Assemblage Theory


Assemblage Theory
Assemblage theory is an approach to systems analysis that emphasizes fluidity, exchangeability, and multiple functionalities. Assemblages appear to be functioning as a whole, but are actually coherent bits of a system whose components can be “yanked” out of one system, “plugged” into another, and still work. As such, assemblages characteristically have functional capacities but do not have a function—that is, they are not designed to only do one thing.

Table of Contents


1 History

Assemblage theory finds its roots in the work of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, particularly the notion of relations of exteriority.i But the theory is more fully developed by Maneul DeLanda in A New Philosophy of Science. This method of theorizing developed as an alternative to conceptualizing systems as organisms, that is, like seamless wholes.

1.1 Organismic Metaphor

The organismic metaphor refers to a popular theoretical orientation. One version of it can be found in an influential general theory of the relations between parts and wholes: wholes that are seamless totalities—or showing organic unity.ii In this theory, if a part were detached from the whole, it would cease to be what it is because being this particular component is one of its constituted properties. So this organismic theory is one of relations of interiority.

This theory presents several problems for developing accurate analyses. One is simply that the notion of organic unity is inappropriate for some analyses because, any whole that has self-subsistent components, with external relations to each other, does not have an organic unity.iii The problem then is that this notion of totality “forecloses the possibility of analyzing both the contingent interactions between parts as well as the emergent properties of the complex whole.”iv So why have so many scholars continued to be influenced by the organismic theory? The concern has been that relations of interiority are necessary to explain the emergent properties of wholes, that is, the whole has properties arising from the relations between the parts, rather than being merely an aggregation of the properties of the individual parts. But relations of interiority are not necessary for explaining emergent properties, since it seems that at least some wholes can be analyzed into separate parts while still having irreducible properties that emerge from the interactions between those parts.

1.2 Deleuze, Guattari, and DeLanda

In A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari introduce the notion of relations of exteriority, which characterized wholes they called assemblages (see the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophyfor a clear explanation of Deleuze’s writings, including his work on assemblages in A Thousand Plateaus). Relations of exteriority mean that a component part can be detached from one assemblage and plugged into another in which the part’s interactions are different.v Manuel DeLanda’s book, Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy, includes an explication of what Deleuze and Guattari had written about assemblages. DeLanda went on in A New Philosophy of Society to develop those insights into a more robust theory. In his view, the social is complex but no less real, material, or physical for being so. DeLanda analyzes assemblages as products of historically specific processes, which involve the actual exercise of capacities of its component parts; therefore, the process is emergent and contingent, although the identities of assemblages can become fairly stable. The remainder of this article explains DeLanda’s theory of assemblages, but it is worth noting here one of the upshots of his approach: “The ontological turn in the turn to assemblages is therefore a turn away from cultural or social constructionism and its language-centeredness.”vi


2 Assemblages

2.1 Material & Expressive Roles

Components play two roles in an assemblage: material and expressive (and a mix of the two). For some assemblages, the material components might be natural resources located within their spatial boundaries; these might include mineral deposits, agricultural land, etc (see Deleuze and the Social, p. 263 for a helpful, concrete examples of material and expressive components). Material components can involve a range of causal interactions, but expressive components, on the other hand, usually involve catalysis. For example, territorial animals use odors, sounds, and colors to express their identities. Those expressions act as triggers for behavioral responses in rivals and potential mates.vii Another good example of the expressive components of an assemblage can be found in the case of human society: “The hierarchies of government organisations, operating at national, provincial and local scales, played a key role in determining how nationalist allegiances would be expressed in nation-states through flags and anthems, parades and celebrations.”viii

2.2 Processes of Territorialization/Deterritorialization & Coding/Decoding

Components are involved in processes of territorialization and deterritorialization. Territorialization is a process that stabilizes the identity of the assemblage, whereas in deterritorialization destabilizes it. These processes (and those of coding and decoding, which are explained below) recur and that repetition synthesizes populations of assemblages.ix 

DeLanda develops a version of assemblage theory with processes of coding and decoding: “processes which consolidate and rigidify the identity of the assemblage or, on the contrary, allow the assemblage a certain latitude for more flexible operation while benefiting from genetic or linguistic resources.”x These are processes of coding and decoding.

A variety of mechanisms can instantiate the processes of territorialization and coding, but while these mechanisms are largely causal, some of those causal relations are nonlinear. And in the case of social assemblages, some mechanisms involve not only causal interactions but also reasons and motives. DeLanda’s expansion of causality to include nonlinear mechanisms is an important move for replacing totalities with assemblages. This is because belief in inextricable organic unities has been justified by criticizing linear causality. Totalities, such as “a world as a seamless web of reciprocal action, or as an integrated totality of functional interdependencies,” have been postulated, in opposition to linear causality, as “the glue holding together a mechanical world.”xi

2.4 Essences and Identities

DeLanda takes aim at a philosophical leftover from Aristotle—the notion of natural kinds. Individuals all belong to some species and the qualities of each species create an absolute distinction between it and every other species, whereas there is a more permeable barrier between individuals of the same species. And since for DeLanda artificial assemblages are just as real as natural things, he does way with the notion of permanent walls of distinction between one kind of being and another.xii So let’s consider how DeLanda manages to undermine the rigidity of such barriers.

