Assemblage: Inorganic Form

Autumn 2016-2017


Bill Brown

This course is an experiment that seeks to develop some significant relation between assemblage understood as an artistic practice that came to thrive in the 20th century, and assemblage deployed as an analytic—a master trope within various fields (archaeology, anthropology, human geography, urban and social theory). Tracking the different uses of the term entails a particular complication: the fact that Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of agencement has been translated (by Brian Massumi and others) as assemblage in what has come to called, in the 21st century, “assemblage theory.” Thus assemblage as an artistic practice bears no genealogical relation to assemblage theory. But what if it did? You could say that the experiment of the course proceeds as if to effect a faux genealogy. It does so in order to ask how the literary, visual, and plastic arts art might be re-thought in light of a conceptual enterprise outside aesthetics; to ask how this art might move us to recalibrate the conceptual enterprise; and to ask how a specific work of art, mediated by those questions, might become a theoretical enterprise of its own (prompting questions about the epistemological or ontological status of individuals, objects, spaces, &c.). Our collective task will be to compile a lexicon with which to address the formed/formless character of assemblage as a literary practice, and to think through an analytical practice that helps to animate this literature. The course will be conceptually rangy. An historical center of gravity will be provided by “The Art of Assemblage,” an exhibition that MoMA held in 1961, and by William Carlos William’s “compiled” epic, Paterson (the last fragments of which he typed in 1961), by William Burroughs’ cut-up trilogy, and by the early poetry of John Ashberry. We will also engage the visual and plastic arts of the post-war era (work by Joseph Cornell, Lee Bonetcou, and Louise Nevelson for instance, and above all by Robert Rauschenberg—his “combines”). How do you apprehend the distinction between organic and inorganic form? The course will also move backwards, forwards, and sideways: backwards to T.S. Eliot, by Ezra Pound, and earlier work by Williams, and to the collage, montage, and assemblage techniques of the modernists; forwards to some urban design concepts, and to recent installation work; and sideways to conceptual ambitions that relate to those within assemblage theory (e.g., Cyborg Theory, Actor-Network Theory). (20th/21st)