Contesting Agency


Assemblages provide a lens for the analysis of shifts in publishing.

The Assemblage concept, delineates a relational network of various elements in a flat ontology, where both human and non-human actors are assigned agency, the capacity to act in a world (Agency (philosophy) 2012).

The agents of the said network  are defined by relations of exteriority.

They are not defined by their role in the assemblage, rather they can feature in a number of assemblages without losing their identity (A New Philosophy of Society: Assemblage Theory & Social Complexity 2012).

In publishing, these agents are becoming increasingly non-human.

Assigning equal agency to non-human elements is critiqued as problematic.

Why? If the concept of exteriority relations is upheld, power is attributed to the agency of non-human elements in the assemblage. By definition, power is then attributed to the independently defined technology itself.

The problem: this power is traditionally reserved for the human.

The observation: The actants, both human and non-human, fit the prescribed definition, neither more naturally than the other.

More so today than ever before, technologies have the capacity to perform in a range of networks whilst remaining independently defined.

Compare the printing press with the iPhone. By design, the printing press was defined by function it performed. Printing has the ability to perform in a number of assemblages, however the depth of its capacity as an agent is narrow. In contrast, the iPhone as a convergent platform has the capacity to perform in a far greater range of assemblages. If we defined it by its role it would be called something like this Phone-InternetBrowser-Camera-VideoRecorder-GameConsole-Addressbook-Weatherman-StockGuide-Calender-PersonalAssistant… – it is not practical and would vary depending on who you asked. The iPhone as an independent entity makes far more sense.

The iPhone as a non-human element can be picked up from one assemblage, and planted in another. When buying groceries, the iPhone can be used to compile shopping lists or transfer funds. When catching the bus, it can be used to check bus timetables or to take on the role as a music player or game console. The device remains the same, it’s identity unsegmented, regardless of the difference in the role it performs from one to the next.

Relations involved in buying groceries

Relations involved in catching the bus















Conclusion: Without crediting equal agency to the non-human, we discount the enabling characteristic of new technologies as their capabilities inspire shifts in the way we publish.

It is only through looking at non-human agents (particularly technologies) as they perform in different assemblages, employed to serve a number of different functions, that we can learn about origins and nature of the shifts taking place.

‘Agency (philosophy)’, Wikipedia, <>

‘A New Philosophy of Society: Assemblage Theory and Social Complexity’, Wikipedia, <>

Murphie, A 2012, Publics and Publishing, weblog, accessed 16 March 2012, <>


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