ASSEMBLAGE URBANISM OR CRITICAL URBAN THEORY? (Dissertation chapter 1 draft)

NOTE: THIS POST IS A DRAFT, THE FINAL DISSERTATION IS AVAILABLE HERE.

CHAPTER 1

ASSEMBLAGE URBANISM OR CRITICAL URBAN THEORY?

Encounters between independent thinkers always occur in a blind zone.

Deleuze 1998, 42

Ultimately, however, the main thrust of Deleuze and Guattari’s philosophy is not ontological: it is political. The point of doing philosophy is not to arrive at even the best possible understanding of the nature of being: they presuppose an ontology compatible with contemporary math and science to do political philosophy – to articulate Problems posed by contemporary social life in the hope of provoking the discovery of practical solutions to them or, at least, better ways of addressing them.

Holland 2011, 16-17

Introduction: Clearing the Ground

A recent debate in the journal City (2011) highlights some of the tensions between those who are trying to import Deleuzoguattarian concepts into urban theory and the proponents of critical urban theory, who remain committed to a largely Marxist understanding of urbanization, as it has been developed since the early 1970s through the work of Lefebvre (2008 [1970]), Castells (1977), and Harvey (1973). This often-cited debate began with an article by Colin McFarlane (2011a), a British geographer who argued that the notion of assemblage could contribute to the critical study of cities, and illuminate potential avenues for creating progressive, if not radical, alternatives to current patterns of urbanization. In response, the prominent American urban theorist Neil Brenner and two of his associates argued that while the notion of assemblage is in fact useful methodologically, but that it is not suitable as an ontology for urban studies since it allegedly does not consider the central concepts of radical political economy (Brenner et al 2011a).

The debate continued over four issues of the journal and incorporated arguments from a wide range of thinkers (as well as further responses by the original discussants) who made their own cases for approaches that more or less corresponded to the positions taken by the opening dialogue. This chapter will, first, examine the concept of critical urban theory and, second, review the initial proposition for how an assemblage approach could augment it. Third, it will take stock of what Brenner and his associates consider to be the shortcomings of this approach, specifically with respect to their claim that it cannot serve as ontology for critical urban studies. Fourth, it will consider other relevant voices in this debate, and finally, it will begin to sketch out how a close reading of the two Capitalism and Schizophrenia collaborations between Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari can in fact provide an exceptionally robust ontological basis for critical urban studies.


Developing the Concept of “Critical Urban Theory”

Neil Brenner (2009, 198) asserts that the term “critical urban theory” is typically used in a descriptive fashion to characterize the work of leftist urban thinkers – specifically Henri Lefebvre and those working in his wake, such as David Harvey and Manuel Castells (Katznelson, 1993) – in the period after 1968. However, he also claims that it has determinate content and “emphasizes the politically and ideologically mediated, socially contested and therefore malleable character of urban space” (Brenner 2009, 198). Consequently, his conception of critical urban theory relies on reformulated elements from Frankfurt School critical theory to shape critiques of ideology, power, inequality, injustice and exploitation in the urban context. The addition of the urban here is Brenner’s key contribution because, as he notes, Walter Benjamin’s The Arcades Project (2002) was only work emerging from the Frankfurt school that specifically considered the city. In fact, this incorporation of the urban into social theory forms the infrastructure of much of Brenner’s recent work on “planetary urbanization” (2011, 2013a, 2013b), which draws on Lefebvre’s notion (2003) of the “urban revolution” – the tendency toward generalized urbanization of the world – to theoretically ground his claims that social theory and critical urban theory are becoming enmeshed to an even greater degree.

Although many other thinkers have contributed to the recent re-centering of critical urban theory (Brenner, Marcuse, and Mayer 2009, 2011; Marcuse 2009; Krätke 2010, 2012; Whitehead 2013), Brenner’s self-positioning as an arbiter of how it might be used, his argument for grounding it in a particular tradition of social thought, his direct engagement with attempts to bring assemblage thinking – “a particularly problematic tendency” (Brenner 2013b) – into urban theory make his account crucial for my argument, and therefore demands increased attention. In outlining his project, he makes four central propositions: first, critical theory is indeed theory, and is therefore “unapologetically abstract”:

“It is characterized by epistemological and philosophical reflections; the development of formal concepts, generalizations about historical trends; deductive and inductive modes of argumentation; and diverse forms of historical analysis. It may also build upon concrete research, that is upon an evidentiary basis, whether organized through traditional or critical methods” (Brenner 2009, 201).

Referencing Marcuse (1964), Brenner asserts that critical theory is therefore not a strategy for political action, but instead is an abstract and necessary moment that occurs before practical actions are proposed. Though it may go without saying, this entire call for abstraction is deeply Marxian, and can be traced to some methodological notes in the introduction to Grundrisse. Herein Marx notes that whenever “production” is discussed, his intended meaning is concrete and particular instances of production. Yet one can still take note of common aspects that extend over time. “Production in general,” he writes “is an abstraction, but a rational abstraction in so far as it really brings out and fixes the common element and thus saves us repetition” (Marx 1973, 85).

Second, critical theory is reflexive, in that it is a product of, and directed toward, specific sociohistorical circumstances. It therefore both rejects all claims of standing outside spatiotemporal context and focuses on how forms of consciousness, subjectivity, and knowledge can emerge in and against specific social configurations. Most importantly, the internal contradictions of capitalist society enable critique; without them, Brenner argues, critical consciousness would be unnecessary. Third, and drawing on Max Weber, critical theory rejects instrumental reason, or the use of means-end rationality that streamlines activity without an explicit interrogation of the ends. This orientation thus rejects technocratic visions of efficiency or apolitical engagement with the world, and demands explicit normative orientations in both practical and political registers.

Finally, critical theory focuses on the disjuncture between actual forms of oppression/domination and the underlying possibilities of emancipation. Combining the successes of postwar capitalist development and the Frankfurt School’s dismissal of a possible proletarian revolution, this orientation accounts for the pessimism that can be found in Horkheimer and Adorno’s work (cf. 2002). However, by turning to Marcuse’s insistence (1964) that the disjuncture between the actual and possible could only be overcome through concrete practice – therefore “sublating” or absorbing critical theory into practice – Brenner essentially reinforces critical theory’s diagnostic role outlined in his second proposition: “There is no theory that can overcome [the actual-possible] divide, because, by definition, it cannot be overcome theoretically; it can only be overcome in practice” (204).

In conclusion, Brenner notes that although practitioners of critical urban studies have drawn heavily on Marx, they have largely neglected the Frankfurt School’s contributions to critical thought.[1] With these four propositions, Brenner seeks to sketch a broad conception of critical urban theory that can guide further theoretical and empirical work that must be undertaken with a wide range of methods and objects. This is, he argues, not an attempt to install eternal laws, for critical theory’s focus on context and reflexivity demands adaptability. However, it is an argument for “a much more systematic integration of urban questions into the analytical framework of critical social theory as a whole” (Brenner 2009, 205). Acknowledging and endorsing Brenner’s assessment that the world is undergoing “planetary urbanization” (Brenner 2011, 2013), the present question then becomes, is the Frankfurt School really the preferred foundation for contemporary critical urban thought, to the exclusion of French post-structuralist theory?

Assemblage Urbanism as Critical Urban Theory?

