The Assemblage

by Stefan Morales | Last Updated: March 17, 2024
The Assemblage

This set of notes elaborates on the philosophical/ social science definition of Assemblages, and it directly links to this earlier note from a piece on self-governing without guarantee:

This longer set of notes on the assemblage can stand alone to a degree, but I would strongly suggest contextualizing it by reading about self-governing without guarantee, and then coming back here. OK, to define this concept for our purposes:

While there are many different approaches to assemblage theory, I believe that the main sentiment beneath them all is similar, and the main differences are more a matter of degree, emphasis on different “moves”, and splitting hairs than anything radically divergent. So this set of notes will aim to:

Lastly, I recommend dipping in and out of this piece, as these are fairly dense notes!

Working Definition

For an already fairly complex concept, though, I find Manuel Delanda’s summary of “Assemblage Theory” from A New Philosophy of Society to be the most accessible way in as it tightly gives us the central characteristics of an assemblage, as well as the basis for a few different ‘thinking space’ diagrams which I will present in a future piece. Let’s unpack Delanda’s summary:

“First of all, unlike wholes in which parts are linked by relations of interiority (that is, relations which constitute the very identity of the parts) assemblages are made up of parts which are self-subsistent and articulated by relations of exteriority, so that a part may be detached and made a component of another assemblage…

“…Assemblages are characterized along two dimensions: along the first dimension are specified the variable roles which component parts may play, from a purely material role to a purely expressive one, as well as mixtures of the two…”

“A second dimension characterizes processes in which these components are involved: processes which stabilize or destabilize the identity of the assemblage (territorialization and deterritorialization)…”

In the version of assemblage theory to be used in this book, a third dimension will be added: an extra axis defining processes in which specialized expressive media intervene, processes which consolidate and rigidify the identity of the assemblage or, on the contrary, allow the assemblage a certain latitude for more flexible operation while benefiting from genetic or linguistic resources (processes of coding and decoding).”

All of these processes are recurrent, and their variable repetition synthesizes entire populations of assemblages.”

One thing I appreciate about assemblage theory is the way it can allow you to pull in diverse perspectives, theoretical tools, practices, and empirical studies about what matters for a given assemblage in terms of dynamics, constraints, etc. It’s not about which one is right, but more about which combination of concepts, tools, etc. helps us be less wrong about ‘the what’ and more attuned to how we might best navigate uncertainty and complexity together (the ‘what if’ and the ‘now what’). In a sense, by considering the historical formation of assemblages, we can create a better collective ‘probe head’ through accessible and shared practices, scaffolds, mindsets, tools, etc., that we then use to attend to the present and future. For me, all this is in service of iteratively designing better socio-technical instrumentation for navigating the Bayesian middle that we find ourselves living out at the human scale.

The last bit I’ll say here on Delanda’s notion of the assemblage is this helpful characterization: an assemblage is not simply a collection of parts. A single, simplified example from Deleuze and Guattari’s work can help sharpen all of the above, I believe. A skilled archer riding and battling on horseback is an assemblage of human-bow-horse, whereas as Delanda elaborates, an unskilled person trying to fire a bow and arrow while riding on horse for the first time is a ‘collection of parts.’ To transform the latter into the former requires:

So, when we are talking about navigating and assembling for transition, for example, we are talking about making this process of assembly formation explicit to serve the specific articulations of transition, energy descent, adaptation, permaculture, etc., which broadens the types of ‘skilling’ well beyond the human. Which takes us to the concept of a SEO, which I’ll share more about in future notes.

Alt. Takes: Agencement, Komplex

I think it’s helpful to show how some aspects of this central concept were lost in translation when Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s work was brought to English readers. And Ian Buchanan’s rejoinder to Delanda is a helpful place to map this, as Assemblage was the chosen English translation of the French word agencement, where

“Agencement derives from agencer, which according to Le Roberts Collins means ‘to arrange, to lay out, or to piece together’, whereas assemblage means ‘to join, to gather, to assemble’. Agencement, as John Law has noted, encompasses a range of meanings that include ‘to arrange, to dispose, to fit up, to combine, to order’. (Assemblage Theory and Method, 20)

“The second observation I want to offer is to note that in his comments on Man Ray’s piece ‘dancer/danger’, Guattari (in his essay ‘Balancing-Sheet Program for Desiring Machines’, which was appended to the second edition of Anti-Oedipus and can therefore be read as a kind of bridging piece linking Anti-Oedipus to A Thousand Plateaus) observes that what is crucial about this assemblage is the fact that it doesn’t work. He means this quite literally. The working parts, its cogs and wheels and so on, do not turn or intermesh with one another in a mechanical fashion. It is precisely for that reason, he argues, that it works as a piece of art. It works by creating an association (i.e. a refrain) between the human dancer and the inhuman machine, and thereby brings them into a new kind of relation which he and Deleuze would later call the assemblage, but in their first works they called the desiring-machine.(Assemblage Theory and Method, 22)

“…it is useful to note that agencement is Deleuze and Guattari’s own translation, or perhaps rearrangement would be a better word, of the German word Komplex (as in the ‘Oedipal complex’ or the ‘castration complex’). Although it is Guattari himself who defines the assemblage in this way in the various glossaries he has provided, the connection between Freud’s notion of complex and the concept of the assemblage has been almost completely ignored. If there is any word whose meaning one should explore as a way into assemblage theory then it is complex. According to Laplanche and Pontalis’s exhaustive account, there are three senses of the word complex in Freud’s writing: (1) ‘a relatively stable arrangement of chains of association’; (2) ‘a collection of personal characteristics – including the best integrated ones – which is organised to a greater or lesser degree, the emphasis here being on emotional reactions’; (3) ‘a basic structure of interpersonal relationships and the way in which the individual finds and appropriates his place’. Laplanche and Pontalis also note that there is an underlying tendency towards ‘psychologism’ inherent in the term. Not only does it imply that all individual behaviour is shaped by a latent, unchanging structure, it also allows that there is a complex for every conceivable psychological type. The key point I want to make here is that none of these ways of thinking about the complex actually requires that we give any consideration to a material object.” (Assemblage Theory and Method, 21)


I couldn’t go as far as I have unpacking the Assemblage without spending some time exploring Latour’s framing of Actor Network Theory (ANT):

“The alternative I have proposed in this book is so simple that it can be summarized in one short list: 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 the next; those movements can either be suspended or resumed; when they are prematurely suspended, the social as normally construed is bound together with already accepted participants called ‘social actors’ who are members of a ‘society’; when the movement towards collection is resumed, it traces the social as associations through many non-social entities which might become participants later; if pursued systematically, this tracking may end up in a shared definition of a common world, what I have called a collective; but if there are no procedures to render it common, it may fail to be assembled; and, lastly, sociology is best defined as the discipline where participants explicitly engage in the reassembling of the collective.” (Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social, 247)

thx for going full-nerd,