Reading Rant: "Malfeasance: Appropriation Through Pollution?"

Michel Serres

French philosopher Michel Serres’ “Malfeasance: Appropriation Through Pollution?” has quite an interesting take on pollution in that he expands our common notion of pollution (that is, chemicals and other substances that unleash their toxins on air, water or land) to include mental pollution which he believes is a byproduct of our hyper-consumerist culture & equally as destructive. Michel explains:

Let us define two things and clearly distinguish them from one another…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.”

In his mind, they both come the same source: our wanton disregard of Nature & her beauty:

“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.”

Of course, the biggest polluters in the world (not including the Pentagon) are oil, chemical and power companies, & as Michel seems to suggest, these entities 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), to “soft pollution” (the many forms of advertising). How interesting this notion as National Geographic (March 2011) issue argued that we are now in a  geological era  termed the Anthropocene, or the Age of Man & it is marked by our catastrophic impact on the Earth.

Michel’s sense of dread & urgency pulsates & his plea is nothing short of a social/spiritual call to arms:

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….what ignorant ruling class is killing you?”

Michel seems like a lone voice crying in the wilderness….Does it really have to take a monumental disaster for us to change course? 



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