Colin McFarlane has a similar question, but he asks it in a slightly different way: rather than challenging Brenner’s proposed foundation for critical urban theory – he explicitly says this is not his task – he seeks to explore how assemblage thinking “might connect, differ, and add to critical urbanism” (McFarlane 2011a, 204). He concedes that the notion of assemblage is “not very well elaborated in the social sciences,” yet instead of undertaking that project – and potentially revealing how fundamentally different it is from Brenner’s framework, while remaining perfectly capable of addressing critical political and economic issues – he presents a well-informed account of how assemblage thinking applies to various urban phenomena, such as human-nonhuman relationships between informal settlements and potable water. This sort of “assemblage-hunting”[2] is undeniably illuminating in that it shows the robustness of the concept for descriptive purposes but, as we will see, it nevertheless softens some of the critical edges fundamental to Deleuzoguattarian thinking. In this respect, its similarity and debt to Manuel DeLanda’s neo-Deleuzian “assemblage theory” (2006) is both evident and explicitly cited, even though McFarlane (2011a, 205) reminds his readers that “the notion of assemblage was always political.”[3] What I mean here, to be perfectly clear, is that these thinkers correctly see assemblages everywhere, but their explications largely lose sight of the fundamental relationship between free movement and organization that subtends Deleuze and Guattari’s entire collaborative enterprise. Indeed, as both McFarlane and DeLanda argue, assemblages constantly undergo a process of disassembly and reassembly (deterritorialization and (re)territorialization), but they place far too little stress on the fact that assemblages are, above all else, laid out by processes operating in the background by forces of organization.

To his credit, DeLanda (2006, 30) does mention the Deleuzoguattarian notion of the diagram, as “a set of universal singularities that would be the equivalent of a body-plan, or more precisely, that would structure the space of possibilities associated with the assemblage,” (my emphasis) but it is only mentioned four times in his book, and is never discussed as having much gravity.[4] In fact, DeLanda’s final mention of the diagram leads credence to Holland’s assertion in the epigram to this chapter that claims Deleuzoguattarian philosophy should be understood as being political first, rather than ontological.[5] DeLanda writes:

“Finally, the ontological status of assemblages is two-sided: as actual entities all the differently scaled social assemblages are individual singularities, but the possibilities open to them at any given time are constrained by a distribution of universal singularities, the diagram of the assemblage, which is not actual but virtual” (DeLanda 2006, 40).

The political dimension of the this struggle between possibility and constraint is unmistakable, and I would argue that by neglecting it, DeLanda’s momentous effort to show the flexibility of an assemblage-based social ontology is effectively neutered before the urbanists ever get to the operating room.[6]

But this is, unfortunately, not the only misstep from the political perspective. A central aspect of DeLanda’s project is showing how the concept of assemblage can be applied at a range of scales from the pre-individual to international scales, with a wide range of nested scales – including that of the neighborhood – in between. He is correct to assert that this configuration is not at all akin to a set of Russian dolls – wherein assemblages at each scale could fit neatly into the next broader scale – but that the heterogeneous terms of an assemblage crosscut multiple scales (DeLanda 2006, 33). One can indeed simultaneously be the member of a family, an organization, and the world market (sitting at the dining room table and using a laptop from the office to shop on Amazon?). However, as Ian Buchanan (2008, 92) argues, this argument for scaling up excises a critical aspect of Deleuzoguattarian thinking that directly relates to the opposition between freedom and organization: desire. Buchanan argues that DeLanda’s invocation of assemblage to describe relationships at increasingly broad scales conflates the difference in kind between unconscious flows of desire, and desire as organized in a regime of social production: the former is nothing but relationships of pure intensity – much like the abstract machine or diagram – while the latter is constituted by “relations of exteriority.” Consequently, desire as a potentially liberating force is removed for consideration.

As previously mentioned, McFarlane – following Tampio (2009) – asserts the political nature of assemblages in Deleuzoguattarian thought, but in his initial contribution to the debate, he makes no reference to the notion of a diagram structuring the space of possible connections, nor to the concept of desire, and therefore doubly misses the underlying political dimension of Deleuze and Guattari’s philosophy. Perhaps the most startling aspect of this omission is that Tampio’s entire argument focuses on the difference between his own and Hardt and Negri’s (2001, 2005) conceptions of Deleuzoguattarian political philosophy. For him, “the [political] left is an abstract machine [or diagram], an incorporeal power that pilots the formation of assemblages” (Tampio 2009, 393). Moreover, the resulting “[l]eft assemblages are semi-coherent political entities that express and work for the ideals of liberty and equality” (ibid., 394). Even with this as a source, McFarlane ends up in similar territory as DeLanda: focusing on the effect of political and economic forces rather than their actual engine and asymptotes. Why?

It is perhaps a strategic maneuver, for his goal is “to think through what might usefully emerge from bringing assemblage into the disparate debate around critical urbanism, that is, for thinking and acting towards a more socially just and ecologically sound urbanism” (McFarlane 2011a, 205). That is to stay, to start from the assemblages in which we are now enmeshed, and looking for a framework that helps conceptualize alternative paths of action. This is undeniably a refreshing goal, for it highlights the role of individual agency among urban citizens, but it nevertheless produces two problems, one theoretical and the other empirical. First, and most important for this chapter, it leaves assemblage approaches to urban theory open to critique by the likes of Brenner, for whom it (understandably) lacks a critical edge. By focusing on the responses to urban inequality – in Mumbai’s informal settlements, for example, where the author conducts his field work – and relegating the production of those problems to a few empirical details without arguing for how they are part of the fundamental nature of the philosophical framework in which he is working, McFarlane is essentially “asking for it,” as it were. Second, and most important for the project at hand, “a more socially just and ecologically sound urbanism” is being actualized in South Lake Union (SLU), and yet something is still tremendously lacking. There is a diagram, an abstract machine, at work in SLU, and it is generating assemblages. But considering these assemblages themselves is not enough; this dissertation is an attempt to understand what is missing, both theoretically and empirically, with a discussion on the political and capitalist dynamics constituting both the Deleuzoguattarian notion of the abstract machine in general, as well as the particular one generating SLU. But first a little more on the contemporary literature.

With respect to urbanism, assemblage thinking is taken up in a variety of registers, from a focus on a theory of place (Dovey 2010) to actor-network theory approaches (ANT) (Farías and Bender 2009), and to more content specific work on cyborg urbanism (Gandy 2005), the politics of urban socio-natural relations (Swynegedouw 2004, 2006), the historical geography of sanitation in colonial cities (McFarlane 2008), urban dwelling (McFarlane 2011b), and policy mobility (Allen and Cochrane 207, 2010; Ong 2007; Collier and Ong, 2005; McGuirk and Dowling 2009, McCann and Ward 2011). Dovey finds the notion of assemblage – as interpreted by DeLanda’s (2006) – to be a helpful way to envision the interactivity between the materiality of places and the accompanying sense of place, both of which are in constant flux (becoming). In his introductory essay, Farías (2009) argues that ANT actually does offer an alternative ontology for the “messy and elusive object” that we call the city, and outlines how urban space can be explained through a close examination of the concrete assemblages producing it.[7] Gandy (2005) also offers the cyborg – that is, “a hybrid creature composed of organism and machine” (Haraway 1985, 1) – as an “ontological strategy” for exploring the relationships between human and biophysical processes that enable everyday urban life. Swynegedouw (2006) proffers two historical materialist concepts – circulation and metabolism – as possible ways to analyze and radically politicize urban socio-natural relationships. McFarlane (2008) explores the social, natural, and technical relationships of sanitation in practical and discursive registers in Mumbai. Moreover, he elaborates (2011b) on connections between the sociomaterial assemblages constituting informal housing and the Heideggarian notion of dwelling as a practice. While assemblage thinking has contributed greatly to the discourses of policy mobility, we can turn to Ong (2007, 5) for a somewhat archetypal discussion, in which she argues that neoliberalism is better understood as an assemblage that is open to “the situated interplay of motion and contingency, of technology and ethics, of opportunity and risk” than as a hegemonic structure.

