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:
- Manuel DeLanda, ‘Virtual Environments and the Emergence of Synthetic Reason’
- Manuel DeLanda, ‘The Geology of Morals: A Neomaterialist Interpretation’
- Manuel DeLanda, ‘Deleuze and the Genesis of Form’
And here’s an excellent introduction to his application of D&G/Braudel to Economics:
- Manuel DeLanda, ‘Markets, Antimarkets and Network Economics’