Being and Technology

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* Book: Arne De Boever, Alex Murray, Jon Roffe, and Ashley Woodward (eds.), Gilbert Simondon: Being and Technology, Edinburgh University Press, 2012, 236pp.,


Jon Cogburn:

"This excellent volume comes at a perfect time, since translations of Gilbert Simondon's Du mode d'existence des objets techinques and L'Individuation psychique et collective are forthcoming from the University of Minnesota Press and Semiotext(e). English language readers of these texts will find here an invaluable guide to an important and difficult thinker.

The first essay, Simondon's "Technical Mentality" (Arne De Boever, tr.), touches on many of his key themes. Simondon first gives two examples of his doctrine of analogy, where a given theory of objects is shown to have structural analogues to cognitive schemas found in thinking and culture. He begins by discussing how Descartes' metaphysical physics is analogous to Cartesian views of deductive thinking, and makes a similar claim with respect to cybernetics.

Simondon's doctrine of analogy bridges traditional ontological divides (e.g., that between living and non-living, and human and non-human) arguing that our basic models of one realm always shed light on the others, because the same operations are at play. Of course there are differences, and Simondon attempts to account for them in terms of distinctive ways that objects in a given realm individuate themselves as objects, a process he refers to as ontogenesis. For example, a living object must constantly regulate the changes of its internal composition to maintain a homeostasis in ways that non-living things need not.

Simondon applies these ideas to explain the difference between products of artisanal, industrial, and post-industrial labor. The first shift occurs when the "source of energy" and "source of information" of an object separate. The same artisan designs, builds, and repairs an object. Industry separates these processes. Post-industrial objects display an increasing modularity that allows their parts to be replaced, a different integration with nature, and new forms of design.

Simondon's description of how these properties allow the creations of "networks" is astonishingly prescient, and is part of what should be of interest to contemporaries. While discussing such things as electrical generating dams, the Eiffel Tower, and Morse Code relay stations, he has given us the conceptual resources to understand the distinction between hardware and software as well as the role that macros play in software design. Given how misunderstood this latter part is by proponents of the computational theory of mind,[1] Simondon's basic machinery and outlook in this essay is refreshing and helpful.

The book's second section, "Explications," consists of three interventions: "'Technical Mentality' Revisited," in which the editors interview Brian Massumi about Simondon's essay, Elizabeth Grosz's "Identity and Individuation: Some Feminist Reflections," and Anne Sauvagnargues's "Crystal and Membranes: Individuation and Temporality" (Jon Roffe, tr.).

The first piece begins with Massumi arguing that Simondon's work is particularly helpful now that the kind of constructivism that predominated during academic theory's heyday has come into general disrepute.[2] While high-church theorists focused relentlessly on how cultural norms and projections led to various understandings of nature, Simondon's "inventivism" (via the doctrine of analogy) has something to say about how everything is constructed, including cultural norms themselves and objects in non-human milieus. Simondon thus presents a clear road back to what was best about the interdisciplinarity at the heart of "theory's empire."

Massumi's most interesting claim is that Simondon presents a form of "realist idealism," realist since the discussion applies to the non-human world, and idealist since, just as Plato's ideas had causal efficacy in their pre-scholastic understanding,[3] individuate objects must be understood in terms of "action of the future on the present (24)." This is another analogy between the mechanical and intentional. Even after the advent of Cartesian mechanism, it is not unnatural to think of desire and intentional acts brought about by belief and desire in terms of future states exerting causal pull on the past. Simondon's post-Cartesian, anti-reductionist account of the causality involved in individuation of objects is structurally homomorphic to this. Though, to be clear, Simondon's dynamical understanding is supposed to avoid the Scylla of potentials as sets of instructions waiting to be actualized and the Charibdis of Aristotelian teleology.

Massumi clarifies the manner in which different strata (physical, vital, psychic, collective, technological) of reality individuate in unique ways, and shows how Simondon's process ontological understanding of matter as "form-taking activity" (31) allows one to avoid hylomorphism, the doctrine that matter is understood to be free of particular qualities until a form is impressed upon it. For Simondon, the "pre-individual" realm out of which objects individuate is a realm of potentials and forces.

