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In the last few decades an entirely new conception of the material world has emerged. Here, philosopher Manuel DeLanda, whose work has become synonymous with this ‘new materialism’, introduces this novel understanding of materiality. Like any other conceptual framework, it has precedents in the history of philosophy - the work of the Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza is a good example - but only recently has it become coherently articulated with science and technology. Gone is the Aristotelian view that matter is an inert receptacle for forms that come from the outside (transcendent essences), as well as the Newtonian view in which an obedient materiality simply follows general laws and owes all its powers to those transcendent laws. In place of this, we can now conceptualise an active matter endowed with its own tendencies and capacities, engaged in its own divergent, open-ended evolution, animated from within by immanent patterns of being and becoming.
The New Materiality
Manuel DeLanda
In the last few decades an entirely new conception of the material world has
emerged. Philosopher Manuel DeLanda, whose work has become synonymous with
this ‘New Materialism’, introduces this novel understanding of materiality. Like any
other conceptual framework, this one has precedents in the history of philosophy –
the work of the Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza is a good example – but only
recently has it become coherently articulated with science and technology. Gone is
the Aristotelian view that matter is an inert receptacle for forms that come from the
outside (transcendent essences), as well as the Newtonian view in which an obedient
materiality simply follows general laws and owes all its powers to those transcendent
laws. In place of this, we can now conceptualize an active matter endowed with its
own tendencies and capacities, engaged in its own divergent, open-ended evolution,
animated from within by immanent patterns of being and becoming.
Causality: to Affect and Be Affected.
The new vision of the nature of materiality has been made possible by a series of changes to older
concepts. Some were improved or refined, like the concept of causality, while others were radically
transformed, like the idea of an eternal and immutable law which mutated into that of distribution
singularities. Let's discuss these conceptual changes, starting with causality; the production of an
event by another event. (1) The old conception of causality was inherently linear. The formula for linear
causality is “Same Cause, Same Effect, Always”. From this formula, naive forms of determinism follow:
if every cause always has the same effect we should be able to follow the chain all the way to a first
cause. And vice versa, once that first cause occurs everything else is given: there is no novelty in the
universe. But the different assumptions built into this formula can be challenged to produce different
forms of nonlinear causality. The word “same”, for example, can be challenged in two ways because it
may be interpreted as referring both to the intensity of the cause (“same intensity of cause, same
intensity of effect”) as well as to the very identity of the cause. Let’s begin with the simplest departure
from linear causality, the one challenging sameness of intensity. As an example we can use Hooke’s
Law capturing a regularity in the way solid bodies respond to loads, like a strip of metal on which a
given weight has been attached. Hooke’s law may be presented in graphic form as a plot of load
versus deformation, a plot that has the form of a straight line (explaining one source of the meaning of
the term “linear”). This linear pattern captures the fact that if we double the amount of weight
supported by the metal its deformation will also double. More generally, Hooke's law states that a
material under a given load will stretch or contract by a given amount which is always proportional to
the load.
While some materials, like mild steel and other industrially homogenized metals, do indeed exhibit this
kind of proportional effect, many others do not. Organic tissue, for example, displays a J-shaped curve
when load is plotted against deformation. A gentle tug of one's lip, for instance, produces considerable
extension but after that pulling it harder causes little additional extension. In other words, a cause of
low intensity produces a relatively high intensity effect up to a point after which increasing the intensity
of the cause produces only a low intensity effect. Other materials, like the rubber in a balloon, display
a S-shaped curve representing a more complex relation between intensities: at first increasing the
intensity of the cause produces almost no effect at all, as when one begins to inflate a balloon and the
latter refuses to bulge; as the intensity increases, however, a point is reached at which the rubber
balloon suddenly yields to the pressure of the air rapidly increasing in size, but only up to a second
point at which it again stops responding to the load. The fact that the J-shaped and S-shaped curves
are only two of several possible departures from strict proportionality implies that the terms “linear “
and “nonlinear” are not a dichotomy. Nonlinear patterns represent a variety of possibilities of which the
linear case is but a limiting case. A stronger form of nonlinear causality is exemplified by cases that
challenge the very identity of causes and effects in the formula “Same Cause, Same Effect, Always”.
