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06 September 2010

De Landa Reading Group: Internal/External Relations

Alex at Digital Digs has recently commented on the De Landa Reading Group discussing genres as assemblages, and Levi has a response at Larval Subjects.  I read through the introduction and the first chapter on the train Friday (spent most of the trip trying to sleep), and I have a few thoughts of my own.  I've read through these chapters a few times before (never made it through the whole book before, though) and have never really questioned De Landa's ideas.  Now I'm seeing things with a somewhat more critical eye, not because I want to tear De Landa down, but because I'm struggling to understand my own position in this new realism that is emerging.  It's by working through what exactly is meant in all of the terminology, and trying to translate it into my own conceptual framework that I begin to understand.  But sometimes this process involves a degree of deconstruction and criticism. 

The thing I want to think about is the idea of external vs. internal relations.  It occurred to me, while reading chapter one, that there can be no hard line between the two, and that, therefore, they do not constitute discrete categories.  De Landa accomplishes a degree of nuance to these categories by postulating his three axes (territorialization - deterritorialization, material - expressive, and coding - decoding).  But he goes on to talk about all sorts of objects (organisms, social groups, things, etc.) as assemblages, of which one of the defining characteristics is that they are constituted by external relations.  Okay, I can accept that and accept the three axes as ways of differentiating, but, then, why talk about internal relations at all?  Is there a thing out there composed of internal relations?  Is there anything that is not an assemblage? 

Relations must be thought of on a continuum with varying degrees of interdependence (heterogeneity is the term De Landa uses, and perhaps the three axes are the qualifying characteristics of interdependence/heterogeneity).  An assemblage, object, or whatever you want to call it may be constituted by many different kinds of relationships.  For example, if you take out my heart with out replacing it with something that is at least heart-like, I will probably cease to exist.  There is a high degree of interdependence between my heart and the rest of my body.  The same is true of my brain, my lungs, my kidneys, my liver, and several other organs.  If, on the other hand, you cut off my big toe, I'd be in a great deal of pain, and probably very pissed off, but I'd probably survive and go on to live a normal, healthy life.  My big toe cannot be said to have a high degree of interdependence with the rest of my body or myself as a whole.  So my body is composed of relations with varying degrees of interdependence, and this is true of all assemblages, and some assemblages, like societies and ecosystems, are composed almost entirely of relationships with very low degrees of interdependence.  At what point can we say that it's not meaningful or valuable to talk of these as assemblages? 

I think one of the challenges the new realism faces, and one of the dangers of postulating discrete entities is that we run the risk of mistaking our own categories for ontological entities.  Is a culture a real entity or is it simply a category we have used for so long that it's difficult for us to realize that it's not?  What criteria do we have for saying that something is not real?  Or are all of our categories really ontological entities?  I agree with Levi's statement:
The key point is that we would seek, as much as possible, the real
connections that were forged and the trace of these encounters.
If we follow this suggestion and think primarily about how entities have been composed, then I think we can establish the criteria we need.  I also think that agency is a key factor here, perhaps a defining characteristic of ontological entities.  If we can talk about how an entity affects the world around it, then I think we are talking about it as an ontological entity.  This is part of the reason that I'm not convinced yet that social groups are entities (some more or less than others).  But more on that later, perhaps, when I get to that section in the book.

I want to mention, finally, that I may not read ANPoS for a few days - I've just got a book by an old friend Dan Wildcat from Haskell Indian Nations University called Red Alert, and have been focusing on reading that.  I want to post some comments on it when I finish it because I think it has a lot to contribute to this new realist approach.  Anyway, it's a short book, and I'm going to finish it before I go back to ANPoS.

UPDATE Sept. 8, 2010:  Levi explains that for De Landa there are no relations except external relations.  From my reading, this isn't implicit in his explanation, since he does make external relations one of the defining characteristics of assemblages.  Why do that unless there is some kind of relation other than external to which you are contrasting them too, and some other kind of object besides assemblages which are composed of those other relations?  Anyway, I'm just nitpicking there, because it's really only a matter of language, but I think it confuses things.
So there are only external relations, and the three axes or continua are ways of differentiating between them - their heterogeneity or degree of interdependence as well as their role in the system.  That makes sense to me, but I think it should also be emphasized that assemblages are composed of a variety of different kinds of relations with varying degrees of heterogeneity/interdependence as I described above.  The other thing that I realized in relation to this is that a single relation can be more or less interdependent for each component.  For example, when you remove my big toe and I'm in pain and pissed off but still me, the big toe can no longer be said to be a big toe.  Or, at least, maybe it's capacities are no longer actualized.   


Circling Squares said...

I have difficulty posting trackback comments from Blogger too. I haven't tried it yet but this could be useful (if you already use Firefox):

Alex Reid said...

The issue with the toe/heart examples is the one that keeps coming up in relation to OOO, where one does find internal and external relations (unlike DeLanda where there are only external).

To me the question is "how much difference makes a difference?" And can this be answered objectively or is it always a matter of perspective.

From a typical p.o.v. whether I am home or in the office or behind the wheel of my car, I am still me. But in the office I am "professor;" at home I am "daddy;" behind the wheel I am "licensed driver." However, to students it makes a difference that I happen to direct our composition program. The cop who pulls me over cares whether or not I am licensed. The fact that I am still just as good a driver doesn't matter if I don't renew my license.

From an alien enough perspective, perhaps it doesn't matter whether the molecules that comprise your body are part of a living or dead entity. Gravity, for example, treats them the same way, right?

So what differences make a difference?

Jeremy Trombley said...

Yes, Alex, I think the question of "How much of a difference..." is exactly the issue, and I think it's the same thing I was trying to get at when I asked Levi a while back "when does an object become an object?" or something to that effect.
In your examples, I can see Levi and perhaps Graham saying that you are still you in all of those situations, but exercising different properties or capacities (I know I'm confusing the terminology at this point, but you know what I mean). Your "virtual proper being" or something to that effect remains the same. That kind of makes sense to me, but the I'm still unsure of how OOO accounts for the heterogeneity of relations that make up an object (as De Landa does with his three axes).

There is also the question that I raise of how do we know that an object is objectively an object versus simply being, as you say, a matter of perspective. This is another situation where, I think, process-relational language works better for discussing ontology.

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