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Manuel De Landa - Biography

Manuel De Landa (b. in Mexico City, 1952), based in New York since 1975, is a philosopher, media artist, programmer and software designer. After studying art in the 1970s, he became known as an independent filmmaker making underground 8mm and 16mm films inspired by critical theory and philosophy. In the 1980s, Manuel De Landa focused on programing, writing computer software, and computer art. After being introduced to the work of Gilles Deleuze, he saw new creative potential in philosophical texts, becoming one of the representatives of the 'new materialism'.

Manuel De Landa is Adjunct Professor at University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia and the Gilles Deleuze Chair of Contemporary Philosophy and Science at the European Graduate School EGS, he was Adjunct Associate Professor at the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation at Columbia University (New York). He currently lectures extensively in the United States and Europe, and is lecturer at the Canisius College (Buffalo, NY) and at the University of Philadelphia. Manuel De Landa's essays are published in numerous journals, and he is the author of War in the Age of Intelligent Machines (1991), A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History (1997), Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy (2002), and A New Philosophy of Society: Assemblage Theory and Social Complexity (2006).

Manuel De Landa is one of the most original thinkers writing today. De Landa is never afraid to criticize and reject petrified concepts, believing that orderly behavior can arise spontaneously from matter without being imposed by the rational human mind. Being one of the rare thinkers with the ability to offer a study of history with the priority of long-term historical structures over events, his work focuses on diverse fields such as economics, nonlinear dynamics, chaos theory, geology, architecture, self-organizing autonomous systems, artificial intelligence and life, history of science, nonlinear dynamics, and linguistics.

Rejecting the exhausted concept of postmodernism, Manuel De Landa has found a new direction in thinking set by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari in A Thousand Plateaus. He strongly believes they should not be read as philosophers but engineers of the future beginning in fifty years. Focusing his writing on re-elaboration of their main concepts, Manuel De Landa takes the other starting point in the material world itself, and particularly the discoveries about material reality under the influence of psychedelics. According to him, the stabilization in nature happens on levels different from what rational thinking teaches us, and one of the main tasks of the human species is to establish a different connection to the environment by rejecting anthropocentric perspectives. What the exploration of the material world can show us is its stratified nature and Manuel De Landa further defines three main forms matter can take: solid, liquid, or gas. The form with the most potentiality is the liquid one, while the limited dynamics of solid structures as well as the overly dynamic gaseous ones are for him uninteresting. The liquid systems are constantly on the edge of chaos, hence constant creation, and therefore can be seen as natural computers.

Manuel De Landa rejects a simplified interpretation of mystic revelation happening in the so-called state of changed consciousness in psychedelic experience. Under the guidance of his female shaman in Mexico for almost half a century, Manuel De Landa experiences something he believes to be the change of the material state of the brain into a less viscous consistency; or, metaphorically speaking, with the help of mushrooms, the brain becomes 'liquid', a type of a super-computer. Changed materiality of the brain structure will allow numerous concepts and calculations to happen, something impossible to achieve in the previous, petrified phase. From the other side, if a person crosses the line and overdoses, the brain will become gaseous and induce paranoia and fear.

Hence, for Manuel De Landa, all action is to be found in the matter that flows. The flowing matter reveals the essential characteristics of the material world: the ability to self-organize and the possibility to show magic if allowed to develop without rational human control of the flow. In this, it even becomes possible to define a new ethics outlined by Manuel De Landa – the pursuit of freedom is seen as a possibility to allow self-organizing processes to take place, while living one's life at the edge of creative chaos. Seeing humans as species seduced by the stratified structures and rock-solid relationships, Manuel De Landa explains that this is only one of the phases humans have the possibility to enter, following the previous gaseous and liquid ones. Rejecting the progressive logic of human history, he sees new possibilities in abandoning the rigidity of the solid phase. Nevertheless, what should be exercised in this new (liquid) phase is caution, and Manuel De Landa reminds us of Gilles Deleuze's elaboration of the dangers of total destratification. One should always keep a small piece of territory, always come back to that solid rock in order not to lose touch with reality. Too loose or too rigid rules will not produce anything interesting, and what Manuel De Landa calls 'organizing chaos' can only happen in the middle of extremes.

