Thursday, November 15, 2012

Assemblage theory

Deleuze's theory (metaphor?) of assemblage as a way of thinking about the social world is an intriguing one. Fundamentally the idea is that there does not exist a fixed and stable ontology for the social world that proceeds from "atoms" to "molecules" to "materials". Rather, social formations are assemblages of other complex configurations, and they in turn play roles in other, more extended configurations.

What is appealing to me about this way of talking about the social world is that it takes us away from the presuppositions we often bring about the social world as consisting of a range of discrete social objects or things. According to this static way of thinking, the state is a thing composed of other things; likewise Islam is an extended social thing; likewise Chicago; and so on. The assemblage approach suggests a different set of metaphors for the social world: mosaic, patchwork, heterogeneity, fluidity, transitory configuration. And this seems like a more realistic way of characterizing large extended social formation like states or regulatory agencies.

The downside of this way of talking and thinking about the social world is precisely the indefiniteness and indeterminacy it suggests for the composition relation. This poses a very hard problem for explanation. How are we to explain the properties and behavior of the composite entity if there is so much contingency in its parts and the ways in which they interact? The strategy of aggregative explanation seems to be a non-starter, since it is stipulated that composition is not a strongly rule-governed process. But so do the comparative and generalizing strategies. If the composites are indeed sui generis and unique configurations we can't generalize across instances and can't usefully compare them.

So how can we gain greater clarity? The concept of assemblage is expressed by Gilles Deleuze; but it is obscure. Here is a valuable blog post by Levi Bryant in LarvalSubjects that extracts several of Deleuze's statements about assemblage from an interview. This interview provides some description of the construct in Deleuze's own words.  Here is one of Bryant's efforts at clarifying Deleuze's meaning:
Assemblages are composed of heterogeneous elements or objects that enter into relations with one another. These objects are not all of the same type. Thus you have physical objects, happenings, events, and so on, but you also have signs, utterances, and so on. While there are assemblages that are composed entirely of bodies, there are no assemblages composed entirely of signs and utterances.
It isn't easy to paraphrase Deleuze's thinking into a more analytical formulation (though Bryant's efforts are helpful). But the language remains metaphorical, suggestive, and elusive, rather than analytical and discursive. For this reason it is difficult to determine whether the concept has value for sociological theory.

The core ideas are spelled out in a somewhat more accessible form in Manuel DeLanda's A New Philosophy of Society: Assemblage Theory and Social Complexity. DeLanda tries to explain "assemblage" by saying what it is not.  First, assemblage theory is opposed to essentialism and reification (26ff.). DeLanda emphasizes that Deleuze's concept resists the "organismic" approach to conceptualizing the social, by which he means an approach that looks at the whole as an inextricable combination of interrelated parts. This implies that the parts are implicated in each other; the organismic perspective emphasizes the internal connectedness of a thing. (This has affinity to Bert Ollman's philosophy of internal relations in Alienation: Marx's Conception of Man in a Capitalist Society.) DeLanda distinguishes between "interiority" and "exteriority" in conceptualizing the components of a thing. For assemblage theory, the relations among the parts are contingent, not necessary. And, crucially, parts can be extracted from one whole and inserted into another. "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. In other words, the exteriority of relations implies a certain autonomy for the terms they relate" (10-11). Another aspect of the theory, according to DeLanda, is the fact that it does not privilege one level of organization over another. "Micro" is not more fundamental than "macro"; instead, social reality is "multiscaled" (38), with assemblages occurring at every level.

Truthfully, neither Deleuze nor DeLanda succeeds in making the concept of assemblage a very clear or analytically specific one. So let's consider a diluted version of assemblage theory that might nonetheless be useful for sociological theory while foregoing much of the metaphysical language characteristic of Deleuze's writings:
  1. Social entities are composed of components and lesser systems.
  2. The components of a social entity are heterogeneous.
  3. The components include both material factors and meaningful expressions.
  4. The components have their own characteristics and dynamics.
  5. The components may have very different temporal and spatial scales.
  6. The effects and interactions among components may be indeterminate because of complexity effects and probabilistic causal mechanisms.
  7. The behavior of the whole is difficult or impossible to calculate even given extensive knowledge of the dynamics of the components.
To illustrate this set of ideas, consider a city as an assemblage.
  1. A city consists of population, businesses, roads, organizations, government policies, political movements, disaffected youth, and slogans.
  2. Population dynamics have a temporal scale of decades, while businesses have a temporal scale of months.
  3. The interaction effects of gradual population change, the voting system, and gradual environmental change are difficult to calculate.
  4. We can nonetheless make efforts to disentangle the effects of population change, institutional design, and environment on things like land use and effective taxation rates.
This reformulation suggests that large social entities are "messy" but still amenable to analysis and study; and this is what sociology requires.

(Daniel Smith's article on Deleuze in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is a readable exposition of Deleuze's philosophy; link. Another useful resource on assemblage theory is Nick Srnicek's masters' thesis; link. )


Anonymous said...

assemblage is not a metaphor.

Alexis Marlons said...

I think there is no simple way of explaining the behavior of society . It is a very complex group with different behaviors.

