In this article, we will give a taste of how the study of emergent properties can be useful in the study of psychology, within the context of further articulating the metaphysics of Gilles Deleuze, and showing how it is relevant to these topics.
A fascinating example of the relevance of emergent entities involves the tendency of bee hives to function in a manner very similar to that of human neurons. Neither individual bees nor individual neurons are very intelligent at all. But when they all conspire together, they end up making a powerful new entity that is not reducible to the sum total of their parts:
In the new study, Seeley, a professor of neurobiology and behavior, reports with five colleagues in the United States and the United Kingdom that scout bees also use inhibitory “stop signals” — a short buzz delivered with a head butt to the dancer — to inhibit the waggle dances produced by scouts advertising competing sites. The strength of the inhibition produced by each group of scouts is proportional to the group’s size. This inhibitory signaling helps ensure that only one of the sites is chosen. This is especially important for reaching a decision when two sites are equally good, Seeley said.
Previous research has shown that bees use stop signals to warn nest-mates about such dangers as attacks at a food source. However, this is the first study to show the use of stop signals in house-hunting decisions.
Such use of stop signals in decision making is “analogous to how the nervous system works in complex brains,” said Seeley. “The brain has similar cross inhibitory signaling between neurons in decision-making circuits”(Cornell University, 2011)
With this example in mind, let us now consider how Deleuze’s understanding of emergence is articulated in Capitalism and Schizophrenia. For the Deleuze and Guattari of Capitalism and Schizophrenia, a sign is a manifestation which is to be understood in terms of the forces which constitute it. When a woodworker wants to make a table, he picks a very specific application and cuts into the wood in a very specific way. It is a specific kind of wood which is “interpreted” in terms of its size, density, grain, texture, durability and so on. Rather than existing in the realm of pure actuality, the wood has a future existence as a table which will submit to the pressure of certain objects, such as dinner plates, elbows, glasses of orange juice, and so on. In this way, the wood “envelop[s] a potential, the capacity to be affected or to submit to a force…”(Massumi, 1992).
The piece of would is a “contraction” of time, having an actual past and potential future, each of which can be studied on many levels. An examination of its past may include the environment in which it grew, its evolutionary history, its uses as a cultural object for humans, such that it may be used for culturally specific foods, such as steak and potatoes, and may undergo physical and chemical changes based on the history of the cultural institutionalized training which the woodworker has undergone, and in the future, it may come to constitute a table whose distinctive shape may be particular to a specific culture, the physical state it occupies when it comes into contact with certain objects, any sort of chemical changes it may undergo at a future point in time were it to catch on fire, and so on.
The “envelopment” of potential which the wood is said to possess is to be understood literally.
“The wood’s individual and phylogenetic past exists as traces in the grain and its future as qualities to be exploited. On a first, tentative level, meaning is precisely that network of enveloped material processes…A thing has as many meanings as there are forces capable of seizing it. The presence of the sign is not an identity but an envelopment of difference, of a multiplicity of actions, materials and levels. In a broader sense, meaning even includes the paths not taken. It is all the forces that could have seized the thing but did not. It is an infinity of processes”(Massumi, 1992).
Understanding the concept of “force” is an essential component of understanding what we mean when we speak of a sign’s “meaning.” The sign’s meaning consists of
“more a meeting between forces than simply the forces behind the signs. Force against force, action upon action, the development of an envelopment. Meaning is the encounter of lines of force each of which is actually a complex of other forces. The processes taking place actually or potentially on all sides could be analyzed indefinitely in any direction. There is no end, no unity in the sense of a totality that would tie it all together in a logical knot. No unity, but a region of clarity: tool meets wood. The meaning of an event can be rigorously analyzed, but never exhaustively, because it is the effect of an infinitely long process of selection determining that these two things, of all things, met in this way at this place and time, in this world out of all possible worlds”(Massumi, 1992).
