Assemblage Theory Rhetoric/Composition

Manuel Delanda in rhet/comp?

Being somewhat in between projects right now, I’ve started working on an article that, at least at this point, begins with exploring the value of DeLanda’s assemblage theory for rhetoric and composition. DeLanda often comes up on this blog and has been an important thinker for me for 10-15 years at least. His earlier works were interesting to me but it was Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy (2002) that really demanded my attention as intersecting with and helping me develop my own thoughts at that time related to a Deleuzian posthumanism and new media.

However, aside from my own work, I find little treatment of DeLanda in rhetoric and composition. There are a couple passing references here and there. Those are typically to A New Philosophy of Society, which is a useful text and also one that is likely more accessible to humanists than Intensive Science, Philosophy and Simulation, Assemblage Theory, and some of the other texts that are more heavily mathematical and scientific in their subject matter. As far as I can tell, you won’t find more than a handful of citations of DeLanda across all the traditional major print rhet/comp journals combined. Most have none. His name starts to come up here and there in relation to the recent interest in new materialism, though he’s not often recognized as a central figure there, even though he coined the term in the mid-90s (as did Rosi Braidotti separately at roughly the same time).

One issue I’m not going to get into in the article that instead I’ll take up here is a speculation about why this is the case. I.e., why overlook DeLanda?

  1. The mathematical-scientific content. I already mentioned this, but it bears repeating. It’s not just that DeLanda talks about science. Science studies does that, and rhetoricians can obviously handle science studies. It’s that DeLanda isn’t really doing the critique of science thing. He’s developing a realist philosophy that is consistent with (though expands beyond) empirical science. I will not claim to understand all the science he references. It’s complicated, disciplinary stuff. Usually I get the gist of it, especially with some googling. But it’s hard to digest. Plus it’s a challenge to some entrenched disciplinary views to take up science that way. Maybe that’s a turn off.
  2. Dense philosophical content. To some extent rhet/comp has taken on the Derridas et al of the world. At least there’s been a place for such work. But that’s not everyone’s cup of tea. DeLanda is clearly building on Deleuze (and Guattari), though, especially since Intensive Science he’s developed his own version of assemblage theory. I think you combine that with the math-science stuff and it’s a kind of double-whammy. DeLanda’s aware of this himself, as he notes at the beginning of Intensive Science about the audience dangers of his work: “such a danger is evident in a book like this, which attempts to present the work of the philosopher Gilles Deleuze to an audience of analytical philosophers of science, and of scientists interested in philosophical questions.” Who knows if he ever reached that audience, but one can see how rhetoricians might not see themselves here.
  3. The “realist philosophy” controversy. The notion of proclaiming not only oneself but also Gilles Deleuze to be realist philosophers in the mid-90s might seem to be the height of absurdity. But that’s what DeLanda did. In that same introduction he describes realist philosophers as those “who grant reality full autonomy from the human mind, disregarding the difference between the observable and the unobservable, and the anthropocentrism this distinction implies.” Much of his work since then has gone on to articulate how a realist philosophy might operate without a reliance upon essentialism. To anyone who grew up intellectually bathed in postmodernism the idea of a contemporary realist philosophy seems simply out of bounds.
  4. The historical-material focus. Ours is a text-based field. Our lingering postmodern conceit is to focus on representation and ideology. DeLanda’s work has always been about energy and matter, whether the topic is bonds within atoms or the formation of trans-Atlantic trade routes. Though our discipline has no problem talking about  material consequences when making critiques, we’re almost always beginning and ending with language in a kind of immaterial way, or at least in a way that its materiality isn’t especially significant. I suppose that’s a consequence of being rhetoricians, but it’s also a way that makes DeLanda foreign.
  5. The nonhuman. And by this I mean that DeLanda’s work just isn’t anthropocentric. Of course it is in some respects. He is, after all, a human and likely has a central role in his own work. However, he tends to treat humans as just more assemblages, more individual singularities (i.e. actual, real, material, historical individuals) than as the central actors of history. I know one of the common concerns about new materialism is that it doesn’t grant humans enough agency or that it take agency away or something along those lines. Personally I think it’s very strange that scholars imagine theories have this grand agency-granting power one way or another. This wouldn’t be a realist philosopher’s view. However I would say this. One way that you can test if a realist philosophy has any value is by constructing practices based on its principles. That is, one way we can know the value of science is that its concepts inform technologies that actually work. That’s not to say that science is “true” but that it’s “true enough.” Still, rhetoric is such an anthropocentric discipline that it could be hard to take up theories that are less so like DeLanda’s. However this is the angle I’m taking up in my article–that the value in DeLanda’s realist-assemblage theory might be weighed by how its concepts lead to building things that work.

So those are some hypotheses as to why you don’t see much of DeLanda in rhetorical scholarship. Obviously I think that’s too bad, but one of my pet peeves about scholars is when they insist that others should be citing this or that person more. So I don’t mean to come off that way here. I will say one other thing as way of conclusion. I know that one other complaint about new materialism is that it’s a white male thing. There’s some merit to that (though really there’s a disproportionate number of white men all over the academy so it’s not surprising to find it here too to some degree). I think maybe that complaint does a disservice to the many excellent non-male rhetoricians doing work in new materialism and posthumanism. I’d note, fwiw, that Manuel DeLanda–who I will maintain is a central founding figure of this area of inquiry–is Mexican born in 1952 and living thereuntil arriving in NYC as a young man in 1975 (as near as I can tell from his biography). According to his Wikipedia page he did recently get a phd through the European Graduate School (where he’s the Gilles Deleuze chair) but otherwise he has a BFA and began his professional life as an experimental filmmaker in NYC. I don’t think he’s ever been a tenured professor anywhere. In short, though he has unarguably become one of the most prominent philosophers of our time, he has done so by taking a singular path.

2 replies on “Manuel Delanda in rhet/comp?”

I’ve long followed his career but not sure what it means to say someone who is almost entirely unknown (and even less read how many folks who know him off youtube or the like have read his books) in or out of the academy is “prominent”, I’ll be interested to see how you flesh out “the value in DeLanda’s realist-assemblage theory might be weighed by how its concepts lead to building things that work” as I find his work interesting but generally be too grand (not unlike the people who speculate about the “physics” of cities and the like) to be tested unlike say the projects of folks like John Law and co.


I’d say “almost entirely unknown” is hyperbolic. Even a quick Google scholar search turns up thousands of references. I’d agree that DeLanda’s work, like Deleuze and Guattari’s, is wide-ranging and grand in scope. At the same time though I find a great deal of precision in many of his examples. As for how I build things from his assemblage theory, you could click over to my vita. My article titled “Big Data Assemblies” or the one titled “Exposing Assemblages” (which is available online) would be two examples. I’ve got a couple more on the way. That said, I’d agree with you about the utility of actor-network theory as well. To speak perhaps in overly general terms, ANT is empirical (Latour might say “second empirical”) while assemblage theory is realist and speculative. I take up both, seeing their common foundation in Deleuze.


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