This article will be a brief examination of the some of the concepts found in the philosophy of the French writer Gilles Deleuze, with the ant colony as an example of how its insights can be applied. The philosophy of Gilles Deleuze can help contemporary humans to appreciate the genius of insects. His philosophy can perhaps be most succinctly summed up as a rejection of the privileging of any magnitude of causal or mereological granularity, and of an openness to the inexhaustible complexity and sheer variety of interactions which are actualized in between different causal and mereological levels of granularity.
In light of the sheer helplessness and uselessness of individual social insects when alienated from their colonies, perhaps our reluctance to consider ant colonies as organisms in their own right reflects a prejudice towards the molar and against the molecular, unsurprising in a Western metaphysical tradition that is more predisposed to find molar unity and universality rather than molecular plurality and diversity. Perhaps it is a reflection of a kind of Neoplatonic or Cartesian “homunculosis,” which only sees highly molar levels of granularity as constitutive of an organism, rather than the more decentered “organism” of the ant colony. Indeed, one of Deleuze’s central points is to dispute the notion that there is a metaphysically objective critical threshold which separates levels of granularity from one another.
Relevant to this bias in Western metaphysics is Gilles Deleuze’s distinction between the molar and the molecular. To speak of the “molar” is to focus on that which is coarse-grained and constituted by dense aggregates of matter rather than to atomic properties.
“In a strict sense things molar relate to aggregates of matter and not to either their molecular or atomic properties, or their motion. In a geological sense, ‘molar’ is understood to be what pertains to mass, ground, continence or telluric substance. It also pertains to the general patterns of behaviour taken by an organ or an organism, and thus the term can describe a trait of personality or the character of the ego.” In general , he associates it with that which is “compact” and firm. In A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guttari distinguish between the molar and the molecular with reference to political organizations. The monolithic “civic world” or “state” are entities which belong to the molar. “They are well defined, often massive, and are affiliated with a governing apparatus.” On the other hand, molecular entities are “micro-entities, politics that transpire in areas where they are rarely perceived: in the perception of affectivity, where beings share ineffable sensations; in the twists and turns of conversation having nothing to do with the state of the world at large; in a manner, too, that a pedestrian in a city park sees how the leaves of al inden tree might flicker in the afternoon light.”
The molecular realm is quite important to Gilles Deleuze:
“The molecular sensibility is found in Deleuze’s appreciation of microscopic things, in the tiny perceptions or inclinations that destabilise perception as a whole. They function, he says, to ‘pulverize the world’ and, in the same blow, ‘to spiritual dust’…The microscopic perspective has a political dimension as well. All societies are rent through by molar and molecular segmentarities. They are interrelated to the degree that all action is conceivably political if politics are understood to be of both molar and molecular orders. The former, a governmental superstructure, does not disallow the presence of the latter, ‘a whole world of unconscious micropercepts, unconscious affects, rarefied divisions’ that operate differently from civic and political arenas.”
While frequently associated with post-structuralists, French philosopher Gilles Deleuze stands apart from them in several fundamental respects. Perhaps most profoundly, he rejected the linguistic idealism of post-structuralists, according to which reality is linguistically constructed. Writers like Jacques Lacan, for example, took their cue from the structuralist linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, who argued that language is constituted by differential marks known as signifiers, which then structure both our language and our world. Saussure insisted, as post-structuralists would, that the signifier is totally arbitrary and contingent on the system of signification which produces it. Indeed, rather than studying linguistics by tracing words diachronically to their etymology, one should instead study the synchronic emergence of signs and the world and language they come to structure.
“…it would be significant that one language might mark difference between grey and blue, or like and love, while another language would not mark out such a difference. The consequences of this supposed primacy of the signifier extended well beyond linguistics. If it is the case that we think only within a system o differences, then thought depends upon a prior structure and that structure can only be studied or criticised as a whole. There can be no intuition of any term or thing in itself, for we only know and think within a system of differences without positive terms.”
Deleuze and his friend Felix Guattari rejected this “despotism” of the signifier. Indeed, there are “regimes of signs beyond language, ranging from music and the visual arts to the signs of the inhuman world – smoke being a sign of fire, light being a sign for a heliotrope or a bird’s refrain being the sign of its territory…” They therefore reject the post -structuralist notion that humans are submitted to a system of signs which produce a limit beyond which we cannot think. Indeed, as we have already seen in the case of ants, these animals communicate with one another by means of pheromones. For Deleuze and Guattari, a pheromone is no less a sign than a signifier.
Deleuze’s overturning of the (post)structuralist despotism of the signifier, as well as his destabilization of the (supposedly) artificial threshold which demarcates the molar from the molecular, is profoundly embodied in the ant colony, which may alternately be considered a mass of densely packed individual organisms, or perhaps an organism in itself. William Sulis writes:
“A collective intelligence provides an ideal experimental setting in which to study intelligent behavior that does not, in general, involve symbolic processes. Indeed, most collective intelligence takes the form of situated cognition…that involves knowledge without representation.” Collective intelligence is a great example of a dynamical entity which involves interactions among huge numbers of its agents towards a unifying goal of adaptation. Such a colony “carries out its intelligent behaviors by capitalizing on regularities inherent in these dynamical processes, and so such systems demand an approach that includes nonlinear dynamical systems methods for their analysis and understanding.’
Deleuze and Guattari make a big deal of how bombarded contemporary humans are with sensory stimuli. As Janell Watson says, commenting on the relation of semiotics to Deleuze and Guattari:
“The distinction between old media (such as the printing press, or analogue recording and broadcast) and new media (sch as the internet, HD television, and high-tech multi-media art) is generally made on the basis of digitisation, networking, interactivity, and pervasiveness. These new qualities seem to call for new theoretical tools beyond those of literary, film music, and art criticicsm, even though both old and new media carry word, sound and image. Unprecedented is the globally networked unrelenting sensory bombardment made possible by the way new technologies deliver torrents of words, sounds and images. With their assemblages and rhizomes composed of multiplicities, intensities, flows, speeds and slownesses, chronis and aion, Deleuze and Guattari [focus]…less on language and symbols than on image, data, sensation, movement, subjectivity, and global political economics. Like the interactive networks of new media, this machinic semiotics brings together a diverse array of elements operating at many registers and affecting multiple senses, often below the level of conscious cognition.
Deleuze and Guattari extend semiotics well beyond the realm of human interactions in order to take into account animals, machines, bio-chemistry, and physics. They were avid readers of cybernetics, information theory, and communication studies, which they incorporate into their semiotics. They recognise signs and signals everywhere, and understand their role in the functioning of social, organic, and even inorganic processes. Most of these signs and signals are neither linguistic nor symbolic, and involve no human perceiver. Such signs have no meaning, and need none. No signification is conveyed by the body’s endocrine and hormonal signals. No one [supposedly] wrote the genetic code. These signals and codes create, but they do not signify…For Deleuze, sens (which in French designates both sense and meaning) does not necessarily involve Saussurean signification…Deleuze and Guattari’s semiotic category of the diagrammatic likewise creates and produces real effects without recourse to meaning. Unlike the sign or symbol, the diagram does not signify or represent, but instead operates in the real to produce something new.”
Signs continually interact and combine with various material flows. They come to constitute “web-like agglomerations which are heterogeneous, fragmented, meta-stable, and open to interactions of all kinds – an apt description of the new media landscape…for example, when an ear is connected to an iPod in order to produce a sensation machine. Such biological-technological couplings necessarily result in profound changes in the constitution of the self, and its relation to its environment. personal electronic devices become integral components of a polyphonic, machinic subjectivity.”