Assemblage Theory media studies

flat ontologies, machinic phyla, and the refrain

On Friday night I attended an intermedia performance of faculty and students. It was an impressive array of concepts, techniques, and expertise varying from dancers performing music with wearable computing devices to the sonification of data about sunsets and much more. There was (what I’d call) a posthuman DJ experience going on, where the interfaces for the performer as digital–software and hardware. It is my own predilection, foible even, to turn toward the conceptual rather than the aesthetic experience. But that’s what I’m thinking about here: specifically, how forces (and information, if you want to think of them as separate) move across distinct assemblages/beings.

The simplest example for us is when I speak to you. I create force through controlled exhalation and make sounds you decipher as speech. I won’t go through all the different processes involved there. Let’s just say it’s asymptotic, Xeno’s paradox. And yet, of course, it works. You do in fact pass me the salt. Why does it work? Let’s hypothesize that it’s some “minimal ethics,” perhaps what Diane Davis terms “response-ability.” It is a not-quite meeting of minds. We experience an obligation to understand one another. Sure, you could choose to ignore me and not pass the salt, but that’s different from not understanding me. Neither of us have the will to not understand things we understand (at least not at this basic level). [And we’d have to return to the psychology of this when discussing more complex matters, but that’s not today’s episode.]

Performances such as these attenuate these translations(?) and turn them into aesthetic experiences. They ask us to experience the “translations.” Obviously I’m uncomfortable with translation as a term. Part of that is Derrida’s line that translation is the passageway into philosophy. I’ll leave you to ponder that one. Also, translation makes us think of moving from one human language to another, and I’d prefer to avoid that connotation.

So let’s discuss flat ontology. It’s a term used in different ways but here I’m thinking of DeLanda’s articulation of how assemblages that operate at different spatiotemporal scales intersect (e.g., me as an assemblage and Homo sapiens as an assemblage). Digital computers, as assemblages, operate in a different spatiotemporal scale from their human users. They also intersect differently with strata (in deleuzoguattarian terms). The material history of computational media traces the development of new substrata within what Deleuze and Guattari termed a technological and semiological stratum. Assemblages weave their way through strata as computers rely upon the geological and technosemiotic in a manner analogous to our intersection with the biological and technosemiotic.

So part one (step one?) is mapping the flat ontological intersections of these assemblages operating at different spatiotemporal scales.

Then we might think about machine phyla and specifically phylogenesis. Hey, I know! Let’s look at some text:

We are not at all arguing for an aesthetics of qualities, as if the pure
quality (color, sound, etc.) held the secret of a becoming without measure, as in Philebus. Pure qualities still seem to us to be punctual systems: They are reminiscences, they are either transcendent or floating memories or seeds of phantasy. A functionalist conception, on the other hand, only considers the function a quality fulfills in a specific assemblage, or in passing from one assemblage to another. The quality must be considered from the standpoint of the becoming that grasps it, instead of becoming being considered from the standpoint of intrinsic qualities having the value of archetypes or phylogenetic memories.

ATP, p. 306

We may speak of a machinic phylum, or technological lineage, wherever we find a constellation of singularities, prolongable by certain operations, which converge, and make the operations converge, upon one or several assignable traits of expression

At the limit, there is a single phylogenetic lineage, a single
machinic phylum, ideally continuous: the flow of matter-movement, the flow of matter in continuous variation, conveying singularities and traits of expression. This operative and expressive flow is as much artificial as natural: it is like the unity of human beings and Nature. But at the same time, it is not realized in the here and now without dividing, differentiating. We will call an assemblage every constellation of singularities and traits deducted from the flow—selected, organized, stratified—in such a way as to converge (consistency) artificially and naturally; an assemblage, in this sense, is a veritable invention. Assemblages may group themselves into extremely vast constellations constituting “cultures,” or even “ages”; within these constellations, the assemblages still differentiate the phyla or the flow, dividing it into so many different phylas, of a given order, on a given level, and introducing selective discontinuities in the ideal continuity of matter-movement. The assemblages cut the phylum up into distinct, differentiated lineages, at the same time as the machinic phylum cuts across them all, taking leave of one to pick up again in another, or making them coexist.

ATP, p. 406

As I’m thinking about it, phylogenesis intersects with assemblages as capacities. For a material-historical and thus non-essentialist ontology, these are not “intrinsic qualities.” A lot of what’s going on in these passages is part of a larger ontological-philosophical conversation about qualities and ontology. Again, that’s another episode, preferably written by someone other than me. But we can think about the qualities of data in the intersection of machinic phylogenesis and assemblages.

Hold that thought. Let’s introduce the refrain. I won’t do the long quotes again. I’ll just point you to the beginning of “1837: Of the Refrain” and this video:

OK, one short quote:

In a general sense, we call a refrain any aggregate of matters of expression that draws a territory and develops into territorial motifs and landscapes (there are optical, gestural, motor, etc., refrains). In the narrow sense, we speak of a refrain when an assemblage is sonorous or “dominated” by sound

ATP p. 323

From an Anglophone perspective, refrain is a curious word, especially here in a translation from French. There is refrain in the sense of a chorus, which, etymologically comes from Middle French. And there is refrain as in restrain, and that “F” to “S” transition is typical of some words, also from Middle French. This is relevant here because the refrain restrains. I.e., it territorializes.

