Sunday, July 20, 2014

Exterior Relations

Because objects cannot be reduced upwards into controlling structures nor downward atomistically into their parts, neither is there an a priori global container, “There is no world... that connects things together. All such connections must be emergent properties of the objects themselves.”(1) The internal withdrawal of objects and the location of their potency within the virtual clearly complicates the ways by which such connections are able to form. To remain consistent with the ontological formation advanced thus far, any possible relation forgoes direct contact: it must derive from the individual object and issue from its own agency,(2) Bryant proposes that exo-relations can be characterized as translations of information—with the understanding that “information is thus not something that exists in the world independent of the systems that 'experience' it, but is rather constituted by the systems that 'experience' it... Information is, as it were, a genuine event that befalls a substance or happens to a substance.”(3)

A few significant aspects of this concept are worth detailing. First, the information of a relation does not have its own, separate being, but is enacted by the emitting object as a property, a quality, or an event and received by the second object tin an act of sensing or perceiving: “information is object-specific, whereas the same perturbation can affect a variety of different objects while producing very different information for each object.”(4) Relations are highly sensitive to the affective capability of objects.(5) Second, because these information-events are translated into being only through the apperception of various objects, there is no 'original meaning' or 'pure interpretation'.(6) Third, in a nicely symmetrical moment, this fact holds true even for the originating object, from which the quality is a self-othering event.(7) (We can confirm this by following Deleuze's argument that the virtual does not in any way resemble the actual.(8)) Taken together, these points prevent the the relation-as-information from devolving into mere simulacra(9) thought instead “as force-signs of deterritorialization and of reterritorialization.”(10)

Meanwhile, objects are always joining together to form larger assemblages. In fact, Harman has written that “when two objects enter into genuine relation, even if they do not permanently fuse together, they generate a reality that has all of the features that we require of an object... they create something that has not existed before, and which is truly one.”(11) However, this would effectively reduce all relations to endo-relations and the assertion that “there are properties of objects that emerge as a result of the manner in which the object relates to other objects.”(12) would have to be modified to acknowledge that those properties occur only as the result of the top-down influence of a encompassing assemblage. Though we want to facilitate the production of new objects as much as possible, we will hold off from extending objecthood to such an extent, preferring to leave open the possibility of horizontal relations between objects that remain merely relations. Even stable patterns of relations should be permitted without automatically conflating the relationship with a new object.(13) Rather, a new object occurs “when exo-relations among other objects manage to attain operational closure such that their aggregate or multiple composition becomes capable of encountering perturbations as information in terms of their own endo-consistency.”(14) While this qualification risks being misinterpreted as saying that all objects are strictly defined intensionally, by a shared property or predicate, the earlier specification of the virtual proper being as a dimension subsequent to the individual, still allows objects to be defined extensionally by naming or enumeration as well.

The problems of external relation and the formation of new assemblages both raise questions about causality, or, the efficacy of assemblages. Timothy Morton seemingly implies that the withdrawal of objects away from one another produces a “disturbing illusory play of causality.”(15) This would be an understandable position if one focuses on the interior being within an object as a division “vertically from the implicate to the explicate.”(16) Through this lens it would appear that the virtual in an object acted upon constructs effects that are detached from their source. Rather, returning to the dictum that “difference is an activity... existence is thought as a sort of doing or movement,”(17) it is apparent that such a reading confuses the agency of the object with its reception. “No object can transfer a force to another object without that force being transformed in some way or another,”(18) but this does not mean that the force is not exerted or that the transference is only an illusion. The agency of an object is measured by its effecting of the world, a process that is always messy and complexly negotiated, not by distilling the legibility of intent away from any interferences.

In fact, the opposite is true. If there were a medium or metalanguage by which information were transferred without alteration, there would be no action—that is, no difference—remaining in the act itself but only within the mediator.(19) Just as all connections emerge from the objects themselves, so are communications produced through patterns of encounters, based on “the records of actions antecedent in the production of consequents.”(20) and are perpetually challenged by new divergences.(21) So too is causality not effected by the machinery of an underlying structure, but manifests as a phenomenon that emanates from and repositions objects in new spatio-temporal contexts.(22)


