Technological Vitalism: The Machinic Phylum and the Free Action Assemblage

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We always get back to this definition: the machinic phylum is materiality, natural or artificial, and both simultaneously; it is matter in movement, in flux, in variation, matter as a conveyor of singularities and traits of expression. This has obvious consequences: namely, this matter-flow can only be followed.

– Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Nomadology: The War Machine

The artisan, the metal-worker, those who embellish, design, engineer and follow the movement of matter flows are the “itenerate” and the “ambulant”: to follow the flow of matter is to intenerate, to ambulate. “It is intuition in action” (p. 100).1 Even the flow of immaterial things, such as the market are always followed they will tell us. Yet, one will realize that flows can be captured in circuits: “whatever the reciprocal implications, there are considerable differences between a flow and a circuit” (p. 100). The metal worker is an intenerate (i.e., one who follows the flows of metal), the farmer a transhumant: one who is bound between the outside and the inside, the circle of the circuit of the seasonal rounds of planting and reaping. While the nomad is neither, rather the nomad is determined by the open space of the smooth unstriated free action zones beyond either the flows or circuits of artisan or farmer, although at times he may enter into such spaces and become artisan or farmer he will still be defined by his allegiance to smooth spaces.

In this section of their essay on war machines and nomadology they are seeking to convey the difference between hylomorphic models of molding, of forcing (passive) matter into an intellectual mold that is captured by an abstraction and Idea. Instead metallurgy typifies what they will term “technological vitalism” or after Leroi-Gourhan a universal tendency that takes from biological evolution a notion of technological evolution in which the model conveys the sense of singularities and traits that are expressive, traversing technical, intellectual, and interior milieus which refract or differentiate patterns according to procedures and operations that follow the matter-form a selective process. They’ll bring to remembrance Husserl’s notion of vague and material essences, distinguishing them from the fixed, metric, and formal, essences of Plato-Aristotelian conceptuality.  This is a materiality of ambulant processes, of coupling event-affect, which constitute the vague corporeal essence, that are distinct from their sedentary linkages to older Aristotelian notions.

In fact they find in Gilbert Simondon’s critique of the hylomorphic model an ally, in the fact that he will see that the older form-matter distinctions leave out the affective and active or positive aspects of materiality. As they’ll describe it:

On the one hand, to the formed or formable matter we must add an entire energetic materiality in movement, carrying singularities or haecceities that are already like implicit, topological rather than geometrical, forms, and which combine with processes of deformation: for example, the variable undulations and torsions of the fibers guiding the operation… (p. 98)

Against the older notions of imposing a form upon dead matter: what one addresses in the new model is less a matter submitted to laws than a materiality possessing a nomos. Instead of a process that imposes properties upon a passive substance, what one does is to follow material traits and express the constituting affects within the material flow. Simondon takes to task the old hylomorphic model for separating out the two terms form and matter, and instead he will tell us the hylomorphic schema is based on “the existence, between form and matter, of a zone of medium and intermediary dimension,” of energetic, molecular dimension – a space unto itself that deploys its materiality through matter, a number unto itself that propels its traits through form … (p. 99).

They’ll see a relation between metallurgy and music, a sense not only of the sound of the forge, the rhythms of the hammer, the splash of the deformations in water, the release of metal and fire, the continuous development of form and tone: “a widened chromaticism sustains both music and metallurgy; the musical smith was the first “transformer” (p. 102)”. Continuing:

In short, what metal and metallurgy bring to light is a life inherent to matter, a vital state of matter as such, a material vitalism that doubtless exists everywhere but is ordinarily hidden and covered, rendered unrecognizable, dissociated by the hylomorphic model. (p. 103)

They’ll wax poetic on this in detail saying that metal is the conductor of all matter: that metallurgy is the vague science of matter. That when Worringer stated that nonorganic life is at the core of the metallurgy of the barbarian, the barbarian idea par excellence. That metal is neither a thing nor an organism, but rather the body without organs. Against Jung’s Idealist merger of soul and matter, they will instead remind us that this vitalism is the immanent power of corporeality in all matter, and on the esprit de corps accompanying it. (p. 103)

