Friday, May 01, 2009

All those small little local interactions through which something like social structure emerges

Entropy and Locality from Larval Subjects by larvalsubjects

Perhaps one of the greatest achievements of Western philosophy and science has been the so-called “locality hypothesis”. The locality hypothesis, articulated nicely in Lucretius’ axiom that “nothing can come from nothing”, is roughly the thesis that things must touch or interact to affect one another. Although this hypothesis has now been called into question in the highly specific and strange(!) case of quantum entanglement where particles at very great distances appear to immediately influence one another in a way that exceeds the speed of light (thereby excluding the possibility of any information exchange), this hypothesis has been extremely fruitful in shedding light on the workings of the world. If the locality hypothesis is kept firmly in mind, it significantly changes the way you conceive of the world about you.

For example, where before it might not have ever occurred to you to consider how vision is possible, you now wonder what might allow you to see something over there, here. There must be some interaction with your eyes and the object you see, but what is that interaction? The transfer of photons of light, of course. Yet now you see that what you see as simultaneous to you is not, in fact, simultaneous as light takes time to travel. The world becomes a very strange place when the locality hypothesis is kept in mind.

The problem with explanations of social phenomena through things like “social forces”, “power”, “social structures”, “ideology”, etc., is that it black boxes the entropy reducing mechanisms, the local interactions, that are the very things to be explained. In moving in an overly hasty fashion to explanation it believes itself to have explained what it sought to understand when instead it has simply given a name to the phenomenon. As a result, it denies itself an insight into all those small little local interactions through which something like social structure emerges, foreclosing the means to change the forms of social organization it would like to change.

More Agamben Notes: Il sacramento del linguaggio, §§7-12 from An und für sich by Adam Kotsko

In Greek, the link between faithfulness and the oath is even closer, as pistis could often serve as a synonym for horkos. The link with personal fidelity makes sense of the dual sense of faith (active and passive, given and received) — because faith is a bond. Bringing in the close link in Latin between fides and credere, which as he notes was to have a huge influence in Christian theology, he claims that etymologically credere meant “to give one’s *kred,” meaning a promise of protection that binds two people in a bond of fidelity. Fides also took on an important role in international law, modelled on the fides between individuals — a city could capitulate to a conquerer and swear fealty, leading to more merciful treatment. In every case, what’s at stake in fides is the correspondence between word and action.

And again, as Dumezil has demonstrated in his study of archaic Roman institutions, fides or the oath is the origin of religion rather than being grounded in religion. The oath is where our concepts of law and religion, as well as moral and social, break down — and so we don’t need to bring in some concept of the “pre-juridical” that would be solely religious, but rather to call into question our entire notions of religious and juridical on the basis of the oath.

A footnote attempts to dispel the notion that the separation between human and divine law was an ancient principle in Roman and Greek law by showing that scholars have missed the irony in the passages from Tacitus and Plato usually brought forward in support of that view. [This footnote was pretty amusing, but it's hard to capture in this format.]

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