What can an Assemblage Be?

  • Thomas Nail, “What is an Assemblage?” SubStance 46 (2017): 21-37.
  • Manuel DeLanda, “Assemblages and Human History,” and “Assemblages and the Evolution of Languages” in Assemblage Theory, Chapters 1-2.
  • Supplementary reading: Manuel DeLanda, “Deleuze’s World,” in Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy, 1-7.
  • Michael Lechuga, “Coding Intensive Movement with Technologies of Visibility,” Capacious: Journal for Emerging Affect Inquiry 1 (2017): 83-97.

Assemblage as Political Critique

  • Gilles Deleuze, “Postscript on the Societies of Control,” October 59 (1992): 3-7.
  • Zornitsa Keremidchieva, The Congressional Debates on the 19th Amendment: Jurisdictional Rhetoric and the Assemblage of the US Body Politic, Quarterly Journal of Speech, 99 (2013): 5
  • Camilla Griggers, “The Despotic Face of White Femininity,” “Lesbian Bodies in the Age of (Post)mechanical Reproduction,” and “Becoming War-Machine” in Becoming-Woman, 1-74.

Part 1: Introduction

To start we should set out how assemblage theory is related to the other ‘methods’ we have considered up to this point while foregrounding some important continuities between these approaches. After reviewing some of the observations we’ve gathered about assemblages, archaeology/genealogy, and the signifier, we’ll turn to the presentations, which will explore core concepts from assemblage theory in more detail.  

Assemblage Theory (Deleuze and Guattari, DeLanda, Nail)

Both object and method, the assemblage sits alongside archaeology/genealogy and the analysis of the signifier as a mode of constructing criticism as a complex relation among history, language, and rhetoric. There is not ‘one’ way of doing assemblage criticism, but multiple ways that derive in one or another way from the work of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. This is most obvious in the disagreement between DeLanda and Nail captured in this week’s readings.

DeLanda: “...Deleuze and Guattari fail to make a distinction between different scales.” … “Deleuze never gave a full assemblage analysis of subjectivity, but it is possible to derive one from his work on Hume.” Refuses the tripartite distinction between “the individual, the group, and the social field.” From “Deleuze’s World”: “I offer … not a direct interpretation of Deleuze texts but a reconstruction of his philosophy, using entirelydifferent theoretical resources and lines of argument. The point of this reconstruction is not just to make his ideas seem legitimate to my intended audiences, but also to show that his conclusions do not depend on his particular choice of resources, or the particular lines of argument he uses, but that they are robust to changes in theoretical assumptions and strategies.”
Nail: “This fact continues to pose problems for theorists today who wish to deploy something like a theory of assemblages but also admit, as Manuel DeLanda does, that Deleueze and Guattari’s concept of the assemblage “hardly amounts to a fully fledged theory.” This position allows DeLanda to relegate “Deleuzian hermeneutics” to the footnotes and focus on developing his own “neo-assemblage” theory, “not strictly speaking Deleuze’s own.” … The thesis of this paper is that, contra DeLanda, Deleuze and Guattari do in fact have a fully fledged theory of assemblage.” (Nail 21)

A fundamental move of assemblage theory is that it asserts the simultaneity of affirmation and negation.

  • “When we say that a set of interacting persons gives rise to a community, or that a set of interacting organizations gives rise to a federal government, this should not be taken to imply a temporal sequence, as if a set of previously disconnected persons or organizations had suddenly begun to interact and a whole had abruptly sprouted into being. In a few cases this may indeed be the case, as when people from a variety of organizations aggregate into a cartel forming a larger whole. But in the majority of cases the component parts come into being when a whole has already constituted itself and has begun to use its own emergent capacities to constrain and enable its parts.” (DeLanda)
  • “Assemblages emerge from the interactions between their parts, but once an assemblage is in place it immediately starts acting as a source of limitations and opportunities for its components (downward causality). Other examples include: Territorialization/Deterritorialization and Coding/Decoding


Foucault offers a theory of the apparatus that is a companion/antecedent to the theory of assemblage.

