2. “Any materialist philosophy must take as its point of departure the existence of a material world that is independent of our minds”
Interview with Manuel DeLanda
Q1: In your short text “The Geology of Morals, A Neo-Materialist Interpretation” from 1996 you introduce the term “neo-materialism” rewriting the way in which Deleuze and Guattari, in their A Thousand Plateaus ( 1987), use Hjelmslev’s linguistic model (which according to Deleuze and Guattari thus goes far beyond the reach of language) of form, content, substance and expression in order to conceptualize geological movements. In your reading of it, you make no use of Hjelmslev but instead favor other concepts like strata, deterritorialization and reterritorialization in order to map the morphogenetic changes of the real. There is no reason why neo-materialism should make use of particular concepts (like the ones mentioned) or even of particular authors like Hjelmslev. Yet what seems to be crucial for it would be to revitalize an interest in an affirmative reading of the dynamics among processes of materialization, as it offers us a thinking which starts with “bodily motions alone,” as Spinoza would put it ( 2001, E2P49 Schol.) and how this allows us to rethink very different branches of academia such as geology, mathematics, cultural theory, (neo-classical) economics and sociology.
In your book Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy from 2002 you give a beautiful definition of what ‘a history’ is, which made us rethink the way in which new materialism could be situated in academic thought. You write,
Can we conclude that the books you wrote and the way in which your new materialist arguments rewrite the various branches of academia, are all about the creation of such “individuated trajectories” that invent a neo-materialism? In other words, could we even say that your neo-materialism, though inspired by Deleuze and Braudel, cannot even be said to have these authors as its point of departure?
Manuel DeLanda: Any materialist philosophy must take as its point of departure the existence of a material world that is independent of our minds. But then it confronts the problem of the origin of the enduring identity of the inhabitants of that world: if the mind is not what gives identity to mountains and rivers, plants and animals, then what does? An old answer is “essences,” the answer given by Aristotle. But if one rejects essentialism then there is no choice but to answer the question like this: all objective entities are products of a historical process, that is, their identity is synthesized or produced as part of cosmological, geological, biological, or social history. This need for a concept of “synthesis” or of “production” is what attracted Marx to Hegelian dialectics since it provided him with a model of synthesis: a conflict of opposites or the negation of the negation. Deleuze and Guattari, on the other hand, replace that model of synthesis with what they call a “double articulation”: first, the raw materials that will make up a new entity must be selected and pre-processed; second, they must be consolidated into a whole with properties of its own. A rock like limestone or sandstone, for example, is first articulated though a process of sedimentation (the slow gathering and sorting of the pebbles that are the component parts of the rock). Then it is articulated a second time as the accumulated sediment is glued together by a process of cementation. They use Hjemslev’s terms “content” and “expression” as the names for the two articulations, but this is not meant to suggest that the articulations are in any way linguistic in origin. On the contrary: the sounds, words, and grammatical patterns of a language are materials that accumulate or sediment historically, then they are consolidated by another process, like the standardization of a dialect by a Royal Academy and its official dictionaries, grammars, and rules of pronunciation.
The question of the “individuation of trajectories” is about mathematical models (which to me are the secret of the success of science) but you are correct that it goes beyond that. All entities synthesized historically are individual entities: individual plants and animals; individual species and ecosystems; individual mountains, planets, solar systems, et cetera. Here “individual” means simply “singular or unique,” that is, not a particular member of a general category, but a unique entity that may compose larger individual entities through a relation of part-to-whole, like individual pebbles composing a larger individual rock. A materialist ontology of individual entities is implicit in Deleuze & Guattari and Braudel, so we must give them credit for that, then move on and invent the rest.
Q2: Neo-materialism is in a way rewriting academia as a whole, which includes the disciplinary boundaries that organize it today. In your work you definitely practice this by reading a geology into sociology for instance. Yet it would be very interesting to make this more explicit. Thus, how would new materialism propose a rethinking of the disciplinary boundaries (without using labels such as interdisciplinarity, postdisciplinarity or transdisciplinarity which eventually are all new disciplining exercises)?
MD: Academic fields are also historical individuals with contingent boundaries, many of which are settled as part of turf wars. Why would anyone feel the need to respect those boundaries? We need to draw on the conceptual and empirical resources developed by all fields to enrich materialism and prevent it from becoming a priori. What label we use to designate this maneuver is entirely irrelevant.
