Jordan Crandall on Sat, 14 Jun 2008 14:14:40 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Absorption and Exposure

Absorption and Exposure
a working assemblage of assemblage theory
Jordan Crandall

I am interested in a certain sense of wanting to be "in" something:
to participate in it, to connect with it, to synchronize with it, to
be caught up with it, rather than to visually possess it. The desire
to be attuned to something that is happening, or that might happen at
any moment -- not necessarily as a conscious thought, but as a vaguely
felt expectation. The desire to move toward something that is (or
might be) happening, in order to absorb its force, touch it, taste it,
surrender to it -- rather than simply to observe it.

For Bataille, this would be the erotic pull of death. I am thinking
about it as a dynamic of immersion and implication that involves
media-technological actors and which reorients questions of
subjectivity and spectatorship. Or, in other words: an ecology of
absorption and exposure. Since it involves the sensorium and the
transmission of resonances, it is not something that can be understood
in terms of visual mastery or language. It does not privilege reading
but readiness. Rather than being about possessing something from a
distance, it is about a surrender to it -- an extreme intimacy, a
merging. One does not look from afar, fortifying the self, but rather
enters into the fray, exposing the self.

Is this drive to be "in" something more constitutive than the drive
for separation (difference)? The drive for immersion or self-exposure
more constitutive than that of voyeuristic detachment? If so, how
does this challenge the dominance of a foundational condition of
spectatorship, or the understanding of media in terms of its capacity
to produce a spectatorial relation? To approach the matter, one must
undress, slowly, undoing the customary divisions we make of the world
-- between observer/observed, inside/outside, signifier/signified,
and even nature/culture. One must not rely on words so much as the
intangibilities of resonance -- mood, movement, sensual contact. One
must not negate but affirm, conveying permissions through expressions
that can show more than say.

A strategy of approach can be found in the concept of the
"assemblage," as outlined by Manuel DeLanda, who has brilliantly
expanded Deleuze's original work. Using DeLanda's formulation
as a basis of departure, I have developed one line of thinking
about assemblage theory, not as a general ontology, but as an
absorption/exposure ecology. I have incorporated other references --
for example Brian Massumi's theories of affect; the actor-network
orientations of Vilem Flusser, Matthew Fuller, and Bruno Latour;
Lacan's notion of the "sinthome" by way of Zizek; Keller Easterling's
concept of "spatial formulas" -- and I have developed the assemblage's
erotics, understanding it as a mechanism of desire. For me the
assemblage is a vehicle of obscene enjoyment, conveying both routine
and change, enticement and anguish. An undulating lustful thing,
dripping. And so, rather than adhering to an orthodoxy, I am treating
the theory itself as a kind of assemblage. What has emerged here is
simply one assemblage of assemblage theory.

As an ecology of absorption and exposure, the assemblage is, again,
an event-in-formation -- a "something" happening or that might
happen. It is a forming-event-thing that we want to be part of,
attune to, surrender to -- not necessarily consciously, but as a
felt expectation. An event-in-formation that, in combining the
reassurance of the familiar with the thrill of the potential, works
through both stabilization and destabilization, routinization and
tendency, prohibition and enticement. An event-in-formation that
cannot be relied upon to resolve to a specific outcome, but rather,
to continually engender a set of possibilities -- or in other words,
to exert tendencies. A mechanism of desire for immersion and exposure
within this forming-event.


At its basis, the assemblage is a moving population of symbiotic,
co-functioning actors. These actors can be anything: any kind of
body or entity, whether organic or inorganic, at any scale, from
the sub-personal to the social community. Actors participate in
multiple assemblages at the same time, and they may perform different
functions at different times, or at the same time, even within the
same assemblage.

These actors synthesize (or network together) through shared,
recurrent processes of stabilization and destabilization. These
processes involve circuits of commonality and difference, attunement
and distraction, connection and disconnection, extension and
reduction. Through these processes, the assemblage, as a population,
is continually modulated, actively re-consolidating itself and its
identity (which could be a subjective identity). It does so through
the increase or decrease of its internal consistency or the degree of
its boundary-delineation, moving above or below various thresholds of

We can define these recurrent processes as follows. The first involves
a dynamic of resonance and dissonance. This is a form of affective
transmission and bonding, playing out across intensive and extensive
realms -- a charge that passes through actors, connecting, conducting,
and synchronizing them. It is not reducible to language and knowledge,
but involves a form of corporeal knowingness. For example, resonance
can allow a certain move or gesture to propagate across a community,
gaining strength and adhering in a dance form. A critical mass of
affective transmissions begins, over time, to bond a community and set
the stage for a shared practice. Dissonance can involve a breaking
of the beat, a turning. The second involves a dynamic of coding and
decoding. This involves the mobilization of linguistic resources
and forms of scripting -- such as in narratives, imaginaries,
programs, and constitutions. Decoding can be a mechanism of productive
"unlearning," allowing one to break with older patterns of thought
through the introduction of other routines, procedures, rituals, or
even through games, gaffes, and humorous anecdotes. In this way it
guides change. Coding can involve genetics, and decoding, a kind of
genetic unlearning -- as in the way that erotic activity decodes
genetic influences. The third involves a dynamic of formulation and
deformulation. It allows the assemblage to variably replicate through
the abstraction and transduction of forces into new reproduction
machineries; through deliberate template mechanisms; or through
emergent forms of social influence and obligation. For example, a
megastore formula allows exact replicas to be built anywhere, or an
organization opens a new branch and transmits its guidelines to new
employees. Or, a video clip goes viral.