Clearly inspired by these approaches to assemblage in geography, McFarlane (2011a) proposes that assemblage thinking can contribute to critical urban theory in three ways. First, it serves a robust descriptive orientation that, via thick description[8], accounts for the historical dimensions of existing urban inequalities as well as potential directions that alternative urbanisms might take. McFarlane argues that “[a]ssemblage places emphasis on the depth and potentiality of urban sites, processes and actors in terms of their histories, the labor required to produce them and their inevitable capacity to exceed the sum of their connections” (ibid., 209). Crucially, he argues that assemblage thinking entails a concerted effort to avoid both essentialism and reductionism by focusing on the historically contingent processes that create assemblages (Delanda 2006; Dovey 2010, 16).[9] He draws a connection to critical urban theory, by arguing that this line of thinking is also “concerned with analyzing ‘the systemic, yet historically specific, intersections between capitalism and urbanization processes’ [and strives to] ‘demarcate and to politicize the strategically essential possibilities for more progressive, socially just, emancipatory, and sustainable formations of urban life’” (210, citing Brenner et al 2009, 179). McFarlane’s argument hinges on the productive nature of assemblage thinking – in contradiction to the primarily diagnostic orientation of critical urban theory – and he highlights two processes of reassembly as evidence: first, producing/assembling the common, which involves “bringing into imagination, debate and realization forms of thinking and doing that are resolutely held in common” (ibid., 212), and corresponds to both positive and negative aspects, such pluralistic spaces and pollution, respectively. Second, he asserts that assemblage thinking’s focus on potentiality fuels “generative critique,” which can be understood as new associations and connections that emerge from novel sociomaterial relationships.

Second, McFarlane sees assemblage thinking as a reconceptualization of agency, specifically in relation to assemblage’s focus on sociomaterial relationships. Borrowing Ignacio Farias’s (2009, 15) definition of agency as “an emergent capacity of assemblages,” he focuses not only on human agency, but the alleged “agency of the materials themselves” (215). Citing Bennett’s concept (2010) of ‘vital materialism’, McFarlane claims that materiality must be seen as a process that modifies relations between the humans and nonhuman elements of assemblages, as he has studied in depth in the informal settlements of Mumbai: in particular, he mentions the different lifespans of building materials and the potential for using different materials for resistance. This reconceptualization of materiality affects critical urban studies because illuminates how researchers must select methodologies that can account for nonhuman processes and requires consideration when tracking responsibility and causality in urban settings.

Third, the concept of assemblage as a collection of heterogeneous elements has many affinities with the idea of cosmopolitanism, and therefore using the former as an imaginary for urban relationships could potentially inform the political pursuit of a city where difference is central. Citing Henri Lefebvre’s concept of the right to the city, McFarlane (2011a, 220) points out how the affirmation “of both access to the city and active participation of a range of groups in the production of the city as a lived reality” that undergirds critical urban thought has strong resonances with assemblage thinking. Moreover, he links this inclusiveness back to the nonhuman elements of assemblages, thereby opening pathways for connecting critical urban thought with a wider range of political movements.

In sum, McFarlane’s article is in fact valuable because it brings a certain aspect of Deleuzoguattarian thought into conversations about urban studies. If we take it as exploratory rather than as a challenge, then it can be reads a pointing interested researcher in potentially profitable directions. However, as we will see, Brenner et al (2011a) are not particularly interested in this type of thought experiment, and neither am I.

The Fluctuating Borders of Critical Urban Theory

In their initial response to McFarlane, Brenner et al note (2011a, 228) that his account is only partially connected to Deleuze and Guattari, but rather than elaborating any such specific shortcomings with a more focused engagement with Deleuze and Guattari, they (understandably) bring the argument back to their own realm of Frankfurt School-inspired critical urban theory. They are indeed diplomatic when asserting that, in an era of planetary urbanization, “there is today a need for ambitious, wide-reaching engagements – theoretical, concrete and practical – with the planetary dimensions of contemporary urbanization across diverse places, territories and scales” but state plainly that their “own orientations for such a project diverge considerably from those that have to date been proposed by the major authors advancing this framework” (Brenner et al 2011a, 226-7). Above all, they “are concerned that McFarlane’s construction of an assemblage-theoretical urbanism remains too broadly framed, at times even indeterminate, to realize its proper analytical potential” (ibid., 229). Their specific critique of assemblage analysis focuses on two points: first, the status of capitalism and political economy therein; second, and more broadly, how assemblage thinking could contribute to critical urban theory. In sum, they are open to the notion of assemblages, as a method for understanding cities, but not as ontology for urban studies. This section will touch on their three primary critiques, McFarlane’s responses, and points from other authors responding to the debate and invested more or less in one side or the other. The following section will present a first pass at what I consider to be stronger responses to the critiques, and which will be elaborated throughout this dissertation.

The first critique by Brenner et al claims that even though McFarlane’s essay seeks to highlight ways in which assemblage can augment critical urban theory, it displaces “the key concepts and concerns of radical political economy – for instance, capital accumulation, class, property relations, land rent, exploitation, commodification, state power, territorial alliances, growth coalitions, structured coherence, uneven spatial development, spatial divisions of labor and crisis formation, among others” (Brenner et al 2011a, 230) More broadly they argue that other theorists of the assemblage persuasion are also confused with regard to how and if such concepts should even be used to explore the relationship between capitalism and urbanization. As far as I am concerned, this is a devastatingly accurate critique, and the only appropriate response is to engage this critique by returning to Deleuze and Guattari to show how it emerges from a misappropriation in the first place.

Through an extensive literature review, Brenner et al sort recent assemblage-based approaches into three articulations, highlighting the relation of each to urban political economy. At the empirical level, assemblages are used to describe particular research objects – such as technological networks or interconnected regimes of authority – that are analyzed using political-economic frameworks. The methodological level is also erected on a political-economic foundation, but extends and reformulates parts of it by investigating dimensions of capitalist urbanization that are typically neglected, such as flows of energy or people. Finally, the ontological level consists of work that seeks to displace the centrality of capitalism and political economy. They endorse contributions to critical urban theory from the first two categories, but remain skeptical of assemblage urbanism at the ontological level. Their skepticism is indeed warranted, given the attempts the research to which they have been exposed, yet the fact remains that none of these conceptualizations expresses the underlying political dimensions of Deleuzoguattarian thought, for the Capitalism and Schizophrenia project is committed to assessing the relationships between capitalist society and a variety of modes of subjugation within it.

The second critique argues that assemblage urbanism as ontology focuses too much on description and rejects structure to a point that it deprives itself of key tools for “understanding the sociospatial, political-economic, and institutional contexts in which urban spaces and locally embedded social forces are positioned” (Brenner et al 2009, 233). Moreover, they claim it is unable to determine which actants are relevant, due to its ontological flattening, or what they term “naïve objectivism,” following Sayer (1992, 45). Powerfully critiquing McFarlane’s assertion that agency is demonstrated by the inhabitants of informal housing settlements in Mumbai who cobble together dwellings from materials at hand, Brenner et al (2011a, 234) assert that his approach “leaves underspecified the question of what historical geographies of land ownership, deprivation and struggle generated and entrenched the unequal distribution of resources and the precarious life-conditions in the areas under discussion.” They drive this point home by noting, “without a sustained account of this context of context, the analysis remains radically incomplete” (ibid., 234).[10]

The third critique proceeds by interrogating McFarlane’s conception of the actual and the possible as they relate to assemblage and comparing it to Frankfurt School critical theory. Brenner at al claim that in assemblage, potentiality is an exteriority, even though McFarlane (2011a, 209) is explicitly “referring both the intensity and excessiveness of the moment – the capacity of events to disrupt patterns, generate new encounters with people and objects, and invent new connections and ways of inhabiting everyday life – and to the potential of urban histories and everyday life to be imagined and put to work differently.” Moreover, he specifically refers to the dual nature of assemblage as actual and emergent. Nevertheless, the critique asserts that in assemblage, admittedly fruitful alternatives such as the right to the city, the common, and cosmopolitanism are described without reference to particular sociospatial circumstances. In contradistinction, critical theory argues that historically specific structures produce both determinate constraints and openings for social transformations, thereby resulting not in external or normative critiques, but rather immanent critique that gestate within the womb of dominant structures. Finally, Brenner et al claim that the “ontological forms of assemblage thinking are not well equipped to identify the specific human agents and social forces that might engage in the process of social transformation” (236). I concur absolutely with this statement but would counter that this should not be seen as a problem, as I will demonstrate below.

