Yuk Hui on Anne Fagot-Largeault and Simondon

yuk hui photoIn this commentary piece, Yuk Hui responds to Thierry Bardini’s interview with Anne Fagot-Largeault on Simondon in the current issue of Theory, Culture & Society

I was asked to give a “critical response” to this article, which is in fact an interview. However, I don’t know how much one can comment on a conversation, which seems to me more personal than analytical: it is Madame Fagot-Largeault’s memory of Gilbert Simondon as well as her own understanding of Simondon’s position in contemporary philosophy. Probably what I can do, as a response, is to engage in the conversation, and to co-individuate with the two speakers, as well as the translators. I wouldn’t object to such a view that machine or mechanics is the central theme of Simondon’s thought, since that is pretty obvious. But I am reluctant to agree on the point that machines remain an analogy of biology for Simondon, since I understand the analogy only serves as the “front” or the “figure” of Simondon’s thought, if we speak in terms of the figure/ground difference that Simondon got from the Gestalt theory. I also doubt that Simondon is as Madame Fagot-Largeault said “fundamentally a Lamarckian” (2014:6). I have the impression that in this interview, Madame Fagot-Largeault seems to have simplified and reversed some of her own interpretations of Simondon in her article Individuation en biologie (1994) presented in a colloquium dedicated to Simondon in 1992 in the presence of the great mathematician René Thom, François Laruelle and Bernard Stiegler. To clarify these doubts as well as a contribution to the discussion, let us restrict ourselves to Simondon’s two theses since this interview was conducted in 2006; some other works by Simondon are still to appear.

To start, I would like to pose this speculative question: why Simondon wrote Du Mode d’Existence des objets technique (1958) after L’Individuation à la Lumière de la notion de forme et d’information (the two parts of this book were published separately under the titles L’individu et sa genèse physico-biologique (1995), and L’individuation psychique et collective (1989)) though the order of publication was reversed. In ILFI, there is hardly any machine, and Simondon talked about the individuation of physical beings, living beings, and psycho-social beings; in the second thesis, MEOT, Simondon focused mainly on technical objects, technical knowledge as well as a speculative history of technics; he talked less about individuation, instead of individualisation. These concepts need to be distinguished and then questioned to bring into light how Simondon understood the relation between the biological and the mechanical. For Simondon, individuation concerns the resolution of tensions in different phase changes in order to arrive at a metastable equilibrium; individualization on the other hand concerns functions. When it applies to technical objects, it refers to the concretisation of functionalities; when applied to living beings, it denotes the development and division of psychosomatic functionalities.

The former concerns the concept of becoming, as said by Madame Fargo-Largeault, anti-Aristotalian, anti-hylomorphism; the latter focuses on the concepts of operation and function. These two concepts correspond to two different temporalities, as well as two modes of becoming. From here, we may easily come to the conclusion that there is a parallel/an analogy between individuation and individualisation, or even the biological and the mechanical; for example the Belgian philosopher Pascal Chabot (2005:112) summarized individuation as transcendental, and individualization as empirical. In fact, this doesn’t seem to be Simondon’s intention at all. On the other hand, as Madam Fargo-Largeault emphasized many times, Simondon is profoundly a metaphysician. A metaphysician is not necessarily an expert in a specific scientific domain, but a person who has the philosophical and metaphysical intuition to bring together the diverged knowledge, notably such as Whitehead and Simondon. This effort to bring the diverged disciplines and practices constitutes the third part of MEOT, in which Simondon prioritises the philosophical thinking over aesthetic expression. This ambition remains consistent throughout almost all the works of Gilbert Simondon. This is crucial for the understanding of the “analogy” of Simondon. In 1960, on the occasion of a presentation titled Forme, information et potentiels at the Societé Française de Philosophie, Simonon was questioned by Paul Ricœur of his claim to understand individuation of living beings through physical beings. Simondon’s answer was not satisfactory, as we can read. But retrospectively an elaborated answer was given towards the end of ILFI:

There is a danger in the employ of the physical paradigm for characterising life: the one of reduction. But this danger can be avoided; indeed, one can use this paradigm by taking the physical domain as support of the structures and functions resting on the non-living characters, expanding them in their initial phase, amplifying them, but not reducible to them. There is a domain of the knowledge of physics, and a domain of knowledge of the living; but there is not the same a real domain of physics and a real domain of the living, separated by a certain frontier equally real; it is according to the structures and the functions that the physical and the vital are distinct, without being separated according to the substantial reality (ILFI: 323).

Simondon wanted to understand the living being and the physical beings through the functionalities as well as structures, instead of substance. If we want to go further, we will see that the clear break between individualisation and individuation cannot be fully held, and consequently the analogical relation breaks down. This, as many others have noticed, has to be understood through what Simondon called the associated milieu. Therefore, I tend to contest the translation of the milieu as environment, as it appeared a few times in this translation. Indeed, Madame Fagot-Largeault has already noted this in her own contribution Individuation en biologie. She confirmed “the scheme of Simondon is neither from Lamarck or from Darwin; these two authors are challenged since they hold the “milieu” as an objective given where an already individuated living being takes place, forgetting that the genesis of the milieu and the one of the living subject are correlative” (Fagot-Largeault, 1994: 28). However, she followed by quoting Simondon “the theory of active adaptation according to Lamarck however presents an important advantage on the theory of Darwin: it considers the activity of the individual being as playing a capital role in adaptation, adaptation is a permanent ontogenesis”; this may be the source of calling Simondon a Lamarckian.

