A New Philosophy of Society

Book Review by Michael VanDyke

Manuel DeLanda (born in Mexico City in 1952) is a philosopher, historian of science, and mixed-media artist who explores several vexing areas of contemporary philosophy from an iconoclastic and provocative perspective which is clearly informed by his readings and elaborations of the thought of Gilles Deleuze. He is most widely known in philosophical circles as a theorist of “the new materialism,” a critique of postmodernism’s over-emphasis (in his view) on the linguistic and subjective nature of reality. According to his biography on the webpage of the European Graduate School, DeLanda’s work “focuses on diverse fields such as economics, nonlinear dynamics, chaos theory, geology, architecture, self-organizing autonomous systems, artificial intelligence and life, history of science, nonlinear dynamics, and linguistics.” His books so far include War in the Age of Intelligent Machines (1991), A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History (1997), Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy (2002), A New Philosophy of Society: Assemblage Theory and Social Complexity (2006), Deleuze: History and Science (2010), and Philosophy & Simulation: The Emergence of Synthetic Reason (2011). I chose to review A New Philosophy of Society because it offers some interesting new avenues for thinking about the relationship between church(es) and culture(s).

DeLanda’s primary thesis is that social thought has been hampered by a type of reductionist thinking which has mystified the true complexity of actually existing social entities. It has done this by consistently conceptualizing these entities in terms of essentialisms and organismic metaphors. He further critiques the tendency of social scientists to analyze social existence on only two determinant scales: the microcosmic and the macrocosmic, which are usually cast in terms of the individual and society-as-a-whole. In place of such simplistic social categorizations, DeLanda proposes the use of assemblage theory as a methodology for understanding the interactions of the empirical social world. DeLanda identifies the main features of assemblage theory as follows:

“First of all, unlike wholes in which parts are linked by relations of interiority (that is, relations which constitute the very identities of the parts) assemblages are made up of parts which are self-subsistent and articulated by relations of exteriority, so that a part may be detached and made a component of another assemblage. Assemblages are characterized along two dimensions: along the first dimension are specified the variable roles which component parts may play, from a purely material role to a purely expressive one, as well as mixtures of the two. A second dimension characterizes processes in which these components are involved: processes which stabilize or destabilize the identity of the assemblage (territorialization and deterritorialization)…All of these processes are recurrent, and their variable repetition synthesizes entire populations of assemblages. Within these populations other synthetic processes…generate larger-scale assemblages of which some of the members of the original population become component parts” (18-19).

Social assemblages may be small in scale, as with a conversation between two friends (or even in the constitution of a single person from sub-personal elements); or they may be tremendously large, as in the case of global markets or social networks like Facebook. Yet they are all characterized by the same types of non-essential and historically contingent relations between wholes and parts, as well as by the same general types of causality between components.

To look at an example, Cornerstone University might be seen as an assemblage with various components playing material or expressive roles, or some combination of both. The components playing a material role in the constitution of the assemblage would be the land itself, the campus’s proximity to the Beltline, the sidewalks connecting the various buildings, the classrooms, the library, the athletic center, the cafeteria, the Corum, the Seminary building, the computers, the wiring between buildings, the ICCE conference room with its multi-colored carpet patterns, the radio station trailer, the bodies of the students, faculty, and staff, and so on. The expressive components would be the CU website, the names on the buildings, the academic catalog, the particular language that is used in chapel and in the classrooms, the clock tower with its “bells,” the Herald, the way in which the faculty dress, the prominent placing of the athletic center on campus, the bland décor in the classrooms, and the ICCE conference room with the soothing color patterns of its carpeting.

Of course, some of the components above play both a material and expressive role, such as the clock tower and the ICCE conference room.

All of these components are also involved in a “second dimension” of processes that tend toward territorialization or deterritorialization. Components engaged in the former process work to homogenize the identity of the assemblage and to rigidify its borders; components involved in the latter process work to create greater heterogeneity in the assemblage and to weaken its borders or make them more porous. Examples of territorializing components would be the school’s Confession and hiring practices, weekly chapels, the physical boundaries of the campus which are closed to undesirable trespassers, the devotion of a large amount of space to academic activities, and the relatively invariant amount of pay each employee receives. Examples of deterritorializing components would be the campus’ proximity to the Beltline, the school’s admission of students from widespread geographic areas, the ICCE conference room and its carpeting, the large commuter population, faculty attendance at conferences, and the library’s MelCat system.

But to go back to the first part of DeLanda’s definition above, the key aspect of assemblages, and the aspect that opposes it to a focus on organic unities and seamless wholes, is its focus on “relations of exteriority” rather than “relations of interiority,” which DeLanda wants to delegitimize as a way of thinking about social entities. He asserts,

“We can distinguish…the properties defining a given entity from its capacities to interact with other entities. While its properties are given and may be denumerable as a closed list, its capacities are not given – they may go unexercised if not entity suitable for interaction is around – and form a potentially open list, since there is no way to tell in advance in what way a given entity may affect or be affected by innumerable other entities. In this other view, being part of a whole involves the exercise of a part’s capacities but it is not a constitutive property of it. And given that an unexercised capacity does not affect what a component is, a part may be detached from the whole while preserving its identity…

Relations of exteriority also imply that the properties of the component parts can never explain the relations that constitute a whole…although they may be caused by the exercise of a component’s capacities. In fact, the reason why the properties of a whole cannot be reduced to those of its parts is that they are the result not of an aggregation of the components’ own properties but of the actual exercise of their capacities. These capacities do depend on a components’ properties but cannot be reduced to them since they involve reference to the properties of other interacting entities” (10-11).

