A Theory of Assembly

From Museums to Memes

2022
Author:

Kyle Parry

A vital reckoning with how we understand the basic categories of cultural expression in the digital era

Digital and social media have transformed how much and how fast we communicate, but they have also altered the palette of expressive strategies: the cultural forms that shape how citizens, activists, and artists speak and interact. In A Theory of Assembly, Kyle Parry argues that one of the most powerful and pervasive cultural forms in the digital era is assembly.

Kyle Parry's remarkable book offers an eclectic theory of assembly, shifting the focus from political theory to aesthetic and media practices. This is a wide-ranging and original work that keeps shifting angles to produce the sense of vibrant, if problematic, new constellations of the various assemblies that pervade contemporary life. Mindful of both the progressive and reactionary forms that assemblies can take, Parry probes the intensified circulation of digital assemblies in all their ambivalence.

Judith Butler, University of California, Berkeley

Digital and social media have transformed how much and how fast we communicate. But they have also altered the palette of expressive strategies: the cultural forms that shape how citizens, activists, and artists speak and interact. Most familiar among these strategies are storytelling and representation. In A Theory of Assembly, Kyle Parry argues that one of the most powerful and pervasive cultural forms in the digital era is assembly.

Whether as subtle photographic sequences, satirical Venn diagrams, or networked archives, projects based in assembly do not so much narrate or represent the world as rearrange it. This work of rearranging can take place at any scale, from a simple pairing of images, undertaken by one person, to the entire history of internet memes, undertaken by millions. With examples ranging from GIFs and paintings to museum exhibitions and social movement hashtags, Parry shows how, in the internet age, assembly has come to equal narrative and representation in its reach and influence, particularly as a response to ecological and social violence. He also emphasizes the ambivalence of assembly—the way it can be both emancipatory and antidemocratic.

As the world becomes ever hotter, more connected, and more algorithmic, the need to map—and remake—assembly’s powers and perils becomes all the more pressing. Interdisciplinary, engaging, and experimental, A Theory of Assembly serves as a playbook of strategies and critical frameworks for artists, activists, and content creators committed to social and environmental justice, ultimately arguing for a collective reenvisioning of which cultural forms matter.

Cover alt text: Letters from the title appear in a jumble, each colored in a blue-orange gradient. Readable title and author sits below the jumble.

Kyle Parry is assistant professor of history of art and visual culture at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He contributed to Debates in the Digital Humanities 2019, published by the University of Minnesota Press, and is coeditor of Ubiquity: Photography’s Multitudes.

Kyle Parry's remarkable book offers an eclectic theory of assembly, shifting the focus from political theory to aesthetic and media practices. This is a wide-ranging and original work that keeps shifting angles to produce the sense of vibrant, if problematic, new constellations of the various assemblies that pervade contemporary life. Mindful of both the progressive and reactionary forms that assemblies can take, Parry probes the intensified circulation of digital assemblies in all their ambivalence.

Judith Butler, University of California, Berkeley

Fitting its title, A Theory of Assembly coalesces studies of media, information, folklore, and art into a significant contribution on the content we create, curate, and share. With an apt balance of sophistication and clarity, Kyle Parry shows why and how ‘assembly’ is the perfect keyword for contemporary cultural production.

Ryan M. Milner, author of The World Made Meme: Public Conversations and Participatory Media