ISSN: 1705-6411

Volume 2, Number 1 (January 2005)

Book Review: How The Actual Emerges From The Virtual.

Manuel De Landa. Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy. New York: Continuum, 2002.

Reviewed by Dr. William Bogard
(Whitman College, Walla Walla, Washington, USA)

            De Landa's aim in Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy is to "present the work of the philosopher Gilles Deleuze to an audience of analytical philosophers of science, and of scientists interested in philosophical questions".  He claims his argument should be taken as a reconstruction, not a literal interpretation, of Deleuze's ideas.  His primary goal is to extend those ideas and clear up some of the confusion that surrounds them, and to demonstrate the relevance and importance of the problems Deleuze poses about the nature of reality for scientific knowledge.

            Deleuze's ontology is non-subjective and non-essentialist.  It does not reduce reality to Platonic forms, subjective states or social conventions, and is resolutely realist and materialist.  It explains the production of objects and events in space and time as an immanent process without recourse to transcendent operators.  Deleuze adopts an epistemological position close to Foucault's, i.e., knowledge as a history of problematizations rather than a discourse of truth, although he concentrates on very different sets of problems.  De Landa's own work closely follows Deleuze in both these respects – he adopts a Deleuzian "flat ontology" and Deleuze's important concept of a "plane of consistency," an intensive, virtual continuum that progressively differentiates itself into the spatiotemporally extended world we inhabit (the "plane of development," as it is called in A Thousand Plateaus).1  And he restates Deleuze's claim that knowledge of the plane of consistency does not involve the discovery of essential truths but rather a special kind of "learning," specifically a capacity to distinguish important from trivial problems.  In his first books, War in the Age of Intelligent Machines and A Thousand Years of Non-Linear History, De Landa borrowed the notion of a "machinic assemblage" from Deleuze's work with Guattari to describe differentiation on the plane of consistency as self-organizing flows of matter and energy.2  In this book he develops a more focused Deleuzian account of differentiation, concentrating on dynamics of individuation at the physical level and drawing on examples from recent research in mathematics and physics as well as the philosophy and sociology of science.3 He frames this problem as Deleuze does, viz., as a process of actualization and counter-actualization, i.e., in terms of becoming, and he grounds this in a rich description of virtual reality from which the actual emerges (not of course the virtual reality associated with computers, but the philosophical concept Deleuze takes up from Spinoza and Duns Scotus, and that De Landa compares to vector fields in mathematics).

            De Landa defines the actual as metric space and linear time, and his main task in this book is to explain how the actual emerges from the virtual as an immanent causal – and "quasi-causal" – process (while retaining its empiricism, he rejects, with Deleuze, the Humean philosophy of causation as regular association in favor of a "productive" model which does not subsume regularity under general laws).4 De Landa maintains that the scientific analysis of the actual and the virtual require entirely different models.  Whereas the actual is extended and differentiated in space and time, the virtual is intensive and formless.  A science of the virtual must be a science of intensities, not extensities.5  Whereas an extensive quantity can be divided without changing anything in its nature (for example, length or distance), an intensity is defined as that "which cannot be divided without involving a change in kind" (De Landa gives as examples phenomena of temperature, pressure, density, etc.).  Deleuze's philosophy provides De Landa with a set of important concepts with which he is able connect many different threads in the mathematics and physics of intensities and contrast them to traditional scientific models of the extended, linear world.

            De Landa is an exceptionally talented reader of Deleuze's work and has a gift for clarifying the latter's most difficult concepts (multiplicity, quasi-causality, dark precursor).  With Guattari in A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze poses the problem of how the virtual is actualized in terms of how unformed matters and non-formal functions become formal functional relations between individuated objects.  This is the problem of differenc/tiation which Deleuze confronts in his earliest writing (Difference and Repetition)6 and which occupies him, along with its associated problem of the genesis of multiplicities, throughout his entire career (De Landa in fact begins this book with an analysis of Deleuze's concept of "multiplicity").  Whereas the actual world, in De Landa's language, consists of variable and asymmetrical relations, the virtual is characterized by invariance (defined mathematically as invariance under conditions of rotation) and symmetry (although the analogy is imperfect and technically incorrect, picture the virtual as a kind of gaseous distribution that presents the same face from any point of view).7 The actual world is produced as a process of "symmetry-breaking" cascades or multiple "bifurcations" in which "attractors" or ideal events play a crucial role in the virtual's differentiation.8  Attractors are defined as long-term tendencies or limits of dynamical systems, intensive thresholds (singularities) at which sudden phase transitions occur in physical systems, for example the transition from a liquid to a solid state. 

