The Machinic Phylum

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by Manuel DeLanda

  • 01 Jan 1997 - 31 Dec 1997
  • Originally published to TechnoMorphica
  • Republished by V2

Article Text

A key issue in philosophical analyses of technology concerns the most appropriate way of conceptualizing innovation. One may ask, for instance, whether human beings can truly create something novel, or if humanity is simply realizing previously defined technological possibilities. Indeed, the question of the emergence of novelty is central not only when thinking about human-developed (physical and conceptual) machinery, but more generally, the machinery of living beings as developed through evolutionary processes. Can anything truly different emerge in the course of evolution or are evolutionary processes just the playing out of possible outcomes determined in advance?

At the turn of the last century the French philosopher Henri Bergson wrote a series of texts where he criticized the inability of the science of his time to think the new, the truly novel. The first obstacle was, of course, a mechanical and linear view of causality and the rigid determinism that it implied. Clearly, if all the future is already given in the past, if the future is merely that modality of time where previously determined possibilities become realized, then true innovation is impossible. To avoid this mistake, he thought, we must struggle to model the future as truly open ended, truly indeterminate, and the past and present as pregnant not only with possibilities which become real, but with virtualities which become actual. Unlike the former, which defines a process in which one structure out of a set of predefined forms acquires reality, the latter defines a process in which an open problem is solved in a variety of different ways, with actual forms emerging in the process of reaching a solution. 1
1. Gilles Deleuze, "Bergsonism," Zone Books, New York 1988, p. 97.

To take an example from physics, a population of interacting physical entities, such as molecules, can be constrained energetically to force it to display organized collective behavior. In other words, it may be constrained to adopt a form which minimizes free energy. Here the "problem" (for the population of entities) is to find this minimal point of energy, a problem solved differently by the molecules in soap bubbles (which collectively minimize surface tension) and by the molecules in crystalline structures (which collectively minimize bonding energy). Many other different structures can be generated as solutions to the "finding a minimum point" problem, each actualizing this virtual point in divergent ways. Moreover, these divergent ways are not given in advance, but defined in each case by the physical nature of the interacting entities. The number of possible structures that may emerge this way is open, limited at any one point only by the available variety of interacting entities.

Today, the insights of Bergson have been recovered by some philosophers, in particular, by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, who have also managed to rid it of some of its troubling aspects. To begin with, Bergson embraced a late form of "vitalism," which rigidly separated the worlds of organic life and human consciousness, where innovation was possible, from the realm of the merely material, where repetition of the same was the rule. For Deleuze and Guattari, on the contrary, all spheres of reality, including geology, possess virtual morphogenetic capabilities and potentialities. This does not mean, however, that these potentialities are uniformly distributed in each sphere. In the geological, biological and cultural worlds we can detect some populations of interacting entities with more intense propensities to engage in self-organizing processes, and these special populations are indeed the key to a theory of innovation. But to understand their true importance we need to get rid of the "organic chauvinism" which led Bergson to view them as "essentially" linked to life and consciousness. In particular, according to Deleuze and Guattari, metals form a very special type of population:

"... what metal and metallurgy bring to light is a life proper to matter, a vital state of matter as such, a material vitalism that doubtless exists everywhere but is ordinarily hidden or covered, rendered unrecognizable, dissociated by the hylomorphic model. Metallurgy is the consciousness or thought of the matter-flow, and metal the correlate of this consciousness. As expressed in panmetallism, metal is coextensive to the whole of matter, and the whole of matter to metallurgy. Even the waters, the grasses and varieties of wood, the animals are populated by salts or mineral elements. Not everything is metal, but metal is everywhere ... The machinic phylum is metallurgical, or at least has a metallic head, as its itinerant probe-head or guidance device." 2
2. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus University of Minnesota Press, 1980, p. 409.

There are several terms in this quote that need explanation. First, what they refer to as the "hylomorphic model," is a model of the genesis of form as external to matter, as imposed from the outside like a command on a material which is thought as inert and dead. Whether these forms come from the mind of God, or from essences inhabiting an eternal heaven, or from a military engineer in an eighteenth century arsenal, its does not matter. It implies a conception of matter that we inherited from Greek philosophers (perhaps best illustrated by Aristotle"s distinction between material and formal causes) and yet a conception that is totally alien to the history of technology up to the eighteenth century, particularly to that ancient branch known as "metallurgy." For the blacksmith "it is not a question of imposing a form upon matter but of elaborating an increasingly rich and consistent material, the better to tap increasingly intense forces." 3

3. ibid. p. 329.

In other words, the blacksmith treated metals as active materials, pregnant with morphogenetic capabilities, and his role was that of teasing a form out of them, of guiding, through a series of processes (heating, annealing, quenching, hammering), the emergence of a form, a form in which the materials themselves had a say. In the terms with which I began this essay, he is less realizing previously defined possibilities, than actualizing virtualities along divergent lines. Historians have clearly understood the importance of metals in technological history, even using them to label some crucial stages, such as the Bronze or Iron ages. But it would be a mistake to think that the relevance of metals for the question of innovation is due to human intervention. To see this we need to explain a second obscure term in the quote above: the "machinic phylum." What does this term refer to and what does it mean to say that it has "metallic probe-heads"? Let"s answer the latter question first. The key idea is to think of metals as being the most powerful catalysts in the planet. (The only exception being organic enzymes, but these have been evolved to achieve that potency.) A catalyst is a substance capable of accelerating or decelerating a chemical reaction, without itself being changed in the process. That is, a catalyst intervenes in reality, triggers effects, causes encounters that would not have taken place without it, and yet it is not consumed or permanently changed in these interactions, so that it can go on triggering effects elsewhere.

We can imagine our planet, before living creatures appeared on its surface, as populated by metallic particles which catalyzed reactions as they flowed through the Earth, in a sense allowing the planet to "explore" a space of possible chemical combinations, that is, allowing the planet to blindly grope its way around this space, eventually stumbling upon proto-living creatures, which as many scientists now agree, were probably autocatalytic loops of materials, that is, proto-metabolisms. 4
4. Stuart Kauffman, "The Origins of Order. Self-Organization and Selection in Evolution," Oxford University Press, New York 1993, chapter 3.

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