In his subsequent response – which was published alongside a handful of other contributions to the debate that will be referenced as appropriate herein – McFarlane (2011c) reiterates his claim that his exploration of assemblage was not intended to displace critical urban theory, but rather to augment it. This, again, is a missed opportunity to seriously engage Deleuze and Guattari and demonstrate how their ontology is incredibly well suited for urban studies, though certainly not without augmentation by, for example, Foucauldian methodology and the long history of critical research on cities. So, while McFarlane (2011c, 377) asserts that his “concern was no more than to consider what an assemblage might offer, not to argue that assemblage should become the ‘foundation of contemporary critical urban theory’ (Brenner et al, 2011, 225) that must exclude other approaches and histories in urban studies,” I assert that properly Deleuzoguattarian thought could indeed become the foundation of critical urban theory, but that it must include other approaches and histories in urban theory.

Nevertheless, McFarlane (2011c, 377) reasserts that two primary goals constituted his attempt to “signal an ontology of sociomaterial composition and potential transformation in deeply unequal conditions”: first, highlighting the sociomateriality of assemblages and the distributed agency therein; and second, stressing that assemblage is both a dynamic process that draws on multiple histories and processes and a particular type of research object. From this point, he concedes that his initial contribution did not address political economy and continues to elaborate what he considers to be a different approach to it than the critical urban theorists offer by asking two questions: first, how is assemblage oriented toward capital, value, and work? Second, how can assemblage contribute to ideas like urban policy mobility?

Rather than returning to Capitalism and Schizophrenia to show how the dynamic forces of politics and capitalism play a fundamental role in the constitution of assemblages, McFarlane opts to invoke a description of capitalism by Vinay Gidwani (2008).[11] Through Gidwani, he explains that rethinking the “ontology of capital” necessitates reconceptualizing value production as a sociomaterial process that constantly experiences phases of assembly and disassembly. Such an understanding of capitalism indeed exposes the “multiple logics that interact with one another and are entangled in and entrench social hierarchies” (McFarlane 2011, 378), but McFarlane’s evangelical commitment to thick description only illustrates half of the picture. We are left with an image of how capitalism operates in the Indian state of Gujarat, but the nature of capitalism itself, as Deleuze and Guattari explain in it through a broad engagement with its historical relationship to social organization, is missing and therefore still fails to accede to sufficiently general level to be taken seriously as ontology.

In his discussion of policy mobility, McFarlane asserts that assemblage can help explain why neoliberalism should be seen as a contingent set emergent logics rather than an all-encompassing hegemonic force that drives urban planning and policy. Drawing primarily on Ong (2007) and Prince (2010), he asserts that neoliberalism is “migratory technology of governing” that emerges asymmetrically in relation to particular local contingencies, practicalities, and political rationalities, not to mention unexpected events, failures in implementation, and subsequent reconfigurations. Approaching a more Deleuzoguattarian understanding of assemblages, McFarlane argues that his research approach would both invoke the ANT method of following the actors and study particular sites in an effort to excavate “the differential capacities of changing interactions to act in and reshape the urban world” (380). While this is an undoubtedly reasonable use of the concept of assemblage, it still neglects the perpetual struggle between capitalism and the State that, in Deleuze and Guattari’s universal history, has always been a constitutive element of the social field: codes that will be decoded via capitalism were invented in “primitive” society while the State that it warded off will ultimately come to be a “model of realization” for capitalism itself.[12]

McFarlane also addresses the critique that his account of assemblage seeks to eradicate the structures that form sociospatial, political-economic, and institutional contexts – or “context of contexts” – that underlie critical urban thought by proffering four principles that assemblage thinking provides. First, he argues that assemblages are historically constituted and contain multiple potentials to rework the present state of affairs, and that their “relations of exteriority” can accommodate new elements or eschew old ones. Second, he confirms that assemblages are indeed structured, but that their disavowal of a priori loci of power does not preclude the ability to account for existing power differentials. Third, assemblage is attuned to the seemingly minor occurrences that occur “on the ground” and sees these as indications of possibilities for alternatives, rather than immediately jumping to predefined analytical frameworks that seek to explain macro-level phenomena. Fourth, assemblage complicates the relationship between particular sites and wider contexts. Drawing on Law (2004) and Deleuze (1998), he argues that details are in fact central and that they constitute large-scale processes, rather than vice-versa, and that causality should therefore be sought within particular assemblages rather than at a broader scale. McFarlane’s intent is clear: in contradistinction to the critical urban theorists, he is not satisfied with explanations for urbanization that are located in pre-established concepts but rather seeks to highlight specific instances of emergence. In sum, he argues, assemblage thinking demands more incisive inquiry into the forces shaping the context of contexts.

Yet these responses are still ultimately unsatisfying. In elaborating his second point about assemblages being structured, he gestures toward several institutions that lay out the assemblages he researches – the World Bank, for example, which is a central feature of his empirically rich work on informal settlements in Mumbai (McFarlane 2008) – but again misses the opportunity to emphasize the theoretical importance of the diagram, as well as the way in which all institutions – including the State – are transformed into models of realization for capital accumulation under the axiomatic. This is undeniably complex terrain and, again, and the author regularly manages to convey half of the story, as evidenced by his summary claim that

“assemblage thinking locates causality not in wider or underlying contexts, but within particular contexts. Assemblage thinking positions causality as immanent causality. Causes take place within the assemblage, not above it (which does not mean that hierarchies and structures cannot be produced through assemblages)” (McFarlane 2011b, 383).

But half correct is not enough, especially when there are barbarians at the gate. The fact is that “causality” in Deleuzian thought must be understood as both a result of actual historical events and as limited by a set of virtual potentials. It is the diagram, the abstract machine, that is this field of potentiality and which is both always in an assemblage and constitutes its outside.[13] That this element goes completely unmentioned helps explain why McFarlane is so invested in describing the material elements of assemblages and noting there uses and potentials rather than exploring the fundamental political and economic forces defining the general parameters of their constitution.

Finally, the conclusion of McFarlane’s paper is a response directed to his critics’ assertion that his original paper frames assemblage analysis too broadly: rather than clamping down on a proper way to think about assemblages, McFarlane argues that diverse points of view should be maintained. While I concur with this sentiment and recognize the contributions proffered by the wide range of thinkers he mentions, I nevertheless believe that if we are discussing an ontology for urban studies based on assemblage – which is, to be sure, the direction that the initial essay by Brenner et al (2011a) profitably steered the discussion – we should have a full understanding of the context in which this concept emerged. By relying on DeLanda’s development of assemblage theory and plumbing Deleuze’s published dialogues with Claire Parnet for a general definition (McFarlane, 2011b, 651), rather than proceeding through Deleuze’s work in Difference and Repetition,[14] the two books coauthored with Guattari before A Thousand Plateaus – or even engaging in depth with intricacies of assemblage therein – McFarlane’s account of assemblage, as strong as it is, leaves much to be explored. In particular, two specific points must be understood: first, the fundamental relationship between capitalism and politics that traverses the entire social field, serving as the “context of context” in which particular diagrams or abstract machines that lay out assemblages emerge; second, the constitution of these particular diagrams or abstract machines. But before outlining these points, we should first address the other voices in this particular debate, to see if they can offer any more insight.

