Morphogenesis: Diagrams à la Deleuze and Delanda

READ THIS ESSAY: Manuel DeLanda, “Delanda – Deleuze, Diagrams and the Genesis of Form,” ANY: Architecture New York 23: Diagram Work: Data Mechanics for a Topological Age (June 1998): 30-34.

Here Manuel Delanda rejects the idea of matter as receptacle of form (morphodectic) for that of matter as generator of form (morphogenetic):

Deleuze’s philosophy of matter and form attempts to replace essentialist views of the genesis of form (which imply a conception of matter as an inert receptacle for forms that come from the outside) with one in which matter is already pregnant with morphogenetic capabilities, therefore capable of generating form on its own. (30)

It’s not form as “an ideal geometric form” imposed on matter from the outside, but as “an endogenous topological form,” as in the example of a soap bubble:

[T]here is no question of an essence of “soap-bubbleness” somehow imposing itself from the outside, an ideal geometric form (a sphere) shaping an inert collection of molecules. Rather, an endogenous topological form (a point in the space of energetic possibilities for this molecular assemblage) governs the collective behavior of the individual soap molecules, and results in the emergence of a spherical shape. (ibid.)

Darren Aronofsky, The Fountain (2006)

And “the same topological form . . . can . . . generate many other geometrical forms,” depending on the material (Deleuze calls this “divergent actualization” [Difference and Repetition, 2004, 264]).

A form thus serves as what Deleuze & Guattari call an “abstract machine”:

An abstract machine in itself is not physical or corporeal, any more than it is semiotic; it is diagrammatic (it knows nothing of the distinctions between the artificial and the natural either). It operates by matter, not by substance; by function, not by form. . . . The abstract machine is pure Matter-Function — a diagram independent of the forms and substances, expressions and contents it will distribute. (A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, 2004, 156)

I love this idea of forms as diagrams (diagram = “delineation,” from the Greek diagraphein “mark out, delineate”): diagrams are not “visual representations” after the fact (i.e., maps), but rather, emergent “structures” that shape matter (i.e. autopoetic machines — like nanobots). Structurings. Constructions (see Fichte on [self-]construction, if you’re game).

See Deleuze & Guattari again:

[T]he diagrammatic or abstract machine does not function to represent, even something real, but rather constructs a real that is yet to come, a new type of reality. (A Thousand Plateaus, 157)

(This idea of diagrams first comes up in Deleuze’s Foucault [30ff.] — think the panopticon, which, put very simply, is an architectural design, but also not unlike, writ large, Wallerstein’s core-periphery model or, writ small, a wheel or a parachute seed.)

What’s really interesting is the connection Delanda makes between diagrams and the “problems” they exist to solve (or solve to exist):

[F]or Deleuze the problem-solving activity in which diagrams are involved is . . . instantiated in even simple material and energetic systems. 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 behaviour. 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 collective minimize bonding energy). (ibid.)

The Mitchell-Hedges Crystal Skull

Hence, “the objective existence of problems (and their defining diagrams)”: problems really exist (ibid.).

He concludes:

[T]hinking consists not in problem-solving (as most treatments of diagrams and diagrammatic reasoning suggest) but, on the contrary, that given the real (though virtual) existence of problems in the world itself, true thinking consists in problem-posing, that is, in framing the right problems rather than solving them. It is only through skilful problem-posing that we can begin to think diagrammatically. (34; see Difference and Repetition [76-77] on the heteron, the “being of the problematic”)

Ahhh. “[T]rue thinking consists in problem-posing.” Like.


What’s the Story with Academic Writing? A Narratology of the Academic Essay (Part One)

A summary of my talk at the (Australasian Universities Language and Literature Association [AULLA]) Storytelling in Literature, Language and Culture conference in Auckland (8 Feb 2011) . . .

It has become a commonplace in writing programmes and other scriptophilic zones of the academy that the mainstay of academic writing, the academic essay, as taught, written and read, is formulaic and deforms what can be thought and written in the academosphere — and that story has only a marginal role in the academic essay. The story, we are told, is not good for the academic essay.

By way of a provisional answer to the question posed in the title . . .

1          story: the essay is neither written nor read in the academosphere

The standard answer to the question might be that there is no narrative in the academic essay — except perhaps as a grabber/hook in introductions or to convey or contextualise data that requires it. This might be seen as a bad thing. This might be a reason why academic writing is not usually read for pleasure, is less readable than it need be, and is not read so much as mined or fished.