When an external stimulus acts on an organism, like a simple bacterium, the stimulus acts in many
cases as a mere catalyst. A biological creature is defined internally by many complex series of events,
some of which close on themselves forming a causal loop (like a metabolic cycle) exhibiting its own
internal states of stability. A switch from one stable state to another can be triggered by a variety of
stimuli. Thus, in such a system different causes can lead to the same effect. For similar reasons two
different components of a biological entity, each with a different set of internal states, may react
completely different to external stimulation. That is, the same cause can lead to different effects
depending on the part of the organism it acts upon, like a hormone that stimulates growth if applied to
the tips of a plant but inhibits it if applied to the roots.
Conceptually, the switch from linear to nonlinear causality involves taking into account not only an
entity’s capacity to affect (a load's ability to push or pull) but also another entity's capacity to be
affected (a particular material's disposition to be pushed or pulled.) Whereas in Hooke's law only the
load's capacity to affect is considered, once we switch to organic tissue or rubber, their different
capacities to be affected need to be included. And in the case of catalysis, the internal states of an
organism define capacities to be affected that can be triggered by stimuli with very different capacities
to affect. Thus, an important conceptual move in the direction of an active materiality is the
characterization of material systems not just by their properties but also by their capacities. Let’s
illustrate this with a simple example. A knife is partly defined by its properties, such as having a certain
shape or weight, as well as being in a certain state, like the state of being sharp. A sharp knife, on the
other hand, has the capacity to cut things, a capacity that can be exercised by interacting with entities
that have the capacity to be cut: cheese or bread, but not a solid piece of titanium. Philosophically,
there is an important distinction between properties and capacities. Properties are always actual, since
at any given point in time the knife is either sharp or it is not. But the causal capacity to cut is not
necessarily actual if the knife is not currently being used. This implies that capacities can be real
without being actual. The technical term for this ontological condition is virtual. This double life of
material systems, always actual and virtual, has been emphasized by contemporary materialist
philosophers like Gilles Deleuze:
"The virtual is not opposed to the real but to the actual. The virtual is fully real in so far as it is
virtual. ... Indeed, the virtual must be defined as strictly a part of the real object – as though the object
had one part of itself in the virtual into which it is plunged as though into an objective dimension. ...The
reality of the virtual consists of the differential elements and relations along with the singular points
which correspond to them. The reality of the virtual is structure. We must avoid giving the elements
and relations that form a structure an actuality which they do not have, and withdrawing from them a
reality which they have.” (2)
Singularities: the Structure of Possibility Spaces.
In addition to asserting the double life of all material entities, their simultaneous actuality and virtuality,
the previous quote suggests a solution to the problem of the kind of existence constituted by the
virtual: its reality is defined by the structure formed by differential elements and distributions of
singularities. Let's define this terms, one by one. To make things easier, let's take a simpler case than
that of capacities, material tendencies, such as the tendency of a substance to change from solid to
liquid, or from liquid to gas, at certain critical thresholds. These tendencies are most of the time virtual
or potential, becoming actual only when a substance is actually melting or vaporizing. But the number
of possible states that matter can tend to is typically finite, whereas the number of actions of which it is
capable is not: the same knife that has the capacity to cut can acquire the capacity to kill if interacting
with a animal, or the capacity to murder if interacting with a human being. In either case, we are
dealing with spaces of possibilities, finite spaces in the case of tendencies, open-ended spaces in the
case of capacities, but the former are much more accessible to rigorous formal study.
The first concept in the definition of the virtual is "structure" and we can now be more specific about it:
the structure in question is the structure of a possibility space. It is this structure, given in the case of
the tendencies just mentioned by the critical thresholds of melting and vaporization, that has a reality
beyond the actual. These critical thresholds are one example of a distribution of singularities, the word
"singular" meaning remarkable or non-ordinary, a special event in which a change in quantity becomes
a change in quality. The possibility space in this case has as many dimensions as there are
parameters affecting the substance: if only temperature changes, then the space is one dimensional
(a line of values) and the singularities are points (freezing and boiling points); if temperature and
pressure both change, the space is two dimensional and the singularities are lines; and if we add
specific volume as a third parameter, the space is three dimensional and the singularities are surfaces.
In general, in these phase diagrams singularities are always N-1, with N being the number of
dimensions. This is important, because in the history of philosophy transcendent spaces are always
one dimension higher (N+1), so the fact that the structure of a possibility space is N-1 is a sign of its
immanence (3).
