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As an assemblage, a book has only itself, in connection with other assemblages and in relation to other bodies without organs. We will never ask what a book means, as signified or signifier; we will not look for anything to understand in it. … A book exists only through the outside and on the outside. A book itself is a little machine.
Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus
Over the past decade, the notion of assemblage has gained currency as a keyword in the humanities and social sciences. Assemblage has traditionally been used in archaeology, art, and the natural sciences as a term of classification (see Anderson et al.; Marcus and Saka). More recently, however, assemblage has gained traction as a translation and appropriation of the concept designated by the French word agencement in the work of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, especially A Thousand Plateaus. In this form, assemblage has been increasingly used to designate, not an arrangement or a state of affairs, but an ongoing process of arranging, organising or congealing how heterogeneous bodies, things or concepts come ‘in connection with’ one another (see Livesey; Phillips). As John Phillips notes, ‘assemblage’ is a less-than-ideal translation:
Agencement is a common French word with the senses of either ‘arrangement’, ‘fitting’ or ‘fixing’ and is used in French in as many contexts as those words are used in English: one would speak of the arrangement of parts of a body or machine; one might talk of fixing (fitting or affixing) two or more parts together; and one might use the term for both the act of fixing and the arrangement itself, as in the fixtures and fittings of a building or shop, or the parts of a machine. (108)
Assemblage as agencement designates connectivity, a productive and transformative excess beyond representation (Phillips 108). In contrast to its common-sense meaning, assemblage refers to complex flows, connections and becomings that emerge and disperse relationally between bodies. Distinguished by an insistence on the capacity and vitality of bodies, this understanding of assemblage values the dynamic arrangements and organisations of bodies, situating agencement as an adaptive, fluid, and ongoing process. In Deleuzo-Guattarian terms, assemblages involve a continual process of emergence and becoming (A Thousand Plateaus 4) and are composed of a multiplicity of unstable organic and non-organic elements each invested with the capacity to transform the whole (McFarlane 562). What comes together can be any variety of objects, practices, feelings and affects, which move ‘between technology (content, material) and language (expression, non-corporeal effects)’ (Wise 80). In this paper, we seek to illustrate the versatility of assemblage as a keyword in the humanities. By bringing together what at first might seem like three conflicting, even contradictory, case studies, we aim to demonstrate the potential of assemblage as a way of approaching contemporary debates in areas such as humanitarian advocacy, popular culture and medical technology. Emphasising what assemblages can do, we seek to open an experimental territory that becomes invested with affective and transformative capacities.
The rise to prominence of assemblage as agencement can be seen in a wider shift in the humanities and social sciences from a focus on meaning-making to a consideration of what exceeds representation—that is, from epistemology to ontology (Puar, ‘Coda: The Cost of Getting Better’ 154). Addressing the ‘poststructuralist fatigue around the notion of the subject’ (Puar, ‘“I would rather be cyborg”’ 63), social scientists have augmented the vocabulary of structure with one of affect, emergent with recent trends in the natural sciences and mathematics (see Dewsbury; Venn). According to George Marcus and Erkan Saka,
Assemblage is … a resource with which to address in analysis and writing the modernist problem of the heterogeneous within the ephemeral, while preserving some concept of the structural so embedded in the enterprise of social science research. (102)
In other words, assemblage allows us to think outside of dualistic modes of perception to focus on the present as emergent. Assemblages can be identified in relation to ‘processes of gathering and dispersion’ (Anderson et al. 177). Furthermore, assemblage has the potential to reconcile structural effects with ephemeral affects by holding the stable and unstable in constant tension (see Puar, Terrorist Assemblages; Puar, ‘“I would rather be cyborg”’). In contrast to contemporary philosophical understandings of affect as emotion, affect is not a response to an event ‘triggering bodily changes’, but rather, affect designates a qualitative change, equally corporeal and mental, in the intensity of a being’s power to persevere (Sharp 29). Assemblages are produced and crafted by affects, which constitute a finite cluster of diverse entities that can’t be reduced to a natural whole, but rather are productive, temporally constituted parts. These assembled constitutions and coagulations are, as Bruce Braun argues, a ‘necessary and prior condition for any an action to occur’ (671). That is to say, assemblages, shaped by affects, are the foundational fabric of all possible activity.
Despite the definition of assemblage as agencement that we have traced so far, there is a general resistance evident within the literature to providing a concrete understanding of assemblage. In their introduction to a special issue of Area, Ben Anderson and Colin McFarlane suggest that assemblage should be celebrated for its theoretical malleability (126). We agree that assemblage is best conceptualised as open-ended and productive. We embrace the uncertainty of assemblage, looking toward the creative methodology enabled by ‘thinking with assemblages’ (Anderson et al. 175). Following this, we employ experimentation as an ethos for approaching assemblage, demonstrated via our selection of diverse case studies that demonstrate both the risks and potential of working with assemblage theory.
Rhizomatic Connections: Tensions and Multiple Entry Points
To understand the flexibility of assemblage in application, it is helpful to map the terrain of assemblage as employed in the humanities and social sciences. This is not intended to provide a genealogical route for the term, but rather, to illustrate the rhizomatic connections between conceptions and usages of assemblage. In particular, we draw attention to three treatments of assemblage in the humanities. First, we begin with Deleuze and Guattari’s distinction between horizontal and vertical axes, which constitutes the spatial and temporal elements of an assemblage. Second, we examine Jane Bennett’s formulation of the assemblage as a form of distributive agency, the recognition of how materialities emerge and circulate within an assemblage. Third, we examine what we have perhaps found most useful in our own analysis, Jasbir Puar’s deployment of assemblage as a way of re-thinking representational politics, through emphasising how affects modulate bodies. We proceed with caution. As Deleuze and Guattari note in A Thousand Plateaus, ‘A rhizome has no beginning or end; it is always in the middle’ (25). In the Deleuzo-Guattarian sense of the rhizome then, this mapping exercise does not seek to reproduce nor trace a history of assemblage, but rather, to reveal connections; we seek to indicate some of the ‘multiple entryways’ into assemblage (A Thousand Plateaus 12).