Monday, June 9, 2014

Internal Existence

From the principle of redundant causality we know that “within open systems or entanglements of objects, the powers of discrete objects are often veiled or inactive.”(1) If these extensive entanglements were given the power of defining the identity of objects, they would never be capable of asserting clear independence, always remaining muddled, unable to identify whether an object exists or not, only able to suggest possible objects.(2) Furthermore, this would be akin to the ground differentiating from the object and would contradict the difference-in-itself. Thus, “objects must also be thought in terms of their endo-relations or their inter-ontic structure as radically independent of their exo-relations or their inter-ontic relations.”(3) The endo-relations of an assemblage encapsulated within the object form an interior existence which is never entirely accessible to an external object. This is considered a definitive property of objects: “there are no objects characterized by full presence or actuality. Withdrawal is not an accidental feature of objects... but is a constitutive feature of all objects regardless of whether they relate to other objects.”(4)

to flickr
Generative Components sketch

Those aspects of an object which are not withdrawn but are accessible and relate to other objects, its qualities, are freed up from carrying the responsibly to define identity. Classical concepts of substance had difficulty splitting qualities from objects because there weren't any additional differentiations beyond the object's qualities to individuate it(5) but in an object-oriented ontology, “objects are not identical to their qualities but are rather the ground of qualities.”(6) They are no longer the building blocks or quanta of being, but actualizations of the object. “Objects can be fully concrete without locally manifesting themselves or actualizing themselves in qualities... Local manifestation is something that objects can do, but an object that does not locally manifest itself is not lacking in some way, nor is it somehow incomplete”(7) As such, extensities are not constrained to formal or necessary roles in the object, but can follow diverse potential behaviors(8) It is more appropriate, therefore, to think of an object's extensive qualities not ”as something an object possesses, has, or is, but rather as acts, verbs, or something that an object does.”(9) Qualities can be responsive to the idiosyncrasies of their contexts—both internal and external—in ways that properties of identity would resist.(10) Perceived from the point of view of two separate external relations, an object can even enact contradictory or incompossible qualities based on the properties “that emerge as a result of the manner in which the object relates to other objects.”(11)

Having peeled away the qualitative dimension, there remains the internal structure of the object. Object-oriented ontology contends that “objects are not merely aggregates of other objects, but have an irreducible internal structure of their own.”(12) This topological organization is not common for all or even a group of assemblages, which would suggest an organization based on a shared predicate,(13) nor is it fixed and immutable. In fact, the intensive is caught up in a transitional immediacy of a relation to its own indeterminancy. “withdrawn into an all-encompassing relation with what it will be. It is in becoming, absorbed in occupying its field of potential”(14) That is, while any transition within an assemblage's internal relations transforms the field of potential emergent properties, it still remains “an operationally closed object that relates to the sub-multiples of which it is composed or the multiples that it composes only in terms of its own internal organization”(15) and cannot be determinately indexed to anything outside itself.”(16) Mereologically, the object's internal being still remains independent from any assemblages it might be a part of and even those out of which it is composed.(17) It can be properly said that this independence exceeds everything that can be known about the object through its relations.(18)

This nonqualitative structure follows Deleuze's concept of the virtual,(19) however, Bryant critiques Deleuze's insistence that the virtual is pre-individual, arguing that “the virtual is not something that produces the individual, but rather must strictly be a dimension of the individual.(20) This is done to preserve the agency of the object in causal interactions and to locate production as an act of the individual rather than the individual as the residue of production.(21) This returns to the assertion earlier that to be is to make or produce difference. If objects are to exist, they do so as differentiation engines.(22) Bryant refers to this virtuality of the individual as the 'virtual proper being'.


Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Object Oriented Philosophy

As the most active branch of what has been named Speculative Realism, object-oriented philosophy shares the realist(1) and anti-reductionist(2) positions of assemblage urbanism. Perhaps the best summary of the objective of object-oriented philosophy is the desire “to think a subjectless object, or an object that is for-itself rather than an object that is an opposing pole before or in front of a subject... an object for-itself that isn't an object for the gaze of a subject, representation, or a cultural discourse.”(3) Naturally, this attitude of “a universe made up of objects wrapped in objects wrapped in objects wrapped in objects”(4) lends itself well to a flat ontology like the one proposed by Manuel DeLanda(5) and covered in chapter one.(6) This can be seen in one of the core problematics of object-oriented philosophy, the question of access to objects:
“On the other hand, where the anti-realists have obsessively focused on a single gap between humans and objects, endlessly revolving around the manner in which objects are inaccessible to representation, object-oriented philosophy allows us to pluralize this gap, treating it not as a unique or privileged peculiarity of humans, but as true of all relations between objects whether they involve humans or not. In short, the difference between humans and other objects is not a difference in kind, but a difference in degree."(7)

