Assemblage Theory

the essential DeLanda

Ok, a modest pun. This post examines DeLanda's critique of essentialism in chapter two of A New Philosophy of Society as part of a cross-blog series of posts that began on Levi Bryant's Larval Subjects and will continue with

3. Persons and Networks
Archive Fire (michael)

4. Organizations and Governments
struggles with philosophy (Mark)

5. Cities and Nations
Philosophy in a Time of Error (Gratton)
Circling Squares

Summary of "Assemblages Against Essences"

DeLanda clearly establishes the chapter's central purpose:

While very few realists today would feel ontologically committed to assen the existence of eternal archetypes, there are subtler forms of essentialism in which essences are introduced when taxonomists reify the general categories produced by their classifications. It is therefore important to begin this chapter by explaining how assemblage theory does not presuppose the existence of reified generalities. (26)

Or perhaps to put it differently, to explain how assemblages work without reference to this kind of taxonomic essentialism. DeLanda begins by focusing on scientific classifications, particularly biological species. He argues that this process of reification is a result of a kind of reverse engineering of species

it starts with finished products (different chemical or biological species), discovers through logical analysis the enduring properties that characterize those products, and then mak('s these sets of properties into a defining essence (or a set of necessary and sufficient conditions to belong to a natural kind). To avoid reification we must instead focus on the historical processes that produce those products, with the term 'historical' referring to cosmological and evolutionary history in addition to human history. (28)

From this perspective, one would view species as assemblages that emerge (and die) over time. This brings us what I see as a key passage in this chapter:

Assemblage theory, as outlined in the previous chapter, avoids taxonomic essentialism through this maneuver. The identity of any assemblage at any level of scale is always the product of a process (territorialization and, in some cases, coding) and it is always precarious, since other processes (deterritorialization and decoding) can destabilize it. For this reason, the ontological status of assemblages, large or small, is always that of unique, singular individuals. In other words, unlike taxonomic essentialism in which genus, species and individual are separate ontological categories, the ontology of assemblages is flat since it contains nothing but differently scaled individual singularities (or hacceities). As far as social ontology is concerned, this implies that persons are not the only individual entities involved in social processes, but also individual communities, individual organizations, individual cities and individual nation-states. (28)

In short, whether one is speaking of an individual person, his/her species, communities or organizations he/she may join, nationality or whatever, each of these are individual assemblages and that person does not participate in those other assemblages due to some essential characteristic of his/her personhood but rather through historical processes of exposure/external relations. Where in taxonomic essentialism (as DeLanda terms it) the study of relations can be purely logical, in assemblage theory one must examine causal relations: "In short, analysis in assemblage theory is not conceptual but causal, concerned with the discovery of the actual mechanisms operating at a given spatial scale. On the other hand, the topological structure defining the diagram of an assemblage is not actual but virtual and mechanism independent, capable of being realized in a variety of actual mechanisms, so it demands a different form of analysis" (31). In this chapter, and throughout this book, DeLanda focuses on causal mechanisms as opposed to quasi-causal topologies, which were certainly a focus of his previous book, Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy

At this point DeLanda turns specifically to the question of social assemblages. Clearly social assemblages do not fit together like Russian dolls, as he points out; communities, organizations, networks, cities, nations, and so on interact and overlap with one another in various ways. He argues that these assemblages have an objective existence beyond that of the individuals that are their parts based on a principle of redundant causality. Essentially, if an interaction between two organizations could develop regardless of the particular individuals participating then we can acknowledge the objective existence of those groups. For example, since the NFL begins in earnest today, the players on the various teams will change from season to season but the rivalries between the teams remain as does the way the season is structured. In short, the Dallas Cowboys have an existence independent from the players on the team.

