Why DeLanda

My backlog is huge. It’s much easier for me to type than it is to edit. Hm. It’s also easier to type on the plane than it is to read sometimes, too- bumpy flight. I’ll wrap up Intensive Science shortly.

I wanted to give a brief account of what, exactly, I find interesting in DeLandan/Deleuzian thought, because an old roommate raised his eyebrows when I started bringing them up in conversation. Deleuze was a target in Sokal’s infamous Fashionable Nonsense. 

I wanted to sketch my trajectory a bit.

I often feel the need to do this, not just to explain to you but also to keep my story straight to myself.

My philosophical disposition is Pragmatic.

When I was in college, analytic philosophy was philosophy and “continental” philosophy [narrowly defined. Usually French.] was hip literary stuff, occasionally interesting but not instrumental. There were exceptions we* allowed in day-to-day conversation: for example Bogost and Zizek, both because their delivery was exciting [ie. combative] enough that we didn’t have to deal with the characteristic obscurity of the not-obviously-analytical way.

I’ve always been aesthetically repulsed by the vague idea of the mystical/spiritual/transcendent. Even as some of my nontheist friends came to describe themselves as “not religious but spiritual”, I found that disposition unsatisfying. If anything, the other part of religion was the only part that ever really appealed to me- to paraphrase Venkatesh Rao, I might’ve been “not spiritual/religious but ritualistic”. I felt that the ritual obviously felt and did something, even if the Truth they meant to represent was dubious. The deep, emotive (“spiritual?”) side of religion was totally alien to me, and the embodied experience as a legitimate idea is only a couple of years old to me. It just wasn’t in my bones. As a church-going teenager who was dimly aware of his own atheism I thought that maybe something was wrong with me, that if I did all of the moves right I would some day “feel” the Truth.

(I never did).

When I did finally drop my Christian label [or rather, when I adopted the Atheist/Rational Skeptic one proper], my belief structure did not radically change- the only difference was that I was free to occasionally vent some anti-theism (usually an unproductive behavior). I still had an obvious problem though, one that Dennett would help me to articulate when he spoke about the Cartesian theater. To steal from Spengler’s language on pseudomorphism, I suffered from “Atheism-after-[previous]”- the shape of my belief system was warped by my previous belief system. I became aware that I was presupposing concepts that are totally coherent from the worldview that I allegedly rejected, and it gnawed at me. I was suspicious of anything that smelled like “the soul”, for example, or “linear, apocalyptic history”. Not that they were obviously wrong necessarily, but I became more aware of these assumptions. A less personal view of this contention can be found in Kevin Simler’s excellent recent article on Ribbonfarm, “Technical Debt of the West.” Raw, mechanical rhetorical replacements did not seem appropriate, but the alternatives I knew of were unconvincing.

As I’ve mentioned before, I found much of the vocabulary that I now use around the same time: Daniel Dennett, Herbert A Simon, Don Norman, and the Pragmatists I felt lent me words for my suspicions. Oakeshott articulated a suspicion that I had- “reputable political behavior is not dependent upon sound or even coherent philosophy.” Institutions are the “product of innumerable human choices, over long stretches of time, but not of any human design.” So it went. LessWrong and the Rational Skeptics were my refuge for a while, although I eventually distanced myself from those labels, for no real reason but that attention is limited and those labels did not direct themselves to the questions I was most immediately interested in.

When I read Venkatesh Rao’s Tempo, the spectacular thing about it was that it made attempts at framing what seemed obscure before. It was an account of decision-making that was not dependent on single frames of distinct decision-making time. It provided a language and logic for things I felt that I had suspected before. Ribbonfarm and other blogs in that neighborhood became must-reads for me.

Recently, when a Christian friend of mine wanted to shoot bull with me, he claimed that I had become less atheistic because of the kind of arguments I was making. I didn’t really understand his claim, but I think it had to do with the fact that my responses no longer were direct reactions to his because we didn’t share enough assumptions there anymore. I think that, by my own lights, I am more “atheistic” in thought than ever before. I’ll fail to define my terms for now, but to sketch example assertions: All essences are shorthand; the long arm of history is not guaranteed to bend toward justice at all; The self is both a component of larger systems and an assemblage of smaller ones. This worldview is not as clearly an identically-shaped agonist of the previous worldview, filling the same space and affording the same dialectic.

Does this sound too self-congratulatory? Yes, maybe I’m not expressing myself effectively here. Moving on.

Here is where I found a connection with DeLanda’s Deleuze.

DeLanda: “The identity of any real entity must be accounted for by a process, the process that produced that entity […] When it comes to social science the idea is the same: families, institutional organizations, cities, nation states are all real entities that are the product of specific historical processes which created them and those that maintain them.”

I suspect that “DeLanda’s Deleuze” is more “atheistic” (by my special, so-far-undefined lights) than the once-living “Deleuze” is, because Deleuze went to his grave a totalizing Marxist and DeLanda is not at all (See: A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History), and I will leave that there for now. [And, for the record, subscribing to totalizing schemes is not a crime. At some point it may be necessary. Not acknowledging or recognizing such a subscription might be a crime, though.]

In this ontology all that exists in the actual world is singular individual entities (individual atoms, cells, organisms, persons, organizations, cities, and so on) whose main difference from each other is spatio-temporal scale. There are no totalities, such as “society as a whole”, but a nested set of singular (unique, historically contingent) beings nested within one another like a Russian Doll Between one entity and the larger one is the relationship of parts to whole (but not one of membership in a general category).

Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy presents a view that is falliblistic, that is in some sense pragmatic, that is process-oriented and essence-denying. It is highly dependent on historical contingency over generalization. It provides, I think, a powerful and useful vocabulary, even if it is in some literal sense “wrong”.