(Warning: This is a long and involved post.)

In reposting Steven Shaviro’s critique of DeLanda’s A New Philosophy of Society, Levi Bryant has reminded me of one of the impetuses (impeti?) that moved me to a Whiteheadian perspective. Steven’s review is excellent, and it prefigured what eventually became his book Without Criteria, which I think of as one of the landmark texts in the post-Deleuzian return of Whitehead.

While I like DeLanda very much, I agree that there’s a schematicism in his writing that detracts from what I like most about Deleuze (his “poeticism,” as Shaviro calls it, though it’s more than just stylistics). But thinking through the scientific concepts underlying/informing Deleuze is important work, and DeLanda at least makes it manageable in a way that Deleuze’s own texts rarely do. Whatever losses in fidelity may arise in the transfer, Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy is one of the clearest elaborations of a Deleuzian ontology I have seen. A New Philosophy of Society follows up on it by taking on social-science theory, but I think it suffers a little (as Shaviro and Chris Vitale both argue) from a creeping shift away from thinking of assemblages as events and processes to thinking of them as substances. As Shaviro puts it, “For Whitehead’s actual entities are themselves events; whereas, for DeLanda, as much as he wants to proclaim the importance of (contingent) event over (fixed and closed) structure, events are still things that ‘happen to’ entities, rather than entities themselves.”

Levi’s assessment of the differences between DeLanda’s assemblage theory and OOO is, nevertheless, very helpful. I particularly like his illustration of the philosophy blogosphere as a DeLandian assemblage, which I’d like to relate to my own writing on film (regular italics his, bold italics mine):

Deterritorialization, by contrast, refers to the intervention or appearance of components that destabilize an assemblage, either causing it to change or perhaps even causing an entirely new assemblage to emerge. To illustrate this, let’s compare a college philosophy department with the blogosphere. A college philosophy department is a territory. Persons that land within this territory are likely to undergo processes of territorial coding or homogenization as a result of interactions with their colleagues. Not only are the conversations that take place in a department likely to lead to more or less shared frameworks (which might nonetheless be very diverse), but they are also likely to exercise pressure on the members of the department to keep up with a particular set of readings or references and to pursue certain tacit lines of approved research to get tenure. For the person whose academic life completely unfolds within a particular department, the other members of the department more or less come to represent the voices of the entire academic world. If it isn’t articulated by them, it doesn’t really exist for this person at all. Here “das Man” is not some abstract entity, but is something that is right there in the department.

For such a person, the blogosphere can very genuinely be a space of deterritorialization. Here the nature of the person’s intellectual encounters is transformed. The person encounters new references, new texts, enters into new conversations, and so on. Note that entering into the blogosphere does not entail an escape from territory as such, but rather an entrance into a new territory. It is this new territory that leads to new forms of organization. And indeed, while the blogosphere can be a deterritorializing agent for the philosophy department (the academic sets out on new lines of inquiry that, in their turn, impact other members of the department, causing the assemblage to change), other territories emerge within the blogosophere. Thus, in the blogosphere, we see that only certain blogs link to one another. Standardized themes of discussion emerge across these blogs. Norms of conduct and interaction emerge. Different blogs are coded in different ways (“over there are the Deleuzians, over there are the Derrideans, oh look, there’s the Lacanians, etc”), certain concepts become established or coded, etc., etc., etc. In short, a new territory emerges that has its own boundaries and limits.

Setting aside all of these expressive components that belong to the theory blogosphere, the point not to be missed is the role played by all the material components within this territory. Servers, fiber optic cables, high speed internet connections, electricity, computers, wireless, etc., etc., etc., are all necessary for these sorts of connections to be formed. The assemblages formed in the blogosphere were not possible for Hegel or Kant, nor are they possible for people in areas where such technologies are not available or don’t exist. As a consequence, certain forms of change are not possible for assemblages such as this. The point here is that theoretical shifts aren’t simply about expression or ideas, they aren’t free floating abstract entities. Rather, they require real connections in order to come into existence and are sustained by real connections. Consequently, it is important to attend to that which falls outside the expressive but which contributes to the expressive. For example, if we want to overcome the dominance of right wing politics in the United States, perhaps a big part of this project consists not simply in ideological critique, but also in making cheap communications technologies available to rural areas so that the young and bored might have access to communication alternatives besides the conversations that take place in their local newspapers, their churches, and their daily conversations. Internet traffic maps are startling. Traffic tends to come from the coasts of the country, with hardly any traffic from the center of the country. When we correlate this with voting patterns in the United States some troubling questions emerge.