DeLanda makes his argument against natural kinds by arguing that although a biological species is larger in spatiotemporal scale, it is nevertheless as unique and singular as the individual organisms composing that species. So both biological species and organisms are individual entities, in the sense that, “individual organisms are the component parts of a larger individual whole not the particular members of a general category or natural kind. The same point applies to any other natural kind.”xiii 

The taxonomic essentialism, which DeLanda rejects, is the result of a certain approach. You begin with finished products, “discover” the enduring properties that define those products, and then regard those properties as a set of necessary and sufficient conditions for belonging to some natural kind.xiv In other words, those properties are thought to be the essence of those grouped products. DeLanda’s assemblage theory avoids this reification by instead focusing on the historical processes that produce those products, rather than analyzing them as finished products. As we saw earlier, DeLanda explains how the identity of any assemblage, “at any level of scale is always the product of a process (territorialization and, in some cases, coding) and it is always precarious, since other processes (deterritorialization and decoding) can destabilize it.”xv

2.5 Linking Micro- & Macro-levels of Social Reality

One of the major contributions of an assemblage theory is that it can serve as a framework for connecting micro- and macro-levels of social reality. As DeLanda explains, “interacting persons yield institutional organizations; interacting organizations yield cities; interacting cities organize the space in which nation states emerge and so on.”xvi So in assemblage theory wholes can serve as component parts in larger assemblages. The possibility of linking the micro- and macro-levels of social reality in this way is the result of recognizing that social processes occur on more than the two levels of micro- and macro-. Instead, ‘micro’ and ‘macro’ refer, at any given spatial scale, to the concrete parts and the resulting emergent whole.xvii By introducing intermediary levels of scale, assemblage theory can build up from the smallest entity (like individual persons) to increasingly larger assemblages.


3 Endnotes

  i see Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, pp. 71, 88-91, 323-37, 503-5 
ii DeLanda, A New Philosophy of Society 9
iii IBID
iv Karaman 935
v DeLanda, A New Philosophy of Society 10
vi Clough 389
vii DeLanda, A New Philosophy of Society 22
viii (b) DeLanda p. 263
ix DeLanda, A New Philosophy of Society 19
x DeLanda,A New Philosophy of Society 19
xi IBID
xii Harman 372.
xiii DeLanda, A New Philosophy of Society 27
xiv DeLanda,A New Philosophy of Society 28
xv DeLanda,A New Philosophy of Society 28
xvi DeLanda, “Deleuzian Interrogations" 6
xvii DeLanda, A New Philosophy of Society 32

4 Bibliography

  • Clough, Patricia, Sam Han, and Rachel Schiff. Rev. of A New Philosophy of
     Society, by Manuel DeLanda. Theory, Culture & Society 24 (2007):
     387-394.
  • DeLanda, Manuel. "Deleuzian Interrogations: A Conversation with Manuel DeLanda,
     John Protevi and Torkild Thanem." Interview with John Protevi and Torkild
     Thanem. The Difference Site. Journal of Critical Postmodern Organization
     Science. 4 Mar. 2009 <http://www.dif-ferance.org/>. 
  • - - -. "Deleuzian Social Ontology and Assemblage Theory." Deleuze and the
     Social. Ed. Martin Fuglsang and Bent Meier Sorensen. George Square:
     Edinburgh University Press, 2006. 250-266. 
  • - - -. Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy. London: Continuum, 2002.
  • - - -. A New Philosophy of Society: Assemblage Theory and Social Complexity. New
     York: Continuum, 2006. 
  • Deleuze, Gilles, and Felix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and
     Schizophrenia. 1987. Trans. Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of
     Minnesota Press, 2007. 
  • Harman, Graham. "DeLanda's ontology: assemblage and realism." Continental
     Philosophy Review (2008): 367-383. 
  • Karaman, Ozan. Rev. of A New Philosophy of Society, by Manuel DeLanda.
     Antipode 40.5 (2008): 935-937. 
  • Smith, Daniel, and John Protevi. "Gilles Deleuze." Stanford Encyclopedia of
     Philosophy. Ed. Edward N. Zalta. Fall 2008. 4 Mar. 2009
     <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2008/entries/deleuze/>. 
  • Wezemael, Joris Van. "The Contribution of Assemblage Theory and Minor Politics
     for Democratic Network Governance." Planning Theory 7 (2008): 165-186. 

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