Playing the hand you’re dealt

I’ve been thinking a lot about Assemblage. It’s been prompted by Anab’s inclusion of it in her More-Than-Human-Politics manifesto, pointedly positioned against Systems (“Assemblages are diverse, indeterminate and precarious… Acknowledging the entanglements without the desire to have the ‘full overview’”).

It also took me back to some of the thinking I originally did around Artefact Cards specifically, and more recently working with information particles generally, and a few other conversations and pieces I’ve been working on in the background.

This week, I started playing with a short explanation, which felt worth sharing:

An assemblage is like being dealt a hand of cards for the first time, in a game you don’t know the rules for.

You have these five cards in your hand, of a mix of suits and numbers, and you have to work out what to play, and how to do it. When the time comes, you play some cards as best you can, but you lose that first hand. Yet you saw what was going on, and figure that you might have a better chance at working out the overall game come the next hand.

Except when you are dealt your new hand, it contains a new suit you’ve never seen before, and a number that you didn’t know existed. You’re not sure what the new suit means (is it more senior than other suits? Equal?), and from what you know of numbers, you try and establish where this one might fit in a ranking. Additionally, the previous work you put in to trying to establish the rules of the game is now potentially of lower value, though it’s hard to let go of answers you think you’ve worked out.

You play, and of course you lose that hand as well. But again you learn more about how to sort through the cards you’re likely to be holding in the next round.

So when the third hand arrives, containing another unfamiliar suit, moderately taxing algebra, a postcard from a relative, and some cheese and pineapple on a stick, you’re at least a bit more prepared for the possibility that different things will turn up that don’t fit in with your expectations.

Thinking in systems asks that you work out the rules of the game.

Thinking in assemblages helps you become better at playing the hand you’re actually dealt.

Postscript: There’s a lot of diverse and interesting debate and discussion around what Systems Thinking actually is, of course, but I’m blithely operating under the following rule of thumb for now – “If you mean constantly moving and changing things, maybe you shouldn’t use the word ‘system’?”