Jim Harrison said...

Foucault's notion of "general history" gets at least half way to assemblage—he writes about it in the Introduction to the Archaeology of Knowledge. "The theme and the possibility of a total history begin to disappear, and we see the emergence of something very different that might be called a general history....A total description draws all phenomena around a single centre - a principle, a meaning, a spirit, a world-view, an overall shape; a general history, on the contrary, would deploy the space of a dispersion."

Naxos said...

This post fell too quick into objectivism and chose respectively the worst and the best objectivistic 'philosophers' to complain about of their insufficient clarity and their lack of analytical specificity. This very anglo-american scholastic aim to get clear what is already clear, and to retraduce into academic language notions and concepts that have their own consistency and coinage, is totally noxious for philosophy itself. The term assemblage is just a malformed translation of the term agencement originally wielded and coined by Guattari since 1964, and which connotates a good lot of means that the term assemblage cannot. Assembalge is the objectivistic term for agencement, and it's lame how it is used academically just to solve very scholastic needs with the very less idea of its heuristics, and what is worse, while the term looses its very schizoanalytico-conceptual connotation, while it means something else than agencement, it is still and stubbornly ascribed to Deleuze. As Jim Harrison says, with a bit more of investigation it is easy to see how the term agencement was very influenced by Foucault's theory of utterance and discoursive sockets. If you Daniel are looking for something more analytical, of course that this promoted mutation of the term agencement into assemblage would do fit for you as you maybe made for each other (ie, scholastic habitus). But please don't assert that the term agecenment has no value for sociological theory if you can only understand it as an assemblage (without mentioning that you don't seem to have the credentials as a sociologue to assert that so). I have just blogged about the foucaultian branch of the term agencement here and here

Al West said...

I get the feeling you have extracted more from Deleuze's 'philosophy' than is reasonable. Your summary at the end of the post appears reasonable, but is far too sensible and clear to have come from Deleuze, even if it is only the principle that is claimed to have done so.

I always find concepts like 'assemblage' too detached from what actually exists in the universe. All things that exist consist of elementary particles. That is simply how this universe works. Society has to be the same, or else it doesn't really belong in this universe - and simply paying one's bills or voting in an election would be a physically impossible miraculous act. So how could society consist of elementary particles? Well, it'd have to reduce to human mental states, which reduce further to chemical processes and thence to fermions, etc. Given that - and it seems to me that you'd have to accept it if you have any pretensions towards a realistic understanding of society or the world - what can we expect? That is the only way to have a realistic, naturalistic, ontology of human society. Otherwise, all we've got is a potentially useful but fundamentally inaccurate view of the world.

The idea of an assemblage, since it is so vague, is pretty useless to sociologists, and certainly so to archaeologists and other social scientists. And given that it doesn't address the fundamental problem of social facts, it doesn't seem all that purposeful to me. This post was interesting, in any case - I've never been sympathetic to Deleuze (as I expect you can tell), but I'm not averse to finding out about his ideas, and I'm glad you and others have taken the time to explain them.

Howard Johnson said...

Both modernism and postmodernism (and seemly both Deleuze and some of the above commentors) fetishizes a certainty that is simply not possible in a dialogic social world that includes signs and utterances. I don't understand how one can conceive of a world where signs and utterances are not involved in any conception of assemblages of bodies as stated by Bryant. In a similar way, I don't find Srnicek's criticism of social constructionism / hermeneutics (SC) compelling as he tends to treat it as a straw man. I think of SC as incorporating positivism (modernism) into a non fetishized dialogic pragmatic framework that is not unlike your diluted version of assemblage. The endpoint is not the power play of certainty, but a constructive Wittgensteinian way to go on. Don't make the perfect the enemy of the good.

Javier Gallego said...

Dear Daniel. Another interesting post on your blog. However there are some interesting points to reply. I would like to begin answering to Anonymous about metaphors in science. I became Nitzschean when I studied sociology of knowledge. Every concept and theory in science is a metaphor. A dead and forgotten metaphor.

In a similar way, modern physics talks about resonancing strings more than particles, and so social world works. I think individualism is only a way of thinking about society like particle physics is way of thinking about the universe. And probably it is an old-fashioned one.

Deleuze’s work is obscure only when we read Deleuze’s writings. When some other scholar explains them, Deleuze becomes brilliant and clear, and it is difficult for me not to agree with him.

Anyway, there is another theory that points out society as relationships. Bruno Latour’s Action Network Theory (ANT). ANT, according to Wikipedia

“is an agent-based approach to social theory and research, originating in the field of science studies, which treats objects as part of social networks. Although it is best known for its controversial insistence on the agency of nonhumans, ANT is also associated with forceful critiques of conventional and critical sociology. Developed by science and technology studies scholars Michel Callon and Bruno Latour, the sociologist John Law, and others, it can more technically be described as a "material-semiotic" method. This means that it maps relations that are simultaneously material (between things) and semiotic (between concepts). It assumes that many relations are both material and semiotic.”

The similarities between Deleuze’s point of view and Latour’s one are evident.

Jacqueline Knoerr said...

Speaking of clarity ... what is a schizoanalytico-conceptual connotation?