Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Levi's review of ch.1 of DeLanda's 'New Philosophy of Society'

Comments on: http://larvalsubjects.wordpress.com/2010/09/08/drg-assemblages-against-totalities/

Two points:

First, DeLanda's key axis 'material/expressive:territorialisation/deterritorialisation' is very interesting and is quite a powerful starting point for a social ontology. However, I wonder how far the material/expressive dimension can be taken ontologically. It is a fairly easy distinction to maintain cognitively or epistemologically - indeed, it'd be difficult think without making this separation in some way - but just how deeply rooted can we say it is in reality? If we take DeLanda at his word then surely we must say that the gravitational attraction of two asteroids is a material relation while the attraction of a wasp to an orchid is an expressive relation. Moreover, this is a truth quite apart from any human interpretation of the situation - it is not a separation made for our convenience alone - it is how the universe is really divided up. I like the distinction but I'm not sold on its being an ontological as opposed to a cognitive or an epistemological distinction (that is if this is what DeLanda is really saying). I'm not fundamentally opposed to the argument but I think I need to know more about it before being at all convinced. (Admittedly this is the first book by DeLanda that I've read besides A Thousand Years of Non-Linear History, which is primarily empirical, so I may be just showing my ignorance.)

Second, I agree with Levi that territorialisation as DeLanda articulates is a very promising linking point with Latour's thought - particularly his notion of black boxes and his distinction between social complication and social complexity.

As Latour and Callon put it:
An actor grows with the number of relations he or she can put, as we say, in black boxes. A black box contains that which no longer needs to be reconsidered, those things whose contents have become a matter of indifference. The more elements one can place in black boxes – modes of thought, habits, forces and objects – the broader the construction one can raise. Of course, black boxes never remain fully closed or properly fastened … but macro-actors can do as if they were closed and dark. (Latour & Callon 1981, p.184-85)
The process of black boxing is, in Latour’s terms, a process of social complication to be distinguished from social complexity: “[C]omplexity [is] the simultaneous taking into account of many variables at once … complication [is] the piling of many simple steps one after the other.” (Latour 2000)
Something is ‘complicated’ when it is made of a succession of simple operations. … [T]he skills in an industrial society are those of simplification making social tasks less complex rather than making them more complex by comparison with other human and animal societies. By holding a variety of factors constant and sequentially negotiating one variable at a time, a stable complicated structure is created. Through extra-somatic resources employed in the process of social complication, units like multinational corporations, states and nations can be constituted[.] (Strum and Latour 1987)
In other words, social life starts out as being enormously complex; in this state societies can only be small, relatively ragtag bands of individuals. Social members (Latour uses the example of baboons as an example of social beings in an almost pure state of social complexity) have to work constantly to maintain their social relationships. No relations endure much beyond the immediate moment of interaction - this is an ethnomethodologist's society; a society whose bonds are constantly being remade on an inter-subjective level.

The more society becomes complicated (and this occurs when humans fold more and more non-humans into their increasingly 'entangled' society) the more social relations can be placed in black boxes, the more forces can be translated over greater distances with minimal distortion, the more tightly disciplined and closely knit humans become and the larger their collectives can grow; in this state societies can take almost any form - from larger tribes to city states to empires. Now relations endure far beyond the immediate moment of inter-subjective interaction and we can say, although Latour largely shuns this language, that social structures develop (and so social mereology becomes a relevant consideration).

The important point here is that Latour, like DeLanda (it seems) and unlike Deleuze and Guattari, doesn't hold territorialisation, organisation, disciplinisation or ordering in contempt so as to 'celebrate' the 'freedom' of deterritorialisation tout court. D&G were always begrudged to allow for anything positive in territorialisation, while for DeLanda and Latour these are more or less neutral terms, circumstance excepted. We can easily translate Latour's arguments here into DeLanda's terminology: territorialisation does not simply gather social beings into tighter, more disciplined, more regimented assemblages, it makes larger collectives possible. Therefore, simply 'celebrating' deterritorialisation as being inherently 'liberating' or whatever doesn't make much sense - we have to think much more about where social organisation must be carefully disciplined and where it must not. Sweeping statements either way are not helpful.


Latour, B. & Callon, M. 1981, "Unscrewing the Big Leviathan: How Actors Macro-Structure Reality and How Sociologists Help Them to Do So," In Advances in social theory and methodology: toward an integration of micro- and macro-sociologies, K. Knorr-Cetina & A. V. Cicourel, eds., Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Latour, B. Progress or Entanglement? Two models for the long term evolution of human civilisation. 2000: Unpublished Work: www.bruno-latour.fr/poparticles/poparticle/P-86-TAIWAN.pdf

Strum, S.S. & Latour, B. 1987. Redefining the Social Link - from Baboons to Humans. Social Science Information Sur Les Sciences Sociales, 26, (4)

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