“The more consciousness is intellectualized, the more matter is spatialized.” — Henri Bergson, “Creative Evolution,” 1911
Manuel De Landa writes from a strange pataphysical world of disjunctions and fluid transitions — a milieu where writing about ideas becomes a fluid dialectic switching from steady state to flux and back again in the blink of an eye, or the turn of a sentence. His style of thinking is a like a landscape made of crystalline structures: rocks and lavas, magmas and tectonic plates that dance beneath our feet at every moment. And that doesn’t even get to the shifting magnetic polarities of the planet and the solar winds and celestial movements that surround our little third stone from the sun. A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History (Zone Books, 1997) is like a cognitive labyrinth of false starts and dead ends, like an M.C. Escher painting, or even more accurately, like Hieronymus Bosch’s carnival tableaux bereft of characters — the mise-en-scene displaces the actors operating within it, and subsumes their identity. A shift in perspective takes place, creating a world where words act as a bridge across broken and fractured “times” that exist pretty much simultaneously. De Landa has given an overview of what he calls “historic materialism” and how the basic processes of the full environment we live in have shaped contemporary thought.
Writing about Manuel De Landa’s work is difficult. It isn’t the fact that his work is extremely well researched (it is), or the fact that much of it involves extremely precise investigations into different realms of theoretical approaches to the way we humans live and think in different multiplex contexts that themselves are part question part unanswerable — for lack of a better word — motif. There’s always that sense that one thing leads to another and basically there is no discrete and stable form of inquiry: the question changes and configures the answer which again, reconfigures what was originally asked. And so the loops go on.
De Landa’s first book, War in the Age of Intelligent Machines (Zone Books, 1991), was an instant classic; it encapsulated what so many different theorists were trying (without much success) to achieve — an overview of our time and the different historical cybernetic developments that created the milieu we live in. Call it morphic resonance, or material convergence, or hermeneutical fusion — yada yada yada — but you get the basic idea: the kind of “real” that theorists and philosophers such as Heidegger (of “The Age of the World Picture” essay fame) and a whole cast of people supporting the ideas and extensions of European rationality like Francis Fukuyama and Frederic Jameson have not only been crippling and distorting frameworks to view human history from, but have also divorced us from the physical processes of the world of flux and constant change that we are immersed in.
Written from the viewpoint of a cybernetic historian, De Landa’s War in the Age of Intelligent Machines created a sense of “historian as actor as philosopher.” The history of and relationships between humans and the machines we use to create our cultures were transformed into a continuum where the line dividing the organic from the inorganic blurs, and the end result is something altogether completely hybrid. A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History takes up where War… left off: with a critique of the material processes embedded in the migrations of not only human cultures, but of the geological, biological, linguistic, and memetic systems that have impacted on this planet and its inhabitants over the last thousand years. This includes teleology, contemporary constructions of identity, frameworks of philosophical investigation — in the flow of time like the old Borges poem “The Hourglass” says:
all are obliterated, all brought down By the tireless trickle of the endless sand.
I do not have to save myself — I too Am a whim of time, that shifty element
Paul D. Miller: In A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History you point out that “human history is a narrative of contingencies not necessities, of missed opportunities to follow different routes of development.” My question is this: history is always a framework of interpretation; do you feel that somehow we have moved into our frameworks, moved into the picture and lost the frame?
Manuel De Landa: One of the ideas that I attack in my book is precisely the primacy of “interpretations” and of “conceptual frameworks.” Sure, ideas and beliefs are important, and do play a role in history, but academics of different brands have reduced all material and energetic processes, and all human practices that are not linguistic or interpretative (think of manual skills, of “know-how”) to a “framework.” The twentieth century has been obsessed with positioning everything. Every culture, given that it has its own framework of beliefs, has become its own “world” and relativism (both moral and epistemological) now prevails. But once you break away from this outmoded view, once you accept all the nonlinguistic practices that really make up society (not to mention the nonhuman elements that also shape it, such as viruses, bacteria, weeds, or nonorganic energy and material flows like wind and ocean currents) then language itself becomes just another material that flows through a much expanded picture. Language, in my view, is best thought of as a catalyst, a trigger for energetic processes (think of the words “begin the battle” triggering an enormous and destructive process). The question of “missed opportunities” is important, since for most of the millennium both China and India had, in fact, a better chance to conquer the world than did the West, so that the actual outcome, a world dominated by Western colonialism, was quite contingent. Things could have happened in several other ways.