Two moves recommend themselves: we can [#2] uncover the back story of the academic essay or [#3] include more story in it (to “storify” it or uncover the “big stories” in it). To the first . . .

2          history: the essay as written and read to measure . . .

The “mo” (pre-linguistic turn) answer to the question as a matter of fact might be to historicise academic writing: to ask how it got to be the way it is (i.e., it originates in the disputatio and epigram), to provide a historical back story for academic writing. Narrative was excluded from the essay because of the logical (scholastic) and scientific (Baconian) bias of early academic writers, these biases being exacerbated by humanities scholars trying to scientise their writing, to mobilise the authority effect of science (and science writing), and the increasing scientism of the university as an institution, and by academics using the essay to assess students.

Through these processes, the scientific paper that reports on research, viz. epistemic (expository/epideictic [for display]) rather than heuristic (performative/personal) writing, comes to dominate the academy.

  • epistemic: “relating to knowledge or its verification,” from Gk epistēmē “knowledge.”
  • heuristic: “serving to discover or find out,” from Gk heuriskein “find.”

Joseph Wright, An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump (1768).

What we know as “academic writing” emerged with the research university in von Humboldt and Kant’s reforms of the German university at the end of the eighteenth century, which reforms demanded continuous examination by others and of oneself (accountability) by means of [a.] numerical governance and grading (calculability) and [b.] an insistent process of writing by, about and “around” students (grammatocentrism) (see Keith Hoskin on the genealogy of the knowledge “ecosystem” of the modern university).

Or secondly: we can include some more story in it — to “storify” it or uncover the “big stories” in it . . .

3          story+/Story: the essay is written and read (to a degree) . . .

The “pomo” (post-linguistic turn) answer to the question as a problematic might be to put some narrative in — after the example of New Historicism — somehow to reflect the nature of writing as narrative and/or to acknowledge the metanarratives and justify our appropriation of the metanarratives in which such writing must be embedded (becoming aware of the frame story), thus to uncover the big stories embedded in academic writing — for example, the story that academic writing mimics scientific enquiry.

Arataki Visitor Centre, Waitakere Ranges Regional Park, Auckland.

Or the best: in a twofold move that intersects both options, we can map the forms of story in the academic essay to see why stories have become formulaic and deformative.

4          stories

The non-standard — and most salient — answer to the question is to map the narrative forms, the story arcs, that are implicit in academic writing, in order to disclose its possibilities and the reasons it has been closed down. This requires a mapping (topology/symbolic geography) of the essay as narrative, i.e. imaging (via a visual outline or metaphor) as an alternative to scripting (a verbal outline).

There are two main forms of essay, the point-first or round-trip essay (the epistemic report on research) and the point-last or one-way journey (the heuristic essai).

type point-first (PF) essay point-last (PL) essay
image round-trip one-way
end returns to its starting-point arrives at an end-point
function epistemic heuristic
mode of writing expository, epideictic performative, personal
logic tautological dialogical
mood indicative, thus factual subjunctive, thus fictive
mode of address informative interactive

The first dominates writing in the academosphere, in the form of the thesis and proof essay, a.k.a. the five-paragraph theme, and at the level of the paragraph the Schaffer model. Why?

The PF essay embodies the econometric design-drive of the academosphere, which projects aims (teloi, i.e., ideal ends), objectives (skopoi, i.e. means) and clearly defined outcomes (ekbaseis, i.e. adequate ends), in the service of outputs, or rather, an efficient relationship between inputs and outputs. Everything in this end-stopped world must be seen as if in hindsight, in retrospective anticipation (i.e., from the outcome [o] backwards): they “will [always] have been” necessary. It is a future anterior world, a closed loop the process of which achieves a predetermined outcome (see the top left figure below).

  • The point-first essay embodies this design-drive: it can more readily be templated due to its tautological nature — we know where the story is going because its path is singular and returns to its starting point (see the right top figure below).
  • The point-last essay works against it: it can resist the template due to its dialogical nature — (it seems that) we don’t know where the story is going because its path is multiple and doesn’t return to its starting point, rather, in its most common versions it quests for or circles an endpoint (see right bottom figure below). (I say “seems” because many such essays — Derrida’s or Barthes’, for example — only appear dialogical, as do Plato’s dialogues, where Socrates’ eironeia turns out only to be a simulated ignorance in the end.)

So where to from here? The two point-last figures above give us two versions:

  • the essay that explores various paths until it decides on one (the upper figure), and
  • the essay that explores an issue from various perspectives (the lower figure).

(For more, see part two, which will follow anon . . .)

Noo Politics 2

From Noo Politics . . .

