Theory of Assemblage

Assemblage is one of these “bridging concepts” that connect various disciplines while retaining their specificity. Commonly used in geology, paleontology, archaeology and art, recently it regains popularity in different fields (political sciences - Manuel DeLanda, science studies – Bruno Latour, cultural studies - Brian Massumi). This process of reappearance of the concept is accompanied by serious attempts to theorize assemblage mainly by reference to Deleuze and Guattari’s understanding of the term (French agencement). The panel “Theory of Assemblage” will gather scholars from various disciplines in order to discuss a non- or a-disciplinary approach to the concept of assemblage.

From the understanding of assemblage as an equivalent term to Foucault’s epistemes, Kuhn’s paradigms, or Callon, Law and Latour’s actor-network-theory, to its popular definition as “a group of objects of different or similar types found in close association with one another”, the purpose is to problematize this concept from the point of view of comparative studies in theories of human and social sciences. Due to the course of discussion, the idea is to falsify and transgress modernist and postmodernist considerations on assemblage understood as a structure-like surrogate, or in terms of the idea of the always-emerging, the state of becoming, emergence, and production of difference and heterogeneity. In this sense, assemblage might serve as a “disturbing concept” that shows the limitations of its present understandings, on the one hand, and its potentialities for transgressing them, on the other.

The idea is to focus on material rather than discursive assemblages (however, they cannot be separated) in order to consider the complexity of human-nonhuman and organic-nonorganic relationships (assemblage vs companion species vs actor-network-theory, etc.); to discuss a performative and agentive aspect of assemblage (what it does and how it functions rather than what it means), associations and symbiotic relations as basic elements of analysis (relational materialism), the problem of territorialization and deterritorialization as factors of assemblage’s “identity” (and space as created by assemblage).


Ewa Domańska (Poznan University/Stanford University)


Secondary Particles: “Everything is always already ready-made”
Hayden White
(Stanford University)

In this presentation I will attempt to address the so-called Argos problem as a way of identifying the ontological presuppositions underlying all constructivist theories of reality. Rejecting for the moment any distinction between material and discursive agencements, I will suggest that the paradox which attracts “assemblers” to the strategies of “assemblage” is that of (one version of) the Argos paradox how to make a new thing by putting together a congeries of old ones.  


“Strange Assemblages”
Geoffrey C. Bowker
(University of California at Santa Clara)

“Ontology” has become an oddly pervasive term across a number of fields.  Frequently, builders of cyberinfrastructures to enable work across multiple disciplines to treat complex issues (such as biodiversity  and climate change) ask the poor domain scientist:  What is your ontology?  While this question is generally greeted with a mixture of hostility and benign indifference, it is a significant one that reveals tensions about the degrees to which we already know the objects that make up our world and by consequence constitute our computer representations of it.  The concept of “assemblages” is a perspicuous one for exploring new ways in which selves, species and the world can (and should) be explored outside of the boundaries of a single predefined ontology.


“Hawking meets Hawking. The Ethnographic Study of a Statue”
Hélène Mialet (UC Berkeley/Harvard University) 

     I begin by drawing your attention to a special, but at first sight merely curious feature of the notion of doing something, or rather of trying to do something. In the end I hope to satisfy you that this feature is more than merely curious; it is of radical importance for our central question, namely, what is le Penseur doing?
      ——Gilbert Ryle

What was for the philosopher a pure thought experiment has been fleshed out for the ethnographer into an improbable scene: the meeting of Stephen Hawking, the man with Stephen Hawking the statue. The scene takes place in Hawking’s office. A statue representing Hawking has been presented for approval before its definitive version is made. Hawking, his assistants, his colleagues, the sculptor and the ethnographer are present. The paper describes the interaction between these different actors. It also wants to take seriously the role of the statue as an actor. In taking into account the materiality of the statue, its circulation, its presence and what it allows, I will follow the mise-en-scène, the articulation and shaping of an identity—the Thinker (Penseur). Where is Hawking? Where is the original, where is the replica? Who is who? Who is what? And what is Hawking—the Thinker, the man/the statue—doing? These are some of the questions I will address through a thick description—to use Geertz term, which, as we will recall, was inspired by Ryle’s “What is le Penseur doing?”—of an assemblage.


“Re-assembling the archaeological assemblage”
Ana Bezic
(Stanford University)

The notion of an assemblage has always been present in archaeology and remains to act as a classificatory tool par excellence.  What would archaeology look like if assemblage were no longer used as a term meaning “a group of different artifacts found in association with one another”? What if archaeological assemblages were no longer meaning based structures? The concept of assemblage I am proposing here is inspired by two ideas. The first one is from Latour’s idea of the collective, and the second comes from DeLanda’s theory of assemblages.  By incorporating these views, the assemblage could then be seen as a result of the assembling of people and things (objects and processes) and in need of tracing their continual interactions rather then being defined by their associations. I propose an assemblage for archaeology for which every assembling is a unique ‘event’, a transformation rather than a combination.


Michael Shanks (Stanford University)

Biographical notes:

Ana Bezic is a PhD candidate in Anthropology Department. She received her BA in Archaeology at the University of Belgrade. Following several years of working as an excavator and data analyst she moved to Stanford where she is completing her dissertation, entitled Building Çatalhöyük: four case studies in material archaeology from the Neolithic site in Turkey. Her thesis explores how archaeology can move away from meaning-based  subject-centered approaches as the only one possible way to relate to the past. In her archaeological research she is concerned with the ways in which material reality adds multiplicity and gathering , not just with the human subject. Area of interest include Anthropology and Archaeology of the Near East, Material Culture Studies, Heritage Studies, Post-Socialist Studies,  Conceptual Art Studies.

Geoffrey C. Bowker is Executive Director, Regis and Dianne McKenna Professor
Center for Science, Technology and Society, Santa Clara University – a center whose mission is to research and promote the use of science and technology for the common good.  He was previously Professor in and Chair of the Department of Communication, University of California, San Diego.  He has written with Leigh Star a book on the history and sociology of medical classifications (Sorting Things Out: Classification and Practice - published by MIT Press in September 1999).  This book looks at the classification of nursing work, diseases, viruses and race. His recent book, entitled Memory Practices in the Sciences about formal and informal recordkeeping in science over the past two hundred years, which includes extensive discussion of biodiversity informatics, was published by MIT Press in February 2006 and won the ASIST prize for best book in Information Science as well as the Fleck Prize for best book in Social Studies of Science. More information, including a number of publications can be found at his website:; information about the Center is at In September 2009 he will take up a position as Mellon Professor in Cyberscholarship at the University of Pittsburgh iSchoo.

Ewa Domanska is an associate professor of theory and history of historiography at the Department of History, Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań and since 2002 visiting professor at the Department of Anthropology, Stanford University, USA. She is the author of Unconventional Histories. Reflections on the Past in the New Humanities (2006, in Polish); Microhistories: Encounters In-between Worlds (1999, revised edition, 2005 in Polish); editor of: Encounters: Philosophy of History After Postmodernism (1998, in Chinese 2008, in Russian – forthcoming); History, Memory, Ethics (2002, in Polish); editor and translator, with Marek Wilczynski, of Hayden White, Poetics of Historical Writing (2000, in Polish); editor and translator of Frank Ankersmit, Narrative, Representation, Experience (2004, in Polish).

Hélène Mialet studied philosophy and anthropology of science at the Sorbonne and at the Ecole des Mines de Paris. She has held positions at Cornell University, Oxford University and UC Berkeley and post-doctoral fellowships at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science and in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at Cambridge University. She is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of History of Science at Harvard University. She is the author of L’Entreprise Créatrice (Paris: Hermès Science Publications, 2008), an ethnographic study of practices and processes of invention in an applied research laboratory in a multinational oil company (Total). She is currently finishing a book entitled Hawking Incorporated, which will appear with The University of Chicago Press.

Hayden White is an historian in the tradition of literary criticism, perhaps most famous for his work Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe (1973). He is currently professor emeritus at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and professor of comparative literature at Stanford University. His books have had a profound influence on the practice and conceptualization of all the humanities disciplines. He is the author of Tropics of Discourse (1978), The Content of the Form (1987) and Figural Realism (1997).