These three processes work in conjunction with one another. For
example, one can follow Niklaus Largier's elaboration of the
history of flagellation as a repeated, ritualistic practice of
affective-imaginary arousal, which reinforces a community and an
individual body within it as it simultaneously deterritorializes
the body -- all through a specific symbolic enaction that has been
formulated, replicated as a religious practice. Or there can be a
drift from one process to another, as when a group coheres through
identity practices, but then allows itself to be galvanized by
affective charges, only to code itself again. These three processes
serve to stabilize or destabilize the assemblage as a whole:
stabilizing, in generating a coherency, a concentration, a platform
of use; destabilizing, in allowing flexibility, decentralization, the
opening up of new patterns of use, allowing actors the ability to
enter into new assemblages. From the point of a subjectivity: a habit
and a flight of fancy; a routine and an escape route; to find oneself
and to lose oneself; comfort and change; attention and distraction;
eroticism and death. What attracts us is precisely this quality of
dual embodiment: the assemblage as both routinization and potential. A
restlessness, which can make one (feel) more alive.

These recurrent processes form the environment through which the
actors exercise their various capacities to engage with other actors,
according to the properties they have been endowed with, and the
dispositions that adhere in them. Properties are organizational
principles and procedures that can be determined and stated.
Capacities are qualities of engagement: to affect (excite) and be
affected; to interact with, transmit intensities with, enter into
alliances with other entities; to influence the timing, movement,
and composition of actors and parts. Capacities depend on an actor's
properties, however unlike properties, capacities are open-ended and
dependent upon the properties and capacities of other interacting
entities. If properties are about actualities, then capacities are
about potentials. Dispositions are affectively-grounded behavioral
tendencies, attitudes, moods, or general temperaments that adhere over
time, existing somewhere between a property and a capacity.

The processes strengthen as they are internalized in practice --
through the actors' exercising of their various capacities to engage
with other actors, according to their properties and dispositions.
As this occurs, the actors move, are moved, across thresholds of
organizational stability or scale. Forms and behaviors that can
be apprehended may then arise -- space, social conduct, somatic
effect. One can understand these forms and behaviors in terms of
the translations between levels of organizational stability and the
crossing of materialization-thresholds, which always pass through
patterns of activity, or acquired patterns of response. These forms
and behaviors are, in a sense, actors playing roles.

By taking a role, and actor both expresses something and embodies
something that can be apprehended -- expresses, as a living presence,
and embodies, as a formal presence -- though not in equal measures.
For example, in making a call, the mobile phone is an actor embodied
in particular material role, while the finger pressing its buttons is
one that is playing an expressive role. Through the taking on of these
roles, the actors are in turn modified, incorporated into various
assemblages, embedded into new arrangements: the capacity of the phone
to allow button-pressing incorporates the action, and through it,
the body/subject in whole or part, in the assemblage of the placed
call. But there is no action without the recurrent processes of
stabilization and destabilization -- resonance, coding, formulation
-- that motivate it. In the case of the phone call: the transmission
of affects, sequencing and narrative, protocol and uniformity.
There is a reciprocity between the processes and the actor-roles.
Each constitutes the other. As a result, knowledge-accumulation may
intensify. The assemblage may replicate, encouraging conformity to its
standards. But it can also generate mutant forms.

The assemblage IS its actors, at any scale, and thus it can, at
each of its scales, be said to have its own particular capacities,
properties, and dispositions as a whole. Assemblages interact with
one another, exercising their various capacities, and through this
process, they can accrue new properties and dispositions. The strength
of the assemblage could be said to derive from the actors that it
is able to effect and mobilize, and the degree of functionality of
their roles. Actors can be, but are not necessarily, functional or
operational. Expressions of the body, in and of themselves, are
generally not functional. For example, an expression of alarm.
However, they can become functional, when they become readable and
conveyable within a community, or when they are absorbed into an
institutional apparatus of one sort or another. They can become
operationalized -- able to be directed, harnessed for political
maneuverings. For example, the terror alert system, which, by
conveying states of alarm, harnesses affects for security purposes and
for political ends.

Again, while properties are actualities, capacities are potentials
-- they depend on the properties and capacities of other interacting
actors. The assemblage is provisional; it cannot be relied upon
to produce any specific outcome. At any scale, the assemblage is
always a world in the making: a collection of compositional energies
and substances that carries forth a potential event, or simply a
sensation. Rather than producing specific forms or behaviors, the
assemblage works by modifying potentials, engendering recurrent
materials and excitations with possible outcomes. As such, it is a
likelihood, a tendency -- a "something" waiting to happen.

