A long while back I recounted the story of how Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura came to be discovered during the 17th century. De Rerum Natura had lain fallow among a pile of books in a monestary, where they were literally (pardon the pun) covered with mold and various plants. As Peter Gay recounts the story, the monks had torn bits of parchment from the various books for other uses, showing little regard for the texts themselves. During this period, enterprising thinkers would scour the monestaries throughout Europe, searching for texts from Greek and Roman antiquity by unknown philosophers, statesmen, and rhetoricians. Now presumably there would occasionally be enterprising “scholar-monks” that would go through the piles of books, looking for items of interest. So the question that emerges with regard to Lucretius’ magnificent De Rerum Natura is that of how it was able to suddenly go from obscurity to centrality within the socio-intellectual climate within which it was “found”. Why is it that the person who found this text was able to even notice that it was of interest, and why did this text play such a profound role in the socio-intellectual climate of Europe at this time when it was discovered? Why did Lucretius cause eyes to glaze over and ears to close up one hundred years before– nay, even decades before –and now suddenly was seen as a vibrant and crucial text? Just as the real question about identity politics ought not be whether one is for or against it, but rather why politics today has suddenly come to manifest itself so pervasively in terms of questions of identity, we should also ask not whether or not Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura is a good or bad work of philosophy, but rather why it came to resonate in the way that it did during the 17th century.
It seems to me that this little anecdote about the “discovery” of Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura opens on to broader ontological questions pertaining to the phenomenon of relevancy or saliency. Suppose we begin with a couple of widely different contemporary intellectual trends: evolutionary biology and Althusserian social structuralism. In a very vulgar version of the former theory we are told that organisms come to be in their particular species-form through adaptation to an environment. In Althusserian thought we are told that persons are merely props of structure and that structure is itself the true subject (we’re no longer supposed to talk about the qualities of agents). In the vulgar version of evolutionary biology, the environment is understood as a container that is there present-at-hand, existing in its own terms and by virtue of its own nature, and that the organism is either well adapted to this fitness-space or poorly adapted. In the case of Althusser, we are told that the agent integrates social-structure without remainder, or is open to a homogenous and self-contained social structure without remainder.
Yet matters are far more complex than this. In the case of evolutionary biology we have the question of why a creature becomes open to this or that tendency within the environment. Why did a bat discover sonar rather than vision or scent? What unheard affects are inhabited by other creatures of which we can scarcely imagine? The point here is that the environment cannot simply be understood as something that is there, present-at-hand, but rather there is a selection that takes place in the process by which a species emerges. The emergent organism makes a slice within chaos– it must be chaos as it is bubbling with an infinite number of potential qualities –and in doing so doesn’t simply receive something that is already there, but 1) constitutes new qualities (the qualia, for instance, by which the bat registers sound-waves), 2) constitutes a new form of receptivity, and perhaps most importantly 3) constitutes its own environment and field of objects. The paradox is that the environment to which the species adapts is itself constituted by the species. There is a literal worlding that takes place. Certain features within chaos become salient or singular, and there is a selection that occurs such that noise– the static on the television or radio –is transformed into information. Something comes to resonate where before it did not.
The artificiality of the Althusserian move can be discerned in these observations. In order for an agent to be interpellated, the person must be open to the various elements of social structure. But how is this receptivity constituted? From whence does this receptivity, this openness to structure, come? Appeals to the empirical are often dangerous, yet when we observe that there are a tremendous variety of “social species”, from the mad to the different ideological orientations to those who seem to be living in entirely different worlds altogether, we begin to suspect that Althusser has vastly simplified matters and has not attended carefully enough to questions of receptivity or how selection takes place in the social field and various aspects of the world come to be constituted as salient. Here, once again, we can’t talk about a pre-existing social world. Rather, a world only emerges on the basis of anterior selections that constitute information, relevancy, and salience. How, for instance, does identity suddenly come to function as a salience within the political world where prior to the late 20th century it was largely in the background?
I simply wish to throw these questions out there without now taking a stab at answering them (I have to start cooking dinner!). What needs to be avoided in posing these questions, I think, is any appeal to either teleology or “nature”. Goals and purposes must be seen as resulting from selection and salience, not as preceding the activity of selection and salience. Similarly, appeals to something like human nature are, all too often, mythological and essentialist. If physical science and social theory have taught us anything, order is something that emerges, rather than something that holds for all times and places. Consequently, what is required is an emergent account of selection, not one that presupposes, after the fashion of a vulgar version of Plato, always-already operative selections. Finally, such a theory of selectivity shouldn’t be restricted to the social world, but should be seen as a general feature of the universe and being through which phenomena come to order themselves. We are told that the laws of physics would be different had the universe cooled differently, that there might be other universes with very different physical principles, and biological science has compellingly demonstrated that species emerge from matter and are not eternal forms. The distinction between the historical and the natural is a distinction that should be abolished in favor of a creative, emergentist, differential ontology. How, then, can selection be theorized without presupposing an agent that selects?