The longer I live the more Lucretian I become and the more I become convinced that he is the greatest of philosophers (I’ve kept a copy of De Rerum Natura beside my bed for fifteen years now). Like Spinoza, Lucretius somehow managed to love the world for itself, to seek no transcendental supplement that would redeem it, and to explain the world in terms of principles immanent to that world. It was Lucretius that came to mind this morning when I read a remark by Tim responding to one of my posts. Tim writes:
I don’t mean to get into semantics, but I think people are going to be confused with statements like “The moon has to forge its relationships with the ocean.” Rhetorically, it’s just a bit strange to talk about things that are basically accidental, incidental, coincidental, non-teleological, instantaneous, and in a sense, “default” — as being “forged.”
Tim’s point about the rhetoric of “forging relations” is well taken. In speaking of forging relations I don’t wish to imply any teleology or purposiveness. If he prefers I am happy to rephrase what I have in mind by saying that relations have to happen or take place. Relations are not given, but rather have to take place or be formed.
It is with respect to this happening or taking place of relations that I’d like to focus on Tim’s thesis that there is an instantaneous relation between the moon and the earth. It is with this thesis of the instantaneous that Lucretius becomes relevant. The first axiom of Lucretius’ philosophy– and one that I share –is that “…nothing at all is ever born from nothing” (Humphries, 24). By this Lucretius means that there are only natural causes and that, above all, there is never any action at a distance. In order for two entities to interact whether informationally or causally they either have to touch or transmit “signals” through space and time to one another. In the case of the sun and moon it simply isn’t true that gravitational effects are instantaneous. Like anything else, gravity can move no faster than the speed of light. Like a diffraction pattern or a concentric wave produced by throwing a stone in a pond, gravity proliferates throughout space in a growing wave pattern and this takes time. It takes 1.26 seconds for the gravity of the moon to reach us and 8 minutes for the gravity of the sun to reach us.
Were the sun to be completely destroyed such that nothing of its matter remained (impossible), we would not experience any of its gravitational effects for 8 minutes. Things would continue exactly as they did before for those eight minutes. This time of relation is one reason that everything is not related to everything else. Because relation takes time to happen and because the requisite time has not occurred for everything to influence everything else, it follows that some entities are unrelated. There are other reasons that there is not a single world, but the time of what physicists call “information” to travel– and information is not to be confused with “meaning” nor “messages” –is one central reason that there is not a single, hyper-related universe.
These entities that pass between units at a distance are what Lucretius’ referred to as simulacra, phantasma, or atomic images. They are themselves material entities. Lucretius gets the details wrong, but has the basic idea right (not bad for the 1st Century BCE). In Book IV of De Rerum Natura, Lucretius writes,
…I now begin to teach you about images, so-called, a subject of most relevant importance. These images are like a skin, or a film, peeled from the body’s surface, and they fly this way and that across the air…
Let me repeat: these images of things, these almost airy semblances, are drawn from surfaces; you might call them film, or bark, something like skin, that keeps the look, the shape of what it held before its wandering. This should be obvious to the dullest mind since many things, as our own eyes can see, throw off a substance, rather course at times– as burning wood produces smoke or steam –and sometimes thinner, more condensed, the way Cicadas cast their brittle summer jackets or calves at birth throw off the caul, or snakes slide out of and leave their vesture under the brambles where we have often seen them, crumpled or caught. This being so, some film of likeness, frail and thin, must be sent forth from every surface. (The Way Things Are, Humphries, 120)
Lucretius conceives interaction between entities at a distance from one another as mediated or made possible by these “films” that bodies emit that travel between the intervening void. Bodies or objects for him are always shedding these films, simulacra, or atomic images in the form of visual images, sounds, and forces. He had the details wrong– we now know that it is, for example, photons of light or electro-magnetic waves bouncing off of bodies at particular wavelengths in the case of visual images –but he has the basic idea of simulacra as material things that take time to travel right. Amazingly, for him, he was led to this thesis not on the basis of empirical observation but on the basis of the first axiom of his philosophy– that nothing can be born from nothing –which forbade action at a distance.