            De Landa employs all the vocabulary of chaos and complexity theory, turbulence, and non-linear systems to describe these processes, as well as philosophical accounts of the history of science that stress models of experimental and laboratory practice over theoretico-deductive models of truth.   His depiction of the virtual is approached via several interrelated problems:  in terms of how multiplicities arise and differentiate themselves within virtual space, in terms of how phenomena that comprise the virtual must be characterized as "pre-individualized," non-personal, impassive and abstract, how the virtual is a formless plane (of consistency, immanence, etc.) upon which singularities are distributed, extended and serialized into ordinary points, and so on.  The virtual, De Landa notes, has corporeal causes, i.e., it is produced by actual material processes, but is itself incorporeal and autonomous from those causes (in De Landa's words, its dynamics are abstract and "mechanism independent"), and the relations that form between virtual multiplicities are "quasi-causal" or, as Foucault would characterize it, relations among effects of effects.9  In all of this, De Landa seeks to reaffirm new approaches to research and theory in the natural sciences, to challenge the old analytical philosophies and theoretico-deductive models of scientific development, and to demonstrate that recent directions in science are more consistent with the historical approach to ontological problematization taken by Deleuze.

            Although this book is very detailed in its description of becoming-actual, De Landa spends considerably less time on the reverse problem of becoming-virtual, or how the actual becomes virtual.  Most of his energy is concentrated on describing the processes of individuation rather than the forces at work in de-individuation, i.e., the ways in which individuated objects become virtual multiplicities.  The latter, however, is certainly one of the most important problems Deleuze poses in his entire philosophy.  De Landa follows Deleuze in describing this as a problem of "counter-actualization".10 Its formulation requires, once again, Deleuze's complex notion of "quasi-causality" (which sometimes seems to refer to relations between events solely within the virtual and at other times depicts the nature of the interface between the actual and the virtual), as well as concepts Deleuze creates with Guattari – e.g., "lines of flight," forces of deterritorialization and de-stratification, smooth space, and the Body without Organs.  De Landa deserves immense credit for his efforts to grapple with these difficult concepts and to demonstrate their resonance with alternative directions in contemporary mathematics and science, both in this book and in is prior works.  He also rightly notes that Deleuze's formulations regarding counter-actualization and related problems take us well beyond mathematics and physics into philosophical and artistic considerations.  And lastly, he is very much aware of the political and social dimensions this problem, as counter-actualization or de-individuation in politics involves the deterritorialization and re-territorialization of power relations in society.11 

            De Landa's books do nonetheless seem overly obsessed with the technological and scientific implications of Deleuze and Guattari's work at the expense of such artistic or political considerations, a fact which is somewhat surprising given his background in experimental film. To be fair, in A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History, De Landa does raise these concerns, along with economic, linguistic and ecological issues, and one could argue that War in the Age of Intelligent Machines, for all its technical detail, is a deeply political book.  Still, when it comes to placing Deleuze and Guattari's philosophy in relevant contexts for today, he prefers to explore its connections to scientific research in such areas as nonlinear systems, chaos and complexity theory, etc., rather than develop, for example, its poetic or graphical or musical sides.  Ultimately, for Deleuze the question of what philosophy was, was a matter of its immanent relations to both art and science.12  One cannot concentrate on one of these relations to the relative exclusion of the other.   De Landa, however, generally does precisely this.

            Related to this, while De Landa's books are tremendously satisfying for their precise, direct language and the clarity they bring Deleuze and Guattari's ideas, they generally lack the passion and fire of their writing. The very strength of his texts, the ability to connect Deleuze and Guattari to wider and exciting trends in scientific thinking, is also a weakness, exemplified in the kind of detachment or dryness of style that always accompanies scientific or technical writing. The failings of this book are more in what it omits than what it accomplishes, although they are not omissions which De Landa is unaware of, but lines of Deleuze's thought he sees as irrelevant to his topic and aims.  Concerns about style aside, however, which after all are really trivial matters, there is nothing on Deleuze's ethics here, and to be honest not much on Deleuze's ethics in De Landa's work in general, which as I've said often chooses to focus on issues of scientific and technical modelization. This is unfortunate given the overwhelming importance of ethical questions for Deleuze, and not simply questions of ethics in science but the whole problem of living a joyful and free life, and how one devises experiments with the aims of totally re-inventing subjectivity, multiplying affective connections and discovering what a body can do. One could argue that in proposing a Deleuzian ontology and epistemology for physics De Landa in one sense accomplishes this, since physics would be based not on the quest for eternal truths but on historical contingencies in the development of its subject matter.

