Friday, January 6, 2012

Experimental Living

I recently finished Manuel DeLanda's A Thousand Years Of Nonlinear History. DeLanda has two main arguments. One addresses the role of nonlinear dynamics in historical writing. The other pertains to the relationship between philosophical idealism and materialism. The bulk of the book is dedicated to linear accounts of three major aspects of human history: urban, biological, and linguistic. But there are significant portions dedicated to the discussion of philosophical concepts informing the historical narrative.

I'm still having a hard time thinking about the book as a whole. That short paragraph above was really hard to write, and I don't think I did a very good job of saying anything. But I'm working on it.

But I'll say that DeLanda's approach is to view human history as a process akin to natural processes, that is, as flows and transformations of matter-energy, the most basic stuff in the universe. He thus compares the development to human civilization to the flows of lava and magma, claiming in both instances there are nonlinear dynamics that are engaging in a similar 'sorting process'. In other words, both rock cycles and urban processes involve processes of homogenization and heterogenization. DeLanda uses Deleuze and Guattari's concept of the 'abstract machine' or 'engineering diagram' to show that it is not merely a metaphorical comparison between rocks and society: he is claiming that the same nonlinear dynamics are supporting both of these sorting processes.

He does that for cities, bodies, germs and other biological phenomena, and the development of languages. Really interesting stuff. Hard to understand a lot of the scientific stuff. But it's pretty cool.

I will also say that I'm very satisfied with the way he ended the book. He does a good job of explaining the philosophical implications of his materialist history. Spoiler alert. At the very end of the book he says that this type of view of life as a temporary form of flowing matter-energy leads us to an 'experimental' attitude, one in which we are to creatively choose: "our world is governed not only by nonlinear dynamics, which makes detailed prediction and control impossible, but also by nonlinear combinatorics, which implies that the number of possible mixtures of meshwork and hierarchy, of command and market, of centralization and decentralization, are immense and that we simply cannot predict what the emergent properties of these myriad combinations will be. Thus the call for a more experimental attitude toward reality and for an increased awareness of the potential for self-organization inherent in even the humblest forms of matter-energy" (273). Home run here for me.

I'm really into this idea of experimental living or life as an art form.

Good job, DeLanda.

Seems like pretty cool stuff. I'm trying to process it all in. It is clashing a little bit with my thinking about Collingwood and history. These are radically different philosophies of history that I'm dealing with. So I need to start working on the synthesis of Collingwood's more idealist philosophy of history with DeLanda's hard materialism.

I think it can be done. DeLanda leaves that window open several times in the book. Plus, I think Clausewitz will be helpful. There was an article written on nonlinearity in Clausewitzian theory. DeLanda, Clausewitz, Collingwood, I can see a sort of thing.

I also have an idea for a new project. But it would be like, a most serious, most long term project. Like magnum opus shit or something.

I'll be writing about that some time soon. I'll have to see.

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