Interview conducted between January and April 2012
Timur Si-Qin: Your philosophy is explicitly realist and there seems to be areemergence of realism in philosophy in general these days. How do yousee your work in relation to this movement? Do you think realist philosophyis/will become important for people in today’s world?
Manuel de Landa: In the twentieth-century, at least in the humanities, idealismreigned supreme: the world, if it has any independent existence at all, is formless;we humans give it form with our mind and our concepts. Even in the hard sciencespositivism was a dominant position, and it too is an anti-realist stance. (Positivistsbelieve in the mind independence of directly observable entities, but not that ofelectrons, atoms, viruses, bacteria, etc.) So just in terms of timing, there is a feelingout there that those two forms of anti-realism are exhausted, and a search fornew alternatives is on. Of course, Marxist materialism was always a countervailingforce, but this form of realism is also increasingly regarded as having had its besttimes in the past. So there is a vacuum today, a vacuum that could be filled witha new form of materialism that rejects a priori schemes of morphogenesis (e.g.Hegelian dialectics) and replaces them with a plurality of schemes for which thereis evidence, and that are, therefore, a posteriori. Now, many of the problems facinghumanity are caused by material processes that are not directly observable, suchas the slow pollution of the atmosphere, rivers, oceans, or the slow degradationof human skills due to the spread of routinized labor in mass production. Idealistswould have no way of dealing with this (as far as they are concerned, these processdo not exist) and positivists would also have to treat their existence as a mere hypothesis.So it may be due to the urgency of the material problems that we face,many of which escape direct experience, that realism could make a come back.
TSQ: One fascinating thing in your writing is how you debunk the existence of“Capitalism” as a generalized whole, in favor of much more heterogenous,emergent processes at play in the global economy. This seems like a refreshingnon-conspiratorial position to take. Is this one of the ways yournew materialism stands in contrast to marxist materialism? Could you talkabout this and some other important differences?
MDL: The author that inspired me in this respect is Fernand Braudel, the main economichistorian of our time. His history of European economies from 1400 to the IndustrialRevolution is the most comprehensive that has ever been written: he and his disciplesactually checked Florentine bank books from the 15th century; the books fromfactories in Milan in the 16th century; the history of the Venetian arsenal, the mostimportant military-industrial complex in the early part of the past millennium. Andafter gathering all this data, his conclusion was that as far back as the 13th centurythere have always been at least two economic spheres: wholesale was never likeretail (until the 20th century); industrial production using economies of scale wasnever like that based on the agglomeration of talent in a region or city and basedon small firms; and high finance has always been an entirely different world fromthat of small money lenders. At the end of the third volume of this work, Braudelconcludes that there never was a single overall system. To fix this misconception hechanges the definition of the term “capitalism” to signify Big Business, with its capacityto manipulate demand and supply, and keeps the term “market economy” for populations of small firms that are in fact governed by anonymous economic forces. Today, in the middle of an economic crisis created by firms that were too big to fail, a crisis in which profits were privatized while losses socialized, Braudel’s words sound deeply prophetic.
As far as a contrast with Marxist materialism, the answer is two-fold. Against historicalmaterialism we need a new vision of history without teleology, one whichavoids a periodization into internally homogenous eras: feudalism, capitalism, socialism(or the Age of Agriculture, the Age of Industry, the Age of Information).There were never such Ages or Eras. Braudel, for example, shows how in the 14thcentury the areas of Europe that would become France and Spain did have manorsran by feudal lords, but the city-states in northern Italy and northern Germany(the Hanseatic league), as well as Flemish and Dutch towns, were already modernin many respects. Thus, we need to rethink our philosophy of history in the faceof historical evidence. On the other hand, dialectical materialism is objectionablefor different reasons. Any materialism needs a theory of synthesis to be able toaccount for the historical identity of mind-independent entities. But Marx tookhis theory from Hegel, synthesis through the negation of the negation, and this isan a priori scheme, the inadequacies of which were made obvious by Engel’s attemptto apply it to nature. What we need are a variety of a posteriori schemes ofsynthesis (from physics, chemistry, biology and other fields) to account for all thedifferent morphogenetic or synthetic processes that shape the non-human world,as well as the world of economics, starting with an account of the emergence ofprices (when not manipulated via economic power) as a collective unintendedconsequence of intentional action.
