- What is an Assemblage?
The concept of assemblage plays a crucial role in the philosophy of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. In a 1980 interview with Catherine Clément, Deleuze describes their invention of the concept of the assemblage as the “general logic” at work in A Thousand Plateaus. However, despite its thirty years of influence on political theory, this “general logic of the assemblage” still remains obscured by the fact that Deleuze and Guattari never formalized it as a theory per se, but largely used it ad hoc throughout their work. This fact continues to pose problems for theorists today who wish to deploy something like a theory of assemblages, but also admit, as Manuel DeLanda does, that Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of the assemblage “hardly amounts to a fully fledged theory” (DeLanda 3). This position allows DeLanda to relegate “Deleuzian hermeneutics” to the footnotes and focus on developing his own “neo-assemblage” theory, “not strictly speaking Deleuze’s own” (DeLanda 4).
However, for those who want to know what Deleuze and Guattari’s assemblage theory is, DeLanda’s answer is not quite satisfying. Thus in order to render Deleuze and Guattari’s general logic of assemblages more accessible for political theorists today as part of the current special issue of SubStance, this paper develops a formalization of their theory of assemblages invented in A Thousand Plateaus and What is Philosophy? The thesis of this paper is that, contra DeLanda, Deleuze and Guattari do in fact have a fully fledged theory of assemblages.
At present and to my knowledge, this is the first full-length journal article to focus exclusively on Deleuze and Guattari’s formal theory of assemblages. By concentrating on the structure of the theory apart from any specific kind of assemblage or application of assemblage theory such as linguistic, sociological, biological, or geological, this paper shows, in a relatively brief manner, the core formal operations shared by all kinds of assemblages and to clarify in what precise sense all assemblages are political. Elsewhere I have shown at length how this general logic of assemblages can be used as a method of concrete political analysis,1 but the focus of this paper is to show the theory behind the analysis. In short, this essay does for the concept of the assemblage what Deleuze and Giorgio Agamben did for Foucault in their essay “What is a Dispositif?”: it extracts [End Page 21] from a large body of work the core formal features of its operative methodology or logic.
The English word “assemblage” is the common translation of the French word agencement used by Deleuze and Guattari. This translation has two problems. First, the English word “assemblage” does not mean the same thing as the French word agencement; in fact, the two come from completely different etymological roots. According to Le Robert Collins dictionary, the French word agencement comes from the verb agencer, “to arrange, to lay out, to piece together.” The noun agencement thus means “a construction, an arrangement, or a layout.” On the other hand, the English word “assemblage,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, comes from the French word assemblage (a-sahn-blazh), not the French word agencer. The meaning of the English word “assemblage” is “the joining or union of two things” or “a bringing or coming together.” A layout or arrangement is not the same thing as a unity or a simple coming together. Thus the second problem of this translation: the French word assemblage already exists and means the same thing as the English word “assemblage.” According to Le Robert Collins, the French word assemblage means, “to join, to gather, to assemble.” Again, an arrangement or layout is not the same as a joined or unified gathering.
The important philosophical takeaway of this translation issue is that English readers of Deleuze and Guattari ought to dissociate their understanding of the English word “assemblage” from the concept of agencement since it will only confuse things. Furthermore, three major consequences follow from this indexical distinction between assemblage and agencement. While an assemblage is a gathering of things together into unities, an agencement is an arrangement or layout of...