Information as the Image of Thought:A Deleuzian Analysis
In this essay I take up the scope and nature of information in its relation to thought. To be precise, I argue that information constitutes the contemporary image of thought and, although information has become ubiquitous, we can date its arrival to Hayek's 1945 essay "The Use of Knowledge in Society." Information is no longer merely a metaphor for thinking about or describing thought, I suggest; rather, information is, at bottom, the sole content of thought and thinking is nothing other than the processing of information.
Gilles Deleuze, information, image of thought, F. A. Hayek, linguistics
It is now commonplace to refer to the contemporary era as the Information Age. So common, in fact, that some take this as an indication that the Information Age is over.1 Putting aside rumors of the Information Age's untimely demise, I take up in this essay the scope and nature of information in its relation to thought. To be precise, I argue that information constitutes the contemporary image of thought. I'm taking "image of thought" here in its Deleuzian sense to mean that information is no longer merely [End Page 489] a metaphor for thinking about or describing thought; rather, information is, at bottom, the sole content of thought, and thinking is nothing other than the processing of information. We can see this tendency most clearly in Luciano Floridi's Philosophy of Information, where he argues that information is first philosophy.2 This tendency in philosophy is paralleled in every discipline from physics and biology to psychology and economics, and indeed (and as usual) philosophy is a lagging indicator here. In every case, however, the methods of the discipline have been reorganized around information and its processing, regardless of whether the processor is reproduction and the information genetic, or whether the information is quanta and the processor the physical universe. The same holds true for prices and markets and concepts and thought. In order to unpack what it means for information to be the contemporary image of thought, I begin with the concept as it appears across Deleuze's corpus. From there I move to what I take to be the leading gesture in the shift toward information in economics, philosophy, and linguistics.
The Image(s) of Thought
In Difference and Repetition, Gilles Deleuze argues that philosophy has been dominated by a dogmatic, moral, representational image of thought, THE image of thought. The task of Difference and Repetition, then, becomes not merely to make the image of thought nondogmatic, nonmoral, and non-representational but to create a philosophy that "would discover its authentic repetition in a thought without Image."3 Indeed, the tenor of Difference and Repetition as a whole suggests that "image" in itself is inherently dogmatic, moral, and representational. In contrast to this, texts and lectures before and after Difference and Repetition suggest a succession of images of thought rather than a singular, epoch-spanning, capital-I Image of thought. For example, Nietzsche and Philosophy speaks of a "new image of thought."4 Lectures from 1973 and 1980 speak of "the image of thought in dualism" and "the heroic image of thought" respectively.5 What Is Philosophy? identifies the image of thought with the plane of immanence. Laying out a new plane of immanence thus creates a new image of thought.6 Finally, A Thousand Plateaus proposes a new science, "noology," that "is precisely the study of images of thought, and their historicity."7 [End Page 490]
If we bracket the question of whether there is a single image of thought or multiple successive (and perhaps contemporaneous) images of thought, what are some characteristics of an image of thought? To begin with, an image of thought is "prephilosophical" common sense. It's what "every-body knows." The importance and power of common sense is that it is extraordinarily difficult to call into question. Indeed, by articulating concepts in relation to common sense they immediately gain a force they would not otherwise have. We can see this clearly in a brief discussion of "work" from A Thousand Plateaus. Here Deleuze and Félix Guattari show that in the nineteenth century the understanding of "labor" undergoes a transformation. Labor is now no longer understood as accomplishing a task or the application of a skill set; rather, it is the application of force over time. In short, beginning in the nineteenth century, political economy borrows a concept from physics. This concept brings with it related concepts such as friction and entropy, which take the form of a concern with efficiency in political economy.8 Even though political economy borrows its conception of "work" from physics, the underlying image of thought is "the machine," an image of thought that trades on the idea that humans and material are related to one another in mechanistic causality. The concept of work simply measures the difference between two states of the machine.
