I apologize for my general lack of engagement recently on Larval Subjects. This is not from a lack of desire to respond and engage. Last week my office computer decided to blow up and I’ve only had computer access at home as a result. In the morning I’m generally rushing about to get to class, while in the evenings I’m generally too exhausted to do much of anything beyond drinking a glass of wine. Couple this with being in the midsts of putting together two presentations, four forthcoming articles, and getting the index for the book together, and you can bet that I’m ready to shoot myself. Time has been at such a premium that I found myself irritated, this morning, at having to waste an extra minute to find a pair of socks. Not rational, I know. Hopefully the situation will be rectified soon.
I recently came across the following passage in Book One of De Rerum Natura:
A property is that which not at all
Can be disjoined and severed from a thing
Without a fatal dissolution: such,
Weight to the rocks, heat to the fire, and flow
To the wide waters, touch to corporal things,
Intangibility to the viewless void.
But state of slavery, pauperhood, and wealth,
Freedom, and war, and concord, and all else
Which come and go whilst Nature stands the same,
We’re wont, and rightly, to call by-products.
Even time exists not of itself; but sense
Reads out of things what happened long ago,
What presses now, and what shall follow after:
No man, we must admit, feels time itself,
Disjoined from motion and repose of things.
It is difficult to sense the full force of this passage. Or perhaps it is that we are today so accustomed to this thought that we do not tremble when confronted by these words. These truly are thoughts and words that make the world rumble, even if only expressed in a few verses. Lucretius distinguishes between properties and by-products. On the one hand, properties are qualities of a compound object (compound because it’s composed of atom and void) that cannot be disjoined from the object without that object being destroyed. Even though the weight of a compound object can be changed, it is not possible to separate weight from an object. One might object that wetness can be subtracted or disjoined from water when it turns into ice. However, the person that argues such a claim has failed to recognize that in transitioning from water to ice the atoms composing the compound have configured to form something new. Similarly, a new connected property here emerged: cold from ice.
Lucretius’ stunning observation– I’d be interested to see whether it was commonly made in antiquity, I cannot think of other examples off-hand –is that by-products are not connected to the object itself. Lucretius’ examples are clear enough: regardless of whether I have the property of wealth, poverty, slavery, freedom, or am in a state of war, or peace, I remain the same person. That is, were I to lose all my wealth, I am still this person who has lost all of his wealth. As such, these properties are not connected properties of my being. This might be more difficult to see in cases of war and peace until we recall Deleuze’s theory of sense, where senses like “battle” are not in the bodies in conflict, but hover above it as an incorporeal sense of the event. More concretely, we have learned this century that war is a speech act… And if we know this, especially in the United States, then this is because today we have many actions that are police actions, though qualitatively indiscernible from war at the level of how bodies are interacting.
Lucretius’ distinction between properties and by-products has implications that reach far beyond the examples he gives, and which are a central axiom of historical materialism. His examples of freedom and slavery are particularly telling. Freedom, slavery, are not natural features of physical bodies, but are rather a product of relations among bodies. That is, they are, according to this metaphysic, institutions. Many will recall that Aristotle had argued that non-Greeks and women are naturally inferior to Greek men, thereby treating this inferiority as a property of these bodies. Aristotle naturalizes social relations, thereby treating them as the natural order of things.
If Lucretius’ words cause the world to shake, then this is because this thesis belongs not only to the various social identities we might possess, treating them all as by-products rather than properties, but it also extends (without him saying so) to all social institutions as well. Being-a-king is not a property of the king, but is instead a by-product of being recognized as a king by his subjects. Gender relations between men and women are not the natural way of things, but the result of ongoing autopoiesis whereby both parties involved reproduce themselves in their gendered identities through their interactions with one another (without it being possible to say one group produces the identity of the other). Sexual identities are not natural properties, but are again by products of practices and institutions.
These concepts are perhaps familiar to us today– though I hear people making such claims on behalf of the natural all the time –so it is difficult to hear just how much they make the world rumble and shake. However, if there is one central function of the project of critique and historical materialism, this is to show the essential contingency of social institutions and identities… The way they are “by-products” or “accidents”, rather than properties. The activity of demonstrating the contingency of institutions is not an activity of “debunking” or falsifying. We might, for instance, show that rights are by-products or accidents of certain social organizations. This does not render rights false, just as it is no less the case that I am a professor because being-a-professor required a whole host of institutions from universities, places to teach, states, and my students acting towards me as a philosopher. Rather, if rights are by-products or accidents, then this is because they can fail to exist in certain bodies. This entails that perhaps we fight all the more vigorously for the existence of these by-products. Rather, in the activity of critique, in the activity of uncovering contingency, we render possibilities available, allowing us to counter-factually envision how other forms of life might come to be. The slave that comes to see the institution of slavery as a contingent by-product of his socio-historical setting rather than a natural property of his being also comes to envision the possibility of another life, another world. Perhaps we should begin with the premise that we’re all slaves. Perhaps this would paradoxically be the most affirmative position one could advocate. Sometimes the entire world is changed through a simple distinction, an incorporeal transformation, a concept, that then functions as a lens so potent it is able to concentrate light into fire.