Intersectionality is concerned with the subject and the multiplicity of subject identity in relation to the culture surroundings of the subject or the ability of the subject to have a multiple perspective due to the sum of the subject’s identity (and potentially past experiences). Assemblages, in Deluzian tradition, are a more solid experience that does not necessarily allow the individual identities to be considered apart from the others, but yet does maintain the collective sense of identity. Both the intersectional and assemblage approaches consider multiplicity a trait of social identity.
In social theory (or at least social psychological social theory) the primary objective of social interaction is meaning-making. Intersectionality and assemblages both work toward explaining meaning-making from an identity that is perceived to be constructed from multiple cultural contexts. The interesting thing about these two approaches over anything social theory has to offer is that they consider external factors of identity and meaning making not being something happening only within the subject, but also something that is happening in interaction with the subject. In essence, these approaches provide for a mechanism in which the subject shapes (to some small degree) their social environment. A specific social theory, such as affect control theory or identity theory, might specify internal mechanisms by which the social actor attempts to internalize meaning that is created around them. The problem with that approach is that it assumes a homogeneous societal environment, or subjects that are interested in conforming.
One of the most striking differences between intersectionality and assemblages seems to be in degree to which corporeality matters. The discourse of intersectionality has been artificially confined to observing the intersection of race and gender, specifically in observing the political identity of women of color. This limit is reflective of its original purpose as a tool for decentering identity and its function of revoking significance of labels. The assemblage de-privileges corporeality. In moving beyond corporeality it is possible to step away from an entirely subjective conceptualization of identity and begin considering aspects of agency.
A problem that I observe in the concept of intersectionality is that it is based on the idea of an intersection, identities combining for an additive power is demonstrated, usually additive power of discrimination or disenfranchisement. What about identities that emerge and function parallel to each other (exclusive identities that would not be active at the same time)? Basically intersectionality presents a model in which identities have to all have the same relationship to each other. As Puar points out, intersectionality is a model of static identity that does not account for change or evolution of identity, and perhaps doesn’t create a space in which additional identities can be added. Assemblages are not conceived as a specific type of relationship and do not give meaning to each identity separately, but instead gives meaning to the combined identity and to the relationships between the individual identities (which might be better termed as “traits” in an assemblage).
An analogy that comes to mind is from the discipline of chemistry. Intersectionality:Mixture::Assemblage:Solution. Essentially intersectionality is a combined experience in which individual components can still be drawn out, whereas an assemblage is a cohesive identity wherein the parts of identity are much harder to look at individually. The later would certainly annoy most sociologists as they enjoy being able to draw nice neat categories in which a single trait (or simple pairing of traits) can explain social phenomena. I can think of no better reason to use an assemblage over an intersectional concept of identity.
Why does it matter how we conceive of identity? If identity is conceived as intersectional, then only the various attributes (mostly corporeal) may compose the identity. The identity is thus rendered as static and can only exist as a finite set of combinations of various recognized identities. Also, there is further limitation on the intersectional variety from external power structures when confronted with these intersectional identities as they will often be reduced to hierarchical binaries. In the hegemonic perspective there does not exist a multitude of races, only white and non-white. While assemblages do not escape hegemonic restrictions or assumptions of identity, it is possible for an assemblage identity to be significantly obfuscated from hegemonic interpretation to be subversively unintelligible and be granted agency outside of that granted to any specific identity.
Puar, Jasbir K. “I would rather be a cyborg than a goddess”: Becoming-Intersectional in Assemblage Theory. Philosophia 2.1 (2012): 49-66.