Friday, May 25, 2007

Manuel de Landa writes from a strange pataphysical world of disjunctions and fluid transitions

Manuel Delanda's theory of life, the universe, and everything by Paul D. Miller a.k.a Dj Spooky that Subliminal Kid. 1000 Years of Non-Linear History Manuel Delanda (Zone Press)
"the more consciousness is intellectualized, the more matter is spatialized"
Henri Bergson, "Creative Evolution," 1911
What is history? Theories of the substance and form of history come and go with the frequency of styles and trends - some are flashes across the cultural landscape that show us for a brief moment another light to view the world through, while others remix the ways we view time, instinct, and perceive the warp and weave of the consensual social world around us. Our ideas about continuity are woven from a strange cloth that for better or worse, is pretty much anthropocentric, and the threads that hold it all together are, at best, utterly tenuous.
The way Proust or Tolstoy viewed history - compared to Thucydides or Herodotus, or Hegel and Marx, is vastly different - let's not forget about the 20th century where the works of people as diverse as Joyce or Fernand Braudel, Carolyn Merchant or Sadie Plant, William S. Burroughs and Rupert Sheldrake all share shelf space. For us living in our contemporary hypermediated world of distributed networks and frequency exchanges, these people come to us through the filter of media, a place where all expression has a short shelf life, and at best almost all ideas are phantasms, fading reputations - rumors of an "historical" existence most readers would be hard pressed to really verify. Time itself sometimes seems to be debateable and indeed, it often is.
But where does Western style of history begin, and where, if there is a beginning, does it end? "Herodotus of Halicarnassus here displays his story, so that human achievements may not become forgotten in time, and great and marvellous deeds...may not be without their glory..." we are told in one of the first accounts of epic history in the West. Back in the 5th century B.C. Herodotus was one of several historians that began the kind of history we all take for granted today - events for him took place as an interwoven account of events, dates, and the interactions of different individuals in a "non-linear" mode - his was a kind of oral history where words were like hypertext, each phrase a reference to countless other references, and so on and so on.
"I prefer to rely on my own knowledge, and to point out who it was in actual fact that first [took action]...then I will proceed with my history, telling the story as I go of small cities of men no less than of great. For most of those which were great once are small today; and those which used to be small were great in my own time. Knowing, therefore, that human prosperity never abides long in the same place, I shall pay attention to both alike...." His story began with a declaration of who he was and what he was doing, and ended with a summary of the accounts of the people he had given narrative.
Beginning, middle, and end - all were signposts within a latticework of actions and deeds, all took place within the oral tradition of a culture where things were hybrid, and created to keep a register of the dramas of the past. It wasn't until the rise of different historical methods that Herodotus was "formalized" and ossified. This is where Manuel Delanda's work becomes extremely relevant - it shows us how to look outside the frame.
Back in 1992 Art critic and historian Thomas McEvilley wrote in his classic essay "One Culture of Many Cultures" as part of his larger anthology of writings "Art and Otherness: Crisis in Cultural Identity" that "the visual arts have a lobal social importance today that is quite independent of formalist notions of esthetic presence. A culture's visual tradition embodies the image it has of itself. Cumulatively, and with cross-currents, art draws into visibility from the depths of intuition a culture's sense of its identity and of its value and place in the world. Seen this way, art - or visual expression or whatever we want to call it - encompasses far more than esthetics. There are times when the issue of identity is muted and the esthetic voice speaks loudest. But not today. Right now the issue of identity has come to the foreground both of culture in general and of the visual in particular. This is not a stylistic fad; it involves the deepest meanings of what we call history..."
In a sense, Delanda could be the philosopher of the esthetic and identity issues that McEvilley was engaged with - with the exception that Delanda's work encompasses stuff that leaves human beings far behind. History with a capital "H" in the West has been plagued with problems of a deeply "teleological" nature: the workers paradise, Aquina's city of God, Marx and his gang, etc etc it all seems pretty old hat in a world of ditributed networks and cybernetic modes of production that make almost all human activity seem like faint shadows of the present moment. The density of it all is pretty thick - and the weight of these kinds of viewpoints has distorted almost every aspect of how we view the world around us. "History without agency!! How is such a thing possible!!?" most theorists involved with contemporary debates about culture and contemporary technology would ask.
My reply would simply be that Delanda provides frameworks to view human action within a context of the complete environment that humans inhabit: something most historians, in an echo of the infamous 19th century German historian Leopold von Ranke's credo of history as " wie es eigentlich gewesen" ("simply to show how it really was") reducing history as merely festishisms of facts and documents - the detritus of human action as the singular teleogical narrative (of course, European humans, that is..) within to view the "progress" of the world. What "A Thousand Years" basic premise does is provide a non-anthropcentric view of the developments of the last millenium's "progression" in a "non-teleological" context - the tableau that Delanda want's to depict is a place where "geological, organic, and linguistic materials will all be allowed to 'have their say'." Is history a thought contagion - a kind of memetic shock or dispersion of cultural mores that are relative to each era and perspective of tastes of continuity? It's a difficult question to answer, and there are no straight forward responses to the enquiry.
To look at the topic is to disrupt it with your ideas of what holds consensual reality together, and at best, in our late 20th century post everything mode of existence, you'll have a kaliedoscope perspective. At worst, you won't remember anything at all of what's happened in the last several centuries (this happens a lot in America). Manuel De Landa is a contemporary philosopher of history - but we live in a time where most of the basic tenets of how we look at the world of the past will shape how we can create new forms of thought in the future - this condition leaves him in a strange, nebulous place in todays cultural landscape. His work is extremely cogent, and well thought out, and his new book "One Thousand Years of Non-Linear History" should be a classic following in the steps of Jameson, Fernand Braudel, and the ubiquitous Dynamic duo, Deleuze and Guattari - all of whom have helped pave the way for new approaches to philosophy and culture to interact.
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 ogcrsytalline structres of the world of 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. "One Thousand Years" is kind of like a cognitive labyrinth of false starts and dead ends, like an M.C. Escher painting or even more accurately, like Hieronymous 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 acorss broken and fractured "times" that exist pretty much simulatneously. Delanda has given an account of an overview of what he calls "historic materialism" and how the basic processes of the full environment we live in have shaped contemporary thought.
I have to say it - writing about Manuel Delanda'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. With Manuel Delanda, 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.
Delanda's first book "War in the Age of Intelligent Machines" 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: that the "real" of the kind that theorists and philosphers 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 cripplling 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. "One Thousand Years of Nonlinear History" takes up where "War..." left off: with a critique this time, of the material processes embedded in the migrations of not only human cultres, but of the geological, biological, linguistic and memetic systems that have impacted on this planet and its inhabitants over the last thousand years. 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..."

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