Mind and Philosophy

De Landa Destratified

This interview first appeared in Mondo 2000 on December 1, 1992

The Liquefaction of Manuel De Landa

In War in the Age of Intelligent Machines, Manuel De Landa cuts through humanism and adopts the position of “robot historian.” Like a techno-Foucault, he traces the evolution of self-organizing machine consciousness under the selective pressures of human warfare.

Even more interesting is that he combines three theoretical influences: non-linear dynamics, the “nomad thought” of French post-structuralists Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, and the psychedelic experience (DeLanda returns yearly to ritually trip with a shaman in Oaxaca). Crosslinking these already mutant forces, DeLanda has created an analytic machine that stops at nothing. Besides War in the Age of Intelligent Machines, he has an article on “Nonorganic Life” in the latest Zone, and he’s engaged in a new book that will trace capitalism as a self-organizing system, involving geology, hydraulics and linguistics.

Mexico City-born De Landa is a scholar neither by trade nor temperament. He’s a misplaced polymath in the Age of Microspecialization. After moving to New York City seventeen years ago he studied art, made celebrated underground films, and wrote advanced 3D software. Abandoning art and film, he currently writes and makes a living by modeling on high-end 3D graphics programs. What follows is less an interview than snapshots of the very strange loops spinning in his mind.


MANUEL DE LANDA: If you read the essays by the first guy who saw spontaneously oscillating chemical reactions, you find out he was unable to publish his essays. This was in the 50’s, not long ago. The idea that orderly behavior could arise spontaneously from matter was so counter-intuitive.. At that time, the only two ways they could see stable things arising in nature was through rational perfection – the best possible outcome – or heat-death. What nonlinear science brings about is a complete new range of structurally stable forms of behavior, which has absolutely nothing to do with rationality or the heat-death of entropy. Now attractors are appearing all over the place. We’ve discovered a whole new reservoir of forms of stabilization. It’s a paradigm warp.


I call for the design of what I call “stratometers.” A stratometer could be a computer program that creates phase portraits of complex dynamical systems and shows you what is conservative at equilibrium, what is dissipative near equilibrium, and what is dissipative far from equilibrium. Only systems in nature that are dissipative and far from equilibrium have access to the full range of attractors and non-linear stabilizations.

If you go to music, certain tonal systems go for simple attractors, whereas Deleuze and Guattari call for “generalized chromatism,” a way of liberating sounds from the resonances that tonal systems form and forming free sonic matter. A stratometer could show how works of art, like a novel by Kafka, are not only able to capture the stratified parts of the society around them, but also those parts that were completely destratified and were the actual creative forces pushing society toward a new bifurcation.


The mouth as an organ is completely stratified in nature, in the sense that it is connected to food chains, which are the most stratified form of life – we eat and avoid being eaten. Then the mouth goes through a bifurcation point, and, for instance, birds begin to sing to mark their territory. A mouth that had been completely stratified into taking in stuff that gets shat out becomes capable of making expressive noises.

After the destratification of the mouth from eating to singing, it becomes restratified again in territorial demarcation. A bird sings mostly to attract females and to signal to other males that this portion of the resources is his. And yet, students of bird song notice that certain species at certain moments just go out on a jazz musician’s jam session, taking notes from other bird songs and incorporating them into their own, singing much more beautifully than when merely demarcating a territory. Obviously most of the matter and energy of the planet is stratified. You have to look for those magical moments when matter and energy show you what they can actually do if you let them.


I don’t believe there is such a thing as postmodernism. It’s exhausted. We truly need a complete new thing, and [Deleuze and Guattari’s] A Thousand Plateaus is the direction. Those guys are fifty or sixty years ahead of everyone else. You read it at first and you think you’re reading poetry: “Metals are the consciousness of the planet.” Get out of here, what the fuck is that? Then you read about metallic catalysts, how in a way they are like probing heads that unconsciously accelerate certain reactions and decelerate certain others. They allow the exploration of an abstract chemical space by probing and groping in the dark. And you realize those two are right.

They’re already going into future technology: how would you put together a bird song with a wind with an Indian chant and make a machine out of those three? I don’t bother with their disciplines, who think that all you have to do is repeat words like   “deterritorialization” and “binary machines” like little mantras, without really understanding that those guys are engineers. Not philosophers – engineers of the year 2035. I have no heroes and no one mystifies me except for those guys. I don’t know how they derive their knowledge. They must trip.


