Notes on: DeLanda, M  (1991) War in the Age of Intelligent Machines, New York: Swerve Editions

I really admire Delanda for his excellent commentaries on Deleuze and on the discussions that allegedly animated Deleueze and ther are several summaries of these works. In this one, I think I first got the idea of what an 'abstract machine' was -- it is the name for those general mathematical equations that express the nature of singularities in a number of different areas like the ones specified below. These help make the case for deleuzian ontology as a conception of matter itself being able to generate new forms, against the old ideas of fixed essences and forms. For example: 

There are, then, two different meanings of the term “machinic phylum” [in Anti Oedipus] – in its more general sense, it refers to any process in which order emerges out of chaos as a result of its nonlinear dynamics: rivers and tsunamis in the hydrosphere, wind patterns and storm systems in the atmosphere and so on. All these processes depend on critical points in the rates of flow of matter and energy so the machinic phylum may be defined more generally as “ the flow of matter-movement, the flow of matter in continuous variation, conveying singularities”[Thousand Plateaus]. I will use the term machinic phylum to refer both to the processes of self-organization in general and to the particular assemblages in which the power of these processes may be integrated. In one sense the term refers to any population ( of atoms, molecules, cells, insects) whose global dynamics are governed by singularities ( bifurcations and attractors): in another sense it refers to the integration of a collection of elements into an assemblage that is more than the sum of its parts, that is, one that displays global properties not possessed by its individual components.

The application of these concepts to human history is controversial. (80)

The classic problem surely is the role of human consciousness again, a version of the blockage identified by Zizek. Is the second sense of integration dependent on humans? Do humans take over at some point and deliberately construct assemblages – DeL seems to imply so when he cites great individuals like Napoleon or Von Moltke in building new kinds of armies, or refers to the skill of earlier artisans who cobbled together machines like steam engines or artillery pieces before the maths was available, or the clever mathematicians who first developed the formulae in abstract terms to make an ‘abstract machine’ (are these found in nature?). Here, the machinic phylum also has a role in the development of armies – is the book just polemically stressing that role? Or are the two senses actually combined in some way – consciousness is itself a singularity and nothing else? Or is it an unusual transforming singularity once humans discover the laws ? Or something entirely different not subject to the laws?


If history confirms the success of the approach based on a dispersal of uncertainty throughout a command system, why is it that contemporary armies are still engaged in the impossible search for certainty at the top through centralisation?  One reason is precisely that, despite its successes on the battlefield, decentralised tactical scheme stretch the chain of command by allowing more local initiative.  This increases the reliance of the war machine on the morale and skill of its human element.  Trust must flow in the circuits of the machine, for both top–down and bottom–up and trust (and morale in general) is expensive for State war machines.  (79)


I can see that trust and morale is particularly crucial in military enterprises.  However, I think that in commercial enterprises centralization and mechanisation also brings about deskilling. As Bravermann noted, some while ago, skill in commercial enterprises is a crucial aspect of the bargaining over wages.  Presumably, wage bargaining is not so important in the military, but skill differentials might also be important in local struggles over control, between, say, officers and senior NCOs.  It also strikes me that these mechanisms might be at work in the struggles over educational technology, as many technophobe colleagues fear.  Trust and morale in teaching is also expensive, and requires more than technical training. 

My notes tell me that at the end of the very long chapter 1, actual references to Deleuze’s terms are almost absent.  By now, we are almost always talking about the powers of computerised technology to develop ever more powerful abstract and digitalised machines.  These are still seen as part of the machinic phylum, but is some sort of evolutionary force responsible for the move towards abstraction, or is it the intervention of human beings with definite purposes, such as the minimisation of cost?  I think it would be absurd to hold to some underlying ontological process, when perfectly normal and understandable processes of extending capitalist logic, partly as an ideology, and partly as a rational calculation, are quite capable of explaining what is gone on.  I can think only that a philosopher and Great Man would want to do this, to preserve continuity and find evidence for their general concepts. Certainly, the transformation actually seems pretty linear, with no sign of any rhizomes—desire seems to have been heavily disciplined here. Does this follow from the state’s monopoly of military technology specifically (through the market if not through command)? If so, don’t we need to explain how this monopoly arose?