Gilles Deleuze thematises Foucault’s schema of (modern) societies as follows:

  1. societies of sovereignty (command) that use mechanical technologies, e.g., levers/pulleys, apparatuses, and practise the spectacular manipulation of the body (the body politic, peoples, castes; the fief; summary justice);
  2. societies of discipline (punishment) that use thermodynamic technologies, e.g., electrical motors, appliances, and practise the panoptic molding of life (biopolitics, populations, classes; the factory; apparent acquittal); and
  3. societies of control (governmentality) that use telematic technologies, e.g., interfaces/networks, applications, and practise the virtual modulation of memory (nöopolitics, publics, positions; the corporation; limitless postponement).

See “Society of Control,” from L’Autre 1 (May 1990),, a.k.a., “Postscript on the Societies of Control,” trans. M. Joughin, October 59 (1992): 3-7 at or Also publ. Negotiations, 1972-1990 (New York: Columbia UP, 1994) 177-82.

Fractals and Music

Dmitry Kormann, a composer from São Paulo, Brazil, explains how he uses fractal-like patterns to structure his music in “Fractal Music” at + Plus Magazine (12 July 2010):

I found that in order to get that really nice feeling of balance between randomness and predictability that one gets from contemplating fractals on a computer screen — what I like to call the fractal effect — a minimum of three iterations is necessary. Coincidentally, Harlan Brothers also specifies . . . that in order for a structure to earn the title of fractal, a minimum of 3 levels of scalar affinity must be present, as with less than that, mathematical power-law relationships will not exist (meaning we cannot see if the transformation is constant at larger scales).


  1. “3 levels of scalar affinity” = 3 repeats (“iterations”) of the transformation, e.g., the same motif has to be repeated using three different rhythms;
  2. power-law relationships” = scale-invariant transformations (a.k.a. dilatations)—or, strictly speaking, self-similar transformations—i.e., some element of the motif, e.g., the pitch, has to stay the same.

Here’s a visual fractal: the Sierpinski Gasket . . .

The Sierpinski Triangle (or Gasket) is created by creating a smaller triangle in the center of each existing one, and then repeating the process for each new triangle.

Kormann gives the example of how in The Rite of Spring Stravinsky “created forward momentum by making motifs come out from inside one another”:

Stravinsky alternates progressively larger instances of a new motif with progressively smaller instances of an ongoing one.

Stravinsky, "Mystic Circle of the Adolescents," The Rite of Spring

This is a kind of two steps forward, one step back—or telescoping—pattern that allows new motifs to be gradually introduced.


Musical fractal effects aren’t new: what Harlan Brothers calls motivic scaling was present in the Baroque mensuration or prolation canon, characterized by a melody or rhythmic motif that is repeated in different voices simultaneously at different tempos; see the Agnus Dei (midi) of Josquin Desprez’s first Missa l’Homme Armé Super Voces Musicales. (Prolation is Latin for “lengthening.”)

Example of a prolation canon

Here each voice sings the same music, but at different speeds. In the original score only one part is given: a notation over the single line of music indicates the three prolations to be used, and a second notation over the line indicates where each voice should end if sung correctly. A modern example is Arvo Pärt’s Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten:

How We Do “Art” Now: Facebooking etc. as Art

Via Boris Groys, “The Weak Universalism,” e-flux 15 (Apr. 2010) [and as a pdf].

What role is left for artists when strong universal gestures are perceived as bankrupt? We’re left with weak gestures—available only to small or semi-closed participant communities. The premises: if

  1. everybody is an artist (Beuys) and . . .
  2. the avant-garde artist is a secularized apostle repeating weak gestures (à la Agamben/Benjamin); and, further, . . .
  3. the avant-garde artist is part of a group in which participants and spectators coincide, making weak signs with low visibility (e.g., a social network “circle,” a small public, perhaps)—against the strong signs with high visibility of 20C mass culture (the big Public); then

. . . art is recycling with your friends (a Zero Waste approach).

This art need not look like art as we knew it:

Today . . . everyday life begins to exhibit itself—to communicate itself as such—through design or through contemporary participatory networks of communication, and it becomes impossible to distinguish the presentation of the everyday from the everyday itself. The everyday becomes a work of art—there is no more bare life, or, rather, bare life exhibits itself as artifact. Artistic activity is now something that the artist shares with his or her public on the most common level of everyday experience.

So this art, nonetheless, tells us about our world, as we normally take art to do:

art still has something to say about the modern world: it can demonstrate its transitory character, its lack of time; and to transcend this lack of time through a weak, minimal gesture requires very little time—or even no time at all.

