First thoughts on DeLanda’s “Inorganic Life”

One doesn’t hear as much about chaos theory as one used to; as with “quantum physics”, which for most purposes is used to mean spooky-action-at-a-distance and Schrödinger’s sodding cat, “chaos theory” has been boiled down into a handful of middlebrow clichés about infinitely crumpled fractal boundaries and “the butterfly effect”. Reading DeLanda’s Inorganic Life, (originally published in Zone: Incorporations in 1991) took me back to the moment in the late 80s when I was reading James Gleick’s Chaos: Making A New Science and running programs to generate Mandelbrot set images on a BBC Micro for eleven hours at a time. It was all very exciting back then, and DeLanda’s text channels some of that excitement into metaphysical enquiry in a manner that today’s “speculative realists” ought to appreciate.

One difficulty that I had with this short text was that DeLanda seemed to want to connect the behaviour of non-linear systems (bifurcation, turbulence and so on) with the Deleuzian concept of “the open”, implying that such systems demonstrated the invalidity of deterministic physical models based on a static frame (that is, models where the state of the system at time T is entirely determined by the complete set of facts about the state of the system at time T-1; as I understand it, an “open” system supposedly never forms a closed set of facts, because its contexture includes the continuum of folds and fluxes that surround and permeate it). The problem here is that the canonical examples that appear within chaos theory are all in fact entirely deterministic: pretty much the whole point is that chaos theory accounts for the appearance of such peculiar entities as strange attractors within a deterministic framework.

I’ll come back to this shortly, because the example I have in mind – the infinitely self-similar contours of the Mandelbrot set itself – is one that bears detailed scrutiny. The mathematics out of which the Mandelbrot set emerges are at bottom extremely simple, and I’d like to try and rehearse the steps through which, in my late teens, I came to understand more about what on earth was going on in that – at the time – exceptionally strange and exhilarating new domain.

3 thoughts on “First thoughts on DeLanda’s “Inorganic Life”

  1. Dominic, you might find this article of interest in connection to what you’re discussing here:

    Protevi, who works closely with DeLanda and who is very much on the same page as DeLanda, draws a distinction between complexity theory and chaos theory. I don’t know that this addresses the specific criticisms you make here, but based on DeLanda’s other works such as Intensive Philosophy, I do not think that chaos theory is his principle inspiration, though it’s an important one to be sure. I confess I find these models appealing because they provide a way of avoiding the reification of structure which, I believe, leads to a number of poorly posed problems (especially in contemporary continental political theory). However, I perpetually find myself wondering how one avoids falling into some dogmatic form of metaphysics by advocating these models. I suppose the same question might emerge in the case of Badiou’s use of set theory or Deleuze’s references to calculus. Maybe I should just quit worrying about the Kant-Phenomenology calls for a critical philosophy and learn to love the bomb.

  2. Thanks Levi – I’m sort of vaguely aware of people like Prigogine and Kaufman, whom DeLanda mentions in “Inorganic Life”, and need to catch up quite a bit in that area – they’re the other side of a conversation I’ve so far only really heard one side of.

    I think chaos theory is still interesting even given its deterministic framework – to me it shows that the distinction between closed and open systems, or structuralism versus dynamicism (for want of a better word), isn’t actually crucial in determining the contents of your ontology: very complex and fluid entities can appear in wholly deterministic systems too. Not that this means that mechanistic determinism is the way to go – just that it maybe matters less than one might think.

    I think wrt set theory that whatever the problems may be with that, it isn’t ever really going to be a problem that there’s something one wants to include in one’s ontology that doesn’t have a corresponding schema in the universe of sets. (Badiou argues exactly this in the book on Deleuze: Deleuze’s prodigious swarm of metaphysical conceits never outstrips the formal prodigality of the set-theoretic mathème. That doesn’t mean that set theory is the One True Way to talk about everything, obviously; just that it has no demonstrable inadequacies – or in any case none, in Badiou’s view, that Deleuze succeeded in demonstrating). The point is not to be dogmatic about set theory, but to recognise that it can’t easily be circumscribed or put in its place – “oh, those are just sets – we’re talking about much more complex things”. To say that ontology is mathematics is not in any meaningful sense to restrict ontology. On the other hand, there’s no reason to not talk about Hölderlin as well…

  3. I don’t see Badiou as restricting things through his use of set theory. I think the problem with Badiou’s use of set theory is analogous to the problem Kant outlines with regard to the use of concepts independent of intuition. That is, while set theory is able to include all the things you discuss, it doesn’t give us any account of being or which account of the world is the right one. The sorts of questions one asks in ontology (obviously I disagree with Badiou’s characterization of what ontology seeks) are questions such as “what is a thing?”, “do universals exist?” “what is the nature of time?”, etc. Badiou is more or less agnostic with regard to these sorts of questions, but these are precisely the sorts of questions we need answered in our comportment to the world as our presuppositions about these matters will have profound effects on just how we go about engaging with the world. Of course, the counter-claim could be made that all of this is absolutely true, but these are questions for regional ontologies such as the social sciences, physics, chemistry, biology, etc., not for general ontology. If that’s the case then I suppose I think general ontology is just of little interest or import, for if it doesn’t begin by allowing me to make basic decisions between the primacy of substance ontologies and process ontologies and atomisms and phenomeno-ontologies, then it really hasn’t made a contribution one way or another. Moreover, I suspect that Badiou’s recourse to the “event” in his discussion of political matters is actually a function of the underdetermination of his ontology which leads him to a see social systems as hegemonic determining systems that can only produce the same, thereby allowing that only something like an event and the truth-procedures that follow from it can lead to change (it’s especially symptomatic that he’s publicly claimed that political economy, i.e., classical Marxism, is unimportant).

    Badiou has tried to rectify this somewhat in LW, but he still remains at a largely descriptive level in his talk of intensities and use of categories. What I’m looking for when I look for an ontology is not just something that can integrate whatever we happen to discover, but something that discusses the actual nature of the world and how thought should be oriented towards the world. As far as I can tell, Badiou’s “ontology” has zero explanatory power along these lines.

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