Assemblage and Asseblage Theory

“Assemblage” is a term used by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari to counter all claims to presence or center in favor of the many material ways that objects come together over time. As they explain in A Thousand Plateaus (1987), referring to the very book they are writing,

In a book, as in all things, there are lines of articulation or segmentarity, strata and territories; but also lines of flight, movements of deterritorialization and destratification. Comparative rates of flow on these lines produce phenomena of relative slowness and viscosity, or, on the contrary, constitutes an assemblage. A book is an assemblage of this kind, and as such is unattributable. It is a multiplicity. (3–4)

Rather than refer to unitary, essential things (a tree, an individual), Deleuze and Guattari wish to think about the multiplicity of things coming together over time that constitutes any action. So, they argue, for example, “There are no individual statements, only statement-producing machinic assemblages” (1987: 36).

The term, “assemblage,” has been taken up by Bruno Latour in his Actor-Network Theory and it has been developed into “assemblage theory” by Manuel DeLanda. DeLanda wishes to combat what he calls “the organismic metaphor” in social theory, which underscores “relations of interiority,” the conception that “wholes possess an inextricable unity in which there is a strict reciprocal determination between parts” (2006: 9). In other words, such theories represent complex wholes, like societies, as if they were organisms: “as bodily organs work together for the organism as a whole, so the function of social institutions is to work in harmony for the benefit of society” (8). DeLanda instead draws on Deleuze to argue for a theory of assemblages, where wholes are “characterized by relations of exteriority”: “These relations imply, first of all, that a component part of an assemblage may be detached from it and plugged into a different assemblage in which its interactions are different” (10). Rather than turn to organisms for a guiding metaphor, DeLanda explains, “Deleuze gravitates towards other kinds of biological illustrations, such as the symbiosis of plants and pollinating insects. In this case we have relations of exteriority between self-subsistent components— such as the wasp and the orchid—relations which may become obligatory in the course of coevolution” (11). DeLanda applies the same logic to organisms themselves, explaining: “Conceiving an organism as an assemblage implies that despite the tight integration between its component organs, the relations between them are not logically necessary but only contingently obligatory: a historical result of their close coevolution” (11–12). According to DeLanda, assemblage theory allows a social theorist to frame more effectively “the problem of the relationships between the micro- and macro-levels of social phenomena” (25).

DeLanda’s goal is to avoid what he terms “taxonomic essentialism”; such essentialism “starts with finished products (different chemical or biological species), discovers through logical analysis the enduring properties that characterize those products, and then makes these sets of properties into a defining essence (or a set of necessary and sufficient conditions to belong to a natural kind)” (2006: 28). Assemblage theory avoids such reification and essentialism by focusing “on the historical processes that produce those products, with the term ‘historical’ referring to cosmological and evolutionary history in addition to human history” (28). As a result, “The identity of any assemblage at any level of scale is always the product of a process (territorialisation and, in some cases, coding) and it is always precarious, since other processes (deterritorialization and decoding) can destabilize it” (28). In otherwords, DeLanda rejects rigid classification in favor of the historically variable ways whereby assemblages at both the micro- and macro-level come together through centripetal forces (what DeLanda, following Deleuze and Guattari, terms territorialization, coding, universal singularities, and diagrams) while being continually destabilized by centrifugal forces (deterritorialization, decoding, “lines of flight”).

Further reading: DeLanda 2006; Deleuze and Guattari 1983, 1987; Latour 2005.

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Categories: Literary Theory

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