So take the example of my daughter. There she sits, meters away from me, on the end of the slide after sliding down, popping out, and exclaiming “surprise!” What am I seeing when I see her? Certainly not her because she is meters away from me, over there while I am here. Rather, for Lucretius I am seeing a film that has been emitted from her body and that travels through the intervening void subsequently interacting with my eyes. And as we all know, travel takes time. As a consequence, I can never see my daughter but only ever a film emitted from my daughter that captures something of her as she was in the past. My daughter can never be present to me because of this time of travel (another reason that units are withdrawn). From our standpoint as biological beings interacting with the world, this time is so quick as to render the pastness of the simulacrum negligible in its effects, but it is there.
Lucretius’s simple thesis has profound consequences for how we think about everything pertaining interactions between entities. For example, it is of tremendous importance when it comes to how we think about societies. Societies and social interactions will only be as large as the medium of interaction between elements allows. Plato himself recognized the importance of this when, in The Republic, he reflected on the size of the ideal city. He calculated this size in terms of what the medium of speech and air would allow with respect to the capacity of the Republic autopoietically reproduce itself across time and stave off entropy. Thus, “primitive” societies whose medium is air or speech will have far more diversity because they will be characterized by greater geographical isolation due to the great time it takes for speech to travel from person to person homogenizing elements of a society. One person will have to speak to another person who will in turn have to convey the message to yet another person; and in this game of telephone all sorts of random variations will occur is the message is passed along transforming it. With the invention of writing this will change as the inscription of the written text is message preserving. This allows, for example, larger scale societies to come into existence due to the production of collective identities as Benedict Anderson has noted in Imagined Communities. All of this will change yet again with radio, fiber optic cables, satellite and the internet.
In each case new collectives will become possible, warfare will take different forms, economy will take different forms, belief will be structured differently, as will norms and customs. And all of this is because of differences in the time of relation that presides over what can and what cannot be related and the subsequent possibility for operations that stave off entropic decay within a collective. As engineers discovered with the Trans-Atlantic cable, information could only be transmitted at a certain rate due to the rise in noise with the increasing complexity of the message. Things change with fiber optic cables and satellites.
But this is not all. It is not simply the properties of the medium that will play a role in the happening of relation, but also the channels of the receiver. In order for one entity to be related to another it must be open to simulacra from that entity. The mantis shrimp has the most advanced vision on the planet and is able to see things in electro-magnetic spectra that we can’t even imagine. Due to its neutral electric charge, the neutrino is unable to interact with most matter we are familiar with. It passes through this matter as if it weren’t event there (science has discovered true ghosts!). My daughter can read bits and pieces of Hegel’s Science of Logic but for her it is all noise. All of these things an infinitely more besides are possibilities and impossibilities of relation. The neutrino cannot relate to my beloved blue coffee mug. And as we think about political engagement with larger-scale entities such as economies, nations, societies, etc., one central thing we need to think about are its channels of receptivity to relation. Can our simulacra even be heard by these entities? Or are we like the neutrino doomed to pass through these entities like ghosts without trace or relation?
Moreover, in each of these cases the medium will have its own internal “grammar” or aesthetic logic delineating what is and is not possible within that medium. Thus, a society organized purely around speech will tend towards epic, poetry, and narrative as a way of encoding cultural knowledge as these are more easily encoded in memory. With writing everything changes. Because we no longer need to rely on memory to receive messages (the paper remembers for us), it now becomes possible to depart from narrative modes of transmitting culture and to work with pure abstractions such as “being”, the number “1”, formal laws and principles, etc. We can then explore the “grammar” or logic that emerges from these abstractions. No doubt there will be similar grammars for other mediums and simulacra. How much, we might wonder, is the conflict between religious fundamentalism and Enlightenment societies a conflict of narrative speech (the role played by sacred texts) and written texts? More another time, time for work.