Deleuze and Guattari’s use of agencement can be seen in their work on Kafka (Toward a Minor Literature) and the rhizome (A Thousand Plateaus), as well as Deleuze’s individual engagement with Baruch Spinoza (Spinoza;‘What Can A Body Do?’). In A Thousand Plateaus, for instance, Deleuze and Guattari distinguish between two axes of assemblage: horizontal and vertical. Though different, the two axes are inextricably intertwined (Deleuze and Parnet 54). The horizontal axis is composed of ‘machinic assemblages of bodies, actions and passions’, a designation of the emergent properties, content and expression of an assemblage, the language system to which all speakers of a language belong and the collection of qualities, things and relations which exceeds enunciation and desire. Deleuze and Guattari argue that assemblages incorporate discourse, words and meaning, as well as material and substance, in a temporary cluster (A Thousand Plateaus 88). Conversely, the vertical axis refers to the creation of territory and involves a distinction between being made (territorialisation) and becoming unmade (deterritorialisation) as bodies come together and disperse (88). As Wise notes in his reading of Deleuze and Guattari, this process involves a constant making and unmaking, with assemblages ‘always coming together and moving apart’ (79). Importantly, an assemblage is never still, encouraging different capacities from moment to moment depending on the assemblage’s passing composition and articulation (Malins 85). Thus, assemblages in Deleuze and Guattari are temporal and spatial configurations; bodies are drawn together affectively only to be shifted by other bodies—a continuous process that produces self-organising differences and inherently transformative potential.
Following Deleuze and Guattari, Jane Bennett deploys this notion of assemblage in her theorisation of material vitalism, to move agency ‘beyond human bodies and intersubjective fields to vital materialities and the human-nonhuman assemblages they form’ (30). In Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (2010), assemblage is defined by Bennett as ‘ad hoc groupings of diverse elements, of vibrant materials of all sorts’ (23). In this sense, Bennett’s perspective highlights assemblages’ emergent capacities that remain paradoxically ‘non-totalizable’ (24). Bennett also connects this perspective with Bruno Latour’s Actor-Network Theory (ANT). Latour proposes that the social should be defined ‘only as a very peculiar movement of re-association and reassembling’ (Latour 7). In other words, in understanding the constitution of the social, we must take into account the range of associations (or networks of actors) through which particular kinds of social relations come together and are sustained. As Allison Cavanagh suggests, Latour’s ANT differs from Deleuze and Guattari’s conceptualisation of assemblage given its focus on parts in relation to the composition of the whole: ‘[o]nce it [some object or body] is incorporated within the network, it comes to function as part of that network, and disappears from view as a discrete object or agent’ (45). By contrast, for Deleuze and Guattari, the focus lies with the agentic capacities of non-discrete parts. Despite this key difference, the work of Bennett offers a way to connect Deleuze and Guattari with Latour. According to Bennett, assemblages owe their capacity to be agents to the materialities that constitute them. Thus, the concept of ‘vibrant matter’ recognises the diverse ways in which agency acts and is distributed via processes of emergence and becoming. In these configurations of distributed agency, matter is constituted in terms of various assemblages with different affective capacities, involving both human and non-human actors.
Another important formulation of assemblage, one that we draw on heavily in this paper, has emerged from the work of Jasbir Puar. Using the figure of the terrorist body as a starting point and following Deleuze on Spinoza, Puar considers ‘not only what terrorist corporealities mean or signify, but more insistently, what do they do?’ (Terrorist Assemblages 204). Here, Puar suggests a shift from moralising the terrorist body in terms of meaning-making, to considering the functional assemblage of this body that exceeds representation. In this line of inquiry, Puar argues for the terrorist body as a queer assemblage; as such, it is understood as a disruptive force rather than as an identity. Puar frames assemblages as spatially and temporally contingent entities. Indeed, she suggests that intersectionality (the theory that identity is produced through the intersection of race, class, gender, sexuality and so on) as an intellectual rubric and a tool for political intervention must be supplemented—if not complicated and reconceptualised—by a notion of assemblage (213). Critical of intersectional methods that have become a ‘pragmatic frame’ in feminist and queer critiques, Puar argues that intersectional analysis with its focus on representational politics always produces an ‘Other’ (‘“I would rather be cyborg”’ 54). Instead, she advocates, via Deleuze and Guattari, a mode of thinking whereby identity categories are thought of as ‘events, actions and encounters between bodies’ rather than ‘simply entities and attributes of the subject’ (58). Thus, Puar argues that to dismiss the tension between assemblage and intersectional frameworks is to dismiss how societies of control modulate bodies not only as effects of representation but also in their affective capacities.
Drawing on the diverse rhizomatic lines of assemblage mapped thus far, in the following case studies we explore the potential for theorising assemblage through localised examples. Following Deleuze on ‘theory’, our investigations are intended not as an ‘application’ of theory per se, but indications of movement between practice and discrete theoretical points (Baugh 282). We take as our imperative not to ask what assemblages are, but rather what they do (A Thousand Plateaus 257). With our aim of experimentation, we consider assemblage within three case studies selected from public and popular culture. Each of these cases involves a reconsideration of a particular issue—asylum seekers/politics, cultural appropriation/raunch culture and disability/ digitisation—such that meaning-making through moral evaluations is bracketed in favour of an immanent ethical approach founded in assemblage theory. In this way, we follow queer theorist Janet Halley’s suggestion to ‘take a break’ from established metanarratives in favour of new explorations (10). Rather than offering concrete moral solutions to questions of advocacy, sexuality and race, or technology and the human, assemblage offers a new conceptualisation that opens up these arenas for new modes of engagement. Just as Deleuze and Guattari contend that ‘a book is an assemblage’, so too is this article ‘a little machine’ (4); we argue for the creation of our own contingent territory that holds modes of thinking assemblage in persistent tension.
