Michele Lancione (ed), Rethinking Life at the Margins: The Assemblage of Contexts, Subjects and Politics, Routledge, 2016, 236 pp, $127 (hardback), ISBN: 9781472465757

 


See Michele Lancione’s review of Seeing Like a City by Ash Amin and Nigel Thrift

Rethinking Life at the Margin:The Assemblage of Contexts, Subjects and Politics argues that “assemblage thinking” is not only useful for studying processes of marginalization but also a profoundly political exercise. The editor, Michele Lancione, states how the minor politics at stake in the books’ contributions are “characterized by [their] capacity to become, to articulate difference, and to be open to new articulations” (11). Thus, rather than defining a priori what and where the margin is, the book’s essential task is to rethink processes of marginalization through the lived experiences and contexts in which they unfold. The book pushes assemblage thinking’s most important contribution, exactly this attention towards the constant shifts within the making and re-making of marginality.

Michele Lancione’s introduction provides an overview of three analytics through which marginality has commonly been conceptualized. First, he notes a structural analytic that perceives marginality as an outcome of processes of dispossession, exclusion, and exploitation. This approach seeks to identify class/race divisions at play in processes of advanced urban marginalization in contemporary societies. Lancione problematizes this approach, however, as it tends to render one variable structurally more important than others. Second, we turn to relational/grounded research, for example by Ayona Datta, that combines rich ethnographic research with a detailed analysis of juridical frameworks, focusing on the everyday negotiations and interactions of urban squatters in New Delhi with the law. Third, he summarizes postcolonial approaches to the margin that not only focus on the multiplicity of margins (produced through the logics of imperialism, patriarchy, or ethnocentrism) but also seek to challenge them through alternative ways of knowledge production.

Lancione then proposes a fourth analytical approach: a vitalist orientation elaborated through assemblage thinking that promises to be fruitful for the preceding relational/grounded and postcolonial scholars. By focusing on the becomings of life at the margin the vitalist approach shares a concern with both knowledge production and grounded ethnographic work. However, such an approach also pushes for epistemic and ontological re-conceptualizations as assemblage thinking puts humans and non-humans on the same ontological plane. Disregarding the division between subject/object has profound consequences for our understanding of agency and power, making way for an orientation away from these categories to what Lancione (following Spinoza via Deleuze and Guattari) calls turning to the immanence of life. Human and non-human existences thus share the same common ground of socio-material ecologies, co-constituting each other. Such a vitalist approach stresses not only how human-non human life worlds and subjects are mutually constitutive but also how these local assemblages are always imbued with the power to transform, with the potentiality to become otherwise. It is this transformative capacity which gives the vitalist account its relevance to study how Life at the Margin is made and remade.

The politics of such a reconceptualization are carefully developed within the 12 (predominantly urban) case studies of the book that are arranged into three sections, each contributing to a wider set of concerns. Section one, Recontextualization, explores more fully a vitalist position towards processes of marginalization. Kavita Ramakrishnan’s chapter engages with urban planning discourses that aspire New Delhi to become a world class city. She focuses on the discontent, ambiguity, and despair this discourse produces amongst people living in the city’s informal settlement. By foregrounding interviews and ethnographic encounters she paints a careful picture of particular perceptions and responses to dispossessions due to “world class” beautification projects in Delhi. An assemblage perspective helps her to highlight how the urban poor are entangled in the desires that rearrange the city. Francesca Governa and Matteo Puttilli’s chapter focuses on the the materiality of the urban and its’ role in enabling practices before and after the revolution in Tunis. The context of the urban is seen as a vital component to the unfolding of events rather than a mere background in their chapter. Mark Tirpak’s chapter takes the reader to the city of San Antonio (USA) and explores effects of exclusion circulating through the micro assemblages of an urban park revival and associated food truck project. Assemblage thinking is used to produce new insights into the phenomena of gentrification, weaving together economic power, political ambitions, and aesthetic-material practices of the emerging urban zones of zombie-fresas (wealthy consuming-machines). AbdouMaliq Simone’s contribution concludes the section by pointing out how urban spaces can be thought of as a repository of human and non-human agencies that are interlocked and entangled in one another and thus constantly making and remaking urban margins.

The first set of essays brings alive the vitalist approach proposed in the introduction by re-thinking what elements constitute the “contexts” from which marginality arises. Moreover, the chapters are linked through a common search for re-imagining the specific politics that are embedded in these contexts. By being attentive to the mundane, day-to-day urban activities, affects, and aspirations that characterize urban life, the first section contributes to the search of “lines of flight” for questioning what is at stake politically at the Life at the Margins.

