Combes – Simondon and the Transindividual

9780262018180Combes, Muriel.  Gilbert Simondon and the Philosophy of the Transindividual.  Translated by Thomas Lamarre.  Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.  2012.  Publisher’s webpage.


Hoo boy.  You know you’re in trouble when the translator’s introduction says, “No really!  There’s a reason her language is so convoluted and opaque!”  This book, originally published in 1999, serves to riff on Simondon’s thought, connecting his theory of technics with a theory of subjectivity and the collective.  It’s really very dense.  I’m going to do my best to be concise here, but I make no promises.  A fun story connected with this book: Lamarre came to my university to talk about it, and said that it took him a while to get the project off the ground because Muriel Combes had dropped off the face of the planet, it seemed, since publishing it.  He said he eventually found out she had decided to go live on the street in some form of political statement.  Is that the praxis that comes out of this book?  Let’s find out!  

The book is split into three and a half chapters, with the first serving as an explication of Simondon’s concept of the individuating being, the second carrying this to the level of the eponymous “transindividual,” and the third (after a brief “scholium” on intimacy) connecting all of this to Simondon’s theories of technics and labor.  The first chapter being more or less a retread of concepts I covered in my post on Simondon, I’m going to set it aside for our purposes and jump right into the second chapter.

Here – having established that individuation is the process whereby two fields are placed into relation with one-another and that any study of the individual must understand it as the perpetually incomplete product of this processual becoming – Combes seeks to lay out how we can understand the collective in relation to such an individual.  As you may remember, this was precisely the question I was left asking at the end of my reading Simondon’s work, so I’m glad someone else has taken it up, as well.  She begins by reminding us of Simondon’s assertion that the subject as a concept is not reducible to the individuated being, but also includes the “preindividuated share” of potential energies, potential avenues of future individuations that the subject might undergo.  Intriguingly for my purposes, Combes describes this with the language of affect.  Having established that the “preindividuated share” is a share of nature (understood here as a kind of reservoir of potential energies), and thus something that precedes and remains outside the subject, Combes gives us the following:

To put it more precisely, affectivity, the relational layer constituting the center of individuality, arises in us as a liaison between the relation of the individual to itself and its relation to the world. As such, it is primarily in the form of a tension that this relation to self is effectuated: affectivity, in effect, puts the individual in relation with something that it brings with it, but that it feels quite justifiably as exterior to itself as individual…. affective life, as “relation to self,” is thus a relation to what, in the self, is not of the order of the individual. Affective life thus shows us that we are not only individuals, that our being is not reducible to our individuated being. (31, italics in original)

I gloss “affect” here as an orientation (what Combes calls a “tensing”) toward that which exceeds us.  Combes notes that the apprehension of such a share is not always a pleasant experience.  She describes Simondon’s explanation of individuals who seek to “domesticate,” in a sense, the preindividual within themselves, to wholly individuate that which exceeds them.  This is a misguided attempt, according to Simondon, that only ends in “anxiety.”  The identification within the self of that which is in excess of the self (as individuated being) is thus an “ordeal” in Combes’s terms.

Somewhat confusingly, the way through this ordeal is by going through the experience of isolation.  So far as I can tell, the reason we have to experience isolation in order to pass through the affective ordeal is because we can only experience isolation relative to a collective.  In other words, isolation doesn’t happen in a vacuum; only once we’ve recognized the existence of the collective can we feel isolated from it.  And since relationality is the name of the game when it comes to individuation, this isolation paradoxically represents a step forward for Combes.  It is an isolation destined to end, and when we emerge on the other side and step into collective individuation, it is as transindividuals.

The nature of the collective is something that needs expansion here.  Combes warns us against “psychologism” or “sociologism,” which posit the collective on the one hand as merely a grouping of individuals (the objects of psychology) and on the other as a substantialist entity that exists stably independent from whatever individuals happen to compose it (the object of sociology).  This appears to be a rearticulation of Simondon’s aversion to atomism (individuals are the irreducible elementary particles of a collective in psychology) and hylomorphism (the collective is the form that can be given to the matter of individuals in sociology).  What, then, is the nature of the collective?  For one thing, it is not a functionalist understanding of individuals.  Combes makes very clear that “interindividual” relations are not what is meant by the transindividual collective.  Instead, it’s a recognition of the preindividuated share common to all within the collective.  Instead of seeing people as what they do, in other words, the collective here seems to mean that which is constituted in our shared becoming, recognized simply as what makes us beings.

This becomes clearer in the “scholium” following chapter 2.  There, Combes offers the helpful clarification:

Properly speaking, emotion coincides so entirely with the very movement of constitution of the collective that we may say, “there is a collective to the extent that an emotion is structured“…. The collective, as Simondon understands it, is born at the same time as emotion is structured across many subjects, as structuration of such emotion. (51, italics added in original)

The collective is an affective alliance, a shared structure of emotion that, because of the nature of individuation, constitutes and is constituted by our own becoming as individuals.  Understanding that relation is what makes us transindividual.  Importantly for Combes’s politics, this rejects the notion of the “visionary individual” single-handedly bending society to his will.  Novelty and invention can only be introduced into the collective when the affective dynamics currently structuring it encounter other fields of intensities of transindividual individuations, creating a new structure that then propagates through the individuations of others in the collective.  While change and invention may in part be an effect of an encounter with an individual, it is not imposed on other individuals in a kind of subject-object dominance.  Again intriguingly for me, Combes here connects Tarde’s notion of affective “contagion,” implying that there must be some level of receptivity on the part of other subjects and also echoing some of Orbaugh’s points about the “infectivity” of affect.

The third chapter isn’t quite as exciting for my work personally, but does raise some interesting thoughts.  Here, Combes runs through the implications for labor of Simondon’s philosophy, basically deconstructing the notion of labor itself.  Simondon seems to find Marxist ideas about alienation of labor dissatisfying, saying that labor itself – as the imposition of a form on matter – has already missed the boat on having the proper understanding of a true relationship with technical objects.  In sum, she describes Simondon as arguing that a simple redistribution of wealth or the means of production doesn’t go far enough.  We need social changes that will prioritize “technical activity” over Fordist labor, which seems to mean taking into account the material specificity of technical objects, and of physical objects more generally.  Simondon/Combes’s critique of labor for wanting to extract a number of identical planks from a multiplicity of individual tree trunks is instructive, as it reveals the form/matter hylomorphism that seems to be the target of Simondon’s ire.  Labor itself becomes an instantiation of hylomorphism, with the “form” role being taken up (and hierarchically elevated) by the management who exploit the labor in order to impose that form on the matter of the world.  We must, in the end, understand technical objects as one part of the collective milieu, structuring us as much as we structure them in our collective, transinidividual becoming.


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