Assemblage Theory, Bruno Latour, Deleuze, Manuel DeLanda, Philosophy, Sociology

[some remarks on] Manuel DeLanda’s ‘A New Philosophy of Society: Assemblage Theory and Social Complexity’

In his latest book, Manuel DeLanda – an eminent philosopher-artist-writer – attempts to radically transform (critical) social analysis by proposing a ‘neo-assemblage theory’ which thinks of social complexity as consisting of a constant flux of (stabilized) wholes consisting of heterogeneous parts. A major thread in his attempt resides in his emphasis to think elsewhere (instead of ‘different’): DeLanda introduces a new (social) topology based on a, so called, ‘neo-realist’ social ontology. This post-Deleuzian position enables him to overcome the prominent opposition between micro- and macrolevel analysis (how do, for instance, cities relate to transnational institutions?) by focussing on (im)material indepence of wholes  – which exist always as more-than-sums of their parts) – and, more abstract, on a mind-independent social reality. That is: his absolute focus is on the process of assembling to which he ascribes an independent reality in-itself. The importance of this move reside, at least that is what I think, in the creation of a social ontology which directs radical attention to the material creation of wholes or assemblages. His, so called, ‘flat ontology’ (I always think of Deleuze’s immance here; there is nothing in the process of assembling that transcends the process as such) allows him to consider, for instance, interpersonal networks, cities, nation states and institutional organizations all at once. Or better said; step by step, since that is the composition of the book.

DeLanda thinks of assemblages as consisting of two components: “content and expression; on one hand, a mechanical assemblage of bodies, actions and passions, a mixture of bodies reacting to each other; on the other, a collective assemblage of enunciation, acts and enunciates incorporeal transformations that are attributed to bodies. On a second, vertical axis, the assemblage has on one hand territorial or reterritorialized faces that stabilize it and, on the other, peaks of deterritorialization that dissipate it.” (Acselrad, 2010) The problem with this seems to be, stated rather vaguely, that it is philosophical interesting but sociological highly problematic. Given the fact that I’m not a sociologist I can’t substantize the latter claim sufficiently, but when reading DeLanda one gets a rather similar feeling as when reading Latour’s ‘Reassembling the Social’. That is: one is left alone when it comes down to the definition of ‘the social’. For DeLanda – and this is something one does not find in Latour – there exists a tension between his usage of resemblances between social entities and biological entities. Although he explicitly distinguishes them, this distinction comes down to the rather problematic notion of ‘subjectivity and ‘language’. Consequently, DeLanda seem to struggle with the notion of ‘materiality’ – which has become such an important issue in sociology and social complexity – since he uses this notion in a rather instrumental fashion, that is; with regard assemblages he focusses heavily on the ‘expressive’ function of ‘materiality’, instead of its material function and meaning as such. 

Rather surprisingly, perhaps, Latour’s critique of sociology seems to be much more radical, in view of his shift to ‘interobjectivity’ (in line with his ‘quasi-objects’). That is: Latour is hereby rejecting the French demarcation of the social that emphasizes the ‘subjectivity-language-human-intentionality’ specialness of social actors. Although DeLanda’s usage of assemblages seems to overcome an essentialist view of social entities, with his distinction between ‘content’ and ‘expression’ he loses this advantage since he is, after all, bound to subjectivity as an explanandum for the creation of social assemblages. Another, more methodological problem, seems to reside in his systematic effort to explain social-assemblages-in-the-making by referring to exteriority (‘neo-realism’), materiality/expressivity, territorialization/deterritorialization; these pairs explain everything from personal relations to transnational institutions. His handling of empirical case-study material – although far beyond my knowledge – comes down to adjusting them to the systematic scheme of his inquiry.

But we musn’t exaggerate and repeat fear for such ‘neo-realist’ approaches to social ontology: although DeLanda isn’t gonna beat Latour on the examination of social complexity, he seems to be in the advantage when it comes down to the task of formulating a new social ontology. We won’t go into discussions of Latour’s unwillingness to adopt a ‘neo-realist’ position (and thereby accepting the mind-independence reality of social networks), but we can be sure that DeLanda can be of great help in working towards a Deleuzian-Latourian philosophy of the social. But let’s save this discussion for an other forthcoming post.  






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