The Machinic Phylum

Essay by Manuel de Landa for "TechnoMorphica," 1997

The Machinic Phylum

TechnoMorphica 1997

A key issue in philosophical analyses of technology concerns the most appropriate way of conceptualizing innovation. One may ask, for instance, whether human beings can truly create something novel, or if humanity is simply realizing previously defined technological possibilities. Indeed, the question of the emergence of novelty is central not only when thinking about human-developed (physical and conceptual) machinery, but more generally, the machinery of living beings as developed through evolutionary processes. Can anything truly different emerge in the course of evolution or are evolutionary processes just the playing out of possible outcomes determined in advance?

At the turn of the last century the French philosopher Henri Bergson wrote a series of texts where he criticized the inability of the science of his time to think the new, the truly novel. The first obstacle was, of course, a mechanical and linear view of causality and the rigid determinism that it implied. Clearly, if all the future is already given in the past, if the future is merely that modality of time where previously determined possibilities become realized, then true innovation is impossible. To avoid this mistake, he thought, we must struggle to model the future as truly open ended, truly indeterminate, and the past and present as pregnant not only with possibilities which become real, but with virtualities which become actual. Unlike the former, which defines a process in which one structure out of a set of predefined forms acquires reality, the latter defines a process in which an open problem is solved in a variety of different ways, with actual forms emerging in the process of reaching a solution. 1


1. Gilles Deleuze, "Bergsonism," Zone Books, New York 1988, p. 97.


To take an example from physics, a population of interacting physical entities, such as molecules, can be constrained energetically to force it to display organized collective behavior. In other words, it may be constrained to adopt a form which minimizes free energy. Here the "problem" (for the population of entities) is to find this minimal point of energy, a problem solved differently by the molecules in soap bubbles (which collectively minimize surface tension) and by the molecules in crystalline structures (which collectively minimize bonding energy). Many other different structures can be generated as solutions to the "finding a minimum point" problem, each actualizing this virtual point in divergent ways. Moreover, these divergent ways are not given in advance, but defined in each case by the physical nature of the interacting entities. The number of possible structures that may emerge this way is open, limited at any one point only by the available variety of interacting entities.

Today, the insights of Bergson have been recovered by some philosophers, in particular, by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, who have also managed to rid it of some of its troubling aspects. To begin with, Bergson embraced a late form of "vitalism," which rigidly separated the worlds of organic life and human consciousness, where innovation was possible, from the realm of the merely material, where repetition of the same was the rule. For Deleuze and Guattari, on the contrary, all spheres of reality, including geology, possess virtual morphogenetic capabilities and potentialities. This does not mean, however, that these potentialities are uniformly distributed in each sphere. In the geological, biological and cultural worlds we can detect some populations of interacting entities with more intense propensities to engage in self-organizing processes, and these special populations are indeed the key to a theory of innovation. But to understand their true importance we need to get rid of the "organic chauvinism" which led Bergson to view them as "essentially" linked to life and consciousness. In particular, according to Deleuze and Guattari, metals form a very special type of population:

"... what metal and metallurgy bring to light is a life proper to matter, a vital state of matter as such, a material vitalism that doubtless exists everywhere but is ordinarily hidden or covered, rendered unrecognizable, dissociated by the hylomorphic model. Metallurgy is the consciousness or thought of the matter-flow, and metal the correlate of this consciousness. As expressed in panmetallism, metal is coextensive to the whole of matter, and the whole of matter to metallurgy. Even the waters, the grasses and varieties of wood, the animals are populated by salts or mineral elements. Not everything is metal, but metal is everywhere ... The machinic phylum is metallurgical, or at least has a metallic head, as its itinerant probe-head or guidance device." 2


2. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, "A Thousand Plateaus," University of Minnesota Press, 1980, p. 409.


There are several terms in this quote that need explanation. First, what they refer to as the "hylomorphic model," is a model of the genesis of form as external to matter, as imposed from the outside like a command on a material which is thought as inert and dead. Whether these forms come from the mind of God, or from essences inhabiting an eternal heaven, or from a military engineer in an eighteenth century arsenal, its does not matter. It implies a conception of matter that we inherited from Greek philosophers (perhaps best illustrated by Aristotle's distinction between material and formal causes) and yet a conception that is totally alien to the history of technology up to the eighteenth century, particularly to that ancient branch known as "metallurgy." For the blacksmith "it is not a question of imposing a form upon matter but of elaborating an increasingly rich and consistent material, the better to tap increasingly intense forces." 3


3. ibid. p. 329.


In other words, the blacksmith treated metals as active materials, pregnant with morphogenetic capabilities, and his role was 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 had a say. In the terms with which I began this essay, he is less realizing previously defined possibilities, than actualizing virtualities along divergent lines. Historians have clearly understood the importance of metals in technological history, even using them to label some crucial stages, such as the Bronze or Iron ages. But it would be a mistake to think that the relevance of metals for the question of innovation is due to human intervention. To see this we need to explain a second obscure term in the quote above: the "machinic phylum." What does this term refer to and what does it mean to say that it has "metallic probe-heads"? Let's answer the latter question first. The key idea is to think of metals as being the most powerful catalysts in the planet. (The only exception being organic enzymes, but these have been evolved to achieve that potency.) A catalyst is a substance capable of accelerating or decelerating a chemical reaction, without itself being changed in the process. That is, a catalyst intervenes in reality, triggers effects, causes encounters that would not have taken place without it, and yet it is not consumed or permanently changed in these interactions, so that it can go on triggering effects elsewhere.

