Manuel DeLanda

Manuel DeLanda, Gilles Deleuze Chair and Professor of Philosophy at The European Graduate School / EGS.


Manuel DeLanda (b. 1952) holds the Gilles Deleuze Chair of Contemporary Philosophy and Science at The European Graduate School / EGS and is a lecturer in Architecture at Princeton University. He is best described as a theorist and is considered one of the most creative and thought-proving thinkers in Anglo-American academia. DeLanda began his practice as an artist, working first in film, then digital media, including software design and programming, before developing his work in theory and philosophy. His theoretical and philosophical background, and influence, is primarily based in, and derived from, a fusion of the work of Jean Baudrillard and Gilles Deleuze. DeLanda is probably best known for his current research on the effects of architecture, or the city more generally, and his materialist studies in history and science.

Traversing art, architecture, and theory, DeLanda has taught and lectured across many disciplines in the United States and Europe. From 2004 to 2012, he taught at the School of Art and Design at the University of Pennsylvania, and was a visiting professor at University of Southern California’s School of Architecture, where he taught a course on self-organization and urbanity. He was also an adjunct associate professor at the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation at Columbia University, an adjunct professor at Cooper Union’s Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture, and an adjunct professor at the Pratt Institute School of Architecture. Before becoming a lecturer in Architecture at Princeton University, where he teaches a seminar investigating the importance of material culture and historical agency in understanding a city, DeLanda was also a fellow at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study. Among his significant books, Manuel DeLanda has published: War in the Age of Intelligent Machines (1991), A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History (1997), Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy (2002), A New Philosophy of Society: Assemblage Theory and Social Complexity (2006), Deleuze: History and Science (2010), Philosophy and Simulation: The Emergence of Synthetic Reason (2011), and Philosophical Chemistry: Genealogy of a Scientific Field (2015).

When he first moved from his native Mexico to New York City in 1975, DeLanda’s focus was filmmaking. Throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s, he made experimental films influenced by his interest in theory and New York’s No Wave movement––a rejection of the then-dominant New Wave genre. No Wave rejected any and all commercializing elements, while assuming a satirical disposition towards both the dominant and progressive cultures. Like many artistic movements, it spread across various genres with musical, artistic, cinematic, and literary manifestations. Musically, No Wave was considered a subset of punk, with significant influences from noise and industrial bands; cinematically, No Wave is said to have produced filmmakers such as Amos Poe, Eric Mitchell, Charlie Ahearn, Vincent Gallo, Jim Jarmusch, and Vivienne Dick, and influenced filmmakers Richard Kern, and Nick Zedd, the latter of whom highlights De Landa’s work in his Cinema of Transgression Manifesto. DeLanda’s experimental films aligned with these transgressive ideas in form, while always being explicitly grounded in philosophical and psychoanalytical theory. One of his best known films, Raw Nerves: A Lacanian Thriller (1980), is a neo-noir film in “day-glo” set in stairwells and a bathroom stall and described by Artforum’s Amy Taubin as “a maniacal alienation machine. It hits an assaulting groove of sound and imagery in the first five minutes and never varies or pulls back. It’s a tour de force that needs to be seen to be believed.” Retroactively, DeLanda’s involvement with the No Wave movement, which, more than anything else, rejected the apparent omnipresence of new wave after new wave, all of which we supposed to be in radical discontinuity, assumes great significance: DeLanda is one of the few contemporary theorists to privilege the slow determination of a time by repetition over the fantastic explosions of ephemeral events.

During the mid-1980s, DeLanda shifted from film into the emerging world of software, and the artistic possibilities offered by this new medium. During this period DeLanda first encountered the philosophies of Gilles Deleuze and Jean Baudrillard, which would shape his thought until the present, as well as materialist complex systems theory, the notion and problem of artificial life, and “command and control” theory and techniques as derived from military strategy, logistics, and institutional structures. After these encounters, especially with Deleuze and Baudrillard, DeLanda largely abandoned his film and artistic practice, as well as his interest in Freudian and Lacanian theories of the unconscious.

Since his engagement with Deleuze and Baudrillard––particularly the former––DeLanda’s theoretical passion has been consistent. This fidelity, however, may not be immediately apparent given his consistent forays into a wide range of fields, including: economics, nonlinear dynamics, chaos theory, geology, architecture, self-organizing autonomous systems, artificial intelligence and artificial life, the history of science, nonlinear dynamics, linguistics, and architecture. The careful reader, however, will note that these lines of research are founded on a set of fundamental and consistent axioms and theses, which are consistently derived from his understanding of Deleuze, in particular what is often termed the “new materialism,” as founded in Deleuze and Guattari’s monumental A Thousand Plateaus. Folded upon this “grounding” is DeLanda’s preoccupation with the concepts of becoming, synthetic reason, non-linear or non-continuous development qua history, materialism, and self-organization.

