Wednesday May 14th 2014

” which kind of reality does hylomorphism produce?”



‘The Brick’

Aristotle, Saint Thomas of Aquinas and the scholastics subscribed to the idea of hylomorphism: each being is composed of matter, ὑλο- (hylo-) and form, μορφή (morphē). Form is the determining principle of matter. The scholastics explained changes of substance with the theory of ‘substantial mutations’. The conversion of oxygen and hydrogen into water is an example of a change of substance. After the mutation, matter is unchanged, but its form is altered. Form initially determines the substantive being of oxygen and hydrogen and the properties they exhibit. Once the mutation has occurred, the resulting form specifies the properties of water. Individuation – the process of becoming, whereby any individuated entity comes into being – also originates with form. Indeterminate matter alone cannot give rise to individuation. Form is the determining and specifying principle that transforms matter.

For centuries, this theory explained the nature of the world and the phenomenon of change. Descartes contested it, but the idea of determinate form retained its adherents. In the twentieth century, scientific discoveries made such a theory difficult to defend. In 1924, Pedro Descoqs published his ‘Critique of hylomorphism’,(1), in which he argued that the scholastic theory was accurate from a metaphysical point of view, even if, in practice, it was invalidated by experience. Atomism dealt a death blow to the theory of substantive mutation. It makes little sense to speak of indeterminate matter if matter itself is composed of atoms and molecules – specified, measurable entities. Moreover, atomic theory confirms the presence of unchanging elements within objects of diverse chemical composition: oxygen and hydrogen molecules continue to exist within water. This finding is incompatible with the theory that transformations in the appearance of things correspond to substantive mutations. The recombination of chemicals does not produce a new embodiment, in the sense conceived of by Saint Thomas and his disciples. It produces a new arrangement of molecules, not a genuinely new substance.

Simondon’s theory of individuation intercedes in this debate, reversing the tenets of hylomorphism: form is not a determining principle, and matter is not indeterminate. For Simondon, the process of brick making confirms this thesis. What does he observe in this process, where others had perceived the meeting of form and matter?

To make a brick, the brick maker fills a wooden mould with clay. Simondon argues that this clay is not indeterminate matter. Extracted from marshy soil, it is ‘dried out, ground into powder, immersed in water, kneaded for a long time’: it has already been formed. Its molecular properties determine its quality, porosity and density. As for the mould, it is by no means a pure form. It is made from wood that is relatively robust, but still malleable. The artisan adds a powdered coating to the inner walls of the mould, to ensure that the finished brick will slide out easily. The form is itself matter that has been treated.

On closer examination, the initial conditions of hylomorphism put forth by the scholastics must be reconceived. We must replace the pure concepts of form and matter with the concept of a formed matter and a material form. The firing of the brick takes us even further: the clay compressed in its mould rises in the kiln. The walls of the mould apply an opposing force. Clay and mould interact with one another as forces. At the molecular level, their ‘relation’ is explained by the release of energy through combustion. According to Simondon, scholastic theory presents this stage of transformation as a ‘dark zone (zone obscure)’. Hylomorphism speaks of a meeting between form and matter, without explaining the conditions of this encounter. But the dark zone is a relation between forces. ‘It is as forces that matter and form are brought together’ (2). The relation is not mysterious, it is physical.

‘The relation has the value of being (La relation a valeur d’être)’: this is the motto for a philosophy of individuation. The relation does not connect A and B once they have already been constituted. It is operative from the start. It is interior to their being. The relation is not an accidental feature that emerges after the fact to give the substance a new determination. On the contrary: no substance can exist or acquire determinate properties without relations to other substances and to a specific milieu. To exist is to be connected. This philosophical proposition allows Simondon to establish the scope of his project: to reconcile being (l’être) and becoming (le devenir). The relation is becoming in action. It drives the process wherein being undergoes change and the individual evolves. The relation is part of being, just as time is coalescent with reality. In the same way, being and becoming are mutually interdependent. One expresses stasis, the other change. Individuation is not the mid-point between these two extremes, like Aristotle’s golden mean. It is the meeting of these two dimensions, wherein the existence of each is made possible by the existence of its opposite. The yin–yang is a fitting symbol for Simondon’s ontological intuition.

There is nothing strange about borrowing a technical example to address a question of natural philosophy: the concept of hylomorphism was itself likely based on the observation of artisans working with matter. Sculpture may be seen as the imposition of form from the mind of the artist on to marble. In the design of a temple, the observer can discern the geometry of form and granite. These observations of technical practice seem to confirm hylomorphism: the work of the artisan imposes form upon matter. But by digging deeper into this question, Simondon observes that the origin of hylomorphism is more social than technical. The superiority of form over matter reflects social organisation. The masters, in their observation of technicians, have distinguished form from matter. Their orders contain the forms; they decide what things will become. The slaves operate on the level of matter. Like matter, they mutely await the master’s orders and give them form. Hylomorphism is a mentality, a way of seeing. It is not borne out by concrete experience.

(1) P. Descoqs, Essai critique sur l’hylémorphisme, Paris: Beauchesne, 1924.

(2) L’Individu et sa genèse, p. 39.

