Ognjen Strpic on Fri, 6 Jun 2003 08:36:51 +0200 (CEST)

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[nettime-see] Manuel De Landa: 1000 Years of War

1000 Years of War
CTHEORY Interview with Manuel De Landa [OS butcher's cut]

full text: http://www.ctheory.net/text_file.asp?pick=383

   Manuel de Landa in conversation with: Don Ihde, Casper Bruun
   Jensen, Jari Friis Jorgensen, Srikanth Mallavarapu, Eduardo Mendieta,
   John Mix, John Protevi, and Evan Selinger. 
   Manuel De Landa, distinguished philosopher and principal figure in the
   "new materialism" that has been emerging as a result of interest in
   Deleuze and Guattari, currently teaches at Columbia University.
   Because his research into "morphogenesis" -- the production of stable
   structures out of material flows -- extends into the domains of
   architecture, biology, economics, history, geology, linguistics,
   physics, and technology, his outlook has been of great interest to
   theorists across the disciplines. His latest book on Deleuze's realist
   ontology, Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy (2002), comes in
   the wake of best-sellers: War in the Age of Intelligent Machines
   (1991), where De Landa assumes the persona of the "robot historian" to
   bring the natural and social sciences into dialogue vis-a-vis using
   insights found in nonlinear dynamics to analyze the role of
   information technology in military history, and A Thousand Years of
   Non-Linear History (1997), where he carves out a space for geological,
   organic, and linguistic materials to "have their say" in narrating the
   different ways that a single matter-energy undergoes phase transitions
   of various kinds, resulting in the production of the semi-stable
   structures that are constitutive of the natural and social worlds.
   When Evan Selinger gathered together the participants for the
   following interview, his initial intention was to create an
   interdisciplinary dialogue about the latest book. In light of current
   world events -- which have brought about a renewed fascination with De
   Landa's thoughts on warfare -- and in light of the different
   participant interests, an unintended outcome came about. A synoptic
   and fruitful conversation occurred that traverses aspects of De
   Landa's oeuvre.

  I. War, Markets & Models

   CTHEORY (Mendieta): In these times of "a war against terrorism," and
   preparing against "bioterrorism" and "germ warfare," do you not find
   it interesting, telling, and ironic in a dark and cynical way that it
   is the Western, Industrialized nations that are waging a form of
   biological terrorism, sanctioned and masked by legal regulations
   imposed by the WTO and its legal codes, like Intellectual Property
   Rights (IPR). Would you agree that the imposition of GMO --
   genetically modified organism -- through WTO, NAFTA, and IMF, on the
   so-called developing world is a form of "legalized biotech and
   biological" terrorism? And then, as a corollary, what are the
   prospects for global justice and equity in light precisely of the
   yawing gap between developed and underdeveloped nations that is
   further deepened by the asymmetrical access to technologies like
   genetic engineering and genomic mapping?

   Manuel De Landa: Though I understand what you are getting at I do not
   think it is very useful to use this label (biological terrorism) for
   this phenomenon. The point, however, is well taken. The way in which
   corporations are encroaching around the most sensitive points of the
   food chain is dangerous: they direct the evolution of new crops from
   the processing end, disregarding nutritional properties if they
   conflict with industrial ones; the same corporations which own oil
   (and hence fertilizers and herbicides) also own seed companies and
   other key inputs to farming; and those same corporations are now
   transferring genes from one species to another in perverse ways (genes
   for herbicide resistance transferred from weeds to crops). When one
   couples these kind of facts with the old ones about the link between
   colonialism and the conversion of many world areas into food supply
   zones for Europe (from the creation of sugar plantations to the taking
   over of the photosynthetically most active areas of the world by
   Europe's ex-colonies) we can realize that this state of affairs does
   have consequences for equity and justice. The key point is not to
   oversimplify: the Green Revolution, for example, failed not because of
   the biological aspect, but because of the economic one: the very real
   biological benefits (plants bred to have more edible biomass) could
   only be realized under economies of scale and these have many hidden
   costs (power concentration, deskilling of workforce) which can offset
   the purely technical benefits.

