Assemblage Theory Part 1

This series about assemblage theory is intended to follow my journey of understanding this theory, so some of what I write might be revised and changed in some of the subsequent parts.

What is an Assemblage?

Even though Wikipedia has a bad reputation within academia, I like to use Wikipedia as a starting point when I come across a new topic (and I also think that Wikipedia is a brilliant example of what open source can do!).

Wikipedia defines assemblage theory as follows:

“Assemblage theory is an ontological framework developed by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, originally presented in their book A Thousand Plateaus (1980). Assemblage theory provides a bottom-up framework for analyzing social complexity by emphasizing fluidity, exchangeability, and multiple functionalities. Assemblage theory asserts that, within a body, the relationships of component parts are not stable and fixed; rather, they can be displaced and replaced within and among other bodies, thus approaching systems through relations of exteriority.”

Let’s see if this definition holds up after I read the articles that I have chosen. However, to understand what assemblage theory implies, I have to understand what an assemblage IS, which is what I will write about in this first part about assemblage theory.

Agencement vs assemblage?

Before diving deeper into what an assemblage is, there is one important remark to make here. Deleuze and Guattari speak of “agencement”, which is commonly translated as “assemblage”. However, translations can never be 100% correct, which is also the case here. Nail (2017) examined the two terms and explains that the french agencements has different etymological roots compared to assemblage.

agencer, agencementFrench: assemblageEnglish: assemblage
arrange, to lay out and to piece together a construction, an arrangement, or a layout = arrangement or layout of heterogenous join, to gather, to assemble, collection, set, a set of parts = gathering of things together into unitiesthe joining or union of two things, a bringing or coming together = gathering of things together into unities

The issue here according to Nail is the French word assemblage already exists and means the same thing as the English word “assemblage”. To address this, the author suggests, for English speakers, to “dissociate their understanding of the English word “assemblage” from the concept of agencement since it will only confuse things”.  However, I am not really sure what that means here. Should one be aware of this distinction? And then decide to e.g. use agencement to follow Guattaris/Deleuzes line of thought instead of assemblage or use assemblage and accept that it has an incorrect connotation? Does everyone, that uses assemblage theory understands the English assemblage not according to its dictionary definition but as the French agencement? I guess I just pay attention and find out while reading others’ work!

However, this small detour has not really brought me closer to finding out what an assemblage is. I found this article written by Sellar (2009) who defines assemblages as “a collection of heterogeneous parts and acts that form contingent relations across time to produce an emergent whole”. However, following this definition it sounds as if Sellar understands assemblages as a mix of agencements and assemblages- not sure if this clarified things or made it even more complicated?!  Even though I am hesitant to get into this, imo, complex theory, I think that assemblages cannot be understand while separated from the whole, so let’s move on and start looking into assemblage theory as a whole.

Sellar, Ben. “Assemblage Theory, Occupational Science, and the Complexity of Human Agency.” Journal of Occupational Science 16, no. 2 (July 2009): 67–74.

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