latest from the magazine
latest journal issue
The recent work of Robert Beauregard, Laura Lieto and colleagues is at the forefront of attempts at reformulating planning theory around assemblage thinking and the new materialist, post-structuralist and post-humanist thrust it comes with. In his written reflections on the nature of creative work, the widely-recognized Basque-Spanish sculptor Eduardo Chillida (1924-2002) stated:
“the work that is conceived a priori is born dead […] I believe I have to dare to do what I don't know and aspire to recognize what I can't discern. I value knowing over knowledge” (Chillida, 2004:15).
A similar focus on inquiry over conception, vision, plan or critique is a major feature of assemblage thinking (Deleuze and Guattari, 1987), of which actor-network theory (ANT) is perhaps the best known variant (Latour, 1987; Mol, 2010). This attention to inquiry implies recognizing the preeminence of objects, things and matter over mind and ideas (see Harman, 2002; Bryant, 2011; also Schrödinger, 1967), a perspective that has generated cohorts of both supporters and detractors.
In the process, ANT has been adopted and adapted in a variety of fields of endeavor, especially over the past decade or so. This includes planning, where the recent work of Robert Beauregard, Laura Lieto and colleagues is at the forefront of attempts at reformulating planning theory around assemblage thinking and the new materialist, post-structuralist and post-humanist thrust it comes with (see also Harrison, 2014; Rydin & Tate, 2016).
These are propitious times for a renewed focus on materiality in planning and the social sciences at large. In a world defined by accelerated transformations, new materialism can work as a viable alternative to perceived explanatory shortcomings and weaknesses of idealist and abstraction-prone modes of thinking, be it systems theory, marxism, or the communicative turn within planning.
Crucially, new ANT-inspired materialist approaches propose to overcome what Alfred North Whitehead named “the bifurcation of nature” (Whitehead, 1920) expressed in the secular dychotomy nature-culture. A step in this direction can be helpful in efforts at developing meaningful research on the ecological crisis and sustainability in the Anthropocene (Morton, 2019).
Within urbanism, materiality and assemblage thinking have found friendly ground (see Farías and Bender, 2010). After all, the built environment is an inescapable material reality to be grasped from the outside, through “the observation of concrete materials, not the workings of the mind in isolation” (Sennett, 1992: 196). Jane Jacobs already observed that buildings, streets and neighborhoods work as dynamic organisms, changing in response to how people interact with them (Jacobs, 2000).
Materiality aims at knowing not by defining the objects but instead by becoming responsive to the immanence of vibrant matter itself, its influences, results and consequences. In this vein, French sinologist François Jullien has stated that “a wise man does not have ideas” that are independent of matter (Jullien, 2001).
Beauregard's Planning Matter
Robert Beauregard proposes an ANT-inspired approach to new materiality in his Planning Matter. Acting With Things (hereafter, PM). Planning for a Material World (PMW), a collective work he edited together with Laura Lieto, is largely devoted to specific case-studies in new materiality from a variety of ANT and assemblage interpretations.
Planning Matter is a tour de force in planning theory. A major strength of the book is that it reformulates planning practice around the tenets of Latourian ANT while using ANT for a larger aim: the renewal of the modernist planning project.
Beauregard's stated aim is not to produce a conventional, rationalist theory to explain planning. He (and his colleagues in PMW) aim at something different and perhaps more necessary and effective: to give meaning to new materiality by fostering a new sensitivity, orientation and disposition towards the central role of non-human elements in the work of planners.
Beauregard has crafted a book that can be seen as an assemblage in itself, both in narrative style (a set of interlocking essays) and content. The author proposes a utilization of ANT that is compelling because it is prudent and contextualized, even if a dialogue with Latour's work takes place throughout the book.
Such contextualization means that ANT works in Planning Matter in symbiosis with an elegant and magisterial synthesis of various elements in the history of planning theory (communicative turn, Marxist political economy) and major social science scholars (inter alia, Dewey, Young, Walzer, Healey, Friedmann).
Ultimately, Beauregard's intent is to reformulate and enhance the modernist planning project as he proposes to see planners as both craftsmen of good ideas (by gathering knowledge, people and material things) and public intellectuals.
New Materiality: Sensing Non-Human Entities
Beauregard's new materiality (“neither a naive materialism nor a historical materialism”) focuses on the role of non-human entities (plans, documents, arguments, expertise, buildings, etc.) in how planners envisage the connections among norms, technologies and life-worlds through networks of human associations, technologies, natural ecologies and places, sites and settings (PM, 10).
As a heuristic strategy, the author considers ontographies (linguistic representations of assemblages of heterogeneous objects) as the constituent forms of the material world (Chapter Two). Ontographies are characterized by contingency, heterogeneity, symmetry and repletness (PM, 20-23), in stark contrast with the iconography of order in conventional planning (PM, 31).