Q3: Despite your emphasis on individuated trajectories, you responded very positively to our request for an interview about a new materialism. You said that the time has come indeed for a renewed interest in materialist perspectives. In addition to its potential disciplining effects (“new materialism” becoming a theoretical yet anti-methodological school), we all know that materialism, in European thought, has a strong Marxist history. In several of your writings and interviews, however, you mentioned various problems with Marx’s thinking. You consider yourself to be left-wing, but you do not share many of the dogmas, institutional preferences and economic solutions offered by the Left, premised on Marxism. In terms of economics your interest seems to be much more in institutional or evolutionary economics (think of the writings of Donald now Deirdre McCloskey and Phil Mirowski) and the way in which they now re-read Adam Smith (especially his Theory of Moral Sentiments from 1759). Nevertheless, what you do take from Marx is his interest in the oppressed, that is, his anti-Aristotelianism that allows us to conceptualize the self-organizing power of “matter” without the “meaning” that should overcode it.
Combining your rejection of Marx and your appraisal of materialism, could we then label your new materialist thinking as a non-humanist and even non-anthropocentric materialism?
MD: The political economy of Marx is entirely a priori. Although he was sincerely interested in historical data (and hence, in creating an a posteriori theory) the actual amount of information available to him was extremely limited. Today we have the opposite situation thanks to the work of Fernand Braudel and his school. In addition, the old institutional school of economics (perhaps best represented by the work of John Kenneth Galbraith) as well as the neo-institutionalist school, offer new models that go beyond classical economics. (The two authors you mention, though, are mostly useless, being meta-economists and non-materialist.) It is our duty as Leftists to cut the umbilical cord chaining us to Marx and reinvent political economy. Deleuze and Guattari failed miserably in this regard.
Marx’s theory of value was indeed anthropocentric: only human labor was a source of value, not steam engines, coal, industrial organization, et cetera. So in that sense the answer is yes, we need to move beyond that and reconceptualize industrial production. In addition, Marx did not see trade or credit as sources of wealth, but Braudel presents indisputable historical evidence that they are.
Q4: It would be interesting, in reply to Marxism, to see this stance formulated into a political program. Above all, the current ecological drama might be a nice starting point for a neo-materialist political program. But could it be led by an invisible hand?
MD: Ecologists (not only activists but scientists) are well placed to help in this regard, because as they study food webs they must consider all sources of “value”: the sun, the photosynthetic process that transforms solar energy into chemical energy, the micro-organisms that decompose dead bodies and re-inject nutrients into the soil, et cetera. Combining ecology and economics is a good idea, so that a barrel of oil is not valued only in terms of its market price but as a non-renewable source of value due to the energy it contains. We may keep the idea of an “invisible hand” (that is, that prices self-organize as part of a dynamic between supply and demand) but only when dealing with large numbers of small firms without market power. When dealing with oligopolies there is no anonymous competition but rivalry and deliberate planning. Large corporations, as Galbraith argued long ago, are a “planning system” operating through a very visible hand. Braudel referred to oligopolies as an “anti-market” to stress this point.
Q5: In your work on “assemblage theory” (in A New Philosophy of Society from 2006) you once again show us that it is “the movement that in reality generates all these emergent wholes” that we should focus on when we want to “get a sense of the irreducible social complexity characterizing the contemporary world” (DeLanda 2006, 6). You argue strongly against the dualisms that have been transmitted to us in the history of philosophy (matter vs. meaning, micro vs. macro, inorganic vs. organic vs. social, realism vs. social constructivism, etcetera.) and argue in favor of a new ontology according to which “mechanisms are largely causal, but they do not necessarily involve linear causality” (ibid., 19; original emphasis). In an interesting book from 2007 called Built by Animals, Mike Hansell describes to us the following construction:
The Difflugia coronata is not an animal. It is a single-cell creature that feeds and reproduces, but has no nervous system (thus no brain). Major academics interested in animal architecture, like the quoted Hansell, have difficulty explaining how such a simple creature is capable of creating such a complex form, their biggest problem being that the Difflugia coronata lacks a brain. For some reason they fail to see how their question already embodies several presumptions that make any answer impossible. They accept the Cartesian difference between the mind and the body. They accept the difference between the animal (subject) and its house (object).
