Most simply, political ecology can be defined as, “the concerns of ecology and a broadly defined political economy” (Blaikie and Brookfield 1987:3). Thus, while there exists a general consensus that political ecology involves some sort of interaction between nature and culture (loaded terms to be sure), there is no agreement as to what each of these spheres encompasses and how, when and where interactions occur. As Brian Grabbatin has written previously, scholars from many disciplines and theoretical interpretations have approached political ecology in many different ways.
While these various political ecologies have helped to strengthen the political ecology project as a whole, they have also led to confusion as to what political ecology is and claims to study (see Peter Walker’s (2005, 2006, 2007) excellent “Where is?” series in Progress in Human Geography). Many scholars have not helped matters by smugly asserting the superiority of their political ecology and/or rejecting political ecology altogether as flawed (there are many examples, but some of the worst offenders include Braun (2004), Kirsch and Mitchell (2004) and Vayda and Walters (1999)). This essay will specifically examine assemblage theory as a way to bring together these supposedly disparate political ecologies and to overcome the pitfalls of sticking too rigidly to one theoretical camp, concluding with an example of how I used assemblages and political ecology together in my own research.
Assemblage theory, much of which draws loosely on the work of Deleuze and Guattari (1987), is part of a larger body of “relational ontologies” that seek, “to recognize ‘society’ and ‘environment’ in non-dualistic ways” (Castree 2003: 203). Indeed, dualism has long been a problem in political ecology, with many scholars finding it challenging to determine where the line between “humans” and “nature” should be drawn, if at all. More “traditional” Marxian political ecology has often been criticized for either ignoring the “agency of nature” or placing too much emphasis on global capitalist processes at the expense of “the local” (see Bryant 1998; Zimmerer and Bassett 2003), with many political ecologists turning to Latourian actor-network approaches in order to overcome the structure/agency problem (see Murdoch 1995; Castree 2002, among others). However, actor-network approaches (which I would argue are “assemblage light,” as they often employ a cursory reading of Deleuze and Guattari and theory more generally) are often themselves seen as not in fact overcoming human-nature dualism and leaving little room for politics (see Braun 2008; Whatmore 2002; Mutersbaugh and Martin 2012). In order to avoid the problems inherent in both actor-network and Marxian political ecologies, I will argue that a more careful reading of assemblage theory will allow for the creation of a political ecology that is both responsive to various types of agency and considers the relationship between local and non-local processes.
When Deleuze and Guattari’s work is translated from French into English, agencement is rendered as assemblage, connoting merely a collection of things. While this is one meaning of the French term, agencement also implies that these things do not come together in a static arrangement (or network), but have the ability to participate in processes by virtue of assembling, not least of which is disassembling and coming together with different things to create new assemblages and new processes (Phillips 2006). This is perhaps a key difference from apolitical network ecologies, as a focus on the agency of assembled objects provides a point for a theoretical marriage with more traditional Marxist political economy without sacrificing relationality or fetishizing the global (indeed, many tend to forget that Deleuze & Guattari drew heavily on Marx). For my own project, which I will describe in more detail in the next paragraph, this was extremely important is it allowed me to link my empirical observations with larger questions of politics, economy and globalization.
My previous research focused on farm-based energy production in rural Vermont, specifically turning methane from dairy cow manure into electricity. While the actual goings on at the production site were obviously important, it became clear to me early on that energy production was not done solely because of local needs, but was a product of larger discourses about alternative energy, security and climate change. Where I struggled was how to link what happened on the farm to what happened at larger scales (using scale not solely as a spatial metaphor, but also to demonstrate the extent of something’s influence). Agencement became extremely useful to me, as it helped me to frame the technological and political economic practices that led to energy production as a coherent unit (an assemblage), which I was then able to tie to larger scale processes via a boundary object, a referent which allows for communication between and across various assemblages (see Star & Griesemer 1989). Indeed, framing local energy production as an assemblage allowed me to relate discussion surrounding agricultural subsidies in Vermont to seemingly disparate topics such as climate change in Africa and the relationship between oil consumption and national security, an important step that allows a paper to speak to audiences beyond its purported subject.
Assemblages, however, are not perfect. As one must decide what things become components in the assemblage and describe what actions they are responsible for, an assemblage can seem quite arbitrary with components lacking agency. Indeed, perhaps because assemblages are human theoretical creations, I found it difficult to create a truly distributed agency that actually gave the same weight to non-human and non-living things; i.e. while it was easy to say what roles dairy farmers and politicians played in shaping energy production, it was difficult to imagine a purpose for cows and electric generators beyond their crude material functions. Yet despite these drawbacks, when reconsidered to factor in agencement, assemblages can add much to political ecology and serve a major point of interaction between scholars of purportedly incompatible orientation.
Thomas A. Loder
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