Introduction: Intuitions and Intersensoriality

The multiple. Water, the sea. Perceptional bursts, inner and outer, how can they be told apart?1

In ‘Science and the Humanities’,2 Michel Serres discusses the paintings of J.M.W. Turner as a meeting point between art and science. Produced between the late 18th and mid-19th centuries, during the height of Romanticism, Turner’s paintings position the viewer within the midst of things. As Serres contends: “(e)xploding with hot colors, the canvases of Turner seem to reproduce sensory impressions.”3 Conceptually and formally, Turner’s artworks convey the new world of steam-powered energy, captured through a blur of light, haze, colour, and heat. The impact of the Industrial Revolution as a new age, powered by steam, is visualised emphatically in works like the The Fighting Temeraire (1839), which depicts the veteran warship from the age of sail being tugged by steam engine, at sunset, to her final berth (to be broken up). For Serres, Turner was not only capturing change in the world around him – through subjectively stylised observations recorded on canvas – he was also objectively engaging with “matter itself and the things of the world.”4 In such works, where form and content merge, distinctions between objectivity and subjectivity start to dissolve. The diffuseness of Turner’s paintwork has an indistinct quality while (paradoxically) also being decisive in its capability to characterise the emergent power of steam; his canvases embody the heat, energy, and entropy of thermodynamics as an intuitive response to the material changes influencing industrial and social change. In Serres’s words: “(i)t’s as if the wisp where molecules quiver had taken the place of the solid crystal and its precise contours: the outline is lost, on the canvas, in favor of a fuzzy- edged cloud.”5

In, and through, creative practices – notably but not exclusively painting, poetry, and novels – Serres finds expressions of the multiplicities inherent in knowing and being that are integral to his philosophy. In fact, more than expression, Serres finds in selected examples of praxis the capacity to embody multiplicities, including paradoxes and ways of engaging with “what experience feels like, rather than just what is said about it.”6 Serres frequently draws upon visual (and other) metaphors and his approach to knowledge is inherently intersensorial. In The Five Senses: A Philosophy of Mingled Bodies,7 Serres embraces embodied knowledges and sensory crossmodality in an influential work from his prolific output.8 However, Serres’s philosophy is generally undervalued in areas such as film studies, and related disciplines within arts and humanities, despite his interest in multiplicities of knowledge and the way creative practices can embody and mediate such complexities.  

This article draws upon Serres’s philosophy to discuss Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel’s Leviathan (2012) as an ethnographic film that moves significantly beyond conventional cinema to prioritise feeling and sensibility over narrative clarity. Leviathan feels aligned with the notion of “observational sensibility”,9 developed by Anna Grimshaw and Amanda Ravetz, which refers to ethnographic engagement through film that comes “not from a place of theory but from the perspective of everyday life”.10 Leviathan extends and interlaces the contours of listening and visibility established within ethnographic film practice11 to convey a distinctly “pluralist ontology.”12 Serres’s philosophy, which ultimately strives towards syntheses of knowledge, advocates immersion within the material day-to-day relationships of the world, mediated through the dynamic interactions between bodies and environments. Serres’s process (as a philosopher) involves “journeying” across, and making connections between, metaphysically unchartered waters and terrains to reveal relationships between patterns of thought, knowledges, and ways of being over space and time. 

In his published conversations with Bruno Latour (whose work is influenced by Serres and who is thanked in the credits for Leviathan),13 Serres discusses his desire to navigate between knowledges in unpredictable, non-linear, ways, akin to the flight of a fly or the drunken wasp in Paul Verlaine’s sonnet,14 so that serendipitous and unexpected perspectives and insights can emerge. Ohad Landesman (without reference to Serres) expands the fly-on-the-wall metaphor of direct cinema, and the general conventions of statically framed camera shots, to recognise in Leviathan similarities with the mosaic perspective of a fly’s non-human vision, whereby images coalesce from a near 360-degree view of the world to formulate dynamic imagery in motion.15 This process of “deframing”16 – moving into the midst of things through a fluid, yet erratic, progression of divided images – enables Leviathan to offer “multiperspectiveness that is neither attuned to nor motivated by any logic of narrative comprehension […] there is no consistent drive or pursuit of a certain object or subject that justifies the abrupt camera movement, the distorted compositions, or the oblique camera angles.”17

One of the main aims of Serres’s philosophical process is originality in thought that might create, promote, and encourage knowledges of new or distinct ways of being: new sensibilities that develop, initially, from what Serres terms an “intuition,”18 meaning a sense of implicit knowing that is not purely or primarily a cognitive (consciously organised) process. Intuition, for Serres, is that which “generates the initial hypothesis that is to be tested, or the initial way of seeing the world that is to be explored.”19 It “need not be instantaneous,” although it can be, and it is “not something that can exhaustively be explained, because it explains everything else;” intuition is “in an important sense pre-rational, but it is not anti-rational or arbitrary;” it is “not exclusively intellectual” and is essentially corporeal.20 As Serres states: “(w)hatever activity you’re involved in, the body remains the medium of intuition, memory, knowing, working and above all invention.”21 Intuitions, for Serres, can potentially influence and change the world because they can alter how we think and live, with some intuitions – or the impact of those intuitions – moving from local to global levels of impact. Thomas Newcomen’s development of the atmospheric steam engine, for example, results from an intuition about heat as a form of energy.22 Turner’s paintings are shaped by an intuition about conveying sensory experience and social change through seascapes and landscapes during the steam age. Following this line of thought, Leviathan presents Castaing-Taylor and Paravel’s intuition, as anthropologists and filmmakers, that a documentary about commercial fishing can tell us something profound – and visceral – about 21st century relationships between humans, nature, the non-human, and the more-than-human. 