TSQ: Do you have any thoughts on what a neo-materialist social and/or economicpolitics would look like? For example how could issues like privatizationversus socialization be approached?
MDL: Once we break with the idea of the capitalist system, a system that you must replace as a whole via a Revolution, many options open up. I mentioned before thedistinction between industrial production based on economies of scale and thatbased on economies of agglomeration. The former is typically based on routinizedlabor (Taylorism); the leaders are managers of a joint-stock company (in whichownership and control are separated); its actors have pricing power (managers addan arbitrary mark-up to their costs); and it typically forms oligopolies, dominatedby a few giant firms. The latter uses skilled labor (it depends on the agglomerationof talented people in a region); it is led by entrepreneurs (owners with a visionthat risk their own savings); its actors do not have pricing power; and it forms largepopulations of firms in which, unlike oligopolistic rivalry, there is real anonymouscompetition. Now, this is a rough distinction that needs to be nuanced in manyways but it will serve to make my point. While economies of scale are private,the system resembles that of a government ran set of companies. As John KennethGalbraith, a great but neglected economist, pointed out half a century ago,oligopolies constitute a planning system, hardly distinguishable from communistcentral planning. And the fact that large firms are ran by hired guns (managers canown stock options but they do not have to) also resembles government ran firms in other countries. So, as it turns out, the distinction between the private and thepublic is a lot trickier than it seems.
Politically, this matters because if you are, say, part of the Occupy Wall Streetmovement, you need to make a distinction between fair competition among smallfirms ran by entrepreneurs and the rigged system of large corporations in whichthe impersonal forces of demand and supply are manipulated, and hence, do notallow prices to set themselves. You need to make this distinction because youdo no want to come across as denouncing the “system” as a whole. In a study byAnnalee Saxenian comparing Silicon Valley (dominated by economies of agglomeration)and Route 128 near Boston (once dominated by economies of scale) sheshows that during bad economic times, economies of agglomeration are morerobust and “weedy,” while economies of scale are brittle, and hence, must rely ongovernment bail-outs when external shocks bring them down. Hence, there arechoices to be made that are not the old choice between “privatization” and “nationalization,”a distinction based on marxism, and one still carrying the stigma thatMarx, borrowing from Proudhon, phrased with the ridiculous slogan “Private propertyis theft.” There are many leftists out there who still believe in that silly slogan.
TSQ: Your latest book Philosophy and Simulation systematically describes differentstages of life on earth and their corresponding computer simulations.Why should simulations be considered to provide insight intothese processes?
MDL: In other books I have expressed my commitment to the existence of a mind- independent world, a world in which autonomous entities are characterized by theiractual properties as well as by their tendencies and capacities. The latter are realbut need not be actual if they are not currently being manifested or exercised.Since tendencies and capacities can thus be potential (or virtual) it is necessary tocome to terms with their ontological status. For tendencies, such as the tendencyof water to freeze at zero degrees centigrade, what we need is to determine thestructure of the possibility space associated with water. In this case, the space ischaracterized by two singular or special points (freezing and boiling points) andby many ordinary ones. Thus, for tendencies it is a distribution of singularities thatsustains their reality when not actually manifested. For capacities, on the otherhand, we do not have such an analysis, partly because they are relational: a capacityto affect must always be coupled to a capacity to be affected for it to becomeactual: the capacity of a knife to cut must be exercised in interaction with something(bread, cheese, but not solid titanium) with the capacity to be cut. Mathematics,so useful in the analysis of tendencies, is of limited value here. What we needis a way to stage interactions in which capacities are exercised, and by staging alarge number of these with different parameter values, we can begin to map theseother possibility spaces. In my new book, I argue that computer simulations arethe best way of exploring the structure of the spaces associated with capacities.
TSQ: This concept of the phase transition, such as when materials go from solidto liquid to gas, plays an important role in your work and you apply it to everythingfrom economics to genetics. How did you first come to correlatethe process of the phase transition from dynamical systems to philosophy?
