Fourth Annual M.I. Rostovtzeff Lecture Series - The Sovereign Assemblage: Sense, Sensibility, and Sentiment in the Bronze Age Caucasus

Lecture 1: The Sovereignty of Assemblages

Adam T. Smith (Cornell University)

This lecture sets the terms for an inquiry into the politics of things by focusing our attention on how assemblages are fundamental to principles and practices of sovereignty.  The polity has traditionally been conceived of as an assembly of members, defined by our interactions with one another.  However, complex clusters of material objects invariably mediate our political relationships.  These things are never politically intelligible as discrete objects but only as assemblages, shifting constellations defined by a capacity to exist simultaneously within multiple sets of overlapping relationships.  The assemblages that surround us intrude upon, shape, and constrain sociopolitical life, a capacity best described as ‘efficacy’.  It is efficacy that sets an assemblage into motion as machinery of sociopolitical reproduction.  Sovereignty is a product of the operation of a laminated series of machines that have arisen historically to generate three critical conditions of political association: a “civilization” open to rule, a sovereign body severed from the wider public, and an apparatus of rule undergirded by a technocratic sublime. Each of these machines operate on three key points of intersection between human bodies and material things: sense, sensibility, and sentiment.  Taken together, these three dimensions of human-assemblage encounters comprise the sites of reproduction that root political association not only in an assembly of subjects, but in the sovereignty of assemblages.

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Series Abstract - The Sovereign Assemblage: Sense, Sensibility, and Sentiment in the Bronze Age Caucasus

The modern understanding of political association has centered resolutely on the person of the citizen, whose interactions with other members of the body politic establish and reproduce the possibilities and limits of sovereignty.  However, rarely do we interact with one another directly as citizens.  Rather, a vast assemblage of things, from ballots and bullets to crowns and regalia to licenses and permits, incessantly intrudes upon our political relations.  What role has this assemblage played in the historical formation of our political practices?  What principles fundamental to sovereignty does an archaeology of this assemblage reveal?

Taking the narrow isthmus of the Caucasus as their geographic focus, the lectures in this series describe the emergence of a complex set of material assemblages that originated in the Bronze Age yet continue to shape our politics today.  The lectures provide a detailed account of the transformation of communities in the Caucasus from small-scale Early Bronze Age villages committed to an ideology of egalitarianism to Late Bronze Age complex polities predicated on radical inequality, organized violence, and a centralized apparatus of rule.  These formidable social transformations were made possible by the efficacious operation of three critical assemblages, or machines, that reordered human communities.  Each was vital to the operation of the next, forging the polity over time in the articulation of things and persons along three linked dimensions: sense, sensibility, and sentiment.  It is by attending to these points of articulation between our things and our selves that we can illuminate the enduring sovereignty of the assemblage.

About the Lecture Series

Michael I. Rostovzteff, a Russian ancient historian, came to the U.S. after the Russian Revolution and taught for many years at Yale University as Sterling Professor of Ancient History. Rostovtzeff's prodigious energies and sprawling interests led him to write on an almost unimaginable range of subjects. ISAW's Rostovtzeff series presents scholarship that embodies its aspirations to foster work that crosses disciplinary, geographical, and chronological lines. The lectures will be published by Princeton University Press.

Adam T. Smith is Professor of Anthropology at Cornell University.

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