Mexico is an amazing country. I read somewhere that it has by far the largest number of naturally occurring psychedelics. Everything gets you high. All the pre-Columbian cultures were very psychedelic-influenced. I have very close ties to a family of peasants that live in the original mountains where mushrooms grow in Oaxaca.

I don’t believe in this sun/moon division of male/female, but that’s the way it’s divided in Mexico. In the northwest desert region, where the drug of choice is peyote, most of the shamans are males. In the sun-dominated desert, everything tastes like shit. When you trip on peyote you have to puke. On the southeast side, all the shamans are females, the drug of choice is mushrooms, which taste wonderful and come out with the full moon. It’s luscious and moon-lit, and the landscape is full of tropical plants. I have my shaman there, since I was like 19, this woman called Julietta. She is a direct heir of a long, long line of Mazatec knowledge.


I hate mysticism. I’ve always hated the whole idea of taking psychedelics and then going, “Western science is bullshit, let’s turn to Eastern philosophy.” I always strive to have a materialist explanation for what’s going on. I always thought that matter had much more to it than just this inert stuff that sits here. And now I’m being proved right.

Think about the Game of Life [computer-based cellular automata developed by mathematician John Conway]. At first the rules of interaction of the little cells in an abstract space were so simple that everybody thought it was a game. Then they found ladders and glider-generating guns spontaneously forming. So this tiny, abstract, stupid space all of a sudden began exploding with possibilities.


Chris Langton at Los Alamos later set out to classify all possibly cellular automata – which basically means abstract spaces with many dimensions – depending on how many rules they have. He discovered that there’s a range, a magic region if you will, where your cellular automata game will develop all the unpredictable patterns that the Game of Life developed. If your rules are too rigid, nothing interesting will happen. If they are too loose, nothing interesting will happen. But if they are in the middle region – what they call the edge of chaos – all kinds of organizing processes will happen.

The metaphor they use is solid, liquid, gas. If the system is solid, too crystallized, its dynamics are completely uninteresting. If it’s gaseous, it’s also uninteresting – all you have to do is take averages of behavior and you know what’s going on. Liquids have a lot more potential, with all kinds of attractors and bifurcations. Now what they’re coming to believe is that the liquid state in nature – not just actual liquids, but liquidity in the abstract sense of being not too rigid or too loose – these liquid systems “poised on the edge of chaos” are natural computers.


We are beginning to think that every liquid in nature can compute, and perhaps consciousness can be an emergent property that can skip the organic and go into silicon – perhaps via us. We might just be insects pollinating machines that do not happen to have their own reproductive organs right now.


When you trip, you liquefy structures in your brain, linguistic structures, intentional structures. They acquire a less viscous consistency, and your brain becomes a super-computer. You are able to think concepts you were not able to think before. Information rushes in your brain, which makes you feel like you’re having a revelation. But of course no one is revealing anything to you. It’s just self-organizing. It’s happening by itself.

If you do too much, though – if you overdose on acid or smoke too much pot while you’re tripping, which has happened to me a number of times – you undergo a second bifurcation. You go gaseous. Suddenly you’re having a really bad trip, because all the self-organization you saw diffuses into nothing, and you start feeling that you are really nothing. You get scared to death until you acquire that consistency again. In my experience the two bifurcations appear at very, very precise points. Once I was having an incredibly good trip, Central Park was full of Fall colors, and then I smoked that last, fateful joint. It was like a phase transition in my brain, and all of a sudden every jelly part of my body melted away. All that I was was stony. I become a bones-and-nerves automaton, and I was scared to death.


The two options are this: in one, there is in nature a ladder of progress, so that we start with geologic strata, and then we go into organic life, which is “better” – more perfect. And then organic behavior gives rise to consciousness and then super-consciousness. Is there a ladder of perfection there? Or in fact is there no ladder at all, and all you have is statistical accumulations? First pebbles and stones into geological strata, which forms the substrate for the organization of life – life being a set of layers. Of plants, herbivores and carnivores that are manipulated by gene-pools that probe the environment. Language then is simply one more stratum that takes as its substratum one particular part of the organic strata, which is the brain, and then organizes the emergent properties of neurons and neural nets.

