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De Landa’s A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History

De Landa, Manuel. 2000. A thousand years of nonlinear history. New York: Zone Books.Is it serendipity or synchronicity? Just the other day, for instance, I was discussing the old holiday favorite “A Christmas Story,” and then yesterday the director and his adult son were killed in a collision with a drunk driver. Then, in a happier coincidence, “White Spade” asked me where to start reading Manuel De Landa (sometimes DeLanda), and I’d just finished the book above last night.

Well, regardless of what we’d call such coincidences, I’m happy to be able to reply in such a speedy fashion. I started reading De Landa’s essays and presentations while I was doing almost three years of fieldwork in Cambodia – I didn’t really have access to his published books, and was restricted to what I could get off of the internet. That’s a lot, actually, most of which is available via his own website. I can also say, now, that I’m glad that I read his works in the way I did. Although his papers are occasionally denser and therefore more difficult to work through, all of the major points made in his book were made with a more crystalline clarity in his papers. If you’ve read the essays and presentations on his web site, the enjoyable part of the book is to see him flesh out his ideas with wonderfully selected and presented examples from history. The first third of the book, which draws heavily on Fernand Braudel, offers the greatest addition of examples not found in his essays.There are a few really delicious pleasures involved in reading De Landa. The most important is that he has a gift for synthesizing and clearly expressing very difficult theoretical concepts. His explanation of the Deleuze&Guattari concept of the Body Without Organs (BwO) in the conclusion of the book, for instance, is masterful, and much much clearer than any of D&G’s own writings on the topic.

Basically, De Landa takes a radically non-epistemological and immanentist approach to the world. That is, he brushes aside philosophical questions of epistemological veracity as relatively unimportant (though importantly, he does not deny that epistemology addresses real issues) compared to the importance of exploring the immanent nature of the world. It is ‘the world’ that brings up his second point, which is hammered home in both his explicit arguments and in the structure of the book itself. This second point is that there is a deep and underlying isomorphism in the entire world (indeed, in all of existence) that is based on this immanent nature.

Immanence for De Landa means that matter itself – all kinds of matter, not merely ‘organic’ matter – is inherently creative and self-organizing. And although that may sound like a stretch, he makes it all seem quite commonsensical, through examples ranging from the flows of lava, the sedimentation and structure of rock, etc. While this is itself fascinating reading and revelatory, it is when he gets around to elucidating his notion of ‘non-metaphorical’ isomorphism that things really take off.

Beginning with his geological examples, De Landa introduces two crucial concepts: meshworks and hierarchies. Hierarchies are characterized by a rigid stratification of homogenously sorted elements (sorted through what he calls, in language that is uncommonly unclear for him, an ‘abstract probe head’), organized into a ranked situation. This allows for a great deal of command and control in a situation marked by inequality. Meshworks, on the other hand, are networks of connections between heterogenous elements, based on mutual complementarity. De Landa does not claim that we should simply be in the business of replacing hierarchies (which he convincingly demonstrates have risen to a dominating position in most of life) with meshworks (which have suffered a corresponding loss of influence and existence) but that we should be in the business of moving the balance into a more sustainable and equalitarian relationship.

We may not care much about the inequality of types of rock, but it is the isomorphism between the relationship of inorganic matter, biological life, and social life (primarily through the example of economic history) that makes it a going concern. This isomorphism is a concept derived directly from Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of ‘abstract machines’, or ‘abstract machine diagrams,’ something that De Landa calls the “Machinic Phylum” in other places. This machinic phylum is nothing more or less than the rules of the universe expressed in abstract diagrams. The phrase ‘rules of the universe’ does some violence to the elegance of De Landa’s concept, since he opposes the notion that externally imposed rules could even exist, but instead argues that they are endogenously created – the point is nevertheless clear that these abstract diagrams of the machinic phylum, can be described as something more than metaphor because they reflect a singular and isomorphic process of immanent construction and transformation.

The book is divided up into three broad sections: one on economic history, which draws extensively and brilliantly on Fernand Braudel’s already-brilliant work (but see also Immanuel Wallerstein, who doesn’t appear in De Landa’s book and probably should), one on biology (drawing examples from all over the place, but indebted to Richard Dawkins‘ seminal “The Selfish Gene“, which created the concept of memes), and Linguistics, which shuts down the overlived structuralist school of linguistics quickly and elegantly in favor of a new, non-Chomskian approach to linguistics which manages to merge schools of linguistic consciousness (generative, transformational, and post-transformational grammars) with the social analyses which found so much traction in the school of linguistics operating in Turin when Antonio Gramsci was there (the formulation: “A Language is a dialect with an army” should have found its way in to De Landa’s book, and the connection between institutional support for language and hegemony is not addressed).

