Rationalism and essentialism are targeted in much of postmodern social theory today because they are believed to have been the epistemological and ontological doctrines most responsible for legitimating oppressive hierarchies and stifling diversity. Social theorists argue that these positions create a tiered reality where historical contingencies are recast as natural necessities founded in a transcendent world of eternal ideas.
Gilles Deleuze's position is especially interesting inasmuch as it seems in every respect an effort to fully invert the ontic priorities attributed to rationalism and essentialism. Deleuze's position is clearly articulated by Manuel DeLanda who assesses rationalism and essentialism as totalitarian in their tendency to exhaust possibility, close horizons, and emphasize unity and uniformity. DeLanda sustains Deleuze's emphasis on flux, spontaneity and heterogeneity. This effort to advance a position congenial to pluralism, however, should not be taken to mean that Deleuze and DeLanda are relativists or social constructivists.
It is certainly important to reconsider, as DeLanda does, the kind of Ptolemaic attitude that has characterized social theory for a number of years. To reduce reality to what can be socially constructed is anthropocentric and disregards the eons during which life and matter existed prior to our emerging in the universe. Deleuze rejects both social constructivism and “a realism based on a correspondence theory of truth,” because, according to DeLanda, it is “a realism deeply committed to essentialism and rationalism.”1 At the heart of this rejection is his criticism of the view that matter is an inert receptacle for the impression of forms, either as social constructs or eternal essences. In much of contemporary social theory, it is believed that elitism, the denigration of physical labour and the political imposition of ideals of existence are insidiously supported by this “rationalist” view of matter.
I join those hoping to advance pluralism and counter reductivism and its pernicious social and ecological effects. Yet I question whether rationalism and essentialism are appropriate targets in this battle and will argue that this focus merely diverts attention from the forces that now telescope horizons. This is definitely not to say that I am a proponent of rationalism or essentialism as they are usually characterized. A pantheon of forms or atemporal idea-entities such as “zebrahood ” are notions that hardly warrant attention. Rather, I will argue that possibilities of conceptual and material expression are reduced and compromised by instrumentalism, and that, while instrumentalism is a framing, it is not an idealism but its inversion.
Uniformity and empiricism
DeLanda states that “the complexity and variability of behaviour of materials has always been the concern of empirically oriented craftsmen or engineers, not of philosophers or scientists.”2 He adds that philosophy tended to “despise the senses” while science atomized its subject and at best could only talk about matter as “mass.” In other words, rationalism and essentialism are accused of ignoring the complexity that Deleuze highlights so successfully with an unconventional empirical orientation.
DeLanda discusses Deleuze's concept of the “machinic phylum,” which is described as “matter-energy in flux” to which all expressions of materiality are subject. The machinic phylum is characterized as dynamic and in continuous variation. “Unlike essentialism, where matter is viewed as an inert receptacle for forms that come from the outside (transcendental essences), here matter is seen as possessing its own immanent, intensive resources for the generation of form from within.”3 As an illustration, DeLanda describes the blacksmith, who “treats metals as active materials, pregnant with morphogenetic capabilities, and his role is that of teasing a form out of them, of guiding, through a series of processes (heating, annealing, quenching, hammering), the emergence of a form, a form in which the materials themselves have a say. His task is less that of realizing previously defined possibilities than actualizing virtualities along divergent lines.”
It is this context in which DeLanda discusses industrial production and notes that “industrial metals have undergone in the last two hundred years an intense process of uniformation and homogenization in both their chemical composition and their physical structure. The rationale behind this process was partly based on questions of reliability and quality control, but it had also a social component: both human workers and the materials they used needed to be disciplined and their behaviour made predictable. Only then the full efficiencies and economies of scale of mass production techniques could be realized.”
The anti-teleological teleology of efficiency
It is interesting that DeLanda cites the quest for efficiency as the factor that homogenizes matter and behaviour. An overriding concern with method has led to the “disciplining” of human workers and their materials. This has obscured or even removed the motivation for those involved in the process to determine and assess the intended purposes of production. The exclusive focus on methods grinds other horizons under foot as “ the ends of our activities … become sedimented beneath an all-encompassing concern with the means.”4
The overriding concern with method is reflected in “technological thinking” that conceals an “anti-teleological” teleology; one which posits the “norms of a purely instrumental rationality, such as punctuality, efficiency, productivity and the like” as ends in themselves. Therefore, it should be apparent there is nothing intrinsic to craftwork that prevents an instrumentalist attitude toward it. In fact, it is when the material possibilities of technical production determine the form of what is produced that the homogeneity so despised by critics of rationalism and essentialism is engendered.