In “Machinic Heterogenesis,” Guattari addresses this point by interpolating the human and mechanical into one another, arguing that the “mechanosphere … superimposes itself on the biosphere” (Guattari, 17). Seeking to open Maturana and Varela’s self-enclosing concept of autopoiesis to the production of otherness, Guattari argues that even a mechanism as simple as a lock and key has a repertoire of structural forms through which it can move. This deterritorializing “smoothing” opens the discrete machine to transformation and, by a non-rational leap of inference, to desire; “all machinic orderings contain within them, even if only in an embryonic state, enunicative nuclei [foyers] that are so many protomachines of desire”.  Thus machines are made like humans because they are driven by desire, even as humans are made like machines because they can disassembled and reassembled. “It is thus impossible to refuse human thought its part in the essence of machinism”. In this view “human” connotes no essential quality but rather marks the historical starting point of a certain line of inquiry. If the human has been mechanical all along, anyone who represents it as “contaminated” by the mechanical mistakes his own process of discovery for the hybridization that was always already there.2

The metallurgist follows the flow of matter in the subsoil, the internal regions, the hidden realms below the surface, the intenerate who forms a collective body (secret societies, guilds, journeymen’s associations) (p. 104). The smith or metallurgist was the one in-between, the one who lived between farmer, nomad, and merchant: between the desert, forest, and cultivated lands of the Imperium. There is a missing history of mining in our accepted archaeologies and systems of knowledge. The nomads are the link between the mines and empires: mines are a source of flow, mixture of escape with few equivalents in history (p. 105). Mythographers and ethnologists divert the political question and leave it unanswered: before “looking for the feelings of others toward the smith, it is necessary to evaluate the smith himself as an Other; as such , he has different affective relations with the sedentaries and the nomads. (p. 106)

The migrations of smith and metallurgic culture across India to Ireland the movement of metal between nomadic and sedentary cultures, a complete complex of peoples missing in our records that seem fascinated only of the sedentary or nomadic rather the peoples in-between: the people of metal scorned by both nomads and sedentaries, who feared them yet needed their magical metals, knives, swords, sabers, weapons; wheels, plows, etc. A material history awaiting its historian, an affective history of the nonorganic life of metal in the growth of civilizations across the globe. As they’ll tell us these smiths, the people of mines and metals were double: a hybrid, an alloy, a twin formation (p. 108). The smith lived in two worlds both nomadic and sedentary; and yet, between them in a nomadic space that is holey world of his own making, a world of gaps, detours, subterranean passages, stems, opening, traits, holes, etc.; and, on the other side, in a sedentary space captured by the empire and State apparatuses that impose upon their hybridity a closure of the lines of flight and escape, subordinating the technological operation to the work model that imposes form and rigidifies the nonorganic life of metal into obedience to imperial power.

Yet, if the truth be told neither the nomad, nor the metallurgist, nor the sedentary farmer or merchant hold the key nomadic thought: an “ideological, scientific or artistic movement can be a potential war machine, to the precise extent to which it traces, in relation to the phylum, a plane of consistency, a creative line of flight, a smooth space of displacement” (p. 121). It is the constellation of characteristics of traits and properties that define the nomad not the other way round. The war machine is adaptable to minoritarian forms of revolutionary struggle: the line of flight and escape can move in either direction, toward death or life, toward destruction or creativity, end in empire just as easy as in the smooth space of free action. As they will remind us:

We are constantly reminded that there is communication between these two lines or places, that each takes nourishment from the other, borrows from the other: the worst of the world war machines reconstitutes a smooth space to surround and enclose the earth. But the earth asserts its own powers of deterritorialization, its lines of flight, its smooth spaces that live and blaze their way for a new earth. (p. 121)

It is the assemblage, the social body itself that decides to follow the nonorganic life of earth, of the war machines, and the line of flight into free action or into capture and domination. The outcome is never assured.


1. Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. Nomadology: The War Machine (Semiotext(e) 1986)
2. Swirski, Peter (2006-07-27). The Art and Science of Stanislaw Lem (pp. 25-26). Ingram Distribution. Kindle Edition.

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