Deleuze's ontology—a homely analogy #1

The family tree

As retired people do, I have been researching my ancestry, using a proprietary piece of software and a major website.  If you are lucky, you can go back over a number of generations, although records are usually pretty incomplete, certainly by five generations back, where you are bumping into an era where the government did not take full censuses, and there were no national records of births marriages and deaths.  Our ancestors five generations back were not always literate, so spellings of names are often quite variable, making everything uncertain.  However, ancestry research is popular these days, and a lot of people have researched the same ancestors that you have, and they share that information, so you can go a long way back in some cases.  My wife's ancestry eventually bumped into some English nobility, and happen to keep particularly good records of births deaths and marriages, so you can progress even further.  In her case, we got back to Norman Knights, and then their Viking forebears, ending in a Danish King born in 833, her 33rd great grandfather.

We have teased each other over this, as you can imagine.  She insists that I should make the tea in the evening because she is of noble blood.  I insist that one of her ancestors'character is clearly detectable in her behaviour—he was transported to van Dieman's Land in 1836 and appears to have been pretty well unmanageable during his time there, incurring a number of exotic punishments including 25 lashes, 30 days on bread and water, and three weeks on the treadmill.  In fact, though, we both know that we have actually had an enormous number of ancestors, so that any influence from one, through whatever dubious mechanism we are playing with, is likely to be highly diluted.  You multiply the number of your ancestors by two each time you go back a generation.  We have two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents and so on.  By the time you go back 33 generations, you are talking about 2 to the power of 33 possible people -- 8, 589, 934, 592 says Google. Our efforts have tracked one of them.  Of course, this is only a statistical exercise, and in practice, our ancestors themselves converge on common ancestors: my great grandmother, for example, originally married a man called George Bundy, and both she and George had a common great grandmother. In the particular villages in which my ancestors lived, such cousin marriage was pretty common.  Nevertheless, there is a large number of people in our family trees, and we have only really tracked one path along single branches of the trees.

You also soon realize the enormous complexity of the family tree, since your ancestors also had brothers and sisters, and so did their marital partners.
It was not uncommon to have large families by several marital partners. The links extend sideways alarmingly, and the software soon comes to a point where it cannot display all the possibilities at the same time.  Branches shrink to little ('black') boxes waiting to be opened.  Sometimes you get a glimpse of a huge number of potential links, and can get a sense of relief that some of them have dead ends.

You begin to realise that there are a number of external factors governing who survived and who didn't, ranging from outbreaks of cholera in 1832, agricultural depression, and war—two cousins of mine, and one cousin and one great uncle of my wife's died in World War I.  My dad was in the navy all through World War II, and was luckily able to survive and produce me in 1947.  The women were heroes too, and my grandmother, for example, seems to have set out from Portsmouth at an early age to seek her fortune in domestic service, met and possibly married a Swiss kitchen porter, possibly in a hotel in Clacton, and had two kids. Had she stayed in her home town, as most girls like her did, they would never have met.  All this makes you think that there is a great deal of chance or contingency involved in your being born in the first place.

Family trees represent only the most basic of data.  We know little or nothing about the social and political lives of those individuals, and the circumstances, call them social forces if you like, that brought them together.  It is combination of contingency and accident, as I have suggested, and often geographical isolation, eventually broken down by the development of transport systems like bicycles and railways.  There were also social forces, including the familiar ones of social class and gender.  In the early days of our family trees, nobility had married nobility, but there were some forces already at work that reduced those possibilities.  Eldest sons inherited estates, sometimes with other members of the family being given portions.  If you were not an eldest son, you had to go off and seek your fortune and family somewhere else.  As we know, noble women were a particular problem and sometimes had to seek marriage partners from non-noble classes.  There is therefore a tendency for a decline in social class membership for most of the members of noble families, and we can see this in the passage in my own case from wealthy landowners to yeomen to agricultural laborers in the space of 10 or so generations.  Sometimes there was upward social mobility too, as when some of those agricultural laborers moved from their villages to the growing cities of Portsmouth or Plymouth, and were able to set up their own businesses as publicans or butchers, join the Navy and work their way up to commissioned rank, or acquire a skill through an apprenticeship.  Some emigrated. For later generations, there was the chance to go to university too, of course.