By discussing Leviathan through Serres’s philosophy, this article will focus upon the de-anthropocentric multiplicities of knowing and being mediated by the film. Leviathan was made by the Sensory Ethnography Lab (SEL) at Harvard and has been described as presenting “a compelling and aesthetically innovative sensorial portrait of an industrial fishing vessel at sea off the coast of New Bedford, Massachusetts.”23 Filmed aboard a “dragger” – the FV Athena (an eighty-foot trawler) – and using Go-Pros to capture footage shot mostly at night, Leviathan is ostensibly named with reference to New Bedford as the “whaling city” of New England that helped inspire Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851).24 The film deliberately avoids overt narratives and signposted meanings, presenting a “rich and strange”25 sensory experience through the “multiplicity of contradictions”26 it inherently conveys. Castaing-Taylor and Paravel downplay any cinephilic references or explicit interest in film genres, despite (and perhaps because of) critical responses to Leviathan citing “an extraordinary collision of genres”:27 a form of expanded cinema blurring documentary with something akin to a horror movie aesthetic. The filmmakers instead hint at the “multifaceted, uncategorisable”28 qualities of Moby Dick as an inspiration, further embracing multiplicity as integral to the film’s impact. As Paraval states: “(t)he Leviathan is actually everywhere (…) It’s the men, the boat, the film itself. The whole film’s a monster, which is maybe why no one can quite classify it.”29

Beyond the Human: Multiplicities of Knowledge and Being 

Serres’s notion of intuition – the spark that drives invention – embraces creativity that is often counter-intuitive to existing, or familiar, rationalities and is open to the more-than-rational and the unpredictable. The process of engaging with an artwork, through whichever form or media has been chosen by the artist/s, has the potential to immerse or transport the perceiver into a different sensibility – or perhaps multiple sensibilities – through the embodied experience of alternate ways of knowing and being. Leviathan’s deframed and mosaic-like perspectives are achieved using GoPro cameras – attached to different locations around the trawler – to segue between a series of inexplicable, non-human movements and angles. Largely devoid of any “speaking subjects or intentional framing,”30 Leviathan presents a fluid collage of integrated images and sounds akin to the perceptual bursts Serres recognises in the multiple energies of the sea, moving in waves and ripples of varying force. GoPros are appended to the tactile and mobile bodies of labouring fishermen (to their heads, wrists, and chests); mixed with the not-yet-dead creatures sliding around the deck; attached to the masts of the trawler and the furthest point of the bow, as well as being placed on wooden sticks trying to reach up to seagulls flying in the sky.31 These changing perspectives are even subtly inferred by the font used for the Biblical epigraph at the start and the credits at the end, which appears wavy and slightly indistinct: legible, but with an undulating effect that challenges clarity. 

In Genesis, Serres expounds upon the challenge of expressing his own multiplicities of thought and the limitations of doing so through the typically linear structures of (academic and philosophical) language and writing.32 Serres does not want to merely describe multiplicities of thought and being. Ideally, he wants to embody them (to whichever extent is feasible) through the integrated form and content of his work. As such, his writing is often poetic and unpredictable – a sort of fluid synthesis of ideas and allusions – including examples of multiplicities conveyed through artworks, such as Turner’s paintings. Serres is inclined towards using descriptive and evocative “variegated list(s)”33 to help illustrate how knowledge (intertwined with experience) is never just one thing: knowledge is always interconnected through changing relationships and is inherently intersensorial as part of its multiplicity. Independent of (but aligned with) Serres’s philosophy, Leviathan is a sensory ethnographic film that intuitively and instinctively explores and expresses an embodied and relational approach to experiential knowledges. No single, fixed, perspective dominates. By filming from a myriad of angles within and around the trawler and fishermen; swaying around on poles; sliding around on the deck; lifting outside of and looking down upon the mobile scene; drifting under, above, and between water and air; and roiling with the constant movement of numerous forces, the GoPro cameras capture a fluid, unsettling, interwoven relationship between marine life, the perpetual motion of the environment, humans, and machines – the human, non-human, and more-than-human – through the dynamism of the footage and the near constant flow of noise. 


One of Serres’s philosophical objectives is to engage with the world through “things” by thinking the “thing itself.”34 However, rather than undertaking deep analysis of particular things, Serres focuses upon “the conditions and relations that constitute things, objects, nature, (and) the world.”35 Serres’s relational way of thinking – which he refers to as topological thought, influenced by Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz36 – therefore explores and maps connections between things and how those connections and relationships are mediated through the senses within an interactive environment. Serres’s approach to mapping does not take place through the linearity of geometrical, Cartesian, models of precision. Instead, he approaches the relations between things qualitatively, informed by multiple spatial and contingent perspectives, such as forms of “continuity, neighbourhood, insideness and outsideness, disjunction and connection.”37 

As Cristóbal Escobar argues, Leviathan immerses the audience into a network of relations that is ontologically pluralistic and that breaks down perceptual boundaries through a form of “interspecies perspectivism.”38 Leviathan intuitively presents a sensibility that exists within Amerindian thought, made accessible through the ethnographic work of Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, which potentially “reverses not only the Western relation with its non-Western Other, but more radically, all the terms of its long metaphysical dualism.”39 Viveiros de Castro’s work shows the cosmology of the Araweté people of the Amazonia to be a universe of relations so broad – whereby animals, plants, and spirits are all endorsed with agency – that “modern (Western) distinctions between nature and culture, or animals and humans are proclaimed to be useless.”40 As Escobar makes clear, the “interspecies corporeal practice” portrayed throughout Leviathan, as a work of posthuman cinema, “creatively meets the marked dimension of Amerindians’ metaphysics on multiple referents.”41 Serres’s philosophy, from within the Western tradition, is topologically open to alternate metaphysical structures, including their potential to oppose and/or synthesize with aspects of Western thought and being. 

