Adorno, Assemblage Theory, Jane Bennett, Negative Dialectics, Vibrant Matter

a note on assemblage theory: thing-power and the social

Some quick notes I wrote for a meeting on the (mis)use of assemblage theory that took place this afternoon. Read on.

Michael Sailstorfer, ‘Raketenbaum’

For me, assemblage theory in general and concepts such as complexity, chaos, indeterminacy, rhizomes, flows and multiplicities in specific points in the way of answering the rather crucial question – or, put
differently, the paradox of performativity – of how we can say that our society has become more complex. What, in other words, are the parameters of complexity? This, of course, relates to the issue of whether assemblage theory is an epistemological or ontological theory, or a theory with epistemological or
ontological consequences – i.e. does it help us to gain better insight in our ways of knowing the social or in the status of social phenomena themselves? Here we can learn from Adorno who could be said to have conceptualized, especially in his Negative Dialectics, both the ‘arrogant position’ of epistemology – the intrinsically related idea of representation as such puts us in a position to judge – and the inescapability
of its failure – given that concepts or frameworks never exhaust the reality of phenomena (or, as Bennett puts it ‘the most that can be said with confidence about the thing is that it eludes capture by the concept, that there is always a ‘nonidentity’ between it and any representation’ (p. 13)). More interestingly, assemblage theory breaks or tries to break with the idea of having to distinguish between the level of
abstract general theory and the concrete material of everyday life; it breaks with 20th century representational myopia which has haunted philosophy of science in specific – and which it forces to formulate adequate conditions for correspondence between observation and theory, the empirical and
the abstract. In a more positive sense, for me assemblage theory embodies the dullness of such attempts, that have in any sense failed; especially figures such as DeLanda have stressed the seeming necessity to relate assemblage theory to a realist position. As far as I can see this link is indeed necessary as long as
it is clear that it concerns an ontological realism and not an epistemological realism. Assemblage theory does not say; our concepts represent the (social) phenomena as they exist in or by themselves and that is it. It rather says; our concepts are aimed to acknowledge the fact that social phenomena have an existence independent of these concepts – they withdraw from conceptualization, they interfere with these concepts, they resist them. To repeat once more; where ‘social’ epistemology and representation are related to the aim of homogenizing social phenomena in order to rationally govern them (I’m thinking of, for instance, Durkheim), the ‘social’ ontology of assemblage theory relates to the aim of heterogenizing social phenomena to allow for their resistance, agental capacities, eventual character and unpredictability. This does not answer my initial question, i.e. that of the relation between assemblage theory and the changing character of the social (or, put as a proper question; has our society indeed became more ‘assemblage-like’, more rhizomy, more multiple? It rather points to the fact that it is a bad question. Assemblage theory – and it is not alone in this (I’m thinking of actor-network theory, non-representational theory etc.) – is intrinsically related to the seemingly contemporary question of what it exactly is what ‘theory’ does or can do; as far as I can see – and as the philosopher of science Ian Hacking has lucidly remarked – we are moving from ‘representing’ to ‘intervening’. As said, intervening here relates to the notion of performativity – and this, I would argue, must be seen as an ontological rather than an epistemological phenomenon. That is, performativity is linked to a realist position that destroys or at least tries to move beyond notions such as discourse, epistemes, meaning etc.; just as Bennett does, it sees theory as a tool to intervene in a world in which language and things are on-par; that is, where language and cognition ‘is’ matter and matter begins to
In fact, I do not believe that assemblage theory is a theory; it is part of a contemporary vibrant field of thought that tries to move social conceptualization from epistemological certainties to ontological
unexpectedness. It is thus a social ontology; it speculates about what kind of stuff the social is made of and what it means for stuff to be social. This is exactly what Jane Bennett tries to develop in her book – at least apart from her explicit focus on thing-power as having to do with what could be called an ‘ethics
of materiality’.