MDL: I first encountered the idea in the work of a physicist named Arthur Iberall, a pioneerin the study of nonlinear systems. He proposed looking at the main transformationsin human history — hunter-gatherer to agriculturalist, and agriculturalist tourban — not as steps in the ladder of progress but as critical thresholds at which aquantitative change becomes qualitative. What I found attractive about this ideawas that it eliminated teleology, as if it had been the destiny of humanity to progressivelygrow from a hunter-gatherer infancy to an agriculturalist adolescence,and then to full urban maturity. But if these are critical thresholds we can imaginehunter-gatherers rejecting agriculture: it was more fragile for a while; it caused areduction in the body of knowledge about edible roots, nuts, and other plant products;it involved new problems associated with sedentary life, like getting rid ofhuman refuse. And we can imagine agriculturalists actively preventing the crystallizationof a State, by ritually burning food surpluses and making sure leadershipwas not permanent. The first thesis suggests that agriculture was imposed on Europeanhunter-gatherers by invaders from North Africa, a hypothesis that seemsto be verified by the genetic patterns studied by Luigi Cavalli-Sforza: genes fromNorth Africa are present in the European gene pool in a way that suggests violentreplacement not peaceful coexistence and intermarriage. The second thesis, theexistence of active mechanisms to prevent the emergence of formal authority, hasbeen studied by Pierre Clastres. These two theses make sense if we follow Iberalland think of small bands of hunter-gatherers interacting irregularly as forming ahuman gas; of the earlier agricultural settlements as a condensation of this gas intoa human liquid; and finally, of the emergence of mineralized cities and a centralgovernment that codifies every aspect of life, as a crystallization of liquid humanity.
TSQ: My mother had a large Luigi Cavalli-Sforza book, I think it was The Historyand Geography of Human Genes, lying around when I was a kid and I rememberbeing quite fascinated by it’s illustrations. To me they impresseda certain materiality of genetic distributions. Do you foresee current societiesapproaching any critical thresholds? If so can you make any predictionson what those future states may resemble?
MDL: A very important property in nature that exhibits critical threshold is connectivity.A good example are percolation thresholds: if the empty spaces between grainsin the soil are fully connected then water and nutrients can flow freely, else theycan’t. These thresholds are also present in a more abstract form in any phenomenonthat can be modeled as a graph: are the nodes in the graph fully connected?In chemistry, for example, substances are represented by nodes, possiblereactions between them by edges between nodes. If the percolation thresholdis reached then it means that entire chains of chemical reactions become possible,long chains that are crucial for the development of living metabolisms. Althoughthe social world has increasingly become interconnected during the lastfew centuries (through maritime and railroad transportation, and telegraph and telephone communication) it is clear that the kind of connectivity being producedby the Internet has no precedent in human history. I have not made any detailedstudies of percolation thresholds involving computer networks but I am sure theyexist and the moment they are reached they create new opportunities and risksfor communities, organizations, cities, and countries. On the other hand, there canbe such a thing as an excess of connectivity, in which case we may have to relyon technologies of disconnection, the most important kind of which is cryptology.Humans may soon be forced to learn that they have to manage their connectionsmore actively, encrypting some while letting others unencrypted.
TSQ: In Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy you describe physical laws asphilosophical fossils embedded in the philosophy of science. Do you seethis notion affecting actual scientific practices? If so, how would the alternativelook?
MDL: The concept of an eternal and immutable law of nature is, indeed, a theologicalfossil, a leftover from the times when all scientists were deeply Christian. It is important,then, to get rid of the word, but not of its referent: the immanent patternsof being and becoming that scientists have discovered. Philosophically, this is importantbecause laws assume a concept of a material world that is obedient (thatis, that follows the law) and a concept of matter as an inert receptacle for formscoming from the outside. This is so close to the Aristotelian view (the hylomorphicschema) and even to creationism (in which a transcendent god gives commands,“let there be light,” that matter follows), that any new materialism must try to fixthis. Deleuze and Guattari (in the chapter on Nomadology) point this problem outand attempt to replace the concept of a “passive matter that follows the law” withthat of an active matter that possesses its own tendencies and capacities (or, intheir terms, its own singularities and affects). On the other hand, the fact that wecan remove the concept of “law” while leaving the objective knowledge producedby scientists mostly intact, implies that the concept is playing a rhetorical role inthe discourse of scientists, not an epistemological one. Hence, it does not reallyaffect scientific practice that much.