This is an important insight, which connects well with other discussions in post-constructivist (Latourian, Deleuzian, et al) political theory (such as William Connolly’s arguments about “resonance machines“). This distinction between the expressive and the material components of an assemblage, however, is one that I think needs more thinking through. And it is connected to the question — discussed by Levi in this post — of the ontological status of objects like species, organisms, and genres, and therefore of films and cinema in general, among other things.

DeLanda, as Levi describes, argues that species are individuals in the same way that organisms are, just existing at different scales. (DeLanda does this both in ANPofS and in chapter 2 of Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy.) Levi asks:

However, just how are we to think species as individuals that really exist in time and space? If we put DeLanda’s thesis in geographical terms, I can somewhat understand what he’s claiming. In South America you have a population of cane toads that forms a sort of collective entity that both rebounds back on individual cane toads (they compete with one another for mates and food, for example) and that places pressures on other entities. Things become more difficult for me, however, when I note that cane toads have been transported to Australia and Hawaii among other places. When this geographical connectivity no longer exists do we now have a new species in DeLanda’s term, or the same species? This question arises because, for DeLanda, species aren’t types but populations. If we say that cane toads in Australia are component parts of the same individual (the same species) as cane toads in South America, in what meaningful sense are we entitled to this claim? I honestly don’t know.

My response to this would be that the cane toad species is an individual if we define individuals not as material objects but as sets of vectors and variables, as DeLanda often suggests — i.e., as made up of not only of individual organisms, but also of “topological spaces” or “spaces of possibilities” (phase spaces, attractors, degrees of freedom, etc.). Both organisms and species are morphogenetic (form-generating) processes, but because they are always in process, they are always becoming different, which means that at the point when two populations of a single species become different enough that they can no longer inter-breed, they have become different species. At both points — when they were one, and when they have become two — the real thing is not the collection of individuals that makes up a single “species”; that remains a “reified generality,” to use DeLanda’s term. The real thing is a set of processes and capacities, and at a certain point in time (the moment of sub-speciation) that real “set” (which we call a “species”) divides into two sets through a divergence of the spaces of possibility that had allowed individuals of the two populations to inter-breed, but that no longer do.

So, yes, a species is an assemblage, a real entity, as long as we keep in mind that the assemblage is not merely the sum of material bodies making it up at any point in time, but that it also includes the capacities, the virtualities, defining and circumscribing those bodies. The reason why a species (defined as the interbreeding set of organisms of a certain kind) qualifies as an assemblage and the set of organisms with green thumbs doesn’t qualify is because a species can do things — if only to continue breeding (though if the individuals making it up get too dispersed and stop breeding, that species ends) — while the second can’t. But if the second organizes itself into a coordinated Green-Thumb Revolutionary Army, then it will have become an assemblage. So it’s about what the thing can do, not (so much) what it is.

* * * * * * * * *

Now to the question of whether genres are assemblages… But I’ll speak of films first, and cinema in general, since that’s what I’ve been writing about recently.

As regular readers of this blog know, my approach is not object- or assemblage-oriented, at least not “assemblage” in the noun sense. It is process-relational (“assemblage” in the morphogenetic, verb sense). In my work on cinema, I don’t ask what cinema is, I ask what it does. I argue that cinema produces worlds. It is, in this sense, cosmomorphic, with any given film giving shape to a specific film-world or -cosmos. I distinguish these worlds, these morphisms, into three registers or dimensions: the geomorphic (objectscape), the biomorphic (lifescape), and the anthropomorphic (subjectscape). I examine the ways we, viewers, are drawn into and travel within these worlds, moving along specific cognitive/affective vectors (which I classify into the spectacular, the narrative, and the exo-referential). And I examine how cinema, including the cinematic experience, works within the larger world, a world I similarly distinguish into three ecologies: the material (or interobjective), the mental or perceptual, and the social (intersubjective). The details aren’t important here (but if you’re interested, see here or here).

