Assemblage

N. Bucky Stanton

An assemblage is a combination of physical and abstract elements that, together, produce effects in the world while depending and being dependent on other assemblages for their existence and effects.

N. Bucky Stanton is a PhD Candidate in the department of Science & Technology Studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. His dissertation investigates natural and cultural resource extraction in the central Peloponnese of Greece, exploring the history and politics of archeology, energy and modernity in contemporary Greece.

Tracing the Assemblage(s) of Archaeology

On a searing summer afternoon in southern Greece, a history is being constructed by an archaeological machine. I am part of this machine, acting as a surveyor. Using metal rods with reflective mirrors and an electronic measuring device known as a Total Station, we record the site as a series of data points that are later processed into a simple map. From there, a digital is created. This process takes place for every trench, every excavated layer, and every significant artifact (pieces of metal, fragments of statues, large blocks of stone, etc.). After the topography team is done, the survey team takes measurements that they align with spatial and temporal models of the site. As we call in by radio to give my supervisor another data point, I wipe the sweat from my brow and scan the lower sanctuary of Mount Lykaion.

Before me is an array of things, people, and techniques, all working together to excavate, analyze, and produce an understanding of the site. This array includes: the survey data on the hard drive of the Total Station; plastic buckets loaded with newly excavated, muddy tiles; yesterday’s trowels and shovels waiting to be sharpened; site directors and supervisors discussing their findings and how they align with the description of the site made by the ancient geographer, Pausanias; and LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) data. My supervisor radios back to confirm reception of my data and to tell me to hop in a trench while he starts up the drone to take aerial photographs.

I jump into the closest trench, ready to help. It is dense with material today, including partially exposed ceramics, animal bones, and other refuse requiring systematic, layer-by-layer, excavation. Helping one of the archaeologists, I pull out a fairly intact roof tile. We discuss its features. Using her scholarly expertise, the archaeologist identifies it as a vaguely Hellenistic tile, Type 1 or 2, noting the texture and color of its exposed center. She then tells me excitedly about an earlier find from another trench, a small piece of rare pottery. Soon, the work day ends, and we pack up. I carry back a weighty bucket of tiles, along with my survey equipment, back to the vans. We return to the laboratory in the village below the site.

Back at the lab, the organic and non-organic artifacts are gently cleaned, left to dry in the sun, and further processed. The lab team ‘reads’ the artifacts and fits them into existent categorization models. Minor differences in the color, texture, and consistency of ceramic materials results in them being given different names, interpretations, and chronological assignments. Using microscopes, chemical analysis, and other methods, the lab team interprets the artifacts further, in order to make their ultimate interpretation. These interpretations are not unique to our archaeological site, but are also referenced to a meta-collection of materials that have been catalogued throughout the archaeological excavation. This means that they also are subject to the same assumptions, ambiguities, and mistakes that have previously been made in classifying other artifacts.

This whole excavation machine produces “artifactual data,” which is both influenced by and influences classifications across the field of archaeology. Yet the history it constructs is multiple, which means it can be organized and understood in different ways. For example, it could be aligned with a period in history (e.g., the “Early Helladic I”), a discipline (e.g, “Eastern Mediterranean Iron Age Archaeology”), or a publication (e.g., the book, Wonders and Mysteries of Mount Lykaion). Together, the excavation machine, the data, the way it is interpreted, and how it aligns with previous work creates an assemblage.

What makes it an assemblage is that, even as it can be put together in one way, it can also be continually undone and re-done by other work. Over time, historical periods are questioned and redefined in the face of new evidence. Disciplines expand and contract as their frameworks are negotiated by practitioners and the institutions that maintain them. And books are researched, written, and published, but then face being dismantled as readers experience and interpret them. (In some cases, books are also dismantled by the humidity of the room they are kept in, by the transformation of the languages in which they are written, and by other changes.) Assemblages are inherently able to live, grow, decay, and even die as the elements and relationships that make them change over time.

The archaeological assemblage I participated in on Mount Lykaion is further embedded in other structures and relationships, themselves assembled: foreign and regional universities that operate excavation sites; scholarly societies and funding institutions; the Greek national ministry of culture and its local branch; policies that govern artifact removal; storage and shipment practices that the Greek state and foreign nations negotiate. Even more broadly, the assemblage is also connected to the cultural heritage funding schemes of the European Union and institutions like UNESCO World Heritage. And, transecting all these bodies and processes are the effects they produce, from the production and value of artifacts to heritage management plans and even feelings of wonder and connection to the construction known as ‘the Western tradition’.

At the level of theory, an assemblage holds its many parts together, forming a productive arrangement that is often enveloped by other assemblages. The example above is about archaeology, but the idea of assemblages can apply to all sorts of social situations. We humans are inextricably parts of assemblages ourselves, including other humans, but also the things we interact with and the relationships that guide that interaction. The past itself is not an assemblage, but the ways we represent it, give meaning to it, govern it, and make history from it are.

So why are assemblages important if they are without boundaries and continually changing? It is because the ways we understand them, our definitions and participation in them, also create limits that in turn can create, construct, destroy, and redefine other assemblages. By understanding that assemblages are a conceptual representation of the constant ‘tuning process’ of both social and material forces, we can critically understand that neither the social nor material is pre-given. By extension, the fundamentally defined elements of experience—and the additive thing we call reality—are also not given, inherent, or obvious. Everything is made. Concepts are physical and matter is abstract.

 

Discussion Questions

  • Recall a group of people and tools and techniques, like the archaeological machine described above, of which you have been a part. As a group, what did you produce? What happened to the things you produced?
    • Imagine where these things went, and what other machines or assemblages they might have come into contact with. Did the things change because of this contact?
    • Did the things you produced create other effects in the world? Might these effects have influenced other products, ideas, or assemblages? If so, how?
  • Choose a particular object from your daily routine. Try to imagine this object as both an assemblage and in other assemblages. What is it made of? How is it made? What does it mean? To who does it mean what? What is its value? What kind of value does it represent?
  • With these questions (inevitably incompletely) answered, make a sketch, a map, or another sort of representation with the object at the center. Then building off the object, connect it to other assemblages and explore them. For example, a can of shaving cream functions to spray foam, but is also folded into, and enveloped by other assemblages: ideas about shaving, which are related to social and cultural ideas; spaces like the bathroom cabinet where it sits, and the house that is designed around it to contain a particular domestic assemblage; materials like aluminum, soap, and nitrogen.
  • Try to encourage this ‘exploding connectivity’ from the first object, noting the folding of social, cultural, psychic, and material forces into assemblages of objects and ideas that hold relationships and processes together.
  • Reflecting on your sketch or map, find examples of assemblages ‘holding together’ processes. What type of things seem to hold things together more—objects or ideas?

Additional Resources

Agamben, Giorgio. 2009. “What Is an Apparatus?” and other essays. Meridian, Crossing Aesthetics. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Buchanan, Ian. 2021. Assemblage Theory and Method: An Introduction and Guide. New York: Bloomsbury Academic.

Deleuze, Gilles. 1992. “What Is a Dispositif?” In Michel Foucault, Philosopher: Essays, ed. Timothy J. Armstrong. New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf. 159–68.

License

Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

Showing Theory to Know Theory by N. Bucky Stanton is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Digital Object Identifier (DOI)

https://doi.org/10.22215/stkt/sb30

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