PDM: What are your thoughts on digital art and its relationship to the different forms of communication in our dense and continuously changing world. Is there any return to the “comforts” of a “homogeneous” culture on the horizon?
MDL: Here again we have two different answers depending on whether you believe in “conceptual frameworks” or not. If you do, then you also believe that there’s such a thing as “the bourgeois ideology of the individual,” a pervasive framework within which all artistic production of the last few centuries is inscribed. But if you do not believe there was ever such a thing, then history becomes much less homogeneous, much less dominated by any one framework, and hence you begin to look at all the different ways in which art has escaped the conditions of its production (which, admittedly, did include ruling classes as suppliers of resources). Put differently, once you admit that history has been much more complex and heterogeneous than we have been told, then even the “enemy” looks less in control of historical processes than we thought. In a sense, what I am trying to do is to cut the enemy down to size, to see all the potential escape routes that we have been overlooking by exaggerating the importance of “frameworks” or “ideologies.” Clearly, if the enemy was never as powerful as we thought (which is not to say that it did not to say that it did have plenty of power) the question of the role of art (digital or otherwise) in changing social reality acquires new meanings and possibilities.
PDM: How does your philosophy of history differ from those of previous philosophers? Do you feel affinities with any contemporaries on this subject? Deleuze and Guattari, maybe, with whom there’s a sense of continuous, vertiginous change — a tacit admission that history is continuity, but seething, ebbing, and flowing continuity?
MDL: There are two main differences between my philosophical ideas about history and those of previous philosophers. The first one, which is shared by many these days, is a rejection of Platonic essences as sources of form — you know, the idea that the form of this mountain here or of that zebra over there emanates from an essence of “mountain-hood” or of “zebra-hood” existing in some ideal world, or in the mind of the God that created these creatures. Instead, for each such entity (not only geological and biological entities, but also social and economic ones), I force myself to come up with a process capable of creating or producing such an entity. Sometimes these processes are already figured out by scientists (in those disciplines linked to questions of morphogenesis, like chaos theory and nonlinear dynamics) and so I just borrow their model, other times I need to create new models using philosophical resources — and people like Deleuze and Guattari have been very helpful in this regard. The other difference is my rejection of the existence of totalities, that is, entities like “Western Society” or the “Capitalist System.” The morphogenetic point of view does allow for the emergence of wholes that are more than the sum of their parts, but only if specific historical processes — specific interactions between “lower scale entities” — can be shown to have produced such wholes. Thus, in my view, institutional organizations like bureaucracies, banks, and stock markets acquire a life of their own from the interactions of individuals. From the interactions of those institutions, cities emerge, and from the interactions between cities, nation states emerge. Yet, in these bottom-up approaches, all the heterogeneity of real nation states can be pockets of minorities, the dialect differences, the local transience — unlike when history is modeled on totalities (concepts like “society” or “culture” or “the system”). In this latter situation, homogeneity has to be artificially injected into the model.
PDM: One thing everyone seems to agree on is that there are so many different frameworks of interpretation available today that we have lost track of the world we inhabit: the “natural” has been displaced by the human; we as a species have altered the atmosphere of the planet, changed the composition of the oceans, even created seismic disruptions. There’s an overwhelming sense of anthropocentric agency over determination: “There is nothing that man hath not wrought.” How do you think this sense of über-agency so prevalent in philosophical, historical, and political discourse will change in the future?
MDL: I agree that the domination of this century by linguistics and semiotics (which is what allows us to reduce everything to talk of “frameworks of interpretation”), not to mention the postcolonial guilt of so many white intellectuals which forces them to give equal weight to any other culture’s belief system, has had a very damaging effect, even on art. Today I see art students trained by guilt-driven semioticians or postmodern theorists, afraid of the materiality of their medium — whether painting, music, poetry, or virtual reality (since, given the framework dogma, every culture creates its own reality). The key to break away from this is to cut language down to size, to give it the importance it deserves as a communications medium, but to stop worshipping it as the ultimate reality. Equally important is to adopt a hacker attitude toward all forms of knowledge: not only to learn UNIX or Windows NT to hack this or that computer system, but to learn economics, sociology, physics, biology to hack reality itself. It is precisely the can-do mentality of the hacker, naive as it may sometimes be, that we need to nurture everywhere.