Here, Levi Bryant lays out two establishing operations. First, the multiplication of significant relations from only those that involve human interpretation to include the entire field of inter-object relations,(8) and second, the leveling of all these relations into the same register in order to preserve their specific characters.(9) Though aimed at the nature–culture divide in particular, this excerpt combats the argument of a world constructed by human experience and intentionality, more generally. By widening the scope of relations to include every sort of relata, object-oriented philosophy calls attention to the huge array of contingent relations that accompany an assemblage. It is not that objects are defined by how they appear to humans, but even strictly cultural objects rely on and involve inorganic objects: “collectives involving humans are always entangled with all sorts of nonhumans without which such collectives could not exist.”(10)

to flickr
Wanmu Orchard, Guangzhou

Nor are objects defined by their relations with one another as a general case, rather object-oriented ontology asserts the more pragmaticist definition that “to be is to make or produce differences” or that “there is not difference that does not make a difference.”(11) Though this seems at first glance to produce a contradiction—being-as-difference must surely be relational, mustn't it?—we draw here from Deleuze's description of difference-in-itself(12) that distinguishes itself from the ground yet without the ground also performing a reciprocal distinction. If “all things equally exist, yet they do not exist equally,”(13) then the question one must answer is how to describe the asymmetry between difference-in-itself and the extrinsic differences between two objects. Deleuze holds that “extensity does not account for the individuations which occur within it.”(14) Thus, in the following, we sketch an outline of the object: first addressing the characteristic of extensive qualities; then defining the role of intensities, or endo-relations, distinct from actualization; and finally unpacking the implications for relations with external objects and the environment. In all this, the goal is to preserve the equal ontological status of individuals and to avoid reductionist arguments that would smooth away the tension between assemblages and their (equally individual) parts.(15)


Wednesday, May 14, 2014

A concept for objects

The conceptual advantages of utilizing assemblage urbanism are strongest and most apparent when the urban situation under observation involves surprising or unexpected combinations of objects, actions, and scales.(1) As argued above, preserving the complexity in these situations requires an approach that examines the reality of their entanglements(2) instead of reducing difficult concerns to explanations that conform with familiar structures. The second motivation introduced was to account for the activity of the city, or the agency to act upon it that issues from non-human sources or without human intervention—automatic technological protocols as well as the more quotidian interactions of matter and objects—in order to further advance an ecological definition of the city.(3)

In order to fully describe the city in this way, one also requires a more detailed theory of objects that expands on what assemblage theory provides. Assemblage urbanism is always able to compare against empirical observation to fill in any conceptual gaps, and so tends to produce definitions of assemblages which do not impinge on their objects of observation.(4) This thesis is interested in projective or speculative design practice, anticipating that the designer's empirical research will be less thorough and that objects or object properties may also need to be invented or assumed.(5) In these cases, a stronger conceptual model of how assemblages function and behave as objects is necessary.

to flickr
Longtancun, Guangzhou

In the first chapter, we spoke mostly of how assemblage urbanism reframes the primary aspects of urban studies without spending much time on the description of assemblages themselves. The use of assemblage theory by urbanists primarily as a methodological, and not an ontological, explanation has allowed the notion of the assemblage to remain indistinct. In fact, assemblage urbanism actively promote a less circumscribed invocation as a resistance of pluralism against a dogmatic enforcement of 'proper' use.(6)

From assemblage theory, objects can be characterized as heterogeneous assemblages which cannot be reduced to their parts and whose component elements similarly are not subsumed within the totality of the object. Furthermore, being an element in a larger assemblage does not render an object inferior to the larger assemblage or prevent it from interacting with it directly and independently nor is the larger assemblage considered derivative of its parts. All objects are considered ontologically equal on a flat plane of existence regardless of the size or scale, their complexity or their simplicity.

Expanding on this base, there are three aspects to consider about the assemblage as an object which will be explored through some of the recent philosophical work on object-oriented ontology and developed further by a new reading of monadology which it enables. These three points are the interior existences of objects, the external relations of objects to others and to their environments, and the connection between objects and causation.


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.


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.

to flickr
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.


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.