Freezing and boiling points are not, of course, the only examples of singularities. When discussing
catalysis above, we said that organic entities tend to possess a variety of stable states, and that they
can switch from one state to another stimulated by a variety of causes. These stable states are also
singularities. The state in which an organism happens to be at any one moment is actual, while all the
other available states are virtual, waiting to be triggered into actuality by a catalyst. Given that these
internal stable states also tend to be finite, they are also amenable to formal analysis. In this case, the
first thing that needs to be done is to figure out the number of different ways in which the material
system to be modeled is free to change. These "degrees of freedom", as they are called, must be
picked carefully: they must be the most significant ways of changing, since any material system can
change in an infinite number of trivial ways. The degrees of freedom, in turn, must be related to one
another using the differential calculus, that is, the branch of mathematics dealing with rates of change,
or to put it differently, dealing with the rapidity or slowness with which properties can change. In the
geometric approach to the calculus, each degree of freedom becomes one dimension of a possibility
space, the space of possible states for the system, while the differential relations between them
determine a certain distribution of singularities. (4) Here too, the N-1 rule applies: there are zero-
dimensional singularities (point attractors), as well as one dimensional ones wrapped into a loop
(periodic attractors). In a space of two dimensions that is all the variety that exists. In state spaces with
three dimensions, however, attractors of higher dimensionality can exist, but as it happens they are
not exactly two dimensional: they have a fractal dimension (intermediate between one and two) and
are referred to as "chaotic attractors." (5)
The tendencies towards different types of stability (steady, cyclic, turbulent) predicted to exist by this
mathematical approach have indeed been confirmed in laboratory experiments. Soap bubbles and
crystals, for example, acquire their stable shapes by the fact that the process that produces them has
a tendency towards a steady-state, the state that minimizes surface energy or bonding energy
respectively. Similarly, the periodic circulatory patterns that characterize certain wind currents (like the
trade winds or the monsoon) and the underground lava flows that drive plate tectonics, are explained
by the existence of a tendency towards a stable periodic state. The fact that the same singularity (a
point, a loop) can structure the possibility spaces of physical processes that are so different in detail
implies that the explanatory role of singularities is different from that of causes. The latter involve
specific mechanisms that produce specific effects, and these mechanisms vary from one type of
process to another. But the fact that underneath these mechanisms there is the same tendency to
minimize some quantity (or to cycle through the same set of states over and over) shows that the
singularities themselves are mechanism-independent. To explain the creative behavior of any material
system we normally need both: a description of a mechanism that explains how the system was
produced, and a description of the structure of its possibility space that accounts for its preferred
stable states, as well as its transitions from quantitative to qualitative change.
To conclude, linear causality and its necessary and unique outcomes, gives us a picture of matter as
something incapable of giving birth to form by itself. In this old view, morphogenesis can only take
place if an external agency acts on inert matter, either by incarnating an essence (formal cause) or by
forcing it to acquire a form (efficient cause.) A richer conception of causality linked to the notion of the
structure of a possibility space, gives us the means to start thinking about matter as possessing
morphogenetic powers of its own. In addition, the fact that a virtual structure can be actualized by
different material systems provides us with a way to think about recurring regularities in the birth of
form without having to invoke eternal natural laws. A material world in which transcendence has been
exorcised and in which immanent morphogenetic powers supply the means for true novelty and
creation, is the kind of world worthwhile being a realist about.
1. Mario Bunge, Causality and Modern Science (New York: Dover, 1979), p.156.
2. Gilles Deleuze. Difference and Repetition, New York: Columbia University Press, 1994, p. 208-209.
3. Manuel DeLanda. Intensive and Extensive Cartographies. In Deleuze: History and Science, New York: Atropos Press, 2010,
p. 123.
4. Ian Stewart. Does God Play Dice?: The Mathematics of Chaos. (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989), p. 84-94.!
5. Ibid. p. 107-110.!
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Does God Play Dice? The Mathematics of Chaos recommended by Rene te Boekhorst, but very basic...
Intensive and Extensive Cartographies
  • Manuel Delanda
Manuel DeLanda. Intensive and Extensive Cartographies. In Deleuze: History and Science, New York: Atropos Press, 2010, p. 123.