Assemblage Theory new materialism

the flatness in flat ontology

I admit this is a weird, esoteric thing. You could call this “inside baseball,” but at least that term makes reference to a sport most people have heard of. So I apologize up front for those who have no idea what I’m talking about (though I’d be fascinated to know what made you click on the link in the first place).

That said, I’m going to offer a very brief recount of this matter. “Flat ontology” is a concept in new materialism. It comes up in various places but as far as I am concerned (and I’ve seen nothing to contrary) it was coined by Manuel DeLanda in Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy about 20 years ago. It is an extrapolation of Deleuze and Guattari (specifically assemblage theory). I’m sure somewhere in the 15+ years of this blog (to say nothing of my publications but also the rest of the world!), you can find some explanation of assemblage theory. I’m just going to assume that.

In the most straightforward terms I can manage… DeLanda wants to do away with essentialist hierarchies. From Nietzsche and Wittgenstein to Derrida we can learn why these hierarchies do not work. E.g., give me a definition of all chairs that includes all chairs but excludes anything else. DeLanda’s approaches this question through evolutionary biology. I won’t parse that here, neither will I say that he has it 100% right. Basically, he argues that there exists in history a species of humans and a population of individual humans. Of course the species and the individual human exist at different spatiotemporal scales.The species does not determine the individual, and the individual does not determine the species. Instead they exist alongside one another. One is not above the other. The relationship between the two is flat.

That’s it. That’s the shocking revelation. To be fair, the common concern is that “flattening” erases power relations. There’s no doubt that’s possible. That said, I can equally argue that Marxism erases gender, race, ethnic, etc. relations in favor of class or feminism does the same in favor of gender, etc. That’s why we have intersectionality, but even intersectionality can be deconstructed (because that’s how deconstruction works).

In short, if you don’t think “theory” can tear to shreds whatever it is that you value/believe in, then you don’t understand theory. And if your response is that “theory” must be the enemy then… well, we’ve been there before too.

So here’s the thing. I don’t believe in flat ontologies. I don’t have a flat ontology symbol around my neck. I haven’t invested flat ontology stock. Flat ontology is a method/concept. It’s a tool, a bluetooth mouse, an aspirin tablet, a wifi router, a blender, a COVID-19 vaccine injection, etc. Unlike those tools it requires some specialized expertise to employ so maybe it’s more like an F-22 fighter jet or a nuclear reactor.

Without the expertise, the conceptual operation of flat ontologies might not be of any use. (And that’s fine. I’m not arguing that anyone needs to know this stuff.) But basically, in the hands of an expert, flat ontologies are a way of describing the relations among humans, objects, groups, environments (n.b. these are all assemblages) that operate at different spatiotemporal scales. The only thing that is “flat” in all this is the assertion that of the things is not inherently predetermining of the others. Sure, in the course of history we might be able to account for the way that one assemblage (e.g. a legal system) exerts force upon another (e.g., individual citizens or citizens of a particular race), but that is completely differently from saying that assemblages of law exist in some essential way in relation to individual humans or groups of humans however defined.

It’s really just a way of approaching material history. And you can disagree with it. And you can choose a different method/concept/tool to work with. I am not a salesperson sticking my foot in your virtual front door.

One reply on “the flatness in flat ontology”

You wondered why someone might come to this article. Here’s why I came: I’m reading a SAGE Research Methods article about Studying Place, and the term “ontological flattening out” is used to describe “methods in place.” The other articles I found that mention flat ontology or ontological flattening helped me not at all; this is the first thing I’ve seen that makes some sense. However, I don’t think I’ll be able to explain it to my students! I’ll leave that to philosophy class. Thank you for writing this.


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