According to Giorgio Agamben, Foucault’s use of the term dispotif, “or ‘apparatus’ in English, is a decisive technical term in the strategy of Foucault’s thought. He uses it quite often, especially from the mid 1970s, when he begins to concern himself with what he calls “governmentality” or the “government of men.” (What is an Apparatus 1) In Foucault’s words:

What I’m trying to single out with this term is, first and foremost, a thoroughly heterogeneous set consisting of discourses, institutions, architectural forms, regulatory decisions, laws, administrative measures, scientific statements, philosophical, moral, and philanthropic propositions -- in short, the said as much as the unsaid. The apparatus itself is the network that can be established between these elements… by the term apparatus I mean a kind of formation, so to speak, that at a given historical moment has as its major function the response to an urgency. The apparatus therefore has a dominant strategic function. … I said that we are speaking about a certain manipulation of forces, of a rational and concrete intervention in the relations of forces, either so as to develop them in a particular direction, or to block them, to stabilize them, and to ustilize them. The apparatus is thus always inscribed into a play of power, but it is also always linked to certain limits of knowledge that arise from it and, to an equal degree, condition it. The apparatus is precisely this: a set of strategies of the relations of forces supporting, and supported by, certain types of knowledge. (2)

Foucault also embraces a simultaneity of affirmation and negation, namely with the terms “conduct” and the major terms of art used to describe genealogy. In Foucault’s writing, “Conduct” and “the conduct of conduct” refer to both a disciplinary apparatus that restricts and constrains the subject as well as to the productive features of order that allow new practices to emerge and multiply. Similarly, herkunft (descent) and Enstehung (emergence) mirror the distinction DeLanda makes between “emergent properties” or “the properties of a whole caused by the interactions between its parts” and “relations of exteriority” or “wholes in which the parts cannot subsist independently of the relations they have with each other,” or “emergent wholes in which the parts retain their autonomy.” (DeLanda)

DeLanda’s emphasis on contingent linkages and associational relations resembles what Foucault describes as the early rhetorical episteme described in The Order of Things in which “natural” relations were organized as rhetorical juxtapositions: “Contiguity, causality, and resemblance, as relations of exteriority between ideas, constitutie the three kinds of association that transform a mind into a subject.” (DeLanda)  

Both DeLanda and Foucault share an interest in the way that population is an effect of multiple (discursive) processes. In Security, Territory, Population Foucault argues that population was a concept that emerged because of a particular problem having to do with resource management and the consolidation of feudal authority. Population only could exist as a response to a particular historical problem, and did not have an existence prior to its naming/nominalization as part of the art of governance. According to DeLanda:

“The way they [Deleuze and Guattari] picture the dynamics that occur in the nested set of assemblages is something like this. At any one of the nested levels, assemblages exist as part of populations: populations of persons, pluralities of communities, multiplicities of organizations, collectivities of urban centres, and it is from interactions within these populations that larger assemblages emerge as a statistical result, or as a collective unintended consequence of intentional action. (DeLanda)


The critique of transcendence. Psychoanalysis examines the tendency to fixate upon a particular signifier as if it were transcendent (e.g. biological sexuation, the Mueller Report) and critiques it on the basis of being a “reified generality” that takes too seriously the binding relationship between signifier and signified. Instead, it finds that the signifier has a discursive life of its own, and that it is ‘stupid’ because it cannot be isolated by recourse to a particular meaning. The shorthand version of this observation is what Christian Lundberg calls “failed unicity,” or the illusion that a signifier sutures together a complete picture of the social whole. (Lacan in Public) One example discussed last week was the way that George W. Bush’s “speech” sutured together a social whole around a fictive essence; seeming at first to be an outward sign of his folksy down-to-earth charm, and then signaling his inability to put together a sentence without connotations of deception. (Hallsby, “Imagine There’s No President”) In Lacanian psychoanalysis, what is important are the relations to the letter (the signifier, the psychoanalytic object) which are similarly ‘more important’ than the contents of the letter (which cannot be read as ‘meaning’ or signification’). Instead, we have (as with the Seminar on Poe) a position that is incapable of rendering the object, a position that sees the object for the danger it engenders, and a position that sees the potential for recalibrating the first two relationships through an act of substitution or theft. How does this relate to assemblage theory?