There were social conventions to bear in mind as well.  Women had very large families during most of our family histories, and as one partner wore out, another was acquired.  I have already suggested that many marriages were probably tactical, or arose from a limited choice of partners in a locality.  More generally, childbirth depended on conventions of sexuality and sexual activity, representations of gender, and the pressures of community norms. It is only fairly recently that we have been able to have any effective personal choice over the matter of having kids.

These forces are not detectable very often, but you can see them as introducing additional complexities or dimensions into the ones we've already mentioned.  After all, to be our ancestors, men and women had to be brought together to produce a family, at least once, and in circumstances that permit the male to inseminate the female.  Embryos had to develop in such a way is to become viable: many were not, of course, so my own grandmother had two stillborn children as well as four viable ones.  When children are born they have to be brought up in particular ways and preserved until they can have kids of their own.  Despite being abandoned by her Swiss partner, my grandmother decided to give birth to my mother, in a workhouse, and keep the child and raise it, resisting considerable pressures to have her daughter adopted.  No doubt other children have been adopted and produced a substantial sideways biological and political leap between branches in the tree.

Multiplicities, singularities and rhizomes

What name shall we give this complex structure?  The software simplifies it a great deal into a series of paths all branches expanding some paths when you requested to do so, and shrinking down other paths in order to keep the diagram manageable.  You get a clear impression, however that there is a much bigger structure behind those paths.  It is possible to conceive of it as a three dimensional structure, maybe with your pedigree at the surface, and all your brother's and partners relatives lying underneath.  It's obvious that with ancestry research you are also talking about a time dimension, as families grow, shrink, divide and join up again over time.  If you're interested in social forces of the kind I've mentioned above, we might wish to add additional dimensions at work producing those connections between individuals that produce families.  We are well past conventional depictions by this time.  We have a multi dimensional structure.  Let's call it a multiplicity. At work is  a series of biological, social, political and economic forces that produce particular little points on the surface.  The family tree is a very poor representation of the multi dimensional structure.  On the computer screen it looks like two dimensions, but in reality it is diving beneath the surface to find other points, following family trees until it gets to those minor siblings that are your ancestors, following first the male line then the female, splitting and diverting into other areas, including geographical locations, leaving behind some possibilities and developing others and so on.  Any gardeners among you might be reminded not of a tree but of some underground root structure—a rhizome, say of couch grass that goes straight for a bit, then bends round obstacles, and dives deeper, resurfaces, then sets off again in a completely different direction. Imagine those roots operating in n dimensions, and converging sometimes, close enough to affect each other.

Those little points on the surface can be considered to be individuals.  For Deleuze, they really are extremely individual, unique in fact.  No one else has my pedigree.  No one else has that combination of social economic and political forces that produced it, and which continue to produce me.  I am what Deleuze would call a singularity.  I'm not claiming to be particularly wonderful here, of course, you are a singularity too.  Deleuze prefers this term to others such as individuals and persons, because he wants to make a general case that anything that appears on the surface of a multiplicity, is a singularity, and he applies this to the non-human as well as the human.  If you study a singularity, you can trace back those links and connections to the forces in the multiplicity that produced it.  It will be complex, but you can do it in principle.  As you do so, you will find that those links and connections can produce other singularities in other parts of the multiplicity.  You will also find series of links that connect with other series, on occasion, so that, say the political intersects with the economic.

Into the Deleuzian deep end

Here is where the homely analogy ends.  I have already hinted at some issues that Deleuze goes on to develop a considerable length, such as the link between the human and the non-human, the way in which singularities arise in series and how those series interconnect.  I have already said that he doesn't like the terms 'individual' or 'person', because these arise from different philosophical traditions that he wants to criticize, and he does this at some length as well.

