As opposed to concepts like structure, culture, science, objectivity, production, agency, technology, and nature, the idea of assemblage emphasizes the material-discursive heterogeneity of which the cosmos is constituted. As Deleuze explains:

In assemblages you find states of things, bodies, various combinations of bodies, hodgepodges; but you also find utterances, modes of expression, and whole regimes of signs. The relations between the two are pretty complex. For example, a society is defined not by productive forces and ideology, but by ‘hodgepodges’ and ‘verdicts.’ [i]

Fortun and Bernstein (1998) use the term “realitty” to describe the complex, messy world made up of assemblages and trace the genealogy of the concept throughout the twentieth century’s continental philosophical traditions. Beginning with Frankfurt School critical theorists like Walker Benjamin and Theodor Adorno, who coined the term “constellation,” and moving through Foucault and Deleuze, Fortun and Bernstein characterize the concept of the assemblage thus:

In an assemblage, nothing explains it all: not the sciences, not the social sciences, not the human sciences. There isn’t anything that is first or fundamental in an assemblage—nature, language, culture, institutions, whatever—it’s all at once, and we with our questions come after it. Meaning that we are both assembled by it, and in pursuit of it. Even though we’re consigned to come after the assemblage has been assembled, both with and without our intentionality, that doesn’t stop us from going after it, too.[ii]

To exemplify the concept, Fortun and Bernstein tease apart the scientific figure of Darwin, signifying the “Darwin-assemblage” with the form of a “living, moving, grasping lobster.”[iii]

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Image source: Fortun & Bernstein (1998)


An innate property of an assemblage is its heterogeneous character, and conceptually, it is related to such Science and Technology Studies (STS) terminology as socio-technical system, heterogeneous network, or the collective. The concept of heterogeneity has emphasized many things to many people and groups. For some, it is a way to acknowledge the role of culture in the practice of science, while for others it evokes the role of materiality in constructing culture, among many interpretations. Though Deleuze and Guattari’s original use of the term carries the political ramifications of its enthusiasm for opening up a figure of thought that can account for immanent corporeal-political-social-material potentialities, the concept of the assemblage has not always retained these liberatory overtones in its various manifestations in practice.

Various attempts have since been made to theorize or otherwise reveal a thing or system to be an assemblage of heterogeneous actants/forces rather than another sort of phenomenon.[iv] Alternatively, many examples of things or systems have been analyzed as assemblages as opposed to other social forms to serve as examples of the finer articulation the concept of the assemblage can evoke theoretically.[v] At times, attention has been called to the variety of ways to represent, “map,” or “trace” the assemblage in a scholarly paper or book.[vi] Sociologist and Actor-Network Theory (ANT) proponent John Law views ANT as an “empirical translation” of Deleuzian assemblage theory, as “both refer to the provisional assembly of productive, heterogeneous and (this is the crucial point) quite limited forms of ordering located in no larger overall order.”[vii] Latour has focused on the forms of “assembly” of entities comprising an assemblage, as a path towards greater political relevance for ANT, though it remains to be seen if such wordplay can be translated into politically relevant work that uses the concept of the assemblage in an actively and actionably political, rather than solely theoretical, manner.[viii]


Notes



[i] Deleuze, G., & Lapoujade, D. (2007). Two regimes of madness: Texts and interviews, 1975-1995. New York: Semiotext(E). See also http://larvalsubjects.wordpress.com/2009/10/08/deleuze-on-assemblages/
[ii] Fortun, M and Bernstein, H.J. (1998). Muddling through: Pursuing science and truths in the 21st Century. Washington, D.C.: Counterpoint. p. 100.
[iii] Fortun, M and Bernstein, H.J. (1998). Muddling through: Pursuing science and truths in the 21st Century. Washington, D.C.: Counterpoint. p. 100.
[iv] http://anthem-group.net/2009/06/29/the-michael-jackson-assemblage/
[v] Callon, M. and J. Law (1992). The life and death of an aircraft: a Network
analysis of technical change. in J. Law and W. Bijker (eds), Shaping
Technology/Building Society: Studies in Sociotechnical Change. Cambridge, Mass.:
MIT, pp 21-52.
[vi] See, for example: Akera, A. (2007). Constructing a representation for an ecology of knowledge. Social Studies of Science, 379(3),413-441.
[vii] Law, J. (2007). Actor network theory and material semiotics. version of 25th April 2007, available at http://www.heterogeneities.net/publications/Law2007ANTandMaterialSemiotics.pdf, (downloaded on 18th May, 2007).
[viii] Latour, B. (2005). Reassembling the social: an introduction to actor-network-theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 258-262.