Now, departing from this close-ish reading, I’m seeking the capacities for the territorial expression of refraining (in both senses). These capacities can be traced through the material histories of both phylogenesis and assemblages. That is, capacities, which we might think of as memetic(?), emerge and evolve along a different (flat ontological?) space-time than assemblages and strata.

Performances such as the one I attended last night put the strain in refrain (if you can follow that OED “dad joke”). The image at the top of this post is Klee’s Twittering Machine, one of his most famous pieces. In addition to often decorating children’s bedrooms (according to Wikipedia), it is also the image at the start of A Thousand Plateaus chapter/plateau on the refrain. A depiction of birds on a wire attached to a crank, it connects with Deleuze and Guattari’s exploration of how bird songs establish territory. Of course today we might think of a different “twittering machine” and a more complex crank that activates the part biological and part machinic twitters. I’d suggest that Twitter is as much an intermedia performance as anything I witnessed the other night. While the refrain establishes territories, “On the Refrain” focuses on the departure from territories.

So I lied about no more long quotes for you to not read.

The assemblage no longer confronts the forces of chaos, it no longer uses the forces of the earth or the people to deepen itself but instead opens onto the forces of the Cosmos. All this seems extremely general, and somewhat Hegelian, testifying to an absolute Spirit. Yet it is, should be, a question of technique, exclusively a question of technique. The essential relation is no longer matters-forms (or substances-attributes); neither is it the continuous development of form and the continuous variation of matter. It is now a direct relation material-forces. A material is a molecularized matter, which must accordingly “harness” forces; these forces are necessarily forces of the Cosmos. There is no longer a matter that finds its corresponding principle of intelligibility in form. It is now a question of elaborating a material charged with harnessing forces of a different order: the visual material must capture nonvisible forces. Render visible, Klee said; not render or reproduce the visible. From this perspective, philosophy follows the same movement as the other activities; whereas romantic philosophy still appealed to a formal synthetic identity ensuring a continuous intelligibility of matter (a priori synthesis), modern philosophy tends to elaborate a material of thought in order to capture forces that are not thinkable in themselves. This is Cosmos philosophy, after the manner of Nietzsche. The molecular material has even become so deterritorialized that we can no longer even speak of matters of expression, as we did in romantic territoriality. Matters of expression are superseded by a material of capture.

ATP p. 342

So that’s one more bit about assemblage and refrain. You can see why assemblage is a tricky concept to parse. But for me the main point is that this is a question of technique.

We thus leave behind the assemblages to enter the age of the Machine, the immense mechanosphere, the plane of cosmicization of forces to be harnessed. Varese’s procedure, at the dawn of this age, is exemplary: a musical machine of consistency, a sound machine (not a machine for reproducing sounds), which molecularizes and atomizes, ionizes sound matter, and harnesses a cosmic energy. If this machine must have an assemblage, it is the synthesizer. By assembling modules, source elements, and elements for treating sound (oscillators, generators, and transformers), by arranging microintervals, the synthesizer makes audible the sound process itself, the production of that process, and puts us in contact with still other elements beyond sound matter. It unites disparate elements in the material, and transposes the parameters from one formula to another. The synthesizer, with its operation of consistency, has taken the place of the ground in a priori synthetic judgment: its synthesis is of the molecular and the cosmic, material and force, not form and matter, Grund and territory. Philosophy is no longer synthetic judgment; it is like a thought synthesizer functioning to make thought travel, make it mobile, make it a force of the Cosmos (in the same way as one makes sound travel).

ATP p. 343

Edgard Varese, often termed “the father of electronic music,” is an apt end point for this meandering, twittering, post, as his work would be foundational to the inter- and expanded media arts of Media Study and Friday’s performance in particular.

And of course the synthesizer. No longer synthesis in a Hegelian or Marxian perspective and judgment. Instead “a thought synthesizer,” the intermediated encounter of materials and forces. It is along these ontological lines that I’m investigating digital rhetoric, generative AI for example. ChatGPT is clearly not the synthesis of form and content exemplified in phonologocentric views of the world where “I speak my mind” and writing/media are pharmacological supplements. However it may be a thought synthesizer of materials and forces. We call these devices narrow AI because they are not capable of the intellectual capacities we imagine for ourselves.

But what if we are just another narrow intelligence? The notion of a “general intelligence,” which we just happen to possess through the material processes of evolution and naturecultures, relies upon a particular ontological position. I’m not sure it works here. Once we start to redefine thought as material-force then certainly we can see that, in the scale of the Cosmos, humans have occupied a fairly narrow niche with their so-called “general intelligence.” However, we are not necessarily or essentially limited to our ruts.

Intermedia, expanded media, and the media philosophies that purse them seek make invite thought to travel beyond those ruts.

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