When explaining the concept of multiplicities inherent within knowledge – experienced and accessed through engagement with the world – Serres, who is profoundly aware of the forces of nature, frequently refers to the sea as both a literal and figurative example of a pluralistic physical and creative force, “full of noise, murmurings, and images.”42 The sea, or even a specific sea, can be labelled as just one thing – we can state that Leviathan is “an embedded study of trawler fishing in the North Atlantic” – but we intuitively know it as a multiplicity of contingent possibilities. As captured in Leviathan, the sea carries; it rolls; it smooths; it breaks and reforms; presents an image of gravity; swallows light; reflects the sky; promises both life and death; is simultaneously familiar and mysterious, flowing yet circular, ancient yet immediate, and so much more. In the opening sequence and various other moments throughout Leviathan there is a beauty within the darkness, where breaking waves are occasionally caught in the lights of the trawler, and the seagulls overhead sometimes shift between bold silhouettes against a blue sky and becoming dazzling white forms against a pitch-black night. From the very beginning of the film, visual reference points are often obscure or indistinct – because they appear unfamiliar to a human perspective – inviting the engaged perceiver to lean into the sound design and acousomatic qualities of Leviathan to help “make sense” of the experience. As Paraval seems to infer, when referring to Leviathan being “everywhere,” the multiplicity inherent within bodily knowing and perceiving cannot be reduced into smaller analytical parts without losing something of its complexity. 

As Serres proposes, and Leviathan embodies, instead of being analytical we can try to apprehend knowledges as relations within and between sensorial experiences. Through this process, we can recognise, and potentially respond to and/or learn from, recurrent patterns of knowledge – where the patterns are isomorphically related – as they emerge and repeat, in varied but interwoven iterations, across time and space. Such knowing, through multiplicities, can enhance original insights, by approaching knowledge/s differently, as well as potentially influencing – and thereby changing – our ways of being. Escobar’s invitation to consider Leviathan from an alternate metaphysical position, informed by Amerindian cosmology, could be folded into the way Serresian thinking recognises a shared materiality between the things and life of the Earth, through the ways human and non-human objects and beings, “receive, transmit, store and manage information.”43 To experience Leviathan sensorially, as a series of integrated relationships, rather than narratively or rationally – engaging with the film, as the SEL intends, as a sensory, rather than intellectual or consciously cognitive, experience – is to feel something of the impact of humankind upon nature and the inherent disregard for the natural world that seems evident through industrialised fishing practices. While humans are decentred within Leviathan, the presence of anthropocentric systems and the impact of those systems upon human, non-human, and more-than-human relations is inescapable. They shape the sensorial experience as the unspoken motivation for the presence of the trawler in the North Atlantic, while simultaneously revealing that humanity has much to learn about our place within, and relative to, nature and the cosmos.    

Leviathan is not edited to convey an explicit judgement or meaning (although the title and its implications will be discussed later); rather, it lays bare the realities that eventually deliver, say, a freshly cooked skate wing to a high-end restaurant, far away from the bleak night-time setting where we see the live skate being trawled, hooked, its “wings” hacked off, and the remaining body part tossed aside, dead or dying, as waste to be dumped back into the sea. The fishermen work in tough conditions, over long and exhausting hours, through unpredictable changes of weather in the largely cold, damp, often dark and inhospitable environment of the Atlantic aboard a commercial trawler designed primarily to serve industrial functionality and efficiency. As such, the fishermen are presented as a human resource (employed for hands-on processing of the fish and to operate the specialist machinery) alongside the natural resource of the catch that is being harvested, or partially wasted, in whichever way best serves the demands of the marketplace. As blood from the sea creatures splatters against and runs down the side of the containers they are held in, as well as splashing onto the waterproofs and even the faces of the workers, the whole enterprise feels unnervingly disposable. 

At times, Leviathan resonates with, while offering something significantly beyond, a horror movie aesthetic. The feeling of near-constant sensorial cues from an environment of clanking chains; winding gears; the blustering and blowing of sea winds; the pitched scream of tightly bound metallic ropes (or other machinery) tensing under pressure, which sounds, at times, both animal and human as well as technological; occasional blasts of heavy metal music; garbled speech (shouted into the wind); and the banal, unintentionally humorous, patter of unseen television adverts selling “energy shots” and constipation treatment for “colon flow”, creates an atmosphere that is literally and metaphorically unsettling. In addition to sliding around within the bloodied water, guts, body parts, and bulbous fish eyes washing across the deck, the cameras move with the rocking trawler and/or the motion of the sea, sometimes with the fisherman, and sometimes in a hard to define, abstract, way within the air or underwater, perhaps akin to the imagined perspective of the fish or seagulls. The latter feature reasonably prominently, flying overheat in groups, as a seemingly constant presence, attracted by the easy pickings discarded from the boat. At various moments simply determining which way up the camera is facing becomes a challenge, especially in recurrent shots that seem to dip into and out of the water, rolling over to show seagulls flying above or perhaps reflected below, so that the sense of taking an embodied perspective frequently invites a non-human or more-than-human awareness of alternate ways of sensing and being. 

There is no recourse to a conventional anthropocentric perspective, favouring the human-centred point of view, positioned clearly in space as a Cartesian rationality. Instead, the camera captures an inter-related series of inherently de-anthropocentric relationships that convey an equivalence, within the sensorial experientiality of the film, between humans and the non-human. The audience is invited, for instance, to take on the point of view, and consider the sensorial experience, of the discarded, de-winged, skate and other fish and sea creatures from the trawl. The humans/fishermen are not presented as superior to the fish, although they exercise the power of life and death over them; instead, they are presented as another one of the creatures caught up in the commercial fishing process. At one point the camera holds on the face of one of the fishermen for an extended period (as he gazes out of shot to the left of screen), slowly moving in to show only the eyes and bridge of his nose surrounded by wrinkled skin. The selected sections of the face fill the screen, going beyond the conventions of cinematic close-up to produce a quality reminiscent of the objectivity found within a wildlife documentary, revealing the distant gaze and texture of the skin as a presumed consequence of the ageing process, significant outdoor living, and physical adaptation to (and prolonged experience of) the harsh salty environment. 