Undoubtedly, there are problems in the book, but as a whole it stands up marvelously. I remain unhappy with one aspect, however: while De Landa does a marvelous job explaining the world, I come from a school of thought which accepts the maxim expressed in Marx’s final thesis on Feuerbach:

The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.

This is where this book, at least, falls off the map. Sure, De Landa makes gestures in this direction on his very last page, where he notes that

Changing our way of thinking about the world is a necessary first step, but it is by no means sufficient: we will need to destratify reality itself, and we must do so without the guarantee of a golden age ahead, knowing full well the dangers and possible restratifications we may face.

But he makes absolutely no attempt to explain or suggest how such destratifications can or should occur, and since the rest of the book takes an almost classically Marxist attitude of economic (or, in De Landa’s case, ‘immanent’) determinism, the capacity for conscious and intentional positive change is left completely unaddressed. This is a serious problem, really. For all that De Landa makes aspects of the world and its construction clear, he very nearly effects a closure in the knowledge he creates which makes it impossible to apply this knowledge to affect the destratification he proposes as desideratum.

It is possible that he owes this, as he owes much of his other insights, to his reading of Deleuze and Guattari. His reading of D&G is profoundly materialist and scientistic, quite in opposition to what D&G themselves seem to have practiced in their own work. It is this scientism that makes De Landa’s prose so crystalline and lucid, but it also leaves out D&G’s own proposal for liberatory change. D&G, following in the so-called ‘anti-psychiatric’ tradition of Wilhelm Reich, propose that the liberation of desire, the explosion of desires, and the affirmation of desire, are themselves liberatory (that’s far too simplistic, but this is not a review of D&G). Desire (as opposed to biological or immanent drives) plays no role in De Landa’s scientistic reading of D&G, and there is nothing to replace its theoretically liberating potential.

Of course, there are many, myself included, who find D&G’s emphasis on desire itself naive and just plain wrong. But it is possible to combine the frankly brilliant insights of D&G, and the clear elucidation and extension of their ideas found in De Landa, with the work of other thinkers to accomplish a truly liberatory approach to an immanent world. What is necessary is to find a way to acknowledge not only the immanence of matter but also the possibility of affecting that matter through intentional consciousness (will, to use a horribly mistreated and loathed word). For myself, this is something I accomplish through readings of Cornelius Castoriadis, and in fact by putting his work at the center of my own examinations, and using D&G/De Landa as the background.

For those interested in beginning to read De Landa, I would recommend either simply picking up this book and starting there, or even better, starting with the following articles, available for free from his website:

  • Manuel DeLanda, ‘DeLanda Destratified’ interview by Erik Davis in Mondo 2000, No 8, Winter 1992, pp. 44-48 [this Erik Davis is not me]

These following are excellent works on the concept of immanent and materialist morphogenesis:

And here’s an excellent introduction to his application of D&G/Braudel to Economics:

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5 thoughts on “De Landa’s A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History

  1. White Spade says:

    E.D.,

    Your account of De Landa is just the sort of dedicated explication we readers of deathpower in cambodia- the happy few? – appreciate you for offering at your diachronic expense and at no expense to us. Rather than blowing smoke-rings through Java Cafe bagels (“De Landa is, like, bleeding edge in his valorization of, like, machinic concepts….dude, you should read him.”), you offer us a reaching and synthetic perspective. So, again, thanks for that.

    Now, a couple of questions from a curious amateur.

    The Marx line you mention is one that jumped off the page for me as well when I first dipped into a battered copy of Marxist Social Thought pried from the hands of friendly Jerry at the redoubtable old London Books when it was ensconced in material dilemma of Street 240. The Marx quote rang clear as a bell upon first reading.

    Yet now I find some genuine misgiving toward his lines. Efforts to change the world are ultimately driven by individuals. And an individual whose own house is not in order is only going to bring his own confusions and fragmentation to bear upon the project of his choosing. It’s too glib to note that the 20th century bears witness to humankind’s misguided efforts at social change. And another Cambodian forum would be a better place to discuss the self-deceptions of the social workers and the ways their psychological fragmentation has contributed to the malaise and, at times, disaster in reconstructing Cambodian society.

    You are right to mention Wallerstein and Braudel. In fact, in the preface to the Essential Wallerstein, Immanuel explicitly names Braudel as one of the three key influences on his career. The sober and explicitly expressed insights and reflections of Wallerstein, words that can be read by the very people who need them in order to effectively engage with their oppressors, have probably been unjustly neglected in interdisciplinary approaches to the structures that contribute to our misery in contemporary landscapes.