Another key component of the image of thought is the erasure of metaphor. A new image of thought or plane of immanence is characterized by a shift in common sense or "what everybody knows." In the case of "work" the history of economics shows a concerted shift toward using the language of physics to produce economic models. "Labor" becomes defined by what can be explained in terms of force applied over time.9 What underlies this shift in vocabulary, according to Deleuze and Guattari's analysis, is a shift in metaphor from "organism" to "machine."10 This vocabulary then finds its way into everyday language. What this process obscures is the very metaphor that animates the change in vocabulary. Common sense quickly converts the similitude of labor and work to an identity. It is no longer the case that illuminating parallels can be drawn between labor and work, because labor simply is work. In precisely the same way, reality simply is a machine. Furthermore, the relations among the parts are subject to a mechanistic causal analysis. An image of thought transforms a metaphor into an ontology. [End Page 491]
Information and Economics
In what follows I argue that the contemporary image of thought is established in the mid-twentieth century and remains dominant to this day. This new image of thought is information. That is, it is increasingly commonplace to convert traditional epistemological and ontological categories into information and its processing. When I ask my students what knowledge is, they answer "information." When I ask my students what learning is, they say "acquiring new information." In biology, DNA is often described as a code, and even though there are ways to think about codes that do not involve information, what DNA codes is described as "genetic information." My primary concern here is uncovering the source of this tendency to describe reality informationally. We can date the establishment of information as the image of thought quite precisely, I think, to F. A. Hayek's seminal essay, "The Use of Knowledge in Society," written in 1945.11 To be clear at the outset, I am not claiming that Hayek invents information as such. My claim is that by the time Hayek writes his essay, the distribution and processing of information was already seen as one of the central problems in economics. What Hayek does in this essay is twofold. First, he argues that the distribution and processing of information is not one problem among many in economics but, in fact, the problem. Second, he argues that previous economic theories failed to take into account the way that markets distribute and process information. Hayek's solution, as is well known, is to argue against centrally planned economies in favor of market economies. Importantly, however, what he does not do is actually define what he means by "information." He simply takes information as a given that must be taken into account when answering the question with which he opens the article, "What is the problem we wish to solve when we try to construct a rational economic order?"12
According to Hayek, a centrally planned economy, since it controls prices, cannot construct a rational economic order, because price rigidity robs the consumer of information needed to make a rational choice. He writes,
We must look at the price system as such a mechanism for communicating information if we want to understand its real function—a function which, of course, it fulfills less perfectly as prices grow more rigid. (Even when quoted prices have become quite rigid, however, [End Page 492] the forces which would operate through changes in price still operate to a considerable extent through changes in the other terms of the contract.) The most significant fact about this system is the economy of knowledge with which it operates, or how little the individual participants need to know in order to be able to take the right action. In abbreviated form, by a kind of symbol, only the most essential information is passed on and passed on only to those concerned. It is more than a metaphor to describe the price system as a kind of machinery for registering change, or a system of telecommunications which enables individual producers to watch merely the movement of a few pointers, as an engineer might watch the hands of a few dials, in order to adjust their activities to changes of which they may never know more than is reflected in the price movement.13
This passage is remarkable for the concision and prescience with which it summarizes several features of what is now called the "information economy," while at the same time bolstering the idea that information is the image of thought. First, Hayek unabashedly uses ontological language here: The "real function" of prices is to communicate information. To the degree that prices are artificially stabilized (as in a centrally planned economy), less information is communicated, and the economy is thereby less rational. Second, there are two epistemological claims implicit in Hayek's argument. The first claim is the equation of information and knowledge. It's clear from the passage that Hayek is using the phrases "mechanism for communicating information" and "economy of knowledge" interchangeably. The second epistemological claim is that prices, when placed in a differential system, compress and contain "only the most essential information." Hayek marvels at how little information is required "to take the right action." The economy of knowledge is, in the end, for Hayek nothing other than the way in which information is processed, thus eliminating the metaphorical character of markets as information processers. Markets simply are information processors, and prices are the information they process.
As Philip Mirowski and Edward Nik-Khah argue, Hayek's recasting of economics in terms of information took hold in large part because of ground already prepared by technological advances spurred by World War II. The military was keenly interested in communications technology, particularly cryptography, as well as human–machine feedback mechanisms such as radar.14 Shortly after the war, two theorists who had assisted [End Page 493] in these technological advances, Claude Shannon and Norbert Wiener, published landmark studies. Both were published in 1948, and although Wiener's Cybernetics made the biggest initial public splash, Shannon's "A Mathematical Theory of Communication" has probably had the longest lasting impact.15 The influence of Shannon and Wiener, however, made it imperative that neoclassical economists respond to Hayek's shift to information. Thus, even though neoclassical economists disagreed vehemently with Hayek about the possibility of correcting markets, they nonetheless granted the field to him by agreeing that markets process information.
