It seems that I have not been thinking very clearly of late. For whatever reason I’ve been exceedingly exhausted, despite the fact that I’m getting plenty of sleep. I’m beginning to worry that I might be sick, in a serious kind of way, as this is not a fatigue I’ve ever before experienced. I hope that it is just stress. No doubt these worries are just neurotic, hypochondrial symptoms. At any rate, I hope that readers will forgive me for my lack of substantial postings of late.

In a previous post I mentioned the need to think in terms of populations, rather than abstract categories. In A New Philosophy of Society, Delanda provides an elegant formulation of just what such an ontology might entail. There he writes,

The ontological status of any assemblage, inorganic or social, is that of a unique, singular, historically contingent, individual. Although the term ‘individual’ has come to refer to individual persons, in its ontological sense it cannot be limited to that scale of reality. Much as biological species are not general categories of which animal and plant organisms are members, but larger-scale individual entities of which organisms are component parts, so larger social assemblages should be given the ontological status of individual entities: individual networks and coalitions; individual organizations and governments; individual cities and nation-states. This ontological manoeuvre allows us to assert that all these individual entities have an objective existence independently of our minds (or of our conceptions of them) without any commitment to essences or reified generalities. On the other hand, for the manoeuvre to work, the part-to-whole relation that replaces essences must be carefully elucidated. The autonomy of wholes relative to their parts is guaranteed by the fact that they can causally affect those parts in both a limiting and an enabling way, and by the fact that they can interact with each other in a way not reducible to their parts, that is, in such a way that an explanation of the interaction that includes the details of the component parts would be redundant. Finally, the ontological status of assemblages is two-sided: as actual entities all the differently scaled social assemblages are individual singularities, but the possibilities open to them at any given time are constrained by a distribution of universal singularities, the diagram of the assemblage, which is not actual but virtual. (40)

I offer this quotation more as a placeholder for future thought than as an occasion for detailed commentary. DeLanda’s remarks are of interest in the manner in which he conceives of assemblages at different levels of scale, such that we no longer treat larger scales as abstract classes but a particular abstract population. Thus, for instance, we speak poorly when we treat “horse” as an abstract species defining the characteristics that all horses share in common. Rather, “horse” should be seen as a population and individual forming an assemblage within a particular geographical location composed of other assemblages. While this might seem to be a minor shift, conceiving the class as a population has profound implications for how it is understood and analyzed. For instance, the the theorist might be far less inclined to treat wild horses in China (if there are any, I really don’t know) and wild horses in the American planes as sharing anything in common.

Read on!

Rather, as DeLanda points out, we would instead analyze these populations along three axes. First, along one axis we can analyze the properties that the population possesses as dominant tendencies within that population. We must refer to these properties not as essential features but as dominant tendencies because populations are always like a statistical cloud where some features are dominant and probable and others are divergent and idiosyncratic (these latter features are, perhaps, the trajectories of becoming or change within the population). A population is thus linked to a geography or a space. Of course, the nature of this geography changes depending on the type of population we’re dealing with. For instance, here in the blogosphere we form a population between a certain set of blogs that is defined by certain features such as themes of discourse, thinkers, styles of language, modes of interaction, informal customs, and so on. However, clearly we occupy a very different type of space as we interact from all over the world rather than being restricted to a particular worldly geography. Space and time must be rethought for such a population. What’s interesting is the manner in which these spaces tend to isolate and individuate themselves as a sort of large scale individuation. There are a few blogs that I interact with regularly: Mostly Spurious, Rough Theory, An und fur sich, Blah-Feme, The Weblog, I Cite, etc. Yet there is a much broader theory blogosphere, where there are other blogs devoted to Anglo-American philosophy, various sciences, cognitive psychology, and so on. While these different populations interact occassionally, they nonetheless begin to form themselves as large scale individuals or populations that form their own patterns and principles.

This mode of analysis cultivates a suspicion of abstractions. Which population? Which elements? These are the questions that always need to be asked. For instance, in the recent discussion surrounding religion over at I Cite, the discussion was derailed from the outset through implicit assumptions that religion can be discussed monolithically. There is no such thing as religion in general, but only populations. Moreover, statements pro or con about religion ought to have been taken as exhortations aimed at producing particular populations, rather than as neutral descriptive statements independent of what they described. That is, the speech-acts themselves play a role in the formation of a population.

Another interesting feature of the concept of assemblages is that the parts of an assemblage do not gain their identity from the assemblage that they belong to. Parts of an assemblage can take on relationships to other assemblages that diverge from other assemblages that they belong to and that are organized around very different sets of principles. Suppose, for instance, that Dr. X’s Typepad belongs to an emerging assemblage that might be referred to as “psychoanalytic blogs”. Dr. X is certainly not entirely defined by this assemblage but has his own immanent functioning and he relates to a number of other assemblages as well. I’m loosely affiliated with this population known as “psychoanalytic blogs”, but I also convene with other assemblages that form divergent and different populations. In this regard, the individual is not constituted by the assemblage to which it belongs, though it is impacted by these larger scale individuals that it interacts with. Assemblage theory thus shares a resemblance to certain aspects of systems theory, but differs markedly from systems theory in that it does not hold that parts are constituted by the wholes or systems to which they belong. Rather both whole and part are individuals and we must think of the relationship between wholes and parts as relations among individuals.

A second axis along which assemblages or individuals can be studied is that of their historical becoming or how a particular assemblage came to be. This would be the analysis of the genesis of the assemblage and the unique set of conditions that led to its contingent production. The emphasis on contingency is important and liberating. In the past I have suggested that it would be worthwhile to focus on the essential fragility of certain populations. There’s a tendency among much contemporary political theory to see certain assemblages as “iron clad” and impossible to escape, yet history shows us, and materialism entails, that everything comes to be and passes away. This is especially true of social assemblages. I cannot recall the last time I saw someone sacrifice a goat to Apollo, though certainly this practice must have seemed perfectly ordinary and as if it would last for eternity to those who engaged in it. It’s very difficult to imagine a world with Christianity, yet that too will pass some day. Last night I finally watched Children of Men. Perhaps the uncanny effect of this film lies in a vision of our social setting that has fallen apart, where we can still recognize vestiges of life as we know it today, but where everything has completely changed. It is very difficult for me to imagine, for instance, an end to American government as I know it today. But this too will someday pass… A thought that is either depressing or optimistic depending on one’s aspirations. The point is simple: Historical thought, attentiveness to genesis, de-naturalizes and de-essentializes populations, institutions, and states-of-affairs by placing them under time or seeing them in time. It both shows how a population is a response to a particular problem or field of individuation and how it is contingent such that it could be otherwise.

Finally, third, every population faces the question or the problem of how it might maintain itself in time. The danger of genealogical analysis is that it might lead us to focus on the question of genesis alone, ignoring the mechanisms by which a population reproduces or sustains itself across time and as it encounters new sets of problems and issues in its geographies. An organization such as a college must perpetually reproduce itself by replacing faculty, students, and staff that lead the college, and by navigating its relationship to assemblages or other assemblages outside the college. This level of analysis does not concern itself so much with the history of the institution, but with the assemblages ongoing auto-production. It has the additional virtiue of allowing sites of potential deterritorialization or internal conflict to be located and either strategized as sites of change or defended against as sites of disruption.

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