    It seems Deleuze, and perhaps De Landa, should be approached with extreme caution. Undoubtedly, both gentleman bore intellectual capacities exceeding those of most of us. Deleuze wrote in a little piece called “What is Philosophy?” (Pub. in Critical Inquiry) that the philosopher’s task is to create ever more concepts, regardless of the unwieldy neologisms that might necessarily arise.

    Well, why? What’s wrong with seeing the world as it exists and seeing oneself in order to respond without romanticism or undue affectation to the burning issues?

    I have read a few shorts by De Landau, and I will perhaps buy a book by him and read it; but my guard is up. Is this a guy who has a genuine concern, or is he another clever bastard out to demonstrate his cunning?

    White Spade

    Btw- wonder of wonders. U of Cambodia has a copy of Spell of the Sensuous. Now, I discovered this a week after my own copy arrived by post. By god though, a library that does not hold a single book by Nietzsche, James, or Jung has this particular work?! Tell me, E.W.D, were you the anonymous donor….

  2. Erik says:

    WS, thanks for your engagement here. I do think that Deleuze should be approached with caution. There are many excellent insights, and De Landa is commendable in my view precisely because he manages to clarify and re-present (in much more digestible form) the best of Deleuze’s insights, which do indeed tend to be on the scientific and mathematic end of things.

    I know that whatever else, Deleuze had a genuine interest in changing things for the better. He was not a Heideggerian claiming that ‘there is nothing to be done.’ I just happen to disagree (rather profoundly) with his program. De Landa seems to be rather engaged as well, though as it the case with most academics (myself likely not excluded) he’s probably just as often caught up in the joy of a beautiful idea as he is in its possibility for others. The thing is that while I’m clear on D&G’s program for liberation, I’m less so with De Landa.

    I am convinced, however, that it is not possible to get one’s own personal house in order before attempting to fix the world. These are movements (as D&G might say, a ‘double articulation’) that need to be undertaken simultaneously, and are in fact part of the same work. There is no individual without the social, just as there is no social with individuals. To take that rather facile claim seriously means to accept that the social (society) and the individual are inextricably part of the same process. Sick societies produce sick individuals, and vice versa. To expect us to get our own houses in order before getting to the work of improving the world is an impossible dream, and in fact a variety of the sort of ‘revolutionary purity’ which has caused so much tragedy in the last 100 years.

    I am not the donor of the Spell of the Sensuous, but I do hope you enjoy it. It is certainly not as groundbreaking as works by Nietzsche or James, but is beautifully written.

  3. White Spade says:

    Agreed. Society and the individual are inextricably part of the same process. In getting one’s own house in order, there’s no sense of “revolutionary” purity; rather, my sense is much like yours. We do not stand outside of the world, and when we create ideals from a removed stance and we are not clear about the movements within us and between us and the world, many ugly things occur. An example I would offer up here is Gandhi. His own feelings of inferiority and his confusion led him to project some very stupid movements onto a broad arena. Undoubtedly, he believed his own intentions were good; however, he recognized injustice through a very focused lens: Indians in the colonial Raj. His actions and insights were very limited. Were the blacks in S.Africa where he supposedly experienced his enlightenment not worthy of inclusion in a movement to end colonial oppression? Did the creation of a superficial term like “harijan” accomplish anything in ending the entire scheme of feudal oppression inherent in the Indian caste system? In the end, his life was dedicated to window dressing the prison view, namely through a meaningless borrowing and distortion of traditional Hindu quotations and “saintly” behaviors.

    I suppose many would gasp at the mention of any pejorative in the same breath as Gandhi. We should keep in mind that India remained a very closed, economically backward society at his behest for many a year, though.

    Some would say, I suppose, that the alternative is to remain aloof and to sort things out while the house is burning, and that this is a wrong approach. Yes, we need to find ourselves through action reflected in the mirror of relationship in society. Order cannot be brought within oneself on a beach in the Maluku or in an air-conditioned chamber in Cambridge, Mass. Fully engaged relationship with the world is needed. But I think you would agree that many a soul out to change the world for the better has in fact made it a more miserable place due to the conflict present within them.

    Spell of the Sensuous has been charming thus far. Abram writes so well, you are right. He doesn’t burden us with the weight of his efforts. I’ll let you know when I finish it.

  4. Pingback: Capital and the BwO (Body without Organs) « deathpower

  5. Pingback: Reading for November 2016 | Imagining The Real World

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