Materialism at the Millennium

Materialism at the Millennium

Geoffrey Winthrop-Young
A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History
Manuel De Landa
New York: Zone Books, 1997.

Geoffrey Winthrop-Young gets inside De Landa’s total history.

‘The time has come,’ the Walrus said,
‘To talk of many things:
Of shoes - and ships - and sealing wax -
Of cabbages - and kings -
And why the sea is boiling hot -
And whether pigs have wings.’
Lewis Carroll, Alice Through the Looking-Glass

Total history comes in waves. During the first decades of the twentieth century a number of prominent studies appeared that were written either by amateur historians such as Oswald Spengler or professionals like Arnold Toynbee and that mobilized a wide range of alternative disciplines in order to provide a new comprehensive view of history on a global scale. An ambitious commitment ‘to talk of many things’ - that is, to extend the domain of historiography far beyond its traditional boundaries - was linked to the elaboration of all-inclusive algorithms designed to account for the basic dynamics of history, be it the morphologically programmed blooming and withering of autonomous cultures in Spengler’s Decline of the West or the challenge-response scheme of Toynbee’s Study of History. Several reasons conspired to slow down the production of further such grand narratives following the Second World War, not the least of which was the increased institutionalization of historiography, but it appears that we are now caught up in a second wave of total histories. Once again, they are written by historians and non-historians alike, and once again the extension of the disciplinary boundaries is linked to a liberal import of ideas and methods from hitherto unrelated or ‘irrelevant’ fields. If one of the main achievements of the first wave was to place Western history on the same level as its allegedly inferior non-Western counterparts, the most promising aspect of the second wave is its attempt to remove the boundaries that separate human history from biological and geological evolution. It is not only a matter of paying the same respect lowly everyday life (shoes), trade history (ships), the materialities of communication (sealing wax), and agricultural economics (cabbage) that we used to pay to old-style dynastic history (kings), it is also a matter of exploring in what ways the interactions between cabbages and kings are similar to the processes regulating the ocean’s temperatures and the evolutionary dynamics that keep pigs earthbound.

1997 witnessed the publication of two books that fall into this category, Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies and Manuel De Landa’s A Thousand Years of Non-Linear History. Guns, Germs, and Steel is fun, affable, easy to read, and full of photos, diagrams and the author’s highly infectious enthusiasm for his material. A Thousand Years of Non-Linear History is labourious, complex, meticulous, demanding, and devoid of anything remotely resembling humour, pity, didactic empathy or anything else that would make life easier for the reader. It is not the type of book you would expect to arouse parental feelings, but since the difficult children tend to attract the most concern, one cannot help wondering whether the kid will be alright. The worst fate - even worse than dismissal by the academe or confinement to interminable website discussions on the virtues of complexity - would be New Age appropriation. The best - even better than using it as a stimulant to discover some of its sources - would be to take the book as seriously as it takes itself, starting with the opening line. “Despite its title, this is not a book of history, but a book of philosophy” (11). But what kind of philosophy? What are the basic assumptions? And what are its nonlinear historical ingredients?

animal, vegetable, mineral

We are surrounded by geological formations ranging from pebbles to mountain ranges, myriads of animal and plant species complete with climates and ecosystems, and a no less bewildering variety of social and economic institutions that are all the outcome of specific historical developments. One of the basic premises of A Thousand Years is that the processes which turn stones into mountains, genes into organisms, and social roles into classes and institutions are isomorphic. No matter how diverse the materials employed or the structures generated, detailed empirical investigation mixed with insights gained from the analysis of non-linear dynamics will enable us to elaborate models of structuration processes abstract enough to operate in the disparate worlds of geology, biology, and human society.

The simplest of these “engineering diagrams” or “abstract machines” - a term on loan from Deleuze and Guattari who borrowed it from Artaud - is a so-called hierarchy, a sorting and cementing operation that can account for the genesis of rock layers, species, and social strata, among others. Acting as a hydraulic computer, a river will sort out pebbles of different size and weight and deposit them in homogenous groupings at the bottom of the sea; subsequently, certain substances in the water will by way of penetration, percolation, and crystallization cement the pebbles together into a new entity, such as a sandstone layer, with emergent properties of its own. Genes, in turn, are sorted out by a host of different selection pressures, but only those accumulations that are “cemented” and isolated from the rest of the population by closing the gene pool to further reproductive exchange will survive in the shape of a new species. The combination of selective accumulation and reproductive isolation performed by biological evolution is isomorphic to the sorting and cementing operations of geological evolution; and both are isomorphic to the social processes in the course of which hierarchical societies sort a variety of differentiated roles into ranks and consolidate or reify the homogenous groups, classes or casts by way of discursive codification. Hence, hierarchy building in the human, animal, vegetable, and mineral realm involves two distinct operations: a homogenizing sorting of base elements followed by a consolidating process that transforms these separate elements into a more permanent structure on another scale.

