Jane Bennett on Assemblage

Notes taken from Jane Bennett, “The Agency of Assemblages,” in Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2010, pp. 20-38.

Focus: to move agency “beyond human bodies and intersubjective fields to vital materialities and the human-nonhuman assemblages they form” (30).

Begins chapter by discussing the disadvantages of the idea she calls “thing power,” which she cites as a “starting point for thinking beyond the life matter binary” (20):

  • Tends to overstate the “thinginess or fixed stability of materiality” (20);
  • “Lends itself to an atomistic rather than congregational understanding of agency” (20).

Bennet suggests that a thing’s “efficacy or agency depends on the collaboration, cooperation, or interactive interference of many bodies and forces” (21). Like Chen, Bennett is interested in how nonhuman entities can be figured into questions of agency as vital materialities (“no mode is an agent in the hierarchical sense” [22]). To develop this idea of distributive agency, she examines the real-life effect of a power blackout that affected 50 million people in the United States in 2003; taking the electrical power grid as an agentic assemblage. Two important concepts for understanding this approach, Bennett says, are Spinoza’s “affective” and Deleuze and Guattari’s “assemblage.”

Affective

  • Spinoza’s bodies are associative in the sense they are “continuously affecting and being affected by other bodies” (21).
  • “Spinoza’s conative, encounter-prone body arises in the context of an ontological vision according to which all things are “modes” of a common “substance”…every mode is itself a mosaic or assemblage of many simple bodies” (21-2).
  • Bodies are conative: “…conatus refers to the effort required to maintain the specific relation that defines the mode as what it is. This maintenance is not a process of mere repetition of the same, for it entails continual invention: because each mode suffers the actions on it by other modes, actions that disrupt the relation of movement and rest characterising each mode, every mode, if it is to persist, must seek new encounters to creatively compensate for the alterations of affections it suffers” (22). These agentic modes aren’t hierarchal, but nonetheless operate in tension with the affection of other modes.
  • What this suggests for agency? It’s efficacy or effectively “becomes distributed across an ontologically heterogeneous field, rather than being a capacity localized in a human body or in a collective produced (only) by human efforts” (23)

Assemblage

  • Reconceptualises the “part-whole” relation.
  • “Assemblages are ad hoc groupings of diverse elements, of vibrant materials of all sorts. Assemblages are living, throbbing confederations that are able to function despite the persistent of energies that confound them from within” (23-4).
  • “The effects generated by an assemblage are…emergent properties, emergent in that their ability to make something happen… is distinct from the vital force of each materiality considered alone… an assemblage is never a stolid block but an open-ended collective, a “non-totalizable” sum” (24).
  • An electoral power grid is the exemplar of an assemblage. It includes very active and powerful non-human parts.

The anthropomorphisation of the blackout in local papers suggests that the electrical grid should be understood as volatile mixture of actants. Through a detailed examination of two of these actants, electricity and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, Bennett illustrates how agency “extrudes from multiple sites or may loci—from a quirky electron flow and a spontaneous fire to members of Congress who have a neoliberal faith in market self-regulation” (28). Furthermore, “this federation of actants” is characterised by a “certain looseness and slipperiness, often unnoticed” as she demonstrates through a ready of Augustine’s Confessions, Kant or “agency-versus-structure” debates in the social sciences (28-9). Bennett asserts, “There is no agency proper to assemblages, only the effervescence of the agency of individuals acting alone or in concert with each other” (29).

“The vital materialist must admit that different materialities, composed of different sets of protobodies, will express different powers… Humanity and nonhumanity have always performed an intricate dance with each other. There was never a time when human agency was anything other than an interfolding network of humanity and nonhumanity; today this mingling has become harder to ignore” (31).

Bennett suggests that agency is an assemblage of related concepts: efficacy, trajectory and causality.

  • Efficacy “points to the creativity of agency, to a capacity to make something new appear or occur” (31). There is always a swarm of vitalities at play in the rubric of distributive agency, “the task becomes to identify the contours of the swarm and the kind of relations that obtain between its bits” (32). Distributive agency “loosens the connections between efficacy and the moral subject” and places power in nonhuman bodies too (32).
  • Trajectory is “a directionality or movement away from somewhere even if the toward-which it moves is obscure or even absent” (32). Here, Derrida has departed from moral philosophy and figures trajectory as a “messianicity” (an “open-ended promissory quality of calm, image, or entity”). This promise holds open a condition of possibility for phenomentality and thus provides a way for “the vital materialist to affirm the existence of a certain trajectory or drive to assemblages without insinuating intentionality or purposiveness” (32).
  • Causality—“Alongside and inside singular human agents exists a heterogenous series of actants with partial, overlapping, and conflicting degrees of power and effectivity” (33). Here causality is emergent, “placing the focus of the process as itself an actant, as itself in possession of degrees of agentic capacity” (33). Causality is a falsifying and alien category. Indeed, “what makes the event happen is precisely the contingent coming together of a set of elements” (34).

According to Bennett, “an assemblage owes it agentic capacity to the vitality of the materialities that constitute it” (34). She relates this to the Chinese tradition, shi. It names the “dynamic force emanating from a spatio-temporal configuration rather than from any particular element within it…the shi of an assemblage is vibratory; it is the mood or style of an open whole in which both the membership changes over time and the members themselves undergo internal alteration” (35).

To conclude, Bennett suggests that “the locus of political responsibility is a human-nonhuman assemblage” (36). We need to affirm this vitality, which “presents individuals as simply incapable of bearing full responsibility for their effects” (37). It broadens the range of places to look for sources, as Bennett says, “the ethical responsibility of an individual human now resides in one’s response to the assemblage in which one finds oneself participating” (37). Agency is “distributed across a mosaic, but it is also possible to say something about the kind of striving that may be exercised by a human within the assemblage” (38).

“An understanding of agency as distributive and confederate thus reinvokes the need to detach ethics from moralism and to produce guides to action appropriate to a world of vital, crosscutting forces” (38).

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