Assemblage (Weiss)

(Disambiguation: Assemblage (Wilcox))

The assemblage is introduced as a heuristic tool to map out the realitty of an idea: the conceptual connections surrounding and contributing to the formation of a topic, such as Darwin's theory of evolution. The primary source text for this idea is Muddling Through by Fortun and Bernstein.

There are four general characteristics of assemblages:

1) Assemblages are a kind of infrastructure (1, 2) - "a complex, crazily reticulated transportation system" (105) - that, like roadways, facilitate (conceptual) movement in certain directions while constraining movement in other ways.

2) Despite the constraining nature of assemblages, they still allow for some elements of power and agency to be exercised. If you have the ability, granted by some modes of thinking, to go "off-road" or to start a new chain of self-organizing "roadwork", then you are able to recoup more agency in choosing which direction to think in. (105)

3) An assemblage is always in some type of restricted motion as various nodes are afforded slight shifting within the constraints of their linkages. "The lobster form is not entirely whimsical, but a deliberate reminder that the sciences are in motion and, indeed, composed of linked motions." (106) Stabilization is possible in small regions of an assemblage through stronger interconnections made between nodes of institutions, concepts, and activities, such as those found in the sciences. It is important to recognize that this stabilization effect comes not from reality, but from realitty, the social elements that contribute to a sense of fact or truth. This movement also emphasizes that visual representations are "diagrams of contingency" - the elements are all interdependent upon connections to other elements and that shifts in force or direction will transfer across the diagram, sometimes in indirect ways. (107)

4) The representation of an assemblage is itself a kludged tool to aid our understanding of and inquiry into scientific activities. Rather than providing answers or hard-and-fast explanations, assemblages are meant to provoke questions and to open up possibilities in thinking about events and topics in new ways.

Origins / Roots

Several concepts served as precursors to the assemblage idea, deriving from disciplines as diverse as semiotics, art classifications, and critical theory from the Frankfurt School. One could say that the tracing of these conceptual influences could be recursively mapped out as an assemblage itself.

Peircean triads triad.gif

Charles Sanders Peirce, an American pragmatist, introduced the idea of mapping semiotic relationships in a tryadic form that involved sign (Firstness), object (Secondness), and interpretant (Thirdness) (69). This is in contrast to Ferdinand de Saussure and his dyadic construction of signifier-signified. Firstness could be considered to represent ideas, concepts, the mental, the abstract. Secondness represents reality and material existence. Thirdness "is above all the category of mediation" (Isabel Stearns) and links the interaction between idea and object to substantive meaning through interpretation. Besides promoting a
"chain of signifiers"
more nuanced examination of activities and processes, the visual structure of this triadic relationship lends itself to a continuous web or "chain of signifiers" that can expand into a network (69).


"Kludge" or "kludge job" is a term utilized by Fortun and Bernstein to acknowledge the lack of aesthetic elegance that results from trying to connect mismatched or contrasting concepts into some coherent form (70). The word's usage origin lies in engineering and the sciences to describe solutions that are cobbled together or improvised (much as Scotty from Star Trek and all engineers after him are famous for doing). The etymology of "kludge" is uncertain, with two theories being that it was a combination of "klutz" and "nudge" (70) or that it originated from the German word kluge, which means "intelligent" or "clever" (71).


The term "constellation" derives from work by German philosophers such as Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno, from the Frankfurt Schoolof critical theory to describe the groupings and relations between ideas to the groupings and formations of stars. Benjamin developed this idea from Adorno's inaugural lecture "The Actuality of Philosophy", where he speaks of "the manipulation of conceptual material by philosophy…of grouping and trial arrangement, of constellation and construction" (Adorno, 1931, in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).
"Prognosis" by Melanie Reed

Assemblage - precursor usage

"Assemblage" is noted by Fortun and Bernstein as coming originally from two types of use in other disciplines: first, in art to describe surrealist collages bringing together unrelated and eclectic elements together through different types of connections (stitching, welding, gluing, etc), and second, in archaeology to represent the collection of material objects found at a site to support a theory about the culture(s) involved with it (99).

Purpose / Reason for Introduction

Assemblages are useful for interrogation of scientific events and activities before they help to dispel untrue and mythical narratives that have been oversimplified by political and historical interests. By showing the connections and relationships between apparently unrelated nodes, a diagram of an assemblage can provoke new perspectives and highlight unnoticed interactions.
Darwin's Assemblage

For example, the narrative that "Darwin's theories of evolution countered religious dogma about Creationism" is shown to be untrue because 1) the groups identified as representing "science" and "religion" were kludged together, both because "science" as a professional identity was new at the time and because the various religious denominations were not monolithic in their belief systems or politics, 2) scientific investigation at the time was not separable from religious inquiry, both because most scientists were culturally religious and because much scientific inquiry throughout history has been supported by religious institutions, and 3) Darwin did not disavow a belief in God or proof of God's presence through his proposed theory of natural selection. This understanding, however, is only possible when one follows historical and social connections between heterogeneous entities to trace influences and networks of support. (102)

These social factors are described as "play" - the variation in "tightness" of connections between nodes in the assemblage. Because of the non-linear and somewhat flexible nature of an assemblage, it is difficult to rely on a single logic to "characterize the whole nonsystematic system." (103) However, a new assemblage can be assembled by the work an entity (a person, an institution, etc) performs to extend ideas beyond their current range. But when that happens, the new connections made could present unexpected challenges, as happened when Darwin extended his assemblage into territory that held implications for conflict with his current belief systems. "His assemblage was reassembling him, others were actively assembling their own articulations, and it could be said that the assemblage was even reassembling itself." (103)

The benefits of referencing assemblages, then, lie in their expandable nature, the allowance of some flexibility in connections, prevention of essentialisation of one unit by keeping connections to context and influences, and the potential for the assemblage (in whole or part) to adapt to changing circumstances.

Further Reading/Applications

An assemblage can be an effective way to map complex, heterogenous networks of concepts, ideas, and entities, such as for Infrastructures (Wilcox) and Ecologies of Knowledge (Jalbert). The process of constructing an assemblage is referred to as Articulation (Schaffer).