I’ve been reading a lot of (and about) Deleuze and Guattari over this last year. Coming at this material as an outsider, someone who doesn’t have a background in academic theory, has been tough, but I feel like I’ve learned a lot in a relatively short span of time. Absorbing these new ideas has had me analysing everything I see in those terms. Deterritorialization, Recoding, Assemblage, these are all are new toys to play with, and new lenses to peer through.

This year Santa brought me a very nice gift, a copy of Manuel DeLanda’s Assemblage Theory, which has turned out to be an incredible read. I’ve been working to condense all of my thoughts on this book, but in the meantime I’ve had a thought that connects D&G to my other favourite thinker, Stafford Beer.

In the introduction to Assemblage Theory, DeLanda mentions D&G’s concept of a Diagram:

An ensemble in which components have been correctly matched together possess properties that its components do not have. It also has its own tendencies and capacities. The latter are real but not necessarily actual if they are not currently manifested or exercised. The term for something that is real but not actual is virtual. An assemblage’s Diagram captures this virtuality, the structure of the possibility space associated with an assemblage’s dispositions.

(In fact, there’s a whole chapter on Diagrams later in the book, which I haven’t gotten to yet, we’ll see if this blog-post still holds up once I get there.)

So this is interesting, if a little tricky. I take this to mean that the Diagram of a System (or Assemblage, Machine, Process or whatever you want to call it), is the abstract set of things, relations, flows, operations, and so on that direct the unfolding of that system. Tendencies and capacities. Almost like a schema. The system might have a tendency to do X, even if it is not doing so at the moment, and it might have the capacity to do Y.

The Diagram seems like an abstract structure that maps out what a System can do. There is also an implication here that many concrete Systems could share approximately the same Diagram, if their various flows and dynamics were essentially the same in the abstract. (Again, as an amateur student of D&G, it’s possible that I’m misreading this, but whatever).

At the time I read this I couldn’t really think of an example that made much sense to me. Then I realized that Stafford Beer’s “Viable System Model” (or VSM) is something like this concept of a Diagram.

A simple representation of the VSM

Stafford Beer was a pioneer of Cybernetics, in particular the application of cybernetics to human organisations and institutions. One of the major themes of his work is a pre-occupation with the concept of Viability. A “Viable System” is one that survives and thrives as it interacts with its environment. A non-viable system crumbles as shocks arrive from the environment and the system is unable to adapt. Beer posited that one of the major problems we face today is that most (if not all) of our institutions and organisational forms are non-viable. They don’t adapt. They respond to shocks by simply reterritorializing and hardening their boundaries, by clenching harder than before.

A Viable System, by contrast, is one that can constantly adapt to its changing environment, and even its changing self. It is an autonomous system, made up of recursive sub-systems which are themselves viable. It’s a system which obeys certain cybernetic principles, which embodies certain abstract tendencies and capacities.

The human body is a Viable System. In fact, most complex biological systems are. A Firm is (in it’s ideal form) a Viable System, even if most firms in the world today are not. The same goes for States, Unions, Clubs, Communities, any social formation we can name, we can look at it through the lens of Beer’s VSM and discover something about the cybernetics of that formation. In his writing, Beer makes explicit the point that the same abstract model of a system can map onto many different concrete systems.

This is where the concept overlaps with Assemblage Theory, both are made up of recursive collections of components where the whole is not reducible to its parts, nor are the parts reducible to the whole. Assemblage Theory is much more general, seeking to build a theory of assembled agency at multiple scales, and without reference to the particular structure of each assemblage, but I find it remarkable that so much of these contemporary concepts is already present in Beer’s writing on cybernetics.

In studying a given System/Assemblage (such as a Firm or a Community), we might discover that a given system is already functioning in a way that closely resembles the abstract information flows and dynamics of the VSM, or we might find that this particular social assemblage is deficient in some way, hobbling along without some essential function (such as System Three-Star in Beer’s terminology, the capacity for spontaneous self-audits). That capacity would remain virtual, until someone in the organisation would point out the flaw and make the change (or be ejected for defying the dominant code of the organisation).

Or we might discover that the system is not Viable in the slightest. Its Diagram is entirely different. It operates by an entirely different abstract logic, a different schema. Perhaps its Diagram more closely resembles that belonging to a wave on the ocean, heading to shore, cresting, and about to collapse.

I’m starting to think there might be potential in fusing Beer’s Organisational Cybernetics with the Deleuzian current of thought that has been developed over the past few decades. The notion of “Viable Systems” can probably be expanded greatly by re-framing in the context of Assemblage, and perhaps Beer’s Cybernetic Ontology can help save the Deleuzian current from the dour anti-praxis that’s so common in the Accelerationist sphere of thought.

– S