On Assemblage: What’s the Problem?

After hearing a few remarks on the equivalence between actor-networks and Deleuze’s agencement, which did not sound right to me, I went back to read one of my favourite commentaries on his concept of “assemblage”. I believe discussing it could start moving me along towards what I might possibly mean by a ‘nomad social studies’. A way in into this discussion will be the ‘target’ of “assemblage” or the problem it sets to address and why, in my view, it cannot simply be imported into social science and theory; especially not in the way actor-networks have been.

In Brent Adkins’ Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Pleatues: A Critical Introduction one can find a fascinating specification of Deleuze’s concept of “assemblage”. It is a highly productive treatment because Adkins’ explains Deleuze’s concept within Deleuze’s own philosophical framework. I believe this is important for attempts at placing the concept in conversation with social science, because Deleuze’s framework is very hard to translate into terms which make sense to knowledge-making practices of the kind practiced by mainstream disciplines (sociology, organisation and management studies, international relations, and perhaps, to a lesser extent geography and anthropology). I will try to explain this point.

It is somewhat customary by now in the social sciences to deploy the concept of “assemblage” as a way of denoting some sort of arrangement between things — perhaps a network-like structure or a fragmented array. There might be disagreements on the kind of shape assemblage is meant to denote and scholars indeed use it variously. However, if one follows Adkins, that is actually not very relevant. Or, rather, it is not what is conceptually innovative about the notion. Regardless of the exact formation which “assemblage” is supposedly meant to represent, the concept of “assemblage” in Deleuze is devised to handle a completely different set of questions; non-representational ones.

As elaborated by Adkins, the concept is not a description of things (a representational/epistemological question), but rather the answer to the question What is a Thing? (an ontological question). To put differently, and in terms that make more sense to social science, “assemblage” is not about an attempt to describe empirics using a theory which more accurately resembles the world, but about how we think the very separation between empirics, theory and the world. Or differently still, the concept is not part of A Theory of Things, but part of A Theory of How to Ask What a Thing Is. Deleuze himself, when asked about the fragmented charter of the book A Thousand Plateaus, commented that the concept gives the book its ‘thematic unity’. Thus, a reading of the concept as representational — that is a kind of shape or form in which the chapters in the book are arranged in, which are then denoted ‘assemblage’ — is quite easy to elicit. However, as mentioned, this is not what “assemblage” is meant to help us with. It is meant to help us think, rather than describe.

The concept of “assemblage” is devised to help us notice and engage the philosophical problem of “things”, namely that a “thing” combines two contradictory properties: stability and change. In Western metaphysics, the projects of Heraclitus and Parmenides, as Adkins reminds us, can be read as about the minimisation of one of these poles, while Plato’s project can be read as about the strict separation between these two and a rendering of the problem into the discontinuity of the sensible and the intelligible (or what is termed hylomorphism).

Largely, and if indeed the history of Western philosophy is footnotes to Plato like Whitehead proclaimed, the concept of “assemblage” was devised to bypass an entire edifice which equates a thing’s stability with its essential, intelligible nature on one hand and a thing’s ability to undergo change with its accidental, sensible nature on the other. Whitehead identified a similar problem at the root of Western metaphysics when he discussed ‘the bifurcation of nature’. This kind of split, due to various historical reasons, is replicated in the social sciences and their image of objectivity. The very existence of a social science (the possibility of a scientific account of social nature), in a way, rests on this separation, or on the position of hylomorphism.

Thus, “assemblage” is not another ‘theory’ (an intelligible) with which to conceptualise ‘empirics’ (a sensible), but a collapse of the image of science that gives social science meaning, to begin with. With the separation between theory and empirics so entrenched in social science (as a modern science; Stengers is helpful here), it is hard to think of a more alien starting point for social science than “assemblage”, as it is a speculative concept meant to assert the continuity of the sensible and the intelligible.

In other words, “assemblage” is a huge commitment. The crux of the matter is that even though there are different experiments and people are doing various things, I am not convinced we know what a social science that beings with the continuity of the sensible and the intelligible even looks like, let alone what sort of practice it requires. Regardless of whether or not we follow Deleuze’s proposed intervention (how he ‘solves’ the philosophical concern), a different image of science is needed if we to uphold the commitment. I see this to be a fundamental issue and a very interesting path to follow. One which leads much further afield than a description of networks, fluidity, or any other representational metaphor meant to provide ‘empirics’ with a more accurate ‘conceptualisation’.