Lucretius’ Material Ecology

MATERIAL ECOLOGY AND ENVIRONMENTAL AFFECT

Lucretius’ theory of simulacra means that there are no discrete subjects and objects—only affective ecologies. The whole environment is not just something to be passively “considered” but something that plays an active role in constituting and entire atmosphere or situation. To illustrate this, Lucretius describes the beautiful way in which atmospheric color and light transform and shape the movement of things (4.81–83).

et quanto circum mage sunt inclusa theatri

moenia, tam magis haec intus perfusa lepore

omnia conrident correpta luce diei.

And the more the walls of the theater encircle and enclose,
the more all these things within are soaked
with splendor and laugh when the light of day is diminished.

            Early Roman theaters were sunken pits filled with seats and covered with a purple cloth to keep the sun off the viewers. This poetic image could not be more fitting for the point Lucretius wants to make: Matter is performative. The environment is not an empty space filled with discrete objects but something much more like a woven cloth rippling in the wind that throws off pattern, color, and movement everywhere lavishly. The cloth-wrapped performative space is a space made by woven motion.

            Things, Lucretius says, are soaked [perfusa] with splendor and begin to move and laugh in response to the undulations of color and light as the sun goes down. Shadows begin to ripple across things and through the air showing the entanglement of everything in the theatre. The laughter [conrident] of things is not metaphorical. Nature really is undulating pleasantly in the wind. Matter shakes without breaking or coming completely apart. Pleasant movements without complete destruction (i.e. not ataraxia) is a recurring ethical image for Lucretius found in the laughter of Venus or in the springtime winds of Favonius.

            This theatrical scene shows dramatically what is otherwise happening all the time. Matter is flowing off itself and diffracting with other matters in a complex and kinetic ecology. Ecology is not something that only happens out in the woods. Nor is it merely the passive stage that actors play on. Contra Shakespeare, all the world is not a stage, and all the men and women are not the only players.[i] Humans do not play on the static stage of nature. The whole stage, the actors, the audience, and the whole theater are soaked through with material ecological affects that ripple across them like water or like bees into a beehive [caveai] as Lucretius describes it (4.78).

            The ecological theater is a buzzing beehive made by the movement of matter through it. The form of the honeycomb is an emergent pattern or figure traced by, drawn out, and woven kinetic habits. Ecological affects like temperature are connected with the increased oscillation of matter and with emotion.[ii] But if emotion is not merely mental representation, then nature too has e-motion.

            Water and food shortages are related to fluctuations in the climate and increase the likelihood of social conflict.[iii] Wearing or seeing certain colors also has proven affects on human behavior.[iv] Even just looking at or walking around living plants and forests can significantly change the chemical composition of the human body, alter mood, blood pressure, and stress hormones.[v] This is all to say that Lucretius’ theory of simulacra is shockingly prescient about what we are only recently discovering scientifically about the entangled relationship of ecological affects.[vi]

            Given Lucretius’ description of this simulacral ecology, and what we know from increasing contemporary studies on ecological affect, an ethics based on individuals is completely misguided. Ethics is nothing if not ecological and simulacral. If the entire world is in motion, radiating, intertwining, and diffracting itself, then the ethics of moving well together must take these movements seriously. Ignoring them and treating ethics as a strictly anthropocentric project (as if ecology played no role in actively shaping ethical landscapes and human beings themselves) is partly to blame for global pollution and the feedback loops of toxic particles (dioxins, phthalates, glysophates, etc.) now coursing through our bodies. If we think ethics is something only humans do, then we are more likely to forget that the rest of nature not only plays in active role in producing human bodies but is identical with humanity itself. We live and move in affective tangles because of the nature of simulacral matter.

Weaving String Figures

It is absolutely crucial to remember that simulacra, for Lucretius, are not discrete particles or representations.[vii] We should not imagine that simulacra are like individual photos on film images that peel off of things one by one in discontinuous succession. As collective and intertwined ecological processes they cannot be isolated. Lucretius is extremely clear about this in lines 4.87–89.

sunt igitur iam formarum vestigia certa,

quae volgo volitant subtili praedita filo

nec singillatim possunt secreta videri.

There are therefore then figurative traces
which freely fly around composed of subtle threads
and which are not able to be seen singly or separately.

            Sensation is fundamentally atmospheric and ecological. Simulacra are composed of flows or material threads [filo] (4.88) that move all around through the air drawing out [formarum] (4.87) tracks, traces, or footprints [vestigia] (4.87). Since these movements are collective processes, they are not reducible to the “things” [rerum] or the simulacra they produce. Simulacra are composite things woven together through a vast ecological network of diffracting flows of matter [corpora]. It is therefore fundamentally impossible to separate out “one” simulacrum [nec singillatim] because simulacra are multiplicities in continuous motion.

