DeLanda on Assemblages
I’ve been reading some recent work by Manuel DeLanda lately and I think I may have found in it something useful for the sort of inquiry into contemporary social and political (i.e., cultural) forms I am involved in. My hunch, at this point, is that what DeLanda describes as ‘assemblages’ are in fact quite similar to what Dewey describes as ‘publics’ (on which see point below). Rather than spelling out this comparative hunch, though, I’ll simply offer a brief description of what I take assemblage theory to be all about.
DeLanda’s theory of assemblages as laid out in his 2006 A New Philosophy of Society is particularly useful insofar as it enables us to grasp the full depth of pluralism which imbues the social and political forms we inhabit. An assemblage, according to DeLanda, is in short a way of comprehending the complexity of social forms without analyzing these forms as reducible to either micro-level explanations such as individual rational choice or macro-level explanations such as world-historical totalities. Assemblages, in other words, provide a means for inquiring into social and political realities which do not derive these realities from something more fundamental at either a micro or macro scale.
I should emphasize that DeLanda takes the crucial point of his assemblage theory to be that it offers a version of realism without essentialism (cf. DeLanda 2002, 3, 10 and DeLanda 2006, 28, 40). But I do not find this particular aspect of his theory an enormous breakthrough insofar as it essentially spells out a conception of historicism that is already present in Nietzsche, James, Dewey, and Foucault: “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” (DeLanda 2006, 28). The real value of assemblage theory lies not in its supposed contribution to really antique debates between realists and antirealists, but in its provision of a conceptual tool that enables us to grasp the pluralism constitutive of social and political reality.
The pluralistic nature of assemblages occurs on at least two levels. The first concerns the plurality of scales at which assemblages can be analyzed. A crucial part of DeLanda’s theory is that assemblages can always be decomposed into something simpler (cf. DeLanda 2006, 18, 32). There is, in other words, no fundamental level to which the constituencies of assemblages can be traced. In existing social theory, complex forms are often taken as analytically reducible to individuals and their rational choices (whether these are posited as merely methodological or as fully substantial unities). DeLanda’s point here is that persons as such are themselves assemblages formed as results of historical processes. While we can of course treat more complex assemblages as functions of individual rational choice, there is nothing inevitable about this. There are a plurality of scales on which assemblages might be analyzed and there is no reason to give any of these scales any sort of ultimate methodological preference.
A second level on which assemblages are pluralistic concerns the fact that they always emerge as populations of assemblages. For any given assemblage, that is, there exists a whole population of assemblages at that level. The emergence of a person implies the emergence of persons. The emergence of a nation-state implies the emergence of the very form of nation-states and as such the emergence of a population of nation-states. DeLanda writes that “assemblages always exist in populations, however, small, the populations generated by the repeated occurrence of the same process” (DeLanda 2006, 16). Assemblages, as such, emerge as pluralities. There is no singular highest form of assemblage such that all other assemblages can be described as subsidiary of it. For example, a Hegelian assemblage of world history can only take form in such a way that a plural population of world histories can emerge—and so while a given world history may thus be able to explain assemblages at a lower level, there is no a sense in which world history can be a complete and ultimate explanation of everything.
Thus DeLanda’s pluralistic point can be taken as the following: “A reified generality like ‘society as a whole’ can be replaced by a multiscaled social reality, as log as the part-to-whole relation is correctly conceptualized to accommodate all this complexity” (DeLanda 2006, 34). The intrinsic plurality of assemblage theory thus comes in the form of the plurality of scales of social reality which it enables us to deploy. There is nothing, in other words, that stops us from analyzing or synthesizing social realities into something simpler or more complex. Assemblages, as such, are themselves products of pluralities on a vertical level and at the same time constitutive elements of pluralities at a horizontal level.
In many ways, these are the same pluralistic points which Dewey was striving to articulate with his conception of ‘publics’ in his 1927 The Public and Its Problems.