Grosz presents a synoptic overview of many of Simondon's key technical concepts (individuation, transduction, matter/information, and life) and then shows how helpful these concepts are to contemporary feminism. This latter explanation considerably fleshes out Massumi's criticism of constructivism. While the critique of identity that is characteristic of classical feminism was a necessary corrective to traditional gender essentialism, it tends to yield exactly the kind of constructivism critiqued by Massumi.

Grosz trenchantly argues that contemporary feminist philosophy must free itself from theorizing all of reality hylomorphically in terms of representational impositions. Instead, following Simondon's update on Schellingian naturphilosophie,[4] we must understand more deeply the etiology of representations themselves out of a prior non-representational order.[5]

The opening sections of Grosz's essay are a bit dense. During her discussion of the manner in which non-hylomorphism leads to a process ontology, the reader wishes for a few more concrete examples. Sauvanargues's essay, however, works as an expansion of Grosz's comments.

There is one tension between Sauvanargues's discussion of crystallization and Massumi's and Grosz's portrayals of Simondon's account of individuation. In Massumi's and Grosz's accounts, individuation takes place wholesale out of a pre-individual milieu. But in Sauvanargues's more detailed account, it requires a "seed" which presumably is already an individuated process, a thing.

One might see a problem here. If all individuation requires an individual and pre-individual milieu, then any concrete individuation will require an infinite number of other individuations. I'm not sure if this is a bug or a feature though. First, in the context of Deleuze interpretation some have argued that an absolute Schopenhaurian dualism between the pre-individual and realm of individuals is untenable.[6] Second, this very untenability has motivated the development of ontologies by Graham Harman and Tristan Garcia with very similar infinitely downward regresses to that suggested by Sauvanargues's account.[7]

Sauvanargues's description of membranes is a very nice guide to how vital individuation works and how Simondon's views on temporality are involved. To the extent that an individual is purely physical, its interior is past, at best a frozen reservoir of information to be used in causal process that might destroy the parts involved, whereas the interior of a vital object is the present site of dynamically occurring individuating processes. Thus, vital objects must also be understood in terms of how membranes regulate that which can enter and that which can exit. This is true for cells, organs, and organisms themselves. An interesting question is how the temporal difference between physical and vital individuals ties to the reverse temporality that Massumi finds to take place in individuation.

While Sauvanargues's essay does an excellent job of supplementing Grosz's brief discussion of vital individuation (47-49), the book as a whole suffers from not containing something analogous with respect to Grosz's account of how psychic individuation occurs as the answer to problems faced by vital individuals and how the pre-individual part of the psychic individual is accessed to form collective individuals in transindividuation (49-51). English language readers would do very well at this point to avail themselves of the second chapter in Murial Combes's excellent Gilbert Simondon and the Philosophy of the Transindividual.[8]

Combes's discussion will aid the reader in understanding the third section, "Implications," which consists of four essays: Igor Krtolica's "The Question of Anxiety in Gilbert Simondon (Jon Roffe, tr.), Marie-Pier Boucher's "Infra-Psychic Individualization: Transductive Connections and the Genesis of Living Techniques," Jean-Hugues Barthélémy's "'Du mort qui saisit le vif': Simondonian Ontology Today (Justin Clemens, tr.), Yves Michaud's "The Aesthetics of Gilbert Simondon: Anticipation of the Contemporary Aesthetic Experience" (Justin Clemens, tr.).

Krtolica's meditations on Simondon's discussion of anxiety are deep and of fundamental importance for understanding Simondon's views of psychic and collective individuation. In anxiety, the psychically individuated entity becomes aware of containing a reservoir of non-individuated nature and tries to further individuate herself using only her own resources. Viewed this way, anxiety is a halfway step towards becoming transindividual through collective individuation. But Krtolica sees a tension here, as one cannot achieve psychic individuation in the first place without already having internalizing a large mass of cultural roles. Transindividuation thus seems paradoxically to be both ground and goal, both immanent and transcendent. Krtolica's careful unwinding of this issue via a discussion of Simondon's account of Zarathustra's encounter with the dying tight-rope walker is fascinating, and it has ramifications both for recent continental work on "the event" and theories of emotions more generally.

