Abstract Machines

Nonlinear dynamics and the films of Manuel DeLanda
by Ed Halter  posted March 4, 2011
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One of the ideas that philosopher Manuel DeLanda frequently returns to is that of phase transitions, a term from thermodynamics for “events which take place at critical values of some parameter (temperature, for example), switching a physical system from one state to another, like the critical points of temperature at which water changes from ice to liquid, or from liquid to steam,” as he writes in Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy (2002). Phase transitions are a central concept of his best-known book, A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History (1997), in which he attempts to rethink typical narratives of human development in favor of the dynamic shifts from one structural form to another: imagine nomadic societies flowing like liquid, for example, then crystallizing into cities, only to atomize into diaspora under pressure. In Deleuze: History and Science (2010), he evokes the related mathematical concept of phase space, a way to picture all the potential states a system might undergo. “This set of states,” he writes, “may be represented as a space of possibilities with as many dimensions as the system has degrees of freedom.”

Throughout his writing, DeLanda is always making forays into science, mathematics, and technology, drawing on such fields in order to explicate a thoroughly materialist philosophy—deeply indebted to the work of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari—that attempts to avoid old essentialisms and teleological histories. He stresses that his use of concepts like phase transitions and phase space aren’t merely metaphorical, but ways to conceive of an ontology grounded in the advances of modern science.

Still, it’s tempting to find a personal metaphor here, to draw parallels between DeLanda’s fascination with phase states and his emergence into philosophy after a substantial period of filmmaking; his radical transformation from one creative mode to another marks its own rather exceptional space of possibilities. Years before DeLanda published his first book, War in the Age of Intelligent Machines (1991), he created a small but explosive set of experimental films in a span of eight years, completing his last in 1982, when he was barely 30 years old. Many were made as part of undergraduate coursework at the School of Visual Arts in New York, where he studied under the likes of critic Amy Taubin, avant-garde film historian P. Adams Sitney, and feminist videomaker Joan Braderman, after moving to the States from Mexico in the mid-’70s. Shot on Super-8 and 16mm, DeLanda’s works occupy a pointedly weird category unto themselves, combining the No Wave’s post-Kuchar penchant for manic transgression and pulpy humor with a methodical, theory-influenced dismantling of cinematic language more aligned with filmmakers such as Yvonne Rainer, Trinh T. Minh-ha, or Laura Mulvey. His punkish brain-teasers are frequently topped off by an array of hand-drawn or optically printed effects with aggressively jagged geometries, invading the world of the film like signal-jamming transmissions from beyond.

In their day, DeLanda’s films appeared in New York at venues like the Collective for Living Cinema, Artists Space, and the Whitney, and were distributed to cinematheques and museums around the world. They garnered the praise of J. Hoberman in the pages of The Village Voice. Jonathan Rosenbaum devoted a chapter of his survey Film: The Front Line (1983) to DeLanda, covering him alongside such directors as Ulrike Ottinger, Jacques Rivette, and Leslie Thornton, and Scott MacDonald included him in his first volume of A Critical Cinema: Interviews with Independent Filmmakers (1988). DeLanda had his share of street cred as well: filmmaker Nick Zedd cited him in a litany of “underground ‘invisibles’” in his “Cinema of Transgression Manifesto,” ran an extensive interview with him over two issues of his Xeroxed ’zine The Underground Film Bulletin in 1985, and included DeLanda’s Ismism (1979) and Judgement Day (1982) on the seminal 1986 VHS compilation The Cinema of Transgression.

DeLanda is arguably the only philosopher to have ever had such a serious career in filmmaking, and one of the very few to have made films at all; the only other comparable figures would be Jean-François Lyotard, who made at least three experimental films in the 1970s, and perhaps Guy Debord, whose written work is usually classified as “theory” rather than philosophy proper, for whatever such distinctions are worth. And like those of Debord, DeLanda’s films were out of official circulation for decades, until Anthology’s recent preservation efforts allowed them to reemerge.

It’s possible that a Debordian notion of the spectacle—or at least a Situationist penchant for the creative defacement of public space—was on DeLanda’s mind when he made Ismism, a silent Super-8 film documenting his graffiti and other street-art interventions on the boulevards of Manhattan. The film opens with a DeLanda cartoon drawn inside a subway entrance; it’s a huge tangle of abstracted penises, ejaculating the tag “ismism,” done in the snaky, rubbery style of a Max Fleischer acid trip. But most of the film is devoted to DeLanda’s alterations of signage, in which he covers the faces of male and female models on ads for Winston cigarettes with various cut-out pieces of bodies from other billboards, transforming their bland smiles into ridiculously deformed grotesqueries. In between zooming shots of these freaky faces, DeLanda includes images of another kind of graffiti, fragments of a theoretical manifesto, painted in large day-glo letters on walls, sidewalks, and staircases, edited together in the film so they flow into telegraphic sentences:


Ismism’s eruptions of hallucinogenic imagery into the real world parallel this theoretical fragment, likely inspired by DeLanda’s absorption of Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus. For DeLanda, this wild disordering of the senses and his will for philosophical engagement had a joint origin in the LSD and mushroom trips of his high school years. As a teenager in Mexico, he tells MacDonald in A Critical Cinema, “tripping got me into philosophy. Psychedelic drugs are a philosophical question. Is the new dimension you discover always here but invisible without the drugs? What is the nature, the type of being of that experience?”

