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12 September 2009

Assemblages

"Le Petite Chouette" Picasso, 1953


In Art

An assemblage is a piece of work, usually a sculpture, that's put together from random objects to make something new. It's like collage in that sense, but usually three-dimensional, and the objects are things like nails, spoons, and wood rather than pictures, although those may be included as well. A good assemblage pulls all of these different objects together into a coherent whole while allowing each one to maintain its own unique identity.
Take, for example, the nails that were used as the legs for the bird in the above work. They are part of the whole - their current identity is shaped by the fact that they are part of the bird. They cannot be used as nails without removing them from the bird and cleaning them off. On the other hand, they maintain some of their identity as nails (in form and history). Their identity has not been wholly transformed by being used in this assemblage - they have not become bird legs. Rather, some quality of their prior identity (which itself is an assemblage in its own right) allowed them to be incorporated into this new whole without becoming something else (i.e. melted down and made into a new shape).
The whole itself, then, is emergent from the relationships between the individual objects that compose it. It has it's own identity which is not reducible to the sum of the identities of its component parts, but which is no less real.

In Philosophy and Sciences
As usual, the artists got it before the philosophers, who got it before the scientists, who got it before the social scientists, who put it into language that is so complex and unintelligible that the idea becomes all but worthless. So here we go with that.
For us, the idea of an assemblage is a metaphor or a model, which is meant to illuminate some phenomenon. Models never explain the whole phenomenon, and they are always wrong in some respects - the best you can hope for is that it explains some feature well enough that it is useful. The assemblage, I think, does.
The following are the salient features of an assemblage that make the concept useful for analyzing a variety of phenomena (biological, ecological, psychological, sociological, etc.):
1) They are heterogeneous
2) They have emergent properties
As in art, the phenomena we try to describe as assemblages are composed of individual parts, each with their own unique identity. The challenge is to explain the whole without reducing it to the component parts (reductionism) or defining the parts only with regard to the whole (essentialism). Viewing phenomena through the assemblage model allows us to see how these individual components could come together into a new, emergent whole without losing their individual identity (which is grounded in historical, political, environmental, etc. processes).
The flaw with the artistic metaphor (and I'm not certain that the social theory derives from the artistic metaphor, but the two do seem to have a lot in common), however, is that the artistic assemblage is a static thing. It doesn't change, grow, or die. It can be disassembled, added on to, or destroyed, but only through external intervention. In fact, it's only by seeing the artwork in a larger context that it becomes apparent that it is a process - it is embedded in a larger assemblage of cultural, historical and social factors which are in a constant state of becoming. This concept of Becoming is included in the social theory of assemblages, but is not generally part of the artistic assemblage. By including it, we can see how these structures are formed, how they maintain themselves and how they might eventually perish.
I'll not go into the details of assemblage theory here - mainly, I just wanted to illustrate the general principle - but there is a lot more to it than what I've listed here. I will say that it comes from the work of Manuel de Landa, and has several commonalities with Bruno Latour's Actor-Network-Theory and William Connolly's concept of Resonance. These three complimentary lines of thought developed largely out of the philosophy of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guatarri. If you'd like to learn more, I suggest exploring those works. I may post more on assemblage theory in the future, as I learn more myself, but I'm only in the first stages of learning about it.

1 comment:

Josh said...

http://www.performing-musician.com/pm/may09/images/bluegrass_5.jpg
Comments don't allow images, but this was supposed to be an image of Jeff Eaton of Split Lip Rayfield jamming on his one-string bass guitar made from a car gas tank. He wears duct tape on his fingers, presumably to reduce blisters.

The sculpture and some of the concepts expressed here reminded me of a Henry David Thoreau quote: "A gun gives you the body, not the bird."

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