Other voices

Ignacio Farías’s (2011) contribution to this dialogue is significant for two reasons: first, he is one of the primary advocates of actor-network theory (ANT) in urban studies and, as such, he actively promotes an alternative ontology to urban studies. In his introductory essay to the volume he coedited with Thomas Bender, he argues that their book “engages in a much needed exploration in urban studies beyond the strong structuralist programme still informing the largest portions of the field” (Farías 2009, 1). He accurately argues that the most recent conceptual innovation in urban studies was the turn to Marxist political economy in the 1970s (cf. Harvey 1973), and that a move to an ontology founded in ANT provides “an immense ethnographic accuracy and analytical sophistication to follow and conceptualize objects” (ibid., 8). Second, and perhaps most interesting for this discussion, Farías’s ideas about an assemblage based ontology appear to be the only attempts that Brenner – both writing alone and with coauthors – seems to take seriously. This strand of assemblage urbanism shares with McFarlane the influence of DeLanda (2006), but also draws heavily on Bruno Latour’s oeuvre (cf. Latour 2005). Consequently, it is heavily invested in the empirical, and devoted to three methodological principles: “‘follow the actors, forget the contexts’, ‘describe, don’t explain’ and ‘do not switch conceptual repertoires when you describe’” (Farías 2011, 367). This orientation constitutes the first distinction that Farías draws between his version of assemblage urbanism and critical urban theory: a focus on inquiry into actual relationships rather than critique founded on a set of political economic concepts that allegedly access the truth of urbanization. The resulting “open and explorative engagement with the urban” (ibid., 366) does not stand directly opposed to critique as such, but is indeed antagonistic toward “a version of critique that is committed to theory rather than to the empirical” (ibid., 367).

As in my critique of McFarlane’s mobilization of assemblage, I would argue that this turn toward the empirical expresses a reductionist understanding of how the production of urban space might be understood via Deleuze and Guattari. On the one hand, and in line with the critiques of “naïve objectivism” leveled by Brenner et al (2011a, 233), this seemingly reduces Deleuzoguattarian thought to methodology, as if to say, “the world is rhizomes, follow these connections.” On the other hand, Farías obviates this vulgar interpretation by asserting that ANT “offers a theory about how to conduct inquiries and how to elaborate concepts” (op cit, 367). Nevertheless, his undeniably correct assertion (ibid., 366) that “it is impossible to know in advance the definitive list of human an nonhuman actors involved, affected or concerned, the scope of their networks or their actual relationships,” does not mean that we should neglect the relationships which are obviously involved, namely the political economic relations subtending all urbanization. The specific differences between how urbanization unfolds must be accounted for in empirical details under the conditions set by global capitalism, and the aforementioned Deleuzoguttarian notions of models of realization and the global capitalist axiomatic are perfectly equipped to do this.

This insistence on the global capitalist axiomatic troubles Farías’s second distinction between ANT and critical urban theory, which is based on the “central question” of “whether we study cities as an instance of something else, of capitalism in this case, or we engage in an inquiry into the city and urbanization as a positive, actual and self-entitled process” (ibid., 368). Farías asserts that the notion of urban assemblages is oriented toward the latter, but the fact is that Deleuzoguattarian philosophy has no use for this artificial dichotomy. Instead, the global capitalist axiomatic is the virtual condition out of which all contemporary urbanization occurs. Speaking like Deleuze, we could perhaps say that capital is a mole moving through the underground network of its multiple hole: each penetration to the surface would be another actualization of urbanization and the qualities of the specific hole would correspond to the characteristics of the specific models of realization at work.[16] Plenty of theoretical space remains for investigating specific empirical relationships and processes, but these dynamics must be seen as the specific local conditions actualizing the general movements of capital.

This leads directly to Farías’s third assertion: the city should not be understood as whole which is structured by capitalist political economy but should rather be seen as an assemblage of heterogeneous processes. Again, for Deleuzoguattarian thought, this duality is altogether unnecessary: capitalist political economy belongs to the global capitalist axiomatic and the heterogeneous processes should be understood as diverse models of realization. Yet Farías’s assertions (ibid., 369) that “the notion of assemblage involves no outside, no exteriority” and “assemblages are self-contained processes of heterogeneous associations calling for a positive description of their becoming, not external explanations” demand further attention. Similar to McFarlane (2011a, 2011b), this understanding of assemblages obfuscates both their structuring and Deleuze and Guattari’s conceptual apparatus that defines the diagram or abstract machine as the “quasi-causal operator” – the limited field of potentiality – that forms the outside of the strata.[17] For Farías, the concept of assemblage is powerful because it helps account for spatial formation and reformation, as well as highlighting the agency of actors contributing to these processes. This is all well and good, for one of an assemblage’s two axes is indeed oriented toward the strata or fixity, while the other is oriented toward novelty and innovation. However, as we turn to his fourth argument, we will see that this accuracy nevertheless only addresses part of an assemblage’s overall conceptualization.

Fourth, Farías argues that the agentic side of an assemblage – the deterritorializing edge in Deleuze and Guattari’s vocabulary – should be seen not as the location of imminent revolutionary theory and praxis, but rather as the stage for “ a redefinition of democracy toward participatory practices” (ibid., 371). This is indeed a powerful way of framing the political potential of assemblages, and it jibes with Tampio’s (2009) remarkable conception of left assemblages, yet it ultimately remains situated within a reductionist understanding of assemblages themselves. Drawing on science and technology studies (STS) literature, Farías (ibid., 371) argues that democratization requires “introducing objects, natures and nonhumans into (urban) politics.” This assertion is welcome – encouraged even – but the real problem emerges when these material objects come to supplant the discursive: “Urban politics is thus not about subjects, subjectivities or discourses, but about things, complex entangled objects, socio-material interminglings” (ibid). Here Farías eradicates the second axis of Deleuzoguattarian assemblages, which is constituted by both material bodies and expression: on the one hand, there are “machinic assemblages of bodies”; on the other there are “collective assemblages of enunciation” (Deleuze and Guattari 1986, 1987). These are irreducible to one another and by neglecting this aspect of assemblages, Farías is presenting a decidedly reductionist reading of the concept.

Michele Acuto (2011, 552), however, presents a more incisive account of the critical potential of ANT in her argument that “assemblage approaches can provide crosscutting explanatory tools to understand the linkages between contemporary metropolises and global affairs and grasp the multi-scalar reconfigurations of our time.” Although her embrace of ANT means that she falls victim to the same reductionist interpretations of Deleuze and Guattari as Farías, her serious consideration of the critique by Brenner et al and her subsequent discussion ANT’s capacities makes her project similar to my own. In particular, she notes that “the core tenet of actor-network analysis remains, albeit at times implicitly, focused on power relations” (ibid., 556), which it uncovers by focusing on “black boxes” that obfuscate the functioning of certain parts of networks. The question becomes, then, one of determining which actants are contributing to this arrangement. This orientation represents an altogether different – and more critical – perspective that McFarlane or Farías, both of whom “see agency everywhere” at the expense of thoroughly considering structuration (Tonkiss 2011, 584). Acuto (op cit, 556) concedes that ANT analyses “tend to loose [sic] sight of their key theoretical advantages in terms of capacity to deconstruct spatial dynamics and to highlight the politics inherent in these” but asserts that this flaw is to be attributed to the theorists rather than the theory itself. Yet her description of ANT’s capacity to uncover these power relationships is nevertheless compelling.

