Recovering from an exhausting yet highly productive and exciting trip to Georgia Tech, I was excited to see that Alex Reid has a VERY INTERESTING post up on object-oriented rhetoric. In his discussion, Reid draws heavily on Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of “collective assemblages of enunciation”. Deleuze and Guattari develop the concept of collective assemblages of enunciation most clearly in “The Postulates of Linguistics” in A Thousand Plateaus, but you’ll also find the concept deployed in Kafka: Towards a Minor Literature. For me, this concept, along with the complementary concept of machinic assemblages is ground zero of flat ontology. Why is this and what’s going on here?
I’m always surprised that “The Postulates of Linguistics” hasn’t received more attention in the secondary literature. Perhaps this has something to do with the period in which Deleuze broke in the United States. Dominated by the linguistic turn, Deleuze and Guattari offered an alternative to the obsessive focus on the symbolic allowing us to think forms of being outside the domain of the signifier. As a consequence, perhaps their work on language fell to the wayside. Now that this tendency is beginning to change, it’s possible to draw attention to these areas of their thought once again.
Perhaps the best way to approach Deleuze and Guattari’s concepts of collective assemblages of enunciation and machinic assemblages is in terms how the superstructure/base distinction functions in vulgar forms of Marxist thought. Here base can be roughly conceived as technologies, material conditions, natural resources, geography, etc., while superstructure would consist of laws, morals, the semiotic, art, philosophies, etc., etc., etc. For years now one standard critique of Marxist thought has been that it falls prey to a technological determinism by virtue of a simplistic understanding of how the base determines the content of superstructure. Beginning with theorists such as Gramsci and Lukacs, attention was increasingly drawn to the domain of the superstructure or the semiotic. This would intensify through Althusser and Zizek and Badiou until eventually we got a framework in which the symbolic had become the new base and the material domain became the new superstructure. In other words, what we seem to have is an inversion of the relation between these two domains. Where the old school Marxists saw transformations in the base as the condition for political transformation, new school Marxists seem to see transformations in the superstructure as the condition for political transformation.
Deleuze and Guattari’s concepts of machinic assemblages and collective assemblages of enunciation can be seen as an intervention in this debate. Here there is no primacy of one domain over the other, but a complex interaction between two assemblages that are imbricated with one another in a number of complex ways. Put in terms of literary theory, the distinction between machinic assemblages allows you to have your new historicism (largely about machinic assemblages), and eat your new criticism too (largely about collective assemblages of enunciation). When Deleuze and Guattari refer to machinic assemblages they are talking about the domain of physical objects, how they interrelate, and how they affect and are affected by one another. Take the example of the stirrup in horseback writing. Deleuze and Guattari argue (rightly) that the stirrup instituted an entirely new form of warfare. The stirrup provided a firm platform for warriors riding on horses, allowing them to exponentially increase the force of their spears while riding on horseback. This would gradually lead to the evolution of the lance as a weapon of war. If you’re analyzing these sorts of relations between objects and their impact (pardon the pun), then you’re engaged in an analysis of the machinic assemblage.
Collective regimes of enunciation, by contrast, refer to the order of language or the symbolic. Deleuze and Guattari list a number of properties characteristic of these assemblages that diverge sharply from certain concepts we might have of language.
First, Deleuze and Guattari argue that the function of language is not to represent or convey information, but to repeat. Along these lines, Deleuze and Guattari argue that language is characterized by redundancy. By “redundancy” they are referring to the manner in which language is repeated throughout the social field, such that it is without origin in individual minds. They refer to this as the “impersonality” of language and the “fourth” person. This is why they associate language with schizophrenia. Readers familiar with Deleuze and Guattari will recall that in Anti-Oedipus they drew attention to phenomenon of glossolalia in the schizophrenic unconscious. Here they are drawing attention to the manner in which we are situated within flows of language that precede us, filling our unconscious with national histories, myths, various discourses, and so on. In this connection, there is ripe overlap between D&G’s concept of redundancy and meme theory.
Second, Deleuze and Guattari argue that the function of language is not to represent or refer, but to performatively enact what they call “incorporeal transformations”. Language, they say, is composed of order-words. What, then, is an incorporeal transformation? Drawing on speech-act theory, incorporeal transformations change nothing in the bodies upon which they alight, but everything in, we might say, the social position and situation of these bodies. Before proceeding, it’s worthwhile to note the profound affinity between the thought of Deleuze and Guattari and the thought of Andrew Pickering. In his thought, Pickering defends a performative ontology of the world that minimizes the role of representation, instead focusing on what things do. This is precisely how Deleuze and Guattari approach language. They are not interested in how language represents, but in what language does. This performative approach to the world is sorely lacking in theory, though it is gaining more and more of a voice.
