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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.

06 September 2009

Why I Left the OAC

Disclaimer (9/7/2009): Just to be clear, my intent in posting this is not to be vindictive or because of some petty disagreement I have with the OAC admins. Rather, I want everyone to know the full reasons for my leaving the OAC - that it wasn't just about the name. I was involved in the OAC from the very first twitter discussion, and had very high hopes for it when it first started. But those hopes have consistently and repeatedly been crushed. It is my opinion that the group, as it now stands, cannot achieve the goals that it originally embodied, and that it has become a meager repetition of many other similar online groups. So I've decided to move on, to invest my time and energy more appropriately and find some other way to work for the ideals that I originally looked for in the OAC.


Recently at the Open Anthropology Cooperative (OAC), there has been a great controversy over whether or not the group should change its name. Max Forte, the owner of the Open Anthropology Project (OAP), leveled a valid complaint that the OAC, by using a similar name, had co-opted (no pun intended) the political movement that he has worked for several years to promote (see here, here, here, and here - also see here and here for discussion on the OAC forum).
Although this controversy was part of my decision to leave the OAC, it wasn't the only factor that came into play. I am not a minion of Max, as some of the admins have claimed, but my quarrel with the OAC goes back to the start of the Ning site and my own time as an admin.

I left the admin team (before Max), because of a dispute over the structure of the administration and because a post of mine, which critiqued the admin structure and proposed a new, more diffuse one, was deleted arbitrarily followed by a message from one of the admins, who has repeatedly shown a tendency for abrupt and temperamental action.

Since I left the admin team, I have been doing what I can inside the site, working on my own small projects and advocating for more fundamental changes. Unfortunately, little has changed, and this most recent controversy sent me over the edge. Here are a few of my complaints against the OAC:

1) That the admins continue to discuss OAC policy behind closed doors. I don't buy Keith's rhetoric that it is necessary to keep certain things closed in order to make other things open. There is nothing either in the organization of the group or the structure of the Ning site that requires the admins to hide their discussion. Whether or not those policies are far-reaching or strict is irrelevant; the fact that the discussion is not open to the public or to public debate is unconscionable in a supposedly “open” group.

2) That the structure of the admin team was decided in a closed way, and resulted in a hierarchical, concentrated system of power, rather than the diffuse network that the word "open" implies to me. This power structure is not obligated by Ning either, which allows administration to be tuned so finely that a person could be in charge of a single page in the site.

3) That the OAC implemented a policy of not allowing users to share materials, other than those they have "rights" to, through the site. The policy is not written down anywhere (it's phrased officially as "users agree to follow the terms and conditions of Ning" which include a clause against using the site for file-sharing, but comes with a promise on the part of the admins to self-police rather than leaving it up to Ning), but there was a discussion early on (the reason why Max left originally) in which the policy was decided by only a handful of members. To me this is a group-wide disavowal of the principles of Open Access and Open Anthropology, which, despite claims by the admins to the contrary, was part of the original idea behind the formation of the group.

4) That the Ning site amounts to little more than a discussion area in which few people actually participating (the recent poll had over 200 respondents, but there were perhaps only 30 people participating in the discussion and even fewer initially). In my opinion, Ning is both too vast and too limiting to be genuinely considered "open." There is far too much space inside of Ning to navigate making it a little daunting to potential members who don't know their way around. This automatically reduces the membership to those who 1) have a computer and internet access and 2) those who are comfortable moving around in these types of sites. I have consistently complained about this, but received little response - at the very least, the admins could organize the site better to make it more accessible to outsiders. Ning is too limiting because it doesn't foster genuine collaboration – only discussion. The abrupt and unilateral decision to start the Ning group was, to me, the beginning of its downfall. In my opinion, unless the OAC expands beyond Ning, nothing significant will ever come from it.


5) That “no-one is ever kicked out of the OAC.” In fact, that's true. Instead they are bullied relentlessly until they “leave of their own accord.” This, to me, highlights the childishness that is brought out in any group by “social networking” sites – clearly, anthropologists are not immune.


Despite the fact that I was involved in the OAC from the beginning and that I contributed (I hope meaningfully) to many of the discussions there, I doubt that my presence will be missed. My leaving is not meant to be vindictive, but merely to separate myself from a project that, I believe, has taken a wrong turn, and to give me more time to work on other things. I'll consider returning to the OAC, if and when the problems I mentioned are remedied. Until then, however, there are far better things I could be doing, but I will continue to promote Open Anthropology and Open Access in my own way.

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