Building on her opening assertion that the tripartite division that Brenner et al make between empirical, methodological, and ontological invocations of assemblage mistakenly renders these dimensions as separate, she proceeds by showing how one can “build up” to the ontological level through positive analysis. First, she argues that ANT’s detailed empiricism provides “in-depth readings” of the relationships between actors and processes. Second, in terms of methodology, she argues that investigating these relationships reveals power differentials that make certain relationships possible. Third, “the politics-savvy ANT analyst finds not only a multiplicity of actants…but also bargaining, delegations and hierarchies that more generally constitute the structuration of the previous level of agency” (ibid, 558, my emphasis). One problem with this approach is explicitly noted by the author: namely, that ANT analyses are often bereft of serious critical engagement with power and politics. Conversely, by putting these aspects first, as would a Deleuzoguattarian approach, criticality becomes a constitutive element of the analysis rather than a consequence of a properly conducted research program. This is ultimately a matter of perspective, but is not this exactly what is at stake when the topic at hand is laying out an appropriate ontology for critical urban studies?

Before turning to the final exchange between the original interlocutors, we should note how the most radically politicized account of assemblage in this debate is presented. Russell et al (2011, 577) are specifically focused on “the relevance of assemblage theory and related concepts for contemporary strategic action by those involved in social change activities broadly defined as anti-authoritarian/anti-capitalist.” This is, to be sure, a project altogether different from the original exploration of how assemblage thinking might contribute to critical urban theory, but there are nevertheless points of contact as well as commentary on what is missing in McFarlane’s accounts (2011a, 2011b). In particular, they are heavily invested in Hardt and Negri’s (2009) concept of the metropolis as “both the ultimate nodal point in the organization and governance of neoliberal capital, [and] the ultimate site for resistance and struggle, and articulating and circulating alternatives through the productive capacities of the multitude” (Russell et all 2011, 581).[18]

With respect to the specific issue of Deleuzoguattarian thought as ontology for urban studies, they make two assertions that resonate with my own perspective on the entire assemblage urbanism discussion. First, they assert that “[a]ssemblages are not political in and of themselves; it was what puts them in movement, what composes them or decomposes them that is the object of the political” (ibid., 580). While I would contend that the very nature of assemblages as having both a territorialized side and a deterritorializing edge in fact makes assemblages political in and of themselves, their claim that the political object is “what composes or decomposes” assemblages rings true. And although they do not invoke the Deleuzoguattarian notions of the diagram (abstract machine) or the political economic relations of the global capitalist axiomatic, these authors have pinpointed the precise location of the critical capacity of this philosophical orientation. Second, they reinforce this orientation by asserting that they are “not even interested in assemblages per se, but rather the forces of composition and de-composition that form them” (ibid., 581). Whereas their particular focus is on the latter in the form of “attempts to creative alternative commons in terms of open source web applications and site [sic], patents and knowledge banks, repertories of social movement organizing the at increase our ability to be ‘in common” (ibid.), my focus herein is on the forces of composition as they are playing out in the redevelopment of SLU.

Final Exchange

The final exchange between McFarlane (2011c) and Brenner et al – a writing assemblage which has been transformed to Wachsmuth et al (2011) as one of the secondary authors takes the helm – wraps up the debate, although as Swanton’s editorial (2011, 729) preceding it asserts, the “comments do not offer any closure or easy consensus about what assemblage thinking might contribute to critical urbanism [but] leave a renewed sense that something of considerable importance is at stake in this discussion.” Neither paper strays far from its initial stance but a few refinements emerge that are worth noting.

McFarlane’s contribution covers three central topics: first, following Simone’s (2011) contribution to the debate, he notes that assemblage is uniquely positioned to grasp urban life in a way that is unavailable to Brenner’s (2009) rendering of critical urban theory. Thus McFarlane (2011c, 732-3) reinforces his argument that the empirical focus on assemblage reveals

“the possibilities of contexts to be materially made in different ways, and to be expressed by different groups in a range of sociomaterial alignments through the diverse uses and imaginaries of urban sites, objects, institutions and networks.”

To elaborate on this point, he makes two other assertions that gesture toward what I insist has been missing throughout the debate, and which I will elaborate in throughout this dissertation. First, he notes that “different and sometimes unexpected openings and closures are made by various ‘abstract machines’ that codify and unfold within contexts in different way” (McFarlane 2011c, 733). Although he does not elaborate on the centrality of this concept for laying out assemblages, its appearance is reassuring for the debate, and marks one point of contact between my dissertation and this debate. Second, McFarlane (ibid.) suggests that he grasps the notion of the global capitalist axiomatic when he writes that since “the strategies and processes of capitalism…require, constitute and generate multiples [sic] sites across and beyond cities, urban life cannot be understood as external to variegated capitalisms.” Even more telling is his suggestion that “capitalist relations of power, oppression and exclusion occur through processes that enroll a long chain of actors and sites that do not just impact but become realized in everyday urbanisms” (ibid., my emphasis). The relationship between the worldwide flows of capitalism and the various models of realization is, consequently, the second point of contact between this debate and my own work.

The next two topics that McFarlane addresses are less central but will be included here for the sake of completeness. The second aspect he addresses is the critique of the notion of thick description that are central to his rendering of assemblage (Rankin 2011, Tonkiss 2011). In response to the charge that descriptions do not speak for themselves, he argues that description is in fact a constitutive element of explanation, and involves critical evaluation. Moreover, he reasserts his claim that his discussion of assemblage thinking was never meant to replace critical urban theory but was rather to augment it. Third, and following two other contributions to the debate (Rankin 2011, Russell et al 2011), he stresses that assemblage thinking helps theorists consider how solidarities can be formed between heterogeneous actors in pursuit of constructing the “radical urban commons” (Swanton 2011, 728). Central to this idea is, again, an embrace of mess and uncertain interactions that create the conditions for the emergence of a new, radical form of urban sociality.

In their final rejoinder, Wachsmuth et al (2011, 740) seek to “clarify [their] meta-theoretical stance, address several methodological questions and reiterate [their] arguments regarding a reinvigorated geopolitical economy of planetary urbanization.” This mission is situated in relation to another claim they make that has direct impact on the research at hand: “[t]heoretical, conceptual and methodological choices must be framed in relation to concrete explanatory and interpretive dilemmas, not ontological foundations” (ibid.). In a way, this feels somewhat like a “switcheroo,” since these authors are indeed the ones that oriented the debate toward ontological foundations, but it nevertheless is an important point, and I will take it as axiomatic for the way in which I seek to argue for a Deleuzoguattarian ontology for urban studies in general and SLU in particular. In any case, for Wachsmuth et al (ibid., 741), planetary urbanization is the concrete process that demands a “reinvent[ed] conceptual apparatus of urban studies,” while my attention is piqued by a local form of urbanization that combines liberal progressive moral imperatives and the drive for capital accumulation.

Their first critique – and one with which I sympathize – is that the hodgepodge of “assemblage urbanists” has not “yet attained a level of definitional or methodological coherence, or substantive focus, which could justify their classification under either of these rubrics,” (Wachsmuth 2011, 743) let alone that of ontology. This confusion on the side of those invoking assemblage purportedly leads either naïve objectivism or a haphazard definition of which elements constituting an assemblage are worthy of analysis (cf. Tonkiss 2011). In short, “the specificity of assemblage-based analyses cannot be delineated coherently in terms of their supposed commitment to empirical investigation and concrete description alone” (Wachsmuth et al 2011, 744). In contrast, they assert that assemblage theorists would do well to systematically articulate their basic theoretical agendas and normative-political orientations – an argument that both resembles Acuto’s (2011) observation that shortcomings in ANT analyses should be attributed not to the theory but to the practitioners, and fuels the strong sympathy that Wachsmuth et al have for Farías’s attempts to theorize an ANT-based ontology for urban studies. This sympathy, however, is accompanied by a powerful assertion that I consider to be a complete misunderstanding of the capacity of Deleuzoguattarian thought, even though it seems to hold for the account of assemblage as it has unfolded thus far: “It is logically impossible, from our point of view, to simultaneously endorse a strong, ontologically inflected version of assemblage analysis and a robust version of critical geopolitical economy” (Wachsmuth et al 2011, 745). Challenging this assertion is one of the primary goals of this dissertation.