Deleuze and Guattari give a couple illuminating examples of incorporeal transformations. When, for example, a judge passes down the verdict of “guilty” the person upon whom this verdict falls undergoes an incorporeal transformation. The verdict does not represent the person, but rather transforms the person. Nothing has changed in the person’s body, yet they are now a criminal. In this way, the person’s social relations have been utterly transformed. Similarly, Deleuze and Guattari argue that when terrorists take over a jet plane there is always a point at which the passengers of the plane undergo an incorporeal transformation. At some point they pass from being ordinary people to becoming hostages. Incorporeal transformations intervene in machinic assemblages, in the order of the body, but do so in a way that is not of the order of cause and effect. It will be noted that D&G can easily integrate the positions of Zizek and Badiou within this framework. When analyzing political transformation, Zizek often focuses on the discourse of the master, arguing that the “master” provides that new signifier that comes to reorganize the symbolic field. From a rhizomatic perspective, this is an example of an incorporeal transformation. Nothing changes at the level of the machinic assemblage, at the level of bodies, but everything changes at the level of “expression”. Likewise, we would here find Badiou’s evental declarations.
Last week, in Egypt, we saw such an incorporeal transformation take place. Infrastructure and economy there remain in place (machinic assemblage), but everything has changed at the level of the symbolic organization of this assemblage. Will the two assemblages be brought in line with one another? That’s the question we face now. However, note we also find the dimension of redundancy at work in this event. Not only did the evental declaration spread like a pandemic through the Egyptian people, gaining in strength every day such that the field of the possible was thoroughly transformed and an arrow of time was produced generating an irreversibility (Murabak couldn’t undo this expressive transformation), but we are now witnessing the spread of this declaration throughout other countries in the region.
In a discussion I had with Rebekah Sheldon last week, she worried that object-oriented ontology potentially threatens the political ground we’ve gained through social constructivist orientations of theory. The whole point of social constructivism, Rebekah argues, is to challenge the concept of the “natural” which is used for oppressive ideological aims that attribute certain less than flattering qualities to various groups as natural properties of their being. In other words, such discourses treat certain properties as intrinsic features of elements found in machinic assemblages, thereby justifying certain social orders on the grounds that they are inevitable anyway. Rebekah is right.
It is precisely this that my flat ontology attempts to avoid. Flat ontology seeks to place all entities at all levels of scale and of all kinds on equal ontological footing. Thus, for example, a corporation is no less real than a quark. Similarly, there are no entities that are “out-of-field” like categories, essences, or Platonic forms, that affect other entities without themselves being affected. Finally, symbolic entities like “criminality”, while incorporeal are no less real within the framework of flat ontology than material entities like human bodies, aardvarks, and stars. It is my hope that flat ontology draws attention to the heterogeneous components or objects that go into the production or genesis of assemblages, while also giving us the means to locate those sites where the inertia of these assemblages might be upset opening a new space of possibilities.
It’s here that I find myself particularly interested in Deleuze and Guattari’s concepts of machinic assemblages and collective assemblages of enunciation. What these concepts allow us to do is explore the manner in which heterogeneous objects (corporeal and incorporeal objects) interact and are imbricated with one another, without reducing one domain to another. The dynamics of collective assemblages of enunciation can no more be reduced or explained by biology as the sociobiologists would have it, than a factory can be explained by the signifier. There are intertwinings here and all sorts of mutual influences, yet there is no reduction. For this reason we must abandon base/superstructure schemas, whether they treat language as base or materiality as base. Instead we have all sorts of intertwined corporeal and incorporeal objects mutually in-forming one another in a variety of ways, sometimes outpacing one another, sometimes dominating one another, yet without any reduction. It is here that we encounter the aims of the social constructivists. Through the concept of incorporeal transformation we are able to explore the expressive assemblages upon which the sorts of incorporeal transformations the social constructivist wishes to critique are based, without reducing those actors upon whom the incorporeal falls to the order of the signifier. In this way we’re also able to think the transformative possibilities that remain in the face of these incorporeal transformations. In other words, we can have our social constructivism and eat our realism too.