Where Have You Been, My Darling?

Thumbnail Profile Picture Snapshot 16 May 2010

FB can be art (I always thought so).

The Four Rules of Writing Big Ideas (Tom Slee on Clay Shirkey)

From Tom Slee, “Wikibollocks: The Shirky Rules,” Whimsley, 25 Apr. 2010, the four rules of writing big ideas, all style over substance but audience-grabbing nonetheless:

  1. “tell stories and think by analogy,” i.e., use anecdata and make connections between disparate fields [ö + ↔];
  2. “make the point catchy, but make it ambiguous,” because if you can name it, you own it (with terms and titles, memorable beats accurate and oracular trumps all)—and sprinkle in jargon from fashionable fields (while avoiding the jargon of the field in which you’re writing) [];
  3. “simplify and exaggerate,” i.e., downplay complexity (while pretending that you’re reducing it) [> + Ö]; and
  4. “play on our natural identification with the underdog by casting [the material] in a rebellious and revolutionary light,” i.e., pit the creative individual against the inertial institution or corrupt corporation [nlm].

Personalize and generalize it; brand it; dumb it down and talk it up; rebel sell it.

Slee’s model is market populist Clay Shirky’s essay, “The Collapse of Complex Business Models,” which reiterates the Shirky Principle: “Institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution,” i.e., problems and solutions tend become a single system—like management and unions. For Shirky, progress (if it is possible) demands that we let go of problems or look to the margins of the system for what seem like insignificant or simplistic solutions. He’s drawing on Clay Christensen’s concept of “disruptive technologies,” which, unlike sustaining technologies that improve performance in an evolutionary or revolutionary way, improve performance in ways that the market does not expect, typically by lowering price or designing for a different set of consumers, but that often “result in worse product performance, at least, in the near-term” (The Innovator’s Dilemma xv).

Perhaps Shirky intends his writing to be a disruptive technology: “worse” writing, by a certain literary or critical measure, but writing designed for a different set of consumers.

The iPad as iText

Matt Greenop argues that it is “only Apple’s reality distortion field that could turn [the iPad] into a real success story.”

The iPad, first fielded today (Gadget Republic).

From wikipedia (edited):

Reality distortion field (RDF) is a term coined by Bud Tribble of Apple in 1981 [see Andy Hertzfeld, Revolution in The Valley (Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly, 2005)], to describe company co-founder Steve Jobs’ charisma and its effects on the developers working on the Mac project. Later the term has also been used to refer to perceptions of his keynote (or Stevenote) by observers and devoted users of Apple stuff. Bud Tribble claimed that the term came from Star Trek. In essence, RDF is the idea that Steve Jobs is able to convince himself and others to believe almost anything with a mix of charm, charisma, bluster, exaggeration, marketing and persistence. RDF is said to distort an audience’s sense of proportion or scale. Small advances are applauded as breakthroughs. Interesting developments become turning points, or huge leaps forward. Impossible-seeming schedules, requirements or specifications are acceded to. Snap judgments about technical merits of approaches are sometimes reversed without acknowledgment. Those who use the term RDF contend that it is not an example of outright deception but more a case of warping the powers of judgment.

See Nitrozac and Snaggy, “The Reality Distortion Field is Breached,” The Joy of Tech (2007).

This kind of boosterism that “adds value,” in the ideological—not to mention,  financial—sense, to a product is not far from Roland Barthes’ “effect of reality” or “reality effect.” A reality effect is a textual device that establishes a literary text as realistic through ecphrasis (“description,” from ekphrazein “to recount, describe”): the description of or commentary on a visual work of art, or, more generally, of a real or imaginary thing, place, time, person or experience, subject to aesthetic and referential constraints (“The Reality Effect,” in The Rustle of Language, trans. R. Howard [Berkeley, CA: UCB Press, 1989]). From Homer on Achilles’ shield to Heidegger on Van Gogh’s peasant shoes, this trope has proliferated.

The “referential illusion” thus created is plainly a problem for discourses that trade in “reality,” e.g., science or historiography, i.e., in what proportion are their objects and outcomes of enquiry real and illusory? To rephrase the very real problem of relativism (which is *in essence* the absence of a fact-value distinction): if value-added texts (VATs) of all types are the stuff of poeisis, it’s questionable whether there could be a value-free text. Every text is an iText (ideology-text), the iPad just its latest avatar.

Tom Phillips, Self Portrait (ekphrasis)
Oil on canvas, 80 x 50 cm, 1989.