If hierarchies grow out of the cementing of homogenous elements, meshworks comprise a more complex abstract machine that synthesizes heterogenous elements. Very basically, they require a set of at least two reactions that catalyse each other: reaction 1 results in product X which will serve as a catalyst for reaction B; in turn, reaction 2 yields product Y which then serves as a catalyst for reaction 1. The catalysts bind together two substances that would otherwise not react with each other in an autocatalytic loop that will be sustained for as long as the environment provides enough energy and material for the reactions to proceed. We are, in other words, dealing with self-organization in far-from-equilibrium processes. De Landa closely follows Maturana and Varela’s analysis that these closed circuits produce their own stable states of behaviour and evolve by drift. That is, structures are not imposed from the outside but spontaneously generated from within, and the resulting meshwork, though constrained by its environment, will evolve in an unplanned way. If sandstone, species, and social strata exemplify the workings of hierarchies, granite, ecosystems, and markets are presented as instances of meshworks. In each case, the required intercalary elements (the appropriate chemical, biological, or economic catalysts) join together heterogenous elements with functional complementarities (e.g., the different elements in a cooling magma stream, the variety of plant and animal species in an ecology, and the buyers and sellers meeting on the market). The interlocked heterogeneous elements, in turn, generate stable patterns of behaviour: magma cools at different speeds with one element acting as a container for those that crystallize at a later point, ultimately resulting in granite; the various predator-prey, parasite-host, and symbiotic relationships among species involved make up a stable ecosystem sustained by the circulation of energy and matter; and the circulation of money and information serves to interlock the producers and consumers of a non-regulated, evolving market.

De Landa knows his readership well enough not to completely trust it, hence the numerous caveats, reminders, and reservations that are less designed to convince sceptics than to obstruct zealots. Not only are hierarchies and meshworks not the only abstract machines around - De Landa also sketches a “probe head” that provides the blueprint for any type of evolution based on the coupling of variable replicators to sorting devices - but they rarely exist in isolation. Most social institutions, for instance, are a mixture of both types. More importantly, despite the book’s admitted bias against large hierarchies, De Landa goes out of his way to insist that there is nothing that makes meshworks innately superior to or more desirable than hierarchies. His own bias is related to what he sees as an excessive accumulation of hierarchies at the expense of meshworks (not to mention the fact that hierarchies can look back on several hundred years of scrutiny while meshworks have only very recently come under investigation).

But what of the “new philosophy” What does it say, or, more interestingly, what does it no longer say? 1) History is extended into biological and geological evolution; hence there is no longer any distinction between recorded and unrecorded or animate and inanimate history. 2) Forms and shapes are no longer imposed on matter since matter now generates its own stable patterns; hence the distinction between form and matter is obsolete. 3) No matter how stable some of the forms in question (and from a human point of view mountains tend to be pretty stable), they all appear as a local slowing-down of an ongoing flux; hence the traditional distinction between stasis and motion becomes, if not obsolete, then at least more problematic. All reality is a “single matter-energy undergoing phase transitions of various kinds, with each new layer of accumulated ‘stuff’ simply enriching the reservoir of nonlinear dynamics and nonlinear combinatorics available for the generation of novel structures and processes” (21). In the conclusion, De Landa identifies the unformed und unstructured flows of this “nonorganic life” (260) with Deleuze and Guattari’s “Body Without Organs” - which may be as confusing to those who don’t know the term as it is irritating to those who do. In short, call it autopoietic neomaterialism, or A Philosophy of Spinozist-Spencerian Complexity. It is indebted to Spinoza (by way of Deleuze) for its insistence that matter can generate stable patterns on its own without any assistance from outside resources. It is Spenserian in its penchant for depicting evolution - a term Spencer used to replace the more anthropocentric “progress” - as leading from incoherent homogeneity to coherent heterogeneity. And it adheres to the principles of complexity by virtue of its emphasis on the importance of self-organization (autopoiesis) in all kinds of human, animal, vegetable, and mineral far-from-equilibrium systems that cut across all boundaries.

stone, meat, and words

Like Dante, De Landa prefers to tell his tale in sets of three. A Thousand Years is divided into three chapters, each chapter has three sections. The first and third sections deal with the “geological,” “biological,” and “linguistic” histories of the urban landscape from 1000-1700 AD and 1700-2000, respectively. The second section of each chapter is theoretical, explaining basic concepts and relating the arguments to an impressive interdisciplinary background. But why cities? Because cities, especially in periods of rapid growth, are far from equilibrium. By attracting, circulating, and discharging everything ranging from money to microbes, the urban dynamics provide the energy flows necessary to induce and maintain all varieties of self-organization. Subsequently, De Landa presents a kind of complex urban Rashomon. Three times he tells the story of Western cities: first, a “geological” perspective that centres on the growth of urban economics resulting from various types of positive feedback between individuals and institutions; second, a “biological” history that looks at cities as complex superorganisms that live off their surroundings and fuel complex interactions between humans, animals, and microparasites; and third, a “linguistic” chapter that traces the circulation and competition of vernacular dialects that self-organize themselves and “harden” into hegemonic national languages. If authors and publishers were under the same pressure as food and drug manufacturers to provide a precise description of the ingredients of their products, A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History would bear the title Roughly A Thousand Years of Selected Isomorphic Nonlinear Urban, Ecological and Linguistic Dynamics in Predominantly Western European History.

