The question of the materialisation and distribution of agency is present in new materialisms through two important concepts: assemblage and apparatus. The ethico-political stakes of theory are tangible here, for these are concepts concerning: agency, power, and knowledge.
Through apparatus and assemblage, two genealogies of new materialisms – Baradian and Deleuzo-Guattarian – meet together and apart. Kathrin Thiele has already pointed out the kinship between these two philosophies through the notions of immanence and relational ontology (2016a, 2016b). This text traces a brief genealogy of these two terms, both coming from long traditions of critical theory, and, as a properly new materialist task, traces out a territory for their diffraction. Apparatus and assemblage are sometimes understood as referring to material arrangements, but in performative ontologies of new materialism they are material-discursive dynamics, modalities of groupings of agencies, of composition of power, which generate different histories, states of affairs and future possibilities. This text examines apparatus and assemblage as analytical frameworks for "ac/counting" (Barad, 2012) and becoming "response-able" (Schrader, 2010) to agential phenomena.
Foucault uses the word dispositif, which is usually translated as 'apparatus' in English,to indicate the processual and physical nature of the organisation of power. In French, the word means 'disposition' both as a specific arrangement of elements, but also an inclination, tendency, propensity. A mechanism can thus be seen as a product and a material coagulation of an apparatus' dynamics. In an interview, Michel Foucault gave a tentative description of apparatus as a: "… thoroughly heterogeneous ensemble consisting of discourses, institutions, architectural forms, regulatory decisions, laws, administrative measures, scientific statements, philosophical, moral and philanthropic propositions – in short, the said as much as the unsaid. Such are the elements of the apparatus. The apparatus itself is the system  of relations that can be established between these elements." (Foucault, 1980, p. 194).
On the one hand there is a heterogeneity of discursive and material elements/forms in this description, but this is not what makes an apparatus. It is the system or network that connects and disconnects these elements, and determines the distribution of power and knowledge. Giles Deleuze reads Foucault's apparatus as being constituted of "multilinear ensembles" (1992, p. 159). Karen Barad transposes and re(con)figures this concept into a posthuman/ist spacetimemattering dynamic.
In Barad's performative ethico-onto-epistemology, apparatus is fundamentally a material-discursive dynamicenactment entangled with processes of materialisation. "[A]pparatuses are the material conditions of possibility and impossibility of mattering; they enact what matters and what is excluded from mattering." (Barad, 2007, p. 148). Apparatuses performs inclusions and exclusions: "Intra-actions include the larger material arrangement (i.e., set of material practices) that effects an agential cut between 'subject' and 'object'…" By performing these materialisations, apparatus determines the im/possibilities of how and what matter comes to matter. The intra-active performance of an agential cut is key to Barad's conceptualisation, whereby apparatuses are"boundary-drawing practices" (ibid., p. 140). The dynamics of "cut[ting] 'things' together/apart" (ibid., p. 179) is where onto-epistemology gets entangled with ethico-politics: apparatuses create certain relations and distributions of power, as well as "practices of knowing in being", in other words, "situated knowledges" (Haraway, 1988). This relationship between agential enactments and practices of knowing, on the one hand, relates to Foucault's and Deleuze's analyses of diagram and archive, and, on the other, pursues feminist theory of science and objectivity.
Assemblage, on the other hand, comes from a different genealogy, and its presence in new materialist vocabulary can be traced to Deleuze and Guattari's theorisation of agencement .John Phillips clarifies that agencement means "arrangement", "fitting" or "fixing" in both active and substantive modes: "one might use the term for both the act of fixing and the arrangement itself" (2006, p. 108). Assemblage is an act of fitting, a material performance of composing agencies together. Diffractingit with its use in ecological science, Anna Tsing provides a performative understanding of assemblage as an inter-species gathering that creates novel lifeways: "Assemblages are open-ended gatherings. They allow us to ask about communal effects without assuming them. They show us potential histories in the making." (Tsing, 2015, p. 22).
Here, similarly as in Barad's description of apparatus, im/possibilities of mattering are at stake, but in a slightly different methodological disposition. The key aspect of assemblage is its open-endedness, a term which Barad also uses, but in the domain of assemblage it has a different history from quantum in/determinacy, and this generates another pattern of theoretical and practical effects.
Assemblage dynamics are less about fusing elements into full alignment or creating a diagram. Rather, as Jane Bennett's describes, each element "maintains an energetic pulse slightly 'off' from that of the assemblage" (2010, p. 24). Along similar lines, Manuel De Landa's assemblage theory, grounded in Deleuze and Guattari, states that these formations are composed of "external relations", different from "internal relations" as in an organismic paradigm (De Landa, 2006, p. 11). This implies that "the properties of a whole cannot be reduced to those of its parts" (ibid.), and that an assemblage is a "non-totalizable sum" (Hayden, in Bennett, 2010, p. 24). Elements of an assemblage generate something 'other' than themselves, and each element is also something 'other' beyond the assemblage. Thus, we can never fully know what an assemblage or a multiplicity can do, as its agencies are involved in creating "patterns of unintentional coordination" (Tsing, 2015, p. 23). A compelling way of describing this coordination as a process is through Deleuze and Guattari's coupling of de/reterritorialisation. Territorialising functions "either stabilise the identity of an assemblage, by increasing its degree of internal homogeneity or the degree of sharpness of its boundaries, or destabilise it" (De Landa, 2006, p. 12). Thus, assemblages create territories, but they are also incessantly un/making, stabilising (reterritorialising) and destabilising (deterritorialising) compositions of agencies.