Assemblage as Affect: Pathways to Advocacy
On 13 August 2013 Amnesty International, in conjunction with the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, launched the ‘Hot Potato Campaign’ (HPC), which aimed to ‘cool the heat’ on the asylum seeker debate and inform Australians with ‘facts, not fears’ (Amnesty International, The Hot Potato Campaign). The campaign took place in the lead-up to the federal election, during which the Labor and Liberal parties competed to develop ever more punitive policies in response to ‘irregular boat arrivals’, including the infamous ‘Papua New Guinea solution’ and the militaristic ‘Operation Sovereign Borders’. These policies represent Australia as a territory under threat, and associate asylum seekers with negative emotions, in particular, fear. In response to this alarmist rhetoric, the HPC took a ten-day road trip during which a food van visited selected communities on the east coast, with the aim of ‘giving away 10,000 potatoes and starting 10 million conversations about one steaming hot issue’ (The Hot Potato Campaign). The campaign materials, including a map of the journey, event dates, ‘myth-busting factsheets’ and a selection of multicultural recipes, are available online, and supporters are invited to ‘[h]ost a hot potato party, start a conversation’ (The Hot Potato Campaign). We are interested in this campaign because it signals a shift in humanitarian advocacy from a familiar representational politics which centres on the suffering human subject, to an affective politics which, according to Puar, appeals to ‘touch, texture, sensation, smell, feeling and affect’ (Terrorist Assemblages 194). The campaign builds on intensities: the very concept of a hot potato, along with the passions aroused by the debate, suggests a certain intensity of feeling. We use a theorisation of assemblage to identify some of the ways the campaign opens up a new approach to advocacy, which suspends moralistic judgment, and instead uses whimsy and humour to activate affect, sensation and creative feelings. But first, we consider the representational and discursive tactics used in an earlier refugee campaign as a point of comparison with the HPC.
Humanitarian advocacy, grounded in a discursive and representational politics of visibility and an epistemological paradigm of knowledge production, typically uses visual media and narrative to convey asylum seeker testimonies of danger, despair and bodily suffering (McLagan 607; Allen 162). Testimonies are publicly circulated to make a moral and emotional appeal to a ‘witnessing public’ (McLagan 609) and to generate certain kinds of emotions, especially compassion (Kennedy 259, 263). For instance, a testimonial narrative produced by Amnesty International in 2012, Rajeed’s Journey: An illustrated series that shows the typical journey of a refugee seeking safety, tells the story of a 14-year-old boy who hastily departs Afghanistan after his father has been murdered by the Taliban. He travels alone, over five years, through Pakistan, Malaysia, Indonesia, and finally to Australia, where, in detention, he experiences feelings of fear, confusion, boredom and despair. This six-page story, designed for use in schools and community forums, is told simply through a combination of child-like drawings and first-person narrative. As in Rajeed’s Journey, human rights discourse produces the ‘rights-bearing suffering subject’, which is then mobilized for political and humanitarian ends (Allen 162). As an assemblage constituted by institutions, discourses, international conventions and protocols, national policies, NGOs, the UN, refugees, aid workers and the like, humanitarian advocacy tends to territorialise and congeal identity under the population signifier ‘refugee’.
In recent years, representational politics, which mobilises around such ‘identities’, has been subject to extensive critique (Puar, ‘“I would rather be cyborg”’). In the context of the asylum seeker debate, these limitations are obvious. To the extent that people identify as ‘refugees’ and use this identity for political mobilisation, they are affirming an identity grounded in a ‘wounded attachment’ (Brown). Drawing on Nietzsche, Wendy Brown argues that wounded attachments produce ‘ressentiment’, a kind of resentment or negative attitude toward life and the other. In this self/other dialectic, asylum seekers may feel victimised, and members of host populations may regard refugees as unwelcome competitors (67-69). While a representational politics may give visibility to a marginalised population and attract humanitarian aid, at the same time recognition—identifying a population as ‘asylum seekers’ or ‘refugees’—opens them to heightened levels of state surveillance. These kinds of problems have led Rey Chow, for instance, to question whether the marginalised subject is a necessary precondition for politics (53). In avoiding images and testimonies of desperate asylum seekers, the HPC abandons the standard representational and discursive tactics of humanitarian advocacy. From an assemblage perspective, the HPC is striking for the diverse elements it brings together and the new relations and connections it puts into play, neatly summed up in its slogan ‘the road to transformation’ (The Hot Potato Campaign).
As mentioned, concepts of assemblage and affect have emerged as a response to the impasses and limitations of representational frameworks which focus on signification. In contrast, considering HPC as assemblage allows us to explore how the HPC functions and what it does (rather than what it is or what it means). Assemblages have both ‘machinic’ and ‘enunciative’ dimensions; they include elements such as human and non-human bodies, matter and things, but they are also ‘semiotic systems’ which include ‘discourses, words, “meanings” and non-corporeal relations that link signifiers with effect’ (Wise 80). The HPC includes machinic elements such as the van, potatoes, ‘hot potato parties’, humanitarian workers and volunteers, members of the public, the potato-boat icon, neighbourhoods and sites where the van parks, the journey the van follows and the like. It also includes enunciative elements such as fact sheets, a map, Internet pages, conversations, tweets, blog postings, YouTube videos and recipes. As a ‘collection of heterogeneous elements’ that is brought together in particular relations, assemblages ‘express something, a particular character’ (Wise 78). Likewise, the HPC claims a territory and expresses humanitarianism advocacy—but with a new affective twist. Whereas a representational humanitarian politics uses narrative and images of suffering to elicit the feeling of compassion, the HPC functions on a more diffuse affective level. Drawing on this understanding of assemblage, we can say the HPC deterritorialises the us/them, self/other, citizen/asylum seeker binary generated both by humanitarian discourse and state discourses on asylum seekers, and it reterritorialises the asylum seeker debate in Australia by re-assembling old elements and introducing new ones. It does this in part by modulating the sensations and affect associated with the asylum seeker debate.
