Protest and assemblism

According, mostly, to Judith Butler


The series 'protest and...' is a series of readings of articles, essays and books that elaborate on a form of protest. In this essay, ‘assemblism’.


Protest is almost always linked to a form of assembly. Therefore, assembly makes up an important part of protest, and that which is protested. Assembly communicates a central premise that dictates the protest that is being done through a certain ‘form’ of collectivity. The horizontal democratic form of assembly by the Occupy movement, is radically different from the torch marches by the alt-right movements. Occupy uses the ‘human microphone’ to communicate, while the alt-right movements used weaponry and ‘Ku Klux Klan’ symbolism to communicate their message. Assembly is the mise-en-scène of protest. In this essay, we will be investigating different forms of assembly by reading Staals ‘Assemblism’ and by reading parts of Butlers’ ‘Towards a performative theory of assembly’ and a corresponding book review by Alexis Bushnell. Through reading those I hope to offer a definition of assemblism and find the importance of assembly to protest.


‘Assembly’, ‘assemble’ and ‘assemblism’

To start I want to take a look at the etymology of the words ‘assembly’ and ‘assemble’ and their dictionary definition. Afterwards, we have to add the word ‘ism’ which has some important consequences.

            The word assembly stems from the Old French as(s)emblee which meant “gathering; union, marriage.”[1] Which imply a sort of harmonious ‘becoming one’. From the early 1900’s assembly was closely related to the ‘assembly line’.[2] Assemble means the act of putting together of parts or objects: "come together, join, unite; gather", which stems from the Latin assimulare, "to make like, liken, compare; copy" and later "to gather together”.[3] These definitions of assemble imply some sort of agent directing the assembly. Two interesting things appear when investigating the histories of these words. The First is that the word ‘assembly’, from the 1900’s onwards, is closely related to the industrialisation, thus implying some sort of functionality. Secondly, the Latin version of the word ‘assemble’ is closely related to ideas of ‘copy-making’ – seemingly referring to Plato’s ideas on the World of Forms, where and idea has an absolute, pure, perfect existence in a heaven, and the representation of an idea on earth as a faulty ‘(re-)semblance’ of this absolute, pure idea. This makes the visual an important aspect of assemble. It attaches what is meant to what is expressed.

            When reading the dictionary definition of assembly, the word becomes more contemporary: “a group of people gathered together in one place for a common purpose.”[4] One big difference with the historical definitions are the words common purpose, which add a reason to the “gathering”. This somehow unites assembly and assemble, because the agency of the latter has been incorporated in the former. The assembly needs its own reasons. This might be linked to the ‘copy-making’, where the relation between what is meant (the idea) and its expression has to be as pure as possible. The word assemble’s first definition is similar to assembly, yet the second definition is more technical and sound more like ‘collage’ “Fit together the separate component parts of (a machine or other object)”[5] implying that every part of the assemble has its function within the whole.

            The additive ‘ism’ transforms the stem assembl- in an important way. It makes it an ideological theory. Hannah Arendt once defined ‘isms’, saying that and isms deduces the whole world to the logics of a single Idea which explain the world in such words as to satisfy its followers .[6] It thus makes the premise, in this case assembl-, into the key idea of a certain practise. It makes the medium the message. How people are assembled, thus implies the reason for the assembly and the problem it opposes. To be able to define the frame of this ideological definition and the scope of its practise we will need to look at Staal’s and Butler’s definitions.


Assemblism, ‘precarity’ and ‘performativity’

According to Staal assembly depends on a dichotomy of the words ‘us’ and ‘them’, implying that within assembly there is always a group that is excluded. According to Staal the present-day definition of ‘us’ is defined by negation of the word ‘them’ – who he says are the “corporate-political elite”.[7] He wonders how we can define the collectivity that the word ‘us’ implies, which according to him is done in Butler’s ‘Notes Towards a Theory of Performative Assembly’. His aim is to oppose the ‘Us/Them dichotomy’.