We can imagine our planet, before living creatures appeared on its surface, as populated by metallic particles which catalyzed reactions as they flowed through the Earth, in a sense allowing the planet to "explore" a space of possible chemical combinations, that is, allowing the planet to blindly grope its way around this space, eventually stumbling upon proto-living creatures, which as many scientists now agree, were probably autocatalytic loops of materials, that is, proto-metabolisms. 4


4. Stuart Kauffman, "The Origins of Order. Self-Organization and Selection in Evolution," Oxford University Press, New York 1993, chapter 3.


So in this sense, metals are a kind of probe head. But what then is the "machinic phylum"? To answer this question we need to add one more thing, already hinted at above when I referred to "probing a space of combinations." As many researchers are now becoming aware, a crucial ingredient for the emergence of innovation at any level of reality is the "combinatorial productivity" of the elements at the respective sub-level, that is, at the level of the components of the structures in question. Not all components have the same "productivity." For example, elementary particles have a relatively low productivity, yielding only 92 possible atoms in this planet, although we can artificially stabilize a few more trans-uranic elements, beginning with Plutonium in World War II. However, when we move to the next higher level, the assembly of molecules out of atoms, the number of combinations becomes immense, essentially unsurveyable. Similarly, the number of cell types on Earth (nerve, muscle, bone et cetera) is relatively small, a couple of hundred types, but the number of organisms that may be built combinatorially out of these elements is, again, immense. As Hungarian physicist George Kampis has remarked, "the notion of immensity translates as irreducible variety of the component-types ... This kind of immensity is an immediately complexity-related property, for it is about variety and heterogeneity, and not simply as numerousness." 5


5. George Kampis, "Self-Modifying Systems in Biology and Cognitive Science. A New Framework for Dynamics, Information and Complexity," Pergamon Press, Oxford, England, 1991, p. 235.


The point here is that a key ingredient for combinatorial richness, and hence, for an essentially open future, is heterogeneity of components. Another key element are processes which allow heterogeneous elements to come together, that is, processes which allow the articulation of the diverse as such. This is indeed, what Deleuze and Guattari had in mind when coining the term "machinic," the existence of processes that act on an initial set of merely coexisting, heterogeneous elements, and cause them to come together and consolidate into a novel entity. As they say, "what we term machinic is precisely this synthesis of heterogeneities as such." 6


6. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, "A Thousand Plateaus," p. 330.


The second part of the term, "phylum," they borrow from biology where it denotes the evolutionary category just under "kingdom" (we, as vertebrates, belong to the phylum "chordata," for example), but which also involves the idea of a common body-plan, which through different operations (embryological foldings, stretchings, pullings, pushings) can yield a variety of concrete designs for organisms. The idea of a "machinic phylum" would then be that, beyond biological lineages, we are also related to non-living creatures (winds and flames, lava and rocks) through common "body-plans" involving similar self-organizing and combinatorial processes. As if one and the same material "phylum" could be "folded and stretched" to yield all the different structures that inhabit our universe.

Making this last point plausible will involve introducing a few more concepts. We saw above that, to recover the Bergsonian insight on the necessity of thinking of the future as open in order to conceptualize true innovation, we needed to go beyond the dichotomy he established between living creatures (possessed of an "elan vital") and mere inert matter. Similarly, to understand the processes of self-organization (the "phylum") that may be common to rocks and animals, clockworks and steam motors, we need to move beyond Bergson's dichotomy between determinism and chance. We need to introduce, in Deleuze and Guattari's words, "advanced determinisms" between these two extremes, to avoid granting to chance all the creative powers we once granted to clockwork determinism.

These intermediate forms of determinism, laying between the two extremes of a complete fatalism, based on simple and linear causal relations, and a complete indeterminism, in which causality plays no role, arise in physical interactions involving non-linear causal relations. The most familiar examples of non-linear causality are those causal loops known as "feedback loops," which may involve mutually stabilizing causes, as in the negative feedback process exemplified by the thermostat, or mutually intensifying causes, as in the positive feedback process illustrated by explosions or spiraling arms races. These forms of circular causality, in which the effects react back on their causes, in turn, are one condition for the existence of forms of determinism which are local and multiple, instead of global and unique. (The other condition is a flow of energy moving in and out of the physical process in question). These "advanced" determinisms are the so called "attractors" which govern the dynamical behavior of a process, endogenously-generated stable states which allow certain structures to emerge spontaneously from relatively formless dynamics.