  • The “stupidity” of the signifier: “Language emerges in a similar way except that its linearity is now temporal not spatial, involving an even more intense deterritorialization that makes it independent of its formed materiality.” (DeLanda)
  • The emphasis on relations rather than contained identities. “When we examine the emergent properties of a network, the lines or links are often more important than the nodes themselves.” (DeLanda)

Set theory. Both psychoanalysis and assemblage theory also make use of the metaphor of “the set of sets,” albeit in different ways. The most famous formulation of “the set of sets” comes from Bertrand Russell and the eponymous “Russell’s Paradox.” DeLanda writes “The late economic historian Fernand Braudel broke with these traditional stances when he set out to study the history of Western economies using the concept of society as a set of sets.” (DeLanda) He sets out to conceive of “society as an assemblage of assemblages,” a non-totalizable set that is always in flux because of simultaneous operations at different levels of scale. Psychoanalysis appeals to set theory (specifically, the “set of sets” and the “set of all sets that are not members of themselves” for a different reason: to describe the paradox of identification. Here is the paradox:

  • “A barber who lives in a town has a monopoly on his business, but shaves only those who cannot shave themselves. Who shaves the barber?” If the barber does shave himself, then he is obliged not to. If he does not shave himself, he must.
  • Put somewhat differently: If a set of all sets that are not members of themselves can exist, then that set would not be a member of itself. If a set of all sets that are not members of themselves cannot exist, then that hypothetical set would be a member of itself. Built on the model of “the set that does not belong to itself,” psychoanalysis suggests that this is how a subject comes to identify as part of the group. It’s not that the subject is e a simple member of a set (e.g. of “humans,” “persons,” “citizens,” etc.). Rather, the subject observes themselves as identical to an impossible, untotalizable set. (Copjec, Read My Desire)  The point is to illustrate, like DeLanda, that “essences,” or “necessary properties” that “the whole must possess in order to be an entity of a given kind” are a fiction, as is the “transcendent” view that such essences are stable, fixed, and unchanging. Instead, the signifier refuses to be determined by a particular meaning or signified.

Part 2: What is an Assemblage?

Thomas Nail, “What is an Assemblage?

We begin our readings on assemblage theory with the person who seems to be a contrarian. Nail references Manuel DeLanda to distance himself from the name that, at least for me, is most readily associated with assemblage theory. The difference between them, he explains, is in their degree of fealty to Deleuze and Guattari. DeLanda, he explains, takes their idea of the assemblage and runs with it as a guide to developing a dynamic, evolving theory of assemblages. In short, DeLanda doesn’t take D&G’s work as a full-fledged theoretical framework. Nail, however, does.

Fitting for the contrarian, he is also pedantic, and he begins by dispelling the reader of the associations they may have between the word assemblage and its English definition. An assemblage, he argues, is not to be understood as a coming together, but, as the original French term D&G employed suggests, as an arrangement or laying out of various pieces. The distinction, he argues, is that the former implies unity, while the latter speaks to the importance of heterogeneity.

Rejecting unity is one of the central tenants of assemblage theory. Understanding any unit as unified entails understanding their component parts as having clearly delineated, essential functions. Further, when a component is removed, in this conception, it becomes inert. Unities do not allow their constituent parts to exist meaningfully either independently or in other arrangements; they are defined solely by internal relations. Assemblages, on the other hand, are defined by the external relations of their constituent parts. Assemblages are neither part nor whole, they are defined by relations. Pieces can be added or removed and yet an organic unity does not come into existence, let alone experience being destroyed. The consequence of this is a rejection of essences. It asks us to inquire about things that exist in terms of their how, where, when, etc., and not in terms of their what.

Working off of Deleuze and Guatarri’s original texts, Nail describes the basic structure of assemblages in three parts. The first is the abstract machine. This term refers to the relations between components (which are of course themselves comprised of components etc. etc.). The abstract machine is not a thing, but it is real because relationships are real. The machine label is used because, like machines, they are not essential, but emerge as a result of the relationship of various parts. Second, Nail describes the concrete assemblage, which refers to the parts that relationships exist between. Importantly, the relationships between these parts are not predetermined or essential but constructed. When elements change the way they relate to each other, or are declared to relate to each other differently, the assemblage is altered. Finally, Nail articulates personae. Personae refers to those things that act in the assemblage. Personae sustain assemblages by playing a part in their process and function. For instance, if the professor of our course were sick and requested another professor to sub for him, the personae of the course instructor would still be active even if the actual instructor varied. We may understand the personae as a shell.