It is a shot that recounts notions of maritime mythologies and the ancient wisdom of the sea; perhaps also an indirect allusion to Captain Ahab as a fictional figure, overwhelmed by forces he cannot fully comprehend. Framed in this way, the fisherman starts to take on a naturalised, animalistic, and perhaps also atavistic quality. Not in a reductive sense, more in the sense of showing and reminding the audience that humans are animals too: we are highly evolved mammals with advanced tools – often in the form of machinery and other technologies that increasingly shape our actions, including our global impact on the planet – but nevertheless born of nature and the natural environment that we now treat with such disregard. The overwhelming sensibility that emerges from Leviathan is of something wrong: a world out of kilter. And yet, in terms of trawling and processing as a commercial venture, the actions and interactions appear to unfold in accordance with the requirements of the neoliberal market system. Everything is just as it should be. The humans, non-humans, and the more-than-human, including the machines and the sea itself, are all positioned, through our economic geopolitical systems, to serve the incentive of financial profit as the primary concern. Respect for life; for quality of lives; the importance of the natural world as a living environment; thoughts about destruction, pollution, wellbeing, future planning, and a host of other ecological, economic, and political concerns are all disregarded or downplayed within a profit-based system, which is inadvertently captured on camera – or perhaps it is better to state it is glimpsed and temporarily felt – through Leviathan as a microcosm of how the global marketplace operates. This aspect of the film, rather than the film’s aesthetic and non-human sensibility, is where the real horror lies. 

‘It is Not Down in Any Map; True Places Never Are’

Melville’s well-known quote from Moby-Dick44 points to the difference between experiencing a place (its feel as an environment; a space of multitudes) and seeing it plotted geometrically on a map (an abstract idea; a cartographic location). Such distinctions play into Serres’s opposition to René Descartes’s rationalism, whereby Descartes values abstract human intellect above the senses and promotes the analysis, organisation, and management of (among other things) space, information, and formulating knowledge, as an anthropocentric process. Serres’s consistent fascination with “noise” – in the literal sense of sound, as well as the broader, interrelated, notion of a breadth of energy and experiences from which “information” is refined – captures a key aspect of his opposition to Descartes’s philosophy of reason.45 In short, the process of discerning “rational” information from noise (including the selection of sensory information that informs abstract cognitive reasoning) is reliant upon the principle of exclusion. Descartes advocates mastery of nature by focusing primarily upon information useful to humans; the rest can be discarded or excluded as noise, until it can be found to serve an anthropocentric purpose. Noise, for Serres, encompasses the full range of sensorial knowledges and insights offered, or transmitted, by the world and is therefore an opportunity for knowing beyond the human. In other words, noise includes all unfiltered forms of data and potential information that can be engaged with to shape our knowledges of being. 


Noise therefore includes “knowledge of the other”,46 which has historically been excluded from the Western philosophical tradition in favour of a particular canon of thought. Understood within this context, embracing the possibilities within noise is to consider multiple ways of knowing and being that are historically overlooked in Western thinking, such as indigenous and embodied knowledges; the perspectives and insights of (so-called) minority groups; alternate rationalities, which typically includes Eastern philosophies and other belief structures beyond Western thought, as well as (but not limited to) the contributions of non-human and more-than-human lifeforms to the ecologies and functionality of Earth. Within the traditional Western perspective of metaphysics, Viveiros de Castro’s insights into Amerindian cosmology – which are so insightful as a parallel structure to Leviathan – would historically be positioned as a form of noise, indicative of thought processes that stand outside of conventional rationality. However, as stated previously, Serres’s philosophy is open to noise because, among other things, it helps to identify the relative, de-centred, place of humanity upon the Earth and within the universe. In other words, humans positioning ourselves at the centre of knowledge is a form of hubris that fails to recognise the reality of our existence as just one species interacting with, and belonging to, the ecologies of the planet. 

Noise, for Serres, is therefore an integral part of the material world, imbued with the capacity to store, manage, and transmit knowledge. In relation to cinema and other audio-visual medias, Sean Cubitt similarly acknowledges the profoundly temporal and physical aspects of noise, and the selectively managed and wilder aspects of sound, as well as the capacity for recorded noises and sounds to extend their mobility across time and space.47 In what Serres terms our Times of Crisis,48 whereby our global ecological, political, and economic problems have coalesced through an inability to change our ways of being – our cultures – in accordance with the radical transformations that have occurred in the modern world, much interest and concern turns towards the cultural survival of humanity. Informed by the existential threats that abound – and that are implicit within ethnographic works like Leviathan – Cubitt and Ben Gook have provided a framework for considering the importance of posthumous sound (informed by ecological and affect theory) that acknowledges: “if music exists, however defined, it must flow through the world as harmonies and dissonances, rhythms and tonalities (with the inference…) that music discovered humans, rather than vice versa.”49 Serres’s approach to noise, sound, and music – from which language and poetry emerge – is configured along similar lines, with a distinct emphasis upon naturalised origins. For Serres, from vibrations at the atomic level (including the cosmic noise of residual radiation from the Big Bang) through to its cultural manifestations that emerge through nature – patterns of sound, rhythm, musicality, language, poetry, and so on – noise is a material presence that constantly intersects with, but can also transcend, human and non-human relationships. As part of the sensorium of knowledges, it is also something that can often be felt and not just heard. 

