Simondon, Gilbert. On the Mode of Existence of Technical Objects. Translated by Ninian Mellamphy. University of Western Ontario, 1980. (Though the image is from the new translation that just came out through UMN press recently, the site for which is here.)
———. “The Genesis of the Individual.” Translated by Mark Cohen and Sanford Kwinter. Zone 6 (1992): 296–319.
It’s the week of Gilbert Simondon! Otherwise known as the week in which I stare really hard at one sentence at a time, piecing their meanings together into what I’m pretty sure counts as a firm handle on the content. I first encountered the mid-century French philosopher in an anthropology class I took now 4 years ago (that’s 2013, for you visitors from the future-times), and it stuck in my head. This was the first coursework I’d done specifically on notions of machinic or posthuman subjectivity, or really the relationship between subjectivity and the material world in general, and Simondon’s transductive individual was one of the first philosophies I’d encountered that struck me as doing something new and exciting. Now granted, what the hell do I know? My sole background in Western philosophy had been this class (and it WAS definitely more of a philosophy class than anthropology), so maybe this is old news to a lot of people. But it seems like Simondon is getting a fresh look recently, including by such familiar faces around these parts as Tom Lamarre, who translated Muriel Combes’s book on Simondon a few years back (that one will be getting a blog post down the line a bit). Reading Simondon’s work with a new set of eyes a few years later, things seemed kinda different than I remembered. How? Make the jump to find out!
First of all, what are these pieces? On the Mode of Existence of Technical Objects, as it exists in the version I read, is a translation of the first half of Simondon’s doctoral thesis from (if memory serves) 1958, in which he elucidates a theory of machinic ontology, one that pushes back on Norbert Wiener’s cybernetic collapse of machines and humans as ontological categories. “The Genesis of the Individual,” meanwhile, represents the other half of that equation, in which Simondon spells out the way he sees human subjectivity ontologically. Both of these texts are short, clocking in at just under 100 pages total, but boy are they dense. Luckily, density here simply means that a ton of meaning is packed into each sentence, not that those sentences are incomprehensible. This is another thing I like about Simondon: he’s tough, but he’s not batshit insane like Guattari (for example). “Enough dilly-dallying, Brian!” I hear you saying, “Tell me about the machines!”
I’ll say, compared with my memories of it, On the Mode of Existence of Technical Objects (let’s call it OMETO from here on) spends a lot less time talking about things I remember clearly, and a lot more talking about things I don’t remember at all. For one thing, you learn a LOT about electrodes reading this thesis. Simondon uses the example of electrodes in their various forms – diodes, triodes, tetrodes, pentodes, etc. – to make a point about the evolution of technical objects. This makes sense in retrospect (that is, through the lens of his other article), given that his whole conception of the individual is predicated upon constant becoming, rather than simple stability of being. Nevertheless, since I find the latter half of this thesis, in which he lays out a basic classification system of technical objects, easier to grok, I’m going to go in reverse order.
In the second chapter of the thesis, Simondon lays out a three-tiered hierarchy of technical objects. The simplest of these is the technical element, after which there is the technical individual, and finally the technical ensemble. As one might expect, technical individuals are composed of multiple technical elements, and technical ensembles of multiple individuals. The key element here seems to be communication. For Simondon, the technical element doesn’t have any means of communication. It exists basically as a tool, like a spring. While it may have varying levels of technicality (which in this case means the level to which each part of the technical element has been determined and planned out, as in the case of planning heat levels, water type, and smelting methods in metallurgy), it cannot in itself communicate at all with its environment. This changes when multiple elements are brought together as an individual. A technical individual is marked as such by having an “associated milieu” with which it communicates in a feedback loop that determines its functioning to a greater or lesser degree. The technicality of an individual, then, is the extent to which its structure and function coincide, and the extent to which it is responsive to its milieu. The example given here is an engine which is cooled by the air in which it operates versus an engine that requires an external cooling system like water, with the former being more technical than the latter. Finally, an ensemble brings together multiple individuals to perform a multi-step function beyond what the single-operation individuals are capable of on their own. Here, then, technicality is the level of inter-individual communication, or the integration of the functioning of the entire ensemble. The ensemble itself becomes the milieu for these technical individuals, though the individuals often require their milieu to be independent of one-another so as not to create interference with each other’s functioning. Funnily enough, Simondon claims that the product of the ensemble is none other than the element, causing the evolutionary process to loop back around.