            Butlers aim in ‘Notes Towards a Theory of Performative Assembly’ is to theorise models of public assembly since the first 15 years of the 20th century which is typified by the ‘Arab Springs’, the struggle for independence by Catalonians in Spain and the worldwide Occupy movement and many more. Her thesis is that “acting in concert can be an embodied form of calling into question the inchoate and powerful dimensions of reigning notions of the political”.[8] Staal summarises that Butler researched the geographical, political and cultural differences ranging from all different protest groups that are yet unified by assemble.[9] She researches what they have in common. “their bodies gather at a specific place, or coordinate a series of similar, and most importantly simultaneous, gestures in different places.”[10] Staal calls this a ‘political choreography’, that articulates some sort of collecitivity, which raises the question why gathering of bodies can become meaningful in opposing the Us/Them dichotomy. At the core of this dichotomy, lies what Butler calls ‘precarity’, which is a key term in understanding Butlers writings.

            According to Butler precarity is, at least partially, the result of seclusion through the neoliberal/capitalist scheme as an outcome to the question which humans count as humans.[11] Precarity is “that politically induced condition of maximised vulnerability […] to arbitrary state violence”[12]. Precarity, therefore, is the falling away of a necessary collective infrastructure of life support for a certain group of people. Assembly is the act of bringing together the secluded people – all sorts of minorities.[13] Precarity can thus be a collective denominator for those “who do not otherwise find much in common and between whom there is sometimes even suspicion and antagonism”.[14] Staal paraphrases this, calling the precarious the potential new social class. When this new social class gathers, it demonstrates that their precarious state is shared. This lays the “building blocks for a common understanding of their experiences”[15] according to Butler. This has to do with the performative act of assembling in space as individual bodies.

            The body forms an important cornerstone of what Staal calls the social architecture of assembly. Therefore, we have to explore what is meant with the body. Butler says that the body is not an ‘isolated entity’, but a living set of relations.[16] This makes assembly, so to say, the collective embodiment of the ‘living set of relations’ of the body and therefore is an act of resistance towards the ‘care’ that is being (or not being) given by the regime. “Assembly…” according to Staal “…is simultaneously a direct expression of the condition of precarity and a protest against it”[17]

            The reason Butler calls this ‘performative’ is because this gathering of bodies offers and image of an alternative regime.[18] That is why the symbols that are used (such as torches or the human megaphone) are of structural important to assemblism. To be able to resist a regime that precariates,[19] one cannot repeat the structure of the regime that is resisted within the resistance: an alternative has to be offered. This is a reason I think assemblism is different from traditional protest, for it does not just, vocally or visually, pronounce the problem, it shows a possible solution to the problem and therefore, as described with the merging of ‘assembly’ and ‘assemble’, reclaims agency. Staal emphasises on this performativity, by saying that instead of offering a ‘ten-point political program’, which I think fits better to traditional protest, assemblism enacts or performs its own program.[20] According to Butler this form of assemblism “begins to enact the social order it seeks to bring about”.[21]

            Staal warns us for the possibility to romanticise this performance of new social forms. Enactment implies a lack of reality. Aside, once the assembly ends, the new social forms risk to end as well. It thus needs some sort of formalisation outside the sphere of the assembly.[22] Aside, people always assemble for something, not just for the sake of assembling. they assemble, because they have been made precarious. It thus is an act of despair. The answer to the temporality of assemblism and the seeming lack of formalisations, is yet unanswered.


The importance of aesthetics in assemblism

We so far have learned that assemblism offers an alternative to the thing it is resisting by performing the alternative. This makes aesthetics an important part of assemblism. Aesthetics not as in the beautiful and ugly, or in the artwork itself, but in the organising of elements that are sensible and form a whole that shows a picture of the alternative that is being offered. Aside, it has to be said that imaging an alternative to the hegemonic power, needs at least some imagination. Butler said that “media is not just reporting who the people claim to be, but media has entered into the very definition of the people”[23], which explicitly centralises aesthetics into the domain of assemblism.