Nail next provides a discussion of the typology of assemblages. Importantly, an understanding of D&G’s work as a complete theory entails understanding these typologies as a definitive, exhaustive list. The first of these is territorial. A territorial assemblage is an arrangement in which its concrete elements are coded as having proper and improper uses. They divide the world and give particular pieces particular functions. They have both a chaos-stalling and a norm generating role. This sort of assemblage also blocks some elements from joining it, this material or practice resides outside of the norm and is thus surplus. Finally, this sort of assemblage funnels this surplus into other assemblages to either place it in an assemblage it is appropriate for or which will discipline it.

State assemblages, the next sort, attempt to unify their constituent elements in a way that is perceived as consistent, natural and unchanging. This is done regardless of what the actual content or relations of a given assemblage is. A third sort, capitalist assemblages, can be understood as driven by the personae. While the previous two are defined primarily by concrete elements and their relations respectively, this sort of assemblage is driven by the function of particular personae. In the framework articulated here, this sort of assemblage is defined and sustained by its elements which have profit-generation as their purpose. Finally, nomadic assemblages are free. Their relations are not restrictive, and their concretes are thus able to float in and out of various relations. Each element of nomadic assemblages participate equally in their emergence and Nail calls them revolutionary because they allow elements to redefine problems and thus terms of relation; they are incompatible with the hierarchies of other sorts of assemblages.

Finally, Nail articulates four different types of change processes which assemblages undergo. These are understood using the language of territory. In other words, how is the lay of the land of a given assemblage altered. The first sort, relative negative deterritorialization, is a process by which already established assemblages adapt and respond to changes in relations by incorporating these changes into their whole. When a company pacifies striking workers, for instance. Relative positive deterritorialization, alternately, is change which does not reproduce an assemblage, but does not yet create a new one either. These changes are ambiguous and onlookers are unsure of their potential impact. Absolute negative deterritorialization is change which threatens to undermine assemblages per se. No more assemblages, only chaos. Finally, absolute positive deterritorialization is a change process which creates a new assemblage, it seeks to structure a new world in place of the one from which it emerged.

Manuel DeLanda, “Assemblages and Human History,” and “Assemblages and the Evolution of Languages” in Assemblage Theory, Chapters 1-2.

This piece is an attempt to discuss the ways in which assemblage theory can be applied to the study of language. DeLanda explains that this is a complex endeavor because it could take place on any of three different levels. First, it could take the form of studying words and sentences, instances of language, as parts of assemblages. Second, language may be understood in some instances as parameters for assemblages rather than as interactive partners within them. Finally, particular languages themselves may be understood as assemblages. DeLanda’s task in this piece is to provide an overview of what each of these iterations may look like, while emphasizing that they are not entirely separable because they operate in tandem with one another.

In regard to the first line of inquiry, DeLanda explains that one may explore language in the context of assemblages by providing the example of the courtroom. In such a setting, he explains, language wields illocutionary power because of the complex of relations between entities. To be more specific, because of their particular relation between each other and other aspects of the legal system, the judge in a courtroom has the power to act, and the person found guilty is susceptible to being acted upon. Language is thus endowed with particular capabilities, and when the judge doles out a sentence it carries weight. This is how language functions in communities and relationships, and D&G refer to the creation of social obligations through language as incorporeal transformations. Importantly, obligations are understood in a broad sense and not just in reference to commands. The speech acts are labeled order words.

On the other hand, there are times when “linguistic entities…seem to code every component of a community or organization.” The codifications of the law structure courtroom interactions, doctrine structures interaction in religious communities, and the recognition of official languages by the state can have tremendous impact as well. Such linguistic codes create conditions of legitimacy and illegitimacy within various assemblages, and DeLanda refers to this as parametrisizing.

Finally, DeLanda discusses language themselves, and their evolutions and divergences, as assemblages. He describes changes in languages as a process of evolution and notes that, as evolutionary scientists have when they study organic life, the process is significantly social, that behaviors are modeled based on the practice of superiors. When it comes to language, DeLanda argues that the reproduction of language is often borne of social obligation to a community norm that makes acquiescence necessary for participation. He turns to a discussion of dialects and their management and lack thereof by the state throughout history and how the status of various dialects rose and fell in relation to the position and action of the state. When language is not forcefully coded and territorialized, he argues, they evolve faster.