This tendency is a kind of directional pull that arises from the
properties, capacities, and dispositions of the actors, at whatever
scale (including the entirety of the assemblage itself), as they are
enacted in roles. When quantifiable, it can be understood in terms of
probability or statistical causality. One can predict, but one doesn't
know what will happen, since nothing occurs in complete isolation.
Everything interferes with everything. Small instances can catalyze
large-scale effects that were not intended. Triggers or catalysts
for effects can come from anywhere. Two different causes can lead to
one and the same effect, or one and the same cause may produce very
different effects. One cannot say that a particular cause will produce
a particular effect, but rather that a specific cause may increase the
probability of the occurrence of a given effect.

When we are talking about subjective/social formations -- a
"something" into which we insert ourselves, or want to insert
ourselves -- one must not only look to statistics, but to the ways
that significance is negotiated within a social field. And one
must take desires into account. The properties, capacities, and
dispositions of the actors are a complex of many subjective and
somatic factors. When we are affected, we act according to our beliefs
or principles for acting. We also act according to our dispositions:
our affectively-grounded behavioral tendencies, attitudes, moods, or
general temperament. Even if beliefs involve reasons, they do not
always involve meaningfully oriented action, since they can emerge
from intense feelings. On one end of the spectrum would be purely
causal: reactions triggered by habit. On the other end would be the
purely reasoned: actions resulting from deliberate choices. But there
are worlds in between, shot through with the ambiguities of desire.

Again, tendency is a kind of directional pull that arises from the
properties, capacities, and dispositions of the actors, at whatever
scale (including the entirety of the assemblage itself), as they are
enacted in roles, as enabled by the stabilization and destabilization
processes. The assemblage itself accrues a disposition, or acts as a
dispositional trigger. When we are part of it, we can say that this
disposition is ours, or partly "mine" -- even as it is modulated,
coalescing and breaking up, hardening and loosening.

The assemblage can generate a longing for attunement -- for the
sense of being "inside" something, or the sense of already being
"in" something (a common attachment, a seamlessness). This longing
to belong could be understood as a process of subjectivization;
the longing itself, as desire. The assemblage takes root to the
extent that it resonates with something deep within the self:
not necessarily as a lack that it may fill, but as a potential
excess. The assemblage is about abundance -- a self that always
has the possibility of spilling over its bounds, and which is
constituted in excessive transmissions that do not necessarily rely on
language or representation. It is something like a sensorial motif, a
propagating energy-pattern that generates excitations and structures
disposition, yet at its core is meaningless. Here the contradictions
of the assemblage -- in its combination of both stabilizing and
destabilizing processes -- come into full play. It is a vehicle of
obscene enjoyment, in you more than you know. It gives permissions,
yet when it passes through culture -- the normative field of the
social -- it sustains an undercurrent of prohibition. It maintains
both enticement and anguish: the anguish of temptation.

This attunement -- this longing for, or sense of, being "in" something
-- can happen in various degrees of involvement. It can simply
consist of an affective charge, a thin zone of contact: a readiness
to act, but not necessarily an act. A sense of action, without the
action. One is "in" multiple assemblages at the same time, at various
scales from the sub-personal to the social community. As these
assemblages overlap, one experiences changing, inconsistent modes of
commonality and difference, attunement and distraction, connection and
disconnection, extension and reduction, whether powerful or light,
enduring or fleeting.

If desire is a longing to be "inside" an assemblage, then that which
we find desirable in others could well be their own embeddedness
in assemblages that we want to be "in." The desiring-mechanism
works through the reassurance of ritual and the promise of untold
adventure -- recurrence and potentiality. The dance of stabilization
and destabilization. Desire needs its rituals, but without the
cultivation of the unknown, it evaporates. The swirling of recurrent
choreographies; the intimate dance of the courtship ritual. Bodies are
revealed and concealed, dissolved into a configuration of properties
and capacities, then re-emerged, reassembled, only to realign again --
not on a flat plane of consistency, but in terms of strata, layers,
degrees of organizational complexity. Yet one could also see it this
way: these bodies are always already complete, it is just that their
mode of apprehension is always partial and mobile.

To be absorbed, to be inside, is also to be exposed -- to be open
on all sides. If subjectivity is a modality of perspective from
inside the assemblage (an inside looking out), then it is also a
point of accessibility from the outside (an outside looking in).
However to be open on all sides is to dissolve perspective and the
seer/seen opposition -- as well as the primacy of vision. There
are no longer any sides to speak of -- only circuits. Exposure, as
a surrender, opens vulnerabilities, portals and trajectories for
exterior operations, but it also generates a fluidity, elusive and
fleeting. It registers a topology more than a body, a "showing" more
than a saying.

A topology that tends toward a "something."


Dear nettimers, I will be organizing a research group this summer,
based out of Culture Lab at Newcastle University, oriented around
the issues outlined above. I am very interested in involving
researchers, cultural practitioners and groups who are working with
concepts of "assemblages" -- how they can be useful in thinking about
subjectivity, desire, culture, politics. Please contact me if you
would like to be involved, or have any suggestions.

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