In a recent post I discussed the Old English term þing, which originally meant “assembly” or “gathering”.  I mused that things are gatherings or assemblies, and emphasized that they aren’t just assemblages, but that they gather other things about them.  To illustrate this point, I referenced the relationship between my dog, the squirrel, and the tree.  The tree itself is an assemblage of soil, water, sunlight, and various gases.  It folds these things into itself to form itself as the being that it is; and, of course, the “isness” of the tree is never a final or complete thing but is an ongoing activity or process.  However, the tree is not merely an assemblage, it also gathers or assembles other entities about it.  Every morning, the trees in my back yard summon the squirrels from the neighborhood.  I’m awoken by my dog between five and six with her nose excitedly in my face, summoning me to go outside.  You see, as the sun rises she eagerly looks out the window, watching the squirrels do their morning dance as they forage for their food.  We go outside and she begins her dance with the squirrels, chasing them about the fence and inevitably up into the tree.  The tree summons, assembles, or gathers the squirrels, me, and my dog in a morning ritual that takes place every day.  And every day, that ritual ends with our dog striving to climb the tree as the squirrel playfully scolds our dog from the upper branches.  All of us, I think, take great delight in this ritual.  In pointing to how the tree, squirrel, dog, and me are folded together, the claim is not that me, our dog, and the squirrels are parts of the tree, but rather that the tree assembles us and gathers us, just as an assembly in its literal usage is a gathering of people brought together by some ritual, problem, issue, or festivity.

In Onto-Cartography I proposed that we call this phenomenon “gravity”, and replace the concept of power with the concept of gravity.  Power is a sort of gravity exercised by things and signifiers that captures other things in its orbit, just as the sun captures the earth and other planets in its orbit, defining the paths along which beings move.  Here gravity is not to be thought in terms of its Newtonian signification as a force of attraction and repulsion, but rather in its Einsteinian formulation as a sort of curvature of space-time.  In the Einsteinian framework, gravity isn’t a force that attracts other beings, but rather the mass of one body curves the fabric of space-time, creating a path that other entities move along as they fall.

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Hopefully it goes without saying that I’m using the term “gravity” metaphorically here, or am attempting to forge a concept in the Deleuzo-Guattarian sense in relation to science.  One might rejoin “then why not just use the concept of power as deployed by thinkers like Foucault, Bourdieu, and others.  There are a couple reasons for this.  First, the term “power” has normative connotations that I wish to avoid.  All too often we immediately think of power as something that is unjust.  We don’t have similar associations with terms like gravity.  Second, there is a deep unconscious philosophical grammar embodied in the concept of power that invites us to think of it as something that someone possesses or has, that pulls against how thinkers like Foucault and Bourdieu strove to develop their concepts.  In works like The History of Sexuality Volume 1 and Discipline and Punish, Foucault mightily tried to struggle against the notion of power as sovereign power, yet still these associations seem to inevitably come to mind for people.  Power is immediately associated with domination and we gloss the ways in which it can be affording and ignore Foucault’s insistence that power is positive, not negative.  Third, we tend to restrict the concept of power to the domain of the symbolic, ignoring the ways in which materiality exercises power in a variety of ways (again despite, I think, Foucault’s intentions as can be seen in his lectures where he is quite attentive to materiality).

The basic idea behind the concept of power as gravity is that things and signifiers create paths along which other things act and move.  They structure a form of space-time for other beings and therefore assemble them in different ways.  Let’s start with an example from the order of the symbolic or the signifier.  Between me and an undocumented immigrant, there is no marked material difference.  We are both humans with more or less similar capacities.  However, at the level of the symbolic or the signifier, our status in the world is entirely different, and this because signifiers exercise very different gravity in our lives.  Because the signifier “citizen” falls upon my existence– and here we should think about Austin’s performatives and Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of “order-words” in A Thousand Plateaus –I have all sorts of paths of movement that aren’t there for the undocumented immigrant.  Like me, the undocumented immigrant is materially here in the United States, but gravity produced by signifiers structures our lives in very different ways.  I can, of course, vote whereas the undocumented immigrant cannot.  I have access to all sorts of services like social security, Medicare, passports, tax returns, etc., because I have a social security number, whereas the undocumented immigrant does not (and this despite often paying taxes for these things).  If I am caught shoplifting, I either have to pay a fine or serve a jail sentence, whereas the undocumented immigrant– and even the immigrant granted citizenship –is deported.  If I am caught speeding, I pay a hefty fine depending on how fast I was going (in some states, going more than twenty miles over the speed limit is a felony).  If an undocumented immigrant is caught speeding they’re deported, especially in Trump’s America.  Perhaps this leads the undocumented to drive five to ten miles below the speed limit.  When my daughter goes to school she’s assured I’ll be there when she gets home.  When an undocumented immigrant drops their child off to school they risk having ICE called on them and being separated from their child.  Despite the fact that we are materially the same and are both here in the same space, the space-time structures of our lives are structured in entirely different ways produced by the gravity of a signifier.  That undocumented immigrant might very well be a person of finer character than me, who works harder than me, who is more intelligent, who makes greater contributions, and all the rest, yet the paths along which they can move are nonetheless entirely different because of an element from the symbolic.  That signifier structures the entire space-time of their lives.

In Entangled, Ian Hodder gives a beautiful example of what I call gravity with respect to fire.  Fire must, of course, be assembled either through events like lightning strikes or people pulling together wood, tinder, and flint.  A fire is itself an assembly or gathering that takes on unity as a dynamic being in its own right.  Yet, in Hodder’s telling, fire also assembles those who use and make it.  As such, it asserts gravity on other beings.  First, the fire must be maintained.  As an assemblage, the fire has a certain life or rhythm.  This means that the life of those who live with fire comes to be regulated with respect to the time of the fire.  Just as Tim LeCain shows how the rhythms of cows and silkworms in Montana and China came to regulate the life of people in certain ways in The Matter of History, the fire of the hearth regulates the life of fire users in all sorts of ways.  Second, of course, fire requires fuel to be maintained.  This entails that people must gather fire from the surrounding region.  Fire thus gathers surrounding trees and brush together, perhaps depleting the surrounding region of the camp over time depending on how settled the people are.  Above all, fire gathers people together around the hearth as they seek warmth and cook.  As such, fire functions as what I called a bright object in Onto-Cartography.  It is not the luminosity of something that defines it as a bright object, but the manner in which something pulls it into its orbit as a satellite that makes it a bright object.  Fire pulls us into its orbit as satellites as we gather about it for warmth and to cook.  As such, it becomes a point or a site presiding over socio-genesis.  A sort of accretion of group formation takes place here, not entirely different from how gravity pulls gases and other forms of matter together in space to form stars and planets.  As we sit around the hearth together, we talk, tell stories, debate, and sing forming a new assemblage out of discrete people:  the group.  The fire exercises a sort of gravity that plays a key role in this phenomenon, just like the snow storm that strands people at airport exercises a socio-genesis where people who are so different, from all parts of the world, begin to see themselves as part of a shred collective.  Thinking in terms of assembly is a way of thinking about how not only thinks are assembled, but collectives are assembled and is a way of thinking about the paths that structure these assemblages.