Assemblage Theory realist rhetoric Rhetoric/Composition

thinking with Manuel Delanda in rhetoric and composition

Perhaps you are familiar with the recent and excellent essay collection, Thinking with Bruno Latour in Rhetoric and Composition (edited by Paul Lynch and Nathaniel Rivers). If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it, but I’m not here to talk about it today. It’s just the inspiration for the title of this missive, where I playfully ask why don’t we have a similar book about Manuel Delanda?

The occasion for this post is the publication of Delanda’s latest book Assemblage Theory, which, if I were to compare it to a book of Latour’s it would be like Reassembling the Social, in that it represents an overview of the assemblage theory which Delanda has built over the course of his career in much the same way as Reassembling the Social is “an introduction to actor-network theory.” Though one could write a dissertation on the differences between Delanda and Latour, assemblage theory and actor-network theory have some key similarities in that they both find inspiration in the work of Deleuze and Guattari. Latour terms himself an empiricist (of a sort) and Delanda importantly calls himself a realist philosopher and was among the earliest “new materialists.” Put from a different perspective, I imagine Latour and Delanda annoy many of the same people in very similar ways. That said, if a book like Thinking with Bruno Latour is part of growing interest in our field in new materialism (or as Lynch and Rivers put it”Rhetoric’s new thing is, in fact, things.”) then Delanda should be a part of that interest.

So why don’t we have a Thinking with Manuel Delanda book?

Pragmatically speaking, it isn’t hard to come up with an answer. Not that many people in our field know much about Manuel Delanda. Rhetoricians have been writing with some frequency about Latour since the 80s, and Latour is simply a more widely-cited and better known scholar across the humanities. So in market terms, I don’t know if a book with that title would really fly. But for my purposes that response just begs the question why don’t rhetoricians know more about Delanda?

I suppose Delanda’s work is strange and difficult. War in the Age of Intelligent Machines and A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History attend to matters fairly far afield from rhetoric and composition. They take up difficult concepts from Deleuze and Guattari. As the opening of Nonlinear History  notes, despite the title, it’s a book of philosophy not history. Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy is, if anything, even more difficult in its deployment of scientific and mathematical concepts. It may be Latour that we most often (and appropriately) identify with science studies, but Delanda really takes up science and math in powerful but also very complex ways. And all of that seems quite distant from our disciplinary interests.

As you might imagine, I’ve long felt differently about this. My book The Two Virtuals took up Delanda’s work, and in ways that have only more recently come clear to me, there are important fundamental connections. Basically, the “two” virtuals in the title are the “virtual reality” we associate with digital media and the “virtual philosophy” that comes from Deleuze (and Delanda). In what I think is an obvious but still overlooked point, the “composition” in rhetoric and composition asks “how are texts made?” The answer to that question stands on one’s more fundamental ontological commitments. That is, any question about composing is a question of ontology. Our earliest disciplinary answers, which created the writing process, had empiricist commitments; our more contemporary, post-process answers about power, ideology, and discourse have idealist commitments. Delanda’s realist ontology is quite different from either (and it is different from Latour’s “second empiricism” though I think one might deploy both usefully, even if they are not fully compatible).

At it’s core, Delanda’s assemblage theory relies on two conceptions: emergence and exteriority.  This is an over-simplification, but basically emergence asserts that when an assemblage forms (from other assemblages, yes all the way down in the actual world), it takes on new properties and capacities that were not available to its components. Here are two examples: a single molecule of water cannot boil, but a pot of water can; a roomful of phds cannot grant degrees, but a university can.  In familiar terms, the whole is more than the sum of its parts. The concept of exteriority goes the other direction. It asserts the ontological independence of the parts. So I am a professor at UB but I can leave that job and still be me (though a version of me with different capacities); a water molecule can be part of an ice sculpture but once it melts way it is still water. Delanda’s focus has been on exploring the processes by which assemblages form.

If Latour offers a powerful empirical practice where one can follow human and nonhuman actors to describe how particular rhetorical acts are composed (or instaurated, to use Latour’s term), Delanda provides a way to investigate the machines by which these assemblages operate. Just to think about something very familiar to all of us as an example: the scholarly article. Latour would offer us an empirical practice for observing and interviewing scholars as they compose and publish an article. One could consider the nonhumans involved in the composing practice and follow the network through editors, reviewers, and so on. One would consider how the author describes the genre of the article and how she is “made to act” but her relations with it. Delanda’s assemblage theory allows one to work at other scales however, both larger and smaller. The author composing an article is an assemblage. The interactions within her brain are assemblages. The discipline is an assemblage. The genre is an assemblage. Assemblage theory describes the mechanisms by which assemblages work, but importantly they are not mechanisms that convey specific characteristics to the assemblages that they form.

I know I’m not really doing justice to the concept here, especially when there are many other texts that take up this matter in far greater detail, including the occasion for this post, Manuel Delanda’s Assemblage Theory. I’m hoping it’s a text that will lead to more engagement in our discipline with this work.

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