Posted by: Johan Normark | March 9, 2011

Potlatch and Deleuze/DeLanda

A Deleuzian/DeLandian understanding of history is nonlinear. DeLanda writes that “some forms of social organization may indeed have appeared earlier than others – hunter-gatherers certainly existed before any central state apparatus – but that succession occurred only in actual time. In virtual [topological] time the latter was a possibility already prefigured in the former” (p 135). Such a perspective goes against the old-fashioned band-tribe-chiefdom-state evolutionary stages that we are still stuck with in archaeology. In an earlier blog post I wrote about William Rathje’s interpretation of the monumental architecture in the Mirador basin as the result of competition between “Big-Men” through potlatches. Potlatch means to give away and/or intentionally destroy valuable resources for the purpose of accumulating status. This is at least the traditional interpretation of a potlatch.

Deleuze/DeLanda provides another interpretation of the potlatch. As stated in the quote above, there has always existed a line of flight prefiguring a state apparatus in other kinds of social organizations. This line of flight “simultaneously offered an opportunity to become something else, a change of identity, as well as the risk of becoming rigidly segmented by the emergence of centralized authority” (p 135). For Deleuze and Guattari the potlatch is a mechanism in which a social organization prevent surplus and resources from becoming an energy source that a centralized authority can use to cross the state-threshold.

If this is a valid interpretation it seems that, at least in Rathje’s version of the potlatch phenomenon, the prevention did not succeed. The line of flight was captured and the Mirador basin was striated on grand scale.

DeLanda, Manuel (2010). Deleuze: History and Science. Atropos Press: New York.



  1. An interesting idea. I wonder how the treatment by Mauss of the potlatch would come in here. In his work he considered small-scale societies up to empires like that of Rome. David Graeber is doing some new work on this.

    I do not think archaeologists are stuck into the stage-framework! There are other frameworks like the Annales school and complexity theory, as well as a move towards contextual work at the macro-regional level (Bronze Age Europe, Mesoamerica, etc). Even within cultural evolutionism you have things like the dual-processual model.

  2. Plenty of archaeologists still use the concepts of chiefdom and state (perhaps not band and tribe and these concepts have never been used to describe the Maya to my knowledge). I did not mean that archaeologists always use these concepts in the way it was used during New Archaeology, but these rough categories of social organizations are often found in contemporary Mayanist studies (but chiefdoms have often disappeared in favor of states in the literature).


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