While much more could be said about DeLanda’s distinction between assemblage theory and organismic thought, the main (political) relevance of his discussion is that an emphasis on social entities as assemblages (an approach that tries to fully acknowledge their empirical complexity) tends toward a radically democratic conception of social reality while at the same time undermining totalitarian thought at every turn. In other words, social entities that envision themselves as constituting organic, seamless wholes tend to believe that the identity of their components are fully constituted by the internal relations between the properties of those components. To put it even more simply, every component is fully dependent on the whole for its “essential” identity, and it doesn’t really exist apart from the whole. Furthermore, organismic thinking tends to believe that the relations between individual parts and wholes are constituted through rational means, and that in the long run regimes of rationality shape every material process. This is an aspect of the idealism (which often supports totalitarian impulses) that DeLanda means to deconstruct.

While much of DeLanda’s discussion (and I’ve left out most of it from this already over-long review) might seem like common sense, it’s implications are radically deconstructive toward even the subtlest of organismic presuppositions, while also being radically critical of existing social realities (rather than being purely descriptive), as has been charged by some commentators on this thought. This charge of being merely descriptive has also been made against Deleuze (i.e., he does not really have anything negative to say against global capitalism, given his social ontology); however, I think, as mentioned above, that the bases of both Deleuze and DeLanda’s thought are radically democratic, even if their ideas don’t lead directly into specific political programs.

When DeLanda begins to elaborate on how assemblages avoid essentialist descriptions of social entities, the implications for relations between church(es) and culture(s) begin to appear. Contrary to someone like Giorgio Agamben, who focuses on how essential identities are mainly constituted through language, DeLanda’s materialism leads him to focus on broader and more complicated ontological processes that don’t give linguistic/logical acts excessive weight. Basically, essentialist presuppositions, for DeLanda, are both shortsighted and ahistorical. In critiquing Aristotle’s taxonomy of genus, species, and individual, which he finds to be one of the philosophical bases of essentialist presuppositions, DeLanda writes:

“To avoid reification we must instead focus on the historical processes that produce those products [which seem to have enduring properties], with the term `historical’ referring to cosmological and evolutionary history in addition to human history. Assemblage theory…avoids taxonomic essentialism through this maneuver. The identity of any assemblage at any level of scale is always the product of a process (territorialization…) and it is always precarious, since other processes (deterritorialization…) can destabilize it. For this reason, the ontological status of assemblages, large or small, is always that of unique, singular individuals. In other words, unlike taxonomic essentialism in which genus, species and individual are separate ontological categories, the ontology of assemblages is flat since it contains nothing but differently scaled individual singularities (or hacceities).” (28)

 DeLanda’s critique of essentialist presuppositions makes me think about how we tend to reify “church” and “culture” into social entities that possess ahistorical social ontologies, despite the many changes that both have undergone throughout history. In fact, this limited accession to history would be our primary delusion, according to DeLanda. In other words, we have a sophisticated awareness of how history has produced variations and developments within both spheres, but we still, somewhat unconsciously perhaps, tend to deduce the essential identities of both social categories by logical-linguistic means that greatly reduce the radically contingent nature of the historical processes – processes that produced not only different churches and different cultures, but also the relations of exteriority between them that greatly complicate their present ontological status. In other words, while it may be okay to speak of churches and cultures as actual social entities, we err, according to DeLanda, when we judge both to be constituted of enduring and irreconcilable properties whose identities are entirely produced by their relation to a whole. The empirical reality is that the interactions between individual assemblages at any number of scales, through processes of territorialization and deterritorialization, encoding, and others that I haven’t mentioned, have produced the singular, individual churches and cultures that now exist. While linguistic and rational acts have certainly played a role in those processes, they have not played the major constitutive role that most postmodernists would assume. That constitutive role has been taken by recurring expressive and material processes at multiple scales in which the properties of both entities are capable of interacting with the properties of the other.

So how do we maintain the precarious essential identity of the church in our complicated post-postmodernist times? DeLanda suggests that this is a question based on faulty premises. Every property that we might assign to “the church” is open to modification by other assemblages whose properties are also open to modification by the properties of the church. So, rather than focusing on anxiety-provoking questions about essential or pure identities -- or engaging in hopeless rear-guard actions -- it might be better to acknowledge the radical contingency of all of our identities and practice a more open-hearted faithfulness to what the living Christ is doing in the midst of our evolving social realities. For who knows what kinds of assemblages existing churches might produce, not through the imposition of their own rationalities, but by their identification with the identity-smashing humiliation of the cross? It is, strictly speaking, impossible to say.