The second critique concerns how the assemblage approach understands the city to be so complex that it can only be described, rather than grasped through critical concepts. In the view of Wachsmuth et al, abstraction and concept building is required to make sense of how urbanization unfolds. They do not doubt the complexity of the city, but instead take issue with analyses that seek to describe portions of this complexity instead of explaining its production. They ask, pointedly, “Why should unruly research objects require unruly analyses?” (ibid., 747). Again, I am sympathetic to this critique of assemblage urbanism in its current state, but take issue with it as related to the capacities of Deleuzoguattarian philosophy. For as Deleuze and Guattari (1995, 2) note in their final collaboration, “philosophy is the art of forming, inventing, and fabricating concepts.” This entire book, What is Philosophy?, is an exegesis on the difference between philosophical inquiry, scientific investigation, and artistic practice, and demonstrates how Deleuze and Guattari understand the process of creating concepts. Although there is little practical difference between the approaches of Wachsmuth et al and what I will build based on Deleuze and Guattari, there is one crucial theoretical difference between how the nature of the concept is understood. On the one hand, Wachsmuth et al (2011, 747) assert that “some form of abstraction is a necessary moment within any critically reflexive (rather than simply everyday) form of sociohistorical knowledge.” Deleuze and Guattari, on the other hand, are adamant in their position that concepts are not abstract at all, but are instead “concrete assemblage” which are in the virtual realm of ideas “without being abstract” (cf. Deleuze and Guattari 1995, 22, 36). Put another way, they understand concepts to be “real,” but not in the sense that they are just laying around.[19] Nevertheless, the point here is that the act of creating concepts is central to Deleuzoguattarian thought, while description of all varieties is not.

With these various movements in the discussion of assemblage thinking and critical urban theory it should be clear that while I am sympathetic to the attempts to mobilize the former, I am even more moved by Brenner’s two coauthored challenges to its legitimacy – as presented – as a potential foundation for critical urbanism. However, I believe that Deleuzoguattarian philosophy in a broader sense – that is, not as rerouted through DeLanda’s assemblage theory or any variety of ANT – is perfectly capable of underlying critical urban theory. Moreover, its capability to engage with everything from the flows of pre-individual desire to the relationship between politics and globalized capitalism – the global capitalist axiomatic – makes this approach especially powerful for investigating the consciously capitalist form of urbanism arising in SLU.

Outline for a New Intervention

In lieu of trying to “reform” the work that has been done on assemblage urbanism, this dissertation will strive to show how elements of Deleuzoguattarian philosophy that have been neglected can be mobilized to address the critiques of Brenner et al. Although this could be undertaken in a purely theoretical argument, I will instead rely heavily on the redevelopment of the South Lake Union (SLU) neighborhood as an example to illustrate these points. The primary goal is to show that this approach can not only serve as ontology for urban studies, but that it can do so in a way that does not require recourse to execrable concepts, such as ideology. This neighborhood is being redeveloped with a set of moral values and, concomitantly, and ethic that in no way seek to mask the developer’s drive for capital accumulation. A Deleuzoguattarian approach to urban studies is uniquely positioned to both account for how this sort of compatibility arises and how the ethical dimension – now that it is becoming central to urbanization – might possibly lead to further urban inequality or orient us toward more joyous and life-affirming futures. In sum, it aims to both replace the current conception of critical urban theory with a new philosophical framework, absorb its tools for analyzing the political economy of cities, and install a value critique that reaches beyond political economy.

This is undeniably a tall order but as Deleuze and Guattari (1994, 82) assert, things that are Interesting, Remarkable, or Important demand philosophical engagement. Moreover, Eugene Holland (2011, xv) notes that historical occurrences which are Problematic or Intolerable frequently spur philosophical thought. In the present context, there are two elements that fall on to the spectrum bound by these two types of catalysis. On the one hand, there is the reductionist reading of Deleuze and Guattari by the assemblage urbanists, which leaves this type of analysis open to incisive critique. On the other hand, there is the emerging urban form and attendant discourse about how to build cities of the future. I would hesitate to claim that the bulk of what I will be undertaking herein is philosophical inquiry – for it is really mostly matter of clarifying philosophy that has inspired me – but I maintain hope that by the end of this dissertation, I will have introduced a new domain of Problems into the relationship between capitalism and urbanization.

Broadly, the first aspect of the critique of assemblage urbanism that must be addressed is its alleged descriptive focus that displaces structure. Brenner et al (2011a, 233) write:

In explicitly rejecting concepts of structure as remnants of an outdated model of social science explanation (or in simply ignoring such concepts), ontological approaches to assemblage analysis deprive themselves of a key explanatory tool for understanding the sociospatial, political-economic and institutional contexts in which urban spaces and locally embedded social forces are positioned.

The fact of the matter is that Deleuzoguattarian thought does not simply reject structure once and for all, but instead argues for a temporality that frees analysis from the stranglehold of structure, and focuses instead on the production of temporary assemblages or arrangements. Before ever meeting Deleuze, Guattari was inspired by his work in Difference and Repetition (1994 [1968]) and The Logic of Sense (1990 [1969]), and used it to help formulate his own idea of machines. In his essay “Machine and Structure,” Guattari (1984 [1969]) explicitly reworks Deleuze’s definition of structure to conceive of machines as a way out of the structuralism dominating theoretical work in his own professional realm of psychoanalysis (cf. Dosse 2011, 39). Discussing the construction of sense (meaning), in Lewis Carroll’s writing, Deleuze (1990, 50-1) lays out three essential attributes of structure:

1) There must be at least two heterogeneous series, one of which shall be determined as ‘signifying’ and the other as ‘signified’ (a single series never suffices to form a structure).

2) Each of these series is constituted by terms which only exist through the relations they maintain with one another.

3) The two heterogeneous series converge toward a paradoxical element, which is their ‘differentiator.’ This is the principle of the emission of singularities. This element belongs to no series; or rather it belongs to both series at once and never ceases to circulate through them.

From these three attributes of structure, Guattari redefines the first two as structure, and posits the third as the machine. In this paper, he is specifically addressing historical events that restructure the world of social production, and consequently demand that a new type of subjectivity emerge. Therefore, Guattari expands the two interacting series that Deleuze discusses in relation to semiotics to encompass other elements – a procedure that both underlies the birth of structuralism, in the case of Lévi-Strauss adopting Saussurean linguistics to explain social relationships in primitive societies, as well as the “double articulation” of content and expression that Deleuze and Guattari (1987, 39-74) construct out of Hjelmslevian linguistics. This development by Guattari ultimately “provided Deleuze with a possible way out of structuralist thinking” (Dosse 2011, 11) and their subsequent work can benefit us in the same way.

For the argument at hand this notion is crucial because it demonstrates that both the radical concepts of political economy that are missing from assemblage approaches to urbanism can in fact occupy a place “beneath” or “behind” the assemblages themselves, in the diagrams or abstract machines that direct their formation. This is to heed the assertion by Brenner et al (2011a, 236) that “it is essential to explore who (or what, as the case may be) is doing the structuring to whom.” Moreover, the entire framework for discourses of new urbanism and conscious capitalism also finds a place in this realm, for the adoption and codification of these tenets defines the range of possibilities for the actualization of the SLU assemblage. Of course, these machines do not operate in a vacuum; conversely, they are enmeshed in what Brenner et al refer to as the context of context.

