sorting the entanglement of assemblages and networks

I was fortunate enough to participate in the RSA Summer Institute, taking the New Materialisms workshop with Thomas Rickert and Byron Hawk. The company and conversation were extremely generative, both for my own developing project(s) and bringing new perspective to theory in the readings. We read/discussed the following readings under the concept headings of new materialism, agencies, things, networks, movement, and politics:

  • Introduction of New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics // eds. Diana Coole and Samantha Frost
  • “The Agency of Assemblages” // Jane Bennett
  • “The Thing” // Martin Heidegger
  • “Object Lessons” // John Law and Vicky Singleton
  • “Against Space” of Being Alive // Tim Ingold
  • “On Touching—The Inhuman That Therefore I Am” // Karen Barad
  • “Ontological politics. A word and some questions” // Annemarie Mol
  • Interview with Karen Barad // eds. Rick Dolphijn and Iris van der Tuin’s New Materialism: Interviews & Cartographies

While I furiously tried to scribble/transcribe everything that was said, a note that I did make was beginning to hear a difference between network and assemblage (ecology and entanglement for another day/another post)—and when I say hear a difference, I mean I heard it in the language that was being used to talk about them (they themselves working as sort of conceptual metaphors that animate). While I know the concepts are different, I have not been able to really note what makes them differently able in their descriptive power (I’m resisting saying the difference is affect, but there’s some thing there—an opening on / in to…). I’m drawing primarily from the conversation we had about Jane Bennett’s “The Agency of Assemblages”. This is a mess(h).

While I am trying to sort out two concepts/terms, I begin with want of more explanation the descriptive difference in material as compared to object. I’m not sure what impact the distinction would have fit within the larger categories of human and nonhuman (and inhuman), but I wonder how something like Levi Bryant’s quasi-objects, which are neither quite natural nor quite social (see his post on Of Quasi-Objects and the Construction of Collectives) but draw people together into relations with other humans, as well as nonhumans. I think my fixation on these terms at the time being is to understand if use of material or object influences whether one concept is invoked over another—network, assemblage, ecology, entanglement…

Comparing, or rather trying to untangle, networks and assemblages, isn’t as simple as looking across/between two definitions. Both assemblages and networks introduce the concept of actants as entities and forces to move away from anthropomorphic constructs of agency (and Bennett specifically invokes Bruno Latour to frame her use of actant). Jane Bennett advances agency of actants alone to the capacities agency has in groupings, or assemblages “of somatic, technological, cultural, and atmospheric elements” (447). Bennett draws from Deleuze and Guattari to construct assemblage, describing the force field of the assemblage as “a milieu”, “‘Thus the living thing…has an exterior milieu of materials, an interior milieu of composing elements and composed substance, an intermediary milieu of membranes and limits, and an annexed milieu of energy sources and actions-perceptions'” (461). She aligns assemblages with a materialist ontology, which she describes as a kind of vitalism or enchanted materialism.

Within this materialism, the world is figured as neither mechanistic nor teleological but rather as alive with movement and with a certain power of expression; by power of expression I mean the ability of bodies to become otherwise than they are, to press out of their current configuration and enter into new compositions of self as well as new alliances and rivalries. (447)

Bennett explains that the active power of assemblages is “concealed under the rubric of (social) structures, (cultural) contexts, (religious) settings, (economic) climates, or (environmental) conditions” (455). Bennett’s work in “The Agency of Assemblages” is to detach ethics from human constructed moralism in order to produce guides to action appropriate to a world of vital, crosscutting forces (464). With a nod to the Nicene Creed (“We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible.”) Bennett states “I believe in one Nature, vibrant and Overflowing, material and energetic, maker of all that is, seen and unseen. I believe that this ‘pluriverse’ is continually doing things, things that bear upon us…as forces upon material beings. I believe that this ‘generative mobility’ resists full translation and exceeds our comprehensive grasp. I believe that to experience materiality as vital and animated is to enrich the quality of human life” (448). She explains that “there was never a time when human agency was anything other than an interfolding network of humanity and nonhumanity” (463).