Although the campaign uses clinical language such as ‘cool the debate’ with ‘cold facts’, the iconicity of the campaign is whimsical and the figure of the suffering asylum seeker is nowhere to be seen. Instead, the visual icon promoting the HPC is a baked potato inside a ‘boat’ made out of folded newspaper. This assemblage—in the conventional meaning, a collection of objects—stimulates new affective potentials connected with memories of childhood (for example, Mr. Potato Head, Curious George). On its website, the campaign invites the public to ‘Tweet Potatoes’, and other headers include ‘Feed Me’ (links to recipes), and ‘YouTubers’ (links to videos). Significantly, the language used does not simply signify meaning, it makes puns that may encourage joyful sensations or irreverent feelings, and invites tech-savvy participants to share the joke and join the campaign. That is to say, even the language used in the campaign can be seen, from an assemblage perspective, to contribute to opening up forms of bodily potential outside purely cognitive determinations—to laugh, to click, and to watch. Even clicking on ‘Download Our Recipes’ encourages concoctions of ‘African eggplant and tomato tagine’ or ‘Sri Lankan pumpkin curry’ that, according to the recipe booklet, ‘[go] well with’ sets of myths and facts about asylum seekers. Thus we see that in the HPC campaign, there is an interaction between the representational (the meaningful, ‘myths’ and ‘facts’) and the more than representational (the possibility of new tastes and sensory encounters); as an assemblage HPC combines affective dimensions to effect political transformation.
To advance their aim to ‘change the public rhetoric [on asylum seekers] for the better’, the HPC uses ‘comfort’ food and the sharing of recipes as vital elements for starting a dialogue and opening conversations. Drawing on reflections on affect and matter—and specifically, Jane Bennet’s conception of food as ‘vital matter’—we can take our analysis of the HPC a step further. Nietzsche, Bennett tells us, believed that ‘food had the power to shape the dispositions of persons and nations’ (43). Furthermore, consumption, conceived of as an assemblage, produces ‘affects and effects’ (Bennett 18). As Felicity Colman explains, ‘Affect is an experiential force or a power source, which … encounters and mixes with other bodies (organic or inorganic)’ (12). In the assemblage marked out by the territory of the HPC, food has agentic powers to shape moods and dispositions. As Bennett points out, along with human intentionality, ‘food … is also a player. It enters into what we become. It is one of the many agencies operative in the moods, cognitive dispositions, and moral sensibilities’ that shape our feelings, beliefs and perceptions (51). The ‘agency’ of hot potatoes may stem from their glycemic index and their warmth; hot potatoes create a feeling of fullness and comfort that acts on us. The smell, texture, feel and taste of potatoes—smothered in melted butter or cheese—ignites sensations and affects that haven’t hardened into emotions, and may provide a trajectory to shape a different set of feelings rather than fear, hate or pity.
The HPC assemblage, and especially the symbol of the ‘potato-boat’, stimulates another whimsical connection: by representing ‘boatpeople’ as ‘potatoes’ we are being invited to partake of a new ‘affective economy’ (Ahmed 121). In the act of eating the potato from the Hot Potato Campaign van, we can think of ourselves as symbolically ingesting asylum seekers, who become part of us, and part of the Australian nation. However, we’re not suggesting that people eating the ‘hot potatoes’ would consciously make these perhaps far-fetched connections, but rather that the potato van and the potato iconography works on a visceral and affective level, and changes, at least temporarily, the unwelcoming and punitive rhetoric of the asylum seeker debate in Australia. The ‘toy’ assemblage of the potato-boat also invites us to see ‘boatpeople’ as a temporary assemblage of boat, ocean, oars, children, adults, buckets, food, personal belongings and the like, characterised by mobility, capacity and agency rather than simply as victimised subjects.
While a typical cultural studies approach might argue that the thrust of the HPC lies in its symbolic power, an assemblage approach, while not denying the importance of the representational features of this example, would suggest, however, that what drives the HPC assemblage is not the representation of the refugee—positive or otherwise—but the sensations, movements, and affects involved in this encounter. To be sure, the HPC assemblage references a representation of the asylum seeker body, if only latently. But shifting away from the image of the suffering human body allows an assemblage theory approach to examine and explore the affective forces that are experienced prior toany semblance of this figure of ‘the asylum seeker’ as a discrete identity. Furthermore, by considering the HPC as an ongoing coming-together of various human and non-human elements, the effectiveness of the campaign and also its implications for how people approach and experience political issues can be understood in a new light. Each instance of political engagement is revealed as a felt event, not simply one that is rationally cognitively processed. In emphasising the affective dimension of the political, the HPC opens up a repertoire of capacities—to feel, to act, and even to ingest—that would not have otherwise been available.
