TOWARDS AESTHETIC-EPISTEMIC ASSEMBLAGES
by Paulo de Assis
Abstract. In A New Philosophy of Society: Assemblage Theory and Social Complexity (2006) Manuel DeLanda introduces a novel approach to social ontology based on Deleuze and Guattari’s theories of assemblages and of ‘the processes that create and stabilize their historical identity’. Taking the few pages dedicated to ‘Assemblage Theory’ in the work of Deleuze and Guattari as a starting point, DeLanda massively expands the topic, challenging existing paradigms of social analysis and proposing different types of assemblages, ranging from the personal level to territorial states. DeLanda’s ‘Assemblage Theory 2.0’ therefore primarily focuses on collective assemblages of enunciation, referring to social constructions. If one tries to unravel what is specifically Deleuzian and what is Guattarian in their collaborative writings (mainly in A Thousand Plateaus, 1980) one could claim that the concern with social ontology is the more specifically Guattarian stance, dealing with collective agencements such as communities and institutional organizations. On the other hand, Deleuze’s concern is represented by the recurrent example of an assemblage as the mounted warrior, the combination of horse-warrior-weapon—something that is more than the sum of its parts, with emergent properties, and whose components are characterized by relations of exteriority. Where Guattari stresses the formation and processes of collective human enunciations, Deleuze refers to human and non-human machinic assemblages of things. In this perspective, DeLanda’s endeavor seems to be a highly elaborated expansion of Guattari’s concerns.
ME21 proposes to go in the opposite direction: not from the Deleuze/Guattarian ‘agencement’ to ever bigger and more complex human/social agencies of enunciations, but toward smaller, aesthetic-epistemic or purely artistic ‘machinic assemblages’ of things. One might call it ‘Assemblage Theory 3.0'. In order to do so, both the Deleuze-Guattarian terminology and DeLanda’s parameterization of concepts are used as fundamental operative tools. The focus on particular parameters – such as affects on the assemblages (territorialization/deterritorialization), role of the components (material/expressive), modes of recurrence (coding/decoding), and genesis of the processes (actual/virtual) – allows for the construction of several ‘machinic assemblages of desire’. The precise calibration of these parameters (in the framework of ‘experimental systems’) allows for a broad range of artistic assemblages: from strata, collages, montages, assemblages (in the sense used in visual arts), installations, and performances, up to nomadic events, the ultimate goal being to explore a novel approach to artistic ontology: that is, an ontology of things that is descriptive, but also creative and productive, enabling the construction of new aesthetic-epistemic assemblages.
There is a painting by Klee called Angelus Novus. An angel is depicted there who looks as though he were about to distance himself from something which he is staring at. His eyes are opened wide, his mouth stands open and his wings are outstretched. The Angel of History must look just so. His face is turned towards the past. Where we see the appearance of a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe, which unceasingly piles rubble on top of rubble and hurls it before his feet. He would like to pause for a moment so fair, to awaken the dead and to piece together what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise, it has caught itself up in his wings and is so strong that the Angel can no longer close them. The storm drives him irresistibly into the future, to which his back is turned, while the rubble-heap before him grows sky-high. (Walter Benjamin, 9th Thesis, On the Concept of History, 1940)
Benjamin’s Angel of History desperately stares at the steady accumulation of debris that the past throws before his eyes. In the place of a sequence of detached events, he sees ‘rubble on top of rubble’, a continuous collection of wreckage. However, violently pushed into the future, his desire to stop and reassemble those fragments cannot be fulfilled. His mouth is wide open, yet he cannot talk. One could start by translating this metaphor into music: in the place of ‘works’, the Angel of History would see innumerable things on top of things—sketches, drafts, manuscripts, editions, recordings, transcriptions, treatises, manuals, instruments, depictions, contracts, commissions, letters, postcards, scribbles, diagrams, analytical charts, theoretical essays, articles, books, memories, forgeries, etc. All these things—brought together in different combinations and arrangements, in different times and geographies—are material objects that exist in the real world. Brought together in specific combinations, they make up those reified generalities that we used to call ‘musical works’. Let’s take the most famous example yet again: where is Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony to be found? Is it in the Breitkopf & Härtel first edition from 1808? In any of the 161 recordings officially registered in 2012 by the Beethoven-Haus Bonn? In any of the innumerable manuscripts, currently dispersed between Berlin, Paris, Vienna, Krakow, Nelahozeves and Bonn? In the corrected manuscript ‘An 67 k, I, 83’? In Liszt’s piano reduction? In a Schenkerian analysis? The list of questions could easily continue for dozens of pages as we are referring to the concrete, material documents that allow the construction of an abstract image of the work. As Foucault exhaustively demonstrated:
The frontiers of a book are never clear-cut: beyond the title, the first lines, and the last full stop, beyond its internal configuration and its autonomous form, it is caught up in a system of references to other books, other texts, other sentences: it is a node within a network. [...] The book is not simply the object that one holds in one’s hands; and it cannot remain within the little parallelepiped that contains it: its unity is variable and relative. As soon as one questions that unity, it loses its self-evidence, constructs itself, only on the basis of a complex field of discourse. (Foucault 2010: 23)
The unity of a book (or of a work) belongs therefore to the imaginary: to a complex set of fictional, simulated, or virtual conglomerates that we accept to consider as part of reality. However, from a materialist ontological perspective, works only exist as elaborated products (Foucault’s ‘nodes’) of a network of relations and interactions between innumerable documents. From our contemporary perspective, with our all-encompassing, almost infinite archive of historical data, we all have become surrogates of Benjamin’s angel of history. Confronted with the overwhelming mass of currently easily available documents (Benjamin’s ruins of the past) we have the responsibility to establish ever-new articulations between them, to build different orders of things, to questions legitimacies, to propose radical shiftings of perspective.