Apparatus and assemblage then are two distinct frameworks for analysis of the situated dynamics of mattering in terms of topological and immanent understanding, which makes them invaluable concepts for feminist new materialist and posthuman/ist theory. In their collective, but also individual oeuvre, Deleuze and Guattari privilege the tracing of deterritorialisation, which stems from their interest in nomadic theory based in affect as revolutionary force (work compellingly carried further by Brian Massumi). Barad, on the other hand, focuses on the 'mattering' side of the apparatus (its territory, so to say), developing a project concerned with the ethico-political implications of knowledge in a posthumanist space, "a posthumanist understanding of discursive practices" (Barad, 2007, p. 148). Across this difference in methodological disposition, both dispotif and agencement respond to an insight that there is a non-correspondence between any expression of materiality and the generative becoming of matter, in other words, between the territory and earth (Deleuze & Guattari, 1994), and the possibilities and impossibilities of the "congealing of agency" (Barad, 2007, p. 210). This performative non-correspondence or in/determinacy, "a gap or disjunction" (Deleuze, 1988, p. 38) between what comes to matter and the dynamics of mattering, is the field of friction between power and resistance, knowing and being. Any materialisation is in fact a 'situated-dispersal' (Gόrska, 2016) of power and knowledge, a dynamism that runs in "two different directions that are necessarily divergent and irreducible" (Deleuze, 1988, p. 38).
New materialist critical and creative practice, as part of a cultural and political anti-normative project of feminism and queer theory, needs to be able to account for both tendencies of a given phenomenon: the effects of the cut, both as a possibility of mattering, and as a destabilising or deterritorialising opening. Rather than seeing them as separate phenomena, analytical frameworks of apparatus and assemblage disclose different patterns – highlighting mattering and affective de/territorialisation – of agential entanglements. By using these frameworks akin to a 'two-slit experiment' in quantum physics, one can 'notice' things that do not readily appear within any single analytics, in line with the transversal ethos of new materialism. "To transversalize can only be done when always already 'invoking a new frame of analysis,' as Jonathan Gil Harris (2003, 281) puts it." (Dolphijn & van der Tuin, 2012, p. 101). To engender processes of "partial, locatable, critical knowledges sustaining the possibility of webs of connections" (Haraway, 1988, p. 584) and never settling for one framework – this is a new materialist gesture, seeking transversalities and diffractions, working toward complex and multi-layered analytics of natural-cultural entanglements, through both apparatuses and assemblages.
1. In Rabinow's collection in which this interview with Foucault first appeared the original translation used the word "system", but Giorgio Agamben's text on apparatus brings back the focus that the word Foucault used is in fact "network [le réseau]" (2009: 7).
2. Assemblage as translation of agencement has gained foot in English since the first translation of Rhizome in 1981, and was formalised by Brian Massumi's translation of A Thousand Plateaus (Phillips, 2006: 108). Fllowing Manuel De Landa's 'neo-assemblage theory' of society (2006), it has gained hold in various fields of social theory, such as international relations studies (Michele & Curtis, 2013), geography (e.g., Anderson & McFarlane, 2011), etc.
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Thiele, K. (2016b). Quantum Physics and/as Philosophy: Immanence, Diffraction, and the Ethics of Mattering. Rhizomes. Cultural Studies in Emerging Knowledge, (30). Retrieved from https://www.rhizomes.net/issue30/thiele.html
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COST Action IS1307 New Materialism: Networking European Scholarship on 'How Matter Comes to Matter'.
Here you will find background material, current activities, calls for papers, working group information, and project outputs.
With the changing of societies on local, national and international scales owing to economic, ecological, political and technological developments and crises, a reorganized academic landscape can be observed to be emerging. Scholarship strives to become increasingly interdisciplinary in order to grasp and examine the unfolding complexity of ongoing ecological, socio-cultural and politico-economic changes. Additionally, academics forge... Read more or find out Who's Who
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Working Groups focus on four key areas of research
Working Group One
Genealogies of New Materialisms; examines and intervenes in canonization processes by compiling a web-based bibliography, coordinating the OST 068/13 8 EN... Read more
Working Group Two
New Materialisms on the Crossroads of the Natural and Human Sciences; seeks to develop new materialisms at the boundaries of the human and natural sciences. The group focuses on how European new materialisms can rework the ‘Two Cultures' gap... Read more
Working Group Three
New Materialisms Embracing the Creative Arts; brings together European researchers, artists, museum professionals, and other activists with a keen interest in the material... Read more
Working Group Four
New Materialisms Tackling Economical and Identity – Political Crises and Organizational Experiments... Read more
The Almanac comprises contributions from members of working groups, and participants in related activities, delineating key terms, more esoteric neologisms, and short provocations. Read more
New Materialism —
Networking European Scholarship on 'How matter comes to matter’
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