System Failure

In the week or so since my family and I regained power, I’ve been thinking about the systems in which we are embedded, and what happens when those systems fail. In particular, this notion of an “assemblage” has been tumbling around in my brain, a fancy piece of critical theory jargon that is actually quite useful.1

For our purposes here, assemblages are groupings of “interpenetrating bodies,”2 complex systems that “emerge from their environment,” consisting in “pathways” (or networks) of interrelated “corporeal” and “incorporeal machines.”3 In simpler terms, an assemblage is a system composed of human and nonhuman entities and material and immaterial forces, affected and influenced by and affecting and influencing others systems with which it exists in close proximity (whether spatially or ideologically). Or even simpler: my phone and I (as discussed in my first post here) are an assemblage, two distinct but connected, interdependent bodies.

In talking about these complex systems, some parameters are necessary. Assemblages (equivalent terms being “systems,” “apparatuses,” or “machines”) are ”definite things, discrete from other machines, but also ongoing processes.” They possess both “operational closure” and “structural openness,” which means that an assemblage is “capable of receiving certain forms of inputs from [its] environment” and that ”those inputs are shaped to fit specific forms dictated by [it].”4 All this is to say that an assemblage is multi-focal, multi-directional, and multi-tiered—distinctly, definitively multiple—and that it is productive as a mental concept for this very reason, a nigh omnipotent term in all its shifting and sliding meaning.

But when it comes to day-to-day life, apart from all this theoretical blathering and effusive quote pulling, assemblage theory can be practically employed almost anywhere. When I worked as a barista, for instance, I operated within the Starbucks assemblage, connected to, yet distinct from, the espresso machines and the customers and my coworkers and the ideology of the organization. Even things so insignificant and inconsequential as the feeling of banana loaf fresh from the package (fresh from the package? what a phrase to type), the beeping of cleaning cycle timers, or the very particular application of pressure required to put the new no-name lids (they used to be SOLO lids) on the cups that (we were all fairly certain) had been reduced in thickness by two or three percent to save Starbucks money, but, as a result, were lacking in structural integrity—all these things—material, corporeal things—contributed to the existential (one could even say, spiritual) reality of being a barista. 

Today, walking into Starbucks as a customer, the feeling is strange. The material reality remains (though I don’t remove banana loaf from its packaging anymore, nor am I beholden to those tyrannical timers), but my existential reality has changed. I am the same, and yet I am not; I am not the same, and yet I am. The boundaries of self become tenuous. Assemblage theory allows me to interrogate these boundaries and how I, a complex entity, cross them daily. As essentially networked beings, we exist across borders, liminal, multiple, and still, somehow, marvelously distinct.

I could dig deeper into the pathways I have created with Starbucks (for better and for worse), or I could move on and talk about the other systems I inhabit (the Apple technosphere; Tumblr where you are reading this blog; the Elder Scrolls Online, an MMO I’m procrastinating with these days; my family; my friends) but I want to return to failure, those glitches in the system that reveal to us the bones of the apparatus. The storm was one such glitch. And this week has been another one.

I’m stuck in late-summer limbo. My summer semester in France ended just over two months ago, and the Fall semester has yet to begin. I finished my undergraduate thesis in the Spring, but I still have this one dangling term to complete, and even though I feel like a graduate student, I’m not. I’m in between jobs, and I’ve had interviews, and have more scheduled, but I’m still unemployed and I’m just spending my savings while I wait. I’m in a relationship that is healthy and fun and beautiful, but my girlfriend is out of town and I’ve spent the last two weeks like I’m single, eating nachos and eggs on toast, hanging out with my guy friends, wearing sweatpants, and playing video games. I’ve put some old writing projects to rest, and started some new ones, but I’m still trying to figure out where I’m going with them. All in all, I’ve found myself waiting, floating in a torpor of expectation. Normally, I would mope. But this time around, Deleuze and Guattari—that conjunctive bludgeon—were there to distract me and illuminate my discomfort.

The discomfort of waiting, of expecting, is the direct product of an ontological dislocation. Moving to France for two months distanced me from many of the significant systems in my life,and severed me completely from some others. The discomfort, here, looking back, is in realizing that I am not a seamless whole (refer to note 1), that I am not total in myself, but that I am a part and process of a much greater system. The distinct individual, subject to none, is a myth: we are distinct insofar as we are open to our others, and our distinctness is valuable insofar as it exists in relation with other distinct beings.Stepping away from my others, and now, returned—returning (always)to them, I see how inextricably connected we are. This discomfort isn’t a burden: it’s a gift.


  1. A brief history, from the University of Texas Theory Wiki: “Assemblage theory finds its roots in the work of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari [and] … is more fully developed by Maneul DeLanda in A New Philosophy of Science. This method of theorizing developed as an alternative to conceptualizing systems as organisms, that is, like seamless wholes.” 

  2. Dukes, Hunter. “In an Empire of the Dead.” Los Angeles Review of Books. 17 July 2015. Web. 

  3. Lowrie, Ian. “Corporeal and Incorporeal Machines.” Los Angeles Review of Books. 30 June 2015. Web. 

  4. All terms in this paragraph are pulled from Lowrie, cited in 3. 

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