For humans, the vibrations that strike the tympanic membrane in the ear as waves of sound can sometimes be felt throughout the body in other ways, such as haptic awareness, providing the vibrations are strong enough and/or the body sensitive enough, including by being sensorially and culturally aware of – and/or open to – such ways of sensing. As Escobar points out, “the auditory is a phenomenon related to waves” and therefore sound is inherently related to movement, such that the diagetic sound in Leviathan “continually adds more vibration and motion to the already floating bodies on board.”50 More than this, Escobar notes that it is the ear that often renders the image visible or provides a sense of materiality in Leviathan. Due to the challenges to visuality presented by the deframed, multi-perspective, non-human and more-than-human approach to image creation, “it is precisely the audio-event that then becomes the visual one (so that anywhere the camera eye gazes upon or as it moves around the trawler…) the ear listens in on what is being searched: it covers, touches, and enfolds the spectator’s body.”51

In stark contrast to the privileging of noise in Leviathan as a rich and varied auditory experience, integrated crossmodally with the images to help convey a sensibility of non-human or more-than-human ways of knowing, Serres recognises that the process through which humankind has conventionally filtered, and selectively excluded, the noises of the world to formulate knowledge, within the Western tradition, is anthropocentric. Humanity, or at least humanity ordered through Western rationality, only tends to pay attention to information that serves comparatively short-term human needs and wants.52 Through our anthropocentrism, humans have developed a global system for managing natural resources through a refracted process of sensing and valuing – driven by profit incentives – which typically addresses the needs of specific groups of people through a “top-down” system organised through the marketplace. Put another way, despite all the sensorial capabilities at our disposal, humanity tends to map, identify, and utilise natural resources – aided by technologies we have developed that support these aims – based primarily upon financial reward (for personal, corporate, and/or national gain) as the underlying motivation. Our societies have generally ignored the noises (the knowledges) being transmitted by the natural world, even including devastating indicators of global warming, because such forms of knowledge do not hold financial value for the globalised marketplace. 

The noise of Leviathan – overseen by Ernst Karel, a sonic ethnographer and experimental music/sound engineer and acoustic designer closely affiliated with the SEL collective – is highly constructed through layering and mixing, making use of “both synchronized and wild sound,” to create a sonic environment that is both “concrete” (in its derivation from the diegesis of the film) and “expressive” (through its manipulation for effect and metaphorical meaning).53 Much of Leviathan is defined by noise, which feels ever present from background low-level rumblings through to an almost overbearing industrial-type din. These dissonant rhythms share an atmospheric quality with the unnerving sound design of films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1974) and Eraserhead (David Lynch, 1977), with the added shock of emerging from an ethnographic – or, perhaps more accurately, ethological – study. The decision to privilege “the sound of the ethnographic site over the individuals who traverse it” subverts and challenges the “vococentrism” of mainstream cinema, whereby the human voice and linguistic intelligibility is the primary concern over music, sound effects, and ambience.54 With reference to Melville’s quotation about mapping, the noise of Leviathan captures more of the “true” essence of the trawler as a mobile space, interloping into the North Atlantic, by focusing upon what it feels like to be there. 

Throughout The Five Senses, Serres makes a sustained plea for a more widespread and culturally advocated embrace of bodiliness and sensoriality over the conventions and limitations of language – which relies upon intellectualised processes and expressions – especially highlighting issues with academic language and the formulations of rationalised discourses that place abstract cognition above embodied knowing. For Serres, overtly rationalised forms of language become problematic because the richness and multiplicity of lived sensory experiences – including the sensoriality and noise of the natural world – are often excluded almost entirely, or, if they are present in some way, become channelled through cultural conventions into linear, de-animated, descriptions and narrow, already familiar, ways of knowing. Leviathan intuitively resists this tendency towards anthropocentric reason and familiar cultural formulations of knowledge – including comfortable alignment with familiar cinematic tropes – by focusing upon the environment on and around the trawler as the primary site of experience, rather than upon human experiences within that environment. As SEL state on their website, their experimental approaches use analog and digital media, installation, and performance, to explore the aesthetics and ontology of the natural and unnatural world, in order to encourage attention towards “the many dimensions of the world, both animate and inanimate, that may only with difficulty, if it all, be rendered with words.”55

Karel’s works with the SEL collective include continually refining, and redefining, the importance of noise – through innovative sound design – as integral to the formulation of knowledge, which continues to grow (from different perspectives) through works such as Leviathan, its predecessors such as Sweetgrass (Ilisa Barbash and Castaing-Taylor, 2009) and works that followed, such as The Iron Ministry (J.P. Sniadecki, 2014). Leviathan embraces the paradox of resisting anthropocentric reasoning and representation while also enhancing a soundscape that is constructed of near-relentless industrial-type noise, reflective of the priorities and labour of the anthropocentric marketplace. It is this kind of paradox that Serres’s philosophy of multiplicities, and the intuitively sensorial experiments of the SEL filmmakers, encourages us to acknowledge. As Michael Unger observes – with reference to a scene where discarded shells, shucked by the fishermen, clank repeatedly onto the deck alongside the low ambient noise of the trawler’s engine – the “constant sound effects of the shucking and the rumbling of the ship (…) seem to blend and equate human labor with the mechanical machinery.”56 An empty crushed beer can, mixed in with the shells on the wet deck, momentary seems to encapsulate the peculiar blend of natural, unnatural, organic and manufactured materialisms – especially because the shucked shells and machine-like clanking share a tinny-sounding quality that is given an unexpected, throwaway, visual reference point. The humans become part of the otherworldly North Atlantic environment through the harsh, repetitive, monotony of certain tasks they undertake, which include treating other living things like inanimate objects. The environment aboard the trawler is defined primarily by incongruent machine-made noises that feel simultaneously oppressive (for workers), productive (for the marketplace), and destructive (of natural resources). 