And why 1000? Because - according to William McNeill - the enhancement of civilized capacities at the end of the first millennium resulting from intensified selection pressures following the collapse of the Roman Empire and the so-called Dark Ages laid the groundwork for the European upsurge of wealth and power. 1000 AD marks the beginning of urban growth along the Mediterranean as well as the North and East Sea coasts. Here and elsewhere, De Landa relies heavily on Braudel; indeed, Braudel is such a formidable presence that he may have shaped the basic design of the book. De Landa’s geological, biological, and linguistic layers appear to resemble Braudel’s tripartite division into the environmental histoire immobile at the bottom of history, the sluggish cycles of material culture in the middle, and frothy human events at the top. A more detailed encounter with A Thousand Years will have to examine to what degree De Landa has inherited some of the more problematic aspects of Braudel’s work, such as the overrating of trade for the economic history of late medieval and early modern history, or his biased binary that pits the honest, unregulated “meshwork” of truly capitalist markets (which Braudel tends to depict a bit like a lively French county fair) against the evil, non-capitalist anti-market forces. Another aspect De Landa shares with Braudel and many other sources is a welcome sense of historical contingency: up until the final take-off phase, what happened in Europe could have happened elsewhere, so there is no innate reason why Western Europe came to dominate the world the way it did. The potential problem is that despite this more open and relaxed view of global history Europe retains its privileged position. Once upon a time historians reduced history to an algorithm that regulated a predictable rise from barbarism to high culture with Europe as the supreme example against which all others had to be measured; now history is subjected to contingency, nonlinear dynamics, and open-ended evolutionary sweepstakes, but once again Europe appears both as the model and the prime example of history.

Finally, one of the peculiar aspects of A Thousand Years is that for all its insistence on positive feedback, autocatalytic loops, and systems turning output into new input, it lacks a certain theoretical self-reflexivity. Surely, De Landa must know that the various explanatory models he mobilizes to explain meshworks and hierarchies in the worlds of geology, biology, and human history did not arise independently but are closely related and in some cases directly descended from each other. To name just one obvious example, it has frequently been argued - and brilliantly so in one of the books used by De Landa, Darwinism Evolving by David Depew and Bruce Weber - that Darwin’s theory of modification with descent is partly based on an inscription of Adam Smith’s political economics into nature. To what degree, then, is the claim that the dynamics of human culture society are no different from the self-organizing processes of biological and geological evolution based on the similarity of the explanatory models rather than on real isomorphies? Theories, too, are “accumulations of materials hardened and shaped by historical processes” (55) - not to take this into account while describing these processes in nature and culture is potentially to fall back into a naive realism very much at odds with the complex subject matter.

If the last one and a half paragraphs sound too negative, let me be clear about my overall impression. A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History is one the most intelligent, stimulating, and rewarding books I have read in a long time - it even surpasses De Landa’s previous War in the Age of Intelligent Machines (which says a lot); [Tim Luke on De Landa’s robot historian] and it is fully capable of surviving the advances from free-floating New Agers as well as the equally inevitable rebuffs from academic Old Agers. De Landa’s greatest strength, no doubt, is his ability to synthesize - to create a self-sustaining system of theories that are merged, as it were, into an intellectual meshwork. Here, however, a final irony emerges: in the concluding pages of Tristes Tropiques, Claude Lévi Strauss muses that anthropology - the science that informs one culture about another - should be called entropology because the exchange of information serves to erode the boundaries between the cultures and ultimately homogenizes them. In much the same way, De Landa’s formidable argument that widely differing negentropic phenomena are ultimately isomorphic is, ironically, a significant step toward final entropy.

ps: shortcuts

For those who are interested but lack time: De Landa’s article “Immanence and Transcendence in the Genesis of Form” in the Deleuze special of the South Atlantic Quarterly 96:3 (Summer 1997) offers an excellent introduction to meshworks and hierarchies. William McNeill’s theories are summarized in his lecture, The Human Condition: An Ecological and Historical View, published by Princeton in 1980. Fernand Braudel’s short Afterthoughts on material civilization and capitalism (Johns Hopkins, 1977) is recommended to those who don’t want to read the three volumes of Civilization and Capitalism. Finally, a very short version of Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel may be found in Evolution: Society, Science and the Universe, ed. A. C. Fabian (Cambridge, 1998: 36-63)