A New Philosophy of Society: Assemblage Theory And Social Complexity by Manuel DeLanda


Manuel DeLanda , A New Philosophy of Society: Assemblage Theory And Social Complexity . London : Continuum , 2006 . ISBN 978-0-826-49169-5 ( paperback )

This book is an ambitious philosophical endeavor to “introduce a novel approach to social ontology” (p 1). Benefiting from his unique position at the confluence of Deleuzian philosophy and complexity theory, DeLanda attempts to lay the foundations of a theory of social assemblages. His approach is utterly realist—asserting “the autonomy of social entities from the conceptions we have of them” and dealing only with “objective processes of assembly” (p 1). The first two chapters are theoretical and rich in the brilliant insights so familiar to readers of DeLanda. The final three chapters—where the theory is explicated through a series of case studies of assemblages starting from the scale of subpersonal components, and ascending one level at a time up to the scale of territorial-states—however, fail to carry forth this brilliance.

Chapter 1 takes the highly entrenched notion of “totality” to task, particularly in its sophisticated Hegelian form. DeLanda targets the idea that the “parts” which constitute a “whole” (in this case society) form a seamless totality, analogically equivalent to a body with a functional unity of its constituent organs. He calls such a conception, in which parts cease to have a meaningful existence outside the whole (eg the relation of the arm to the body), relations of interiority. This organismic notion of totality, as he maintains, forecloses the possibility of analyzing both the contingent interactions between parts as well as the emergent properties of the complex whole. In contrast, DeLanda proposes a conception of wholes characterized by relations of exteriority, where parts are self-subsistent and retain a certain autonomy vis-à-vis other parts and the whole. This is a shift of attention from the inert properties of the component parts to their capacities to interact. Hence, a part could be detached from an assemblage and attached to another where it could realize totally different capacities while retaining its own defining properties (eg a guitarist changing her band). The role(s) that a component of an assemblage plays could be located within three continuums: material/expressive; territorializing/deterritorializing; coding/decoding.

Chapter 2 elucidates the “topological diagram of an assemblage” (p 25) by opposing assemblage theory to essentialist approaches, which presume the presence of eternal archetypes defining the identity of any particular entity. DeLanda's approach challenges such reified general categories (eg “human”) by declaring the ontology of any assemblage to be unique, singular and historically contingent; in other words, flat“since it contains nothing but different scaled individual singularities” (p 28). The overall connectivity between these individual singularities is what defines the actual space of possibilities or the degrees of freedom, which is structured by the virtual diagram of the assemblage.

Chapter 3 starts off the social assemblage analysis by examining persons and inter-personal networks. On the question of subjectivity DeLanda favors a Humean approach in which the individual person, emerging from sub-personal components such as impressions, ideas, habits and skills, actualizes its emergent capacities in the course of matching means to certain ends. The analysis proceeds with the study of inter-personal conversations and networks. Consonant with the relations of exteriority principle, interpersonal networks are defined in terms of the strength of the links, presence or absence of emotional content and the level of reciprocity between individuals—rather than the properties of the persons occupying the nodal positions.

Chapter 4 examines institutional organizations and governments, particularly concentrating on authority structures. Here DeLanda utilizes Weber's three ideal types of authority structures, which are rational-legal, traditional and charismatic. His next object of analysis is the relations of exteriority between organizations, which assemble either as networks (eg Silicon Valley) or as hierarchies of organizations (eg the US Government).

Chapter 5 brings spatial aspects of assemblages into focus. DeLanda begins with individual buildings, continuing to larger scale assemblages such as those emerging out of populations of buildings (eg residential neighborhoods, industrial, government and red-light districts and finally cities). He pays particular attention to the component parts that determine the overall connectivity of an urban assemblage (eg corridors, hallways, streets, transportation networks, sewage pipes, gas conduits, etc). He defines assemblages of cities with reference to two models: hierarchies of central places, where a city of higher rank displays a higher degree of service differentiation than lower rank cities do and it can provide them with the services that they lack; networks of maritime ports, in which cities are seen as occupying nodes in a network of changing relays and junctions, not as fixed points in space. The case study ends at the scale of large territorial states which historically emerged with the incorporation of cities by means of organized violence and warfare.

Although DeLanda's bottom-up analytical model is very generative, it also bears certain shortcomings. The model's emphasis on the vertical axis does not allow an elaboration on trans-scalar connectivities between relatively distant assemblages. The relation of the smaller scale to the larger is taken as primary, which implies that the link between any two disconnected individuals is necessarily via a common larger scale. Thus, contrary to its intentions to reframe social assemblages in terms of contingencies rather than necessities, and to assert their ontology as flat, the model leaves the prevailing conception of nested scales unchallenged, failing to take into account the trans-scalar lines of flight between seemingly disconnected individuals or places.1 There is, however, an immense and growing body of literature on “scale” within Geography, in which vertical models are being reassessed with the consideration of trans-local connectivities and their relations to other spatialities such as space and place (Leitner et al. 2008). DeLanda's topological approach could have a lot to benefit from an engagement with these debates.

Another important but unarticulated aspect of DeLanda's theory is non-linear causality. The picture suggested by the bottom-up approach is that of a rather stable and singular social formation, which leaves aside the power relations within the diagram, the unevenness of the connectivities, and the varying degrees of flexibility within relations of dependencies in networks and hierarchies of assemblages. As such, DeLanda's model barely leaves any room for inventive discussions of heterogeneity. How does one look for the fissures or trace the seams? How to think about the multiple, the political, or a politics of the fissures? Those limitations stated, DeLanda is an ingenious thinker. In this incisive book, he poses a timely challenge to a variety of the essentialisms and reductionisms which still dominate many fields in social sciences.