February 01, 2008

Complex operation of chance, receptivity, and selection in shaping history

Heat to the Fire from Roughtheory.org by N Pepperell
Something about today has me thinking of Lucretius, who figures in Marx’s very early work on Epicurean philosophy. Marx describes Lucretius as a bold, shattering, free mind whose poetry calls out to the potential freedom in the minds of others:

As nature in spring lays herself bare and, as though conscious of victory, displays all her charm, whereas in winter she covers up her shame and nakedness with snow and ice, so Lucretius, fresh, keen, poetic master of the world, differs from Plutarch, who covers his paltry ego with the snow and ice of morality. When we see an individual anxiously buttoned-up and clinging into himself, we involuntarily clutch at coat and clasp, make sure that we are still there, as if afraid to lose ourselves. But at the sight of an intrepid acrobat we forget ourselves, feel ourselves raised out of our own skins like universal forces and breathe more fearlessly. Who is it that feels in the more moral and free state of mind -he who has just come out of Plutarch’s classroom, reflecting on how unjust it is that the good should lose with life the fruit of their life, or he who sees eternity fulfilled, hears the bold thundering song of Lucretius

It’s interesting the figures toward which we gravitate - the layers of significance those figures hold for us. Marx’s description, revelling in Lucretius’ skill, courage, and insight, reminded me of how Lucretius has often served as a touchstone figure for Sinthome at Larval Subjects - of the diverse ways in which Sinthome’s writing mobilises and finds inspiration in this figure. In various posts over the past couple of years, Sinthome has discovered in Lucretius a voice of enlightenment, wielding reason and sensory observation against superstition, a founding figure of materialism - one whose vision poses challenges for certain materialisms of a more recent vintage, a thinker who dramatically problematises a new world through his philosophy, and a symbol, in the very story of the transmission and reception of his own work, of how it might be possible to think the complex operation of chance, receptivity, and selection in shaping history.
Some of what fascinates Sinthome in Lucretius, I think, must also have fascinated Marx. Several times in his reflections on Lucretius, Sinthome quotes the following passage from the first book of De Rerum Natura in which Lucretius distinguishes intrinsic properties of things, from accidents. This passage is laden with potential for social critique:
A property is that which not at all
Can be disjoined and severed from a thing
Without a final dissolution; such,
weight to the rocks, heat to the fire, and flow
To the wide waters, touch to corporeal things,
Intangibility to the viewless void.
But state of slavery, personhood, 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.
Nature here stands as a critical standpoint against which the contingency of social institutions stands revealed. Pointing to the potentially explosive power of the claim that social institutions are in some sense arbitrary, Sinthome has questioned whether every form of contemporary materialism surpasses this critical standard.
Marx is keen, I think, not to fail this sort of test. Interestingly, of the many elements of Lucretius’ Epicurean philosophy that Marx admires, he seems particularly drawn to what he sees as its premiseless character. (Reading this in Marx’s notebooks tonight, I can’t help but be amused: the time I have spent recently trying to demonstrate that this is a major concern for Marx, even though he expresses it only indirectly - and here, in some of the earliest writings we have from Marx, I find it spelled out explicitly…)
Without thinking of it in these terms, I suppose I have suggested in my recent work that Marx wields the premiselessness that he admires, against the distinction to which Sinthome draws attention above - but in the service of preserving and retaining such a distinction by establishing the determinate relationships that bind together what are taken to be intrinsic properties and what are taken to be accidents - at least within the bounds of the overarching accident that is capitalist society.

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