Assemblage theory provides us with a bottom-up ontological framework for analysing social complexity 1. The social assemblage is distinct from a Hegelian ‘organic totality’ in that the relations of its component parts are not logically fixed – as in the traditional view of organs in a body. By contrast, assemblage theory asserts that the same component can play differing roles in diverse assemblages. To consider biological organisms as assemblages then is to contend that relations between organs are only contingently obligatory as a result of co-evolution.

Assemblage Theory & Social Complexity · Manuel De Landa (2006)
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Each assemblage is an emergent entity which can combine with others to produce ever larger assemblages; both assemblages and their component parts are thus characterised by reciprocal relations of exteriority 5. Small market towns may synthesise into regional or national markets, individuals may form social networks which in turn coalesce into organisations. But each individual or town may be involved in a wide range of assemblages, taking up differing roles in each.

The components of an assemblage can play roles which lie on a spectrum from material to expressive . All physical materials can be expressive: Take for example the characteristic spectroscopic fingerprints of different materials, as used by astronomers to identify the makeup of the universe. These expressions, much like a human fingerprint, are not functional in themselves. In an urban context one such example of expressivity without function is a characteristic skyline formed by buildings. Deleuze regards DNA as a special instance in history in which physical expressivity turned functional. Genes and words – given their functional capacities – are in his view specialised expressive entities 4. De Landa maintains however that language does not play a constituent role in social assemblages, but that it is one amongst several primary expressive materials 1.

To extend assemblage theory to the urban — the urban assemblage — is to regard the urban as the site of certain densities and concentrations of material processes which are necessarily spatial. We can conceive of these as intensities of flows along networks operating at different scales. The components of these assemblages are not only bodies, but labour, resources (food), money, buildings, infrastructure, language and a range of other materials, including those constitutive of climates.

One can choose the individual as the smallest component in this ontology, but here a crucial distinction must be made with traditional sociology. The individual mind is considered a physical assemblage. As a material component like any other, it is not the core element in social assemblages. This allows us to free assemblages from their representation as a collection of subjects, moving us towards an object-oriented ontological framework 6. In this framework subjectivity itself emerges as an assemblage, it has no privileged position. This puts assemblage theory’s treatment of the individual in close proximity to Latour’s account of actors as quasi-objects in actor-network theory, and its treatment of reality in proximity to that of speculative realism.

This ontology is opposed to any form of taxonomic essentialism, which entails a supposition that categories can refer to things in the real world, and in doing so moves us towards the notion of a mind-independent reality. As De Landa puts it,

“The ontological status of any assemblage, inorganic, organic or social, is that of a unique, singular, historically contingent, individual… Much as biological species are not general categories of which animal and plant organisms are members but larger-scale individual entities of which organisms are component parts, so social assemblages should be given the ontological status of individual entities: individual networks and coalitions; individual organisations and governments; individual cities and nation states. This ontological manoeuvre allows to assert that these individual entities have an objective existence independently of our minds.” 2

A Thousand Years of Non-Linear History · Manuel De Landa (2002)
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This approach can be seen as a form of materialism in which matter 7 and energy take precedence over discourse and ideology. Human culture can thus be interpreted and analysed as a history of material flows – linguistic, economic, genomic – forming a kind of geological strata over time, observable as material histories subject to morphogenetic processes 3. From this perspective the social has a material being all of its own. Just as De Landa, very much a realist, admits ‘objects’ their own being in-themselves, so too he asserts that cities possess a city-being, a life of their own quite apart from the human mind.

The dynamics and structural properties of social assemblages – their growth, topologies, characteristic intensities, relations of exteriority, and interactions, can thus become the object of social science. Assemblages, unlike totalities, are analysable because they can be reconstructed from their constituent parts. In order to do this one must understand the relations that characterise the assemblage in terms of its emergence as a result of the dynamic interactions of its components. This does not entail the reduction of a totality, as to explain “the mechanisms of emergence does not explain emergence away…” (Mario Bunge).

This stance is not without its problems. If we talk about congestion, commuting or segregation, as characteristic phenomena of city-beings, then we may go about attempting to show these phenomena using agent-based models. Very quickly, however, one needs to delve into human psychology to refine these models. These phenomena aren’t produced by perfectly rational automatons. Modeling agents with an increasingly sophisticated capacity for spatial cognition, for example, becomes important. Our analysis is back to hypothesising the internal processes of the human mind in an urban context, far removed from the materialist spirit of assemblages.

In terms of methodology, network theory provides us with a representational toolkit for examining urban assemblages, whilst complexity science gives us a mathematical framework for dealing with emergence. Computer models can help us to understand how synthetic processes involving differing components can produce assemblages with differing characteristic identities. These tools allow us to pursue a social science methodology based on assemblage theory.

See Also: Emergence, Network, Morphogenesis