In both Planning Matter and Planning for a Material World we see that planning, politics and power are about things “because it is things (for example, limited-access highways, rising sea levels, abortion clinics) that bring people together to act “ (PM, 188). New materiality is asking us to shift away from the secular attitude of placing humans at the center of reality and experience and look around to observe the “missing masses” that populate the world, to observe the power of things (see Introduction, Chapter One, Two and Seven in PMW).
In Planning Matter, Beauregard devotes lengthy discussions (see in particular Chapters Two, Nine, Ten and Eleven) where he makes it explicit that the planning profession cannot obey a single definition and that there are multiple approaches to planning, even if some common elements can define what planners do and can help identify planners from non-planners.
Beauregard is also sympathetic to inclusive epistemologies that affirm ontological realism while giving room for the shaping role of the knowing subject via perception, imagination, memory and affects (PM, 65). This is important because the pretensions of pure objectivism in some interpretations of ANT, rejecting or downplaying the crucial role of the mind in shaping human understanding and inquiry, are hard to defend.
This is, in fact, a major argument against so-called “generalized symmetry” in ANT. It is crucial to not misrepresent the causal capacities of non-human objects while effacing the significance of the capacities of human beings. Human attributes such as intuition, affect and emotion are the pulse of socio-materiality (Müller, 2015: 36).
Matter, Space, Time
New materiality affects the ways we conceptualize space, place, scale and context (PM, Chapter Four), simply because “places” are sites and settings that interact with planning practice in various ways (PM, 87). “The planning relationship between people and places takes three forms: the transformation of places into sites and then into new places; the preservation and conservation of places; and defense” (PM, 90).
A relational, new materialist understanding of place reveals that places “are fundamental to planning's micropolitics and involve more than the sites for which plans are being developed and reports written” (PM, 94).
Thus, we could conclude that place is not viewed as topological space: it does not exist until it becomes interactive in actor-networks and becomes subject to the network's dynamic. “Scales” are to be viewed as different dimensions of more or less dense connections; the global is intrinsic to the local (PM, 185; see PMW, Chapter Ten).
A relational view of space (contending that space cannot exist in the absence of matter) goes as far back as Leibniz (see more recently Lefebvre, 1992), and it is becoming more relevant with the emergence of technologies that mediate metric distances, such as social media networks, video conferencing, etc.
Space, place and matter are intrinsically intertwined with time as assemblages. Material reality is “obdurate” and resists change (PM, Chapter Seven, see also Chapter Two in PMW). Obduracy is a consequence of “the stabilizing of assemblages by associations brought into play that last longer than the interactions that frame them” (PM, 134). The “stabilizing of assemblages” is thus related to the notion of temporality, the focus of Chapter Eight in Planning Matter (see also Chapter Seven in PMW).
States and markets (PM, Chapter Nine) resemble networks (see Castells, 1996). Rather than being sites of power, markets and the state emerge as their effect. In Beauregard's conceptualization, this allows for a reformulation of the traditional relationship between planning, states and markets around the idea of “baroque complexity” where “the parts are neither components of a whole nor insignificant and powerless” (PM, 185). Capital mobility, shrinking cities and state growth management plans, among other issues, can be addressed from such a perspective (PM, 178ff).
A focus on planning practice allows Beauregard to focus pragmatically (following Dewey) on the concept of “action,” “ethics,” “responsibility,” “distributed morality” (PM, Chapter Five) and “publics” (PM, Chapter Ten).
Planning (Chapter Three) has always been haunted by a fraught relation between plans and the consequences meant to follow (PM, 36). This is why it is necessary to consider the shifts and alterations from intentions, to knowledge, to actions and to consequences (PM, 42-53) in a planner's work. As is masterfully described in Chapter Six, planners need to connect knowledge to action “by translating between possibilities (what I call truths) and the material manifestations of those possibilities (what I call realities)” (PM, 114-115).
In describing the formation of publics (alliances, assemblages), Beauregard's new materialism is not interested in “facts” or “measures” but rather in “matters of concern” (PM, 8-9). While matters of fact are a combination of models and measures, matters of concern also include actor-networks that help entangle ideas and reality into the world, thus becoming harder to oppose (PM, 9).The essential normative element in Beauregard's proposal ties ANT to the values of progressivism and collective action against structural injustices (Chapter Nine), one of the main goals of planners (both practitioners and scholars) as public intellectuals.
