Thing Power in the Arles Region: from Assemblages to Alchemy in the Camargue

Jane Bennett borrows Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s concept of assemblages to argue that humans are not the sole actors in shaping the world. Instead, always-becoming assemblages that include human and nonhuman beings, materials, and forces produce events that form our experience and, she argues, ought to shape our politics. How can these ideas help reimagine the Arles region of southern France, a region under continuous transformation for several millennia and now under social and environmental strain? 

In this seminar, we will examine the assemblages acting on the Camargue, the marshy delta of the Rhone river where Arles meets the sea. Here, humans have, for millennia, grappled with both river and sea to make them better suited for civilization. The received image of this Mediterranean Eden—lavender fields, bustling regional markets, Van Gogh’s vibrating landscapes—belies the centuries of tension between human intervention and the timeless forces and flows that first shaped the area. These interventions are emblematic of global human-caused disruption on the scale of a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene. The Anthropocene makes urgent the need to reconceptualize human relations with nonhumans. With the Camargue as our research site, we will deploy Bennett’s and others’ “thing theories,” which emphasize the capacity of inanimate matter to act on the world. As the warming climate affects local seasonal patterns of, for example, rice growing, bird migration, or sea salt production, we will identify new hurdles and opportunities to combine human ingenuity with the predisposition of nonhuman forces. 

The course builds from a regional atlas of Arles produced in last year’s seminar, which traced the movements of assemblages from deep geological time to the present. We will study layered vibrations of the Camargue: its Alpine rivers and their channelization, animal habitats, and relationship to Arles, to envision ecological and sociopolitical possibilities. The outcome of the seminar will be an atlas of collisions between existing cross sections and potential futures of the Camargue that will suggest an expanded political agenda. By rearranging familiar human and nonhuman forces in transformative ways, we will aim for alchemical reactions for the region.