Cinema’s central distinguishing feature, and its area of greatest impact, is the way it mediates between us (viewers) and the world’s mental/perceptual ecologies. But cinema also affects the material and social ecologies of the world. Its relations with these are autonomous (or at least semi-autonomous) from its relations with mental/perceptual ecologies. This difference can be compared to Bryant’s description of the blogosphere: what’s unique and original in the blogosphere, for the philosophers and students and others who enter into it and take up residence within it, is the way it changes their thinking and philosophical activity. And yet, the materiality — the “servers, fiber optic cables, high speed internet connections, electricity, computers, wireless, etc.” — is necessarily connected to that, and without it the blogosphere couldn’t exist. In the same way, without the material production of films (from the mining of minerals and chemicals and production of plastics and cameras, etc., to the waste discharges all along the way), and without its social organization (its funding, marketing, etc.), there would be no film-worlds.

To describe cinema, the blogosphere, and other things — sculpture, dance, golf, gardening, cooking, winemaking, weaving, war — as both having an “expressive” side and a “material” side doesn’t quite do these things justice. Films do their essential work perceptually, through viewers’ cognitive-affective experiences with moving sound-images; blogging does its essential work linguistically and socially; sculpture and weaving do their essential work materially; dance does it bodily; and so on. All of them also have their material “substrates”, which are the things they depend on — chemicals, fabrics, soils, specific production processes, etc. — but which aren’t usually focal within the activity itself. But they may also have other substrates, such as social and economic ones — as with the social organization that makes films possible, the property laws that render a plot of land “mine” so that I can grow things on it and harvest them, and so on.

To make sense of this difference between the central/focal and the peripheral/background, I find Heidegger’s distinction between “world” and “earth” (and Peirce’s categories of firstness, secondness, and thirdness) very useful. The “world” (or “cosmos”), in this sense, is the Umwelt, the world of meanings that is inhabited by meaning-dwelling beings (/becomings). Those meanings, or signs (in a Peircian sense), are drawn out of the “Earth” (or “universe”), which is the broader context that subtends a “world,” providing what it requires, manifesting in it in particular ways (e.g., as territory, landscape, resource, biodiversity, etc.), but always ultimately withdrawing from its grasp. Earth, then, is the virtual, consisting of a multiplicity of spontaneous firstness(es), i.e., unrelated possibilities, as well as secondness(es), or actual relations. World is pure thirdness — mediated, significatory relations.

“Earth” and “world,” however, aren’t a static duality. They are terms that vary depending on the specific relational event or occasion being described. Things come to “world” as “objects” take on meanings (become signs, are prehended) by “subjects.” Every existent entity “worlds” in its own way, taking up signs from the earth (or universe) into the meanings that will make up its world. This is (bio)semiosis. But meaning-making can change, and does change when an entity or organism is adapting to changed circumstances. Technological extensions like cinema, the internet, the blogosphere, et al., make it possible for worlding to become different: more intensive, more extensive, more fine-tuned or differentiated, etc. The cinematic experience can expand viewers’ worlds, contract them, and reshape them in other ways. Any worlding is also always dependent on a material-relational substrate, the set of interactions that subtend it, but which remain elusive to it (i.e., they aren’t brought into thirdness). It’s not possible to bring all those material-relational firstnesses and secondnesses into thirdness — there’s too much of them, and too little of us/it, and that’s not how things work in any case — but it is possible for us to conceptualize those elusive, withdrawing relations (“earth”), to diagram them and turn them into some kind of meaning, some kind of “information that makes a difference” (in Bateson’s terms). And there are better and worse, or at least more and less adaptive, ways to do that.

* * * * * * * * *

Back to genres, films, and cinema: My hunch is that cinema is more like what DeLanda calls a “reified generality” than an assemblage. It describes a certain set of media products and relations characterized by their consistence of moving (sound-) images. The concept of cinema does a certain work (still), but I’m not sure that the set of all examples of cinema does.

A specific film, on the other hand, is more like an assemblage; but in a process-relational perspective, a film is what a film does, and what it does is always entangled in the relations between it and its makers, viewers, et al. So the life of that film, in a broad sense (using “life” to denote “individual assemblage”), extends back to its beginnings as an idea, a script, a storyboard, a set of funding arrangements, and so on, and continues until the last of its effects have percolated as far as they can into the bodies/minds of those who are somehow connected to the making or seeing of that film. (In the same sense, the life of a human extends back well before its physical birth, and ends long after its physical death.) In a more restricted sense, the life of a film — if a film is thought of as a thing that can do certain things — doesn’t really start until it’s begun to affect viewers, and ends when the viewing ends.