The meeting of the woodworker, the sharp object and the wood must be understood in terms of the cultural, subjective and natural forces which collaborated to produce such and such a moment. Entities are never static, but are in a state of continual process. Even the piece of wood is not a purely inert or neutral object, but simply moves at a much slower speed than the sharp object hitting it, and is overpowered by this object and altered in the way which the sharp object dictates:
“The encounter is between two substance/form complexes, one of which overpowers the other. The forces of one are captured by the forces of the other and are subsumed by them, contained by them. The value of something is the hierarchy of forces which are expressed in it as a complex phenomenon. One side of the encounter has the value of a content, the other of an expression. But content and expression are distinguished only functionally, as the overpowered and overpowering. Content is not the sign, and it is not a referent or signified. It is what the sign envelops, a whole world of forces. Content is formed substance considered as a dominated force-field”(Massumi, 1992).
Thus, content and expression are both totally functional and relative. From the perspective of the sharp object, the wood is content. But it must be remembered that the wood is itself an expression of other forces which constituted it, such as sunlight, water, etc., rather than mere passive content for another object.
“The craftsman with hand to tool is an agent of expression but from another angle is he is the content of an institution, of the apprenticeship system or technical school that trained him. A content in one situation is an expression in another. The same thing can be both at different times simultaneously depending on which encounter is in question and from what angle”(Massumi, 1992).
To say that the distinction between expression and content are relative does not mean that they are not real, of course. Such and such a force may constitute content of form depending upon which angle we view it from. The relativity through which content and expression become understandable is
“not fundamentally the point of view of an outside observer. It is the angle of application of an actual force. Content and expression are reversible in action only. A power relation determines which is which. Since each power relation is in turn a complex of power relations, since each thing is taken up in a web of forces, the distinction seems untenable. Complicated but not untenable. The strands of the web can be unwound. We can follow the trajectory of a force across its entanglement with other forces…and we can follow the trajectory of a thing as it passes from one knot of forces…Content and expression are in a state of what Deleuze and Guattari call “reciprocal presupposition.” One does not exist without the other. They are mutually determining. Characterizing this distinction as functional might be misleading. The model is not one of utility but struggle, a hand to hand combat of energies”(Massumi, 1992)
Form and content, rather than constituting a real metaphysical duality, are purely subjective and functional. They are distinctions humans make in order to better navigate the world, but they have no metaphysical basis.
The distinction between the “intensive” and the “extensive” becomes extremely important for Deleuze’s understanding of the preconditions under which something fundamentally new is created:
“With the notions of intensive and extensive we come upon a crucial distinction for Deleuze that is explored in Chapters 4 and 5 of Difference and Repetition. Extensive differences, such as length, area or volume, are intrinsically divisible. A volume of matter divided into two equal halves produces two volumes, each having half the extent of the original one. Intensive differences, by contrast, refer to properties such as temperature or pressure that cannot be so divided. If a volume of water whose temperature is 90º is divided in half, the result is two volumes at the original temperature, not two volumes at 45º. However, the important property of intensity is not that it is indivisible, but that it is a property that cannot be divided without involving a change in kind. The temperature of a volume of water, for instance, can be “divided” by heating the container from below, causing a temperature difference between the top and the bottom. In so doing, however, we change the system qualitatively; moreover, if the temperature differences reach a certain threshold (if they attain a certain “intensity” in Deleuze’s terms), the system will undergo a “phase transition,” losing symmetry and changing its dynamics, entering into a periodic pattern of motion—convection—which displays extensive properties of size: X centimeters of length and breadth. Drawing on these kinds of analyses, Deleuze will assign a transcendental status to the intensive: intensity, he argues, constitutes the genetic condition of extensive space. Intensive processes are themselves in turn structured by Ideas or multiplicities”(Smith & Protevi, 2013)
In our previous example, we learned that the point at which something fundamentally new is generated is known as a “singularity.” One of the most important examples of how a pre-individual aggregate of matter becomes individuated or actualized as a distinct entity is that of crystal formation, taking from Gilbert Simondon:
“For orientation purposes, it’s useful to consider Gilbert Simondon’s theory of individuation as a very simple model for what Deleuze calls “actualization.” For Simondon, crystallization is a paradigm of individuation: a supersaturated solution is metastable; from that pre-individuated field, replete with gradients of density that are only implicit “forms” or “potential functions,” individual crystals precipitate out. The crucial difference is that crystals form in homogenous solutions, while the Deleuzean virtual is composed of “Ideas” or “multiplicities” involving differential relations among heterogeneous components, whose rates of change are connected with each other. For an example of such heterogeneity, let us return to hurricane formation, the Idea of which we sketched above. Here it should be intuitively clear that there is no central command, but a self-organization of multiple processes of air and water movement propelled by temperature and pressure differences. All hurricanes form when intensive processes of wind and ocean currents reach singular points. These singular points, however, are not unique to any one hurricane, but are virtual for each actual hurricane, just as the boiling point of water is virtual for each actual pot of tea on the stove. In other words, all hurricanes share the same virtual structure even as they are singular individuations or actualizations of that structure”(Protevi & Smith, 2013)
John Protevi has been particularly helpful in demonstrating how Gilles Deleuze’s ontology squares with a great deal of contemporary science, particularly in the field of complexity theory. He defines emergence “as the (diachronic) construction of functional structures in complex systems that achieve a (synchronic) focus of systematic behaviour as they constrain the behaviour of individual components” and argues that Deleuze’s metaphysics can be used to help us understand the human subject. Complexity theory, he notes,
“models material systems using the techniques of nonlinear dynamics, which, by means of showing the topological features of manifolds (the distribution of ‘singularities’) affecting a series of trajectories in phase space, reveals the patterns (shown by ‘attractors’ in the models), thresholds (‘bifurfactors’ in the models), and the necessary intensity of triggers (events that move systems to a threshold activating a pattern) of these systems. By showing the spontaneous appearance of indicators of patterns and thresholds in the models of the behaviour of complex systems, complexity theory enables us to think material systems in terms of their powers of immanent self-organization”(Protevi, 2006)
One of the main goals of this approach is a critique of hylemorphism, according to which matter is so chaotic that a transcendent entity must impose order upon it. From this perspective, matter in itself is either chaotic or formless. It needs structure imposed on it from a transcendent entity because it cannot self-organize. Instead, matter is neither purely chaotic nor purely passive, not but a combination of active and passive forces interacting with and conflicting with one another. It is not passive matter that requires an active principle bestowed upon it from above. Matter is active (not passive, as the hylemorphist would have us believe), but active. Some matter is so slow-moving that we see it as passive, but it is quite active, oftentimes very active on a molecular level. Furthermore, it oftentimes has structure that is quite intricate and complex, rather than being chaotic matter that requires structure from something transcendent. If we think that matter is unformed and requiring form or structure imposed on it from us, it is simply because it is not the form that is most pragmatic for us. But this does not mean that it lacks form. It is always in process of continual form-formation, so to speak.
He also wants to “dispense with the false problem of downward causation’ by showing that the constraints of a pattern, described by an attractor, are not a case of efficient causality, but instead nee to be thought of as a ‘quasi-cause’, citing Manuel DeLanda, who, as Protevi notes, wants to use to replace formal causes or to reform formal causality and final cause both. Protevi likewise wants to avoid the more reductionistic approach often taken by physicalists, in which the behavior of matter is reduced to the laws determining the behavior of its simplest components and to argue that “by modelling the negative and positive feedback mechanisms characteristic of complex systes, complexity theory thereby enables us to ground the concept of emergence in the effects of such mechanisms”(Protevi, 2006)
Protevi, John. “Deleuze, Guattari, and Emergence.” A Journal of Modern Critical Theory, 29.2 (July 2006): 19-39.
Massumi, Brian. A User’s Guide to Capitalism and Schizophrenia. The MIT Press; A Swerve ed edition (March 6, 1992)
Smith, Daniel and Protevi, John, “Gilles Deleuze”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), >.
Cornell University. (2011, December 8). Decision making in bee swarms mimic neurons in human brains. ScienceDaily. Retrieved February 18, 2015 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/12/111208142019.htm