Posted by: Johan Normark | December 16, 2009

Multiplicities for archaeology

DeLanda and Deleuze use the concept of multiplicity. It is crucial since it used to move away from essentialist thinking. Instead of explaining away essences as social or mental constructions Deleuze’s realism replaces essences with a theory of morphogenesis that is based in the idea of difference. The different is not a lack of resemblance, but it is productive and is what drives processes. Matter emerges through intensive differences such as temperature, pressure, speed and chemical concentration (DeLanda 2002:4).

Species and objects are not timeless categories but they are historically constituted entities. They resemble each others because they have passed through the same immanent processes. This is where the concept of multiplicity is introduced. A multiplicity is “a nested set of vector fields related to each other by symmetry-breaking bifurcations, together with the distributions of attractors which define each of its embedded levels.” (DeLanda 2002:32). Multiplicity is related to the term manifold which is what designates a geometrical space with properties (DeLanda 2002:10).

Multiplicity has a “variable number of dimensions and…the absence of a supplementary (higher) dimension imposing an extrinsic coordinatization, and hence, an extrinsically defined unity.” It is not a combination of the one and the many, it belongs only to the many that does not need a unity to form a system. In contrast, essences posses such unity that defines the essence and it is located in a transcendent space. A multiplicity is immanent which means that it does not have a supplementary dimension (DeLanda 2002:12-13).

How do these multiplicities relate to physical processes that forms material objects that we as archaeologists encounter? The state of an object at an instant is also a single point in the manifold. This is the state space. Through this we can understand the changes of the state as a trajectory in a space of possible states.  Although the instantaneous state is simple, the space embedding the state of the object becomes more complex (DeLanda 2002:14). State space trajectories are possibilities. The ontological stance that argues that only the trajectory associated with an actual sequence is of importance ignores that the whole population of trajectories display regularities in a system’s possible histories. These regularities shape the actual history. The regularities displayed by various possible trajectories are results of the singularities that make up the vector field (DeLanda 2002:33-36).

Goodwin exemplifies this with embryonic development. It begins with primary axes that have bifurcated from a uniform state. These axes bifurcate into spatially periodic patterns, such as segments of an insect. This universality or mechanism-independence of multiplicities is important. Multiplicities are concrete universals which mean that they are concrete sets of attractors, as tendencies in physical processes, connected by bifurcations, as transitions of the physical processes. The universality of the multiplicity is divergent since its various realizations do not resemble it. The multiplicities only give form to processes and not the end product. This means that the same multiplicity lead up to divergent end results. The concrete universals are meshed together into a continuum, something that makes the identity of the multiplicities diffuse (DeLanda 2002:22).

Now, a causeway is a multiplicity, bifurcated from a uniform state that it shares with platforms. Its extended axis emerges through segments. This construction process is similar throughout the Maya area and is therefore the only reason why causeways are similar across a large area, not because it is the realization of a transcendent form. Only morphogenetic processes without essentials can approach real life processes.


  1. Wonderful introduction to the concept, Johan! I really like it.

    I wonder, have you worked on the archeological implications of concepts like the machinic phylum and technological lineages (from Plateau 12: Nomadology) somewhere?

  2. I transformed the machinic phylum into polyagentive phylum in my dissertation (to fit my existing terminology, which I have dropped in my postdoctoral work). Deleuze entered my dissertation project quite late (I mainly used Bergson at that point). I am not sure my polyagentive phylum corresponds to the machinic phylum, it turned out as something slightly different.

    However, in an article that will be published in Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory (Springer) next year (probably issue #3) I discuss the machinic phylum concept, topological spaces, diagrams, etc. However, it mainly concern architectural forms rather than technologies.

  3. I look forward to reading that!

    A thought that occurs to me, concerning the adaptation of technological lineages in the context of archeology, is that technology is reproduced and evolve through being used. What separates and artefact from a piece of technology is – perhaps – an immediate connection to a practice. Studying the lineage of an artefect would be an interesting way to determine (or at least hypothesize) the usage and even the cultural machine involved in reproducing and evolving that artefact. Or am I just to naive in my layman understanding of archeology here? 🙂

  4. That would be an appropriate way of studying technological lineages. Typologies of various artefact categories are abundant (they could easily be transformed into populations rather than types). These are sometimes associated with practices but seldom with anything like a cultural machine (at least I cannot think of anyone right now).

