One common criticism of Deleuze and DeLanda is that their ontolog(ies) suffer from what might be called “virtualism”. It’s important that some might not consider this a failing and that there is, I believe, a way of interpreting these thinkers so that this problem largely disappears. Roughly, virtualism would consist in treating the virtual as the domain of the “really real” and reducing the actual to mere “epiphenomena” that have but an epiphenomenal “being”. In the language of Roy Bhaskar’s ontology, the virtual can roughly be equated with the domain of “generative mechanisms”, while the actual would consist of events take place as a result of these generative mechanisms. Virtualism would thus treat these generative mechanisms as what are properly real, while the actual events engendered by these generative mechanisms would have a subordinate and lesser status.
The problem with this sort of virtualism is that it fails to observe a particular property of groups known as “closure” as described by mathematical group theory. Roughly, closure is the property of a group such that for a group G, all operations carried out on elements of G— say a, b –are also in G. Thus, for example, if group B consists of the numbers 1 and 2, the conjunction of 1 and 2– 3 –is also a member of the group. This point can be illustrated for material systems with respect to fire. A flame requires all sorts of generative mechanisms involving chemical and atomic reactions that are conditions of fire at the level of the “virtual” with respect to the flame as an actuality or event. However, it does not follow from this that the flame is itself an epiphenomenon or lacking in reality. The flame has all sorts of powers, capacities, are “able-to’s” that cannot be found at the level of the generative mechanisms themselves. Put otherwise, a flame is itself a generative mechanism with respect to other relations.
It seems to be that the demotion of the actual produced out of the virtual or generative mechanisms is a variant of Bhaskar’s epistemic fallacy. Here issues of epistemology are being conflated with issues of ontology in a slippage that goes unnoticed. In A Realist Theory of Knowledge Bhaskar argues that reality is itself stratified. By this he means that phenomena at one level are themselves based on a lower level of generative mechanisms. However, the phenomena at each level are themselves autonomous domains with their own unique structural properties that, while dependent on the lower level and impossible without the lower level, cannot be deduced from the lower level. Organic life is dependent on chemistry and impossible without chemistry, but it has its own internal generative mechanisms or structures that diverge from those of chemistry and are irreducible to chemistry.
Part of inquiry consists in 1) the discovery of these structures, but also 2) discovering these deeper structures on which these higher order structures are based. Virtualism, however, conflates the aims of inquiry with the nature of being. Put otherwise, it confuses its search for deeper level structures and generative mechanisms with the “epiphenomenalization” of the structure to be accounted for at a higher level. However, the fact that something is dependent on a deeper level structure or set of generative mechanisms does not undermine the emergent reality and generative mechanisms based on these deeper level generative mechanisms. In this connection, the “virtual” should not be understood as a distinct ontological domain apart from the actual, but as a relative term with respect to a domain of the actual. What functions as a “virtuality” for one domain of actuality can, is, in turn, an actuality for another domain of virtuality or generative mechanisms.