He spends a lot of time another philosophical issues too, like the matter of possibilities that I just lightly glossed over.  Few of us worry about this concept, but of course philosophers have to explore it, and it is a rather strange idea once you think about it.  Looking back on my own family tree it is clearly possible that very different things would have happened.  My father might not have met my mother had my mother's family not moved to the same street in Portsmouth back in the 1920s.  The Royal Navy might not have taken him, and he could have ended up running the family butcher business.  Mother could have been given up for adoption, as we saw.  Further back, some of my ancestors died young, and so did those of my wife, one of whom died on a crusade at the Siege of Acre—if they had lived they might have spawned further kids, with all sorts of unknown consequences for those of the existing children who eventually produced us.  So what is the status of these possibilities?  Are they just speculative options compared to the real events that actually happened, and if so, how do possibilities turn into real events? Is there some force, spirit,  god or some other hidden hand that guides these possibilities so as to produce the best results?  There is even a logical problem, which probably only philosophers would have noticed—if something is possible today, but does not actually happen tomorrow, has the future in some way falsified the past?  Deleuze spends a lot of time discussing these issues and concludes, to cut a very long story short, that all of the possibilities are equally real, they're all paths in a real multiplicity, so to speak, and there is a basic rule of consistency or compossibility that affects which ones get connected together in concrete, actual  paths or rhizomes.

What is the mechanism that connects multitplicites and singularities? Should we see singularities as cases of some deeper structures? Deleuze prefers the notion of expression or immanence to any motion of transcendental realizations: neither God nor some overall human consciousness focuses the energies in the multiplicity. He discusses both differenciation and differentiation as dynamic forces, referring to the structuring of differnet concrete or actual and then virtual phenomena respectively. In the process, he critically reads and writes major pieces on Kant, Spinoza, Bergson, Nietszche, Hume and Leibniz, and discusses painting, poetry, theatre and the cinema. The philosophical knots he identifies and then unravels are way beyond the experiences gained from the nice simple problems of family ancestry research! You would be making a bad mistake to read Deleuze to hope it informed you about family research (or teaching, or social work, or practical politics) -- it is FAR, FAR bigger than that, and you have to get through a lot of philosophy to find a little section that comes off the terrain of philosophical problems and relates directly.

Deleuze is not particularly interested in those social political and economic relations that I mentioned.  Philosophers are not sociologists, and Deleuze is addressing philosophical problems posed by earlier philosophers, and with implications that he wants to develop.  For him the issue is how singularities arise from multiplicities.  I suppose that the difference would be that for sociologists, the issue is more about how those singularities interact with each other in a social context.  Deleuze is quite right to say that this misses important philosophical issues about how singularities emerge in the first place, and all the time sociology does this, it can not consider itself to be grounded in inadequate philosophy.  In fact, sociology works with a number of assumptions that are widely found in common sense not philosophy, and these are enough to raise serious doubts about its occasional claim to be a science.  Deleuze's philosophy is so general that he would make the same claims about natural sciences as they are usually developed as well—they too have pretty simple ideas about what objects are (they are really singularities), and they work with regularities, sometimes even laws that appear to connect these objects together. Actual practice, in social life, is even more dominated by assumptions.

OK these disciplines and practices are not good philosophy --so farkin what? I used to feel guilty about that and listen carefully to philosophers hoping for enlightenment. Some poor devils have to read philosophy in order to become teachers. All I got was philosophical answers to philosophical questions and then more philosophical questions. I never got to any solid ground on which to revert to my own interests and do some sociology.  Should we junk disciplines like sociology because they are not philosophy? Do you have to be able to discuss the Greek concept of time in order to teach in a primary school? I am inclined these days to reverse the question and ask why Deleuzian philosophy is such poor sociology. You can also ask why Deleuze's writing is so awful, judged against good notions of teaching. The justification for doing sociology lies not in its philosophical perfection but in its relative emancipatory potential compared to widespread ideologies. Good practice does not need to head towards philosophical soundness but rather to do no harm and do good whenever possible ...but that is another argument.