    Tim Ingold has some interesting ideas concerning the differences between skill and technology. He argues, contrary to the common idea, that hunter-gatherers often have more complicated tools than the farmer. For example, a harpoon for hunting whales contain more parts than a scythe for cutting wheat. Another important observation is that handling a simple tool like a lasso demands a great deal of skill which handling a telephone does not. So skill should be included in technology as well. The problem in archaeology is that we only have the material remains. Past people’s skill is up for guesses.

  5. Yes, certainly the how-to-use and how-to-make will always be missing from the archeological “reconstruction” of the past, to some extent. However, mapping artefacts, technologies and architecture in lineages I think informs the archeologist with important know-tions, for example:

    1. Is it being reproduced over time? If so, it is important to the culture that reproduces it. If not, the culture either has no further use of the artefact/technology/architecture in question – the culture and/or its environment has changed in a decisive manner – or the find is just the remains of a failed idea…

    2. Is the artefact/technology/architecture evolving over time? If so, it is probably being used in an everyday problem-solving practice of some sort and in a broad sense, rather than being reproduced to reproduce culture itself.

    It’s kinda interesting that handicraft, that a hundred years ago was part of a living, evolving culture and practiced to meet everyday needs, today is being reproduced mostly to reproduce culture itself – and thus handicraft halted it’s evolution for quite some time. However, recently handicraft has been given a political dimension, within the sprouting DIY-culture, and all of a sudden technique and technology is evolving again!

    Btw: I have to read Ingold. Can you recommend me a book for christmas?

  6. Hmmm… Reading back my own comment I feel the need to excuse the poor english – hopefully I get the message across anyway. 🙂

  7. The direction that archaeology has taken in the past two-three decades is toward a stronger interest in idealist approaches. However, apart from some Latourian minded archaeologists, the main champions of materialism that actually focuses on the reproduction of artefacts (rather than subjectivity, gender, etc.) have been the neo-darwinians. If we follow them (i.e. O’Brien and Lyman), there is for sure a development of artefacts through time.

    The main problem in archaeology is, however, to define the assemblages of which the artefacts are part. I am highly sceptical of the concept of culture as it tend to be an essentialist unit (the Maya of today is more or less the same as the Maya 2000 years ago, etc.). Culture is the master-signifier of the whole arborescent structure of archaeology (and for anthropology as well). So, I would settle for smaller assemblages that may actually have existed (I do believe that there never have been a Maya culture, that is just a “Western” creation during the colonial era. The Maya culture exist as a concept but it has never existed as a concrete assemblage).

    Changes in artefact assemblages may therefore take other directions than the meta-narrative of cultures. We see that quite often. So I would agree with point number 2. Artefacts change because of needs and problems rather being indications of general cultural changes.

    Ingold’s most important book is actually a collection of earlier published articles: “The perception of the environment: essays on livelihood, dwelling and skill” (2000). London: Routledge.

    I have not yet read his latest book: “Lines: a brief history” (2007). London: Routledge.

    There are some interesting similarities between Ingold and Posthumanism. He also has a chapter in the anthology: “Material Agency: Towards a Non-Anthropocentric Approach”

  8. Ah, yes of course! “Culture” is a treacherous concept and I wasn’t consistent in my use of it. The “culture” in which artefacts are reproduced is to me an ecology, where there is no discrimination between nature and culture (following Latour). This ecology consists of numerous assemblages, “smaller ones that may actually have existed”.

    However, there is also another conception of “culture” that is produced within this ecology, a product that human practice, artefacts etc are related to rather than contained in – something perceived as an “essentialist unit”.

    So, when I was talking about an artefact (or a religious practice, for example) that reproduces culture itself, I meant an artefact that has little practical use, but is important in the reproduction of the perception of culture as an essentialist unit.

    Anyway, thanks for the reading tips, and have a merry christmas!

  9. OK, I see the distinction. I need to finish up my article on “archaeology beyond culture” (I was asked to rewise and resubmit it a while ago but I am just busy with four other articles right now).

    Merry Christmas to you as well.


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