A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History

A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History. Manuel De Landa. Brooklyn, NY: Zone Books, 1997. 333 pages.

This book came recommended to me by Bhanu Kapil after I shared with her my response to Architecture from the Outside. Since we both had some scientific training, I think she understood the rigor and clarity I was expecting from an academic text.

De Landa sets out to write a history book that actively counters traditional linear views of history. But he states several times that no system (non-linear or otherwise) is inherently better than any other. All types of systems have potential flaws and potential value. In the conclusion he warns,

To simply increase heterogeneity without articulating this diversity into a meshwork not only results in further conflict and friction, it rapidly creates a set of smaller, internally homogenous nations. ?

A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History examines the history of the past thousand years, 1000 A.D. to 2000 A.D., with a definite slant towards a Eurocentric point of view. De Landa also uses a chronological linear time flow throughout the text. As he states in the introduction, he did not wish to superficially apply non-linearity. Instead he examines the thousand years of history with three different concerns: geological history, biological history, and linguistic history.

In each of these sections he discusses the various systems using concepts such as autocatalytic loops, abstract machines, and probe-heads. This is a fascinating book that draws on a wide range of sources, mixing ideas from political science, biology, history, and more.

The mix of concepts encountered in reading this book are so various that new possibilities of thought sprout naturally. I made several notes for ideas I want to incorporate into stories. This was especially true reading the section on linguistic history. That is a fertile topic not only because it deals directly with human beings, but also because it follows the other two sections and many of De Landa’s ideas are fully developed there.

The overall structure of the book, with three sections covering the same linear time frame but with different concerns, would also be an interesting structure for a novel. In a work of fiction, this would handicap the writer by taking away one of his most valuable assets: the reader doesn’t know how the story ends. But with strong writing and careful selection of the various concerns ?, I think it could work. I’m sure there have been some novelists who have used something similar. A short story collection might work in this way. I don’t know if I’m yet ready to tackle such a structure, but it is something I’ll keep thinking about.

This book isn’t an easy read, a complaint I read on the one negative amazon review. But the writing didn’t seem to me to be overly complex. I have a limited background in social theory or deconstructionism. I have studied mathematics and science, areas from which De Landa borrows many of his concepts, and that proved very helpful. This book will require some work on the reader’s part, but many people with various educational backgrounds should be able to handle it.

And it would be beneficial if more people were reading this book or ones like it. Even though it can be a challenge, it is essential that we understand these ideas, so that words like rhizome ? don’t become catch phrases and advocates of diversity ? don’t become as fascist as supporters of homogeneity ?. De Landa suggests that being able to function in and understand various types of systems is necessary. He also provides rich tools for investigating and discussing these systems.

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