Like a Complete Unknown: On Michel Serres’ Reading of the “Third,” “Nohbdy” and Rebirth


It goes without saying that dialogue is a symbol of progress and understanding in the West.   Whether it is the Martin Buber or Emmanuel Levinas, the principle players in the discourse are “I” and “you” (or “me” and the “other”). For Buber, the task is not to turn the other into an “it.”   In the spirit of Immanuel Kant, Buber sees the highest achievement for humanity – and perhaps the gateway for what Kant would call “perpetual peace” – to be the treatment of the other as an “end in itself.”   While this is an understandably noble act, what we may overlook is that the world that Enlightenment thinkers like Kant or existential thinkers like Buber reflect on is occupied by only a few positions that are of interest: I, you, we, and us. The impersonal (the “it”) is excluded because it is not…personal. “It” falls outside the realm of rational discourse and humanity because it is seen as an obstacle or incidental.   To put it bluntly, while you, I, or us are large and shape the world, the “it” is small and inconsequential.   But, on the contrary, what may be regarded as an “it” with little to no value may in fact have more of a role than “we” think.

Michel Serres, in The Troubadour of Knowledge, calls the impersonal “the third.”     And he argues that it is excluded from discourse. The third comes in…last place:

In the course of dialogue, he or she, that or they, outsiders, designate the exclusion or the exterior of the closed group of our conversation, the state of not belonging to our communication, therefore a third place. (46)

However, the last may go from the excluded to becoming a being that encompasses discourse. The third is a part of what he calls the transformation. The third can be a breakthrough. It can become the “milieu of everything” and can disturb and overtake our discourse:

Nothing can become everything, which can drown in nothingness. The third person, excluded, badly placed on the edge of mid-place, rarely bears the name of the person, because he borrows his own name from a demonstrative, but can become the milieu of everything, and, in particular, of us – we who are given over to language, that objective and inter-subjective milieu in which our tongues have always been immersed. (46)

Through the third’s transformation, Serres says we can understand the relation of “nothing to everything” as well as the “secret of begetting” and the “becoming of time.”

Serres uses several actual and literary examples to show how the third – neither you, nor me, nor us – transforms from nothing to everything.   Serres brings up Snow White who “encounters old dwarfs” in the forest. He notes how the dwarf is a transitional character. Dwarves are “old, but children in size, a quasi equality (between Snow White the Dwarves)…permits her to remain protected while becoming a protector, still a child, already mature; mother quickly, and child still. She will thus be reborn, from herself, from them, from the forest, in her self and otherwise, a daughter who is mother of herself”(49). Serres suggests that in this juxtaposition of small and big, old and young, there is a gateway for the third to move from nothing to something.

But this is no mere fairy tale.   Serres moves from Snow White to the slave who experiences pain and nothingness: “Other and experiencing alterity painfully, the slave is familiar with the exterior.” Like a slave, the person who transforms from small to big feels the pain of the impersonal. It is, for Serres, a prerequisite to what he calls “instruction” and knowledge:

Thus the world enters the body and the soul of the greenhorn: impersonal time and also the strangeness of the excluded, iste, the derided slave, and soon that of the master, ille, still far away, at the end of the voyage. Before arriving, he is no longer the same, reborn. The first person becomes the third person before entering the school door. (49)

In school we learn of universals, but science doesn’t understand suffering, otherness, and evil like literature does (hence, literature and the pain it takes note of and reflects on, as well as the movement from nothing to everything is, for Serres, a prerequisite). While science speaks to the truth of the global, literature speaks to the pain of the local:

Literature has cried misery and suffering since its birth. Science has not yet learned the language of this sob. In this tragic place begins the reason of the third-instructed.   Suffering and misfortune, pain injustice, and hunger are found at the point where the global touches the local, the universal the singular, power weakness, knowledge blindness. (70)

A great example of how becoming nothing can become a transitional point can be found in Homer’s Odyssey. While Theodor Adrono sees Odysseus (the main character of Homer’s Odyssey) as the example of the cunning mind that elevates reason and the will to power over mythology, Serres sees Odysseus as challenging the power of speech and reason by becoming “Nohbdy” (the spelling marks his exclusion).   This marks a moment in the text when Odysseus has to confront Polyphemous, the Cyclops.

Odysseus – at the point in the narrative – has lost nearly all of his power. Serres contrasts this to the all-powerful Cyclops whose “eye” is like a “laser beam” – it sees more and better (seeing = power):

Who will cauterize this implacable light?…A man named Nohbdy. A man who has wandered for such a long time, by sea and outside islands, that he has lost everything, that is vessels and his sandals, his tunic, his plans, even his own name still forsake him today. He is no longer counted. (66)

In contrast to him is Polyphemous, “that means: the one who speaks a lot, the one of whom one often speaks a lot….He counts a lot. All of his glory emanates from his eye”(66).   Serres calls Polyphemous an “encyclopediest” who has “a one hundred thousand striking or rigorous words at his disposal.”

When Odysseus manages to “cauterize the giant gaze, in the center, with his pointed sword, he blinds himself”(67). Serres, in other words, sees this act as an act of self-abasement and becoming invisible (becoming nothing and “nohbdy”):

He effaces Polyphemous, his own pen name, his beautiful, renowned last name, not in order to adopt a new moniker, but to renounce all: here he is, invisible, Nohbdy. He leaves the glory and the power….and flees from the den in the belly of a wooly ram, not taken, not seen. Nobody sees him reborn from the black hole of the grotto, by means of an invisible and animal birth. (67)

In other words, Nohbdy is “reborn” (nohbdy becomes an “author”) by way of becoming other, becoming animal.   The nothing –the third – becomes the milieu through which communication and reflection is possible.     This is what goes on before Odysseus returns home or before he crosses the threshold and enters the school.   Serres suggests, here, how literature can take us through the paradox of nothing becoming something. But ultimately, this process is not tragic. Rebirth is comic. The movement from nothing to something is a movement through pain. It tells us the story of how one goes from a complete unknown, to becoming, as Bob Dylan would say, a “rolling stone.”



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s