Brenner, Peck, and Theodore (2010, 207) first invoke this notion in their attempt to ground the “rascal concept” of neoliberalism in its internal variegation: “Our approach, rooted in geographical political economy, entails positioning the problematic of variegation, or systemically produced geoinstitutional differentiation, at the heart of a reformulated conception of neoliberalization.” The authors make their case for variegation through a discussion of three other attempts to theorize neoliberalism – neoliberalism as a national regime type, a global disciplinary regime, and translocal technology of rule – the last of which corresponds to Foucauldian governmentality approaches. This paper will be discussed in greater detail in Chapter 4, but here it is important to note that the context of context is mobilized specifically to critique the governmentality studies of neoliberalism, which – in true Foucauldian fashion – focus on the discursive and nondiscursive micropractices of neoliberalism rather than any centralized rationality. It is this descriptive focus on the unique instantiations of neoliberal practices to the exclusion of considering “the conditions of production of the unevenly developed institutional landscapes in and through which neoliberalizing regulatory experiments are articulated” (Brenner et al 2010, 202) that attracts criticism. For the latter, “is the context of context – specifically, the evolving macrospatial frameworks and interspatial circulatory systems in which local regulatory projects unfold” (ibid).

This critique indeed applies to the cited theorizations of neoliberalism (i.e. Collier and Ong 2005; Ong 2006, 2007) but I would argue there is indeed a blind spot for both the subjects and objects of this criticism, when it comes to how a Deleuzoguattarian formulation of neoliberalism would appear. Specifically, I am referring to the perpetual struggle between capitalism and the State that emerges from their discussion of the relationship between the war machine and the State apparatus. (Deleuze and Guattari 1987). Briefly, the State is understood as constituting interiority through its twin functions of binding and organizing, while the war machine is a “pure exteriority” that is constantly warding off the State. Despite these differences in nature, the State can indeed capture the war machine as an army, and direct it toward political ends. However, the war machine can also come to dominate the State (while still working in conjunction with it) as it has done in the form of what Deleuze and Guattari call the “global capitalist axiomatic.” In this arrangement, the movement of capital and pursuit of surplus value becomes primary, and the State is reduced to assisting in these capitalist endeavors. This conceptualization is simultaneously perfectly compatible with, and more general than, the analysis that Brenner et al (2010) provide, and perfectly capable of integrating a wide variety of political impulses beyond those of mere capitalist accumulation. This global capitalist axiomatic – or what Brenner and his various coauthors call the context of context – proceeds by way of political and economic experimentation, and is therefore, by nature, uneven, additive, and dynamic. Moreover, it is the global condition under which the abstract machines (diagrams) lay out the assemblages and limit their potential. In short, it constitutes the political and theoretical basis of what has come to be known as assemblage theory, and is therefore crucial to arguing for Deleuzoguattarian thought as ontology for urban studies.

[1] This dissertation essentially makes the a similar argument but replaces the Frankfurt School with Deleuzoguattarian thought and the transformations it has enacted on the Marxian and Nietzschean traditions.

[2] This coinage is indebted to Colin Koopman’s (2013, 6-7) assertion that many theorists working with Foucault often engage in “biopower-hunting”: that is, “ferreting out the nefarious inner workings of biopower (or disciplinary power, or slavish morality) in some context where its appearance was perhaps unexpected. Although such work bears obvious conceptual relations to Foucault’s work, methodologically it is no closer to his genealogies than is old-fashioned ideological unmasking.” In contrast, over the course of this dissertation I will attempt to demonstrate that Deleuzoguattarian thinking is indeed capable of serving as ontology for urban studies, based on its inherently political thrust.

[3] Neil Brenner (2013, 92) correctly observes that assemblage urbanism is neo-Deleuzian but challenges its shortcomings with the aforementioned set of tools instead of digging into Deleuze and Guattari.

[4] Deleuze and Guattari frequently use the terms “diagram” and “abstract machine” interchangeably. Herein either word should be taken to mean a force that functions in and transforms assemblages.

[5] “Ultimately, however, the main thrust of Deleuze and Guattari’s philosophy is not ontological: it is political. The point of doing philosophy is not to arrive at even the best possible understanding of the nature of being: they presuppose an ontology compatible with contemporary math and science to do political philosophy – to articulate Problems posed by contemporary social life in the hope of provoking the discovery of practical solutions to them or, at least, better ways of addressing them” (Holland 2011, 6-7).

[6] I am not alone in this assessment. Clough et al (2007, 392) express a very similar sentiment by asserting that “while Delanda offers a good introduction to these thoughts born of Deleuzian philosophy, he has stripped the latter of its passion, aesthetics and political orientation.”

[7] It is worth noting that neither Anti-Oedipus nor A Thousand Plateaus is referenced here, though the “Rhizome” plateau as an independent publication (1981), DeLanda (2006), and a handful of Latour’s essays are.

[8] McFarlane (2011a) uses the phrase thick description without a specific definition. In her essay, Tonkiss (2011, 586) notes that this use strays from Geertz’s (1973) use which focused on developing “an interpretive account of an act or even in its cultural context, where culture was understood primarily in semiotic terms.” In his final paper, McFarlane (2011c, 735) clarifies that his use refers to how relations are assembled, the inevitable contingencies therein and how they might point toward more just cities, and the judgments inherent in choosing objects of analysis.

[9] As we will see, it is precisely the fact that McFarlane does not focus on the historic and contingent processes that lay out the urban assemblages he discusses that renders his work susceptible to penetrating critique.

[10] This notion of context of context – meaning the political and economic situation in which urbanization occurs – forms a central element of Brenner and his various coauthors’ critiques and will be discussed in greater depth below.

[11] Gidwani’s account of the diagram of development helps him structure an incisive argument about the state of affairs in contemporary India but nevertheless falls short of engaging the underlying functioning of the global capitalist axiomatic as developed by Deleuze and Guattari (1987).

[12] These concepts will be developed in Chapter 3. The point here is that seeing neoliberal policy mobility as an assemblage does not account for the foundational struggle between the capitalism and State that creates these assemblages.

[13] Strictly speaking, the abstract machine or diagram forms the outside the “strata” – Deleuze and Guattari’s (1987) term for actual historical formations – while also remaining part of the strata as an historical formation, while assemblages are specific tetravalent configurations of elements from these strata. DeLanda (2006) eliminates strata from his “assemblage theory” so the notion is nowhere to be found in work following his lead. This is an unfortunate consequence because it obscures the relationship between Foucault’s work and Deleuze and Guattari’s, but will be addressed herein as appropriate.

[14] This will not be undertaken explicitly, but relevant connections to Deleuze and Guattari’s coauthored works will be highlighted herein.

[15] Brenner (2013, 92n9) asserts that Farías’s work “proposes a radical, if controversial, rethinking of the urban question,” in that it does not shy away from addressing the “field’s decaying epistemological foundations” (ibid., 91). These epistemological foundations are for Brenner, again, the decreasing specificity of the urban now that urbanization is a worldwide process.

[16] “[Power] is a mole that only knows its way round its network of tunnels, its multiple hole: it acts on the basis of innumerable points’; it ‘comes from below’” (Deleuze 1998, 82). This quotation is taken from a different context altogether but nevertheless resonates here.

[17] The historical formations that serve as the fields out of which assemblages are constructed.

[18] The multitude, as defined by Hardt and Negri, is the contemporary version of the Marxian proletariat, updated for the unique conditions of global capitalism (cf. Hardt and Negri 2004, xiii-xiv)

[19] Like any other assemblage, concepts are both laid out by and constitute abstract machines, but this abstract machine is that of a conceptual persona, or the person who is doing philosophy.

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One Response to ASSEMBLAGE URBANISM OR CRITICAL URBAN THEORY? (Dissertation chapter 1 draft)

  1. Pingback: Ian Buchanan’s “Assemblage Theory and its Discontents” | My Desiring-Machines

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