He uses this to suggest that theorists like Chomsky, who propose universal grammars, are incorrect in their conceptions of language because they presume necessary internal relations between various parts of speech. He turns instead to Zellig Harris who proposes that words have significant frequencies of co-occurrence, patterns of use which shape how people feel they can and even must use the language they speak. This represents a practice-driven evolutionary view of language. It is also a model driven by the external relations of parts of language to each other.

The piece concludes with DeLanda claiming that the ways in which he was able to apply D&G’s assemblage theory to this subject matter speaks to the concept’s durability. The piece seems to emerge, then, as an exercise which proves the utility of the theory because the implications of the observations beyond this are not made explicit.

Michael Lechuga, “Coding Intensive Movement with Technologies of Visibility,” Capacious: Journal for Emerging Affect Inquiry 1 (2017): 83-97.

This essay does not explicitly name assemblages as its subject, but describes what I would call a territorial assemblage, although a compelling argument could certainly be made that it is a state or capitalist assemblage as well. His concern is with the way in which different sorts of affect circulate within an assemblage in ways which mark some bodies as alien and other bodies as citizen. He argues that the state is concerned with identifying and exploiting those who give off alien affects, which are identified through two different sorts of movement: intensive and extensive.

Extensive movements are more frequently referred to simply as movements, the physical, quantitatively measurable movement from one location to another. Alien affects that emerge from the witnessing of an act of border-crossing are the result of extensive movement. By contrast, intensive movements are qualitative, they are felt, not as easily measurable. They are facial features, accents, the notion we get that someone is afraid, it is felt intensity, shifting as one body experiences another body experiencing it.

The piece is largely concerned with affect, and if this discussion seems brief, it is both because its author is here to speak for their self, but also because I am not trying to provide a pure summary of the article, which would take us to affect theory and we already had that week. Instead, I am trying to discuss the article as an element of assemblage week, which is defined by a set of relations not present in affect week.

As I mentioned above, we can understand Lechuga as articulating an assemblage which includes citizens, non-citizens, the state, technologies of surveillance, geographic locations, legal codes, the justice system, the prison system, and more. He is articulating the ways in which affect is an element within this assemblage and the ways in which the state attempts to, through surveillance, foreground particular relations between elements in order to code the territory of the United States in a manner which precludes free and full presence of what it deems alien. The state seeks to delimit who can belong where and what behavior they may exhibit as they do so. Affect becomes a tool in discerning who to place where, or who to code in what way.

Connecting the readings and centering rhetoric

As you may recall from last time I was this persona in our classroom, I am interested in who uses what words. To make the score clear, Lechuga is always the outlier: he does not use the word assemblage (though he does cite DeLanda), and he is the only author to use the word rhetoric. DeLanda’s piece is of obvious interest to rhetoricians because it takes the explanation of language as one of its tasks. However, Nail is not as easy to read rhetoric into. As I explained earlier, however, we can quite easily take Lechuga’s piece as describing an assemblage, and his use of rhetoric is a very good lead on linking the assemblage with rhetoric.

Lechuga invokes Ron Greene and the concept of rhetorical materialism to explain that rhetorical power is “moved through governing apparatuses to subjugate and control bodies.” I’m certainly not an expert, and I am certainly not going to die on this hill, what I am saying is that this is speculative, but surely we can think of governing apparatuses as a form of assemblage, and thus one answer to the question of what an assemblage can be is an apparatus which rhetorical power moves through. Relations between elements exist at all times, but it is the ones which are articulated and foregrounded which become significant assemblages. Particular relations, particular assemblages, are, I suspect, foregrounded based on who can move what sorts of rhetorical power through them. Particular relations between state, citizen, and non-citizen are named and foregrounded because when those relations cohere and become publicly legible rhetorical moves can be deployed within that framework which generate particular material outcomes.


This question is designed to get us practicing the use of assemblage theory as the closed system Nail advocates for: what kind of assemblage do you think best describes what Lechuga write about?

Do you pledge fealty to Deleuze and Guitarri, or do you think DeLanda is right that the concept is open-ended and ripe to be taken up in diverse ways?

In the supplemental reading, DeLanda claims assemblage theory is a realist philosophy, do you buy this?

Can absolute negative deterritorialization actually happen? What does a world without  assemblages look like to an assemblage theorist?

Supplemental Reading

Hayward, S. (2008). Beyond desire? Star bodies and sensation. Communication, culture & critique, 1(3), 253-267.