The difference between the two pictures is this: on the one hand you have a ladder of progress; on the other you have a dichotomy between matter and energy that have become sedimentary and hardened – rocks, organisms, languages, whatever – and free-flowing matter and energy that are capable of self-organization. I don’t believe in the progressive logic of human history. Going from nomad hunter-gatherers to agricultural societies to civilizations should be seen as phase transitions, from a gas state to a more liquid coagulation to a more crystallized, stratifying type of society when humans begin surrounding themselves with stone monuments.


One of the things that amazes me is that the Himalayas – which people think of as the paradigm of the stable – are still moving up one millimeter a year because India is still clashing with Central Asia. They’re a ripple in the surface of the Earth. We cannot conceive of a clash that would last millions of years – our time frame is too limited. Imagine an observer with a time-scale so large that he could see this clash. He wouldn’t even see us. Species to him would seem like vast amounts of bio-mass in constant change. He would see evolution. Everything that matters to evolution happens across millennia. That observer would see species mutating and flowing. He would probably worship flows – unlike us, who, because of our very, very tiny time-scale of observation, tend to worship rocks.

We are completely seduced by what is stratified. We surround ourselves with permanent buildings, we speak about a rock-solid relationship, we strive for the solid. But it’s becoming clear that everything that’s structured is just historically produced constructions that became hardened and sedimented. All the action is in stuff that flows. I think we’re gonna find out that at a certain limit point of destratification, destratified geological stuff, destratified organic stuff, and destratified mental stuff seem to coexist together. It’s another world. It’s a limit point that you perceive when you’re tripping. It’s happening all the time and we’re not aware of it.


I don’t think there are higher states of consciousness. You liquefy yourself, and you go through phase transitions, and then it seems to you that you are in a higher state of consciousness. When I’m tripping, I’m thinking concepts I’m sure no one’s ever thought before, and in a way it’s like a higher state of consciousness, but it’s not a plane that was waiting there for me to access it. It’s something I’m building that moment by destratifying my brain. If you’re destratifying thinking there’s some benevolent god out there, or a world of harmony with nature right through the door, you’re fucked. ‘Cause you’re not gonna find the world of eternal harmony. Everything there is something we will build.


There might be an ethics here: how to live your life poised at the edge of chaos, how to allow self-organizing processes to take place in all the strata that bind you. In your life, you could create maps of attractors that bind your local destiny – those behaviors that are habitual and so on. And try to find those bifurcations that would allow you to jump, if not to complete freedom – that doesn’t exist – but to another set of attractors less confining, less binding, less stratifying. Or learn to lead your life near a bifurcation without ever crossing it – the lesson of being poised on the edge of chaos.


Deleuze and Guattari emphasize over and over that once you take the route of destratification, there’s an inherent danger that it will turn fantastic, that it will turn against itself. For them, certain aspects of Nazism were very destratified – for instance, Nazi tactics. That’s why they beat the shit out of everyone. And yet there was this smell of death there – the holocaust. They were destratifying themselves, but they bounced off the wall and restratifed themselves in a much more gross, evil, and resentful way, lacking joy in the worst way.

I just saw the Doors movie. Jim Morrison just tried to break on through to the other side too fast, thinking that all you had to do was take more and more acid. When you can’t break through anymore, when you bounce off it, you become resentful and turn to death. You won’t find that world of purity that you were expecting, and now you become resentful and turn against yourself, turn suicidal. Deleuze and Guattari call it a black hole. You enter the wrong attractor. The 60’s were extremely destratifying, and yet, because they thought they were going to achieve everything within the 60’s – and what they wanted was not achievable, period – fringes of this motion went into the wrong track. Then you have the Weathermen, completely pathetic terrorists blowing themselves up. That’s that impatience and resentment that Deleuze and Guattari warn about.


As they say, they key word here is not wisdom, but caution. You don’t know what happens at bifurcations. You have absolutely no control. The smallest fluctuation can make things go wrong. The predictive power of humans and technology is nil near bifurcations. All you can do is approach carefully, because the last thing you want to do is get swallowed up by a chaotic attractor that’s too huge in phase space. As Deleuze says, “Always keep a piece of fresh land with you at all times.” Always keep a little spot where you can go back to sleep after a day of destratification. Always keep a small piece of territory, otherwise you’ll go nuts.

See also: my Voice Literary Supplement article on De Landa’s War