What DOMA says about Deleuze

03/04/2013 § 1 Comment

I haven’t been paying much attention to the DOMA cases that are now before the US Supreme Court (or SCOTUS, if you must). Judging from social media, all kinds of surprising people have now gotten behind marriage equality as a cause du jour. Gandhi’s quote about ‘first they ignore you’ is all too fitting.

And then I read Ted Rall’s post on the subject:

Gays and lesbians may not all realize it yet, but adopting the cultural trappings of America’s hegemonic majority culture is a tragic, disastrous, suicidal move. This is why those fighting for the right to enter into state-sanctioned monogamous marital pacts are finding that they’re pushing against an open door.

That was quite a different take than anything else I’ve heard. And you know what? He’s got a point:

Back in the 1970s, Michael Warner reminds us in his 1999 book “The Trouble with Normal,” gays weren’t trying to assimilate into the toxic “mainstream” cultures of monogamism and empire. Instead, they were pointing the way toward other ways of life.

‘Pointing the way toward other ways of life.’ Wow. That’s what all the freaks and bohemians and hippies and punks and arty types have been trying to do. For decades, centuries, even.

We visited the Katherine Mansfield house in Thorndon, Wellington, recently. She was trying to do the same thing:

Risk! Risk anything! Care no more for the opinions of others, for those voices. Do the hardest thing on earth for you. Act for yourself. Face the truth.

But it hasn’t happened. We have been fairly poor at creating ‘other ways of life’. Each successive marginal group has instead focused on acceptance, which then triggers the search for the next marginal group to emulate and absorb. Lady Gaga uses New York subcultures the same way Madonna did. New York obligingly keeps producing more of them.

And that all takes me to Deleuze. My central problem with Capitalism and Schizophrenia is the illusory promise of liberation embedded in the notion of the rhizome. It sounds wonderful — branching along different paths and pushing through the social substrate to produce new organisms in a non-hierarchical system. But in fact, what we see is a constant return to the one true path, to the tree of life. Each new identity ends up mimicking the old; the rhizome carries some essential DNA to each one. The plant that might spring from a specific node just looks like the last one. And the first one.

I don’t think it is an accident that Deleuze was writing at the same time as the 1970s that Rall celebrates. But things have changed, or rather, things have stayed the same. The fact the DOMA ‘makes sense’ is proof of that.

Happy management thoughts

11/06/2012 § Leave a comment

I was reading an article on management and this sentence made me happy:

The Deleuzian use of desire as an immanent principle of creativity and movement enables for a new view on motivation that does not assume external stimuli but sees motivation as the continuous process of becoming.

It’s from a paper I found on Deleuzian theory and organisation theory (pdf), written by Alexander Styhre, University of Gothenburg, for a conference in Manchester, England, but hosted on the University of Waikato’s website (extra credit for diagramming that sentence).

Why does that sentence make me happy? The restlessness of it is certainly key. It prioritises movement and becoming — motion without specific direction. The statement also suggests that motivation in a management sense can be linked to creativity. This creativity is inherent in the situation — ‘immanent’ in the lingo. It’s a joyful and optimistic view of motivation and therefore the workplace.

This is the reverse of a typical management view, grounded in a sort of physics model, in which management energy is required to organise the potential entropy of the workplace. The workplace cannot be a perpetual motion machine.

I started reading the paper because of its title: ‘We have never been Deleuzians’. I should stress that I am not now (maybe never have been) a Deleuzian. I struggled through both volumes of Capitalism and Schizophrenia, and then read Massumi’s gloss on the second volume (helpfully provided me by an old editor friend), and also read some of A Deleuzian Century? I recount this reading history just to say that I’m not entirely ignorant.

Styhre’s paper makes the point that Deleuze’s thought is not presented as a fully-formed philosophical system, but rather as a toolbox. The philosopher performs a sort of bricollage on the world. I have some sympathy for such an approach, but only to a point. In my economics work, I often look for the tool that fits the question. Do I need a spanner or a hammer, supply and demand curves or a production possibility frontier? But, underpinning the various tools is a more-or-less consistent model of the economy that makes the various tools largely consistent with each other. The danger of philosophical bricollage is that nothing enforces consistency.

I guess the problem — and this comes through in Styhre’s paper — is that Deleuze is utopian. All of this rhizomatic identity and self-directed becoming is utopian. With the right view of motivation and creativity, the workplace can achieve perpetual motion. It’s a pretty pretty view of how the world and its beings could be.

But still, it’s a happy thought.

