The Potential of Lively Things

October 17, 2012


“…no one materiality or type of material has sufficient competence to determine consistently the trajectory or impact of the group. The effects generated by an assemblage are, rather, emergent properties, emergent in that their ability to make something happen.” (Bennett 2010, p.24)

We generally divide the world into passive things (matter) – such as cars, houses, stones, and vibrant life (beings) – such as humans and animals. We also understand that there exist less visible elements, such as electron streams, heat, social relations, money etc. When such diverse elements or vibrant materials are grouped in a specific way, at a specific time and place, they form an assemblage.

The power of assemblages, between all sorts of agents, can be emphasised using the example of a flooded urban area. What generates a flood is never merely a fixed combination of parts but a mix of vibrant materials such as abnormal weather, topography, bad construction, lifestyle, lack of recourses, to name a few.
In 2005, the hurricane Katrina and the floods that followed destroyed many homes along America’s Gulf Coast. In response, pre-fabricated cottages were designed to meet hurricane codes using more durable materials for construction. This approach is essential after the damage is done. And it also intends to ‘defeat’ natural phenomena in the future.

But as sea levels are likely to increase over time, how can local infrastructure be more adaptable to such changes? Do we have to fight back so much? Do we have to create higher and higher defence walls?
As hard infrastructural responses are quickly outdated, instead of only focusing on higher sea walls and storm surge barriers, which will just relocate water – can we work with water in a way that allows it to enter the city?
Can we engage more intelligently with and look at the potentials of water? How can we see the emergent effects of a flood beyond concepts of something that needs to be defeated?




Jane Bennett, The Agency of Assemblages, Preface in Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2010


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