            The last section of Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy focuses on the question of posing relevant and important problems, how to frame them at the right level of explanation, and it offers an alternative to the model of classical physics, which reduces problems to axioms and linear causality and views truth as a deductive-nomological relation.  De Landa, of course, sees truth as historical and non-linear and as isomorphic to problems at the level they emerge.  He argues, with Deleuze, that problems are non-subjective and impersonal, posed by the distribution of singularities in virtual space-time.  They are not created by individuals (which might be thought of more as solutions to problems that arise on lower levels of organization) and they are not "socially constructed" (problems "specify themselves").13 Like Deleuze, De Landa says problems are not so much true or false based on some external criterion that governs their solution. All problems are immanent and there are only problems that are relevant or irrelevant.14  Articulating a problem correctly is a matter of separating what is important in it from what is trivial or redundant.  De Landa argues that for the physical scientist as well as the philosopher this means attention to singularities and multiplicities, not essences or laws.  For the physical scientist, it implies a science of intensities and "virtual capacities."  For the philosopher, De Landa says, it means himself becoming a "quasi-cause," a virtual operator in the production of multiplicities (Deleuze's definition of philosophy is the creation of concepts).  All this, if it does not state it explicitly, certainly implies an ethics, and De Landa has made major strides in clarifying what such an ethics would look like.  Still, this remains an underdeveloped area in De Landa's book and research in general.

            De Landa, I have no doubt, will produce a book sometime down the road that addresses these questions, and I also have no doubt it will be excellent, like all of De Landa's books.  De Landa has performed a tremendous service in demonstrating that Deleuze and Guattari's philosophy cannot be dismissed as postmodern metaphor, but when examined in its literal sense and filled out its details can be shown to be foundational to a rethinking of basic philosophical problems in the natural and social sciences (I understand his new book will deal with the micro-macro "pseudo-problem" in sociology).  In particular, it attempts to provide both an ontological and epistemological alternative to philosophies of science based on axiomatic systems, deductive logic, and essentialist typologies, one that is grounded in creative experiment rather than theory, in the multiplication of models rather than the formulation of universal laws.  This approach, which views science as a contingent historical production rather than the accumulation of knowledge that results in an eternal truth, is not about the relativity of truth but, as Deleuze says, the truth of relativity.


1 Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987.

2 See Manuel Delanda. War In The Age Of Intelligent Machines. New York: Zone Books, 1991; and A Thousand Years of Non-Linear History. New York: Zone Books, 1997.

3 Manuel De Landa. Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy. New York: Continuum, 2002: 45-46, 101-102.

4 Gilles Deleuze. Empiricism and Subjectivity : An Essay on Hume's Theory of Human Nature. New York, Columbia University Press, 1991.

5 Manuel De Landa. Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy. New York: Continuum, 2002: 25-27.

6 Gilles Deleuze. Difference and Repetition. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.

7 Manuel De Landa. Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy. New York: Continuum, 2002:82 ff.

8 De Landa does not really focus in this book on the Deleuzian distinction between differentiation, which is a concept that applies to actualized states, and differenciation (with a "c" instead of a "t"), which describes a virtual process, although he does, as we have seen, distinguish between extensive and intensive divisibility (Deleuze 1994, see endnote 6).  The former is "cardinal" and the latter "ordinal," reflecting the fact that differences in intensive states are differences of rank rather than number (i.e., they are non-additive or non-metric).  It is not that the virtual is undifferentiated, but that the "differenciations" that occur within the virtual (plane of consistency) are intensive differences, that is the main point for both Deleuze and De Landa.

9 Manuel De Landa. Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy. New York: Continuum, 2002:75-78.

10 Ibid.:113.

11 De Landa, much like Baudrillard, argues that there are no such entities as society or culture "in general."  But whereas Baudrillard raises the hypothesis that society is merely a simulation effect, and thus falls into what some may regard as a kind of idealism regarding social reality, De Landa always frames these problems from the point of view of the emergence (actualization) of larger scale individuals from the dynamics of smaller scale populations (e.g., the emergence of social institutions from the non-linear connections that arise among individual decision-makers, which in turn arise from non-linear connections in lines of desire and affect, and so on).

12 Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. What is philosophy? New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.

13 Manuel De Landa. Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy. New York: Continuum, 2002:135.

14 Ibid.:130 ff.


©International Journal of Baudrillard Studies (2005)

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