In this post my aim is just to outline the general features of DeLanda’s assemblage theory as presented in the first chapter of A New Philosophy of Society with little in the way of critical commentary or questions. Here I want to get a clear picture of what he sees as the central features of assemblage theory and how it differs from other social theories.
1. Relations of Exteriority versus Relations of Interiority:
DeLanda begins chapter 1 with the declaration that we must removed the entrenched metaphor of society as an organism. Within the organismic metaphor, society is compared to the human body, such that 1) all parts aredependent on one another, and 2) all parts (institutions) work together like organs in an organism to promote the harmony of society as a whole. Here it is notable that this conception of relations between parts is not restricted to organismic conceptions of society, but also to structuralist conceptions of society. The key thesis shared by these orientations is that parts have no existence or being apart from the whole to which they belong. Thus, for example, when we talk about a sound in language, we cannot say that “b” has an existence of its own independent of other sounds in language, but rather that “b” exists only in a phonemic relation with other sounds: b/p. The concept of structure is such that elements have no independent existence apart from their relations. As a consequence, elements are their relations within an organismic or structuralist conception of the social world.
abdul lateef Posted September 6, 2010 at 5:51 pm | Permalink
One interesting aspect of Deleuze’s philosophy that DeLanda points to is that in the world of 20th century philosophers almost every single major philosopher traces their lineage back to Kant and idealism (Husserl, Heidegger, Derrida etc), whereas Deleuze’s materialist philosophy is the only one whose genealogy goes in a different direction back to Hume.
Note: One also should not confuse Deleuze’s materialism with reductionism (that he opposed) because it is rooted in the ontology of emergence. In fact with regards to one of the themes of this blog, although Sri Aurobindo’s philosophy may be formally characterized as idealist (with some cross-cultural caveats), there is in fact a materialist aspect to it and its prescribed practices that makes Deleuze’s materialism extremely relevant.
Jane Bennett’s sympathetic yet critical commentary on my essay “What is Enchantment?” (published in the volume Varieties of Secularism in a Secular Age) describes the notion of disenchantment that I present as primarily addressing the theological displacements that emerged with the rise of the new science. Her own work, she says, offers a quite different focus, one of a mood or affect that “circulates between human bodies and the animal, vegetable, and mineral forces they encounter.” […]
Disenchantment, in my understanding of that process, was a result (a fallout, as I said above) of our having (among other things) over-intellectualized our relations to the world (including nature) as a result of having come to see it in a certain way: as not containing the properties that would make normative demands on us. Because of theological changes that led to viewing the world (including nature) as desacralized, one fundamental source of seeing the world as containing the value properties (good or bad, hostile or benign) that make normative demands on us was removed from our conception of the world. And this played a central role in seeing the world as alien to our sensibilities of practical engagement, something which became for us something either to be studied in a detached way or, when practically engaged with, to be engaged with as something alien, to be mastered, conquered, and controlled for our utility and gain, as in the extractive economies that were systematically generated first in that period.
I’ve italicized “conception” and “for us” in order to make clear that disenchantment cannot be understood as a process without understanding the desensitization that Bennett opposes when she says she wants us to be more “sensitized.” She can’t have what she wants here without also opposing “disenchantment,” as I understand the term and, therefore, equally proposing “re-enchantment,” as I understand the term.
I would diagnose this misunderstanding of “disenchantment” on her part as perhaps reflecting a rather deep philosophical disagreement between us on how to conceive of nature and matter, when we conceive of it in the non-mechanized way that we both wish to do. My stress on “conception” and “for us” are meant to convey something like the following conception of nature and matter. When one views nature and matter as not merely mechanized, as not merely something that we study in the natural sciences, i.e., with relative detachment, one views it as essentially containing properties that can’t be understood correctly unless one sees our capacity for responsiveness to them with our practical agency (that is what the “for us” was doing in my use of it above, stressing the relevance of this responsiveness) as built-into the kind of properties they are. They are not properties that are anyway there, independent of the kind of sensibility (our sensibility for practical normative engagement) that we, as agents, have. This does not mean that we mentally construct and project these properties onto the world, which in itself is brutely material (in the sense that “mechanized” is supposed to convey). It is a non-sequitur to say that, just because a certain property (value properties) in the world can only be viewed by a certain kind of sensibility (the one that subjects or creatures possessed of a certain self-conscious agency possess), the subjects who possess that sensibility must be constructing these properties and projecting them onto the world. That is what Hume and others influenced by him think to this day, and they were first systematically encouraged to do so by the transformations that I was calling “disenchantment” that began in the late seventeenth century. In my view, the properties are really properties of nature and matter, they are not constructed by us. But they are properties in some sense “for us,” since those who do not possess the kind of self-conscious agency that is moved by normative demands would see darkness in the world where we might see it as containing values making those normative demands.
If her “actants” are not conceived this way, then what she means by “actants” is not what I would have meant by them, had I used that word. In fact, I would have thought one has not gotten past mechanization, if one didn’t think of nature and matter as containing properties of the kind I am suggesting, over and above the properties studied by natural science.
Thus, when Bennett says we should be more sensitized to the participatory role of material “actants” (that is, to what I, in my terminology, call the normative demands of the value properties in nature and matter), she is precisely saying what I, in my terminology, mean when I say that our angle on the world should be less detached and more responsive to its normative demands. But this predominance of detachment was exactly what was generated by the process of disenchantment, as I understand that process. Hence, there is no avoiding “re-enchantment” if ‘sensitization’ is what you seek. [...]
My view derives from an Aristotelian picture of morals (if some recent interpretations of Aristotle, owing to John McDowell, are correct in their interpretations), where values in the world prompt our moral agency, rather than moral agency emanating entirely from a self-standing psychology, as in Hume and the very widespread Humean legacy of contemporary Ethics, which sees the world beyond our subjectivity as evacuated of anything that is not within the purview of natural science. It looks to me as if Bennett has no interest in seeing enchantment as, in this way, being part a wider metaphysics in which the metaphysics of morals is one embedded element. I detect only phenomena such as mood, affect, and the political implications of seeing enchantment along those lines, in what she has to say.
I can’t myself see a way to a politics that flows from questions of enchantment without also seeing morals as flowing from it. Politics, in my view, can’t be in an orbit entirely of its own, independent of considerations of moral and other values. There is nothing moralistic in claiming this. It is not as if, in saying that the politics generated by recognizing such things as “actants” must be related to the normative moral demands that those things make on us, one is identifying the “politics of things” with those normative moral demands. Still, relating them together may put some theoretical constraints on how we are to understand the “politics of things.” I don’t know if Bennett would want to impose such constraints on the politics she would want to embed in a notion of enchantment. Her rhetoric in general and her criticism of me in particular (the criticism that, unlike her, I stress the moral) doesn’t make it obvious how she would permit such a constraint. But I say all this with some hesitation. I would need to read more of her work in detail to be able to say anything more confidently.