Concrete physical assemblages may, then, be “made abstract” in two different ways, corresponding to two levels of the machinic phylum: they may be seen as dynamical systems whose behaviour is governed by singularities, or as abstract descriptions comprising the essential elements of a mechanism.  [The latter requires human intervention?].  What is the relationship between these two levels of the machinic phylum?…  Organic life depends on a coupling of processes of self organisation and the information stored in the genetic code.  The latter act as syntactical constraints on the former, tapping their morphogenetic powers and binding them to the forms characteristic of a particular species (139).

 So are human beings simply the same as other kinds of organic life?  Are we to see human consciousness as some direct reflection of a genetic code characteristic of our species?  We know Deleuze wants to leave out the Subject altogether to avoid confusion and so on – but this just seems perverse -- why adopt a biological explanation and metaphor when a perfectly goods social and political one exists? Just to make a pedagogical point that it can be done like that?

 Just below, DeLanda notes there are occasions where information about the singularity can be shared (via a culture? Publications? Meetings? Learned correspondence?), so that it explains other processes of self organisation.  In this case, ‘an artisan’ can extend the machinic phylum by adding other cases ‘to make them converge in a concrete physical assemblage’ (140).  Then we get on to the role played by great military thinkers like Napoleon. Then back to this.

Concrete physical assemblages may belong to different branches of technology, if their component parts evolved separately.  A case in point is the steam motor.  One of its lineages may be traced back to the series of “prime movers”: man–working–a–pump, man–turning–a–crank…  Steam engines belong to this lineage by their function, which is to produce energy, but because of their internal mechanisms they belonged to a different lineage—one that takes us all the way to the jungles of Malaya and the invention of the blow gun and then, through the studies of air pressure in the 17th century, to the invention of the first atmospheric engine.  The machinic phylum had to be tracked by ear and made to cross through these different components…  How did this concrete assemblage become abstract? I have suggested that mechanical contraptions reach the level of abstract machines when they become mechanism independent, that is, as soon as they can be thought of independently of their specific physical embodiments (142)


This seems like a pretty fanciful form of evolution to me, no doubt grounded in philosophical speculation rather than any actual historical examples.  Did the artisans who cobbled together ‘by ear’ the first steam engine think of blow guns in Malaya?  No doubt it is a playful form of speech and not a serious historical commentary (if so, what else is?) -- but DeLanda’s book can come to resemble one of those fatuous documentaries about the connections between things, that involve a celeb jetting round the world  to tell us about Archimedes in Greece, then the water screws in Egypt, then the double helix of DNA in Cambridge. Or compare the opening sequence in 2001 A Space Odyssey – early human throws bone into the air, cut to space station orbiting the earth: see, there’s a connection! Here, it seems as if human consciousness and practical activity (not philosophy or the mere release of desire) is essential to make the physical assemblages using different elements from machinic phylums, then do the thinking that permits abstraction from specific physical embodiments – and then construct the evolutionary path that explains them in Deleuzian(?) terms. Is DeLanda a subject or just a singularity -- what is referenced by the ‘I’ in the quote?

Then there is quite an interesting discussion about the development of computerised war games to take humans out of the equation (apparently, in war games, none of them could be persuaded that it was ever worth pushing the button), and the possibility of fully autonomous war machines like intelligent Predators. These developments arise especially wiht the growth of decentralised programs, delegating problems to subprograms and eventually to 'demons'  DeLanda argues that the best most efficient synthesis is to retain humans in cooperation with machines -- humans are very good ‘expert systems’. [I have my doubts here. I remember Gordon Pask of Brunel developing an expert system based on the knowledge and skills of at least 4 US fighter aces that ended up better than any of them – at least in the laboratory -- and that was in the 1970s]. The book ends with specualtion as to whether the future might best be pr3ediucted as a kind of machinic 'pandemonium'.

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