Boucher shows how Simondon's theories of vital and psychic individuation help us make sense of "biotechnical" objects such as proto-cells. Adding some of Whitehead's views "opens Simondon's notion of subject to non-human and even to non-biological individuals (106)."

Barthélémy's short essay also considers the sense in which transindividuation is both immanent and transcendent. He takes this tension as an occasion to amend and extend Simondon's views on the constitutive nature of artefacts with respect to psychic individuation and on death with respect to vital individuation. Barthélémy's claims are deep and interesting, but his essay is slightly marred by moving too quickly, not providing much background exegesis of his own or Simondon's works, and twice referencing Bernard Stiegler without providing references.

Michaud's piece on aesthetics explicates Simondon's view that prior to technology or religion certain natural places

concentrate and express the forces contained in the ground of reality. . . Mountains, summits, promontories, gorges, the heart of the forest, have this sort of magical pregnancy through which the exchanges between man and world are effectuated. In the same way, in becoming there are similar salient points: beginnings, inaugurations, strong transitions and passages, all moments that allow a human being to inscribe itself in becoming, apprehended as ground (122-123).

This "first structuration" of the magical world is surpassed by religious and technical phases, the first of which focuses on the totality of ground, the latter of which builds upon and increases the figure-ground separation apprehended in the polarities such as those cited in this quote.

For Simondon, art is the attempt to use technical means to recover the experience of perfection we have before the figures of the magical first structuration. Michaud convincingly assesses the real strengths of this view: (1) it takes aesthetic experience, not works of art, to be primary, (2) it fully thematizes the extent to which environmental milieu cannot be separated from the work of art, (3) it allows us to understand the aesthetic allure of technical objects and their milieu, and (4) it makes sense of the aesthetic aspect of tourism. One again sees Simondon's incredible prescience at work, as the theory has important commonalities with ideas recently articulated by Denis Dutton.[9]

The fourth section, "Resonances," contains: Sean Bowden's "Gilles Deleuze, a Reader of Gilbert Simondon," Miguel de Beistegui's "Science and Ontology: From Merleau-Ponty's 'Reduction' to Simondon's 'Transduction'," Dominque Lecourt's "The Question of the Individual in Georges Canguilhem and Gilbert Simondon, and Bernard Stiegler's "The Theatre of Individuation: Phase-Shift and Resolution in Simondon and Heidegger," (Kristina Lebedeva, tr.).

Bowden's essay on how Simondon influenced Deleuze is a pleasure to read, clearly explicating the key parts of Simondon's theory of physico-biological individuation that Deleuze adopts and transforms. Bowden's explications of how Simondon's theory of individuation avoids substantialism and hylomorphism, the manner in which individuation arises as a solution to previous tensions, the manner in which individuation is in general incomplete (with individuated objects still containing pre-individual "metastable" dynamic tensions), and the originary position of relations in Simondon's metaphysics are among the clearest in the book.

Bowden then elucidates three ways in which the Deleuze of Difference and Repetition takes up Simondon's ideas: (1) his realism of relations becoming Deleuze's privileging of difference over identity, (2) his pre-individual becoming Deleuze's realm of the virtual, singularities playing the same role for both vis-à-vis individuation/actualization, and (3) his view of how the process of individualization occurs in every domain of being. Readers of Bowden's rich essay will be convinced that Simondon's L'Individu et sa genèse physico-biologique (the first part of his thesis) needs to be translated soon.

Beistegui's essay on Merleau-Ponty and Simondon is similarly rich. Beistegui uses Simondon to further radicalize Merleau-Ponty's own moves away from classical phenomenology into a revived metaphysics that enters into proper dialogue with the natural sciences, a metaphysics that is neither Queen nor handmaiden. Beistegui's explication of Simondon, like Bowden's, is among the clearest in the book. Contemporary readers of Quentin Meillassoux's "speculative realist" critique of correlationism[10] will find much with which to engage. Beistegui, like Meillassoux, trenchantly argues both for the Schellingian thesis that thinking must be able to explain its own genesis and that the ontologies of perception are systematically incapable of doing this.