TSQ: I think this is another example of locating and dismantling essentialist andtranscendent notions in philosophy. Another example is in your writings onspecies archetypes vs. populations as well replacing the idea of “survivalof the fittest” with a topological understanding of ecological optima. Canyou talk about the importance of ridding philosophy of transcendental,archetypical and essentialist thinking?
MDL: In contemporary biology the human species, or any other species, is not considereda higher taxonomic category (as in Aristotle) but an individual entity.Not, of course, an individual organism but similar to it in that a species also hasa date of birth (the event of speciation) and a potential date of death (the eventof extinction). Hence, just like organisms are unique and singular (not even aclone is an exact replica, since it has a different embryological and ontogenetichistory) so are species: once driven to extinction they never come back. In my book A New Philosophy of Society I tried to create a social ontology that islike this: individual persons, individual communities, individual organizations, individualcities, individual countries. That is, an ontology populated exclusively byunique and singular historical entities. Each individual entity is made out entitiesof lower scales: thus, communities and organizations are made out of persons,cities are made out of communities, organizations, and persons, and so on. Thisway, the properties (and tendencies and capacities) that characterize each entitycan be explained as the emergent product of the interactions between its components.Emergent properties, in turn, exorcize transcendence: when propertiesare not explained as a historical result of actual and sustained interactions theybecome transcendent. When they are emergent, on the contrary, they block reductionism(in that the properties belong to the whole not its parts) but they dodepend on there being some interactions between parts, that is, they are immanentto these interactions.On the other hand, each of these individual entities always exist as part of a population:a population of people, a multiplicity of communities, a plurality of organizations,and so on. This means that we must tackle these entities statistically,that is, that we must find out how variation is distributed in a population. This isanother way of breaking with essentialism: for Aristotle the variation observed ina population of animals of a given species was a smoke screen, a sort of noisethat did not allow one to see the eternal archetype of which these animals werebut imperfect copies. But when you think statistically, the variation is the key (inbiology, no variation = no evolution) as is its distribution. Thus, when you considerthe distribution of secondary sexual characteristics in a population of men andwomen, you do not see two mutually exclusive categories instantiating the essencesof masculinity and femininity, but two overlapping statistical distributionswith many ambiguous cases in the area of overlap.
TSQ: What is the ontology of the psychedelic experience?
MDL: When I write about the structure of possibility spaces I feel confident that thisstructure exists because mathematical models (and simulations) give you evidencethat it exists. But this evidence in only for each case individually. Thereis no evidence whatsoever that all the structures of all possibility spaces (i.e., allmultiplicities) form a space of their own. This overall virtual space is what we justreferred as the plane of immanence. If it did exist it would be a kind of “divine”plane, in the sense that it would contain all the morphogenetic resources availableto the material world. The first philosopher who thought about this, Spinozain the seventeenth-century, conceived it as a god, but as an impersonal and immanentgod, not at all like the personal and transcendent god of the bible. Now,the reason I have been investigating the psychedelic experience for four decadesnow (and 400 or so trips) is because I need evidence for all this. Not necessarilyevidence that scientists would accept as legitimate, but enough so that I can writeabout it with conviction.
TSQ: How would bottom-up, emergent processes relate to a plane of immanencecontaining all morphogenetic resources?