The second section, Resubjectification, reconsiders the position of the subject through Lancione’s vitalist approach. A notion of the self-contained individual is replaced through an embedded figure, co-constituted through its milieu. The subject thus emerges as an on-going and never complete process of becoming rather than a static “being” or identity. Tawhanga Mary-Legs Nopera’s chapter on Maori culture in New Zealand makes visible the usefulness of assemblage thinking for advancing post-colonial inquiries into positions at the margin by tracing similarities between the concept of assemblage and Maori concept whakapapa referring to an indigenous understanding of being in and relating to the world. As such the chapter speaks to the quest for new ways of knowledge and theory production, a central concern of post- and de-colonial projects. Tatiana Thieme speaks about Nairobi’s “hustle economy” by presenting the story of Eliza, a young woman who strives to stay connected to her informal neighborhood community whilst simultaneously striving for improving her economic position. The chapter explores the fragilities and ambivalences of subjectivities positioned at the margins between different life-worlds. Gaja Maestri presents the strategies of Roma people in Rome to transcend discriminating and essentializing political categories by “becoming squatters.” Through forming new alliances and deliberately resettling from Roma camps to urban squats, political categories are sought to be escaped as Roma transform into squatters. The second section is concluded by a methodological piece, foregrounding how assemblage thinking also forces us as researchers to consider a re-subjectification whilst being “in the field.” Jean-Baptiste Lanne explores how he and his camera formed a machinic assemblage, breaking and conditioning the flow of information and insights gained during fieldwork in informal settlements in Nairobi. This beautifully written piece gives the reader a taste of what a Deleuze-Guattarian thought-experiment can offer not only for thinking about marginality but also for reflections on positionality in research.

The section thus gives four powerful accounts on the ambiguities, slippages, and uncertainties that an assemblage perspective on the individual can reveal. The politics arising from these contributions explore how Life at the Margin goes beyond and transcends “identity politics” and how people actively engage in constantly (re)negotiating both their social positions and their identities.

The third section, Repoliticization, starts with Francisco Calafate-Faria chapter that explores how the official recycle system in Curitiba (Brazil) involves particular processes of de-territorialisation. Following the materiality of different forms of waste (glass, metal, plastic) the author shows how the continuous marginalization of waste pickers is produced through a splitting between their contributions to the recycling economy and a lack of corresponding participation in the distribution of the created value. (Possibly here a conversation between a vitalist and a structural analytic could emerge in the future?) Eszter Krasznai Kovács’s essay claims that in the context of the northeast Hungarian countryside different groups of people use the marginality of the place (e.g. expressed through lack of reliable transport and other structural indicators such as few economic opportunities in the formal economy) as a strategic advantage to create comfortable “rural” livelihood options that bypass rules and regulations of nation states and (neo)liberal EU policies. Elisabetta Rosa’s chapter on Roma people living in irregular settlements in Turin extends this reconsiderations of what places and what practices constitute marginality by proposing to think of the margin as “a repository of practice-based resources” (184). By attending to their agency within the city, Roma marginality cannot be reduced to a presupposed state of “helplessness,” but rather shows how their presence actively shapes and co-constitutes transformations in the city. Finally, Cheryl Gilge’s essay on processes of marginalizing labour in Web 2.0 opens a distinctively different space of exploring “marginality.” Drawing on Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of microfascism, the author alerts to the potentially dangerous mix of diffuse and yet hierarchical forms of participation offered through Web 2.0 applications. The tension between “alternative” forms of labor and political participation may collapse into forms of “compulsory” practice. The concept of assemblage, Gilge writes, helps us to pause for reflections on these potentialities.

Rather than ending the book with a conclusion the editor decided to close the book with a critical “Opening” by Darren J. Patrick who draws the reader back to the beginning by reformulating the overarching question of the book: “What is the political usefulness of the concept of assemblage for studying Life at the Margin?” Patrick’s contribution situates the emergence of Deleuze-Guattari’s work in the 1968 struggles and as such attests their profound interest in and active contribution to social movements of their time. The chapter then focuses on the context of universities, insisting that we are not “done with” some of these social struggles but rather live in a time where we see the contexts, subjectivities and politics of these struggles morph or “become otherwise.” Assemblage thinking may prove to be one way of addressing these new forms of older struggles and of contributing towards a project to carve out spaces for these “minor politics” that help to articulate differences.

To conclude, what the book offers is an excellent introduction to previous and the proposed vitalist approach to the study of social marginality. The case studies present a fantastic panorama of the politics one can uncover through vitalist thinking and contribute to a clarification of the critical purchase of the concept of assemblage. As 10 out of the 12 fine-grained and detailed case studies have an urban focus the book seems particularly useful for students and scholars interested in a vitalist perception of urban marginality.

The book can be read as an invitation for a close and fruitful conversation between scholars working in the postcolonial and relational/grounded traditions to discuss the politics of post-human Life at the Margin. However, the book might leave one wonder with one question: What can the book offer to scholars of the structural analytic?

On first sight one might agree with Lancione’s assessment that the (ontological and epistemological) differences between vitalism and structuralism are too evident to be bridged. This initial separation seems needed as the book focuses on processes of becoming more than on studying processes that lead to persistent marginalization. However, Deleuze and Guattari developed a diversity of theoretical tools to also address and think through the persistence of heterogeneous relations (e.g. collective assemblages of enunciation, strata) and capitalism (e.g. desiring production) within assemblages. As such the project leaves future scope to carve out shared territories or concerns between structural and vitalist approaches to the margin.

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Leonie Tuitjer is a PhD candidate in the Geography Department at Durham University (UK). She holds an international MA degree in Global Studies and a BA in Political Science and English from the University of Göttingen (Germany). Her PhD dissertation utilises an assemblage theory framework to understand the minor politics of climate change and human mobility in Bangkok, Thailand.