            Staal, being an artist, denotes the fact that art plays an important role within the political practise of assemblism. Staal thinks artist are important in the visual aspect of assemblism, but assemblies cannot be called art. He exemplifies this with the terms Butler uses, such as assembly – which is closely related to assemblage or composition – or morphology – which refers to the knowledge gained by visual observation. Both are proof of the importance of aesthetics in assemblism.[24] Staal explains this by referring to the relation between ‘power’ and ‘form’. Power always expresses itself through a certain form.[25] This is not just the domain of propaganda, but also that of the symbolical order of power, which is the means by which people visualise power in their way of thinking and talking about power. By changing the latter, the aesthetics or form of power, you change power itself. That is why assemblism is effective, because it reshapes the form of power. It is also effective as a counter-weapon to state media, offering portrayals of situations from multiple angles. The collective is important, because it makes the enactment of the form of power seem as if the collective is the majority even though they are the precarious minority. Staal says “assemblism lays the foundation for a collectivity yet to emerge”.[26]


Assemblism and protest

One important aspect assemblism and protest share is their relation to aesthetics. It visualises a problem, making it external – graspable – and therefore treatable. Yet assemblism takes this visualisation one step further than protest, for it visualises not just the problem, but also a possibile solution. By enacting this possible solution, assemblism shows the possibility for change. This is not yet real change, but it is a sublimated or enacted change in reality. The reason this may be effective is because, instead of traditional protest, assemblism does not depend on the structure that’s offered by the thing that is protested. The occupy movement, did not depend on the forms of communication of the parliamentary democratic system they were opposing; they generated a new form of communication. The only fault that assemblism faces is that its enacted solutions disappears as the assembly disappears. It is not yet durable in that sense.

            Any form of protest with all its contingent goals, being form of assembly, can learn from assemblism by adopting the notion of enacting a possible solution. The advice that can be abstracted from the ideas of Butler is to use a solution to the structure that is being opposed as the basic element of designing the protest itself. This means that protest should not use the same means as the thing that is being protested.

Written and published bij Eef Veldkamp, 20-12-2017.

[1] Harper, Douglas. 2017. "assembly". Online Etymology Dictionary. Lancaster: Douglas Harper.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Harper, Douglas. 2017. "assemble". Online Etymology Dictionary. Lancaster: Douglas Harper.

[4] "Assembly". 2017. Oxford Dictionaries. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[5] "Assemble". 2017. Oxford Dictionaries. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[6] Arendt, Hannah. The Origins of Totalitarianism. Orlando: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1979. 468.

[7] Staal, Jonas. 2017. "Assemblism.". E-Flux Journal, 2017. 1.

[8] Bushnell, Alexis. Book review: Notes Towards a Performative Theory of Assembly by Judith Butler. LSE review of books. London: London School of Economics. 2016. 1. The page numbers are based on the PDF generated through the official PDF service offered by the website noted above.

[9] Staal. Assemblism. 2017. 5.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Bushnell, Book Review. 2016. 1.

[12] Ibid., 1

[13] Staal. Assemblism. 2017. 5

[14] Ibid.; Butler, Judith. Notes Towards a Performative Theory of Assembly. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015. 27.

[15] Bushnell, Book Review. 2016. 2.

[16] Staal. Assemblism. 2017. 5.; Butler. Notes Towards a Performative Theory of Assembly. 2015. 65.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.; Ibid., 218

[19] Here I use ‘precarity’ as a verb: ‘precariates’, implying the process of making the precarious.

[20] Staal. Assemblism. 2017. 5-6.

[21] Ibid., 6; Butler. Notes Towards a Performative Theory of Assembly. 2015. 84.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Bushnell, Book Review. 2016. 2.

[24] Staal. Assemblism. 2017. 8.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid. 8-10