Wednesday, October 12, 2016

A new exposition of assemblage theory

Manuel DeLanda has been a prominent exponent of the theory of assemblage for English-speaking readers for at least ten years. His 2006 book A New Philosophy of Society: Assemblage Theory and Social Complexity has been discussed numerous times in this blog (link, link, link). DeLanda has now published a new treatment of the subject, Assemblage Theory. As I've pointed out in the earlier discussions, I find assemblage theory to be helpful for sociology and the philosophy of social science because it provides a very appropriate way of conceptualizing the heterogeneity of the social world. The book is well worth discussing.

To start, DeLanda insists that the French term "agencement" has greater semantic depth than its English translation, assemblage. "Assemblage" picks up one part of the meaning of agencement -- the product of putting together a set of heterogeneous parts -- but it loses altogether the implications of process and activity in the French term. He quotes a passage in which Deleuze and Parnet explain part of the meaning of assemblage (agencement) (1):
What is an assemblage? It is a multiplicity which is made up of many heterogeneous terms and which establishes liaisons, relations between them, across ages, sexes and reigns -- different natures. This, the assemblage's only unity is that of a co-functioning: it is a symbiosis, a 'sympathy'. It is never filiations which are important, but alliances, alloys; these are not successions, lines of descent, but contagions, epidemics, the wind. (Dialogues II, 69)
This passage from Deleuze and Parnet highlights the core idea of an assemblage bringing together heterogeneous pieces into a new whole. It also signals the important distinction for Deleuze between interiority and exteriority. DeLanda explicates this distinction as indicating the nature of the relations among the elements. "Interior" relations among things are essential, logical, or semantic; whereas exterior relations are contingent and non-essential. Identifying a pair as husband and wife is to identify an interior relation; identifying a pair as a female architect and a male night club bouncer is an exterior relation. This is what Deleuze and Parnet refer to when they refer to alliances, alloys, contagions, epidemics: conjunctions of otherwise independent things or processes.

Let's look at some of the high-level concepts that play an important role in DeLanda's exposition.


DeLanda makes the important ontological point that assemblages are individuals: historically unique persistent configurations. "Assemblages have a fully contingent historical identity, and each of them is therefore an individual entity: an individual person, an individual community, an individual organization, an individual city" (19).
All assemblages should be considered unique historical entities, singular in their individuality, not as particular members of a general category. But if this is so, then we should be able to specify the individuation process that gave birth to them. (6)
In other words, the whole [assemblage] is immanent, not transcendent. Communities or organizations are historically individuated entities, as much so as the persons that compose them.... It is not incoherent to speak of individual communities, individual organizations, individual cities, or individual countries. The term 'individual' has no preferential affinity for a particular scale (persons or organisms) but refers to any entity that  is historically unique. (13)
These passages make it clear that the idea of an individual is not restricted to one ontological level (biological human organism), but is rather available at all levels (individual, labor union, farmers' cooperative, city, corporation, army).


Several important meta-level distinctions about relations among components of an assemblage arise in DeLanda's exposition. The distinction between relational interiority and exteriority is familiar from his earlier exposition in New Philosophy. Interior relations are conceptual or intrinsic -- uncle to nephew. Exterior relations are contingent -- street vendor to policeman. A second distinction that DeLanda discusses is coded/decoded. This distinction too is developed extensively in New Philosophy. Relations that are substantially fixed by a code -- a grammar, a specific set of rules of behavior, a genetic program -- are said to be coded; relations that are substantially indeterminate and left to the choices of the participants are decoded. A third distinction that DeLanda discusses in Assemblage Theory is that between stratum and assemblage. An assemblage is a concrete particular consisting of heterogeneous parts; a stratum is a more or less uniform group of things (organisms, institutions).

Here is a passage from New Philosophy on the concept of coded relations:
[Organizations] do involve rules, such as those governing turn-taking. The more formal and rigid the rules, the more these social encounters may be said to be coded. But in some circumstances these rules may be weakened giving rise to assemblages in which the participants have more room to express their convictions and their own personal styles. (16)
And in Assemblage Theory:
The coding parameter is one of the knobs we must build into the concept [of assemblage], the other being territorialisation, a parameter measuring the degree to which the components of the assemblage have been subjected to a process of homogenisation, and the extent to which its defining boundaries have been delineated and made impermeable. (3)
(In a later post I will discuss DeLanda's effort to subsume each of these distinctions under the idea of a parameter or "knob" inflecting a particular concept of assemblage (city, linguistic practice). Also of interest there will be DeLanda's effort to understand the ontology of assemblage and stratum in analogy with the idea in physics of a phase space (gas, liquid, solid).)


DeLanda believes that assemblage theory depends on the idea of emergence for macro-level properties:
The very first step in this task is to devise a means to block micro-reductionism, a step usually achieved by the concept of emergent properties, the properties of a whole caused by the interactions between its parts. If a social whole has novel properties that emerge from interactions between people, its reduction to a mere aggregate of many rational decision-makers or many phenomenological experiences is effectively blocked. (9)
Notice that this is a weak conception of emergence; the emergent property is distinguished simply by the fact that it is not an aggregation of the properties of the individual components. This does not imply that the property is not derivable from a theory of the properties of the parts and the causal interactions among them. (Several earlier posts have raised questions about the validity of the idea of emergence; link.)

