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14 September 2010

De Landa Reading Group: Essentialism and a Very Strange Mereology Indeed!

Alex Reid has his post up on Chapter 2 of ANPoS: Assemblages Against Essences, Johan at Archaeological Haecceities has a post up about Harman's take on De Landa and Chris Vitale has a post up discussing De Landa in relation to fuzzy set theory.  Rather than comment on their comments, I'm going to again stray off into my own thoughts in the hope of once again clarifying things that I don't quite comprehend.  Please don't take this as first-and-foremost a critique of De Landa - it is, as I've so often claimed before, my attempt to work out some of my own confusions through consideration, and discussion.

I had a really tough time with this chapter.  Whenever we get into discussing mereology - the relation of parts to wholes - I get confounded.  I've mentioned this in the past, but let me explain.  Whenever we start talking about how wholes affect their parts I start to feel as if the explanations become magical in a way, as opposed to causal.  For example, when De Landa says that social assemblages constrain and enable their components or that they can be thought of as creating a "space of possibilities" I ask, how do they do it?  By what mechanism?  De Landa himself says that he's interested in causal explanations, but I can't seem to find the causal mechanism for the kind of relationship between part and whole that he's discussing.

In the end it starts sounding structuralist to me, though an historical structuralism.  When he says that it wouldn't matter which individuals occupied an office in an organization or that, when talking about interactions between organizations, it wouldn't matter which components of the organization were doing the interacting, I ask, when is this ever the case? And, what's more, how could we ever test this?  We can't test it because there's no way to redo a particular interaction between two organizations using different individual components.  But how many people would argue that the government is exactly the same now that Obama is President as it was when Bush was President?  Sure many things are the same, because many agencies have persisted through the transition, and so in some sense the difference is minimal, but the difference does exist and can easily be demonstrated.  And when the US interacts with Israel and Palestine, is there really not difference if the Secretary of State is Hillary Clinton versus Condoleezza Rice? 

Here's an example of the kind of magical thinking that I'm talking about from Levi's blog a while back (not Levi's thinking, just an example he was using).  When Muslims engage in terrorism, a common explanation is that there is a culture of terror inherent in Islam itself.  This is to say that an entity "Islamic Culture" causes Muslims to behave in a certain way.  Now the claim is, of course, ridiculous in itself since that would mean that all Muslims are terrorists which is clearly not the case, and as the author points out, since the same claim is not made of white terrorists like Tim McVeigh - instead these acts are generally blamed on the instability of the individual or something of that nature.  But that's not exactly true either.  Rather it could be said that there are cultural effects which interact with the individual's personality to cause him or her to act as a terrorist.  But even to say that there are "cultural effects" is not to explain the cause - it's just to say that at least part of the cause is external to his or her individuality.  In order to explain the cause we have to describe the proliferation of agencies - both internal and external to the individual - which interacted to produce the terrorist act or any other phenomenon (a la Latour).  To simply say an effect is "cultural" or "social" might be okay shorthand in some circumstances, but it's overly simplistic and magical as I mentioned before.  And if we have to do this anyway to have a meaningful causal explanation, then what's the point of talking about "culture" or "the social" in the first place?

That's not to say that there's no system or that the system is simply an amalgamation of different agencies.  A system is the result of a particular set of relations between many agencies, working to produce an emergent whole.  It's not enough to simply throw a bunch of materials into a jar in the proper proportions and shake them up to create a person or an animal.  It's from the relations and the work (the work being key because all organization takes work or energy to create and maintain) that the agencies do that the whole emerges.  Adrian describes something akin to this (in much better language than mine) here.  But I'm not convinced that the whole that emerges has any kind of causal ability on its component parts except when it creates other agencies which interact with the parts, such as laws, rules, rituals, etc., but this is not the system affecting the parts, but the system creating new agencies that affect the parts in various complex ways.

Another thing I want to talk about is the conflation of categories and real ontological entities that I mentioned in my previous post.  De Landa talks about biological species as assemblages, and Alex, Levi, and Adrian each discussed genres as assemblages.  I'm not convinced that either of these are assemblages.  For the case of biological species, it seems to me that the only objective existence they have is as populations of interbreeding organisms, but when we talk about species, we talk about them as something more than individual populations.  For genres we can't really talk about an entity composed of books, films, comics, etc. plus some other things, which has a causal affect on the world around it.   For example, we can't talk about a thing made up of all of the action&adventure novels and films affecting us and other entities.  We can talk about a concept "action&adventure genre" which has ontological status, I believe - which interacts with all of the books and films that are labeled as such (as well as others, I suspect) and which affects us (by altering our expectations or suggesting a particular marketing strategy, for example).  Both of these, to me, confuse the mass of entities that belong to a category for the category itself, which is a different ontological entity altogether.

I'm sorry for the rambling nature of this post; I hope it's at least somewhat clear.  And I hope readers won't take me as trying to tear down De Landa - as I said above, I'm really just trying to understand.  If you have a way to explain or clarify these issues to me - particularly the strange mereology - please do!  I will be wholeheartedly grateful!


btmc said...

Hey so I haven't read any of this or know anything about it except what I learn from you, but here's my comment. in your fifth paragraph you talk about the whole creating other agents in the form of laws, rules etc. you also mention in that paragraph a wonderful image of throwing the component parts of an animal into a jar and shaking it. My thought is that the influence the whole has on the parts might exist as relationships or structures. If the whole can be defined by its parts, then the cat in a blender is still a cat, not a bunch of gooey fur. But if the whole is defined by its parts AND their relationships, or the structure or blue print that guides them, then I guess the next question is "are relationships entities or parts of the whole and therefor agents in their own right, or are these relationships NOT parts of the whole, and are they what gives the whole influence over the parts?"
Just a thought based on what you wrote, hope it helps a little

Jeremy Trombley said...

Brendan, I think you're right on when you say that the whole is defined by its parts and the relationships - plus the work that they do to build the whole, but that might just be saying the same thing. I don't have a problem with the idea of showing an emergent whole arising from parts, but I don't see how that necessarily translates into the whole affecting its parts in any meaningful sense.

You mention a structure or blueprint. De Landa refers to topology and quasi-causes. In other words, once the whole is composed, it kind of forms a surface which shapes the behavior of the individual components. In his words, it constrains and enables certain activities. Maybe I can kind of see that. For example, when you're furnishing a house, the layout of the house as it has been built will determine in some ways the way you organize your furniture. Furthermore, as you place each piece of furniture, that placement will in some ways determine the layout of any subsequent furniture you plan to add.

The problem is still that it's not necessary to invoke the whole house as a causal agent in this (except maybe as an idea, but that's a different thing, as I explained toward the end of my post). Instead we can talk about all of the different relations that went into a particular arrangement - multiplying the mediators as Latour would say. And this is more appropriate and effective than simply assigning causal ability to the whole, because it explicates the relationships and explains just how things came to be the way they are (which De Landa does to as well, but then moves toward these quasi-causal explanations once he's shown how the wholes are composed). If I say "The structure of the house caused me to arrange the furniture this way." I don't feel that I'm saying anything terribly interesting, and I'm also reducing the agency of the many other actors that were involved. They become intermediaries, simply reproducing the whims of the whole at a lower scale.

Thanks for the comment, Brendan - it did help me think through some things a bit more. You should start blogging again - you'd make a great contribution to all this discussion!

Circling Squares said...

I just wrote a comment but it was too long so I posted it instead:

Read my ramblings if you dare!

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