Empiricism is a methodology, not an ontology
It is plain that Deleuze's empirical orientation is not exemplified by orthodox empirical methodology and his orientation to the world of sense, in this context, may perhaps be better labeled an aesthetic orientation. Yet by examining empiricism in its in its more orthodox aspects, it becomes clear that an empiricist methodology is what drives the machine of efficiency.
One area where there had until recently been a great emphasis on an empirical orientation is the so called “soft sciences.” This “cult of empiricism” has had laughable results in the area of empirical psychology which, according to psychologist Jack F. Martin, “has typically placed its methodological cart in front of its ontological horse.” He explains that “psychologists' conceptualizations of complex phenomena ... often are impoverished to the point where they are equated ... with sets of responses to rating scales on which individuals indicate the extent to which they attribute their actions to a small number of predetermined factors.” Here, it is not only the case that methodology determined and reduced its object, but that it did so by impoverishing conceptualization; i.e., by limiting meaning to responses that could be managed technically.
As a methodology, it begs the question to say that empiricism serves to justify or discredit any kind of ontology. However, empiricism frequently does worse than place its “methodological cart in front of its ontological horse.” While it reduces both material and conceptual complexity , it conceals its own operation in a cult of facts, information and “clear communication.” Thus it exemplifies an extreme form of reductivism. This “technical framing” is the source of the empty teleology of efficiency. It produces a tautology that culminates in a nihilistic form of pragmatism:
The outcome is justified because / therefore the process that produced it was effective.
Pragmatism tends to reframe ends as “outcomes” of pre-established processes rather than the goals for which the processes were established. It is as if one were to justify the existence of public institutions exclusively in terms of their capacity for fiscal responsibility, which is a means, not a goal. A method of production is chosen for its efficiency, while choice of product (or a concern with environmental and social by-products) is precluded by the exigencies of production. For me, this aptly defines alienation.
The Technical Reduction of Matter
To paraphrase one theorist, the issue of whether technical framing itself can subsume ontological totality through its own strictly instrumental logic -- or whether its own project parasitically remains dependent upon what can never be understood within the parameters of technical framing -- defines the social and historical crisis of our lives today.5
What can never be understood primarily in terms of technical framing? What always exceeds a methodological grasp?
It is becoming increasingly difficult for human beings to face the reality Deleuze describes here: “The non-organic life of things, a frightful life, which is oblivious to the wisdom and limits of the organism. It is the vital as potent pre-organic germinality, common to the animate and the inanimate, to a matter which raises itself to the point of life, and to a life which spreads itself through all matter.” Deleuze's “matter” is clearly not the technically reduced version insisted upon by methodological empiricism. But does that mean that we must accept the modernist cliché that the real is the material revealed by the senses, so “despised by philosophers”?
I would like to suggest, rather, that whatever in human life and experience has escaped technical control is thus despised because of its startling uncanniness. Uncanniness is not restricted to effects of materiality. In fact, one could say the uncanny is just that because it is not amenable to technical control and and manipulation, whether it is affective, aesthetic, numinous or noumenal. Wherever possible, it is active manipulation and management that we look to, not archetypal images of zebrahood, in order to reconnect with the "reality principle" and dispel anxiety. (This explains our fascination with technology and its near identification with science.)
Continuing to deny what exceeds the capacity of technical framing means that this excess will return in a destructive aspect: hence an anti-ecology of waste-driven production and the compulsive manufacture and distribution of weapons capable of unconscionable devastation. In the failure to face the uncanniness of life itself as an ungraspable horizon or open place, life and nature are reduced to technically manipulable quantities in the world of kitsch and "products" - and the excess is left to explode in violence or anorexically consume itself.
The shadowy excess to technical framing both causes (by deterring awareness) and results from denial of the uncanny. We can learn to face unstructured possibility as an open horizon, as DeLanda has pointed out, or objectify it in a cycle of oppression and destruction. Courage is needed to break the cycle. How can we turn to an open horizon that we expect will face us as primal material chaos? We should ask about the conditions under which the ungraspable hovers darkly on the horizon as an evil sea-monster, like Tiamat before her body was split into heaven and earth by Marduk, the city god of Babylon, and when it emerges rather as an open horizon generative of possibility.