Hess, A. (2015). Selfies| the selfie assemblage. International journal of communication, 9, 18.

Legg, S. (2011). Assemblage/apparatus: using Deleuze and Foucault. Area, 43(2), 128-133.

Part 3: Assemblage of Political Critique

Deleuze, Griggers, and Keremidchieva all offer examples of assemblage. These assemblages are (as you may have surmised) all deployed as political critique. As Thomas Nail posits, all assemblages are necessarily political. But here is where we can see the work of assemblage being done. All of these pieces are concerned with codes, signifiers, and teasing out the connections between agents and the tropes they construct.

Gilles Deleuze, “Postscript on the Societies of Control,” October 59 (1992): 3-7.

Main argument: Deleuze sets out to add to and modify Foucault’s theory of apparatus (or dispositif). If Foucault originally understood different stages of life as enclosures that we move between, then Deleuze redistributes the enclosure across every aspect of our lives. According to Deleuze, we’re stuck in one big enclosure that is diffuse and continuous. Foucault claimed that we live in a society of discipline that structures our lives so that we are shuttled from one position of subordination to another in perpetuity. We start at the family unit, where our parents structure our schedules and enforce a hierarchy. We then go to the school, where teachers, administrators, and the content of our curriculum step into the silhouettes of our parents—then to the factory, the prison, the hospital, which are hierarchies that reflect that original disciplinary framework.

Deleuze observes a cultural moment that has moved away from Foucault’s society of discipline and transformed into a society of control. Here, the ideology of the corporation has blown away Foucault’s enclosures and suspended us in a state of continuous work. Where Foucault identifies constant restarting, Deleuze identifies stasis. Because the corporation has a spirit and is at once an assembled person as well as an incorporeal “gas”, it’s managed to leach into all aspects of life and suspend us in a state of constant learning, rather than constant beginnings. Foucault remarks that enclosures and apparatuses are numerical, and we move from one to the other. Deleuze complicates that for us—instead, our existence is continuous.  As Deleuze writes, it’s as surfing is to baseball.

Author’s conception of the purpose of rhetorical criticism/analysis: Deleuze identifies assemblage as a way to make sense of cultural boundaries and hierarchies. Like Foucault, Deleuze seems to think that in order to defy or instigate change in our cultural frameworks, we must first recognize the assemblage and what the assemblage has molded and modulated us to do. This piece arcs toward a focus on technology and how the modular nature of tech in turn makes our own bodies and abilities modular. One illustrative example of how this works is contemporary money: once numerical and enclosed, tied very concretely to a stockpile of gold. A disciplinary model of value. Now, money is transient and dependent on the whims of market value, which is always changing and a reflection of the structure of an assemblage itself. A model of control. No longer do we lower costs, but instead we assume debt in perpetuity. Deleuze also asks that we consider how coded figures function within an assemblage. As outlined above, the school and all it once represented has now been modulated and transformed so that it is a tool of control; we are constantly learning to improve our prospects at the corporation, and so the school is both the corporation and the corporation is the school.

On a practical level, understanding our world as an assemblage can help us identify flows of power and coded figures that represent and exert that power. We can identify our modular silhouettes and understand how, as Grigger shows us, our masks are our faces.

Constituent theoretical elements to which the essay attends: This is not an explicitly rhetorical work, but rather a broad, longitudinal and Foucaultian style diagnosis of society.

Key terms: assemblage, coded figures, corporation, control

Camilla Griggers, Becoming Woman, (1999), (i-76).

Main argument: Griggers sets out to do the work of applying assemblage as a method. If Deleuze takes his shot at society at large and how the agent of control regulates and defines our lives, then Griggers takes aim at the abstraction woman. Griggers uses assemblage as a method to reveal what Deleuze identified as “coded figures” within the social fabric of our culture, and how these coded figures steward us towards violent, destructive ends. At the heart of this argument is the concept that woman as we know her is an abstract-machine; she is an amalgam of over-coded signifiers mapped over our corporeal bodies. Griggers turns us from the idea that the face of femininity is itself a mask. Rather, the mask of femininity is the woman’s face, and it is the act of passing through the mask, wearing it ourselves, negotiating our position in relation to that mask that we become woman. Becoming woman, then, is an act that produces knowledge.

