DeLanda on concepts, knobs, and phase transitions

image: Carnap’s notes on Frege’s Begriffsschrift seminar

Part of Manuel DeLanda’s work in Assemblage Theory is his hope to clarify and extend the way that we understand the ontological ideas associated with assemblage. He introduces a puzzling wrinkle into his discussion in this book — the idea that a concept is “equipped with a variable parameter, the setting of which determines whether the ensemble is coded or decoded” (3). He thinks this is useful because it helps to resolve the impulse towards essentialism in social theory while preserving the validity of the idea of assemblage:

A different problem is that distinguishing between different kinds of wholes involves ontological commitments that go beyond individual entities. In particular, with the exception of conventionally defined types (like the types of pieces in a chess game), natural kinds are equivalent to essences. As we have already suggested, avoiding this danger involves using a single term, ‘assemblage’, but building into it parameters that can have different settings at different times: for some settings the social whole will be a stratum, for other settings an assemblage (in the original sense). (18)

So “assemblage” does not refer to a natural kind or a social essence, but rather characterizes a wide range of social things, from the sub-individual to the level of global trading relationships. The social entities found at all scales are “assemblages” — ensembles of components, some of which are themselves ensembles of other components. But assemblages do not have an essential nature; rather there are important degrees of differentiation and variation across assemblages.

By contrast, we might think of the physical concepts of “metal” and “crystal” as functioning as something like a natural kind. A metal is an unchanging material configuration. Everything that we classify as a metal has a core set of physical-material properties that determine that it will be an electrical conductor, ductile, and solid over a wide range of terrestrial temperatures.

A particular conception of an assemblage (the idea of a city, for example) does not have this fixed essential character. DeLanda introduces the idea that the concept of a particular assemblage involves a parameter or knob that can be adjusted to yield different materializations of the given assemblage. An assemblage may take different forms depending on one or more important parameters.

What are those important degrees of variation that DeLanda seeks to represent with “knobs” and parameters? There are two that come in for extensive treatment: the idea of territorialization and the idea of coding. Territorialization is a measure of homogeneity, and coding is a measure of the degree to which a social outcome is generated by a grammar or algorithm. And DeLanda suggests that these ideas function as something like a set of dimensions along which particular assemblages may be plotted.

Here is how DeLanda attempts to frame this idea in terms of “a concept with knobs” (3).

The coding parameter is one of the knobs we must build into the concept, the other being territorialisation, a parameter measuring the degree to which the components of the assemblage have been subjected to a process of homogenisation, and the extent to which its defining boundaries have been delineated and made impermeable. (3)

Later DeLanda returns to this point:

A different problem is that distinguishing between different kinds of wholes involves ontological commitments that go beyond individual entities. In particular, with the exception of conventionally defined types (like the types of pieces in a chess game), natural kinds are equivalent to essences. As we have already suggested, avoiding this danger involves using a single term, ‘assemblage’, but building into it parameters that can have different settings at different times: for some settings the social whole will be a stratum, for other settings an assemblage (in the original sense). (18)

This is confusing. We normally think of a concept as identifying a range of phenomena; the phenomena are assumed to have characteristics that can be observed, hypothesized, and measured. So it seems peculiar to suppose that the forms of variation that may be found among the phenomena need to somehow be represented within the concept itself.

Consider an example — a nucleated human settlement (hamlet, village, market town, city, global city). These urban agglomerations are assemblages in DeLanda’s sense: they are composed out of the juxtaposition of human and artifactual practices that constitute and support the forms of activity that occur within the defined space. But DeLanda would say that settlements can have higher or lower levels of territorialization, and they can have higher or lower levels of coding; and the various combinations of these “parameters” leads to substantially different properties in the ensemble.

If we take this idea seriously, it implies that compositions (assemblages) sometimes undergo abrupt and important changes in their material properties at critical points for the value of a given variable or parameter.

DeLanda thinks that these ideas can be understood in terms of an analogy with the idea of a phase transition in physics:

Parameters are normally kept constant in a laboratory to study an object under repeatable circumstances, but they can also be allowed to vary, causing drastic changes in the phenomenon under study: while for many values of a parameter like temperature only a quantitative change will be produced, at critical points a body of water will spontaneously change qualitatively, abruptly transforming from a liquid to a solid, or from a liquid to a gas. By analogy, we can add parameters to concepts. Addition these control knobs to the concept of assemblage would allow us to eliminate their opposition to strata, with the result that strata and assemblages (in the original sense) would become phases, like the solid and fluid phases of matter. (19)

These ideas about “knobs”, parameters, and codes might be sorted out along these lines. Deleuze introduces two high-level variables along which social arrangements differ — the degree to which the social ensemble is “territorialized” and the degree to which it is “coded”. Ensembles with high territorialization have some characteristics in common; likewise ensembles with low coding; and so forth. Both factors admit of variable states; so we could represent a territorialization measurement as a value between 0 and 1, and likewise a coding measurement.

When we combine this view with DeLanda’s suggestion that social ensembles undergo “phase transitions,” we get the idea that there are critical points for both variables at which the characteristics of the ensemble change in some important and abrupt way.

W, X, Y, and Z represent the four extreme possibilities of “low coding, low territorialization”, “high coding, low territorialization”, “high coding, high territorialization”, and “low coding, high territorialization”. And the suggestion from DeLanda’s treatment is that assemblages in these four extreme locations will have importantly different characteristics — much as solid, liquid, gas, and plasma states of water have different characteristics. (He asserts that assemblages in the “high-high” quadrant are “strata”, while ensembles at lower values of the two parameters are “assemblages”; 39.)

Here is a phase diagram for water:

There are five material states represented here, along with the critical values of pressure and temperature at which H20 shifts through a phase transition (solid, liquid, compressible liquid, gaseous, and supercritical fluid). (There is a nice discussion of critical points and phase transitions in Wikipedia (link).)

What is most confusing in the theory offered in Assemblage Theory is that DeLanda appears to want to incorporate the ideas of coding (C) and territorialization (T) into the notation itself, as a “knob” or a variable parameter. But this seems like the wrong way of proceeding. Better would be to conceive of the social entity as an ensemble; and the ensemble is postulated to have different properties as C and T increase. This extends the analogy with phase spaces that DeLanda seems to want to develop. Now we might hypothesize that as a market town decreases in territorialization and coding it moves from the upper right quadrant towards the lower left quadrant of the diagram; and (DeLanda seems to believe) there will be a critical point at which the properties of the ensemble are significantly different. (Again, he seems to say that the phase transition is from “assemblage” to “strata” for high values of C and T.)

I think this explication works as a way of interpreting DeLanda’s intentions in his complex assertions about the language of assemblage theory and the idea of a concept with knobs. Whether it is a view that finds empirical or historical confirmation is another matter. Is there any evidence that social ensembles undergo phase transitions as these two important variables increase? Or is the picture entirely metaphorical?

(Gottlob Frege changed logic by introducing a purely formal script intended to suffice to express any scientific or mathematical proposition. The concept of proof was intended to reduce to “derivability according to a specified set of formal operations from a set of axioms.” Here is a link to an interesting notebook in Rudolph Carnap’s hand of his participation in a seminar by Frege; link.)
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