Some minor notes on Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things

Just like the word ‘paradigm’ is said to have 22 different meanings in Thomas Kuhn’s The
Structure of Scientific Revolutions
, the alternatives for the word ‘object’ as one part of the ‘subject-object’ binary are numerous in Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter. Already on the first pages of the book, Bennett speaks of (or, who knows, ‘distinguishes between’) ‘vibrant matter’, ‘lively things’, ‘non-human bodies’, ‘quasi agents’, ‘forces with trajectories, propensities or tendencies of their own, ‘actants’, ‘distributive agencies’, ‘material configurations’, ‘nonsubjects’, ‘not-quite-human things’ and ‘material powers’. To be sure, her spiritualism without gods or restoring of sacredness to material wordliness – or in short;
her contemporary Spinozism – needs such weird non-words; it is one thing to alter traditions, but it is quite another to rebel against habits of thought. To rebel, one needs slogans; and such slogans need to render the everyday talk of existing politics moot. Yet it is important to remark that it is not enough to say, as Bennett does, that the world of weird objects is ‘resistant’ to the human subject – this would merely add more remoteness to the already remote objective world of ‘objects’ -; to get out of the very human-world correlate one would need a way to talk of (what Graham Harman calls) ‘world-world’ or ‘thing-thing’ relations. It is, I think, for this reason that many assemblage theory accounts draw on insights from physics of small particles, chaos theory, topology and molecular biology; they try to use phenomena such as emergence, becoming, auto-poiesis, individuation etc. not for the sake of scientific naturalism, but for that of a flat or horizontal theoretical account that does not begin with or sets out from a hierarchical distinction between the natural and cultural world, the objective and subjective world, the world of brute and dull facts and that of lively inter-subjective meaning. This, of course, is too simple..

For, what, in a positive sense, exactly is an assemblage? As alluded to above, is it a theory, an ontology or a property of the world? Manuel DeLanda has suggested that the only advantage of the word ‘assemblage’ is that it is new and unblemished by past philosophical mistakes and devoid of undesirable connotations. He goes on (in his recent book The Emergence of Synthetic Reason) by distinguishing several characteristics of an ‘assemblage’; firstly (and here I draw directly from the final chapter of his Synthetic Reason book) it is always a product of a contingent historical process in which components (to be sure; both human and non-human, but let’s for the sake of the argument forget about this distinction) are brought together for the first time. The contingency of an assemblage is highlighted by the fact that its identity or existence is not guaranteed by the existence of a necessary set of properties that fall under a general category; assemblages are, and we welcome Deleuze here, unique and singular individuals. This notion of ‘individual’ needs some quick clarification; as a realist – and as he said earlier, realism seems to be essential to every assemblage theory account – DeLanda argues that the word ‘individual’ can be applied to anything; communities, organizations, atoms, folded pieces of paper, species, ecosystems etc. etc. As he put it, every assemblage is an individual singularity with its own contingent history of emergence and conditions of pertinence. Anothern characteristic of assemblages or individual singularities is that they have their own capacities and tendencies; new parts can enter the assemblage and the assemblage can constitute new relations, for instance. The concept of boundaries thus becomes essential for the analysis of assemblages; an assemblage has a better defined identity when there is a small degree of variation in its components – or, put differently, its ‘territorial’ boundaries are, in such a case, sharp and fixed.

In such a way, the notion of assemblage allows one to no longer speak of a distinction between objects and subjects and to stop having to look for a weird enough characterization of ‘vibrant matter’. What
makes this a ‘realist social ontology’ is that it is characterized by relations of exteriority (cum Deleuze); that is to say that it implies that a relation may change without the terms, i.e. components, changing. In philosophical jargon it means that these components are not considered to be mind-independent (small communities and large nation states would indeed disappear if human minds ceased to exist), but independent from the conceptions we have of them. Once again, this emphasizes the question what
complexities, flows, multiplicities and rhizomes precisely are; if we say that they are mere theories, we deny most of Bennett’s hard work, but if we say that they do as well act we have to change our idea of what ‘we’ – or, in fact, political and social theorists – are doing when describing social entities.


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