Evolution is quite important to Simondon, and so it’s worth describing here. There are a few things at stake for Simondon in talking about technical evolution. First, he strongly desires to move away from fantasies of the android, which he calls a myth and nothing more. This seems to be connected with his critique of cybernetics, namely that it claims – through information theory – that humans and machines are essentially the same thing, albeit at different orders of complexity. Simondon hates this, and says that all these theories do is look at external behaviors and features and claim that they are what composes the ontology of humans. Simondon disagrees, drawing a strong ontological distinction between humans and machines by saying that machines tend toward concretization (roughly gloss-able as an increase in technicality), whereas living beings are always already concrete. Our structure is already equivalent to our functioning, and we already draw in our associated milieux as part of that functioning. While technical objects tend over time to become more concrete, less indeterminate, and more technical (which, if I read it correctly, are all the same thing for him), they may never reach the end point of total concretization.
The other stake in this discussion is an economic one, specifically a critique of capitalism. This was a surprising undertone that I’d forgotten about, but it’s definitely there. Simondon criticizes the capitalist habit of making small, incremental changes to a technical object (cars are the easy example here), and calling it “progress” or “improvement,” when in fact they’ve done nothing at all to improve in keeping with the “technical essence” of the machine, which is to say they haven’t evolved toward greater technicality. For example, adding a CD player to your car doesn’t necessarily make it a better car than one without a CD player, but touting it as such allows the producers to profitably conflate “new” with “improved,” regardless of the technicality of the machine. For Simondon, a more technical machine is one which is more self-sustaining (he differentiates this from “automatic,” but I won’t get into that here) under a wider range of operating conditions. Adding a bunch of “artificial” (read: external, extra) systems onto machines often has the inverse effect of decreasing their range of usability, since if one moving part breaks out of many, the rest could break down as well.
True technical evolution, according to Simondon, occurs over generations, with technical ensembles passing on their technicality to the elements they produce, in a process that reads very much like genetic inheritance and the evolution of species in the natural world. Again, there are differences, but I’ll skip them and say simply that technical objects don’t follow a straight line of evolution. As new elements are created that are able to carry with them increased levels of technicality, they are able to contribute to yet higher levels of technicality in the ensembles that they eventually help construct.
With this notion of evolution in mind, we might turn to “The Genesis of the Individual.” In this essay, Simondon makes it clear that he wants to consider the individual not as a given entity, but as a process (a concept later lifted by Guattari, but who’s counting?). In claiming this, he moves away from hylomorphism (i.e. “form + matter = individual”), as well as from atomism (i.e. there is an irreducible something that abides as the basis of individuality). He centers the process of individuation as the ontogenetic basis of the individual, which has the effect of making “being” both more and less than the individual as it is concretized in any given moment. I’ll try to explain this through the above concepts of technical evolution, both to try to make this very abstract theory more concretely graspable and to try to synthesize the two pieces a bit.
Simondon rejects the idea of the individuated individual (that is, the individual after it has already taken shape) as the basis of being because, in his words, individuation is a process in which “potential energies” inherent to the pre-individuated being are activated, so a completely individuated being lacks potential energies and is thus incapable of changing any further. The field of potential changes that a being could undergo is therefore folded into our conception of the being itself. In essence, this echoes his description of concretization resulting in increased technicality (i.e. determination) in a technical object. We can see this most clearly in the quote below from OMETO:
[T]he Crookes tube potentially contains the Coolidge tube, because the very intention which becomes organized, stabilized, and refined in the Coolidge tube already existed in the Crookes tube in a confused but nevertheless real state.