Deleuze and Guattari make explicit reference to this shift in economics in A Thousand Plateaus as the third age of the machine. They write, "If motorized machines constituted the second age of the technical machine, cybernetic and informational machines form a third age that reconstructs a generalized regime of subjection: recurrent and reversible 'humans-machines systems' replace the old nonrecurrent and nonreversible relations of subjection between the two elements; the relation between human and machine is based on internal, mutual communication, and no longer on usage or action."16 There are a couple of important things to note about Deleuze and Guattari's characterization. First, notice that economy is part of a larger machinic system that organizes the relation between humans and technology. Crucially, the basis of that organization is communication rather than use; that is, there is a fundamental difference for Deleuze and Guattari between operating a drill press for a wage and watching YouTube videos of drill presses being used on an iPhone. It is the latter activity, they imply, that organizes our society and constitutes our subjectivity. This is the third machinic age. Second, notice that this is a rather recent development. The shift from metaphor to an image of thought must elide the historical development of "what everybody knows." Even though everyone grants that there was a time before we thought in terms of information, the idea is treated as a "discovery" rather than a "creation." "At long last someone with the acuity to see what's really been the case all along." Or, as Eric Beinhocker succinctly summarizes in The Origin of Wealth, "Economies are built out of information. This has been true from the Stone Age to our knowledge economy today."17 In contrast to the narrative of discovery and retrojection posited by those who take information to be common sense, Deleuze and Guattari argue that it is the latest development of the interaction between [End Page 494] capitalism's axiomatic of decoded flows and their models of realization in various state-forms.18
Information Beyond Economics
While there is no doubt much more to be said about information, economics, and the rise of neoliberalism, I turn now to a few places where Deleuze and Guattari directly address the role of information. They briefly examine, for example, in What Is Philosophy? the role that it is playing in philosophy. They write, "Philosophy has not remained unaffected by the general movement that replaced Critique with sales promotion. The simulacrum, the simulation of a packet of noodles, has become the true concept; and the one who packages the product, commodity, or work of art has become the philosopher, conceptual persona, or artist."19 Here Deleuze and Guattari argue that philosophy's self-perception has shifted from contemplation to reflection to communication. At the precise moment that philosophy declares itself to be communication (and thus reinterprets its history in terms of communication), it opens itself up to co-option by other fields that also specialize in communication, such as "computer science, marketing, design, and advertising."20 These fields claim to be the true concept creators. After all, what is a concept but information to be communicated? An illustration of this can be found by simply going to the website philosophy.com. What one finds there is has nothing to do with academic philosophy; rather, one finds a "wellbeing beauty brand where science and inspiration meet." Philosophy is a company that promises to "inspire beautiful days with effortless scents, poetic words and our philanthropic initiative in support of mental health."21 Philosophy is now a brand.
In A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari take up information in a number of contexts. They speak of genetics, economics, and even address information theory directly in "Faciality."22 Their most extended discussion of information, though, concerns language. In the "Postulates of Linguistics" they examine the way in which hierarchical thinking, particularly a Chomskian universal grammar, dominates language. Interestingly, if we take "postulate" in its Kantian sense we come very close to an image of thought for linguistics. For Kant, a postulate is what must be presupposed [End Page 495] in order to make a judgment. In this regard, Kant's claim in the Critique of Practical Reason is that God and immortality must be presupposed in order to make a moral judgment.23 Analogously, what linguistics presupposes in order to make its claims are that:
1. Language is informational and communicational.24
2. Language can be studied in itself without reference to anything extrinsic.25
3. Language is a homogenous system.26
4. Only standard languages can be studied.27
Deleuze and Guattari's criticism of all four postulates can be summarized in the single proposition: "Language is made not to be believed but obeyed, and to compel obedience." They further illustrate this idea by quoting a line from Georges Darien's L'épaulette, "The baroness has not the slightest intention of convincing me of her sincerity; she is simply indicating that she prefers to see me pretend to agree."28 For Deleuze and Guattari, then, language conceived as compelling obedience is composed of what they call "order-words." For my purposes here we can examine how the proposal of order-words undermines the claim that language is informational and communicational. On the face of it, the idea that the purpose of language is obedience is absurd. Who could deny that the purpose of language is to communicate? Am I not at this moment trying to communicate the role of information in contemporary thought? Were not Deleuze and Guattari trying to communicate their philosophy by writing all these books? Didn't they want to be understood? Doesn't everyone want to be understood? Otherwise, why speak? Why write? Just to be clear, Deleuze and Guattari are not claiming that language never communicates. They are claiming that one need not presuppose that the function of language is to communicate information.