To return to the Deleuzian question, what can an assemblage do, it is useful to revisit the state practices and discourses that create the territory in which the HPC intervenes. In Australia, punishing policies such as the ‘Papua New Guinea solution’ and ‘Operation Sovereign Borders’ treat asylum seekers as disposable, a population marked out for ‘slow death’ (Berlant 102). These policies position asylum seekers as what Puar calls ‘dividuals’, people who no longer count as ‘individuals’ under various regulatory controls; their identity is constituted through association with the group rather than individualised constructions of subjectivity (Terrorist Assemblages 205). In Deleuzian terms, this process can be described as a form of globalised territorialisation where differences within populations are eroded and homogeneity is produced. Gordon Livesey suggests that ideally, an assemblage ‘is innovative and productive. The result of a productive assemblage is a new means of expression, a new territorial/spatial organisation, a new institution, a new behaviour, or a new realisation’ (19). This feature of an assemblage—its production of ‘a new reality, by making numerous, often unexpected, connections’ (19)—is, we’ve argued, precisely what the HPC does: it aims to change the possibilities of orientation towards asylum seekers, by creating new assemblages.
Assemblage as Present-Future: Rethinking Culture
We now shift our focus from the politically charged question of asylum seekers to what may be seen as a more frivolous, though still controversial, area for consideration. We have included the next case study to connect assemblage theory to a particular instance of ‘low’ culture, following the call by queer theorists such as J. Halberstam to embrace an archive drawn from vastly different arenas, ‘in order to push through the divisions between life and art, practice and theory, thinking and doing, and into a more chaotic realm of knowing and unknowing’ (2). We contend that such a focus on an example from ‘low culture’ is an important move to question the moral dimensions that pervade all aspects of life and to explore how these might be thought differently from an assemblage perspective.
On 25 August 2013, popstar Miley Cyrus performed her song ‘We Can’t Stop’ followed by ‘Blurred Lines’ with Robin Thicke, at the Video Music Awards (VMAs) in New York. The event became almost instantly notorious, with 306,000 tweets per minute referring to the performance (Robinson). Predominantly, discussion on the event in the media and online focused on the inclusion of the dance move known as ‘twerking’, criticised by many as appropriating African American culture and/or as problematically sexually explicit. The incident made international news, leading other critiques to emerge, including regarding the media focus on this event at the expense of other news stories. While coverage has arguably reached saturation point, we contend that the emergent conversation has been strikingly homogenous and thus that the case warrants further examination. Though there has been some debate, the dominant line of interrogation has focused almost exclusively on a moral evaluation of whether Cyrus’ performance was appropriate or not—a rather prosaic discussion.
Assemblage theory, conversely, allows us to re-think cultural appropriation and raunch culture in a way that considers the transformative potentials of the event in question, as opposed to the fixed moralistic conclusions already drawn. Rather than focusing on an agential notion of the popstar Miley Cyrus who twerked her body, we instead look at the assemblage of what we refer to as the Twerking Miley Cyrus Body (TMCB). This operation of referring to twerking rather than she twerked allows a conception of the event as recurrent rather than complete; ongoing processes, affects and other events can—and do—change how individual instances of twerking are understood and experienced. This formulation also refigures the body as dispersed, belonging to movement and connected with, rather than foundedin, a notion of the subject. Following Deleuze, we move from a question of signification—what does TMCB mean with regards to race and gender—to a question of capacity—what transformations or potentials emerge through TMCB? In other words, while there has been extensive debate about the meaning of this event, instead we ask: what does TMCB do?
Vital to our discussion is the idea that the prolonged repetition of the TMCB event means that it cannot be considered as occurring at a specific time and place. Though there may be a timeframe that has come to signify the twerking incident (those moments of the pulsating buttocks at the VMAs), assemblage theory troubles this notion of the detached episode. Encounters with TMCB, from the perspective of the viewers in the arena audience, viewers at home, those connecting via Twitter, those viewing written information in blogs and articles, watching the video via YouTube, those responding to responses, or merely meeting TMCB in conversation, continue to proliferate. In particular, moments of the performance captured within GIFs on the Internet loop the visual information of twerking movements on repeat. This provides a literal sense of the TMCB as never-ending, a continual vibration, as always becoming, to be encountered anew each time. It is this iteration of the event that draws attention to the contingent and always-different assemblage of its parts, which allows us to ask questions about what an event is doing instead of what it once did. If TMBC is happening again and again, differently in each encounter, how is it continuously changing the assemblages it enters into? What effects is it continuing to have, and how are its own capacities shifted with each encounter?
From an assemblage perspective, the rate of Twitter responses as well as other interest on this topic can be seen as more than just a swell of banal public attention. Rather than considering the moral debates contested in these arenas, data transfer yields a new kind of significance. Taking Puar’s notion of assemblage as related to ‘informational flows’ and ‘an affective conglomeration’ (Terrorist Assemblages 201, 211), we might consider the ways in which information thickened in the debate around particular notions to re-fix identities (the black versus white body, the female body as sexual), and what role sensations (becoming hardened feelings) played in this. This approach asks us to consider affect in relation to the assemblage as a change in potential, demonstrated through things such as: the prickling heat felt by some that merged into outrage; the excitement of flesh revealed forgotten as an impossible desire or perhaps conceptualised as an exasperating setback to women; or even the little to no bodily response in the first instance that increased to numbness felt as frustration due to repetition of information, blocking the emergence of other stories, videos and status updates. Indeed, in relation to this last example, the site ‘Miley Cyrus Twerking on Things We Should Talk About’ has materialised, which shows images and articles of recent news events with an overlaid image of Miley Cyrus twerking in an attempt to siphon-off attention to ‘real’ news issues. Seen as part of the TMCB assemblage anew, the effectiveness of the site may be related to the affective dimensions of TMCB, which have converged into a general state of public attention: the vibration and flow of TMCB that sticks onto all manner of bodies and hooks into different machines. Flows of information, in this sense, are more than just a means to access the TMCB; they are also an active part of the TMBC assemblage, inciting affects and movements and emerging as forces in themselves.