As DeLanda summarizes:

Much as biological species are not general categories of which animal and plant organisms are members, but larger-scale individual entities of which organisms are component parts, so larger social assemblages should be given the ontological status of individual emities: individual networks and coalitions; individual organizations and governments; individual cities and nation-states. This ontological manceuvre allows us to assert that all these individual entities have an objective existence independently of our minds (or of our conceptions of them) without any commitment to essences or reified generalities. On the other hand. for the manceuvre to work, the part-to-whole relation that replaces essences must be carefully elucidated. The autonomy of wholes relative to their parts is guaranteed by the fact that they can causally affect those parts in both a limiting and an enabling way, and by the fact that they can interact with each other in a way not reducible to their parts, that is, in such a way that an explanation of the interaction that includes the details of the component parts would be redundant. Finally, the ontological status of assemblages is two-sided: as actual entities all the differently scaled social assemblages are individual singularities, but the possibilities open to them at any given time are constrained by a distribution of universal singularities. the diagram of the assemblage, which is not actual but virtual. (40)

DeLanda goes on to make some clarifications, basically that

  1. Although assemblages emerge from somewhere, we should not overly focus on origins but rather on the mechanisms that maintain them.
  2. That social assemblages general develop from participation with other existing assemblages.
  3. That assemblages can interact on different spatial levels. He gives the example of Napoleonic warfare relying on assemblages on urban and national scales (e.g. motivated citizens), organization scales (e.g. restructuring of armies), and personal scales (Napoleon's charisma).

The chapter closes with some thoughts on temporal dimensions, which I want to address below.

Some thoughts

For DeLanda there is a strong connection between the maintenance of social assemblages over time and the operation of the third axis of his assemblages, the coding/decoding axis, that deals specifically with symbolic action. As he writes,

This transmission of linguistic materials helps maintain the identity of social assemblages across time much as the flow of genetic materials helps to preserve the identity of biological assemblages. As I said in the previous chapter, these specialized media of expression must themselves be considered assemblages, inhabiting the planet not as single general entities but as populations of concrete individual entities in part-to-whole relations: populations of individual sounds, words and sentences; populations of individual nuc!eotides, genes and chromosomes. 

DeLanda warns against falling into the "linguisticality of experience," by which he means something similar to correlationism "that perception is socially constructed" (45). At the same time, it is clear that this coding/decoding axis, which applies strictly to symbolic communication, creates assemblages that operate uniquely in a social context. It is crucial, of course, to remember that the coding/decoding axis does not occur without the others in place. That is, in order for an assemblage to pass along an effect of coding it must have material/expressive and territorializing/deterritorializing dimensions. For example, a middle school American history textbook operates on the coding axis in a way that we might investigate via its rhetoric. That textbook has its material/expressive qualities as a material object (e.g. hardcover, bound, black and white print with some color, etc.). It may convey certain affects (e.g. boredom, national pride, anxiety). As a textbook it establishes a particular territory for itself, e.g. a certain pedagogical authority, its situation within a school. However, inasmuch as one might now purchase this text on Amazon or visit the textbook's website, perhaps that territory is destabilized. Then there is the coded information in the text, which likely reinforces the territorializing operation of the text through its use of generic/rhetorical conventions. However, one could imagine an un-textbook that might decode that territory, creating more flexibility in the curriculum. Then clearly if one wants to consider the pedagogical experience here then we start to get into the exposure of assemblages to one another: schools, classrooms, textbooks, teachers, students, etc.

This takes me back to my earlier post regarding genres. As Levi noted about this, we could look at genres as essential categories, "Rather, we would look at how they grew, how they expanded, what mutations they underwent, where the branchings occurred that might allow for new speciations, and so on. None of this is restricted to genres, of course. This way of thinking about the world could be deployed for any sort of social group or institution or identity. The key point is that we would seek, as much as possible, the real connections that were forged and the trace of these encounters." This is my interest in using DeLanda's social assemblage theory to investigate the emergence of digital media scholarship. More to the point, however, I am excited by the possibility of turning social assemblage theory from a hermeneutic (i.e. a way of interpreting the truth how an existing genre formed) into a heuristic (a tool for inventing a new genre). 

More on that some other day.