Practicing New Materiality
Even if Planning Matter does not contain an inventory of research strategies, the author profusely shows the possibilities and challenges of an ANT-informed strategy in empirical research (see Chapters Three, Four and Seven, in particular). However, it is in Planning for a Material World, where Beauregard, Lieto and colleagues more substantially illustrate their approach with theoretically-informed examples of assemblage thinking.Readers might ask themselves whether a relational approach such as ANT is similar to conventional sociological or technical applications of network analysis, which are mainly devoted to mapping connections among network members. It is possible to suggest that “network” works in ANT as a metaphor conveying the complexity of trying to capture the multiple and changing relational dimensions of always-mobile assemblages.Planning for a Material World, edited by Beauregard and Lieto, shares with Planning Matter the central tenets of ANT (action theory, obduracy, post-humanism, materiality, assemblages, etc.) and a similar goal to foster a new sensitivity towards new materiality in planning theory and practice. The various chapters bring to assemblage planning a myriad of insights, research strategies, and conceptualizations.
Editors Beauregard and Lieto frame the discussion around new materialist politics. In PMW, Beauregard argues that planners can be more effective if they deploy a “politics of things” in which humans and non-humans both matter. Laura Lieto's chapter shows how the material world is present “in the very bureaucratic procedures that are meant to distance planners from the particularities of realities” (PMW, 7). She applies this insight to the formality-informality dimensions of planning.The six case studies that follow deal with seafronts as socio-natural wholes (Berruti); the remaking of transportation knowledge infrastructure (West); waste picking (Basco); hybrid ecologies and landscapes (Formato); material documentation of public meetings (Vanbellemont); and policy mobility in microfinance (He). All these case studies infuse urban reality with rich descriptions and insights from the angle of new materiality.
The last two chapters in the book inquiry about norms in planning. Mäntysalo, Akkila and Balducci use trading zone theory to assess whether ANT can contribute to the normative aspects of planning. Belli's chapter, on the other hand, argues that assemblages include a normative content and illustrates his point with the case of the European immigration influx.Trading zone theory (explored and used more explicitly in Chapter Nine) is related to the idea of “translation” (Chapter Four) and the “transnational mobility of policy” ideas (Chapter Eight). These are processes embedded in assemblages and consisting of moving ideas, data, technologies and meaning between contexts. Through material means, knowledge is stabilized and circulates, but not in a smooth or linear way – we find serendipity, randomness, distortions, deviations, interruptions, crossings, detours, chance (PMW, 57-58).In Chapter Four and Seven we read illuminating discussions about the stabilizing character of matter. Acting with things provides stability to human relationships. Thus, power relations are not made up exclusively of human social ties or abstract symbolic structures; they can be maintained over long periods and kept in place over vast territories through things; shareholders in assemblages are then “toolholders” (PMW, 102-107). Things (matters of concern) are not the same as objects (matters of fact); “objects become things when they enable or assemble the human world” (PMW, 105-106; see also Lieto, 2017).Assemblages and actor-networks are found in relation to nature (Chapter Six), the realm of “cyborg metabolic chains,” “iterations,” “recombinations” and “spatial accumulations” (PMW, 86-88). The flat topology of open space is land and territory, and planning means “designing urban nature” (PMW, 94), as in ecological urbanism; “landscapes and infrastructures become civic instigators for new city structures” (PMW, 96).One would expect to see an evolution in the crafting of case studies as the new materialist sensitivity expands within the field of planning. Concepts taken from assemblage thinking, such as “absent present,” “obligatory passage points,” “black box,” or “immutable mobiles,” among others (see Rydin and Tate, 2016), can add to the researcher's “toolbox.”
Planning Matter and Planning for a Material World try to instill in readers and researchers a responsiveness to the material interventions of non-human entities in how agency and politics are constituted.Both books engage in the “baroque complexity” of material reality while cutting out the excesses of some ANT interpretations and the jargon that has characterized some attempts at narrating complex ontological and epistemological assumptions in assemblage thinking.Planning for a Material World offers excellent examples of how new materiality can contribute to empirical research in planning. This book makes an important contribution to understanding how notions such as the simultaneity of change and stability, the reality of the indeterminate and fluid post-human city, the body-machine hybrid, and the overcoming of the mind-matter divide can be put to work in planning research.Robert Beauregard's Planning Matter is an extraordinary, path-breaking contribution to planning theory and the evolution of the field. The author's wise, contextualized use of ANT allows for a more benign interpretation of ANT than proposed by some of its initiators, and enables a compelling utilization of assemblage thinking in supporting the modernist planning project.Planning Matter conveys the wisdom of presenting a radical conceptual and methodological innovation as a sensitizing strategy which is integrated in a larger aim responding to the theoretical evolution in the field of planning. In his intent at shifting dispositions and orientations in the profession towards a new materiality, Robert Beauregard has crafted a masterful, compelling and effective presentation of ANT-informed planning practice with major implications for the field.