Princeton University School of Architecture

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    Manuel De Landa

    Stewart Hicks Sep 9 '04 0

    I attended the Manuel De Landa "seminar" this evening. It is the first of a series of 10 lectures he will be giving under the guise of a course called ARC 537. There's a sense that you're supposed to feel lucky to be able to sit in front of him while he talks. He didn't neglect to mention the other schools he's "teaching" at this semester: Penn, Columbia among others. The class was interesting and I will probably sign up for it - but even if I don't, I will probably attend the class anyway. Instead of a summary of the lecture or his biography, I found this conversation between him and D.J. Spooky a.k.a. Paul Miller:

    PM: In A Thousand Years Nonlinear History you point out that "human history is a narrative of contingencies not necessities, of missed opportunities to follow different routes of development." My question is this: history is always a framework of interpretation; do you feel that somehow we have moved into our frameworks, moved into the picture and lost the frame?"

    MD: One of the ideas that I attack in my book is precisely the primacy of "interpretations" and of "conceptual frameworks." Sure, ideas and beliefs are important, and do play a role in history, but academics of different brands have reduced all material and energetic processes, and all human practices that are not linguistic or interpretative (think of manual skills, of "know-how.") to a "framework." The 20th century has been obsessed with positioning everything. Every culture, given that it has it's own framework of beliefs, has become its own "world" and relativism (both moral and epistemological) now prevails. But once you break away from this outmoded view, once you accept all the non-linguistic practices that really make up society (not to mention the non-human elements that also shape it, such as viruses, bacteria, weeds or non-organic energy and material flows like wind and ocean currents) then language itself becomes just another material that flows through a much expanded picture. Language, in my view, is best thought of as a catalyst, a trigger for energetic processes (think of the words "begin the battle" triggering an enormous and destructive process). The question of "missed opportunities" is important, since for most of the millennium both China and India had in fact a better chance to conquer the world than did the West, so that the actual outcome ,a world dominated by Western colonialism, was quite contingent. Things could have happened in several other ways.

    PM: What are your thoughts on digital art and its relationship to the different forms of communication in our dense and continuously changing world. Is there any return to the "comforts" of a "homogenous" culture on the horizon?

    MD: Here again we have two different answers depending on whether you believe in "conceptual frameworks" or not. If you do, then you also believe that there's such a thing as "the bourgeois ideology of the individual," a pervasive framework within which all artistic production of the last few centuries is inscribed. But if you do not believe there was ever such a thing, then history becomes much less homogenous, much less dominated by any one framework, and hence you begin to look at all the different ways in which art has escaped the conditions of its production (which admittedly, did include ruling classes as suppliers of resources). Put differently, once you admit that history has been much more complex and heterogeneous than we have been told, then even the "enemy" looks less in control of historical processes than we thought. In a sense, what I am trying to do is to cut the enemy down to size, to see all the potential escape routes that we have been overlooking by exaggerating the importance of "frameworks" or "ideologies." Clearly, if the enemy was never as powerful as we thought (which is not to say that it did not to say that it did have plenty of power) the question of the role of art (digital or otherwise) in changing social reality acquires new meanings and possibilities.

    PM: How does your philosophy of history differ from those of previous philosophers? Do you feel affinities with any contemporaries on this subject? Deleuze and Guattari, maybe, with whom there's a sense of continuous, vertiginous change - a tacit admission that history is continuity, but seething, ebbing, and flowing continuity?

    MD: There are two main differences between my philosophical ideas about history and those of previous philosophers. The first one, which is shared by many these days, is a rejection of Platonic essences as sources of form, you know, the idea that the form of this mountain here or of that zebra over there emanates from an essence of "mountain-hood" or of "zebra-hood" existing in some ideal world or in the mind of the God that created these creatures. Instead, for each such entity (not only geological and biological entities, but also social and economic ones), I force myself to come up with a process capable of creating or producing such an entity. Sometimes these processes are already figured out by scientists (in those disciplines linked to questions of morphogenesis, like chaos theory and non-linear dynamics) and so I just borrow their model, other times I need to create new models using philosophical resources - and people like Deleuze and Guattari have been very helpful in this regard. The other difference is my rejection of the existence of totalities, that is, entities like "Western Society" of the "Capitalist System." The morphogenetic point of view does allow for the emergence of wholes that are more than the sum of their parts, but only if specific historical processes, specific interactions between "lower scale entities," can be shown to have produced such wholes. Thus, in my view, institutional organizations like bureaucracies, banks, and stock markets acquire a life of their own from the interactions of individuals. From the interactions of those institutions cities emerge, and from the interactions between cities nation states emerge. Yet, in these bottom-up approaches, all the heterogeneity of real nation states can be pockets of minorities, the dialect differences, the local transience - unlike when history is modeled on totalities (concepts like "society" or "culture" or "the system"). In this latter situation homogeneity has to be artificially injected into the model.

    PM: One thing everyone seems to agree on is that there are so many different frameworks of interpretation available today that we have lost track of the world we inhabit: the "natural" has been displaced by the human; we as a species have altered the atmosphere of the planet, changed the composition of the oceans, even created seismic disruptions. There's an overwhelming sense of anthropocentric agency, over determination: "There is nothing that man hath not wrought." How do you think this sense of Æ'ber-agency so prevalent in philosophical, historical, and political discourse will change in the future?

    MD: I agree that the domination of this century by linguistics and semiotics (which is what allows us to reduce everything to talk of "frameworks of interpretation"), not to mention the post-colonial guilt of so many white intellectuals which forces them to give equal weight to any other culture's belief system, has had a very damaging effect, even on art. Today I see art students trained by guilt-driven semioticians or post-modern theorists, afraid of the materiality of their medium, whether painting, music, poetry or virtual reality (since, given the framework dogma, every culture creates its own reality). The key to break away from this is to cut language down to size, to give it the importance it deserves as a communications medium, but to stop worshipping it as the ultimate reality. Equally important is to adopt a hacker attitude towards all forms of knowledge: not only to learn UNIX or Windows NT to hack this or that computer system, but to learn economics, sociology, physics, biology to hack reality itself. It is precisely the "can do" mentality of the hacker, naive as it may sometimes be, that we need to nurture everywhere.

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