For the young DeLanda, psychedelia didn’t lead toward a typically transcendent hippie spiritualism; rather, his films are filled with an anarchic poetics of fleshly existence. The bursts, drives, and orgasms of Ismism recur in a trilogy of films with corporeal titles, The Itch Scratch Itch Cycle (1976), Incontinence: A Diarrhetic Flow of Obvious Mismatches (1978), and Raw Nerves: The Libidinal Economy of Filmus Interruptus (1980). Here DeLanda’s assault is not on public space but rather the imaginary geographies created through cinematic conventions, each film shot on tacky television-scale sets. Itch Scratch presents an argument between a man and a woman via five increasingly bizarre variations on the shot/reverse shot convention, in one instance using extreme close-ups of mouths that end in sudden zoom-outs, in another frenetically reverberating wipes between images. Incontinence expands on Itch Scratch through a reworking of dialogue from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The “obvious mismatches” occur as “George” and “Martha” are portrayed by a number of actors, moving between impossibly divergent locales, sometimes switching genders, at other times seeming to coalesce into a single person. Each segment adds further visual interference, like DeLanda’s signature wiggle-wipes, pixelated movement, or actors strobing in and out of existence. “All my films are about intensities, rhythms, colors, sounds,” DeLanda said in his Underground Film Bulletin interview. “Whenever there’s a cut in the image, there is a cut in the soundtrack, so all this coincidence is of intensities, a flowing.”

Originally subtitled A Lacanian Thriller, Raw Nerves jacks up the level of its narrative disruptions to the point of near-incomprehensibility. A film noir shot in luridly artificial colors (inspired, DeLanda has said, by brightly-hued “Mexican expressionism”), Raw Nerves uses the voice-over narration of a Philip Marlowe crime flick, rapidly switching among just a few dark rooms, including a bathroom stall covered in fluorescent-pink DeLanda cartoons, intercut via a series of baroque optical effects—overlapping chevrons, hypnotic swirls, comic-book starbursts—set to a sonic turbulence of electronic gurgles and bloops. At the conclusion, the narration source turns out to not be the gumshoe protagonist, but rather a femme fatale dubbed The Great Whatsit, who has been speaking all along in a man’s voice. “Never trust the first-person pronoun,” she says.

In program notes written in 1981 for a screening of these four titles at Anthology, DeLanda offers his most overt theoretical statement about his filmmaking from the time:

The space of cinema is alive. It has its own body, a very wet body, very different from the dry, dessicated structure which semioticians and philosophers of language would want us to believe it has.

Film’s body is constantly traversed by flows which carry chunks of codes (linguistic, gestural, behavioral, ritual, etc.), some old some new. But the overall movement of these currents of meaning, as we will see, never has a code of its own…

The body of film is a vampire like creature. It lives on energy expended by the audience in exercising the information processing skills necessary to understand the plot, skills that range from the simple detecting of regular patterns to the complex drawing of logical inferences. This movie creature seduces the audience, elicits its labor and thus keeps itself alive.

DeLanda’s last extant film, Judgement Day, diverges from the formal disjunctions of his previous works, but maintains the elements of body-horror this statement invokes. The film depicts live roaches stuck inside a roach motel, apparently shot with macro lenses to lend them monstrous scale, as they are crushed by giant fork tines, drowned in honey and toothpaste, and finally disintegrate in flames. The soundtrack is a Dantean storm of electronically-processed screams. Originally titled Micro Drama, and then Massive Annihilation of Fetuses, it was meant to be part of an apocalyptic trilogy called The Jerry Falwell Series, never completed.

After abandoning filmmaking, DeLanda worked in computer graphics and electronic art, and published an essay in 1986 called “Policing the Spectrum,” a theoretical examination of the CIA, cryptanalysis, artificial intelligence, and electronic surveillance; a version of this became a chapter in War in the Age of Intelligent Machines. Speaking to the Underground Film Bulletin about the essay as it was being written, DeLanda describes it as being about “politicizing the unconscious and politicizing dreams, politicizing trips and stuff. Part of the article is about analyzing spies as machines, machines of interpretation. The other part is about something called cellular automata….Imagine little abstract robots defined by some rules.”

“Policing the Spectrum” became a transitional work for DeLanda. Eventually the focus on post-Freudian ideas of the unconscious would drop out of his writing, as well as any interest in film theory—notably, it seems that none of his published writing since the early ’80s has had anything to say specifically about film. But the concept of cellular automata would sustain itself until today; he returns to it in his latest book, Philosophy and Simulation: The Emergence of Synthetic Reason (2011), which explores how a philosophy informed by computer simulation can illuminate the emergence of change over time in phenomena like the origins of life, the growth of neural networks in multicellular organisms, and the development of human language. The gap between his early films and his mature philosophy may not be as stark as it seems: DeLanda continues a longstanding interest in seeing existence in terms of flows and disruptions, structures producing new modes through permutations that describe complex spaces of possibility. His attempts to find meaning in the interactions between the organic and the non-organic, between bodies, minds, and machines, found their first iterations in the intricate dynamics of his own cinema. 


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Manuel DeLanda
The Itch Scratch Itch Cycle, directed by Manuel DeLanda
Photo Gallery: Abstract Machines


March 4–6, 2011 The Films of Manuel DeLanda


Ed Halter is an author, critic and curator whose writing has appeared in The Village Voice, Rhizome, The Believer and many other publications. He is former director of the New York Underground Film Festival and a founder of Light Industry, a new venue for film and electronic art in Brooklyn, New York.

More articles by Ed Halter
Author's Website: EdHalter.com