   The question of Intellectual Property rights is also complex. We
   should be very careful how we deal with this, particularly considering
   many of us bring old moral clichés ("private property is theft") into
   the debate without being aware of it. I believe this issue needs to be
   handled case by case (to solve the inherent conflict between lack of
   accessibility and incentive to create). For example, I am completely
   opposed to the patenting of genes but not of gene products, like

   CTHEORY (Mix): In War in the Age of Intelligent Machines you discuss
   the German Blitzkrieg of WWII in relation to a synergistic tactic that
   unified air and ground troops. If we return to this time period, it
   becomes noteworthy to highlight that the synergy fell apart when the
   machinery, specifically the ground forces (i.e. tanks, jeeps,
   personnel transports, etc.) broke down and the soldiers manning them
   could not get them operational, and were forced to get mechanics to do
   the repairs, or else hope that the supply lines were kept open to
   bring in replacement vehicles. By contrast, many of the American G.I.s
   were "grease monkeys" and could easily repair their own vehicles.
   Since many of the components of the ground vehicles were
   interchangeable, they could scavenge usable pieces from damaged
   equipment, therein being able to fix problems on the spot and remain
   operationally mechanized. My question is: Because contemporary
   military technology is built on principles that the average G.I. is
   not familiar with (i.e. the compatibility between the standard engine
   and military ground vehicles no longer exists), do you think that the
   benefits of the war machine will be outstripped by the lack of
   serviceability that probably will arise in the field under combat
   conditions? Do you think that we should be training our soldiers
   differently or do you think that we should modify the technologies
   they use?

   De Landa: One of the themes of the War book was the tendency of
   military organizations to get "humans out of the loop." Throughout the
   book (and in my only live lecture to the military) I have very
   strongly criticized this, urging for the lowering of decision-making
   thresholds so that soldiers in the field with access to real time
   information have more power to make decisions than their superiors at
   the Pentagon. (This theme, of course, goes beyond the military to any
   kind of centralized decision-making situation, including economic
   planning.) The problem you raise is, I believe, related to this. If
   all technological decisions are made centrally without thinking of
   issues of maintenance in the field, and if there is no incentive for
   field soldiers to become "grease monkeys" or "hackers," the army that
   results is all the more brittle for that. Flexibility implies that
   knowledge and know-how are not monopolized by central planners but
   exist in a more decentralized form.

   CTHEORY (Protevi): War in the Age of Intelligent Machines came out in
   1991, just at the time of Operation Desert Storm. Do you see any
   noteworthy developments in the integration of information technology
   and artificial intelligence into US security / military operations
   from the time of Desert Storm, through Afghanistan and the Second Gulf
   War? I have two particular areas I would ask you to comment on: (1)
   developments in what you call the Panspectron in surveillance; and (2)
   the use of the robot drone plane to kill 6 suspected al-Qaida members
   in Yemen: is this a decisive step forward in your history of the
   development of autonomous killer machines, or is it just more of the
   same, that is, AI as an adjunct, without true executive capabilities?
   Finally, do you see any utility to the claim (a variation on the old
   "technological imperative" idea) that, among many other factors in the
   Bush Administration, certain elements of the Pentagon support the war
   campaign as providing a testing ground for their new weapons systems?

   De Landa: I do not see the threshold I warned against (the emergence
   of predatory machines) as having been crossed yet. The drone plane was
   being remotely guided, wasn't it? At the level of surveillance I also
   fail to see any dramatic development other than a quantitative
   increase in computing power. What has changed is the direction that
   the migration of "intelligence" into weapons has taken, from the
   creation of very expensive smart bombs to the use of GPS-based cheap
   equipment that can be added to existing dumb bombs.