            What we sense when we sense the world, or when the world senses itself, is nothing but simulacra, all the way down. But simulacra are nothing but moving woven patterns of subtle flows of matter streaming out together, folding and unfolding continually before our eyes. If they are folded tightly enough they appear stable, if they are folded loosely they appear unstable (smoking, bleeding, liquid, and so on). It is all a question of weaving.

            Lucretius says that these threads of matter literally pour, leak, or flow out [diffusae] (4.91) of things [rerum] and that their artful twisting, winding, and curving [flexum] (4.93) draws out the shape of things and the shape of the simulacra that flow out of things. In other words, because the flow of matter is always swerving inside and outside things, there simply is no original thing of which simulacra are faithful or unfaithful copies. There are only continually woven processes, all the way down to the swerving flows of matter themselves. Flows of matter that are thrown off of mirrors, water, and shiny surfaces look similar [simili specie] because the path of woven matters is less bent or curved than others (4.100).

            Matter flows, but simulacra are sensed when the flows of matter fold back over themselves and tangle with one another in a continuous pattern of repulsion, rhythm, and return that allows matter to affect itself and produce sensation (4.104–109).

sunt igitur tenues formarum illis similesque

effigiae, singillatim quas cernere nemo

cum possit, tamen adsiduo crebroque repulsu

reiectae reddunt speculorum ex aequore visum,

nec ratione alia servari posse videntur,

tanto opere ut similes reddantur cuique figurae.

There are thus thin kinetic patterns of similar

images, which though no one is able to see discretely,

nevertheless by continuous and frequent repulsion they rebuff

and return a visible figure from the surface of mirrors.

All of nature is composed of a continuous movement of weaving matter which “reverberates, throws back, and restores things” [repulsu reiectae reddunt] through folding (Figure 6.2). Simulacra do not just move between things. Things are nothing but simulacra, which are themselves nothing but flows or threads of matter [primordia] (4.111) continually folded and woven together [exordia rerum cunctarum] (4.114–115) and constantly reverberating off one another in various sonic, visual, olfactory, and haptic patterns.

            This is why images appear not just near the surface of things but appear in midair through diffraction (4.129–140). Just as we see giant faces, mountains, or monsters in the clouds, so to do we see diffracted images patterns in midair elsewhere. Clouds, like simulacral diffractions, are liquid [liquentia] (4.141) and perpetually fluid [perpetuoque fluant] (4.144) kinomophic assemblages. Clouds are certainly more fluid than most simulacra around us on the the surface of earth, but the basic structure is the same. Nature is one big entangled parallax of shifting flows.

            We know this because whenever we take out a mirror, Lucretius says, it immediately starts reflecting simulacra around without perceptible delay. This means that the flow of matter must be occurring everywhere all the time at very high speeds (4.155–158).

et quamvis subito quovis in tempore quamque

rem contra speculum ponas, apparet imago;

perpetuo fluere ut noscas e corpore summo

texturas rerum tenuis tenuisque figuras. 

And however suddenly, at whatever time you place a mirror
in front of each thing, an image appears,
so that you may realize that constantly flowing from the outer surface

of things are thin woven webs and thin figures.

            Just like the high speed and constant flow [perpetuo fluere] (4.157) of photons (and their quantum fields), matter [corpore] (4.157), according to Lucretius, is constantly “weaving things” together [texturas rerum] by drawing out their figures [figuras] (4.158). Simulacra do not fly through empty space. Space, as we know from books I and II, is made by matter in motion. Space, locus, for Lucretius, is porous and folded. Wherever it seems empty, we need only hold up a mirror to see it shot through with tangled webs of simulacra.

Lucretius II: An Ethics of Motion, 159-164.

 


[i] William Shakespeare, As You Like It, Act II, Scene VII.

[ii] Thalma Lobel, Sensation: The New Science of Physical Intelligence (New York: Atria Books, 2016).

[iv] See Thalma Lobel, Sensation, chapters 4, 5, 6 on color and light and dark.

[v] Florence Willimas, The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative (New York: Norton, 2018).

[vi] See Benjamin Lieberman and Elizabeth Gordon, Climate Change in Human History: Prehistory to the Present (London: Bloomsbury, 2018) and Nigel Clark, Inhuman Nature: Sociable Life on a Dynamic Planet (Thousand Oaks: Sage, 2011).