Benjamin’s angel does not wish to worship reified generalities, but to reassemble, to put back together the ruins left behind by history—in a particular, ever changing configuration.. In the act of reassembling fragments, Benjamin saw a power to rupture and to heal; to rearrange things in an unexpected world of their own. Once one breaks with the ideology of the unity of the artwork, and starts considering its innumerable constitutive parts as the basic materials for artistic and research activities, infinite possibilities instantly emerge into view. Crucial is the finding of singularities—particular points where something cracks, changes phase, or simply vanishes. As Foucault puts it:
(...) in every oeuvre, in every book, in the smallest text, the problem is to rediscover the point of rupture, to establish, with the greatest possible precision, the division between the implicit density of the already-said, a perhaps involuntary fidelity to acquired opinion, the law of discursive fatalities, and the vivacity of creation, the leap into irreducible difference. (Foucault 2010: 142)
The shift from a work-centered perspective to a vision of an exploded continuum made of innumerable objects and things in steady interaction with one another creates fields of discourse based on pure difference, leading to processes of differential repetition. When looking at those exploded things, the angel of history has two options: one analytical, where he remains at a certain distance (taken by the wind) and questions things in terms of what they are, how they appear, which properties they have, and what relation they entertain with each other; the other option more active and creative (countering the wind and going back and forth between the present and the past), where his main thoughts and actions are focused on what to do with these things, how to reactivate them, which futures they possess, which potentialities they carry, how to give them renewed sounds and furies, and how to express them anew. The first approach looks into the past, while the second creatively designs new futures of past objects and things. The first relates to conventional scholarly research and disciplines, the second—so I claim—to new modes of research, including artistic research. The question is: how does one generate differential knowledge by means of a research centered artistic practice? How does one validate research as artistic practice, and, conversely, the making of art as research?
In our ongoing research programme Music Experiment 21 (ME21), these questions are being addressed using the concept and practices (the concrete doing) of assemblages. As this word has many different meanings – in everyday language, in the visual arts, in science and technology, and in diverse philosophical currents – it is important to clarify what I mean when using it. As a starting point, I am referring to the concept of assemblage as Manuel DeLanda proposed in the last decade, particularly in his books A New Philosophy of Society: Assemblage Theory and Social Complexity (2006) and Deleuze. History and Science (2010). It is a strongly parametrized concept, i.e. it includes several parameters that might be differently calibrated, being scalable and therefore more or less active in the final assemblage.
DeLanda developed his theory on the basis of the joint work of Deleuze and Guattari on assemblages, and he named his theory ‘Assemblage Theory 2.0’ to indicate the differences between his developments of the concept and its formulation in the books of Deleuze and Guattari. The origins of this particular philosophical stance go back to the Deleuze and Guattari book Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature (1986), where it appears for the first time and where the original French word is agencement, and not assemblage. It reappears as a central concept in the third and twelfth plateaus (‘The Geology of Morals’ and ‘Treatise on Nomadology’) of A Thousand Plateaus (1980), and is fundamental to the whole book on Foucault (1988). It is due to the first English translation of A Thousand Plateaus (from 1981), where Paul Foss and Paul Patton translated agencement as assemblage, that the term started gaining new tonalities. Brian Massumi retained the term, and it has since then become normative, even if most people agree that it is not really a good approximation of the original meaning of agencement. For the definition of the concept we are dealing with here, Deleuze and Guattari actually use two terms: agencement and strata. Agencement is, on the one hand, an ensemble of material relations, a state of things, a form of content; and, on the other hand, a regime of signs, a form of expression. Agencements therefore have two poles: those of the strata and the abstract machine. The strata pole refers to wider social assemblages, defined by particular codes, with a stable form and reproductive functioning, while the abstract machine pole refers to particular assemblages that decode and deterritorialize the more stratified assemblages. As already noted in 2003 by François Zourabichvili, artistic agencements would be particular cases of abstract machines, a point that is crucial to us.
