Today my students and I began working through Bennett’s account of thing-power and assemblages as developed in Vibrant Matter. For Bennett, every thing that exists possesses a conatus or a “will” to persist in its own being. This conatus is defined by its affects. Following Spinoza and Deleuze, affects are capacities to act (active affects) and to be acted upon (passive affects). The active affects are what a thing can do. For example, the ability to play a piano would be an active affect. By contrast, the passive affects define the receptivity of an entity or the manner in which it is open to interaction with other things in the world. Within the framework of my own thought (and I’m very much on the same page with Bennett on all these points), the passive affects define a “transcendental aesthetic”, defining the field of receptivity entities have to other entities. Thus, for example, a great white shark’s passive affects consist of things like it’s olfactory powers, the ability to sense the world through the electro-magnetic fields of other entities, etc., whereas my passive affects consist of things like vision, scent, smell, touch, the ability to discern desire in certain slips of the tongue due to my psychoanalytic training, and so on. If there is a transcendental aesthetic at work here, then this is because a certain “distribution of the sensible” must precede empirical sensings to be possible. Each thing has its modes of openness to the world.

The affective conatus of things fluctuates and can be enhanced or diminished as a result of encounters with other things. My power of vision, a passive affect, for example, is enhanced through my glasses. My voice (active affect) and ear (passive affect) are enhanced through my smart phone. The large Texas meal I ate yesterday diminished my passive and active affects, drawing me into a catatonic state where my powers of acting and of being acted upon were reduced (I passed out for two hours), but which might nonetheless increase the power of my active and passive affects by either increasingly my gravitational pull on other objects (i.e., it perhaps made me fatter) or by increasing my strength and ability to perceive and think in a variety of ways.

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From all of this Bennett concludes that things never act alone, but rather always act in assemblages of things. Assemblages, for Bennett, are ad hoc groupings of diverse and heterogeneous elements. They have, she contends, uneven topographies insofar as, at particular moments, some elements might for a time contribute more than other elements and serve a greater regulatory function with respect to other elements of the system. From these assemblages we get emergent qualities and powers that can’t be found in any of the elements taken alone. Like fireflies, the elements of these assemblages flicker back and forth to one another, producing all sorts of surprising results; and for this reason they are open-ended. Assemblages are thus something more than a mere heap of unrelated and individual things and something less than a structure. If they are less than a structure, then this is because they are open-ended and the components of the assemblage are never locked into the assemblage, but rather can separate from the assemblages into which they enter or enter into new relations with the other elements.

It seems to me that Jackie Chan’s style of fight provides an excellent example of an assemblage:

Within a modernist framework our tendency is to think of nonhuman things as brute clods of passive matter that await us to receive action. Nonhuman things are either blank screens upon which we project our meanings (the value of the dollar bill comes from us, not the dollar bill) or mere mediums of which we make use as tools. In the Chan clip above we see something very different. Chan, of course, is an actor or operator within these networks or assemblages, yet he is not a sovereign unilaterally transferring meaning and use to the entities about him. Rather, Chan is what might be called “assemblage-man”. Where “sovereign-man” transfers meanings and aims unilaterally without the things acting back, assemblage-man is the man of the “and”. Chan is never simply Chan, never simply an origin, but is rather Chan+wall+tree or Chan+table or Chan+ladder or Chan+crates, etc. Throughout his misadventure, Chan must respond to the surprising actions of the new mediums he engages with as much as he acts upon these things. With each encounter a new set of affects erupt on to the scene, new powers of acting and being acted upon, new constraints that he must contend with, only for these affects to disappear with new encounters, the dissolution of prior assemblic relations, and the formations of new assemblic relations.

Chan is not a sovereign of these other entities– though certainly he relates to them quite skillfully –but rather enters into alliances and sympathies with these various nonhumans which, in each instance, require him to reconfigure his own ways of moving and acting. He is as much acted upon as he acts, as is quite evident from the differential changes that arise due to gravity in the assemblage he forms with the table or the ladder. This is how it always is with assemblages. Within assemblages agency can no longer be located in any particular element of the assemblage, but rather is like sparks in a Jacob’s Ladder that jump and dance as they trace their course throughout the world.