The complex, aesthetic and affective dimensions of experience are just those intrinsically valuable (“useless”) elements of life that open the horizon of becoming because they cannot be exhausted in any action or thing. It is these creative, intrinsically sustaining, self-defining normative and aesthetic dimensions that have been divested of energy, reduced to tastes and values, commercialized and ultimately pounded out of consciousness, only to re-emerge, as oppressive instrumentalities. Nihilistic pragmatism leeches meaning, reduces ends to outcomes, and deprives human beings of the capacity to freely choose and evaluate their own ends both in thought and action. The legacy of instrumentalism is that we are left with no horizon, with no place to stand. This very effectively subjects us to marketing strategies and creates a climate of political apathy.
Mathematics and the imposition of form
The old "essentialism" is characterized as positing a set of discrete forms and abiding, eternal "natures" and of course, such a view is belied by the reality of dynamical, intensive processes emphasized by DeLanda. The inspiration for that essentialism was not technological reduction, however, but the question of the relation between the intelligible and the real. DeLanda reminds us that in the Deleuzian framework, “The achievements of theoretical physics are seen not as linguistically interpreted general laws, but as correctly posed problems, that is, as the posing of the distribution of what is singular and ordinary (i.e., what is important and not). DeLanda's reconstruction thus stresses that Deleuzian ontology discloses not a closed world capturable by sentences, but an open world to be explored.”6
So ingrained is the association of reason with a static and atemporal ontology, it is necessary to consider whether intelligibility really does require “a closed world capturable by sentences” and whether the stress on dynamism thereby releases the real from potentially homogenizing constraints.
In “Virtual Enviroments And The Emergence Of Synthetic Reason,”7 DeLanda provides an account of stability produced by the diversity of its material components in a variable, dynamical state. He explains that “these ... forms of stability have received the name of "attractors", and the transitions which transform one type of attractor into another have been named "bifurcations".” Emphasizing that “The 'key' concept ... is emergent behavior” he asserts that “Natural life emerges out of the organized interactions of a great number of nonliving molecules, with no global controller responsible for the behavior of every part.” For example, “Each of the particular adaptive traits which we observe in real zebras developed along different ancestral lineages, accumulated in the population under the action of different selection pressures, in a process that was completely dependent on specific (and contingent) historical details.” I think that DeLanda's concluding that there is “no such thing as a preexistent collection of traits defining "zebrahood"” is a bit of a dénouement. He goes on to say, however, that emergent properties do not arise in “an unstructured space of possibilities, but a space "pre-organized" by attractors and bifurcations.”8
The salient point is that order is not programmed or imposed from without, but that it emerges from within. Still it is possible to ask whether the complex patterns or ratio that can be discerned in (rather than imposed upon) the behaviour of chaotic systems are emergent properties, “pre-organizing” fields, or heuristic constructs.
What is an attractor, or even a dimension? Dimension appears both real and ideal, infinite and finite, sensible and intellectual. It is neither a thing nor a property of things, nor a discrete idea-entity.
It is quite consistent with DeLanda's position to conceive that the noumenon is actually and immanently here with us, not as a formal entity but as place or “chora”, a dynamic field of complex and richly structured possibility. Since mathematics is not daunted by possibility, there is nothing in this account to distinguish intensive materialism from what might be called a dynamic rationalism. Nor is there anything here that protects diversity from reductive instrumentalism. In fact, industry even now is exploring new ways of obtaining “effective maintenance goals” (i.e., efficiencies) from chaotic systems.9, 10 Maybe this is why we should leave open the door to a discussion of ideals.
5“The issue of whether capital itself can capitalize social totality and time itself through its own logic of value and production - both within Western societies and the global as a whole - or whether its own logic parasitically remains dependent upon what is, and can never be understood primarily in terms of capital value and management, defines the social and historical struggles of our lives today.”
6 A caricature that suggests physicists mistake principles for generalizations. “As regards the present state of the world, such as the existence of the earth on which we live and on which Galileo's experiments were performed, the existence of the sun and of all our surroundings, the laws of nature are entirely silent. ” http://www.dartmouth.edu/~matc/MathDrama/reading/Wigner.html
10 In emphasizing sensitivity to initial conditions, bifurcations, self-organization, autopoiesis, autocatalytic networks, etc., complexity discourse has opened up a space where possibilities proliferate, but now accompanied by models and control points to which 'means' of monitoring and choosing other possibilities might be attached." http://www.google.ca/search?q=cache:xphGLXmhJbkJ:www.lancs.ac.uk/staff/mackenza/papers/non-metaphorical-complexity.pdf+delanda+attractor&hl=en&ie=UTF-8