I would like to think otherwise. This concept of the associated milieu is very important for Simondon, since it is also – if we can say so – a break from Canguilhem’s notion of the milieu. In this widely read essay The living being and its milieu, Canguilhem outlined a genealogy of the concept of milieu starting with Auguste Comte and ending with von Uexküll, bypassing Larmack and Darwin. We can probably say that the first understanding of milieu is atmosphere and circumstance which englobe the living being; for Lamarck, milieu means specifically fluids, such as light, water, air. At the centre of Lamarck’s theory of the milieu is indeed adaptation, meaning that when the milieu changes, we adapt ourselves in order not to let it go, as if it hasn’t changed at all. It was Darwin who criticized these naturalists in his introduction to the Origin of Species. He says “Naturalists are always referring to external conditions like climate and food as the only possible cause of variations; they are only right in a very narrow sense” (Canguilhem: 2001). Darwin offered two other understandings of milieu: one is a social milieu of competition or struggle for survival; the other is the geographical milieu of natural selection. Darwin broadened the relation of the living and its milieu from external environment to social aspects, that is to say the relation between organisms themselves.

For Simondon, the associated milieu isn’t only a self-regulating mechanism that protects the object, but also the modulator that facilitates individuation. The construction of the associated milieu is to create a dispostif by which we can receive regain the significance which is no longer signification, in a psychical and collective manner. This concept of the milieu has moved away from the naturalists (like Larmack) and evolutionists (like Darwin) who consider the relation between beings and milieux as adaptation and selection. Simondon’s reinvention could be understood by what he called “transindividuality”, that is for me the connection between individuation and individualisation, the mechanical and the biological. For him, this transindividuality exists when the technical objects are not only recognized as tools, but as technics so that it is judged as result of invention, carrier of information (MEOT: 336). For this to be possible, Simondon says “it is necessary that the subject that receives it possesses in it some technical forms” (ibid). Transindividuality is only possible when there is an interface (spatial) and intensity (quasi-temporal), which allows a transduction (as a phase of individuation) to happen, while the interface can only be constituted in technical terms.

Maybe we can say at the front we see the analogical as a method used by Simondon which separates different orders of granularities; and at the ground we see what Simondon calls allagmatic operations. I quote a nice summary of the etymology from Jakub Zdebik: “allagmatic exists as a word, albeit with a prefix, in the language of law where it means to bring two parties together under a contract: synallagmatic. In effect, it means to form a couple, to bring two perspectives together. It comes from the Greek Sunallagmatikos that in turn comes from sumallattein which means to bring together, to unify” (Zdebik: 2007).

After reflecting over the years on the work of Simondon, this speculation remains my own: the shift from individuation to individualisation also anticipates a certain effect and engineering of the human, and announces the importance of the discipline that Simondon envisaged having – a mechanology. Madame Fagot-Largeault was right indeed when she wrote “for Simondon, the individual emerges as signification (as generality, reproducible): that explains that for him there is no difference between the problem of individualization of type and the problem of the individuation of the individual” (Fagot-Largeault. 1994: 53). This, it seems to me, is becoming more and more self-evident in the information age, when the concept of the milieu has already changed due to digitisation. To briefly add the last point, we can also go further to think with Bernard Stiegler’s concept of transindividuation, which refers to a transformation of the structures that compose the I and the We through the re-organization of tertiary retentions. Retrospectively, one may also be able to say that the work of Stiegler serves as an allagmatic function that renders explicit the metaphysical project of Simondon.

Georges Canguilhem, The Living and Its Milieu, Grey Room, No. 3 (Spring, 2001), pp. 6-31

Pascal Chabot, La philosophie de Simondon, Vrin, 2003

Anne Fagot-Largeault, Individuation en Biologie, in Gilbert Simonon, Une Pensée de l’idnividuation et de la technique, Bibliothèque du Collège International de Philosophie, Paris, Albin Michel, 1994

Gilbert Simondon, Du Mode d’Existence des objets techniques, Aubier, 1989

Gilbert Simondon, L’Individuation à la lumière de la notion de forme et d’information, Édition Jérême Millon, 2005

Gilbert Simondon,  Forme, information et potentiels, 1960

Jakub Zdebik, Allagmatic, in The Semiotic Review of Books, VOLUME 17.2 2007

Yuk Hui is currently a postdoctoral researcher at the Hybrid Publishing Lab of the Centre for Digital Cultures at Leuphana University in Lüneburg, Germany

Click here to read more from Yuk Hui on the TCS Website

Thierry Bardini’s ‘Simondon, Individuation and the Life Sciences: Interview with Anne Fagot-Largeault’ (TCS, 314., July 2014) is available here

Leave a Reply