As part of his reaction against language and Descartes’s abstract cognition, Serres advocates stepping back from our models of overly-rationalised thought – such as political rhetoric in service of neoliberal economic policies (which often rationalise servicing the marketplace above consideration of global ecological sustainability) – and instead encourages humanity to embrace more of the noise and knowledges being transmitted by the natural world. Drawing upon Leibniz’s discussion of the sound made by a wave crashing on the shore and how – to form the crashing sound – we hear countless minute perceptions that we do not sense individually,57 Serres makes a sustained plea for humans to “reverse this integration, to differentiate and to lower the threshold at which we become conscious of the tiny perceptions that flood our senses.”58 Serres pushes for us to sense more from the natural world; to pay attention to – and learn from – what is happening around us in the natural environment; and to listen (including through the technologies at our disposal) to what nature is telling us. Such pleas – initially published nearly four decades ago in The Five Senses59 – have become increasingly and self-evidently urgent in response to climate change. 

Leviathan and Times of Crisis

Serres has been referred to as “a thinker whose time has now come”60 because of his interdisciplinarity; engagement with multiplicities; interest in empiricism and the material world; relational and inclusive position on (embodied) knowledges; non-linear approach to posthumanism and more-than-human relations; and his explicit concerns about the anthropocene and our current situation of ecological, economic, and political crises. If Turner’s paintings, understood through Serres, can be said to embody the steam age, then Leviathan embodies aspects of the anthropocene under a neoliberal market system by showing the impact of anthropocentrism through expanded, non-anthropocentric, perspectives. The reflective outcomes of such relational insights can be positive and/or negative, depending upon the subject – because human-centred processes are not bad by definition – but in Leviathan the focus upon commercial fishing situates the interactions between humans, non-humans and the more-than-human within the profit-based framework of the capitalist marketplace. Leviathan captures, in microcosm, humanity’s current predicament, which Serres has charted across numerous books and selectively condensed into the short work Times of Crisis.61 

As Serres suggests, we (rightly) marvel at the technological and scientific advances of humankind but we have underestimated – or systematically excluded and overlooked (dismissed as noise) – the impact of our innovations upon global ecology and environmental sustainability. Anthropocentric self-interest, and self-praise, as a form of hubris – shaped by our systems of power that focus upon mastering the natural world, motivated by accumulation of wealth – has distracted us from the bigger picture. As Serres states: “(the impact of) the hard techniques we use, whose praise we sing (…have led us to…) destroy our habitat since (at least) the industrial revolution.”62 Innovations developed from the age of steam, for all their promise and wonder, have contributed to extensive reliance upon fossil fuels with devastating environmental outcomes, and ongoing/predicted catastrophes, due to anthropogenic climate change. Serres considers the paradox caused by human innovation in pursuit of anthropocentric outcomes (the aim of improving the world through human mastery of natural resources), whereby our capabilities to manipulate, influence, and impact the natural/material world are now destroying the ecological circumstances that support ongoing human existence. It is a situation never previously encountered: “Global history enters nature; global nature enters history: this is something utterly new in philosophy.”63 The natural world and human society are now intertwined and co-dependent, within the anthropocenic era, in ways we have never known before. Put another way, human influence upon the global environment, with limited consideration of non-human and more-than-human relationships, has caused the global environment to start imposing itself upon humanity through climate change. 


Leviathan is not explicitly concerned with climate change or the global political picture. And yet, as a “monster” of a film (to repeat the term used by Paraval, who is also referencing the film’s title), Leviathan encapsulates the relational sensibility between humanity and nature that contributes to our current crises. Leviathan conveys a sensorial experience – at the intimate, localised, level of a fishing trawler – of disregard for nature and more-than-human relations, indicative of a way of thinking and being systemically supported by the demands of the marketplace. The sensibility captured and conveyed in Leviathan is replicated in humanity’s relationship with nature on a global scale. This is arguably one of the reasons why Leviathan is a monster of a film that cannot easily be classified. It taps into, and invites exposure of, the mentality that is causing humans to destroy the environment that supports our existence: the monster is an abstract system whose invisible hand – currently guided by neoliberalism – is directing the men, the boat, and the relations revealed within the film. 

The term “leviathan” carries multiple allusions. The film begins with a blank screen, accompanied by the cold harsh sounds of the wind in the darkness. A Biblical quotation then appears, from “The Book of Job” (chapter 41, verses 31-33), about the inhuman powers of the leviathan that lurks deep within the sea, representing a seemingly unknowable power beyond the comprehension of humanity. In addition to the Moby Dick references that offer a thematic underpinning for the film, the title Leviathan also recalls the philosophical work by Thomas Hobbes that argues for a social contract to bind society together under sovereign rule to help counteract the materialistic, competitive, nature of humanity. As a metaphor, the leviathan is greater than the sum of its parts and presents both a material and conceptual manifestation of power; it is defined by its relationship with humanity and the position of humans, and other forms of life, within larger systems of power (including mythologies) that the leviathan represents. Turner’s painted quartet of whaling pictures provide another (indirect) allusion, whereby the hard to discern leviathan is made partially visible in at least one of the images. The Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibited the works together in 2016, a handful of years after Leviathan was released, with the tantalising statement that Melville was ‘unquestionably aware of them’ and could have drawn influence from Turner’s diffuse imagery for his own multifaceted depiction of Moby Dick. In Leviathan, the elusive beast feels like it is the abstract rationality of neoliberal ideology. Neoliberalism is the current incarnation of an anthropocentric system fixated on serving human needs and wants by treating nature as a de-animated resource. In Leviathan, the beast is frequently glimpsed – but never fully seen – through the self-destructive relations and actions that unfold in its wake. 

