Mediamatic Magazine Vol. 9#1 Dirk Van Weelden 1 Jan 1998

De Landa

A Thousand Years of Non-Linear History

This long-awaited book by Manuel DeLanda bears an imposing title for its three hundred pages plus notes. Is it meant as a joke? No. Does it have to do with some childrens or MTV history of the expiring millennium? No, not at all. We are not dealing with historical writing here, but rather with a book that contains three major philosophical essays. Philosophical in the sense of creative formation of theory which concerns scientific investigation of collective human behavior in relation to its physical and biological environment. In three domains (the geological, the biological and the linguistic), De Landa explains the concepts which are important for gaining insight into the irreversible processes in which humanity has become mixed up over the past thousand years.


Jans showing De Landa's A Thousand Years of Non Linear History -

You could already fill a library using the literature on the theory of historical writing alone, and the question here is what this book can add to it. The critical or even polemic approach of his illustrative formation of theory concerns the origin of the concepts which De Landa uses, and whose explanatory power he wants to demonstrate by means of examples. The geological, the biological and the (socio)linguistic function in this book as tool kits from which historical philosopher De Landa draws his models and concepts. The transposition from scientific concepts to an historical-philosophical discourse has always been a risky business, since said concepts cannot yield more than an informal metaphorics. Yet De Landa isn't pleading for a rhetorical scientification of the philosophy of history. His philosophical point of departure is that not only the vicissitudes of humankind, but also those of layers of the earth, plants, animals and ecosystems, are the products of specific historical, i.e. irreversible, processes. He wants to illustrate with his book how philosophy and science can enter into a fruitful interaction based on this fundamental assumption.

Of major importance to De Landa's reasoning is his conclusion that he can tie together the developments in this direction, both in historical writing as well as in the natural sciences. Historians are considering increasingly heterogeneous factors in their research, including not only non-western histories, but also non-human ones, such as geological, climatological and biological processes. He names the Annales school of Fernand Braudel and the work of William McNeill as examples. Yet in the natural sciences as well, research is coming up with doubts about the linear relationship between causes and effects, between circumstances and their results. Physics has discovered that there is next to no evidence of uniform conditions, and that various forms of complexity coexist both next to and through one another. That is to say that the behavior of energy and matter would be impossible to understand using exclusively linear models. Physical reality seems to be built upon dynamic and unstable conditions to such a degree that small changes can cause major waves in the behavior of parts, fields and energy flows. Especially in biology, such a shake-up has already taken place. The feedback between the various operating levels (molecular, biochemical, organic, ecological) is so complex and dynamic that concepts such as 'species' or the Darwinistic 'fittest design' lose their sharp contours.

In these developments within the natural sciences, De Landa sees a model of thinking for the social sciences. Modes of thinking in that realm are still based too heavily on linear processes from one stage of development to the next, whether or not they're necessarily coupled with notions of progress or purpose. In his view, it's time to infiltrate the study of history with models and concepts which analyze collective human actions, much as the behaviors of water, electromagnetic fields, viruses and animal species are studied in the natural sciences. There the focus is more on critical breaking points between different uniform conditions than on a development in terms of progress or higher civilization. De Landa, in short, sees in the infiltration of non-linear models from science a chance to chart the unintended collective effects of human decisions.

De Landa is not a philosopher of the old metaphysical kind, but neither does he restrict himself to an analytical philosophical style fixated on the substantial language and procedures of knowledge. On the topic of society as a whole, or on the nature of humankind, he doesn't see fit to make any sweeping declarations in philosophical terms. His is not a top-down approach, but rather, insofar as possible, one from the bottom up. When he speaks of organizations, cities or nations, he considers them in terms of their populations via units of a lower level.

He recounts the past thousand years three separate times, each time in an essay of some eighty pages. The first is through a 'geological' lens, i.e., he considers the origin of different types of cities, the building of states and wars as patterns in a complex process of the flow of mass energy: fuel, raw materials, muscle power and the optimization of its use, utilization of the landscape (wind, ocean, rivers). The organizations and architecture of which cities consist are interpreted as systems which suck up, use and then redistribute energy, while in the meantime spitting out products, people, and waste. The cultural, political and religious institutions are portrayed as separate from the intentions, desires and meanings which have traditionally been associated with them. They come into existence much in the same way as quartz comes into existence in a mountain.

In the second essay, the biological plays a central role, as the focus is on the flow of genetic material, of genes. Not only human genes, but also those of animals, plants, bacteria and viruses. Cities now appear as organisms which feed off of their environment. De Landa shows how the coexistence of people and animals generates problems and solutions. Especially the sections on the influence of unmanageable (micro)organisms on human history yield lovely, compelling passages which convincingly show the importance of considering non-human histories in the writing of history.

The final section considers the last thousand years through a socio-linguistic lens. Here as well, the focus is on non-uniform streams which intersect, intermingle and feed one another in very different ways. Language, too, and everything that it can mobilize regarding knowledge (and therefore power) is again interpreted as material, as an expression of mass energy. De Landa manages, if even in an only sketchy way, to make clear how much of a difference it makes if we look at human history without value judgments in terms of more or less developed, more or less ethical, more or less just. His book is a brave and enthusiastic attempt, based on the intellectual legacy of Deleuze and Guattari, to formulate a theory of history which sees wind, rocks, oceans, bodies, cities, bacteria, trees and words as expressions of the same mass energy. Reality is to be understood as a complex, heterogeneous and non-linear process in which mass energy expresses itself in various ways. This is why his philosophical meditation, as he calls it, consists of the subtle linking of the results of hundreds of geologists, historians, biologists and linguists.

De Landa takes no pains to win his audience over with jokes. His writing is serious and terse. The concepts he uses come from the books of Deleuze and Guattari (accumulation, network, assemblage, intensities, (de)territorialization), but the concrete historical material in which they reappear makes the power and keenness of the concepts extremely clear. Only in the closing chapter, Conclusions and Speculations, is he in danger of being swallowed up by the jargon of his masters. In this section, his statements are rather wanting in terms of clarity, which is unfortunate considering that he also polemicizes the most sharply here against the prevailing modes of thought in the social sciences.

For many academics, this book is probably a rather provocative and speculative pamphlet, for others an exciting and entertaining book which is not overly easy. Putting aside the classical sociological and historical concepts produces a view of human history which some will find cold and inhuman. You might find that depressing, but that doesn't seem necessary to me. The book succeeds best in producing a sober, fresh look at the human swarm. Upon reading this book, I couldn't help but be reminded of Diderot, who can be seen as a forerunner of non-linear thinking materialism, and how he would have enjoyed it. Precisely as we are leaving the twentieth century, which has been terrorized by the insistent notions of progress, scientific and political certainties, quests for control and dominion, it is frankly a relief, and a just as sobering as comforting experience, to read this non-linear philosophical outline of the past thousand years.