An assemblage is an interfolding network?

The way Bennett uses the concepts of pluriverse and vital materialism, I think of constant actant activity affecting and being affected and I question how the assemblage is noted/boundaried if it is an interfolding of exterior, interior, intermediary, and annexed milieu. How do assemblages come into being? I find myself thinking about it as a poesis (from Kathleen Stewart) from fog (what does affect look like? fields? layers? static?), but again, I think this is coloured in part by Bennett’s writing, which I think is beautifully constructed. For networks, or at least actor networks, there is no pre-existing activity system either; it is established through thick description in media res, as Latour explains. And even though I know networks aren’t static in structure, it is hard to disassociate from the structural history of network as lines of connectivity. In Reassembling the Social, Latour sets out to reconstruct social because:

  • problems arise when “social” begins to mean a type of material (wooden, economical, biological, organizational)—trying to stand for two different things: a material from other materials and a movement during a process of assembling
  • Latour wants to show why “social” cannot be construed as a material or domain and to dispute providing a social explanation to a state of affairs
  • “social” is not a homogeneous thing (5) but a trail of heterogeneous associations between elements (5)

Latour’s networks describe relating to a group as an ongoing process of fragile, controversial, and ever shifting ties (28) that starts with the controversy, not the group interested (because he’s working from a sociology of science studies frame); this allows for groupings based not on social aggregate but elements (human and nonhuman actants) present in controversies (31). Latour’s networks are not fixed, nor are they singular, but I find myself wanting a similar description of vital materialism in Latour’s ontology—is Latour’s ontology a pluriverse too? I wonder if this has something to do with the association of networks with systems/systematically and symmetrical relationships, or the need of the human to establish/do the work of articulating through description. Latour provides a gloss of the social:

  • the question of the social emerges when the ties in which one is entangled begin to unravel
  • the social is further detected through the surprising movements from one association to another
  • those movements can be suspended or resumed
  • when they are suspended, the social is bound together with already accepted participants (social actors who are members of a society)
  • when the movement is resumed, it traces social as associations through non-social entities which might later participate
  • if pursued systemically, the tracing may end up in a shared definition of the common world (collective)
  • but if there are not procedures to render it common, it may fail to be assembled
  • sociology is best defined as a discipline where participants explicitly engage in the reassembling of the collective

Like Bennett, Latour’s project is a political one (even though his work is often described as lacking politics, and I think, unfairly). Reassembling the Social ends with a conclusion that is a question that opens onto itself (and interfolding?): “From Society to Collective—Can the Social be Reassembled?” as a search for political relevance. Latour states “Once the task of exploring the multiplicity of agencies is completed, another question can be raised: What are the assemblies of those assemblages?” (260) And follows/ends with this statement:

In a time of so many crises in what it means to belong, the task of cohabitation should no longer be simplified too much. So many other entities are now knocking on the door of our collectives. Is it absurd to want to retool our disciplines to become sensitive again to the noise they make and to try to find a place for them? (262)

Which I find resonance with in Bennett’s closing paragraph:

These claims need more flesh and even then remain contestable. Other actants, enmeshed in other assemblages, will surely offer different diagnoses of the political and its problems. It is ultimately a matter of political judgment what is more needed today: should we acknowledge the distributive quality of agency in order to address the power of human-nonhuman assemblages and to resist a politics of blame? Or should we persist with a strategic understatement of material agency in the hope of enhancing the accountability of specific humans? (464)

I’m still a mess(h) over trying to delineate these concepts. What is the difference between a collective (Latour) and collectivity (Bennett)? What is the difference between cohabitating with nonhumans as humans (Latour) and existing in a living grouping (ad hoc, circumstantial) whose coherence coexists with energies and countercultures that exceed and confound it (Bennett)?



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