[vii] For a related treatment of string figures, see Haraway, Staying with the Trouble, “Playing games of string figures is about giving and receiving patterns, dropping threads and failing but sometimes finding something that works, something consequential and maybe even beautiful, that wasn’t there before, of relaying connections that matter, of telling stories in hand upon hand, digit upon digit, attachment site upon attachment site, to craft conditions for finite flourishing on terra, on earth.” 10.

 

What is New Materialism?

What is New Materialism?

Christopher N. Gamble, Joshua S. Hanan & Thomas Nail (2019) WHAT IS NEW MATERIALISM?, Angelaki, 24:6, 111-134, DOI: 10.1080/0969725X.2019.1684704

The increasing prominence of “new materialism” signals a growing cross-disciplinary effort to challenge longstanding assumptions about humans and the non- or other-than- human material world. This paper argues that there is currently no single definition of new materialism but at least three distinct and partly incompatible trajectories.1 All three of these trajectories share at least one common theoretical commitment: to problematize the anthropocentric and constructivist orientations of most twentieth-century theory in a way that encourages closer attention to the sciences by the humanities.

The common motivation for this “materialist turn” is a perceived neglect or diminishment of matter in the dominant Euro-Western tradition as a passive substance intrinsically devoid of meaning. In what has become a kind of de facto motto, new materialists routinely emphasize how matter is “alive,” “lively,” “vibrant,” “dynamic,” “agentive,” and thus active. As we will argue, however, while new materialist scholars tend to use them interchangeably,2 such terms nevertheless take on sharply divergent meanings across the three approaches we identify. Likewise, as we examine below, this same divergence also underlies new materialist efforts to problematize anthropocentric binaries (e.g., “meaning and matter,” “culture and nature,” and “gender and sex”).

Alongside the rise of new materialism, there have also been numerous critiques. For example, new materialism has been criticized for exaggerating the extent of earlier feminist scholarship’s “biophobia” or neglect of matter;3 for rejecting Marxism and cultural materialism on mistaken grounds;4 for uncritically embracing and conflating the scientific study of matter with matter itself;5 and for overstating its alleged “newness.”6 Unfortunately, however, these critiques have largely placed all new materialists under the same umbrella and thus have often misidentified their target. At least, this is what we hope to demonstrate.

This paper emerges from our desire to offer a response to such criticisms but not in order to defend new materialism in general. Instead, we hope to help redirect each arrow of critique toward its proper target, and on this basis to advocate for the approach we call “performative” or “pedetic” new materialism. We think this approach has the greatest value and potential for future development but has unfortunately been badly misunderstood and wrongly conflated with the other two types of emerging new materialism. We therefore aim to illuminate how “negative new materialism,” “vital new materialism,” and “performative” or “pedetic” new materialism are simply not compatible.7 Even if their motivations are similar, their basic guiding premises are not.

More specifically, although each of the three types of materialism seeks to critique anthropocentrism’s presumption of matter as inherently passive and devoid of meaning, we argue that only the performative new materialist approach radically undermines a discrete separation between humans and matter. In distinct ways, both negative and vital new materialism continue to foreclose an appreciation of the truly performative movements of matter. On one hand, negative new materialism embraces either a radical division between human thought and inorganic matter or a “withdrawn” essence, both of which we think persist due to its uncritical embrace of an external, human-observer perspective.8 On the other hand, while vital materialism explicitly rejects any form of essentialism, we think it nevertheless manages to sneak back in through a metaphysics of life projected onto inorganic matter.9 In these crucial ways, as we elaborate below, non-performative new materialist theories continue to implicate certain objectivist, non-relational and, thus, idealist assumptions or residuals.10

The performative approach to new materialism, however, successfully eschews discrete separation by refusing any presumption of something external to matter – including human meaning – that guides, structures or grants meaning to its behaviors. In such a view, matter simply “is […] a doing,” as Karen Barad puts it.11 Matter is what it does or “how it moves,” as Thomas Nail puts it.12 And since the performances of humans are not external to those of the rest of the material world, this view also leads, importantly, to a performative understanding of science in which every act of observing also constitutes, at once, a transformation of what is being observed. Such a view enables the following responses to the criticisms of new materialist work we mentioned above:

(1) The neglect of matter. While we agree that some new materialism work does unwittingly reinforce the binaries it seeks to problematize,13 we believe this criticism does not apply to the performative approach. For example, when the latter speak of a prior “neglect” of matter they do not mean that previous theorists did not talk about matter but rather that those theorists neglected or discounted matter as inherently dynamic and meaningful (precisely due to the anthropocentric presumption that meaning, and whatever else might make humans exceptional, is immaterial).14

(2) Science envy. While we also agree that some new materialists have embraced science uncritically in ways that conflate its findings with matter as such, in a performative account scientific practices and discourses are just as productive of the very world they describe as is any other action, human or otherwise. Such an account therefore agrees with poststructuralism and science-and-technology studies that all human discourses are constitutive. The novel argument, however (at least within the dominant Euro-Western tradition), is that those discourses are themselves also – and only – particular configurations or performances of matter.

