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). 

The concept is one that is originally developed by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari in A Thousand Plateaus, where they give the example of a horse-man-bow as the assemblage of the nomads of the eurasian steppes.

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?

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

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

on What Is Innovation, and How to Innovate

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