   I am not sure the Pentagon has a hidden agenda for testing their new
   weapons but I do think that it has been itching for a war against Iraq
   for years before 9-11, in a similar way they were itching for one
   during the Cuban missile crisis in the 60's. It was tough for Kennedy
   to resist them then, and so Bush had very little chance to do it
   particularly because he has his own family scores to settle.

   CTHEORY (Mix): Medieval archers occupied the lowest rung of the
   military hierarchy. They were looked down upon and thought of as
   completely expendable, not only because the archers were mostly
   untrained peasants, but also in part because the equipment they used
   was quite ineffectual. At the level of military ethos, one could say
   that the archer lacked the romantic stature of the knight because
   their style of combat was predicated on spatial distance -- shooting
   from far away seemed cowardly, whereas face-to-face sword combat had
   an aura of honor to it. The situation changed for the English,
   however, due to the introduction of the long bow (a development that
   was materially dependent on the availability of the wood in the
   region, the yew trees). Years of training were invested in teaching
   the English archers to use this weapon with deadly effectiveness.
   Consequently, their stature increased, and for the first time, pride
   could be taken in being an archer. Today, some critics charge that
   using unmanned drones is cowardly because it involves striking at a
   distance. We can thus see the situation as somewhat analogous to the
   arrow let loose by the Medieval archer. My question is: Will the
   drones let loose by servicemen ever lose their stigma in the same way
   as the English archers did? Clearly, the drones like the English
   archers proved to be successful in battle. And yet, the image of the
   drone controlled by a serviceman does not evoke the same humanity as
   the embodied Englishman.

   De Landa: I agree that in military history questions of "honor" have
   always influenced decisions to adopt a particular weapon. And distance
   per se was not always the main reason: early rifles were not
   particularly liked due to their increased precision, and the practices
   this led to (the emergence of snipers) were seen as dishonorable. Yet,
   once Napoleon had changed the paradigm from battles of attrition to
   battles of annihilation harassing the enemy via snipers became quite
   acceptable. Even more problematic was the effect of the rifle and the
   conoidal bullet in changing traditional hierarchies as infantry could
   now defeat artillery, forcing the latter to hide behind defensive
   positions (a hiding which must have carried a bit of stigma at first
   but that went away fast). I think the use of drones will only be seen
   as problematic from the "honor" point of view for a very short time.

   CTHEORY (Mallavarapu): In your work you challenge anthropomorphic and
   anthropocentric versions of history. What implications does this have
   for politics in an increasingly militarized world? More specifically,
   is there a danger of the idea of self-organizing systems being used to
   justify and celebrate increasing militarization and the growth of
   so-called "free market" economies?

   De Landa: I'll begin with the latter. Theories of self-organization
   are in fact being used to explain what Adam Smith left unexplained:
   how the invisible hand is supposed to work. From a mere assumption of
   optimality at equilibrium we now have a better description of what
   markets do: they take advantage of decentralized dynamics to make use
   of local information (the information possessed by buyers and
   sellers). These markets are not optimizing since self-organizing
   dynamics may go through cycles of boom and bust. Only under the
   assumption of optimality and equilibrium can we say "the State should
   not interfere with the Market." The other assumption (of contingent
   self-organization) has plenty of room for governments to intervene.
   And more importantly, the local information version (due to Hayek and
   Simon) does not apply to large corporations, where strategic thinking
   (as modeled by game theory) is the key. So, far from justifying
   liberal assumptions the new view problematizes markets. (Let's also
   remember that enemies of markets, such as Marx, bought the equilibrium
   assumption completely: in his book Capital he can figure out the
   "socially necessary labor time," and hence calculate the rate of
   exploitation, only if profits are at equilibrium). Now, the new view
   of markets stresses their decentralization (hence corporations do not
   belong there), and this can hardly justify globalization which is
   mostly a result of corporations. And similarly for warfare, the danger
   begins when the people who do not go to war (the central planners) get
   to make the decisions. The soldiers who do the actual killing and
   dying are never as careless as that.

