The theory of simulacra [Lucretius, De Rerum Natura, Book IV] is a theory of communication: edges, envelopes, wraps, flying through object space, as objects or from transmitters to receptors. We know how these skins are shed, how these delicate carapaces become detached at transmission. And we know how, that is, at what speed, they cross the space of communication. At the end, at reception, the sensory apparatus enters into contact with this delicate film. Thus, sight, smell, hearing, and so forth, are just senses of touch. The theory of simulacra is a singular case of the general theory of flow, communication is one circulation among others, knowledge is no different than being.
Like all philosophers passionately concerned with objective reality, Lucretius was a genius of touch and not vision… Knowledge is not seeing, it is entering into contact, directly, with things [sic.]; and besides, they come to us. (106 – 7)
What we have here is one of the fundamental fault lines determining whether your position is genuinely materialist or idealist. By Book IV of <em>De Rerum Natura</em>, Lucretius finds himself confronted with questions of perception and knowledge. In Book I, he had adopted the principle that “nothing can come from nothing” as the first axiom of his ontology. By this he meant that everything must have a natural, material, or physical cause to take place. This makes perception (and communication; which is a subspecies of perception) rather mysterious. My cat is over there, I am over here. How can I perceive what is over there when I’m not directly touching it?
If perception of things at a distance is to be possible, then things at a distance must somehow touch. But this is impossible because my cat is over there and I am over here. Enter Lucretius’s theory of images or simulacra:
…I now begin to teach you about images, so-called, a subject of most relevant importance. These images are like a skin, or 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 coarse 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 and leave their vesture under the brambles where we have often seen them, crumpled or caught. (120)
Lucretius’s thesis is that perception is possible because all bodies or objects shed a sort of film, like snake skins, that travel through the air and touch the relevant sense organ. Like the picture of Frantz Fannon above, there are images or simulacra flying off all entities whether in the form of visual images, sounds, scents, electric signatures (sensed by sharks and eels among other critters), and so on. In the case of vision, Lucretius was wrong in the details but right in spirit. It is not that bodies are emitting images or simulacra, but that photons of light are bouncing off them, their wavelengths changed by the properties of the object, and traveling through space to the eye.
If Serres can say of Lucretius that all senses are senses of touch, then this is because, through the mediation of the simulacra, the perceiving and communicating subject is literally touched by the simulacra. There is literally a touching that takes place in every act of communication and perception. As an aside, all of this becomes impossible to discern within phenomenological frameworks because the bracketing of the natural attitude in the phenomenological ἐποχή renders material relations invisible. As Deleuze somewhere says, “all of phenomenology is epiphenomenology“. Phenomenology describes effects without giving us an account of their causes (because causes aren’t present to sense-bestowing consciousness). As Spinoza so patiently showed in the Ethics, this is potentially very destructive as we’re often confused as to just what causes our affective states. For example, I might think my depression is caused by my debt, when in fact I have a chemical imbalance. Consciousness experiences the same thing regardless of which of these sources is the cause. We need good descriptions such as those provided by phenomenology as we need to know what is to be explained, but we also need to be careful not to fall into folk-psychological explanations that might be wildly inaccurate (e.g., the 19th century physician explaining the woman’s depression in Oedipal terms when she just gave birth and is undergoing wild hormonal shifts).
Lucretius’s audacious thesis is that the simulacra that mediate between entities at a distance from one another are material or physical things. They are something. They are stuff. An image is not nothing, but is a real material entity that travels throughout the void. This will entail three things: 1) Images or simulacra have real, material effects, 2) images must travel through space or the void to produce those effects, and 3) images or simulacra are subject to time.
Here I return to the difference between idealism and materialism. Among other things, the idealist overlooks the materiality of communications. For the idealist– not that they ever explicitly say this –it’s enough for an idea to be said for it to instantaneously travel throughout the entire world. There is no materiality of the idea. The idea is a freedom that escapes all constraints of space, time, and channels.
For the materialist, by contrast, the materiality of all communication and perception, the fact that touch is the most fundamental of all senses, will have far reaching consequences. The materialist won’t treat the materiality of communication and perception as things that can simply be ignored, but will– in addition to the content of communications –draw attention to the differences this materiality makes. This will lead to an entire cascade of questions that raise certain questions about social power: 1) What difference does the time and medium of communication make between two entities? Echoing a remark made by Lyotard years ago in his preface to The Differend, power is intimately related to time: who has time, who can saturate the time of others so they have no time, who can conquer time through speed, and all the rest. As I’ve recently been trying to argue, power is less discursive, less ideological, less signifying, than it is chrono-political.
2) The materialist will hold that there is a geography of ideas. If ideas are simulacra that travel, then they will have their places or geography. They will not be everywhere as the idealist seems to implicitly think in their crude discussions of the signifier and “language”, but will be in these places and not others. This, not the idea that ideas are subject to principles of natural selection, is the central contribution of the meme theory that everyone loves to hate. Meme theorists teach us that ideas have a geography in much the same way that diseases have a geography. They have to travel, they have their communities, they have their places in the world. Ideas that might be very foreign in circles of Continental philosophy, might be ubiquitous in media studies or sociology. Ideas that might be very common in France and the West Coast, might be unheard of in Greece. Ideas have to travel throughout space to have an impact. Are there highways for them to travel? It’s not enough to have an idea for things to change, it’s not enough to formulate the ultimate whizbang argument for an idea to triumph. No, ideas must become Vikings that move throughout the world.
3) The materialist will take channels very seriously. We’re still figuring out what a channel is. One of my favorite remarks by one of the most important thinkers of the last century– Claude Shannon –is that occasionally information has meaning. To think information is not to think meaning, but the materiality of a message across a medium. The idea of a channel refers to the capacity of a receiver to receive that simulacrum. There are both physical and semiological dimensions to channels. At the physical level, for example, we have the ability to hear what my friend Dave of the blog Subject to Come calls “frequency points”. For example, I am able to hear and see certain spoken and written messages because I have the appropriate biological channels. My cat has much better hearing than I, and so has additional channels, and is also able to sense the cartography of a room through her whiskers and wind currents passing about furniture in that room even when it’s dark (that’s so awesome!). I don’t have those channels. Jakob von Uexkull’s ethology, Ian Bogost’s alien phenomenology, and autopoeitic theory’s second-order observation all draw our attention to the variability of channels through comparative phenomenology (between our channels, those of animals and inanimate beings, and institutions like government agencies). However, there’s also a semiotic dimension to channels. My students for example (and me too!) have the physical channels to hear and read passages from Hegel’s magnificent Science of Logic, but we might lack the semiotic channels, the cognitive infrastructure, to understand the patterns that are passing across these channels. Some portions of the Science of Logic might as well be Russian as far as I’m concerned.
Finally, 4) a materialist will attend to the thermodynamics of communication and perception. The materialist, unlike the idealist, will recognize that thought, communication, and perception all require energy, calories, to occur. She will attend, for example, to phenomena such as how perception, communication, and comprehension tend to become disorganized, entropic, in states of fatigue. She will attend to the energy or calories required to do, to think, to comprehend, or understand. She will attend to questions of the maximum informational carrying capacity of entities at any given point in time before things fall into chaos. And, above all, she will see these issues of energy, not content, as crucial issues pertaining to how power and oppression function.