In other words, the technical being of the X-ray tube (of which Crookes and Coolidge tubes are two types) contained the potential transformation that was eventually undergone to move from Crookes to Coolidge. The technical being is the Crookes tube, the Coolidge tube, and the various indeterminacies within each that could become the sites of new individuations. By focusing on the process of individuation itself, Simondon draws our attention to the specificities of that process, which he claims cannot be wholly known in advance, which I’ll discuss below.
How, then, does this process differ between technical and organic individuals? The answer, basically, is that natural individuals (which I think is the actual term he uses) can individuate in two different ways: internal and external individuation. Technical beings, meanwhile, only have access to external individuation. What’s the difference? External individuation occurs as an interaction with one’s milieu. He gives the example of crystal formation, wherein a crystal individuates in a way dictated by the supersaturated chemical solution that is its milieu. Here, “external” is used literally, topographically, with only the surface of the crystal serving as the site of individuation. Space thus also takes on an interesting historical dimension here, with the interior of the crystal corresponding to inactive pastness, but I digress. Insofar as Simondon claimed that human operators/users become part of the technical object’s milieu, I think “external” here could also be used in the sense of “imposed from without”. We could think back to Grosz’s reading of Lacan here to connect this to the in-formation of the subject by society, perhaps.
Organic individuals, in addition to individuating in relation to their milieux as above, can also “internally” individuate. Here I think it would be useful to note that Simondon claims individuation is a process of “falling out of step with oneself,” and then moving back toward metastability (which the astute of you will note he’s taking from cybernetics). While external individuation implies something in the milieu is causing the being to “fall out of step” and change in a way necessary to maintain metastability, internal individuation is the process of an organic being causing itself to fall out of step. What does that mean? That’s where things get interesting: it means imaginative thought. Internal individuation is the grasping by the individual of the “potential energies” inherent to itself and individuating along those lines. But remember how I said Simondon claims this process can’t be knowable in advance? That’s because thought is itself individuation. Thus, we “learn by doing,” so to speak, with individuation becoming known as it unfolds.
In sum, there are a few things I like about these theories, and a few things that I’d want to push farther on. First, the individual as process is something I think we’ve come to accept as pretty standard. This allows individuals to be dynamic and evolving, which I think leads to better ethical stances than static conceptions of being. Second, communication with one’s environment is one of the points of this list, and it’s fundamental to Simondon’s theories. This opens the individual to that which is outside itself in a mutually constitutive relationship, which I think again leads to better ethical ground in terms of interactions with our various Others. Finally, pushing back on cybernetics’ claim that humans are simply more complex versions of information processing machines is something I think is valuable in its ability to counteract what Hayles called the “Platonic forehand and backhand,” in which a simplified model of reality is substituted for the reality itself. The uber-rationalist pitfalls into which this falls – think control society, Minority Report, Psycho-Pass – have already been explored here, I believe.
The question I’m left with, though, is how digital technologies change these theories, if at all. All of Simondon’s models are rigorously physical, from the electrodynamics of X-rays to the mechanical engineering of a water turbine. And the evolution of technical objects is therefore similarly mechanical in nature, with differences in physical engineering accounting for concretization and the products of a given ensemble only able to reach the complexity of technical elements. Do computer advances since Simondon’s time change this qualitatively, or are we still just dealing with the physics of electricity as it passes through computer chips? My sense is that Simondon would say the latter, because culture is something that never really enters the picture for him. The internet as we commonly interact with it is a cultural phenomenon, as far as he’s concerned, entirely disconnected from questions of technicity. Given that I’m in cultural studies, though, the question is begged as to how I can reintroduce that term. At the end of the day, in other words, is this a set of theories that can actually help me as I try to examine cultural production? Lamarre and others have mobilized Simondon’s “fields of indeterminacy” and individuation in trying to explain culture on a new, cybernetic order of magnitude, especially in discussing media history and the development of media forms. Perhaps that’s one place to start. Either way, this is a powerful set of thoughts that give a compelling model of the material world in which culture moves.