Emergent illusions

20/04/2012 § Leave a comment

Back on the topic of emergent properties. Deleuze wants us to believe that we have a multiplicity of potentials (or is that a potential of multiplicities?). In a rhizomatic model of becoming, we push our potentials out into new spaces. No potential is necessarily prioritised over another.

This is a corollary of Sartre’s existentialism. In Existentialism is a humanism, Sartre gives the example of a young man who must choose between going to England to fight with the French Resistance or stay home and care for his mother:

Ce jeune homme avait le choix, à ce moment-là, entre partir pour l’Angleterre et s’engager dans les Forces Françaises Libres – c’est-à-dire abandonner sa mère – ou demeurer auprès de sa mère, et l’aider à vivre.

Sartre counsels him and us that he must choose; the choice is his. The criteria for his choice are also his. There is no eternal principal on which he can base his decision, to which in effect he can surrender his decision.

Thus with Deleuze, we have the freedom to choose the path that our rhizomatic becomings take.

But, but…

In First as tragedy, then as farce, Zizek takes on the notion of free choice:

There are multiple ideological investments in the topic of choice today, even though brain scientists point out that freedom of choice is an illusion — we experience ourselves as “free” simply when we are able to act in the way our organism has determined, with no external obstacles to thwart our inner propensities….There is, however, a feature conspicuously missing from this series: namely, the injunction to choose when we lack the basic cognitive coordinates needed to make a rational choice. [pp 62, 63]

This is the terrifying element of microsimulation models as well as some game theoretic experiments. They are closed universes in which agents/subjects are herded down chutes into specific endpoints. They are given illusions of choices along the way, nodes in a decision tree which was developed by the researcher. It is no longer a rhizome, but a collection of tubes and chutes, however Rube-Goldberg the model may be. Too, the agent/subject must choose. Each round of the game, each run of the model, they must register their choice and continue to the next step in the process.

The result is then treated as a true emergence from the multiplicity of potentials — this is the illusion of emergent properties. Instead, we are counting the number of marbles in the hoppers we have already built, and then asking the reader not to pay any attention to the arrangement of tubes and chutes that dropped them there.

Deleuzian simulation models

19/03/2012 § Leave a comment

I picked up a book a while back from a university bookstore solely for its title: A Deleuzian Century? I have started it a few times but not finished it — it’s that sort of book (or I’m that sort of reader). Foucault suggested that this century would be Deleuzian, that Gilles Deleuze, a French philosopher, would be central to thinking in the 21st century.

I made it through both volumes of Deleuze and Guattari’s Capitalism and Schizophrenia and also read Brian Massumi’s excellent A User’s Guide to Capitalism and Schizophrenia. I admit that I don’t ‘get’ Deleuze. I can read the sentences and paragraphs, I can start picking up concepts like bodies-without-organs and rhizomes, but I am always outside the concepts the same way one cooks from an unfamiliar recipe.

Nevertheless, I am beginning to think that Foucault was right.

One Deleuzian concept that I find utopian and naive is the rhizome. A rhizomatic plant sends stems through the ground, putting roots down and leaves up from new nodes. The structure is nonhierarchical. Deleuze contrasts this type of growth with things like trees, which have a center trunk, a hierarchy of limbs and twigs, and an integrated existence (it can be killed as a whole). He uses the rhizome metaphor to describe new ways of becoming that are lateral and invasive, that don’t depend on hierarchy or permission. It is meant as a liberating metaphor.

I have just been looking at cellular automata models, including Schelling’s model, The Game of Life, and Wolfram’s classification of one-dimensional models. They are discussed in a excellent on-line course by Scott Page. It occurred to me that these are mathematical representations of Deleuzian thought. They are presented as flat models, as full depictions of their worlds from which patterns of organization spontaneously emerge.

Key to both the Deleuzian metaphor and cellular automata model is the idea of ‘emergent properties’. Patterns and organisation are thought to occur spontaneously as a result of individual elements just doing what they do. For Deleuze, these are new ways of being — I hesitate to say new ‘identities’, although I think that’s what he’s aiming at. For simulation modellers, it is complex order arising from simplicity, such as Wolfram Rule 110.

Simulation model thinking is rhizomatic thinking. Like John Wheeler’s ‘it from bit’, it considers that the binary on/off can be the basis for all organisation and the rest is just emergent properties. The simple rules of a Wolfram model push themselves through blank grids to establish new patterns, which can repeat themselves with relying on the rest of the pattern.

Simulation models are becoming more important in economic and policy analysis. Stats NZ, for example, recently hosted Martin Spielauer from Statistics Canada to talk about simulation modelling. As these models become more accepted, so will the underlying thinking.

We are becoming Deleuzian without even knowing it.

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