And in fact DeLanda shortly says some surprising things about emergence and the relations between higher-level and lower-level properties:
The property of density, and the capacity to store reputations and enforce norms, are non-reducible properties and capacities of the entire community, but neither involves thinking of it as a seamless totality in which the very personal identity of the members is created by their relations. (11)
Up to the level of national markets the main emergent property of these increasingly larger trading areas is synchronized price movements. Braudel uncovers evidence that average wholesale prices (determined mostly by demand and supply) move up and down in unison within urban regions, provinces, or entire countries. (15)
These are surprising claims as illustrations of emergence, because all of the properties mentioned here are in fact reducible to facts about the properties of individuals and their relations. Density is obviously so; we can derive density by measuring the number of individuals per unit of space. The capacity of a group to store reputations is also a direct consequence of individuals' ability to remember facts about other individuals and communicate their memories to others. The community's representation of "reputation" is nothing over and above this distributed set of beliefs and interactions. And the fact of synchronized price movements over an extended trading area likewise has perfectly visible microfoundations at the individual level: communications and transportation technologies permit traders to take advantage of momentary price differentials in different places, leading to a tendency for all accessible points within the region to reveal prices that are synchronized with each other (modulo the transportation costs that exist between points).

These observations lead me to suspect that the concept of emergence is not doing much real work here. The paraphrase that DeLanda offers as a summary conclusion is correct:
Thus, both 'the Market' and 'the State' can be eliminated from a realist ontology by a nested set of individual emergent wholes operating at different scales. (16)
But this observation does not imply or presuppose the idea of strong emergence.

It seems, then, that we could put aside the language of emergence and rest on the claim that assemblages at various levels have stable properties that can be investigated empirically and historically; there is no need for reduction to a more fundamental level. So assemblage theory is anti-reductionist and is eclectic with regard to the question of levels of the social world. We can formulate concepts of social entities at a wide range of levels and accommodate those concepts to the basic idea of assemblage, and there is no need for seeking out inter-level reductions. But likewise there is no need to insist on the obscure idea of strong emergence.

Assemblage theory and social realism

This treatment of social theory from the point of view of assemblage theory is distinctly friendly to the language of realism. DeLanda argues that assemblages are real, mind-independent, and ontologically stable. Assemblages are in the world and can be treated as independent individual things. Here is a representative statement:
The distinction between a concept and its cases also has an ontological aspect. The concept itself is a product of our minds and would not exist without them, but concrete assemblages must be considered to be fully independent of our minds. This statement must be qualified, because in the case of social assemblages like communities, organizations, and cities, the assemblages would cease to exist if our minds disappeared. So in this case we should say that social assemblages are independent of the content of our minds, that is, independent of the way in which communities, organizations, and cities are conceived. This is just another way of saying that assemblage theory operates within a realist ontology. (138)
The most important transcendent entity that we must confront and eliminate is the one postulated to explain the existence and endurance of autonomous entities: essences. (139)
Both points are crucial. DeLanda emphasizes that social entities (assemblages) are real items in the social world, with a temporally and causally persistent reality; and he denies that the ideas of "essence", "kind", or "inner nature" have a role in science. This is an anti-essentialist realism, and it is a highly appropriate basis for social ontology.


There is much more to discuss in DeLanda's current treatment of assemblage, and I expect to return to other issues in later posts. What I find particularly interesting about DeLanda's current book are the substantive observations DeLanda makes about various historical formations -- cities, governments, modes of production, capitalism. Assemblage theory is of real value for social scientists only if it provides a better vocabulary for describing social entities and causes. And DeLanda's illustrations make a persuasive case for this conclusion.

For example, in discussing Braudel on the difference between markets and capitalism he writes:
These are powerful words. But how can anyone dare to suggest that we must distinguish capitalism from the market economy? These two terms are, for both the left and the right, strictly synonymous. However, a close examination of the history of commercial, financial, and industrial organizations shows that there is indeed a crucial difference, and that ignoring it leads to a distortion of our historical explanations. (41)
This discussion has some significant parallels with the treatment of the modern economy offered by Dave Elder-Vass discussed earlier (link). And DeLanda's closing observation in chapter 1 is quite insightful:
Much of the academic left today has become prey to the double danger of politically targeting reified generalities (Power, Resistance, Capital, Labour) while at the same time abandoning realism. A new left may yet emerge from these ashes but only if it recovers its footing on a mind-independent reality and if it focuses its efforts at the right social scale, that is, if it leaves behind the dream of a Revolution that changes the entire system. This is where assemblage theory may one day make a real difference. (48)
More than the logical exposition of various esoteric concepts associated with assemblage, it is DeLanda's intelligent characterization of various concrete social and historical processes (for example, his extensive discussion of Braudel in chapter 1) that cements the intellectual importance of assemblage theory for historical and social scientific thinking.

Another important virtue of the treatment here is that DeLanda makes a strong case for a social ontology that is both anti-reductionist and anti-essentialist. Social things have properties that we don't need to attempt to reduce to properties of ensembles of components; but social things are not transcendent, essential wholes whose behavior is independent from the activities of the individuals and lower-level configurations of which they consist. Further, this view of social ontology has an important implication that DeLanda explicitly calls out: we need to recognize the fact of downward causation from social configurations (individual assemblages) to the actions of the individuals and lesser configurations of which they consist. A community embodying a set of norms about deference and respectful behavior in fact elicits these forms of behavior in the individuals who make up the community. This is so through the very ordinary fact that individuals monitor each others' behavior and sometimes retaliate when norms are breached. (This was the view of community social power developed several decades ago by Michael Taylor; Community, Anarchy and Liberty.)

No comments: