Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Responsivity: Assemblage Urbanism, and Engagement with the City

The first motivation for enlisting an assemblage urbanism approach is to begin from a model that encourages and valorizes engagement with the city by individuals or groups, by emphasizing the new forms of participation enacted on a continuous basis,(1) and by “countering politically paralyzing pictures of the unity of capital with notions of a more open social field.”(2) So far, we have considered how assemblage urbanism recasts spatial and scalar contexts as effects of assemblage production, how distributed agency destabilizes linear causality and the identity of belonging, and how a flat ontology supports an ecological understanding of the urban through both human and non-human actants. Ultimately, this culminates in a model which cannot discount any assembling action as a source of potential change, but complements these actions with the ability to trace or project possible effects through pragmatic means.(3) Assemblage urbanism pushes us toward an agonistic pluralism(4) expressed by diverse constituencies,(5) but also constructs diverse public places.(6)

to flickr
Longtancun, Guangzhou

In addition, there is a new technological agency, which enforces boundaries, regulates rhythms, and supports infrastructures within the city.(7) Assemblage urbanism enables the city to be thought processually alongside them and to encounter “other powerful social effects of the urban technological unconscious.”(8) Thus, we increase the number of connections between large technical systems while also opening up their functions from within black boxes to illustrate points of articulation(9) and precariousness.(10) Rather than monolithic, controlling entities, technological agency can be located in a prepositional mode of being which “set up what comes next without impinging in the least on what is actually said.”(11) Though this study will not go into topics of real-time sensing and controls,(12) in later sections we will develop this parallel between the procedural enactment of the city and the procedural enactment of code.

As an actively constructive theory,(13) assemblage urbanism, helps mitigate the danger of translating an analytic method into a generative one.(14) The projective nature implict in assemblage theory, of “linking the actual with potential,”(15) makes it more welcoming to design input and the very real impacts which small-scale modifications can bring about. Finally, assemblage urbanism establishes the beginnings of a framework that perpetuates new urban interactions: a reflexive operation by which such impacts feed back into the urban field as immanent causes.(16) Within the urban field, each individual assemblage also functions as an interface for potential engagement.

Notes:

Monday, March 31, 2014

Common Assemblage Foundations

From the various interpretations or applications of assemblage thinking discussed above, there are a few common elements which provide a foundation for the following chapters. The first is a recognition of inorganic assemblages and the increased emphasis given to them in the mapping of urban milieu.(1) As Amin argues, “technology, things, infrastructure, matter in general, should be seen as intrinsic elements of human being, part and parcel of the urban ‘social’, rather than as a domain apart with negligible or extrinsic influence on the modes of being human.”(2) Thus, inquiry cannot be limited to or explained away by interpersonal interaction alone, but is distributed across the social and the material. One description “would summarize ‘sociomateriality’ as things in their mediating role.”(3) In fact, this is not necessarily a project which breaks from the critical urban tradition, conventional critical urbanism can operate through this lens and has occasionally done so well.(4) Assemblage urbanism pushes this concept further, suggesting that things mediate among themselves in addition to mediating human experience. In fact inorganic material assemblages constitute an intersubjective field by virtue of “the efficacy of objects in excess of the human meanings, designs, or purposes they express or serve.”(5) Acknowledging and including this excess enables the consideration of the urban from a more ecological sensibility and elevates the significance of the built environment in its particular configurations.

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Longtancun, Guangzhou

Additionally, the inclusion of object excess can be extended to immaterial objects—the virtual, the potential, the anticipatory. This element can be credited in part to the potential within DeLanda's assemblage theory for capacities (and therefore possibly entire assemblages) to go unexercised if they do not encounter the right interactions or detection without being any less real.(6) That assemblages operate “between the possible—the unstable flows of materials and substances—and the prescribed—the imposition of functional, stable structures,”(7) allows assemblage urbanists to propose new points of articulation that support new ways for “urban histories and everyday life to be imagined and put to work differently”(8) before these forms have fully materialized, as a generative critique that to some extent prefigures the emergence of its object.(9)

On a more prosaic level, the acknowledgment of immaterial objects also extends to the shaping role of the technological strata of the city, the software protocols, which, of course depend on material assemblages to be enacted, but which can be changed and reoriented without modification of their material experession.(10)

Finally, as mentioned above, the idealization of a flat ontology in which no object is more fundamental than another is a common concept shared by all forms of assemblage urbanism. Characteristics of flat ontologies, such as the distinct multiplicity of different layers and scales, the exclusion of expressions that would reduce one to a side-effect of another, and the replacement of inherited, or unchanging, structural relationships for ones that are emergent and constructed have been discussed already. In the context of the last paragraphs, it is also worth mentioning that these characteristics apply equally to the relationships between humans and the world. In a flat ontology this relation is neither “a form of metaphysical relation different in kind from other relations between objects” nor does it treat the “subject-object relation as implicitly included in every form of object-object relation”.(11) The flatness in such an approach thus enables one to speak of human-object and object-object (as well as object-human) relations without having to impose a global hierarchy between them as separate modes.

Notes:

Monday, March 10, 2014

Tracing the Origins of Assemblage

The theoretical foundations of assemblage theory originate from two primary sources, the early writings of Deleuze and Guattari,(1) and the development of Actor-Network Theory following Bruno Latour,(2) though neither used the term in the way it is employed now. The Deleuze–Guattarian current comes by way of the English translation of agencement as assemblage in Foss and Patton's translation and the subsequent adoption of this term by later translators.(3) The assemblage for Deleuze and Guattari offered an alternative to the dialectical method which held apart content-matter from form-expression through a bizarre structural causation.(4) Rather, content and expression “can be abstracted from each other only in a very relative way because they are two sides of a single assemblage”(5) and neither can one be subordinated as the object of another for “these relations between forces take place...within the very tissue of the assemblages they produce.”(6) This is a significant detail because it points to two defining aspects in the interpretation of agencement that risk being lost in the translation. The first is that the assemblage corresponds to notions of becoming insofar as the assemblage cannot be reduced to the elements composing it but rather exists as the event of their co-participation. In light of this, Phillips warns against the tendency to describe assemblage states as statements, disjoining the subject from its enunciation as though the temporal sense is separate from the assemblage.(7) The second is act of arrangement that comes from within the assemblage, “an active force of becoming or a will expressed equally by and through individuals,”(8) which, in addition to the arrangement of entities, instills the assemblage with an agency as well. These twinned concepts are summarized concisely in Braun's gloss of agencement as “capacity to act with the coming together of things.”(9)

to flickr
Xiaozhoucun, Guangzhou

The most rigorous development of in this direction comes from Manuel DeLanda who delves into the framework of assemblage interactions. For DeLanda “the ontology of assemblages is flat since it contains nothing but differently scaled individual singularities.”(10) Thus all relations of belonging, whether of an individual to a population, or an entity to an organization, are considered equally to produce new individuals and not new types. A flat ontology is supported by the Deleuzian position that entities are not defined by the assemblages they participate in. Such “relations of interiority,” where the relations constitute the defining properties of elements—characteristic of organic holism(11)— are contrasted to “relations of exteriority,” in which defining properties and “capacity to interact” are separable,(12) allowing individuals to enter or exit assemblages “without the terms changing.”(13) This leaves the formation of assemblages contingent on development embedded in the temporal dimension rather than dictated by abstract necessity. The historical generation of the assemblage prompts empirical investigation because “there is no way to tell in advance in what way a given entity may affect or be affected by innumerable other entities.”(14) The full capacities of an assemblage may go unexercised and are ultimately unknowable, suggesting a redundancy of causality. Graham Harman sees a difficulty in the fact that assemblages “withhold themselves from their relations with the outer world insofar as they are never fully actualized, and withhold themselves from their own pieces by exceeding those parts and forming a new reality,”(15) arguing that such withdrawal also separates the assemblage from its generative process. The concern is that as an assemblage crystallizes into a particular pattern of existence, the accidents of its formation are no longer differentiating features.(16) Harman forgets, though, the potential for undiscovered capacities to distinguish the assembly in ways that reanimate previously redundant history.

DeLanda is careful to distinguish assemblage ontology from an atomism that only enables causation from the bottom up. He insists on coexistence of differently scaled assemblages and points out that, though always composed of smaler entities, assemblages are most often composed by larger ones(17) often as effects of other expressive or territorializing actions. Naturally, assemblages are also capable of interacting with one another as well. The implication of this (because the interaction must revolve around some relation of exteriority, and because relations of exteriority constitute assemblages by definition) is that relations always produce new assemblages however briefly.(18) This excessive access to the novel is, perhaps, the most revelatory strength of DeLanda's assemblage ontology and it helps to return the active, agentic capacity to a description that at times risks becoming overly schematic. Furthermore, the ties to the material–expressive axis of the assemblage further cement the social character of the assemblage among all those entities which in reality come together to effect the staging or execution of an event.

The other primary strand of thinking in assemblage theory follows Bruno Latour's description of Actor-Network Theory.(19) Latour is similarly motivated by a desire to remove the over-arching frameworks that reduce the specificity of the case at hand(20) in favor of situated non-linear interactions between actors. “when a force manipulates another, it does not mean that it is a cause generating effects; it can also be an occasion for other things to start acting.”(21) The actor is induced to act, but diverse ways in which the agency of the action is figured(22) (in connection with many actors) is highly contingent.(23) Though the actor-network branch has produced some of the more ontologically radical assemblage urbanists,(24) Latour's development of Actor-Network Theory is much more methodological, primarily emphasizing how a researcher or theorist can remain committed to a flat ontological grounding, while remaining intentionally quiet about existence within this ontology. He gives almost no description of groups themselves—“the word ‘group’ is so empty that it sets neither the size nor the content. It could be applied to a planet as well as to an individual.”(25)—offering only the performative definition that the assembling (or disassembling) of groups exist is itself the mapping of social context and that the groups do not exist outside of this action.(26) Latour sees no inherent difference between this action and the acts of a researcher, concluding that “the network does not designate a thing out there… It is nothing more than an indicator of the quality of a text about the topics at hand.”(27) What does exist for Latour is nothing if not concrete, however these actants “are fully relational in character, with no distinction between object and accident, object and relation or object and quality… to change one's relations is to change one's reality.”(28) Again assemblage theory promotes a prodigious new production of entities, but through the complete inverse of what we find in DeLanda. Furthermore, it means that there is no place for withheld properties, all actants are defined by their efficacy.(29)

to flickr
Xiaozhoucun, Guangzhou

Despite these contradictions, agent-network theory does illuminate some relational aspects which can be incorporated with the approach adopted in this text. In particular, the production of scale through the construction of linkages or the action of an individual.(30) Even more promising is the potential reversibility of scale relations, by which an individual can incorporate larger assemblages which it may even belong to itself.(31) These topics will return in the next chapter, to establish how the reserve complexity of objects prevents a reduction to merely relations and how the effectuality of relations establishes the social interplay that generates difference and preserves the agency of actors.

Notes:

Sunday, February 16, 2014

In Order to Account for a Wider Field of Agency

Although new alternatives are a significant feature of critical urbanism's attention—one of the key elements of critical theory (according to Brenner) is emphasize “the disjuncture between the actual and the possible”(1)—the inscription of alterity within the existing political–economic structures minimizes restricts the theorist to the realm of possibility. “We still find in much critical theory the negative use of the term power as oppression (power over) rather than power as capacity (power to),”(2) writes Dovey, underscoring how assemblage urbanism focuses on a broader conception of alterity as an active, rather than reactive, process. This follows directly from the act of tracing the actual processes and actions, investigating which are significant and what would have occurred if they had been enacted otherwise.(3) The assemblage method is one of progressive differentiation, not constrained to a particular model(4) but promoting a rich multiplicity.(5)

Assemblage urbanism does not only operate by differentiation of one state into another, but also through the openings created by the heterogeneous differences embodied within an assemblage.(6) These differences characterize the behaviors of assemblages as nonlinear interactions illustrative of “the transformative potential of multiplicity and experimentation emerging through often irresolvable differences.”(7) In this construction, both the agency of the individual elements and the interactive whole are preserved as distinct, “where the agency of both can change over time and through interactions.”(8) It is significant that although the formation of the assemblage is “a form of integration, where different elements become aligned in the production of particular effects,”(9) it does not subsume the identity of the part to the will of the new whole, but is set in motion by the tensions that arise.

to flickr
Longtancun, Guangzhou

In fact, the transformation itself becomes the object of attention in assemblage urbanism's redefinition of power from consolidated resource to the distributed effects of agency. “Agency is thus an emergent capacity of assemblages … it is the action or the force that leads to one particular enactment of the city.”(10) Even more radically, one can say that “agency in this reading is less an attribute or property and more a name for the ongoing reconfiguring of the world.”(11) This definition bears some similarity to de Certeau's conception of the pedestrian acts of urbanism that have replaced the need for representation with action,(12) however the assemblage position goes further by placing all relocating all agentic acts, whether quotidian or operative, in the realm of enactment. Thus there are not two kinds (imposed power and enacted resistance), but one kind of agency, albeit a heterogeneous one, insinuated across the entire field of operation.(13)

As a result of the twofold displacement—casting assemblage causality as nonlinear interaction and distributing agency everywhere—the assemblage urbanist is forced to adopt new approaches with more emphasis on inquiry than critique. “In most cases, it is practically impossible to know in advance the definitive list of human and nonhuman actors involved, affected or concerned, the scope of their networks or their actual relationships,”(14) and as a result, the urbanist must also be open to a wider array of possible objects and the new potential forms of agency they imply. Of particular interest is the suggestion of an increased compatibility and engagement with urban design and planning as projective, inquisitive practices.(15) These practices can be profoundly enriched by considering the way that agency is constructed and transformed through connections between people and their environment or between urban processes and constructed space in ways that exceed a simple subject–object relationship.(16) Although there is considerable debate concerning the extent of the repercussions of assemblage theory on urban thinking, the reformulation of these relationships away from any external structure impel not only a methodological break from critical urbanism but an ontological break as well.(17)

Notes:

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

To Address the Organization and Agency of the City without Structure

One of the more controversial aspects of assemblage urbanism is the prioritization of a topological space and the perception that this eliminates scalar differences.(1) We have just seen how the concept of context is radically differentiated compared to critical urban theory in order to eliminate the reductivism of top-down definition. The introduction of scale as a categorical qualifier is another place where structuralism creeps back in.(2) Rather than follow this sort of tree-like thinking, which is anyway antithetical to urban organization,(3) the intention is to look for “tactics and strategies of power embedded in the morphology of the city and the ways that an assemblage of small-scale adaptations can produce synergistic emergent effects at higher levels.”(4) Horizontality, however, does not preclude the existence of different scales(5) nor does it force all influence to come from the bottom-up. Much more simply, it “provides a progressive basis for a critical reevaluation of spatial categories and scalar dynamics”(6) by relocating powerful top-down assemblages within the same kind of imminent assemblages as the everyday encounter.(7)

to flickr
Huashiying Hutong, Beijing

While we can speak of the city as a vast assemblage then, this does not confer a simple, organic totality to its persistent parts. Bureaucratic planning organizations, climatic patterns, aspects of the city's built form may follow individual paths into multiple assemblages with all manner of agendas. Because the elements of an assemblage maintain their individuality separate from the larger networks they form, the theorist must account “for all actual entities involved in such processes of construction, whether human or nonhuman, their interactions and transformations.”(8) Each element is itself an assemblage and is defined by its emergence and not from outside.() The emergence of an urban environment is neither exclusive or reductive and the assemblage urbanist assays to convey the complexity of this inclusiveness. Ash Amin describes the urban spatiality as “a subtle folding together of the distant and the proximate, the virtual and the material, presence and absence, flow and stasis, into a single ontological plane upon which location—a place on the map—has come to be relationally and topologically defined.”(10)

Two points in Amin's description are particularly significant. First, the localization of the urban—each assemblage actively situates itself through its interactions, locality is not an inherent property given by a global structure but a relational construction. Secondly, the plurality of participants and the many modes of engagement allow the preservation of subtle differences within the assemblage, differences that individualize the assemblage. Though not all such idiosyncrasies will be significant, they leave openings for new, ad hoc engagements in the future or wrinkles in the assemblage's own development.(11) Unpredictabilities like this preserve the potentiality of the urban assemblage preventing it from collapsing into a set of pre-established possibilities.(12)

Notes:

Friday, February 7, 2014

Aims and Characteristics of Assemblage Urbanism

In response to the shortcomings of critical urbanism, there has been a growing trend under the name of assemblage urbanism, with three primary objectives. The first goal is to work directly with the dynamic variability of contemporary urbanism, and account for the creation of new entities and ad hoc organizations within the city. The second objective is to address these organizations without reducing them to pre-established structures but rather to describe them in ways which follow their contingent formation. Finally, assemblage urbanism aims through these means to identify a broader field of agency for transforming or engaging with the city. The following sections will review how these goals are characterized as practices among urban theorists and sociologists before then looking at the origins in assemblage theory and defining a particular usage for this study.

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Xiancun, Guangzhou, immediately adjacent to Zhijiang New City

In the last 30 years, cities have demonstrated an accelerated pattern of development that have brought forward a number of new formations to complicate the theorization of the city: incredibly rapid change and growth, massive informal urbanization, divergence between economic models formal and practiced, buy-to-leave property investors, automated technological controls, interdependent service networks—to name a few.(1) Such changes have reiterated the importance of a processual conception of the urban as a mode of becoming. “Rather than focusing on cities as resultant formations, assemblage thinking is interested in emergence and process, and in multiple temporalities and possibilities.”(2) For assemblage urbanists, this means “focusing on the dynamic and transactional unit formed by an organism-in-its-environment” in which the acts of dwelling make and unmake the city.(3) In place of a well-defined, bounded totality, the city is redefined as a locus of high connectivity between a multitude of different entities that is continuously redefined by processes of interrelation, but one which is not without its own historical and spatial contingencies.(4) In highlighting the dynamism of the city, assemblage urbanism emphasizes the fact that the persistencies of the city do not possess privileged control over the trajectory, but are simply co-participants, allowing more open projection concerning the future potential of the city to be imagined differently.(5)

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798 Arts District, Beijing

In fact, the temporality of assemblages is specifically tuned to recognize “the capacity of events to disrupt patterns, generate new encounters with people and objects, and invent new connections and ways of inhabiting everyday urban life.”(6) These moments of emergence engage existing organizations in a continuous process of renegotiation, territorialization, and adaptation. Thus when one speaks of an assemblage it is always in the sense of an entity in an ongoing act of assembling itself. “Such territorialization is as much an alignment of connections as a hardening of boundaries,”(7) writes Dovey, pointing to the action of aligning over the end product of a boundary. The territory of an assemblage is not a given property around which walls can be drawn, but a topographic domain which waxes and wanes. Territorialization (and deterritorialization) thus become interesting indicators of situational activity within an assemblage.

Notes:

Sunday, February 2, 2014

The Challenges and Shortcomings of Critical Urban Theory

The tradition of critical urban theory can be defined as an abstraction of the urban organization which is “enabled by and oriented towards” its specific context and the normative practices surrounding it while emphasizing “the disjuncture between the actual and the possible.”(1) The scope of urban studies has expanded in recent years as urbanization has accelerated and cities themselves have come to be defined more and more by their actions in the global sphere.(2) This has stressed the definition of urban studies “across the entire world economy… at all spatial scales and across the entire surface of planetary space.”(3)In particular, it has challenged the relationship of urban studies to critical theory: Brenner argues that urban studies can no longer be treated as a subtopic of applied critical theory,(4) but, because urbanism is the ubiquitous condition in which social, political, and economic relations are organized and enacted, that the two are definitively connected, "that critical theory must necessarily be a critical urban theory."(5)

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Zhijiang New City, Guangzhou

Already by 1970 Lefebvre had forecast the ubiquity of urbanization (6) and the displacement of industrial production by the production of urban space as a dominant mode of social development.(7) However, by casting the urban as an abstraction of pure form with "no specific content," Lefebvre devalues the role of the city, itself, in the final analysis.(8) Ignacio Farías argues that “"in the case of critical urban studies, the focus on cities and space is only contingent. What is ultimately at stake in those discussions is the organization of contemporary capitalism."(9) That is to say that critical urban theory is always practiced in service of and bounded by critical theory's project "to investigate the forms of domination associated with modern capitalism" and "to excavate the emancipatory possibilities that are embedded within, yet simultaneously suppressed by, this very system."(10) The division between these two targets has only gotten more complicated in the wake of the dematerialization of the city.(11)

Thus while urban matters have taken on greater significance within critical theory, any real effects or processes of urbanism are still held as intermediate outcomes that represent tendencies in global political economy. This results in a discourse which ignores or badly investigates a multitude of questions about the city which cannot be reduced to fundamentally political–economic terms.(12) Though Brenner calls for "a much more systematic integration of urban questions into the analytical framework of critical social theory as a whole,”(13) critical urban theory continues to frame these urban questions under familiar categories and structures. While this offers the benefit of established and tested methodology, "the prevailing spatial imaginary behind this tradition of work has been that of territorial or scalar composition,"(14) a theoretical framework which has done little to connect urban theory to 'grounded' accounts of everyday occupation of the city drawn from ethnographic or other empirically motivated approaches.(15) "Within such a framework the microscale specificities of urban space, public/private interfaces, pedestrian networks and everyday urban experience are often reduced to epiphenomena of larger scale processes and structures."(16) From the perspective of urban specificity, the critical urban approach seems to reverse the order of inquiry, with a fascination for pre-established scales and contexts that overrules the details of individual urban situations(17): "space and scale as products that somehow become independent from the practices and processes originating them… in the sense of taking for ontologically autonomous something which is rather a quality of actual networks of practices."(18) At this point, critical urban theory falls back on a weak structuralist ontology to ensure an inroad for political economy in the explanation rather than fully committing to an immanent urbanism.(19)

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Huangpucun, Guangzhou

For the critical urban theorist, the inscription within larger structures defines the roles and agency of actants in the city. These "scalar and spatial fixes" are responsible for providing an agent with its capacity to act or similarly for restricting its action.(20) Two difficulties arise from this model. Firstly, the implicit separation the actant from its action as the motive source of the action: the motivation is now held within the structure and the particular enacting individual is of secondary importance.(21) Secondly, the inherent reductionism of such an operation and the limitation of these categorical structurations to existing concepts. Not only does this suppress the recognition of unique properties from situation to situation, it discourages the advancement of new configurations. Such reliance on pre-given structures and categories results in relatively narrow definitions of participation and modes of representation which are largely at odds with the contemporary theoretical environment. At the extreme end, this approach assumes "having a privileged access to the real facts, structures and contradictions of urban life," and suggests "that by unveiling these hidden structures, the strength of the powerful will be combated.”(22) rather than looking for developing alternatives among the undercurrents.

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