Griggers uses assemblage to construct an object for study—that object being “woman.” Through the act of creating an assemblage and identifying the component parts of that assemblage (broadly, abstractly, through example) Griggers generates theory and meaning for us as consumers of her writing. So, it is Griggers’ identification of method, her identifying and locating signifiers and actors with the broader assemblage that together create the assemblage. It’s a method and an object in one. The assemblages Griggers is identifying are territorial assemblages. Much of her work is in outlining the limits and codes of an assemblage and teasing at how the assemblages are territorialized, reterritorialized, and deterritorialized.

Author’s conception of the purpose of rhetorical criticism/analysis: Griggers uses her analysis to help us make sense of how one single category of being (woman/femininity) profoundly bounds, reflects, and instigates material violence in ways that might seem disparate or only tangentially related from other angles of analysis. We can look to Griggers’ breakdown of how we can make sense of the drag queen Ru Paul and their place within the assemblage of femininity (quoted at length, bolding and my own, italics Griggers’):

“Ru Paul was lipstick; blond hair bleached to an artificial purity, foundation makeup masking all skin blemishes and constituting the white wall of signification; mascara accentuating the black hole of consciousness; low-cut evening wear for the cleavage of desire; gowns, heels, and jewelry for class status. And Ru Paul passed. S/he passed into the public eye. S/he became a name, s/he became a popular star, s/he became fashion and publicity. The power of the face. S/he signed a record contract. Certainly no one could mistake Ru Paul for a white woman. Yet even in drag her face drew its circle of power. The seductive power of the screen icon. The power of class and race operating through the face of the fashion model. It attracted significance. It lured signifiers. It seduced viewers and financial backers. It gave Ru Paul the cultural capital he did not have as a young African-American queer from a broken down home growing up in the streets of San Diego (Yarbrough). In drag, Ru Paul became a public icon. He became a face.” (p. 5)

Here, Griggers demonstrates how Ru Paul is “reterritorialized” by the majoritarian and deterritorialized by “minoritarian becomings” (p. 5). Griggers goes on to describe how Ru Paul assumed the face of an “Angry Young Black Man” and thusly is constructed as somewhere in between these two faces. The codes associated with white femininity and angry young black man are powerful and Ru Paul can move between them and invoke them in different ways. Griggers points out, however, that while Ru Paul can change his face, he cannot escape the codes that construct these faces. We negotiate within codes, but we do not break away from them.

Constituent theoretical elements to which the essay attends: This is not a rhetorical analysis, but rather critical feminist/Deleuzian theory work. Accordingly, Griggers spends the first chapter, titled “The Despotic Face of White Femininity,” identifying the silhouettes of woman that are created and enforced by signifiers generated by global culture. In doing so, she establishes the white feminine face as an inescapable, organizing frame through which we all must pass through, look upon, and negotiate with as we participate in society. She illuminates powerful connections between race, class, and gender and establishes a majoritarian societal framework that struggles with/oppresses a minoritarian framework. She often defines this struggle through a lens of territorializing, deterritorializing, and reterritorializing. These terms are not of rhetorical theory, but rather related to Deleuzian philosophy.

In the second chapter, titled “Lesbian Bodies in the Age of (Post)mechanical Reproduction,” Griggers reveals the assemblages of “lesbians bearing arms, lesbians bearing children, lesbians becoming fashion, becoming commodity subjects, becoming Hollywood, becoming the sex industry, becoming cyborg human-machinic assemblages” (p. 49). She is attentive to how lesbian bodies are both “becoming majoritarian” while at the same time the majority is becoming lesbian. These assemblages incorporate lesbianism into mainstream culture while at the same time suspending them on the margins.

In the third chapter, Griggers focuses on how the assemblage of woman is colliding and integrating with war and violence. Here she does an exceptional job of tracing how women on whole can be oppressed within a military framework while also perpetuating that framework. She also highlights how women’s place in the military stratifies in the same ways our society does: white women assume positions of power relative to minority women and men. In this way, woman supports the system that subordinates and exploits her. Within Grigger’s analysis, it is also a testament to the power of the assemblage of despotic white femininity—it holds its own within a masculine military framework.

Key terms: human-machinic, despotic, lesbian, cyborg, passing, becoming-X, re/de/territorialize

Zornitsa Keremidchieva, The Congressional Debates on the 19th Amendment: Jurisdictional Rhetoric and the Assemblage of the US Body Politic, Quarterly Journal of Speech, 99 (2013): 51-73.

