Nonorganic Life

Alan Boardman

The term 'Nonorganic Life' originates with art historian Wilhelm Worringer's characterisation of the notion of line in Gothic Art "as the only perceptible expression of the non-living or the absolute". It is presented in contrast to organic or naturalistic line and to geometric or mechanical line as a "distorted version of natural life" (Fisher, 2017). In Worringer's Abstraction and Empathy: A Contribution to the Psychology of Style (1908) he writes:

"[T]he first geometric abstractions appealed not to the intellect, but to the deepest physical and mental constitution of the observer. If one follows those physical and mental roots deep enough, one finds that they do not even belong to a body or a soul anymore, but rather to inorganic nature: static, inexorable, eternal." (Worringer, 1908/1953, p. 246).

Worringer's nonorganic or inorganic life posits an underlying inorganic force that is tethered to the processes and structures of organic life, he writes: "the morphological law of inorganic nature still echoes like a dim memory in our human organism" (Worringer, 1908 (1953), p. 247). For Worringer inorganic life is a manifestation of the will toward abstraction and with it spiritual agoraphobia, entropy and death, while organic life is the will towards rationality, empathy and familiarity.

In A Thousand Plateaus (1987) Deleuze and Guattari take up this term, expanding the context of abstraction through their analysis of the practice of metallurgy. They propose that metal has a privileged status as a conductor or catalyst of matter itself. Metal, they say, is "the consciousness of matter-flow" or "the non-organic life is the intuition of metallurgy" (Deleuze and Guattari, 1987, p. 411). Metals exists everywhere, in organic and inorganic life.

In Manuel DeLanda's 1992 article 'Nonorganic Life' the idea of metallurgical life beyond the organism is expanded and re-defined as "the mathematics of self-organization." DeLanda gives an account of the paradigm shift in scientific research that reveals how systems in nature are not closed, linear, and predictable or, to use Worringer's terms, 'static', 'inexorable', and 'eternal', but are instead subject to flows of matter energy that continuously move through them at varying speeds, giving them potential dynamism and a state that is open to change (DeLanda, 1992, p.129).

The significant development for DeLanda in his account of nonorganic life and materiality is the ability to follow, such matter-energy flows, to visualise or map the 'viscosities' or structures of these flows, and to capture the affects they produce. This requires what DeLanda calls "intensive thinking" (DeLanda, 2002). This is the study of materials or systems that are far from equilibrium with self-organising dynamics governed by singularities such as attractors and bifurcations. Intensive physical properties like temperature or pressure, produce extensive physical properties such as length, area, volume or entropy. The material world emerges from morphogenetic processes structured by a realm of virtual multiplicities defined by 'zones of indiscernibility'. DeLanda shows how 'stratometers' reveal the hidden self-organizing flows of matter-energy and the ridged, supple, and chaotic strata they lay down. The means through which these maps of self-organizing matter are produced are mathematical. Yet DeLanda proposes that such mathematical measurements need not be strictly abstract, but can be intuitive and experimental (DeLanda, 1992 p. 155). The arts can operate as 'stratometers' capturing affects that emerge from matter-energy flows. Just as metallurgists developed sensual knowledge of the nonlinear and catalytic nature of metals prior to formal reasoning, so too do contemporary artists when probing nonorganic life to reveal the novel affects embedded in their materials.

Sympathetic to the concept of 'nonorganic life', Elizabeth Povinelli shows how the matter-energy flows of carbon, what she calls the "carbon imaginary", "seeks, iterates and dramatizes the gap between life and that which is conceived as before or without life" (Povinelli, 2016, p. 32). Povinelli problematises the conception of life which is based on metabolic processes of birth, growth/reproduction, and death, that is, the categorization of ontology as biontology. Povinelli petitions for a concept of reality where there is no 'bios' and 'geos' distinctions, any more than categories of life and non-life. To better probe, map, and understand intensive processes, we must conceive of the material world as an "anorganic continuum" (Fisher, 2017, p.2), and, in so doing, we will be better equipped to see how we are altering the trajectories of such processes.

For examples of the author's artwork see:

Synonyms: assemblage; abstraction;
Antonyms: biological life;
Hypernyms: emergence; vitalism

DeLanda, Manuel. (1992). Nonorganic Life. In: J. Crary, and K. Sanford, eds., Incorporations. New York: Zone, pp. 128 – 167.
Deleuze, Gilles and Félix Guattari. (1987). A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, translated by Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Povinelli, Elizabeth. (2016). Geontologies: A Requiem to Late Liberalism. Durham: Duke University Press.
Fisher, Mark. (2017). Flatline Constructs: Gothic Materialism and Cybernetic Theory-Fiction. New York: Exmilitary Press.
Worringer, Wilhelm. (1953/1908). Abstraction and Empathy: A Contribution to the Psychology of Style. New York: International Universities Press.

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