In this way, the lengthening of the TMCB event extends as a ‘present-future’ (Puar, Terrorist Assemblages 204), a shifting assemblage continually constituted throughout time. The event of TMCB emerges from an affect-infused ‘historical present’ (Berlant 9), related to various temporally-construed bodies. The coagulation of an idea of twerking has emerged historically with a strong connection to African Americans. However this linear origin story becomes blurred if we consider the way in which no movement categorically known as twerking has been one and the same. Typically, twerking has been signified as a movement involving a human subject with parted legs, bent over with shaking buttocks. However, these movements collectively termed ‘twerking’ have always involved multiple bodies, surroundings, sounds and sensations, which are always dynamically shifting. Further, the African American population grouping may also be understood as an emergent assembly despite amorphous parts. Following Puar (Terrorist Assemblages) on the issue of minority group identity, we contend that the connectivity between the movement of twerking and the population of African Americans involves a kind of territorialisation process whereby movement (in this case, the shaking, vibrating buttocks) has become intertwined with a simultaneous demarcation of the body as part of this population—the notion that this is how the black body moves. In turn, in a political environment where the black body is marked as other, such a movement has been (re)claimed by those within the categorisation, staked as a kind of capital owned by the disenfranchised—this movement belongs to the black body. Thus, for the TMCB to appear in relation to the emergent majority population, the white American body steeped in a history of colonial domination, it appears as (yet another) colonisation of the minority.
Condemning this connection as colonisation helps to ground and solidify the populations in question, and obscures the non-homogeneity and deterritorialisation occurring for all instances of twerking, and further territorialises black versus white bodies. Given the contention that the TCMB is functioning as an assemblage, a non-individuated body, this allows us to consider the process as also occurring throughout a range of interconnected non-discrete elements. Here, Deleuze and Guattari’s idea of the rhizome is again relevant, as it refers to the prolific interconnectivity that makes up assemblages. Assemblages do not arise from linear genealogical roots to be traced, but rather are heterogeneous multiplicities that evolve with ever-increasing connections. From this perspective, the cultural reference involved in TMCB is re-thought as a transformative connection that might break open that territorialisation of the African American population and allows for movement in a different configuration. This is not to say that the process undertaken by the TMCB is inherently ‘good’ in a moral sense, since the event poses a new kind of homogenising force, especially as we continue to rely on identities and the idea of a population as a reality, which may enfold the minority population into that of the majority. Yet an assemblage perspective asks us to keep in mind that there is always a risk of hardening population realness, in the sense that such identity positions represent a stable present and future of ‘what one is and will continue to be’ rather than conveying a sense of fluidity or flux (Puar, Terrorist Assemblages 215). In this instance, this relates to a risk of solidification of the idea that the black body is always-already colonised and the white body is always-already a colonising force.
Similarly to the issue of cultural appropriation, much reflection on the TMCB has focused on questions of its perceived sexual content. Words such as ‘vulgar’, ‘obscene’ and ‘crude’ have circulated through much coverage, as images emerged of Cyrus’ lolling tongue, nude latex underwear and a giant foam hand pointing at her crotch. Drenched in historical-presents relating to American traditional family values versus women’s liberation versus new-wave feminism, encounters with TMCB have caused a stir from multiple perspectives evaluating the sexual morality of the display. A blog post entitled ‘Dear daughter, let Miley Cyrus be a lesson to you’ spread virally on the Internet, which argued that such displays of the female form mean that men will ‘see only a body that can be used for their pleasure and then forgotten’ (Roadkill Goldfish). Such perspectives only allow room for a narrow bandwidth of evaluation: either TMCB is corrupt, or it is permissible. However, from an assemblage perspective, we might think of the transformative possibilities opened up by TMCB in the same way that we re-thought the issue of cultural appropriation.
Signifiers of sexuality marked out in the TMCB event have been historically, rhizomatically connected with populations of women. Here, we can see a fear circulating from both conservative and feminist sides of the moral debate that the affects of the TMCB may be contagious. This idea is reflected in the use of the phrase ‘raunch culture’ in popular discussion of the event—the idea that women contribute to their subordination through endorsing themselves as sexual objects, promoting a polluting culture of overt female sexualisation (Levy 3). TMCB might infect young women, who will then desire to become part of this assemblage, evolving and extending the TMCB with their own exposed flesh and bouncing buttocks. Assemblage analysis of the responses to TMCB reveals that there is also a related anxiety that this event might serve to territorialise women’s bodies as always-already objects subject to men’s desires. This isn’t even to mention a possible fear over the unspeakable desire from both gendered populations that might circulate around seeing exposed flesh mashed up with grotesque flailing limbs and the outstretched tongue of TMCB—a desire for connection to this body, this event, the perpetual TMCB.
While an appraisal of the moral tolerability of the performance allows for very limited discussion, looking at TMCB as a complex and shifting assemblage opens up a realm of considerations that question fundamental categories and assumptions about history, the present, and the future of the event. We propose considering TMCB as emerging from a temporal intertwining of dynamic information flows, such that there continue to be multiple transformations for bodies globally. Assemblage theory brings to the foreground concerns for the circulation of affects, sensations and desire, and the multifaceted connections that contribute to the emergence of events and the responses to encountering these. Ultimately, assemblage theory allows us to open up our way of thinking; to take a break from moral evaluations and instead consider other possibilities and ways of approaching issues in a more fluid form. Inevitably, this leads to more questions rather than distinct answers.
Assemblage as Capacity: New Formations of Technology and Ability
To this point we have considered case studies which have involved an interrogation of some kind of direct moral imperative—to safeguard and value human life equally (HPC); to curate popular culture in a particular way (TMCB). Assemblage theory is particularly useful for these particular cases because there is much to ‘air out’ in the way of assumptions and theoretical preconceptions. This next case study, however, considers how assemblage theory might work when it encounters a seemingly uncontroversial issue.
