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The Anatomy of an Assemblage

An assemblage for Deleuze is not an assembly in any conventional sense. It is not a group or a collection of things brought together for some specific purpose. It is not some determinable whole that constitutes an unchanging essence, an established thing that we can establish an identity for. An assemblage is, rather, an “emergent whole,” a process. Assemblages can, for example, be an individual human, an individual community, an individual organization, an individual city, or even an individual hammer. Assemblages can be “individual atoms and molecules, individual cells and organisms, individual species, and ecosystems. All these different assemblages are born at a particular time, have a life, and then die” (DeLanda, 2011, p. 185). This being the case, it becomes evident that while an assemblage may appear to endure (like a mountain or a major city, for example), it is nevertheless subject to constant change: sometimes imperceptible, as when the wind erodes parts of a mountain; sometimes dramatic, as when a demolished building modifies the skyline of a city. Assemblages constitute movement rather than stable states, and these movements are considered by both Deleuze and the English philosopher Alfred North Whitehead to be events. For Deleuze and Whitehead, everything is an event: “The world, [Whitehead] says, is made of events, and nothing but events: happenings rather than things, verbs rather that nouns, processes rather than substances” (Shaviro, 2009, p. 17). An assemblage is thus an event in a constant state of emergence, one that is constituted by the interactions among its parts: “This implies that the identity of an assemblage is always contingent and is not guaranteed by the existence of a necessary set of properties constituting an unchanging essence” (DeLanda, 2011, p. 185). There is no such thing as a house. A house is an event, one that is constituted by the interactions between its parts—human beings, extensions, new windows, burst drain pipes, floor coverings, furniture, lighting, and so on. Moreover, no two assemblages are ever the same. No two houses are ever the same; they are always in a state of constant emergence: different inhabitants, different floor coverings, different furniture, and so on. Consider, then, two technology education classes (or any classes for that matter) being taught one after the other. They each have the following properties: they are from the same school, are from the same year group, have the same number of students, have the same teacher teaching the same lesson in the same classroom for the same duration of time. Any teacher who has done this, and many will have, will agree that despite the similarities, the dynamics of the two lessons will nevertheless be different. The two lessons, or events, can be considered to be assemblages, wholes that emerge in slightly (or perhaps significantly) different ways.

Assemblages are not unique, novel events that happen as if by magic. While they can be prearranged up to a point, the resultant outcome of their existence can never be known in advance. All assemblages, while pointing to the future, are affected and influenced by the past. They have a history that influences the coming together of their various properties, capacities, and tendencies: “[T]he identity of an assemblage should always be conceived as the product of a historical process, the process that brought its components together for the first time as well as the process that maintains its integrity through a regular interaction among its parts” (DeLanda, 2011, p. 185).

The two technology education scenarios given here, if actual, would each have been the product of a historic process. Every component in each assemblage—the teacher, the students, the theoretical underpinnings of the lesson, the pedagogy employed, and the tools and materials used—is the product of a historic process, a process that has resulted in these various components being brought together at a particular time, thus influencing it. Influencing it, but unable to determine its outcome. This is why a teacher’s set of lesson plans can only ever be indicative and cannot prescribe actual outcomes. Assemblages as actuated in the present will be affected by the past, but not prescribed by it. Equally, potential assemblages that may become actualized, the outcome of which cannot be fully known, will serve to affect the future. As Marx’s famous maxim indicates, human beings “make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please: they do not make it under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past” (Marx, 1968, p. 97). An assemblage, then, does not happen in some predictable, linear fashion where all factors are known in advance. Lesson plans come to mind once again. Despite the best and most careful planning, no matter how much a teacher knows her subject, no matter how much she knows about the learners in her class, lessons rarely turn out exactly as expected, and only rarely do they result in any predetermined outcome (at the end of the lesson the learners will be able to . . .). There is always more than we could ever have anticipated. While we cannot predict the future with any certainty, we can affect it. The future is always influenced by the past.

The two classroom assemblages, therefore, while similar, are actually different emergent wholes “because these emergent wholes are defined not only by their properties [and their histories] but also by their tendencies and capacities” (DeLanda, 2011, p. 185). Each of the classroom assemblages we have considered has certain properties that are required in order to give it an identity. One such property that a classroom assemblage needs, as we have suggested, is students. All classroom assemblages require students in order to be identified as a class. In an ideal world, in the Platonic sense, two essential qualities that students are required to aspire toward are to be attentive and well behaved. Unfortunately, many students have a tendency to be inattentive and misbehave. Tendencies in an assemblage thus “make any list of essential properties look falsely permanent” (p. 186). Capacities, on the other hand, unlike tendencies, remain potentialities until they become actual. I will attempt to illustrate capacity by using the same example given by DeLanda: looking at an artifact in the form of a knife.

While one actual property of a knife is sharpness, it has a tendency to get blunt. This tendency can be overcome by sharpening the knife. Sharpening is an actual activity that is required to be done to the knife in order to counteract its tendency to get blunt. Tendencies are, thus, events that happen independently and are actual. Unlike tendencies, capacities are not actual but potential. Given that the knife is kept sharp, it also has the capacity to cut, for example. While the knife may never actually be used to cut, it will always have the capacity to cut as long as the knife is kept sharp. In order, however, for that capacity to cut to be realized and not simply to remain a potential requires that something other than the knife exists, something that is not the knife but is something that can be cut by the knife. Capacities, then, can only ever be actualized in conjunction with something that they can combine with in order to realize some given or indeed unknown capacity. To use a knife requires that the knife be in a state of sharpness. To use a knife to cut requires not only a sharp knife but also something else that is able to be cut by the knife. For example, to attempt to use a knife to cut cast iron is not likely to result in a satisfactory outcome: “The reason for this is that the [knife’s] capacity to affect [to cut] is contingent on the existence of other things, cutta- ble things, that have the capacity to be affected by it” (DeLanda, 2011, p. 4).

To summarize, the component parts of an assemblage have histories. These histories are the result of past assemblages or events that are, in turn, the result of past assemblages or events and so on. Any change that will be constituted as a result of the formation of an assemblage can never be fully known in advance. This means that there are multiple potential pathways that an emerging assemblage may take or might have taken in the past. In other words, while only one emergent pathway will have been actualized in the past, or will be actualized in the future, other potential futures have existed in the past or may exist in the future. The scientists who developed the atomic bomb in the Second World War could have refused to do so. They appear to have wished that they did refuse to so do in retrospect. This constitutes an alternative emergent potential pathway that might have been taken, a pathway that would have presented another possible future. In order to understand better why that alternative pathway was not pursued, we would need to examine the various components that came together to form the assemblage or event that we have come to know as a human-made form of destruction. Human-designed forms of destruction have existed long before the atom bomb and have continued to proliferate since. They are constantly upgraded and changed. They are in a state of becoming other. Technologies, in whatever form, are assemblages that inevitably include human beings. They constitute emergent events that are always in a state of becoming other than that which they were previously. They have properties that are subject to change and alteration. They have embedded tendencies that become evident over time and they have capacities that have been purposefully designed as well as unknown capacities that may be revealed over time (e.g., the use of airplanes and buses as weapons). In order to have a better understanding of the technologically textured world that we have occupied, do occupy, and will occupy in the future, we need not to become technologically literate, but we need, like the world, to keep becoming other, to keep becoming technologically literate.

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