   CTHEORY (Selinger): You have often questioned what is at stake,
   socially, politically, and conceptually, when intellectuals engage in
   criticism. Simply put, you are all too aware of the ease by which
   putatively "Critical Theorists" are easily swayed by dogmatic
   convictions and too readily cognitively stymied by uncritical
   presuppositions. One might even say that in so far as you characterize
   yourself as a philosopher -- even if in the qualified sense of a
   "street philosopher" who lacks official credentials -- you believe
   that it is the duty of a philosopher to be critical. By contrast, some
   of the more avant-garde STS theorists seem -- albeit perhaps only
   polemically and rhetorically -- to eschew criticism. For example,
   Bruno Latour's latest writings center on his rejection of criticism as
   an outdated mode of thought that he associates with iconoclasm. He
   clearly sets the tone for this position in We Have Never Been Modern
   in connection with acknowledging his intellectual debt to Michel
   Serres, and he emphasizes it in Pandora's Hope, War of the Worlds, and
   Iconoclash. Succinctly put, Latour claims that for six reasons
   ideology critique (which he implicitly associates with normative
   critique as such) is a faulty and patronizing form of analysis: (1)
   ideology critique fails to accurately capture how, why, and when power
   is abused, (2) ideology critique distorts how authority comes to be
   overly esteemed, (3) ideology critique imputes "extravagant beliefs"
   onto whatever group is taken to be oppressed, (4) ideology critique
   leaves the group that is perceived to be oppressed without adequate
   grounds for liberation, (5) ideology critique distorts the relation
   between critic and the object of criticism, and (6) ideology critique
   accusatively "destroys a way of arguing." What do you think of this

   De Landa: First of all, I agree that the labels "critical" and
   "radical" have been overused. In the last analysis one should never
   apply these labels to oneself and wait for history to decide just how
   critical or radical one's work really was (once its consequences have
   been played out). Latour's problem seems to be more with the concept
   of "ideology" than that of "critique," and in that I completely agree:
   to reduce the effects of power to those of creating a false
   consciousness is wrong. But here is where the real problem is, since
   one cannot just critique the concept of "ideology," the real test of
   one's radicality is what one puts in its place. Or, to put it
   differently, how one re-conceptualizes power. And here one's
   ontological commitments make all the difference in the world. Can a
   realist like myself trust a theory of power proposed by a non-realist,
   for example? Can a realist ever believe in a theory of power
   developed, for example, by an ethnomethodologist, when one is aware
   that for that person everything is reducible to phenomenological
   experience? The same point applies to normativity: if one is a realist
   defending a particular stance will depend on developing a new ethics,
   not just critiquing old moralities. Here a Spinozian ethics of
   assemblages that may be mutually enhancing versus those that are
   degrading may be the solution, but developing this idea will also
   imply certain ontological commitments (to the mind-independent reality
   of food and poison, for example).

   CTHEORY (Jensen): A similar question could be raised in relation to
   your work on markets and anti-markets. In contrast to Empire by Hardt
   and Negri, which explicitly hopes to have a political impact, your
   position is much less straightforwardly normative. If, in a realist
   vein, you take your analysis to be descriptive, how then do you think
   people might act to reap the benefits of your description?

