Bird Democracy

If you are in Rome at dusk you may have the opportunity to see the starlings in flight.  They rise together into the air, a black mass of perhaps 50,000 birds, to hunt insects for their dinner.  The flock is cohesive, but it is constantly changing shape as the birds move about in pursuit of prey.  At times it looks like a funnel cloud, then it seems to flex like a great hand, then it is a wide ribbon, undulating purposefully.  You are aware the flock is a multitude of individual birds, but what you are watching is a single coherent thing, a pulsing life-form with an obvious intelligence, efficiently carrying out the task of finding, catching, and ingesting food.  Scientists tells us that there is no leader, that the flock makes decisions without any centralized system of command.  They call this emergent organization, which sounds inefficient and slow.  It isn’t.  The flock doesn’t take flight or turn or change shape gradually.  Despite its great mass, it can change direction in less than a second–so fast you catch your breath.  The flock seems not only to have a collective mind, but also to be able to change that mind in an instant.  Another thing: the mass can also change color or transparency almost instantly.  When the flat of their wings is facing you, the flock is solid black.  But as they fly toward you or away, as they show you their wings’ blade-edge, the mass changes, through dark gray, to silver, and then it even sometimes disappears entirely.  The whole flock, 50,000 birds, disappears in an instant.  And then before you can process what you are seeing, it reemerges again as fast as it vanished.  All of this is true.  You can see it on YouTube.

It seems the recent proliferation of relatively leaderless political movements forces us to at least consider the possibility that when we think about political mobilization, it might be OK again to look to the natural world for models.

Hobbes famously rejects this idea. In defending his argument that we need Leviathan, he dismisses the possibility of emergent human self-organization.  He gives (in Chapter 17) a long list of reasons why this is impossible: competition, reason, free will, language, etc.  Each of these reasons is rooted in the premise that humans are individual monads, each of whom has an individual will and individual interests that often vary from those of the whole community.

Deleuze and Guattari wage a campaign to dismantle this monad.  They very much want to unsettle the idea that we are self-contained individuals that can make independent and conscious choices outside of our embeddedness in a community of others.  Since Hobbes argues his Leviathan is necessary precisely because of the free will of such individuals, Deleuze and Guattari explore how we might pull those individuals apart.  They propose a process of carefully dismantling the self (as well as the body), of understanding ourselves as extremely complex multiplicities or assemblages that are embedded in a network of millions of other such assemblages.  In this vision, we can still be functionally coherent entities, but we more like a loose bundle in a network than a sealed-off monad.  We are radically open to our outside.  The various elements of our assemblage are subject to continual reshuffling, and elements are always joining and leaving (Thousand Plateaus, pp. 341-342).  Deleuze and Guattari are suggesting that each assemblage/self is constantly exchanging matter, ideas, emotions, affects with many other assemblages.  These assemblages all arise out of the same plane of immanence; each is simply a different contingent arrangement of the same shared stuff, both physically and metaphysicially.  They are following Nietzsche here (and even Plato before him), in his insistence that the soul is a complicated social structure rather than a single unified entity (Beyond Good and Evil, p. 20).

Hardt and Negri help make Deleuze and Guattari’s abstract line of thinking usefully relevant to the question of emergent organization.  They argue that contemporary neurobiology suggests that the human brain operates much more like Deleuze and Guattari’s assemblage that like a discrete, self-contained organ.  The brain

does not function according to a centralized model of intelligence with a unitary agent.  Thought is better understood, the scientists tell us, as a chemical event or the coordination of billions of neurons in a coherent pattern.  There is no one that makes a decision in the brain, but rather a swarm, a multitude that acts in concert (Multitude, p. 337).

The flock of starlings, the human brain, the masses of people in the squares of Europe in 2011, these are all multitudes.  For Deleuze and Guattari the naturalism objection misses the point because unlike Hobbes they place humans very firmly in the natural sphere.  They contend that we are qualitatively the same sort of thing, made out of the same sort of stuff as an ant hill or a flock of starlings.  It seems to me this is a radical break from Hobbes and most modern political theory.  It means there is little difference between trying to get n soldiers to fire in unison without a general (as they put it in their example) and trying to get a single soldier to do so.  Either way, a large multitude of elements must be coordinated with no central intelligence and no unitary agent.  It is therefore not an implausible fantasy, this emergent organization, because it happens constantly, every time a person makes a decision or a flock of starlings turns or an unplanned crowd gathers, n soldiers without a general have to be organized to fire in unison.

Deleuze and Guattari offer the image of the wolf pack to suggest what it should be like, to be a part of a self-organized mass.  As with the flock, their pack operates as a band of equals with no central intelligence.  For each wolf, it is imperative to remain with the pack, for wolves must hunt together to survive.  However, each must also avoid being drawn into the center of the pack, where it will be destroyed.  “In becoming-wolf,” they tell us, “the important thing is the position of the mass, and above all the position of the subject itself in relation to the pack or wolf-multiplicity” (Thousand Plateaus, p. 29).  They recount the dream of a girl called Franny:

I am on the edge of the crowd, at the periphery; but I belong to it, I’m attached to it by one of my extremities, a hand or foot. I know that the periphery is the only place I can be, that I would die if I let myself be drawn into the center of the fray, but just as certainly if I let go of the crowd. This is not an easy position to stay in, it is even very difficult to hold, for these beings are in constant motion and their movements are unpredictable and follow no rhythm. They swirl, go north, then suddenly east; none of the individuals in the crowd remains in the same place in relation to the others. So I too am in perpetual motion; all this demands a high level of tension, but it gives me a feeling of violent, almost vertiginous, happiness (p. 29).

Deleuze and Guattari approve: “a very good schizo dream. To be fully a part of the crowd and at the same time completely outside it, removed from it: to be on the edge…” (p. 29).

Becoming-starlings.  Violent, vertiginous happiness.  Another world is possible.



One thought on “Bird Democracy

  1. cool post. we do need to remember though that this kind of emergent organisation isn’t an intrinsically good thing, and that certain aspects of capitalism are organised in a similar manner – d&g have their fans in the corporate world and the idf as well as in radical movements

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