Main argument: Keremidchieva works to show us how gender, race, alienage, and war collide to create an assemblage of discourses, institutions, and populations that shaped the movement of the 19th amendment through Congress and into law. This is an out and out rhetorical work, attending to rhetorical implications and moves of the agents operating within and around congressional hearings. Keremidchieva argues that the congressional process “assembles bodies, interests, institutions, and identities through which the institutional discursive infrastructure of state power is constituted and mobilized” (p. 52).  An assemblage framework allows Keremidchieva to locate how, through the process of passing the 19th Amendment, the state exerted control over who is enfranchised, “the political rights of immigrants,” and its position of power in an international context (p. 53). In the end, women's suffrage is modulated into a tool for state control over racial, ethnic, and international politics (p. 54). Keremidchieva identifies a state assemblage, in contrast with Griggers’ very broad territorial assemblage.

Constituent rhetorical elements to which the essay attends: This is an example of the work assemblage can do when focused on rhetorical turns. Keremidchieva walks us through how the political maneuverings that got the 19th signed were “predicated on  a series of rhetorical linkages” (p. 55). Keremidchieva begins with the gender and then layers race upon gender, illuminating a rhetorical linkage (that is also an assemblage). She shows us how white supremacy was a boon to women’s suffrage, because white women could be counted on to vote the same way as their husbands—effectively enforcing a homogenous electorate. She then illuminates another rhetorical linkage, and connects “alienage” to the gender-race-assemblage. The amendment could be constructed so that not only did it enforce a white electorate, but also homogenized further by purging immigrant voters who had yet to attain full citizenship. While this initiative of the amendment was not fully realized, the fact that politicians tested the viability of such disenfranchising language was significant because it lent some coherence to the gender-race-alienage assemblage and flexed its potential. Finally, Keremidchieva layers war upon the congressional gender-race-alienage assemblage. Women’s right to vote is now framed as a tool for national defense. The “discourse of femininity” was effectively translated into an “affective weapon of war” (p. 64). The state itself craved the care that womanhood could provide—and thusly, the right to vote was framed as a gendered duty. Keremidchieva cleverly notes how “the right to vote would help women become citizens as women at a time when a wounded nation needed to be nurtured back to life by woman’s care” (p. 64). Keremidchieva ends by calling attention to how feminist rhetorical work must not only “disarticulate woman’s states from the agendas of racism and militarism,” but also reveal how “the state terriorializes, co-opts, and subsumes women’s agency” (p. 68).

Key terms: alienage, race, gender, war, jurisdiction

Connections and comparisons: It is useful to consider the differences and similarities between how Deleuze, Griggers, and Keremidchieva deploy assemblage as a method for making sense of invisible societal systems. Deleuze deploys assemblage theory in order to reveal a system of forces that suspend, modulate, and codify us in ever present and inescapable ways. He is particularly attentive to how technology has augmented the controlling aspects of our societal structures until we transformed into a society entirely defined by perpetual and often unseeable control. Griggers’ assemblage is large—but not as large as Deleuze’s, despite the relative length of her work. She takes up “woman” and reasons how “woman” is constructed, defined, limited, coded, and territorialized by majoritarian society. She picks “woman” up and places her in different contexts, and in doing so helps us understand how she manifests in a very material sense. Keremidchieva looks to how assemblages operate in capacities that belie the tacit ways states consolidate power. Rather than taking a gigantic and clearly abstract idea like “woman”, Keremidchieva takes up an amendment and reveals the assembly of machinations that contributed to its conception, implementation, and rhetorical legacy.

Discussion Questions:

What is the value in using assemblage over using another method to identify societal structures? What can it give us that something like Foucault’s apparatus cannot?

What differences do you note between these assemblage pieces that I did not emphasize?

What methods might assemblage work alongside? Or is assemblage a solitary method? What objects does assemblage enable us to examine?

What distinguishes assemblage from actor-network theory? Is one of these methods more rhetorical than the other?

Additional Readings:

Bennett, Jane. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010.

Priyadharshini, Esther, and Amy Pressland. "Analysis as Assemblage: Making Sense of Polysemous Texts." Critical Studies in Media Communication 35, no. 5 (2018): 420-39.

Rickert, Thomas J. Ambient Rhetoric: The Attunements of Rhetorical Being. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013.