zola made Boucicaut the template for Octave Mouret, the hero of his novel Au Bonheur des Dames. At one point in the novel, Mouret, following a whim, abandons the well-ordered, classified structure of his department store, turning it into a labyrinth where the shopping-crazed dames find the latest silk-fashion (mid-19th century we are talking about) next to fresh vegetables. The resulting chaos leads to instant commercial success as sales go through the roof.

For Serres, this provides a great metaphor for what has to happen at universities. They can learn, as he puts it, from “Boucicault’s principle of serendipity,” i.e., the principle of the unsought finding. The university needs a reform that mobilizes the disparate against classification. “The disparate,” as the author puts it, “has advantages that reason cannot even dream of.” And he has got a point here. As Robert Merton and more recently Pek van Andel have beautifully shown, serendipity is indeed a pattern that underlies much of logic of scientific discovery and invention. And it is also true that our institutions of higher eduction are rapidly loosing their influence, particularly when it comes to the analysis of contemporary culture, politics, technology and so on. The success with which the spectacle of TED, futurology and trend watching has captured our social imagination is testimony to the weakness of academic rigour in the face of pseudo-intellectual infotainment.

Yet, one wonders if Serres’ reference to Boucicaut and Au Bonheur des Dames provides the apposite metaphor for the necessary reorganization of contemporary academia. Do we really want more of the university-as-shopping-mall than we already have? It is a bit strange that Serres uses Au Bonheur des Dames in this particular way as the guiding metaphor for his attempt to rethink the university. There is indeed, in Zola’s novel, a lesson for our times but it is one that is quite different from what Serres makes of it. By focussing on the serendipity anecdote, what seems to have escaped the philosopher is that Zola’s book in its entirety can be read as a commentary on the question of how to engage with emerging cultural and commercial infrastructures such as today’s internet/digital technology.

Zola’s Au Bonheur des Dames  is above all the story of Denise Baudu, a young country girl who comes to Paris with her younger brothers and ends up working as a saleswoman at the department store that lends the novel its title. Her uncle is the owner of a fashion shop across the road from Au Bonheur that, like many other traditional businesses of its kind, is dying thanks to the rapid success and expansion of the great new department store. Thus, Denise’s life in Paris unfolds, as it were, at the interface of the old and the new commercial infrastructure. As a saleswoman, she suffers the hardship of a super exploited employee but also looks at what is happening in the world of commerce with great interest and analytical appreciation. She has an unusual understanding of the contemporary processes of socio-economic change, yet she doesn’t allow herself to be overwhelmed and captured by them.

The integrity she displays amid this great transformation is also metaphorically played out in the love story that unfolds between her and Mouret, the owner of Au Bonheur. Mouret plays the role of the great seducer, not only with regard to the masses of (mostly) female clients his store attracts but also in private life. He is the smooth operator who seduces his victims for the sake of his business as well as his pleasure. He is, in a way, the bodily extension of Au Bonheur des Dames, his great machine of seduction. Denise falls in love with him yet resists his advances until the very end when he has to concede that the only way to “get her” is in fact to take her as his wife. There is a romantic moralism to Zola’s story but this is not what interests me presently. The lesson, I think, that can be taken from the story of Denise is that even if one is immersed in a new and overwhelming techno-cultural infrastructure, one does not always need to submit to the logic of the new ‘machine’. The reason why Denise survives and eventually even thrives in the rapidly changing environment of 1860s Paris, is that she doesn’t allow herself to be seduced by the new cultural and economic techniques and technologies. Again, it isn’t that she doesn’t want to keep up with the times or that she rejects novelty; rather, she looks for modes of engagement that allow here to meet the emerging machine of seduction on her own terms. Sure, the is little leeway for someone like her but whenever there is, she recognizes it and makes the effort.

And this is, I believe, where the challenge lies for our contemporary educational institutions. Rather than mystifying the technological advances of “the internet” and expect the generation of “digital natives” to somehow come to grips with its challenges, we need modes of eduction that enable young minds to not only performatively but also critically engage with today’s rapid technological progress. Technological savviness certainly is a necessary precondition but by no means the end of it. Our schools and universities need to become institutions where critical analytical capabilities for the digital age are cultivated. Michel Serres’ intervention is unhelpful in this respect. In fact, with his mixture of euphoria for and ignorance of current technological developments he would fit well with those academic management bodies that helplessly embrace every digital fashion for the sake of appearing modern. This, however, is not what Petite Poucette and Tom Thumb need in order to negotiate the contemporary world as independent minds. No one is simply “damned to become intelligent.” We cannot let ourselves off the hook so easily.

Perhaps, Serres is right about our kids holding their heads in their hands. Good education, then, means to help  students to put their heads back onto their shoulders.