Urban Collectives: human-material assemblages

by Jesper Magnusson

Materialities, Cluster 14: New Materialisms

Notions on the concepts urban collectives and collective space (as a parallel understanding of public life and public space) in the context of an actor-network ontology.

“What living together is. What is the collective? This question fascinates us now.”
(Serres, 2007 p.224)

People gather in certain locations to perform activities, consciously or unconsciously producing collectives. The collective spaces are to various degrees designed, transformed and equipped to produce and maintain specific collectives and their activities. The urban collective space is thus a socio-material assemblage in an urban setting. The collectives can be weak (serial collectives) or strong (group collectives), temporal and loosely organized or more durable and perhaps thoroughly structured. The weak (serial) collectives gather for example in a designated space to wait for a bus or in a market to buy fruit while others, the strong collectives (group), assembles for example to play boule or street basket. In this blog-post I will try to illuminate some aspects on the concept urban collective space, applying notions from the cluster texts.

In her book “Vibrant Matter” (2010) Jane Bennet draws on concepts produced by Spinoza (conative and affective bodies) and Deleuze/Guattari (assemblage, agency and adsorbsion) to form her primary notions on “thinking beyond the life-matter binary“. From these concepts Bennet develops her ideas on material agency.

Spinoza´s conative and affective bodies are “social bodies, in the sense that each is, by its very nature as a body, continuously affecting and being affected by other bodies.” (Ibid, p.21). Spinoza argues that the affective bodies (actors) “form alliances and enter assemblages” (Ibid p.22) and that the assemblages as well as their individual bodies are both conative and affective. Deleuze reaches a similar conclusion with his concept adsorbsion, which Bennet defines as “a gathering of elements in a way that both forms a coalition and yet preserves something of the agential impetus of each element.” (Ibid, p.35) Jane Bennet rephrases it “Each member and proto-member of the assemblage has a certain vital force, but there is also an effectivity proper to the grouping as such: an agency of the assemblage. (…), an assemblage is never a stolid block but an open-ended collective” (Ibid, p.24) The collective spaces are assemblages of human and non-human actors, all with separate and multiple agencies. The collective develop agencies of it´s own, without erasing the agencies of its individual members (actors) – in an adsorbion fashion. The market place, as a collective space, has exclusive agencies. The individual market stalls, being subordinated assemblages, have their own specific agencies as well as the visiting customers (members).

Spinoza advocates “that the more kinds of bodies with which a body can affiliate, the better” (Ibid, p.22). Spinozas´ words can be interpreted as the collective getting stronger the more actors entering and thus supporting the assemblage … As an example we can take a street basketball collective, gathering once a week in a parking lot. Due to the configuration of the parked cars they mount their mobile basketball system and agree about the territorial boundaries for the game. The collective is produced and maintained as a loose, temporal network of humans, a space and some specific material artefacts. In a schoolyard nearby we find a noticeably stronger collective. The schoolyard harbours a full size basketball court, with lines painted on the ground and permanent basketball boards. A group of children use the court everyday, on lunch breaks and in the afternoons. In this second example the collective is stabilised by extensive social, administrative, territorial and material supporting structures.

Another interesting concept presented by Jane Bennet is the Chinese shi. Shi originates from military strategy terminology. The concept captures the complex formation of assemblage agency. It does so by maintaining that the assemblage (as the collective) “owes its agentic capacity to the vitality of the materialities that constitute it.” (Ibid, p.34). Bennet further clarifies that “the dynamic force emanating from a spatio-temporal configuration rather than from any particular element within it.”(Ibid, p.35) Consequently the key tenets of shi are: the sovereign agency of the assemblage (collective), the independent agency of matter and the importance of “the very disposition of things.” (Jullien, Francois, Propensity of Things, 1995 p.13 in Bennet 2010, p.35). Transferred to the urban space discourse the concept shi may serve as a point of reference, especially in the context of actor-network ontology.

In his text “Theory of the Quasi Object” (2007) Michel Serres examines the transgression from an “I” to a “We” and from “being” to “relation” when gathering or grouping, i.e. forming collectives. “It is rigorously the transsubstantiation of being into relation. Being is abolished for the relation. Collective ecstasy is the abandon of the “I”‘s on the tissue of relations.” (Serres, p.228) Serres puts focus on the emergence of the assemblage, the transformation of individual subjects and objects into relational networks that reconstitute multiple “I”´s into a “We”. Serres perspective gives me reasons to study how the networks transform the actors and what makes them enter collectives. A human actor is driven into the collective by various reasons and forces. In the collective the actor form (and is caught by) numerous tight and vibrant relations with other actors in the collective. The context of the collective network transforms the actor and turns her/him into a we-actor (wactor?). The beings are replaced with relations, the objects with the network.

Jane Bennett, ‘The Agency of Assemblages’, in Vibrant Matter, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2010

Michel Serres, ‘Theory of the Quasi Object’ in Parasite, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007.