These endogenously-generated stable states may be static (yet multiple and hence local, since a system can switch between alternative destinies) but also dynamic, allowing for simple forms of stable cycles or for complex forms of quasi-periodic behavior, as in deterministic chaos. 7


7. Ilya Prigogine and Isabelle Stengers, "Order out of Chaos. Man's New Dialogue with Nature," Bantam Books, New York 1984. The mathematics of attractors and bifurcations are best explained in: Ian Stewart, "Does God Play Dice: The Mathematics of Chaos," Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1989, chapter 6.


Moreover, one and the same attractor may be instantiated in several different physical systems: by wind flowing in a convection cell, by the spontaneous rhythmical behavior of components of radio transmitters or radar machines, by the periodic behavior in electronic circuits or chemical reactions and even the behavior of an economic system during a business cycle. In the terms with which I began this essay, attractors are the virtual forms defining a problem (in this case, finding the energetically most-favorable rhythm), and the solutions of this problem in natural, technological or economical systems, actualizations of this virtual cycle along divergent lines. If it turns out that the insights from non-linear dynamics are correct, and this periodic behavior is indeed universal in this sense, then attractors could serve as a good basis to define a "universal phylum," a single set of machinic resources common to all forms, natural and artificial.

The concept of the "machinic phylum" was created in an effort to conceive the genesis of form (in geological, biological and cultural structures) as related exclusively to immanent capabilities of the flows of matter-energy-information and not to any transcendent factor, whether platonic or divine (e.g. the hylomorphic schema). Endogenously-generated stable states, capable of many different physical instantiations, furnish at least some the immanent resources needed for such a theory. Moreover, because attractors are typically not unique (that is, several stable states may be available to a system at once) they form one context in which chance can play a "creative" role, by switching a system in a more or less random way from one deterministic state to another. And at certain critical points of intensity (called "bifurcations"), in which a set of attractors changes into another set, random fluctuations may also play a role, pushing the system from one path to another, giving indeterminism yet another role to play.

Deleuze and Guattari, who call attractors and bifurcations "singularities" (and the emergent, holistic properties these stable states give rise to, "traits of expression") have suggested that the history of technology may one day be rewritten as the history of artisans and metallurgists following the singularities in the machinic phylum, selecting a few of these "virtual machines" to actualize, creating new phyla, new lineages of technological objects:

"Let us return to the example of the saber, or rather of crucible steel. It implies the actualization of a first singularity, namely the melting of the iron at high temperature; then a second singularity, the successive decarbonations; corresponding to these singularities are traits of expression ? not only the hardness, sharpness and finish, but also the undulations or designs traced by the crystallization and resulting from the internal structure of the cast of steel. The iron sword is associated with entirely different singularities because it is forged and not cast or molded, quenched and not air cooled, produced by the piece and not in number; its traits of expression are necessarily different because it pierces rather than hews, attacks from the front rather than from the side ... We may speak of a machinic phylum, or technological lineage, wherever we find a constellation of singularities, prolongable by certain operations, which converge, and make the operations converge, upon one or several assignable traits of expression. If the singularities or operations diverge, we must distinguish two different phyla: that is precisely the case for the iron sword, descended from the dagger, and the steel saber, descended from the knife ... But it is always possible to situate the analysis on the level of singularities that are prolongable from one phylum to another, and to tie the two phyla together. At the limit, there is a single phylogenetic lineage, a single machinic phylum, ideally continuous: the flow of matter-movement, the flow of matter in continuous variation, conveying singularities and traits of expression." 8


8. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, "A Thousand Plateaus," p. 406.


Clearly, much work remains to be done extending these ideas into other, more complex realms of technological history. This would involve treating the different "species" of machines (balances and levers, clockwork mechanisms, motors and engines, electrical, telephone and computer networks) as non-linear dynamical systems, some of which rely on the simplest forms of singularities (balances, clockworks) while others involve more complex cycles and bifurcations (steam motors) and yet others exhibit even more complex dynamical behavior (networks). It would also involve going beyond the dynamics of specific technological assemblages into the realm of non-linear combinatorics, to reveal how the components of these assemblages have entered into different combinations, and how certain components (pendula, gears, Carnot cycles, transistors) have a greater combinatorial productivity than others.

But beyond this, to produce a history of technological innovation along the lines suggested by Deleuze and Guattari, will involve some conceptual breakthroughs, in particular, to get rid of the "hylomorphic schema" (form imposed on matter from the outside) and more importantly, to give a historical account of how this schema came to dominate our thought about the genesis of form. I have suggested elsewhere that military institutions, beginning with their eighteenth century contributions to the spread of mass production techniques, are one of the main sources of the current domination of the hylomorphic schema. 9


9. Manuel DeLanda, "War in the Age of Intelligent Machines," Zone Books, New York 1992.


If Deleuze and Guattari are correct in saying that it is precisely this schema which makes the machinic phylum "invisible" or "unrecognizable," we may need much more than theoretical innovations to reconnect technological evolution to its old sources of inspiration and vitality. Reality itself, so homogenized after over two centuries of military uniformization, needs to be reinjected with heterogeneity; and our bodies, so deskilled after two centuries of military routinization, need to relearn the craft and skills needed to "hack" these heterogeneous elements into new combinations.

© 1997 Manuel de Landa / V2_

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