DeLanda’s theory remains primarily focused on collective assemblages of enunciation, referring to social constructions, an aspect that he derives from Deleuze and Guattari:
In his own texts, Deleuze uses the term to refer not only to social assemblages, like the man-horse-weapon assemblage, but to biological ones (the wasp-orchid symbiotic assemblage) and even non-organic ones, like the assemblage formed by copper and tin when they interact to form an alloy, bronze, with its own emergent properties and capacities. But in his joint work with Guattari the term refers only to social assemblages. (DeLanda 2010: 72)
In this sense DeLanda’s endeavor seems to be a continuation and highly elaborated expansion of Guattari’s concerns, expanding the Deleuze-Guattarian agencement to a wider scale. He deals more with the strata pole than with the abstract machine pole, a focus that ME21 wants to revert. In place of the two terms strata and agencement, DeLanda proposes to use a single term – the English assemblage – and to install ‘control knobs’ (parameters) that can have different settings at different times: for some settings the social whole would be a stratum, for other settings an assemblage. This parametrization of the concept allows DeLanda to think of an ‘assemblage machine’ with two main control knobs: territorialization/deterritorialization and coding/decoding. The control knob territorialization/deterritorialization has to do with the degree of homogenization of the components, while the control knob coding/decoding relates to the degree to which the assemblage’s identity is rigidly or flexibly determined. When both knobs are turned up high (high territorialization, high coding), one talks of strata; when territorialization is high and coding low it is an assemblage as Deleuze and Guattari defined it; when both knobs are low we have a deterritorialized assemblage; and in the case of low territorialization combined with low and high coding, we are facing nomadic events.DeLanda’s assemblages include diverse entities, such as persons, public personae, conversations, communities, institutions, cities and nation-states. We propose to use DeLanda’s conceptual tools, but also, and crucially, to go back to Deleuze and Guattari’s seminal texts in order to formulate an assemblage theory for the arts – or at least, for artistic research. Given the specific nature of our endeavor, one might label it ‘Assemblage Theory 3.0’.
3. Artistic Research
In order to apply assemblage theory to music one has to establish an ontology first: which things do we consider legitimate to assert that they exist? Appropriating Deleuze and Guattari’s terminology on strata, and remaining aware of the unavoidable anisomorphism between philosophy and art, one can identify four types of strata in those music materials that physically exist in the real world: substrata (sketches, drafts, first editions, letters, writings by composers and performers, annotations, etc.); parastrata (treatises, manuals, iconography, period instruments, descriptions of concerts, critics, archives, lists of personnel, payments, etc.); epistrata (period editions, editions throughout time, analysis, reflexive texts, theoretical contextualizations, recordings, etc.); and metastrata (future performances, expositions, recordings, transcriptions, etc.). In music, these strata are not only being added and superposed in a linear progression—they infiltrate or contaminate each other throughout time, generating interstrata: complex arrangements of forces and intensities. By focusing on these innumerable documents (the pile of debris that the past puts in front of our eyes), ‘works’ are being considered as multiplicities, as historically constructed conglomerates of things. In this sense, works can be seen as meta-assemblages, since all of their constitutive things are in themselves machinic assemblages (editions, recordings, essays, performances, etc.).
Methodologically, this perspective allows for a three-step modus operandi: first, the ‘ruins of the past’ are archaeologically identified and retrieved for further consideration; secondly, the relations and connectors they entertain with each other, as well as their serialization throughout time, are studied in terms of a genealogy, disclosing singularities, i.e., particular points of high energy or concentration of forces; and finally, specific selections of things are brought together as machinic assemblages that problematize them anew. The archaeological moment relates to conventional scholarly research, including archival and sources studies; the genealogy calls for interpretation, semiotics and transtextuality; and the problematization happens by constructing new and experimental machinic assemblages. With the latter, the artistic dimension becomes inescapable, and it requires the kind of artist and the kind of researcher that can cohabit the same body—something like Nietzsche’s vision of the ‘artist-philosopher’ – or, in our current language, the ‘artistic researcher’.
Benjamin, W., Selected Writings, Vol. 4, 1938-1940, 2003, Cambridge: Belknap Press.
Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge  2010, New York: Vintage Books.
De Landa, M., A New Philosophy of Society: Assemblage Theory and Social Complexity, 2006. London/New York: Continuum.
De Landa, M., Deleuze. History and Science (2010), New York/Dresden: Atropos Press.
Deleuze, G. and F. Guattari, 2004 . A Thousand Plateaus. London/New York: Continuum.