Lecourt shows how Simondon led Georges Canguilhem to change the theory he articulated in On the Normal and the Pathological. In that work Canguilhem concluded from the inextricable normativity of notions such as "health" that medical science could not possibly gainsay the judgment of a patient on whether her condition is healthy or pathological. But after reading Simondon's process ontological account of the individual, Canguilhem's views tended toward something much more Nietzschean in terms of a "risk that the individual affirms and assumes in order to break its limits and open up new horizons (182)." Given the influence of this period of Canguilhem's thought on Foucault, Lecourt has demonstrated a strong, indirect influence of Simondon on Foucault. Lecourt's short essay is filled with insightful claims about what might follow from the intrinsic normativity of notions like "health," as well as from recent discoveries about the primacy of epigenetic factors in ontogeny.

Stiegler's essay is a little bit frustrating, as much of the discussion hinges on the concept of "tertiary retention," which he never explains. He also references his own work dozens of times without explaining it or providing clear citation (the word "I" and cognates of "me" occur seventy-eight times in the short piece), so it is very tough going for someone not already familiar with his work. His major conclusion is that Simondon's forgetting of the Heideggerian "they" makes him unable to correctly theorize deindividuation, and that Heidegger's forgetting of the Simondonian "we" leads to his Nazism ("the politics of the 'historial people' (199)"), as well as to the preoccupations that follow the supposed Kehre. Stiegler states that his own philosophy correctly understands both "we" and "they."

Stiegler's conclusion is slightly problematic though, since it is misleading to claim that "there is no question of they in Simondon." This is especially so since (as is amply clear from Krtolica's essay) Simondon's discussion of "interindividual connections (81)" has so many resonances with the role "Das Man" plays for Heidegger, at least insofar as the notion is understood as a descriptive condition of intelligibility and not as part of a negative normative appraisal of inauthenticity (Heidegger's text is equivocal between the two; Stiegler misses the resonance in Simondon because he focuses solely on the latter).

The most frustrating thing about the essay, however, is that Stiegler does not expand on what strikes me as one of the most interesting insights in a piece filled with them, "The Heideggerian thought of being-in-the-world resonates with the Simondian individual-milieu dyad (189)." Let me briefly comment. The sense in which Heidegger's Vorhandenheit (presence-at-hand) can be thought of as privatively arrived at out of a previous world apprehended through a more primordial Zuhandenheit (readiness-to-hand) is very strongly analogous to the relationship between individuated object and pre-individual nature for Simondon. The major difference is that Simondon's conception is non-anthropocentric. Here again there is a connection between Simondon and contemporary continental metaphysics, as one half of Graham Harman's system is motivated by a non-anthropocentric reading of Heidegger,[11] which understandsZuhandenheit/Vorhandenheit reversals to be absolutely universal, taking place whenever two objects interact (cf. the manner in which Bowden shows pre-individual/individual to be universal for Simondon and Deleuze).

In the book's concluding section, Barthélémy's excellent "Glossary: Fifty Key Terms in the Works of Gilbert Simondon" (Arne De Boever, tr.), the entry for "Realism of relations" contains the following:

The realism of relations consists in desubstantializing the individual without, however, derealizing it. It posits that the individuality of the individual increases through the demultiplication of the relations that constitute the individual (225).

Given the connections between the pre-individual and Zuhandenheit, this suggests another guerilla reading of Heidegger, where Vorhandenheit perhaps plays the role of a Kantian ideal, and what really exists are various levels of privation of the modal, valuative, and relational world described when Heidegger references Zuhandenheit. Such a view (when added to Harman's non-anthropocentric interpretation) might just be Simondonian. In any case it is yet another instance of Simondon's clear topicality.

I hope that I have said enough to show how successful this volume is at achieving its difficult goal. Its clarity, scope, and topicality make it likely to be the opening chapter of a Simondon renaissance among philosophers who write in English." (