Definition of Assemblage

What is an Assemblage?

Assemblages are the relational system of things, practices, habits, bodies, concepts, and environments that give rise to an emergent and coherent logic. Assemblages are a self-organizing set of diverse things that mesh together in emergent and novel holistic manners. 

Assemblages are the relational system of things, practices, habits, bodies, concepts, and environments

How something novel emerges is by way of how these things — tools, practices, concepts, habits, etc. are brought together in a specific relationship — this is called an assemblage (see diagram). 

Contextifying Our Use of Assemblage

The concept of an assemblage, as we are using it, comes from the work of the 20th-century philosopher Gilles Deleuze (see A Thousand Plateaus.) Deleuze’s life project was to develop a productive metaphysics of anti-essentialist creativity. And what such an approach challenges is the long-standing western essence based approach to reality. And what is an essence-based approach? What exemplifies such an approach is in how all identity questions, such as “What is X?” are answered by attempting to look inside of X to discover some purported essential core aspect of X.

The assemblage approach challenges this by demonstrating that things are processes and that they gain their identity not from some internal and eternal essence but through their dynamic linkages. And that ultimately, every discrete process is, in fact, an assemblage of processes connected to other assemblages of processes.

Thus, for Deleuze, an assemblage is intended to be an anti-essential, anti-foundational, anti-individualistic, and anti-reductionist way of both engaging creatively with, and understanding how, things come to be what they are.

A simple example that we like to reference is bird flight: “Flight” is not some essential property that can be found somewhere inside of the bird or the wing of the bird – or even in its DNA. Rather, flight is the emergent property of an assemblage – an assemblage that includes the bird, its feathers, and DNA but also necessarily includes thermals, wind, air density, landmasses, etc.

How Does an Assemblage Work?

Our tools form, shape and ultimately give rise to our most basic concepts— but they do not do this alone — it is in concert with our environments, habits, practices, and institutional regularities. This assemblage is a mutually determining interaction dominant system (something the philosopher Michel Foucault called this concept of an assemblage an “Apparatus” or  Dispoitif in the original french. 

How we disruptively engage with a problem is at the level(s) of the assemblage/apparatus/network. “The nature of the apparatus (assemblage) is essentially strategic, which means we are speaking about a certain manipulation of relations of forces, of a rational and concrete intervention in the relation of forces, either so as to block them, to stabilize them, and to utilize them. The apparatus is thus always inscribed into a play of power, but it is also always linked to certain limits of knowledge…” (Foucault).

What is An Example of an Assemblage?

Deleuze was fond of the example of the nomadic Mongol hunters of the Central Asians Steppes and how they invented and perfected this assemblage: the horse + stirrups + saddle + compound bow + person + open plains.

Mongolian horse rider shooting a bow and arrow

This assemblage revolutionized history with its rapid development, that led to the spread of the Mongol empire from China to Eastern Europe in under a century (1206-1290). Often, the credit for this revolution is given to the stirrup alone: “The humble stirrup was a game-changing invention that altered history."But there is nothing in the stirrup by itself that does anything. Rather, it is only when the stirrup is conjoined with the horse + saddle + person + terrain, etc., in a specific assemblage that powerful connections are made for the stable transmission of differences that make a difference in a continuous loop of reciprocal causation – and then it is possible that the rest is history so to speak. But the stirrup alone? That is not even possible…

So what happens when the assemblage of the horse + person + saddle meets the stirrup + the Steppes? To understand how radical this is, it is best to start with what was happening prior to the introduction of the stirrup. A person on a horse without stirrups moves in direct unison with the horse – the rider rises and falls with the horse's gait. This is especially true the faster one is going (this is even true with a saddle). This makes fast riding not something that can be done for any duration – the human body bumping up and down on the horse is extremely challenging and exhausting to both.

