Assemblages   Leave a comment

Last night we talked about Bennett’s citing of the the electrical grid as an example of an assemblage:

“a volatile mix of coal, sweat, electromagnetic fields, computer programmes, electron streams, profit motives, heat, lifestyles, nuclear fuel, plastics, fantasies of mastery, static, legislation, water, economic thory, wire and wood” (25, Vibrant Matter).

My husband (a power engineer) accepted Bennett’s description, and concurred with the analysis of the 2003 North American power failure as being attributable to a variety of agential loci (26). One of these loci being the excessive consumption of reactive power. In my husband’s words, reactive power is out of phase power “sloshing around in the network” and users can take it out, and then immediatley put back, like playing catch:

take out 60 VAR

put back 60 VAR

Here is the static VAR compensator at CERN, where my husband works:

Anyway,the grid is dependent on its clients to responsibly compensate in this game of throw and catch, or, as Bennett says, Garrett Hardin’s “Tragedy of the Commons” may arise: the whole assemblage becomes unstable and there is a power blackout.

Bennett proposes that actants therefore need to be aware of operating within a moving whole. She illustrates her point with the example of dynamic off-road biking (38). That made me smile, as her discussion had already made me think of my husband balancing his bike when the traffic lights are on red.

When I am on my bike a red light = STOP! Put your feet down on the tarmac.

Whereas, my husband stays enmeshed within the assemblage, trajectory-bike-gravity-body. He keeps his feet on the peddles, twisting his handlebars 1mm to the right 2mm to the left, shifting his weight forwards a little, backwards a little.

Being enmeshed runs in my husband’s family. His twin is a sommelier and an expert on natural wines: An example of an assemblage that fits with Bennett’s discussion about the Slow Food movement in chapter 3 of VM. Generally, I find the language of biodynamic farming to be more vitalist than vibrant. But, it still places food as an actant connecting inorganic matter and organic life:

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