(3) The fetish of novelty. Although we fully embrace historically oriented work questioning the alleged newness of new materialism, we again do not agree that this critique applies to the performative approach. Matter always has been in motion. We have shown elsewhere how the creativity of this movement has been erased or excluded in the Western tradition.15 Furthermore, arguably the most important historical Euro-Western precursor to performative materialism is the ancient Roman poet Lucretius, whose philosophical poem, in many ways, is connected to a performative materialist understanding of Homer.16 In addition, we also find a great deal of merit to the recent call for greater recognition of and sustained engagement with the affinities (and differences) between a performative “new” materialism such as Barad’s “agential realism” and the many and varied agent ontologies discussed in indigenous studies literature, which in some cases can be traced back many millennia.17 We thus understand performative materialism as a recovery in novel form of older subterranean or largely disparaged or disregarded materialisms and certainly not as an ex nihilo appearance.

The aim of this paper is to clarify what distinguishes a performative or pedetic approach to materialism by illuminating its differences with both older materialisms and other new ones. The general aim of Part 1 is to develop the former distinction.

Read on!

Black Hole Sun: On the Materialist Sublime

The first image of black hole has just been released today. This is a profound and important aesthetic moment from a new materialist perspective. The image is not beautiful because we enjoy a free play of our imagination as we try to figure out what we are looking at and how it fits with our existing conceptual framework. The image is also not sublime in the sense that a black hole is an infinitely dense singularity that defies all calculation by general relativity, and thus “blows our mind,” as we try to conceptualize the radically unconceptualizable. The black hole is itself a work of art. Nature, according to Kant, cannot be art because nature is passive and mechanistic. Art, for Kant, is radically free because it is a strictly human feeling of our own freedom.

The black hole is an excellent example of the materialist sublime. Nature and matter are not passive or deterministic. They are indeterminate material processes. They perform precisely the sublime that Kant restricts to humans alone. Black holes are not infinitely dense singularities. At the heart of a black hole is a specific (and very small) spatio-temporal region measured by the Planck scale and related to the size of the black hole (its Schwarzschild radius). However, and more importantly, below the Planck level of the black hole there are quantum processes that produce the spacetime of that region. These quantum processes below the Planck unit are fundamentally indeterminate—meaning that they are neither in one spacetime or another. They are the indeterminate material conditions for the emergence of spacetime itself (quantum gravity).

In other words, nature is not just the passive conditions for the human experience of its own aesthetic faculties of beauty or the sublime but itself performs the sublime activity of radical indeterminism without concrete form. Humans have the experience of sublimity only because nature is already performatively and materially sublime.

 

 

The Life of Plants: A Metaphysics of Mixture, Emanuele Coccia (2018)

This is a wonderful book. I highly recommend it for those interested in materialism, nature, plants, posthuman ecology.

We barely talk about them and seldom know their names. Philosophy has always overlooked them; even biology considers them as mere decoration on the tree of life. And yet plants give life to the Earth: they produce the atmosphere that surrounds us, they are the origin of the oxygen that animates us. Plants embody the most direct, elementary connection that life can establish with the world.

In this highly original book, Emanuele Coccia argues that, as the very creator of atmosphere, plants occupy the fundamental position from which we should analyze all elements of life. From this standpoint, we can no longer perceive the world as a simple collection of objects or as a universal space containing all things, but as the site of a veritable metaphysical mixture. Since our atmosphere is rendered possible through plants alone, life only perpetuates itself through the very circle of consumption undertaken by plants. In other words, life exists only insofar as it consumes other life, removing any moral or ethical considerations from the equation. In contrast to trends of thought that discuss nature and the cosmos in general terms, Coccia’s account brings the infinitely small together with the infinitely big, offering a radical redefinition of the place of humanity within the realm of life.

More here.

Posthuman Ecologies: Complexity and Process after Deleuze, Edited by Rosi Braidotti and Simone Bignall (2018)

Posthuman Ecologies

The devolved and dispersed character of human agency and moral responsibility in the contemporary condition appears linked with the deepening global trauma of ‘inhumanism’ as a paradox of the Anthropocene. Reclaiming human agency and accountability appears crucial for collective resistance to the unprecedented state of environmental and social collapse resulting from the inhumanity of contemporary capitalist geopolitics and biotechnologies of control. Understanding the potential for such resistance in the posthuman condition requires urgent new thinking about the nature of human influence in complex interactional systems, and about the nature of such systems when conceived in non-anthropocentric way. Through specific readings and uses of Deleuze’s conceptual apparatus, this volume examines the operation of human-actioned systems as complex and heterogeneous arenas of affection and accountability. This exciting collection extends non-humanist concepts for understanding reality, agency and interaction in dynamic ecologies of reciprocal determination and influence. The outcome is a vital new theorisation of human scope, responsibility and potential in the posthuman condition.