MDL: The existence of a plane of immanence is, of course, hypothetical. Or to put it differently, it is a concept that is the product of philosophical speculation. Nevertheless,the speculation can be constrained in a variety of ways. (In addition, we maypractice “transcendental empiricism” to have direct experience of the virtual planeso that the speculation is not entirely a priori.) In my book, Intensive Science andVirtual Philosophy, I first began by making the existence of such a plane plausibleusing the work of a mathematician named Felix Klein. Klein showed that the differentgeometries known to him in the nineteenth-century (projective, affine, Euclidean)were related to one another by a relation of progressive differentiation:in projective geometry all conic sections are one and the same figure; in affinegeometry, circles, ellipses, and parabolas are distinct, but small and large circles,small and large ellipses, are the same; finally, in Euclidean geometry (and othernon-flat versions of metric geometry) small and large circles are different figures.Klein’s followers added new geometries to this scheme, differential and topological,geometries which are even less differentiated than projective geometry: in topologyall closed figures, squares, circles, irregular polygons, are the same. It is almostas if topology gave birth to the other geometries as it differentiates, or to use thetechnical term, as it looses symmetry. I used this well known ordering of the geometriesby a symmetry-breaking cascade to speculate that material reality itselfis the product of a process of progressive differentiation, from virtual topologicaldiagrams (defined by non-metric properties like connectivity, dimensionality, anddistribution of singularities) to actual entities in which length, area, volume, andother metric properties are important. This is, indeed, just a metaphor. For onething, there are other symmetry-breaking cascades that are not geometrical: thefour forces of physics (gravity, electro-magnetism, strong and weak nuclear forces)are thought to have progressively differentiated from an original super-symmetricforce existing at the Big Bang. And in biology, the progressive differentiation ofa single fertilized egg into a hundred different cell types arranged to form bonesand muscles, brain and heart, is also not just a metrization of topology. Nevertheless,the metaphor is a fruitful one. It allows you to give the virtual plane its owntemporality, without which it would be an eternal repository of diagrams hardlydistinguishable from a reservoir of essences. The idea is to think of actual timeas metric (cyclic in this case, since we measure “lengths of time” by counting cycles)and then trying to conceive of a topological time, one in which there is nopresent (all presents are actual) but only past and future topologically stretchedin an unlimited way. This virtual temporality (which Deleuze calls Aion to opposeit to metric time or Chronos) is necessary to allow us to think of the virtual planeas emerging from the actual world, while at the same time being irreducible to it.
TSQ: By what mechanism do you think specific arrangements of atoms introducedto the brain are able to reveal this plane?
MDL: The state in which we are born is a state of delirium, in which all the different intensities that have the capacity to affect our senses — intensities of color and sound, of flavor and aroma — exist in an unstructured field. As we grow up, habit and routineforge associations between intensities (by similarity, spatial contiguity, temporalco-occurrence) to create the more or less stable world of everyday perception.This is, of course, the Humean theory of experience in which language does notplay the key role, as opposed to the Kantian one in which conscious experienceis basically conceptual. Deleuze expressed his allegiance to the former by writinghis very first book about Hume. At any rate, if habit and routine stabilize a field ofintensities and allow a subject to crystallize, then is it not possible to think of waysof destabilizing subjectivity and liberate the intensities? Sensory isolation chambers,a strong enough fever, madness, and yes, psychedelic drugs, can all producethat effect. When you overdose on the latter, your self literally disappears (it meltsaway as in a phase transition) but you do not become unconscious: rather consciousnessbecomes decentralized and now belongs to each of the intensities. This is, as it were, the story from the software point of view. The hardware story has more to do with the way the molecules of the different psychedelics mimic serotonin (they all share a molecular motif) and so can act on the brain stem to induce a dream-like state.
TSQ: I’ve noticed in some of my own experiences of becoming aware of certainmental routines or thought-loops, that once I became aware of, I coulddisengage or dissolve. Maybe this is an example of breaking up subjectiveroutines. But another kind of experience is one of emotional and intellectualintegration. Would that be a different process? Maybe a recrystallizationof subjectivity?Can you recount an important or influential trip you have had?
TSQ: I’ve noticed in some of my own experiences of becoming aware of certainmental routines or thought-loops, that once I became aware of, I coulddisengage or dissolve. Maybe this is an example of breaking up subjectiveroutines. But another kind of experience is one of emotional and intellectualintegration. Would that be a different process? Maybe a recrystallizationof subjectivity?
Can you recount an important or influential trip you have had?