Here we can talk of the life of a single screening, or the life of a single print of a film (or video recording or disk, though in the digital era this singularity gets blurred), or the life of the film as such, which is inclusive of all the prints/versions and screenings/performances of the same film. Which of these is most alive, most like an assemblage? I would say that the film per se — Fellini’s Roma or Sally Potter’s Orlando, and not a single print or screening of any of them — unless that print for some reason takes on a “life of its own,” becomes valued as a unique rarity, etc. Original paintings by famous artists work that way.

A genre is also an assemblage in this sense if it has taken on a certain life of its own, so that when viewers familiar with the genre watch a film they know to be of that genre, they bring with themselves certain expectations, sets of reactions, and so on. A genre also has its prehistory and its post-history. That genre depends not only on the existence of material objects (specific films) that make it up, but also on the existence of an appropriate environment — audiences that understand the genre, critics that have written about it, filmmakers that have worked and refined it, a certain constellation of actors and themes and landscapes (like John Ford’s Monument Valley, for the western genre), etc., that are recognizable elements of that genre. But calling the latter an “environment” is inaccurate; the point is that the thing and its environment become blurred all along the way. Without all those things (the actors, the critics, the landscapes, the film lovers), the genre would not be what it is, just as without all the things a person requires to function, that person is not a person. The genre, or the person, or a planet, is not fully accounted for by the things it has interacted with, because those interactions have included its own history of responses to things, which have developed a set of determinations and possibilities (the virtual, topological spaces) — its own capacities to do — and those are an essential part of what constitutes the thing. But this means that a genre like the western, besides being made up of the specific cinematic instances and exemplars (The Searchers, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Once Upon a Time in the West, and hundreds of other films), also consists of the filmmakers and production companies that have made films of that genre, responding to audience expectations (by following them or turning them inside out), and so on. The capacity of a person, or a planet, or a film or film genre, is activated under specific circumstances, and these change over time.

Films and genres, then, are in some sense alive. But then all these things are (at least) a little bit alive, as are electrons, molecules, plants, people, and galaxies. They are processes, or configurations of processes. None arise from themselves alone, and when we look to the beginning or end of a process (an assemblage) we see only other processes. When we look to the middle of that process, we also don’t see only that process; we always see it in interaction with others. Whatever may be there at the center and core of that thing withdraws from any attempt to encompass it — not because objects always withdraw (as OOO would say), but because it’s all process, and processes cannot be so captured: firstness is turning into secondness is turning into thirdness, but there is a gap between each which some of the firstness and secondness does not cross. This is the nature of the semiotic relation: meaning (Peirce’s interpretant) is created in relationship to a sign (the thing from which meaning is made) and an object (the thing to which that sign refers). But by the time the meaning has been produced, turned into “world” (or world-substance), the object is no longer accessible to the interpretant; all that’s there is the sign. (That’s why there is a sign and an object; if the gap between object and sign did not exist, the universe would be a deterministic one, which it isn’t.) There is a gap between “world” and “earth,” a gap that can be bridged (related, made sense of) semiotically, but that cannot be collapsed into nothing.

Levi writes that to understand genres, species, philosophical movements, or any other assemblages (I presume), “we would look at how they grew, how they expanded, what mutations they underwent, where the branchings occurred that might allow for new speciations, and so on.” Such analysis, as both Latour and DeLanda insist, would have to look at the “real connections that were forged in the world” (in Bryant’s words). Yes, this is the kind of historical (genealogical?) approach we need to understand things as material-semiotic objects. But to understand these objects as processes (which is what they are), I think we need to distinguish the focal and essential (in cinema, in philosophy, etc.) from the peripheral and withdrawing, and to come up with an ontology that accounts for the ongoing interdependence between the worldings (the focalizings and sense-makings, the semiotic coming-into-thirdness of things) and, on the other hand, the earthings (the subtendings and withdrawings, the pre-semiotic firstnesses and secondnesses that never fully come into thirdness).

That’s a lot said, and it all needs more thought, but I’m too tired to re-read it to see if it makes much sense. I’ll just put it out there, in case it interests the DeLanda readers or anyone else.

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