In a video onYouTube entitled ‘The effects of DBS on the motor symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease’ (Johnson) a man sits in a chair in his living room: ‘Hi, my name is AJ. I’m 39 years old, and I suffer from Parkinson’s’. He explains that he has had Deep Brain Stimulation surgery (DBS), which connects two nodes ‘deep inside’ his brain to a pacemaker in his chest. These nodes provide a ‘steady stream of electricity’ to help ease some of his symptoms. There is a remote to externally control the stimulator, and AJ announces that he is going to show us what happens when he turns his stimulator off. First, outstretched hands—they’re steady. One hand pushes a button on the remote. Hands out again—they’re already shaking. Soon, there is violent jolting, words become halted; with a cramping neck, head pushes to shoulder. The body is unintentionally folding in on itself. Another few seconds, and after almost dropping the remote from his lap, AJ turns the stimulator back on. Almost immediately his body relaxes and he gives a sigh of relief. Hands out again—steady. AJ stands up, and turns off the camera. The video has clocked 1,239,116 views, with top comments ‘who dislikes this kind of video?’ and ‘wow. Modern day medicine is fucking amazing!’. At first glance, there doesn’t seem to be an issue in this video at all. There is little controversy in the comments, no scandalous backstory, and there have been no consequent political events. It is simply a three-minute video of a man with Parkinson’s, showing us how surgery has improved his ability to live his everyday life.
Herein lies our interest: ability. A traditional, representational approach to the DBS-body might claim that the video is primarily about the depletion and restoration of identity, centred on AJ’s status as ‘disabled’. It might also argue that, as a white middle-age male living in New Zealand, he is not only more likely to access cutting-edge treatment for early-onset Parkinson’s, but also more likely to escape the stigma of disability as an always-already rational individual who deeply desires a socially ‘competent’ body. His appearance on the video is a specific accomplishment of a variety of discourses—medico-bio-scientific; the ‘digital age’ imperative to create and maintain the self through the medium of the Internet; etc.—and, in this way, represents how modern Western ideology produces specific kinds of bodies. Assemblage theory wouldn’t deny that these factors have a bearing on the situation—they certainly impact this assemblage. However, such a perspective would contest that we start with these kinds of observations as a basis for understanding and critique. Instead, assemblage theory would suggest that we rephrase the problem of identity into an event of relations. Deleuze tackles the issue in ‘What Can A Body Do?’, arguing that a body’s capacity is defined in terms of its ability to affect and be affected. As Deleuze states,
Growth, aging, illness: we can hardly recognise the same individual. And is it really indeed the same individual? Such changes, whether imperceptible or abrupt, in the relation that characterises a body, may also be seen in its capacity of being affected. (222)
By focusing on capacity, our attention shifts from taking the content of events as the primary site of evaluation, towards looking at what the event does, and more importantly, what the event can allow bodies to do (Dewsbury). The event of the video is a great variety of relations working as assemblage: movement (shaking; not shaking); feelings (distress and pain; no pain and being at ease); objects (stimulator; brain; hands and arms; living room; chair; camera), affects (the embodied anticipation of turning the stimulator off, then on again), practices (the practice of experiencing and reacting to a shaking body), and signifiers (his explanation of the surgery, Parkinson’s, his physical sensations and emotions), as well as an infinity of potential rhizomatic connections to be made between its parts.
Taking an affective approach to the DBS-body, we can see that there is something of a battlefield of powers of perseverance, which leads to distinct changes in territorialisation. First, the most striking aspect is the violence and speed of the effects of the stimulator. Within three seconds of switching off, the body is shaking hard enough to make his hands blurry on screen. The hands are an especially important part of this assemblage for the viewer, as they demonstrate the emergence through its non-presence of the DBS stimulator. They mark a passing of time and become a focus of intensity and movement. The intensive flows that travel across the rest of his body do the same: increasingly jolting and halted movements and speech, noises of shifting in the chair and occasional grunts, squinting of the eyes, the motion of the body curling inward, and narration, are all effects of a qualitative shift in capacity. Even the living room ‘setting’ is integral; it imbues the scene with comfort, safety and homeliness, a space dramatically disrupted by the risk of a shaking body. Gravity and speed also threaten at the moment when the remote is nearly dropped. This promise of a painful future hangs in the air for a few tense moments. Then the loud sigh of relief when the DBS is turned back on is the first marker of a new territory—similar to before turning off, but not the same. While only seconds ago this body was curling into a nexus of uncomfortable and debilitating intensities, now this body has become capable of a different set of processes. This, rather than dispelling the distress of the immediate past, casts it into relief against this new emergent assemblage. We glimpse not ‘what could have been’ the future of an early-onset Parkinson’s patient, but rather a vivid emergence of how Parkinson’s becomes into the DBS-mediated assemblage; the shaking-Parkinson’s-body lies just behind the surface of the remote.
Shifting perspective, another vital aspect of the DBS-body as assemblage is its capture as a video on the Internet. As in the case of TMCB and extending upon our earlier discussion, the Internet introduces a new surface of the event. The event—actualised as a screen on a computer, a window in a browser, a rectangle of embedded video, and the trillions of lines and packets of code travelling across oceans as pulses of light down a cable, converging into a single ‘virtual’ event—can be repeated again and again. Though one might be unlikely to watch the video more than a handful of times, the ability to re-watch is an embedded expectation in the act of watching—along with the ability to pause, go back, jump forward, and navigate away from the video at any time. And so, even in the viewer there are capacities at play, which emerge in conjunction with the assemblage of the video. If we seriously consider the Internet as an assemblage which intervenes into events like the DBS video, then the event of the DBS-body as assemblage becomes a part of a different kind of flow—of movements, speeds, sounds, signifiers and territories—that makes up the experience of digitised information and its consumption.