MDL: When I mentioned the state of delirium above I said that it involved intensities, andgave colors and sounds as examples. But emotions are also intensities: pride andhumiliation; love and hate; joy and sadness. These too become unhinged duringa psychedelic experience and as they escape the grip of your ego, and they takeconcepts along with them. The cognitive side of emotion is therefore highlighted.Unlike language, which is basically a “digital” (more exactly, a discrete) form ofcoding physical information, emotions are analogue and like analogue recordingsof sounds or pictures, they contain a lot more information than their digital counterparts.This is yet another variation of the topological-metric distinction, nowalong the lines of subjective intensity. You learn a lot on a trip, but you can verbalizeonly a small portion, so you need to trip as many times as you can. Hence,despite the fact that some trips are more memorable than others, it is the overallcumulative effect that matters: each trip is a “revelation,” not of course in thesense that a personal god is speaking to you from above, but merely in that theamount of information that you are processing is much larger than when you do not useemotions cognitively. But only after many such “revelations” you learn how to bring a few gold nuggets back from the virtual side, coded in actual language.
TSQ: Can you tell me something about your shaman? Is she Mazatec or a memberof another indigenous tribe? When and how did you come to know her?
MDL: I met Julieta in 1974 when I visited the Sierra Madre mountains in the state ofOaxaca. The most powerful species of mushrooms grows there. She was Mazatec,leaving near Huautla, the largest indigenous town in Mexico. Unlike the north-westof the country where the sacred plant is a cactus, the trip is during the day bakingon the dessert sun, and the shamans are male, in the south-east the plant isa mushroom that comes out with the full moon, the trip is at night in a place withmore luscious vegetation, and the shamans are women. Somehow, when giventhe choice I went for the second one almost immediately (though I have manyfriends that swear for the dessert experience). Julieta was a peasant woman, witha humble vocabulary, but incredible wisdom, and we became close almost rightaway. I already had my own ideas about the experience, and her discourse washeavily inflected by Christianity, so it is not as if I had become her follower. Ratherwe established from the start a kind of partnership based on mutual respect, apartnership that lasted until her death in 1997.
TSQ: You are the Gilles Deleuze chair at EGS and most of your books explicitlymention him, but your latest book does not. Does this reflect a shift inyour relationship to Deleuze or do you feel like you are exploring conceptspreviously unexplored by him?
MDL: Deleuze is there in the new book, only now he’s become virtual: he just kind offloats over the pages without his name being mentioned. I think he would have likedthis. But you are right, in that book and the one I am writing now (on philosophy ofchemistry) his presence is not nearly as prominent as it used to be. And the reasonis that there are many Deleuzians out there that are idealists (you know, mixingDeleuze with Heidegger, or with Lacan) and they will destroy his work, at least fora generation. I have been present in Deleuzian conferences in which some of thepresentations are like vomits of jargon: bodies without organs, lines of flight, desiringmachines... all the terms used without a definition and, in many cases, withoutany serious understanding. So, with the world of Deleuze now populated by idealists,I see no point in belonging to it. Materialist Deleuzians, like John Protevi andothers like him, are of course, an exception to this, and they keep the hope alivethat the idealists will move on to the next intellectual fashion and leave us aloneto develop a new materialist philosophy.
TSQ: Can you tell us a little about the objectives of the philosophy of chemistrybook you are currently working on?
MDL: After having focused on ontology, I needed to write a book on epistemology, butI did not want it to be about individual persons, but a collective epistemology.Hence, studying a scientific field, in which a whole community of practitioners confrontsthe phenomena in a domain and searches collectively for solutions posedby the domain, seemed like the ideal subject. Chemistry is the perfect example ofa minor science, a concept introduced by D&G (in Nomadology). Minor sciences,unlike royal ones like astronomy or classical mechanics, deal with variety and heterogeneity.One way of illustrating this is by comparing the domain of phenomenastudied by different fields. Physicists study energy which, as we know, comes in alimited variety of basic forms: gravitational, electromagnetic, and the two atomicforces, weak and strong. There are, of course, many other varieties, like the energyof movement (kinetic), or of deformation (strain), but these can be reduced to thefirst four. When you have four targets to explore, the hope of a final theory seemsjustified. The domain of chemistry, on the other hand, is made of substances andtheir transformations (chemical reactions). This domain increases in size every yearas chemists synthesize new substances (and these can enter into new reactions).By one calculation, there were 16 million substances in the domain, with a millionadded each year after that. This means not only that the domain is unsurveyable,but that it gets ever more so with time. Clearly, no chemist could ever dream ofa final theory. It is the perfect example of a community collectively exploring anever expanding domain, and having to invent new concepts, statements, problems,and models all the time.
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