Assemblage Theory digital humanities object-oriented rhetoric

philosophy, simulation, and digital humanities

Manuel DeLanda's Philosophy and Simulation is an interesting investigation into the role mathematical, computerized simulations can play in exploring questions of ontology. While the text does stand alone, it would be useful to be familiar with DeLanda's earlier work, specifically his development of assemblage theory and mechanism-independent universal singularities. As DeLanda observes, "once we add the mechanism-independent component the concept of emergence leads to two important epistemological consequences: it explains why we can use partial models to learn about reality and it provides an account for the capacity of those models to mimic the behavior of the processes they model" (13-14).

What does that mean? Well, first, as is postulated in object-oriented ontology, it is not necessary to account for the operation of parts of a whole in order to understand the whole's operation. Put differently, the whole is other than the sum of its parts. To use the ubiquitous water example, oxygen and hydrogen have capacities in relation to one another that allow them to form water molecules under certain conditions. Water, however, performs in a way that neither hydrogen or oxygen does. To continue, if one wanted, as DeLanda does, to examine convection currents in water, it is not necessary to first measure the kinetic energy of each molecule. One can study convection itself and identify qualities of that assemblage that are not visible on the molecular level. This is why, as is argued in OOO, we cannot find ontological answers by finding the "smallest" object.

Second, as Delanda continues, "if processes as different in detail as a convection cell and a chemical clock can exhibit the same behavior perhaps mathematical equations can also display that behavior" (14). This is what is borne out in this book: an examination of how mathematical simulations can display the same behaviors as molecules, gasses, prebiotic soup, genetic material, neural nets, and then later, trade, language, and social organization. In this sense, this book is something of a prequel to Delanda's last book, which focused on social assemblages. Here Delanda is making an interesting argument that goes in a very different direction than Baudrillard's theories of simulation. Following upon Deleuze's work, Delanda contends that there exist real but abstract mechanism-independent universal singularities that participate in the ontology of objects/assemblages. I know humanists are skeptical of the notion of universal, but 

The term "universal" is used for two related reasons: first, the events in which tendencies are manifested and capacities exercised may be entirely different in detail and yet be shaped by the same singularities; and second, two series of events each constituting a different mechanism may nevertheless possess overlapping possibility spaces and display common features that are mechanism-independent. (186)

I won't do justice to Delanda's whole argument here. The book is largely an extrapolation of this argument and details multiple examples of simulations using these mathematical approaches to investigate ontological questions from the inception of life to the development of social hierarchies. Delanda's arguments here fit well within his existing assemblage theory, as well as the more abstract and mathematical Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy. As such, this book works well for me in thinking about how an assemblage-driven ontological theory might work with digital humanities.

For example, let's say that one wanted to investigate the assemblage of first-year composition student writing at my university. Starting with that first point, we can dispense with studying individual students. For one thing, if this is an assemblage, we ought to be able to swap students/parts in and out without altering its overall operation. Second, we might want to identify the mechanism-independent singularities that are at work in this assemblage.

Every assemblage must be treated as a unique historical entity characterized both by a set of actual emergent properties (making it an individual singularity) as well as by the structure of possibility spaces defining its tendencies and capacities (a structure defined by universal singularities ) . This structure may be termed the diagram of the assemblage. (188)

Obviously, not all assemblages are alike. Some have a greater degree of regularity, while others are prone to mutation. Clearly composition is a highly territorialized assemblage, producing fairly typical results year in and year out. Delanda ends his book with some examination of pyramid building. That's not a bad analogy for composition, which is also a decades long, monolithic project, though without the stupendous results. However it is a bureaucratic, hierarchical assemblage, powered by a skilled workforce (the students) to serve a larger social goal in the maintenance of authority. I think it would be quite possible to model the operation of this assemblage along the same lines as Delanda does. One could likely do the same thing in other fields, for example, examining the assemblage of literary production in a particular period or community.

This is how we ultimately move away from the premise that these texts are created by individuals.

Now I do think that it is fair to say that despite the fact that individual variation does not matter for the assemblage, it does matter for the individual. The particular kinetic energy of a particular molecule does not matter for understading the assemblage of convection. The particular text of a particular student does not matter for understanding  the assemblage of composition, but it does matter to the student. Just as the particular things "I" write matter to me in a unique way. When Delanda explores the development of trade among early humans, he notes that it doesn't matter which individuals from a community are involved in that trade. Perhaps it doesn't from a systemic perspective, but it probably does for the trader.

Of course we can investigate assemblages at the level of the writer. For example, a blog assemblage is made up of various components that are decomposable but also irreducible. This particular blog is a particular assemblage that emerged, lives, and will eventually die. However it is also part of a larger system of blogs. We can study such systems, and maybe that would make more sense than studying the larger composition assemblage if our goal is to educate individual writers rather than build a larger composition assemblage. Perhaps tinkering at the programmatic level does alter the operation of the parts, much in the same way as turning up the heat on the stove changes the convection patterns and the kinetic energy of individual molecules in the pot of water. However the effects are likely not as deterministic as systematic theories of education would like to believe. And for this we can all likely be thankful.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.