This week my students and I jumped in to Manuel DeLanda’s Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy. Back in graduate school I remember the horror I experienced when I first read this book. At the time Difference and Givenness was under review. I was already obsessed with DeLanda’s earlier work in the form of his articles and A Thousand Years of Non-Linear Philosophy, but these works were largely concrete analyses of the world. Intensive Science, by contrast, articulated DeLanda’s generalized Deleuzian ontology in terms of chaos and complexity theory, developing a general ontological account of morphogenesis and individuation. This was the book I had wanted to someday write. As a consequence, I immediately hated it even as I loved it. To this day I find that I am every bit as much a DeLandian as I am a Harmanian.

At any rate, as we plunge into Intensive Science, I increasingly find myself asking “do attractors do anything?” Before I get to this, first a brief explanation of what an attractor or a singularity is, drawing on wikipedia. As the wiki article on attractors explains them,

An attractor is a set towards which a dynamical system evolves over time. That is, points that get close enough to the attractor remain close even if slightly disturbed.

Take a very simple and rather uninteresting fixed point attractor like that that belongs to a system composed of a bowl and a marble. To begin with, our marble sits on the edge of the bowl. We flick the marble setting it in motion. The marble now slides up and down the sides of the bowl until it finally settles at the bottom of the bowl and ceases moving. The singularity or attractor of this system is that point of rest at the bottom of the bowl. This is the fixed point towards which the system composed of the bowl and marble evolves over time.

read on!

So, returning to the question, do attractors do anything? Let’s articulate the question this way: There are two ways of approaching attractors. One way of approaching the concept of attractors is to treat them as descriptive elements of a (scientist’s) model of a dynamic system. Another way is to suggest that attractors themselves contribute something to dynamical systems themselves, regardless of whether they’re modeled by any investigator.

These two claims are entirely different. If we take the first route, attractors don’t contribute anything at all to dynamic systems. If we take the second route, attractors are literally “doing” something within dynamical systems. DeLanda’s position, if I understand him correctly, is that attractors contribute something to dynamical systems. But I have difficulty seeing how this is so. Clearly there are singularities (attractors) of various sorts towards which dynamic systems evolve or tend, but it’s hard to see how these attractors are doing anything. The marble comes to rest at the bottom of the bowl not because an attractor is influencing that marble in any way, but because of the force of gravity and the way it functions in this particular system. Talk of this system’s attractor seems not to refer to anything ontological, but rather to an aspect of the scientist’s model of the system’s behavior. While I don’t at all doubt or reject the value of identifying attractors or various points towards which systems tend, I’m unclear as to why I should expand my ontological commitments to introduce additional entities beyond the objects themselves to account for the points towards which these systems tend. Yet this seems to be exactly the move that DeLanda is making. What I can’t figure out is why I need anything besides objects and gravity to account for the behavior of these systems. Am I missing something?

This issue is particularly interesting for me due to the debate Graham and I have had over the years over the issue of potentiality. As I go back through DeLanda, I find myself that in many respects I’m much closer to Graham and Latour’s positions regarding actualism (not to mention Michael’s) than I am to DeLanda’s. While attractors have figured heavily in my onticology, they have never been elements of objects that do something. With Graham and Latour, objects have to go through all the translations and transformations to get from one object to another. In other words, for me acorns do not virtually contain oak trees. Rather all sorts of translations have to take place to get from acorns to oak trees, and the oak tree that evolves from the acorn is a genuine and novel creation in the universe. There’s nothing that is pulling the acorn to the oak tree. Potentiality or virtuality are important dimensions of objects for me (and here I guess Graham and I still diverge), but when I think of virtuality/potentiality, I don’t have something like the acorn containing an oak tree in mind, but rather something more like the potential energy contained within a tautly drawn spring or rubber band. The translations still need to take place. Virtuality also just means that something must be susceptible to affecting and being affected by other things for interactions to take place. This is DeLanda’s first definition of virtuality in a recent talk at EGS (which my students and I watched this week. He’s a very funny lecturer, though he likes violent examples). Thus, for example, I am unable to be affected by ultraviolet light because my eyes just aren’t put together that way. Ultraviolet affects are withdrawn for me. Likewise, a knife cannot cut a neutrino because the neutral charge of neutrinos prevents it from affected and being affected by the sort of matter that composes a knife. This capacity to affect and be affected is what I mean by the virtual. Yet again, all sorts of translations at the level of the actual take place here.