New materialism, implicitly and explicitly, wards off these modernist oppositions, and might very well be considered capable of explaining how this simple creature could create such complex forms. Not only in your geological history of the organic world, but also in your assemblage theory you show us how organic and inorganic matter, in their entanglement, create the new. Do you think the Difflugia coronata created its house similarly to the way in which the human being created not only its cities but also the social group equally “[…] freeing them from the constraints and literally setting them into motion to conquer every available niche in the air, in water and on land” as you wrote in A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History (2000, 26–7)?
MD: It is absurd to think that complex self-organizing structures need a “brain” to generate them. The coupled system atmosphere-hydrosphere is continuously generating structures (thunderstorms, hurricanes, coherent wind currents) not only without a brain but without any organs whatsoever. The ancient chemistry of the prebiotic soup also generated such coherent structures (auto-catalytic loops) without which the genetic code could not have emerged. And bacteria in the first two billion years of the history of the biosphere discovered all major means to tap into energy sources (fermentation, photosynthesis, respiration). To think that a “brain” is needed goes beyond Cartesian dualism and fades into Creationism: matter is an inert receptacle for forms that come from the outside imposed by an exterior psychic agency: “Let there be light!”
So yes, neo-materialism is based on the idea that matter has morphogenetic capacities of its own and does not need to be commanded into generating form. But we should not attempt to build such a philosophy by “rejecting dualisms” or following any other meta-recipe. The idea that we know already how all past discourses have been generated, that we have the secret of all past conceptual systems, and that we can therefore engage in meta-theorizing based on that knowledge is deeply mistaken. And this mistake is at the source of all the idealisms that have been generated by postmodernism.
Q6: Could you elaborate some more on this idea of not “rejecting dualisms,” since this comes very close to an important argument in our own reading of new materialism. For when we say that new materialism, implicitly and explicitly, wards off modernist oppositions and thus qualitatively shifts the acceptance of the Cartesian difference between the mind and the body, the subject and the object, et cetera, we are referring to Bergson ( 2004, 297) who has argued that: “The difficulties of ordinary dualism come, not from the distinction of the two terms, but from the impossibility of seeing how the one is grafted upon the other.” Thus, we argue, the time has come to make a formal difference between this ordinary dualism as Bergson analyzes it, and the radical rewriting of modernist dualisms, as proposed for instance by Lyotard and Deleuze. The latter have set themselves to a rewriting exercise that involves a movement in thought that practices what Bergson termed “pushing dualism to an extreme,” rephrased by Deleuze’s statement that “difference is pushed to the limit.” Would you agree with us that this is actually a crucial element of new materialism’s affirmative stance?
MD: I am not convinced that avoiding dualities is the key to a new way of thinking (particularly if one simply adds new ones: modernism-postmodernism, rhizome-tree, power-resistance). What matters is what categories are used dualistically. For example, in my book A New Philosophy of Society: Assemblage Theory and Social Complexity (DeLanda 2006) I criticize the use of the concepts “The Market” and “The State.” Not because they are a duality, but because both are reified generalities that do not really exist. Adding a third term, like “The People,” would not help. What we need is to replace the reified generalities with concrete assemblages: many bazaars, many regional trading areas, many national markets... each with a date of birth and (potentially) a date of death. The best way to deal with this problem is always to think statistically, dealing always with populations and with how variation is distributed in a population. Thus, the duality “male-female” can easily be eliminated if we take a large population and check how secondary sexual characteristics are distributed: all of them, except for the capacity to bear children, form two overlapping statistical distributions. The duality emerges when one ignores the zone of overlap and reifies the averages.
Q7: Could we say that this stance exemplifies your ontological take on ‘topology’ as explained in Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy, which involves a qualitative shifting of Euclidean geometry (2002, 24) through “view[ing] this genesis not as an abstract mathematical process but as a concrete physical process in which an undifferentiated intensive space (that is, a space defined by continuous intensive properties) progressively differentiates, eventually giving rise to extensive structures (discontinuous structures with definite metric properties)” (ibid., 25; original emphasis)?