These kinds of metaphorical insights feel quite distant as written ideas, which is why Serres looks to creative practice – the praxis of the creative arts – as an alternate and often more reliable form for conveying knowledge. The stated aims and interests of the SEL, while not explicitly advocating a politicised or philosophical position, similarly draw upon the multiplicities of bodily praxis and the affective fabric of human, non-human, and more-than-human existence to convey multifaceted approaches to complex knowledges. Within the sensorial relations conveyed by Leviathan, the impact of these multiple, contingent, interrelated realities are powerful in their implications. Serres recognises that synthesis and the building of multiple connections often holds more value than analysis, which tends to fragment experience into isolated (overly rationalised) strands of knowledge. One of the limitations Serres identifies within the language of abstract rationality is that it can lead into empty rhetoric – what has been termed an “impoverished idiom”64 – whereby the same thing is said repeatedly without offering anything of original value or insight, thereby failing to instigate or inspire meaningful change. One such example is the way political leaders might speak about addressing anthropogenic climate change, while consistently deferring to blind faith in the efficiency of the marketplace as a mechanism for providing solutions. As Serres advocates, we need to move away from our current system, based around human needs and wants, towards a more ecologically minded “global cosmocracy.”65 We need to formulate a natural contract between humans and nature – rather than relying upon anthropocentric social contracts based on human-to-human relations – so that the contractual outcome is a more symbiotic collaboration between humans and nature.66

Conclusion: Creative Practices and Changing Sensibilities

Sensibility is an important consideration in Serres’s philosophy. Our sensibilities are our ways of bodily knowing – through physical and material interaction with the environment around us – and these forms of knowing are, to varying degrees, intersensorial and intersubjective. Our sensibilities are expressed and shaped culturally as well as materially. The way we reflect upon life and our existence, through a myriad of cultural expressions, informs our self-awareness of what it might mean to be human and our current situation as humankind, including the ability to recognise that we are coexistent with nature and the non-human as part of the natural world. Serres succinctly explains, in Times of Crisis, that science and technology alone will not resolve the problems of anthropogenic climate change. We can, and hopefully will, implement widescale material responses and solutions that limit global warming, but these actions will become short-term remedies without a concomitant global change in human sensibilities. For Serres, humanity needs to recognise (on a global scale) our extensive power to affect nature by taking responsibility and stepping back from negatively exercising that power. We need to accept and pursue a de-anthropocentric system that works in collaboration with nature, informed by the kind of posthuman awareness posited by Leviathan and other works of creative practice.

Where abstract rationalism and political language consistently fail to make meaningful change, it remains possible to affect an intuitive change in human sensibility through creative expressions of the multiplicities of knowledge. Our creative practices have the power to instigate cultural change through a “soft revolution”67 that appeals to bodily knowing and sensoriality rather than relying upon cognitive processes. Leviathan takes us into a sensibility that, even if only temporarily, reframes our understanding through immersion within a de-anthropocentric set of relations. It lets us feel something of the destruction we currently impose on the natural world, which critics, academics, and cultural commentators then relate back into human, and cinematic, terms with reference to the traumatic sensations found in horror movies. While Serres advocates positivity to influence change through creative practice – proposing to “write stories, songs, poems, and a thousand enthusiastic texts to encourage every woman and man to intervene, in a timely or untimely manner, in every public affair, whether it is their business or not”68

 – Leviathan offers something different. 

Through sensory ethnographic filmmaking, Leviathan offers a pluralistic insight into what we (humankind) negatively impose upon ourselves and the natural world when we fulfil the role of resources serving the needs of a neoliberalism system of organisation, which is just one (highly self-destructive and currently dominant) way of managing our relationship with the natural world. That is not to say merely watching a film, or even engaging with a range of films and other artworks, will bring about global change. It is to recognise that, if change is to occur, creative practices and the ability to embody sensorial multiplicities – which can expand our sense of knowing to include non-human and more-than-human relationships – will be a crucial part of formulating our ever-changing global sensibilities with a view to ongoing, collaborative, sustainable existence. Following Serres’s suggestions, we need to sense and value the world more. Leviathan is a remarkable film, rich with multiplicities, which explores how – by listening to the “noise” and feeling the sensations of the world – we can start to expand our awareness of bodily knowing, the non-human, and the more-than-human, towards new and alternate ways of thinking and being.