Returning to the assemblage on screen, the DBS-body as assemblage also allows us to question the tendency to express Parkinson’s in negative terms, as disability. Instead, assemblage might see disability as marked by the distance between relations. For example, an ‘intellectual disability’ like autism is commonly marked as compromising social relations to other humans, and a physical disability like paraplegia is understood as an inability to relate to the physical world through the specific act of walking. However, both cases can also be seen as productive of new, rhizomatic, relations. Autism can sometimes create deep affects, sensations and even novel language between the person and specific objects or processes, and losing the use of legs creates an entirely new way of moving through space, with or without prosthetics. The benefit of looking at the DBS-body in terms of capacity, then, is that what we have generally thought of as biological conditions which deplete the body—like Parkinson’s—can, using assemblage theory, be thought instead in terms of intervening formations (such as the DBS) which allow different kinds of movements to emerge (the non-shaking DBS-body). Despite ‘the doubt about its political “applicability”’ (Puar, ‘“I would rather be a cyborg”’ 50), assemblage theory thus has the potential to be the basis of a new kind of politics of transformation.
This still posits a fraught ethical situation: how we decide whose capacities should be increased? If we take this approach liminally to AJ, we could seemingly absurdly argue that, even though it is a degenerative disease which causes brain cell death, the stimulator decreases the capacity of the Parkinson’s to express itself in the body. Should Small Pox have been allowed to continue, simply because it had such an enormous capacity to enter such a wide spectrum of assemblages, and to act on such a variety of bodies and assemblages? Such questions are more inflammatory than challenging, in this case because they ignore the fact that lethal diseases ultimately deplete capacity (if only because they drastically reduce the number of bodies available to act). Part of the point of assemblage theory (according to Deleuze and Guattari, at least) is that it doesn’t necessarily give solutions. Assemblages aren’t interested in solutions because ‘solutions’ tend to be given as representations rather than as contingent processes. What assemblage theory is interested in are different kinds of ways of looking at—and thereby entering—events. Indeed, Steven Shaviro argues that assemblage theory,
is not a totalisation, a deﬁnitive tracing of limits, or a ﬁnal theory of everything. It is rather an expansion of possibilities, an invention of new methods and new perspectives, an active ‘entertainment’ of things, feelings, ideas, and propositions that were previously unavailable to us. (148–149)
The argument is that we are much more capable of acting—that is, affecting and being able to affect—after approaching the event with the idea of the infinite ways that other bodies and assemblages could possibly act.
Conclusion: What Can Assemblage Theory Do?
In this paper, through apparently disparate case studies, we have sought to provide an experimental approach to assemblage to illuminate both the transformative capacity of this theory while also exposing its limitations. One clear limit of this theorising is that in discussing and analysing these cases, we too created territories and marked out the boundaries of the little machinic assemblages we sought to describe. Despite our own forces of territorialisation, we maintain that thinking through assemblages provides compelling ways to approach numerous events. Assemblage theory brackets evaluative moral questions and instead encourages new and divergent thoughts, to yield new lines of inquiry. In our first case study, considering advocacy strategies as assemblages helped to draw out the importance of the affective dimensions in these campaigns, which might otherwise be overlooked from a purely representational focus on cognitive-informational engagement with political issues. Further, our second case study revealed the way in which questions of culture can be opened up through exploring the temporal dimensions of events as assemblage, provoking a call to re-examine responses structured around discrete representational identities. Finally, our third case study proposed that thinking through the relationship between technologies and bodies as assemblages has the potential to transform our understanding of disability in terms of capacity, and to rethink the limits of the ‘human’ body.
Despite the exciting modes of engagement offered by assemblage theory, in all of these cases questions proliferated while concrete answers diminished. One might argue that although challenging standard moral evaluations is most certainly interesting, in life we find that we are still left with ultimate decisions to make, imperatives to act and respond. Here, we offer this: opening up events through an assemblage perspective makes us that much more capable of acting. Shifting perspective to theoretically consider the role of assemblages and their affective dimensions transforms our capacity to act by virtue of bringing new ideas to surface. Further, experimenting with assemblage may help move us toward an immanent ethic in which a new imperative calls out: to increase our capacity to affect and be affected, to open ourselves up to transformation. In this sense, we advocate that the challenge to dominant modes of thinking provided by assemblage is not merelyan interesting approach, but rather is a productive theoretical tool. As we have illustrated, what assemblage theory can do is yield surprising results that hint toward new directions for matters as diverse as creating political advocacy strategies, engaging with popular culture in new ways, and extending our understanding of human-technology relations.
Perhaps it is fitting to end our discussion with a brief reflection on the way in which this paper also functions as an assemblage. As four authors creating this piece, we have discovered that through reading, discussing and writing together, the final paper emergent from this process truly exceeds our individual intentions. We ourselves have functioned as part of a dynamic assemblage, hooking in and out as words have become cut, connected and shifted around pages, in conducting an experimental application of assemblage. But as to the meaning of this paper—we cannot conclude. For it is but a little machine, that exists outside of us.
Rosanne Kennedy is an Associate Professor and Head of the School of Cultural Inquiry, at the Australian National University (ANU). She publishes on memory, testimony and witnessing in Australia and transnational contexts. She has recently edited, with Susannah Radstone, a special issue on ‘Memory Up Close: Memory Studies in Australia’, Memory Studies 6.3 (2013).
Jonathon Zapasnik is a PhD candidate in the School of Cultural Inquiry at the ANU. His work focuses on how bodies affectively remember sexual experiences and how these affective memories are mediated in contemporary life writing.
Hannah McCann is a PhD candidate in the School of Sociology at the ANU and is also the ANU Gender Institute’s Inaugural PhD Scholar. Her work looks at the concept of femininity in relation to contemporary feminist writing and the queer subcultural femme community.
Miranda Bruce is currently completing her honours year in the School of Sociology at the ANU. Her work considers the affective dimensions of the Internet, specifically with regard to users of the site reddit.
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