But adding the stirrups to this assemblage allows the rider to use their legs in a way that affords absorbing and neutralizing the motion of the horse. And this affords the potential of galloping for far longer distances. And the wide-open Eurasian Steppes afford a truly vast terrain for rapid horse-based travel. The Eurasian Steppes span over 8,000km from modern Hungary to central China (e.g., the eventual breadth of the Mongol Empire). The grasses also afford continuous grazing – which the shape of the horse's head affords grazing upon even in the depths of a deep snow-filled winter. And again, let us remember that the Steppes are not a discreet thing but a dynamic assemblage of processes:

Map of the Eurasian Steppes

What else can standing in stirrups while galloping on a horse on the steppes afford one? It affords a stability independent of the horse's up and down motion. And being afforded this stability affords one the potential to fire an arrow with accuracy. Now, if the classical, quite tall longbow can be shrunk, then one can easily rotate one's torso and fire in any direction – independent of the horse's direction of travel. Now, in warfare both advancing and retreating become modes of attack.

But there is a problem: the shorter bow does not afford the same power as the longbow. The length stores energy as it is drawn back.

How can an assemblage emerge that allows a bow to be short and powerful? To achieve this, the Mongols invented the recurve compound bow. This was a bow that was curved in the opposite direction prior to being strung (hence the term “re-curved”) – such a design prebuilds in a greater tension prior to drawing the bow (see diagram below). To achieve such a design, the bow was fabricated from layers of bamboo, mulberry, animal horn, sinew, and special glues. Why all this effort?  A similar bow made from one piece of wood would simply break long before it could be properly drawn.

Compound bow

Back to Assemblages: Thus, the concept of an “assemblage” allows one to both explain the creative emergence of, and experiment with, novel properties like flight or the Mongol war machine in a way that does not reduce them to the expression of some pre-existing internal essence (the Mongol mindset). This matters immensely in regards to creativity because an essentialist model, in the end cannot explain creativity outside of resorting to some deus ex machina plus reductio ad absurdum formulation. And at which point directives for a creative practice are reduced to platitudes “think outside the box,” or “fail faster”...

Concretely, What is an assemblage? With this example of the Mongol horseback archer in mind, we can begin to answer this question:

It is composed of processes that are linked in a non-uniform manner:

Diagramming an assemblage

What is Another Example of an Assemblage?

There is the old NRA saying “guns don’t kill, people do.” At the heart of this argument is the concept that things (in this case, guns) are in themselves neutral objects that do nothing. Which on the face of it is relatively true. A gun sitting in the middle of the desert is just a hot piece of metal that might keep a lizard warm at night, but it won’t run around shooting anything by itself. And because of this, it must be the person that has all the agency. This argument can then frame the problem as a human one: poor training, mental health, bad person, etc. 

What this form of argument (and problem definition) fails to recognize is that when a person has a gun they are fundamentally changed, they become a gun+person+constructed environment unit (or assemblage). This unit has its own agency and it transforms and remakes its parts (especially the human). It shapes habits, practices, subjectivities, and makes certain things far more likely than others. And in turn these new habits, feelings, practices and possibilities feedback into the assemblage and transform the assemblage. The relational assemblage when it comes into being and stabilizes has a dominant general propensity (some set of outcomes is always more likely than others). The assemblage is not neutral nor is it passive. 

Where is the Agency?

It is not in the discrete components but in the relations and the emergent agency of the whole. 

It is not the thing (a gun, in this example) or the person, or a concept. Yes, each part of the assemblage contributes to the emergence of the whole — but in a non-linear manner. The agency is in very concrete terms the assemblage (and all that arises from this assemblage — see diagram).

The agency are relational – they are of assemblages and what arises from the assemblage:

  • They exhibit system causation (the whole shaping the parts, and the relations)
  • Emergent processes 
  • A constrained field of diverse potential outcomes 
  • Actual outcomes 

All of which feeds-back into the assemblage and makes certain things far more likely than others. This feedback also feeds-forward moving the whole in a direction and strengthening the propensity of the system. 

Problems arising from specific forms of assemblages are not “solved.” 

Problems are remade — they are transformed. As the assemblage is modified the components are also changed and the field of potential outcomes is changed.

The radical remaking of a problem involves the qualitative transformation of the assemblage such that there is a qualitatively different field of potentials and qualitatively different subjectivities.

Working on problems is an inventive act — it is not an action that could be defined as “solving”. 

Innovation is the inventing of problems – novel assemblages worth having for worlds worth making (what emerges from an assemblage).

See: problems, emergence, agency, enaction, affordances.

Further reading: Volume 116: The Virtual Fields of Creativity...

For more, navigate to our complete list of articles on assemblages for Innovation.

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