What kind of solution are Deleuze and Guattari advocating here? How are we to think about language without presupposing the communication of information? Answering these questions condenses two themes that are found throughout Deleuze's work. The first is the creation of the new. Whether Deleuze is looking at science, art, or philosophy, his primary focus is the way in which something new can arise in each field. Even more broadly, life itself is defined by this creative activity.29 The second theme is that the creation of the new is never ex nihilo; it always begins with the [End Page 496] destabilization of something stable. Deleuze and Guattari write, "This is how it should be done: Lodge yourself on a stratum [something stable] experiment with the opportunities it offers & have a small plot of new land at all times."30 With regard to language order-words are the stability that we can experiment with in order to create something new. In this case, the new that is created Deleuze and Guattari call "pass-words."31
There is, I think, much more work to be done on information in its physical, biological, anthropological, and indeed philosophical registers. Deleuze and Guattari do have an extended discussion of information theory in A Thousand Plateaus.32 At its origin, information theory was part of an attempt to solve the problem of signal degradation over long-distance telephone lines. Claude Shannon, in his groundbreaking "Mathematical Theory of Communication," single-handedly invents information theory when he proposes to treat transmissions as discrete particles rather than a wave. He calls these particles "bits" (short for "binary digits").33 This shift from the continuous to the discrete is a recurring motif throughout the history of thought. In this case, however, rather than a discrete unit that measures length, weight, or energy, the "bit" is a measure of information. The bit no longer measures just signal clarity; it also measures the processing power of the human brain, how much information is contained in the human genome, and it is even a measure of what escapes the destructive power of a black hole.34 As the usefulness of the bit as a discrete unit of measure expands, I am interested in what that means for thought itself. What are the boundaries of thought if its image is information and the bit is the discrete unit of its measure? As I noted at the outset, Deleuze and Guattari call the study of images of thought "noology." A noology of information would explain the historicity and contingency of it as the contemporary image of thought. Furthermore, in keeping with the trajectory of Deleuze's philosophical project a noology would also show the limits of information. The first way that noology can demonstrate these limits is by continually highlighting the metaphorical use of information. This will flag any slippages from metaphor to ontology. Ultimately, however, the task is to create something new. As we saw in the discussion of language above, the creation of something new is not creation ex nihilo, but an experimentation with possibilities that are already present. [End Page 497]
1. Mike Wadhera, "The Information Age is Over; Welcome to the Experience Age," TechCrunch, May 9, 2016, https://techcrunch.com/2016/05/09/the-information-age-is-over-welcome-to-the-experience-age/ (accessed January 20, 2018).
5. Deleuze, Le Cours de Gilles Deleuze, March 26, 1973. https://www.webdeleuze.com/textes/167; Deleuze, Le Cours de Gilles Deleuze, May 20, 1980. https://www.webdeleuze.com/textes/129. Accessed 1/09/18.
14. Philip Mirowski and Edward Nik-Khah, The Knowledge We Have Lost in Information: The History of Information in Modern Economics (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 46. A fuller analysis would also include Foucault's The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1978–1979, trans. Graham Burchell (New York: Picador, 2008) and Wendy Brown's Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism's Stealth Revolution (New York: Zone Books, 2015).
15. Claude E. Shannon, "A Mathematical Theory of Communication, Bell System Technical Journal 27, no. 3 (1948): 379–423. Norbert Wiener, Cybernetics: Or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1948). For a detailed discussion of Shannon, Wiener, and their relation to one another, see Gleick, The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood (New York: Vintage, 2011), 204–68.
29. See, for example, Daniel Smith, "The Conditions of the New," in Essays on Deleuze, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2012): 235–55, and my Deleuze and Guattari's A Thousand Plateaus: A Critical Introduction and Guide (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2015).
32. It's not clear, given the numerous references to "information science," particularly in "Rhizome," whether Deleuze and Guattari rigorously distinguish between information theory and information science. Only "Faciality" uses the phrase "information theory" (theorie de l'information) in A Thousand Plateaus.