MD: Topology enters neo-materialism as part of the rejection of Aristotle. We need to replace both his “genus” and his “species.” The latter is replaced by the concept of a species as a contingent historical individual, born through a process of speciation (reproductive isolation) and capable of dying through extinction. The former is replaced by the “topological animal,” that is, a body-plan common to entire phyla (such as that of vertebrates) that is a structured space of possible body designs. Such a space cannot be metric because each vertebrate species varies in length, area, volume, et cetera, so only topological properties like connectivity can be used to specify it.
Q8: In After Finitude, Quentin Meillassoux critiques idealists and what he calls “correlationists,” for their shared representationalism (something you also argue against) and also for continuing the anthropocentrism that saturates the history of Western thought. For although the human mind is no longer the point of departure for philosophy, correlationalism still needs it in order for the world to exist. Meillassoux ( 2008, 37) ascribes a Kantianism to “the Leibnizian monad; Schelling’s nature, or the objective subject-object; Hegelian Mind; Schopenhauer’s Will; the Will (or Wills) to Power in Nietzsche; perception loaded with memory in Bergson; Deleuze’s Life, etc.”
According to our reading of your work, you seem to aim at providing a non-anthropocentric mapping of the morphogenetic changes of the real. Does it follow from this summary of your project that you agree with Meillassoux?
MD: To be honest, I never read Meillassoux. But I surely reject the idea that morphogenesis needs any “mind” to operate. I also reject the neo-Kantian thesis of the linguisticality of experience. To assume that human experience is structured conceptually is to dehistoricize the human species: we spent hundreds of thousands of years as a social species, with a division of labor (hunters, gatherers) and sophisticated stone tool technology. Language is a relatively recent acquisition. Are we to assume that those ancient hunter gatherers lived in an amorphous world waiting for language to give it form? That’s Creationism again, you know: “And the word became flesh.”
So yes, to the extent that Meillassoux rejects all forms of idealism I surely agree with him. I would need to see what he offers beyond a critique in order to assess the actual degree of agreement. Critique is never enough. Marxism is not going to go away simply by making a critique of it, we need to offer a viable alternative.
Q9: If so, an alliance can also be struck between your work and the work of Alain Badiou, who is Meillassoux’s teacher and also claiming a new materialism. This time it comes to the fore when we take into account your shared interest in mathematics, and, more in particular, topology, diagram or model. For a new materialism to be valuable for scholarly and activist projects such as feminism and post-colonialism, however, a theory of the subject seems to be necessary. In new feminist materialism, for instance, alliances are sought with process ontologies, which make the non-anthropocentric stance not non-foundationalist (cf. the work of Rosi Braidotti). A question then would be whether you see this necessity for a new theory of the subject, and how this (dis-)connects with the work of Meillassoux and Badiou?
MD: Badiou left me with a bad feeling after reading his book on Deleuze which is incredibly incompetent. He uses the word “the One” on just about every page when Deleuze never used it (other than when making remarks about the scholastic notion of the “univocity of being”). He is also a fanatic about set theory, whereas I tend towards the differential calculus as my mathematical base. (The idea that the latter was reduced to the former is yet another mistake we inherited from the nineteenth century).
I agree that a theory of the subject is absolutely necessary but it must be based on Hume, not on Kant: subjective experience not as organized conceptually by categories but as literally composed of intensities (of color, sound, aroma, flavor, texture) that are given structure by habitual action. Recent developments in artificial intelligence will help with this: while the old symbolic school is deeply Kantian, the new connectionist school (based on neural nets that are not programmed but trained) points to a way out. Current neural net designs are at the level of insect intelligence but they already suggest how an insect protosubjectivity can emerge from a dynamic of perceived intensities. We need to extend this to the subjectivity of mammals and birds, and work our way up to human subjectivity. The political implication of this can be phrased as follows: rejecting the linguisticality of experience (according to which every culture lives in its own world) leads to a conception of a shared human experience in which the variation comes not from differences in signification (which is a linguistic notion), but of significance (which is a pragmatic one). Different cultures do attribute different importance, relevance, or significance to different things because their practices (not their minds) are different. When it comes to gender, the paradox is this: idealism was created by males who were in an academic environment in which their material practices were reduced to a minimum, and who had wives who did all the material work. And yet the moment feminism became academic it became deeply idealist. Hence I welcome any return to materialism by feminists, even if based on entirely different ideas.