   De Landa: No, not at all. Remember first of all that a realist never
   settles for a mere description. It is explanation that is the key and
   the latter involves thinking about real mechanisms which may not be
   directly observable (or describable). The disagreement with Empire is
   over the mechanisms one postulates and the details of their workings.
   I do not accept the Marxist version of these mechanisms (neither those
   through which markets are supposed to operate nor those for the State)
   and believe the Marxist version leads to practical dead ends
   regardless of how ready to be used in social interventions the
   analysis seems to be. (To be blunt, any idea for social intervention
   based on Marxism will be a failure). I do take normative positions in
   my books (such that decentralization is more desirable than
   centralization for many reasons) but I also realize than in an ethics
   of nourishing versus degrading assemblages real-life experimentation
   (not a priori theorization) is the key. To use an obvious example from
   environmental ethics: a little phosphorous feeds the soil; too much
   poisons it. Where exactly the threshold is varies with type of soil so
   it cannot be known a priori. But the normative statement "do not
   poison the soil" is there nevertheless. Similarly for society: too
   much centralization poisons (by concentrating power and privilege; by
   allowing corruption; by taking away skills from routinized
   command-followers etc) but exactly how much is to be decided by social
   experiments, how else?

  II. Competing Ideologies & Social Alliances

   CTHEORY (Protevi): A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History (1997) and
   your talk "A New Ontology for the Social Sciences" (2002) propose a
   "nested set" of individual entities in a "flat ontology." Like all
   your works, both pieces use nonlinear dynamical concepts to discuss
   the morphogenesis of these individuals. However, your social
   ontologies seem largely to begin with adults as their lowest level,
   notwithstanding some mention of children in the section on linguistics
   in A Thousand Years of Non-Linear History (norm-learning and
   creolization). Do you avoid discussing child development, about which
   a lot of research has been done using nonlinear dynamics in studying
   brain development, motor learning, and so forth, simply for space and
   time constraints, or is there another reason? Would you agree that
   adding such discussions would be useful in demonstrating several areas
   of interlocking top-down constraint by family, institutional, civic,
   national, and perhaps even larger units?

   De Landa: The key to the ontology I defend is the idea that the world
   is made out of individual entities at different levels of scale, and
   that each entity is the contingent result of an individuation process.
   Clearly, and despite the fact that I have ignored it so far, the
   individuation of a social agent during childhood, and even the
   biological individuation of an adult organism in that same period, are
   two crucial processes. Without these social and biological
   individuations we would not be able to account for adult individuals.
   If I placed less emphasis on this is because through the work of Freud
   and Piaget (and others) we have a few models of how these processes
   could be conceived, but we have much less insight on how institutional
   organizations or cities individuate (in fact, the very problem is
   ignored in these two cases since both those entities are
   conceptualized as structures not as individuals). I will get to the
   questions you raise in due time, when I finally tackle the question of
   subjectivity. At this point in time, when everyone seems obsessed with
   the question of subjective experience at the expense of everything
   else, it seems the priorities must be reversed: account for the less
   familiar forms of individuation first returning to our own psyches

   CTHEORY (Mix): Considering how much of your work focuses on computers,
   it seems appropriate to end this section by bringing up an Internet
   oriented question. In your essay "Markets and Anti-Markets in the
   World Economy" you follow Fernand Braudel in analyzing the flow of
   capital towards and away from "universal warehouses," defined as
   dominant commercial centers where one can purchase "any product from
   anywhere in the world." You not only note that historically cities
   such Venice, Amsterdam, London, and New York have served this
   function, but you further suggest that we may be: (1) "witnessing the
   end of American supremacy" and (2) that Tokyo may be the next "core."
   In this age of advanced Internet use, when one can now shop for global
   goods and services from almost any city of origin, how important is it
   to think in "warehouse" terms?

   De Landa: The preeminence of the cities you mention was always
   contingent on the speed of transport: for as long as sea transport was
   faster than by land, not only goods but people and ideas flowed faster
   and accumulated more frequently in maritime metropolises. But the
   advent of steam motors (and the locomotive) changed that relation,
   allowing landlocked capitals (such as Chicago) to become universal
   warehouses. Hence, any technology that changes the speed of the
   circulation of goods and information (the internet plus Federal
   Express) will have an effect like this, maybe even making cities
   irrelevant as accumulation centers.


full text: http://www.ctheory.net/text_file.asp?pick=383

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