Manuel De Landa's work, War in the Age of Intelligent Machines, offers a valuable merging of philosophical and historical reflection in the variety of forms through which human bodies are deployed, together with materials, and made effective in the history of warfare. According to him, in order to become effective, technological invention needs to be inserted into social practices, turning them into specific war machines that change in different historical periods. Beside the reference to Deleuze and Guattari, the method used follows Michel Foucault's 'archaeology' in the study of long-scale historical phenomena. Two primary ways of functioning of the war machine are centralization, when military commanders centralize power and control over the battlefield, and decentralization, when the responsibility is delegated to individual soldiers. Recent developments in the war machine are something to be careful about, and Manuel De Landa warns us of the possibility of erratic war machines turning into predatory nomads because of a lack of political control. As it turned out, during the era of the Cold War, military programmers had decided to take human players out of the war games due to their refusal to press the imaginary red button and activate nuclear missiles. Nevertheless, his position is not a fatalistic one, refusing to define the evolution of technology as essentially good or bad. Further on, Manuel De Landa takes up the concept of the 'abstract motor' as defined by Michel Serres to formulate a new reading of Napoléon Bonaparte's true innovation: although refusing to implement the steam engine, Napoléon fueled his war machine by the pool of energy produced by the patriotism of the French Revolution. Through this exploitation of the friend/enemy opposition, massive confrontations between nations became possible.

In A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History, drawing on the materialist philosophy of Fernand Braudel, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Manuel De Landa develops a bottom-up approach to historiography stemming from a new understanding of material processes as defined by the theory of dynamic systems. Manuel De Landa's project sees the possibility for human development to be in inclusion of the flows of energy and matter. He rejects the impoverished bottom-up approaches to historiography which ignore synergistic interactions between their parts, as well as the top-down approaches imposing the assumed systems to interpret reality. This fundamentally different approach reveals the generative processes that govern all systems, and opposes the teleological notions of anthropocentric progress. The domains of matter inherent in complex systems inform a view of the world as the self-adaptive, highly interconnected, free-assembling structure of potent matter. Therefore, according to Manuel De Landa, the world is a place of infinite variations.

The crucial importance of Manuel De Landa's Intensive Science & Virtual Philosophy is to be seen in his radical change of the ontology of materialist philosophy. According to Manuel De Landa, the key for understanding the concept of reality is in dynamical processes and their ability to self-organize. The reality of the geological crust on which we walk is to be seen simply as a temporary deceleration of dynamic flows. In this work, Manuel De Landa defines the virtual as a deeply materialist concept which should not be seen as an effect of new technologies. Virtual is not the non-real, but actually the more-real. Manuel De Landa's latest book, A New Philosophy of Society: Assemblage Theory and Social Complexity, starts from the level of individual, personal relations and continues gradually all the way to the level of nation state and beyond. All phenomena are defined as emerging from dynamic systems which are in constant flux. Through defining the contemporary world as an entity of extreme complexity, Manuel De Landa simultaneously criticizes the dominant postmodernist linguistic analysis in social science. This new approach to social ontology should instead assert the autonomous nature of social entities, taking Gilles Deleuze's theory of assemblages for its main framework. The components in the assemblages are defined by their material dimension and territorializing and deterritorializing axis. They are historically contingent, heterogeneous and self-subsistent, giving the possibility to take one assemblage and insert it into another without destroying its identity. The main characteristics of the relationship between an assemblage and its components are complexity and non-linearity, and Manuel De Landa believes that the task of social science is to analyze them as such.

Manuel De Landa is a professor of contemporary philosophy and science at the European Graduate School in Saas-Fee, Switzerland, where he conducts an Intensive Summer Seminar.