  1. Michel Serres, Genesis (trans. by Genevieve James and James Nelson. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press. 1995): p.6.
  2. Michel Serres, Catherine Brown and William Paulson, “Science and the Humanities: The Case of Turner,” SubStance, 26: 2 (1997).
  3. Ibid, p.6.
  4. Ibid, p.10.
  5. Ibid, p.10.
  6. Ian Tucker, “Sense and the Limits of Knowledge: Bodily Connections in the Work of Serres,” Theory, Culture & Society, 28: 1 (2011): p.150.
  7. Michel Serres, The Five Senses: A Philosophy of Mingled Bodies (trans. by Margaret Sankey and Peter Cowley. London: Bloomsbury, 2016).
  8. One influential source, with respect to opening up reflection on the topic of intersensoriality has been Michel Serres’ The Five Senses,” from, David Howes, “The Expanding Field of Sensory Studies,” SensoryStudies.org (August 2013).
  9. Anna Grimshaw and Amanda Ravetz, Observational Cinema: Anthropology, Film, and the Exploration of Social Life (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009): p.138.
  10. Ibid, p.160.
  11. Ohad Landesman, “Here, There, and Everywhere: Leviathan and the Digital Future of Observational Ethnography,” Visual Anthropology Review, 31: 1 (Spring 2015), p.13.
  12. Cristóbal Escobar, “The Colliding Worlds of Anthropology and Film-Ethnography,” Anthrovision, Varia 5.1 (2017), section 27.
  13. Latour is noted as Paravel’s mentor while studying the sciences humaines. See: Alexandra Schwartz, “The Filmmakers Who Voyaged Inside the Body,” The New Yorker, 8 May (2023).
  14. Michel Serres and Bruno Latour, Conversations on Science, Culture and Time (trans. By Roxanne Lapidus. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1995): p.64.
  15. Landesman, Visual Anthropology Review, p.15.
  16. Escobar, Anthrovision, section 36 and footnote 7, with reference to décadrage in French, originally employed by Pascal Bonizer.
  17. Landesman, Visual Anthropology Review, p.15.
  18. Serres and Latour, Conversations on Science, Culture and Time, p.99.
  19. Christopher Watkin, Michel Serres: Figures of Thought (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2020): p.27.
  20. Ibid, p.27-8.
  21. Michel Serres, Variations on the Body (trans. by Randolph Burks. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minneapolis Press. 2011): p.34.
  22. James Lovelock, Novacene: The Coming Age of Hyperintelligence (London: Penguin, 2020): p.33-35.
  23. Michael A. Unger, “Castaing-Taylor and Paravel’s GoPro Sensorium: Leviathan (2012), Experimental Documentary, and Subjective Sounds,” Journal of Film and Video, 69: 3 (Fall 2017): p.4.
  24. ‘Leviathan’ meaning a large aquatic animal or beast; a Biblical reference to return to later.
  25. Trevor Johnston, “All at Sea,” Sight & Sound, 23: 12 (2013).
  26. Ibid.
  27. Philip Hoare, “Leviathan: The Film that Lays Bare the Apocalyptic World of Fishing,” The Guardian, 18 Nov 2013.
  28. Johnston, Sight & Sound.
  29. Véréna Paravel in Johnston, Sight & Sound.
  30. Escobar, Anthrovision, section 35.
  31. Ibid. section 35.
  32. Serres, Genesis, p.4: “That is the object of this book: the multiple. Can I possibly speak of multiplicity itself without ever availing myself of the concept?”
  33. Steven Connor, “Introduction,” in: Michel Serres, The Five Senses: A Philosophy of Mingled Bodies (trans. by Margaret Sankey and Peter Cowley. London: Bloomsbury, 2016): p.5.
  34. Michel Serres, The Birth of Physics (trans. Jack Hawkes, Manchester, UK: Clinamen Press, 2000): p.164.
  35. Laura Walls, “Michel Serres: On Thinking a Multiple Earth,” Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, 4: 2 (Fall 1997): p.111.
  36. Serres and Latour, Conversations, pp.43-76.
  37. Steven Connor, “Topologies: Michel Serres and the Shapes of Thought,” Literature and Science Conference, Ascoli Piceno, Italy (20-22 May 2002).
  38. Escobar, Anthrovision, section 31.
  39. Ibid, section 31.
  40. Ibid, section 8.
  41. Ibid, section 39.
  42. Serres, Genesis, p.14.
  43. Michel Serres, Times of Crisis: What the Financial Crisis Revealed and How to Reinvent our Lives and Future. (trans. by Anne-Marie Feenberg-Dibon. London: Bloomsbury 2014), p.57.
  44. Herman Melville, Moby Dick (London: Vintage, 2007): p.60.
  45. See: Michel Serres and Lawrence R. Schehr, “Noise,” SubStance, 12: 3 (1983).
  46. See: Cary Wolfe, “Bring the Noise: The Parasite and the Multiple Genealogies of Posthumanism,” Media Theory, 5: 1 (2021): pp.273-294.
  47. Sean Cubitt, Digital Aesthetics (London: Sage), pp.99-102.
  48. Serres, Times of Crisis (Bloomsbury 2014).
  49. Sean Cubitt and Ben Gook, “Posthuman Sound and the General Imagination,” Cultural Politics, 20: 1, p.78.
  50. Escobar, Anthrovision, section 38.
  51. Ibid, section 38.
  52. See: David Webb, “The Virtue of Sensibility,” in: Rick Dolphijn (ed.) Michel Serres and the Crises of the Contemporary (London: Bloomsbury, 2018): pp.11-30.
  53. Unger, Journal of Film and Video, pp.13-16.
  54. Unger, Journal of Film and Video, p.14.
  55. Sensory Ethnography Lab (SEL), Harvard Department of Anthropology, SEL website (2024).
  56. Unger, Journal of Film and Video, p.14.
  57. Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, “Preface to the New Essays (1703-05),” in his Philosophical Essays (trans. by Roger Ariew and Daniel Garber. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1989): p.295.
  58. Webb, “The Virtue of Sensibility,” p.24.
  59. Serres, The Five Senses (2016) was originally published, in France, in 1985.
  60. Watkin, Figures of Thought, p.2.
  61. Serres, Times of Crisis (Bloomsbury 2014).
  62. Ibid, p.71.
  63. Michel Serres, The Natural Contract (trans. by Elizabeth MacArthur and William Paulson. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1995): p.4.
  64. Webb, “The Virtue of Sensibility,” p.23.
  65. Watkin, Figures of Thought (EUP, 2020): p.372.
  66. Serres proposes the natural world ‘will never again be our (humanity’s) property, either private or common, but our symbiont’, The Natural Contract, p.44.
  67. Serres, Times of Crisis, p.71.
  68. Ibid, p.69.

About The Author

Kevin Hunt is director of doctoral programmes and senior lecturer in culture and context at Nottingham School of Art and Design, Nottingham Trent University, UK. His research builds upon a background in film and literature to explore the relationship between culture and the senses.

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