Table of Contents

1. Rosi Braidotti and Simone Bignall – Introduction: posthuman systems /

2. Iris Van der Tuin – Deleuze and diffraction /

3. Jussi Parikka – Cartographies of environmental arts /

4. Andrej Radman – Involutionary architecture: unyoking coherence from congruence /

5. Elizabeth de Freitas – Love of learning: amorous and fatal /

6. James Williams – Time and the posthuman /

7. Sean Bowden – ‘Becoming-equal to the act’: the temporal structure of action and agential responsibility /

8. Suzanne McCullagh – Heterogeneous collectivities and the capacity to act: conceptualising nonhumans in the political sphere /

9. Simone Bignall and Daryle Rigney – Indigeneity, posthumanism and nomad thought: transforming colonial ecologies /

10. Thomas Nail – Kinopolitics: borders in motion /

11. Gregory Flaxman – Out of control: from political economy to political ecology /

12. Jon Roffe – Economic systems and the problematic character of price /

13. Edward Mussawir – A modification in the subject of right: Deleuze, jurisprudence and the diagram of bees in Roman law /

14. Myra Hird and Kathryn Yusoff – Lines of shite: microbial-mineral chatter in the Anthropocene

You can buy the book here using the promo code RLIJAN19 for 30% off.

 

 

The Poetry of Georges Bataille, George Bataille, translated by Stuart Kendall (2018)

Just got my copy in the mail yesterday.

Presents a new window into the literary, philosophical, and theological concerns of this enigmatic thinker and writer.

Despite its relative rarity, and the condensed brevity of the poems themselves, poetry occupies a striking place in the literary and philosophical oeuvre of Georges Bataille. For Bataille, poetry had no meaning “except in the violence of revolt,” which it could attain “only by evoking the impossible.” Toward this end, he wrote poetry, as he says in Inner Experience, “with necessity—in accordance with my life.” Although poems appear in four of his major works, and others were published independently in a small collection and in magazines, much of Bataille’s poetry remained unpublished at the time of his death. This volume presents a nearly complete edition of the poems in chronological order. Stuart Kendall provides an extensive introduction and notes highlighting the literary, philosophical, and theological significance of Bataille’s poetry. He also explores the influence of Nietzsche, St. John of the Cross, Blake, Baudelaire, and other poètes maudits and situates the poems in relation to Bataille’s other writings and the period in which he wrote.

Georges Bataille (1897–1962), a medievalist librarian by training, founded the College of Sociology and the secret society Acéphale. He was equally famous for his contributions to French literature, art criticism, anthropology, philosophy, and theology. Bane of theologians, existentialists, and surrealists during his lifetime, he became an essential reference for the poststructuralist generation of French intellectuals, including Roland Barthes, Jean Baudrillard, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Derrida.

Here.

The Incorporeal: Ontology, Ethics, and the Limits of Materialism, Elizabeth Grosz (2018) Paperback

Philosophy has inherited a powerful impulse to embrace either dualism or a reductive monism―either a radical separation of mind and body or the reduction of mind to body. But from its origins in the writings of the Stoics, the first thoroughgoing materialists, another view has acknowledged that no forms of materialism can be completely self-inclusive―space, time, the void, and sense are the incorporeal conditions of all that is corporeal or material. In The Incorporeal Elizabeth Grosz argues that the ideal is inherent in the material and the material in the ideal, and, by tracing its development over time, she makes the case that this same idea reasserts itself in different intellectual contexts.

Grosz shows that not only are idealism and materialism inextricably linked but that this “belonging together” of the entirety of ideality and the entirety of materiality is not mediated or created by human consciousness. Instead, it is an ontological condition for the development of human consciousness. Grosz draws from Spinoza’s material and ideal concept of substance, Nietzsche’s amor fati, Deleuze and Guattari’s plane of immanence, Simondon’s preindividual, and Raymond Ruyer’s self-survey or autoaffection to show that the world preexists the evolution of the human and that its material and incorporeal forces are the conditions for all forms of life, human and nonhuman alike. A masterwork by an eminent theoretician, The Incorporeal offers profound new insight into the mind-body problem.

Here