The Allure of Machinic Life

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In contrast to biology’s analytic approach, which breaks down living systems into their component parts in an attempt to understand how they work, ALife seeks to synthesize not simply life as we know it but, more importantly, life as it could be. Theoretically this means that ALife is no longer simply a mimetic undertaking but is a performative and productive one.1

In studying the life and work of Christopher Langton we discover that in his bottom-up approach the basic notion that “Living systems are highly distributed and quite massively parallel”. Because of this Johnston will argue if life results from a particular organization of matter, rather than from something inherent in matter, then nature suggests that this organization emerges from dynamic, nonlinear interactions among many small parts. In other words, life does not result from the infusion of some universal  law or life-principle into lower, more localized levels of activity but emerges spontaneously from the bottom-up. Having rejected vitalism, modern biologists generally believe that life can be explained by biochemistry.  In principle, this means that they believe that “living organisms are nothing more than complex biochemical machines”. In Langton’s view, however, a living organism is not a single, complicated biochemical machine but a large population of relatively simple machines. The complexity of its behavior results from the highly nonlinear nature of the interactions among all the members of this polymorphic population. “To animate machines,” he states, “is not to `bring’ life to a machine; rather it is to organize a population of machines in such a way that their interactive dynamics is `alive”‘ (Artificial Life [1989], 5). In practice this means creating a population of machines that evolve and self-organize. (ibid. p. 176)

The notion of a bottom-up multiplicity in its interactions and operations of self-organizing performativity and production producing the behavior of complexity and life within non-organic materiality seems to be very close to the notions that Deleuze/Guattari were exploring in A Thousand Plateaus and other singular and separate works. Many see Deleuze’s thought as a form of neo-vitalism, but what if his work is actually informed by the theoretical aspects of the sciences of his day such that one of the conditions of his theoretical matrix was this very notion of a bottom up multiplicity of behavior productive of non-organic Life? What if these theories of complexity, chaos, ALife, cybernetics, self-organization, et. al. were distributed within the matrix of possible ideas that informed their own thinking?

For a while I put off rereading Deleuze and/or the joint work of Deleuze/Guattari (and, even the singular works of Guattari himself!), but now I have a reason to read their work in detail: What exactly is their notion of non-organic Life? Is it truly formulated as a principle or could it be more like the efforts of Langton and seen as immanent and part of a performativity and productive bottom-up emergent conceptuality? Ah… the never-ending battle to understand!

The great battle within philosophy at the moment is based upon a few main figures: Lacan-Badiou-Zizek project, and the Deleuze-Guattari project with variations (i.e., new materialisms of De Landa, Braidotti, Bennett, etc.). The various materialisms based either on “Lack” or on this notion of non-organic Life seem to be at war and irreconcilable. Yet, what if these are themselves part of a Mobius strip in which we need both sides of the equation to understand the underpinning materiality? Zizek likes to define it as the battle between Dialectical Materialism and Democratic Materialism… but we all know Zizek has his own agenda. One needs to clarify the main actors beginning with Freud-Lacan… and, go from there…. in my own daily confrontations with philosophy and the sciences I seem to float in an oscillating movement between these two projects seeking answers from both without reducing them to each other or to some amalgam. One needs to understand just where they meet and where they disconnect.

The other aspect is the interactions of the varying aspects of external forces: heat/cold and climacteric and geological material aspects and the way all the various interactions from the forces of the Sun/Moon, planets, etc. (i.e., physics, etc.) work within this matrix of biochemical factories… so many various and complex relations go into such thinking about the notion of non-organic Life that one will realize that it cannot be reduced to a so to speak “principle”… this notion of a unified principle underlying Life was part of a metaphysical world-view that still lies at the heart of our own folk-psychologies and religious ethical and normative visions. Yet, even aspects of the sciences, philosophy, etc. have these hidden principles laying in wait that are used without the least concern of how they inform theory and practice. One must tease out the use and abuse of these concepts through time and practice before one can do away with them and replace them with something else. If one does away with the notion that Ideas are eternal as in Plato’s Eternal World of Ideas, and realizes they are temporal agents of interacting mental/material processes one can then begin to shift perspectives on these various mind-tools and understand how the various conditions of thought are bound to our real world in ways we are only now beginning to comprehend.

1. John Johnston. The Allure of Machinic Life: Cybernetics, Artificial Life, and the New AI (p. 176). Kindle Edition.

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