October 28, 2010

DeLanda on Deleuze

Deleuze and the Open-ended Becoming of the World

by Manuel DeLanda


With the final mathematization of classical physics in the nineteenth century, a certain picture of the world emerged dominant, one in which clockwork determinism reigned supreme and time played no creative role, so that the future was effectively closed, completely given in the past. Although the set of equations with which Hamilton was able to unify all the different fields of classical physics (mechanics, optics, and the elementary theory of electromagnetism) did contain a variable for time, this variable played only an extrinsic role: once the equations were defined for a specific instant, both the past and the future were completely determined, and could be obtained mechanically by simply integrating the equations.

To be sure, this static, timeless picture of reality did not go unchallenged within science, since thermodynamics had already introduced an arrow of time which conflicted with the symmetric conception of classical mechanics, where the past and the future were interchangeable. Nevertheless, as the history of statistical mechanics makes it clear, much scientific effort has been spent in our century to reconcile time asymmetry at the level of large aggregates with the still accepted time symmetry at the level of individual interactions.

Thus, it would become the task of philosophers and social scientists to attempt to reconceptualize the world in order to give time and history a creative role, with the vision of an open future that this implies. Although there have been a variety of strategies to achieve this open future, here I would like to concentrate on two contrasting approaches. The first is perhaps best illustrated by the intellectual movement that is today known as "social constructivism", but which roots lie in linguistic and anthropological theories which go back to the turn of the century.

At the risk of oversimplifying, we may say that the core of this approach is a neo-Kantian theory of perception, in which individual experience is completely structured by the interplay of concepts and representations, but one in which Kant's transcendental concepts (of space and time) have been replaced by the conventional concepts of a given culture. The guiding image of this strategy may be said to be "each culture lives in its own world", an image central to many theoretical approaches in this century, from the cultural relativism of Margaret Mead and Franz Boas, to the linguistic relativism of Edward Sapir and Benjamin Worf, to the epistemological relativism of Thomas Khun's theory of scientific paradigms. Again, oversimplifying somewhat, the key idea in all these theories is one of "incommensurability" across worlds, each conceptual scheme constructing its own reality so that bridges between worlds are hard, if not impossible, to build.

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