Much of Manuel DeLanda’s originality and significance is on account of his fearlessness in rejecting and overturning petrified concepts. This practice, however, is not merely the result of a blind pursuit for novelty’s sake. Indeed, homologous to one of the basic premises of the No Wave movement, DeLanda’s theoretical work has maintained a rigorous distrust of apparent change. While he maintains that history or historical change is not a linear development but a succession of discontinuous moments, his analytical skill and theoretical precision guards the sobriety necessary to not confuse a change of appearance for a change of the substance underneath––DeLanda does not deny ruptures, but claims that they are historically few and far between. Moreover, one of DeLanda’s most significant theses is that orderly behavior arises spontaneously from matter itself and does not require a rational mind to impose an order on it. Rather, matter itself is self-organizing and stabilizing. The danger, according to DeLanda, is that this spontaneous process is also potentially petrifying, and because it is a spontaneous process––misconceived as a possibility limited to a rational mind and not an inherent property of matter itself––it is doubly deceptive, it is invisible, and given the determination of matter, self-reinforcing. In consequence of this thesis, and its centrality to DeLanda’s various investigations, his practice of overturning and rejecting old concepts is grounded in his ontology.

Unlike many of his contemporaries, DeLanda is suspicious of post-modernism, and he rejects it on very specific grounds. He underscores that the concept of postmodernism is exhausted and therefore offers little that is new or emancipatory to thought and being. Given his Deleuzian ontology, such a rejection of postmodernism is not surprising. Deleuze, along with Alain Badiou, and more recently Quentin Meillassoux, is one of the few French philosophers of the second half of the twentieth-century who cannot be categorized as either a post-structuralist or a postmodernist, or an analytical philosopher. DeLanda has repeatedly stated this rejection, along with his belief in the potential of the Deleuzian ontology. In referring to A Thousand Plateaus, he has claimed that the authors here are not so much philosophers as engineers of the future, because their doctrine opens up the phenomenological or ontic possibilities of being. As mentioned above, the element of this ontology DeLanda employs in his thought is that stabilization in nature, or substance more generally, happens on levels other than rational thought, namely, that it is an inherent and spontaneous property of matter itself. Immediately, this principle elucidates two otherwise ambiguous claims found throughout DeLanda’s work: one, a fundamental task of human thought must be to establish perspectives not overladen with false and deceptive anthropocentrism, and two, structures must be considered as agents of history (a position he shares with Marx, Foucault, structuralism more generally, and more recently, David Harvey, especially given the latter’s focus on the architecture and urban planning of cities as a political factor).

Following the materialism of Deleuze and Guattari, DeLanda posits that matter has three elementary forms: solid, liquid, or gas. The form with the most potentiality is the liquid, while the limited dynamics of solid structures, as well as the overly dynamic gaseous ones, are not only uninteresting, but pose opposing threats––total petrification and total destratification, respectfully. On the other hand, “liquid” forms are systems constantly on the tightrope of chaos and order, thereby providing the possibility for creation and novelty. All action, therefore, is to be found within, or founded upon, liquid matter. This division of matter is to be understood together with De Landa’s basic premise of self-organization, which can act to traverse the categories of matter. According to DeLanda, such an ontology permits and demands a new ethics, the essential principle of which is to maintain a self-organizing existence on the edge of creative chaos. The difficulty of such an ethical position is the inherently seductive promise of a stratified structure to the human psyche. Yet, following Deleuze, DeLanda reminds us that the opposing end of the spectrum––total destratification––is, in fact, no less dangerous, and no less menacing, especially today, given the prominence of postmodern theory, and its various hollow popular ideologies. In consequence, much like Deleuze himself, it appears that DeLanda will be forced to enter into the Nietzschean territory of demanding a new form of human subjectivity, i.e., a human subjectivity, or a "new man," capable of assuming this almost impossible ethics. Of late, DeLanda has begun to sketch the outline of such an ethics and its subject, with much detailed work to come.

––Srdjan Cvjeticanin


Amy Taubin, “No Man’s Landa.” Artforum 03.04.11