‘The Brick’, Chapter 5, in “The philosophy of Simondon”, Pascal Chabot, Bloomsbury, 2012, (orig. pub. in french, 2003)



Among the privileges that benefit the feudal bourgeois compared to the urban and common man, one must certainly mention the enjoyment of aesthetic values, the Belleza of the region, accentuated by the thought of the point of view, by the cleverly chosen location of the villa (1) on an elevated ground, turning it into a belvedere. The paradise-villa, the place of muses and humanities, rises above the lowlands of the common existence, not only in literary and humanistic sense, but also from a point of view quite concrete and material. One will note that the aesthetic privileges due to the elevated position of the house are valued at least as much than the health and climate benefits. To unmask the ideological basis, just read the writings of the architect of the villa. He speaks of the Campagna commune dominated by the villa (“il sito in collina, overo in luogo alquanto rilevato” – the site established on the hill or on a slightly elevated plot) in search of a philosophical basis for its degnità , that is, the dominant claim of its elevated position… Let’s listen Averroes : “il luogo alto, a paragone del basso , è come la forma paragonata alla materia , la quale – come si sa – precede tanto di degnità” (the site highly placed behaves toward the site below as the “form” to “matter” , much less worthy , as we know ) .

(1) Villa Rocca-Pisana, Architect Vicenzo Scamorzi (1576 ) – <Google Maps / Villa Pisani Ferri La Rocca, Via Rocca, 1, 36045 Lonigo Vicenza, Italia>


Die Villa als Herrschaftsarchitectur, Reinhard Bentmann / Michael Müller, Suhrkamp, 1971






If we wanted to summarize the motivating insight behind Gilbert Simondon’s protean effort at a thorough reform and emendation of ontological and technological thought, we could say it lies in the idea that the basic sin of modern culture is to treat relations between relations as relations between things. In the 1950s, the period when he composed the bulk of his oeuvre, Simondon responded to what he judged to be a profound civilizational crisis – a misfit or lag between material and technical possibilities, on the one hand, and embedded mentalities and dispositions, on the other – by proposing a relational theory of becoming, or ontogenesis, that would lay the groundwork for surpassing this disjunction, together with what he perceived as the phobic pessimism of critiques of technology. This endeavor, in which ethics and theory were inextricably entangled, entailed both a critical incorporation of the cybernetic dream of a unified science and an excavation of the founding ontological prescriptions of Western thought.

Simondon’s conviction was that no thinking that was in thrall to constituted individuals, and blind to the processes and operations that brought them into existence – blind to individuation, in short – could cope with the challenges of a technological society. The “bête noire” of Simondon’s approach was hylemorphism, the schema which envisages the constitution of individuals through the imposition of a form on a passive matter. Hylemorphism promotes the primacy of constituted individuals (which it shares with its rival and counterpart, atomism, as well as with the Platonic theory of archetypal forms) by prefiguring the individuality of beings in the identity of the forms that provide these individuals not just with their existence, but with their intelligibility. Without dismissing the (relative) existence of forms and matters, Simondon argued that hylemorphism forecloses the delicate, complex and risk- laden interactions between forms (e.g. the mold for a brick) and matters (e.g. the clay), and moreover cloaks the fact that forms themselves are always qualified by certain material properties (they are materialized forms: a cement mold, for instance) and that matters, inversely, are always to some extent or another preformed (they are formed matters: only certain types of clay are disposed to being molded into bricks).

Importantly, Simondon lay partial responsibility for what Muriel Combes has aptly dubbed a “forgetting of operation” at the feet of the social organization of work. It is the invisibility of labor, and of what Marx called the “hidden abode of production,” together with the separation between intellectual and manual labor, which perpetuates the fiction of an immaculate and identical form imposed on a passive, blank material. When the atelier or factory is a black box, the passage from the form qua input to the individuated being as output remains unthought. As Simondon writes in “L’individuation”, when “the one who thinks is not the one who works, in his thinking there is in effect only one form for all the objects in the same collection: form is generic not logically or physically but socially.” For the worker instead, one brick differs from another on account of its material, but especially of the “unique character of the unfolding of the operation of molding,” “the worker’s gestures are never the same,” and “fatigue, the global state of perception and representation intervene in this particular operation, and amount to a unique existence of a particular form of each act of fabrication, which translates into the reality of the object: singularity, the principle of individuation, would then lie in information” (Simondon, 2005, pp. 57–8; see also Sohn Rethel, 1978 and Thomson, 1955, on the role of the division of intellectual and manual labor at the origins of Western philosophy).

This attention to information as a singular process of interaction also explains why Simondon, who was strongly influenced by the cybernetic ideal of an omni-comprehensive science or “axiomatics” of information, could not accept the reduction of information to a measurable quantity that would be merely contained (and already individuated) within a coded message. For, at its worst, the notion of a science of information synthesizes the three main principles of individuation that come under Simondon’s sustained attack: as a unit-measure which atomistically composes organization and quantifies degrees of order, it mimics atomism; as an expression of the unilateral relation between model and copy, it reinstates the Platonic archetype; finally, as a source of organization which is separate from matter, or “substrate-independent,” it is the latest heir to Aristotelian hylemorphism.

Now, within his overall project of fashioning a general science of operations, or “allagmatics”, bringing to the fore the “dark zone” where individuation takes place, Simondon is obliged to abandon any ontology that would ground the emergence of individuality in the pre-existence of individuated terms – whether these be matter and form or sender and receiver. The process of in-formation is instead recast in terms of a model of innovative diffusion or contagion, which Simondon defines as “transduction.”

Persuaded that individuation, in whatever domain, can only take place by drawing on a preindividual field, a “metastable” domain composed of disparate virtualities (what the excerpt included herein calls a “ground”, fond), Simondon, drawing on studies of crystallization, rethinks the process of individuation as the result of the introduction of a “form” in the guise of a structural “germ” which catalyzes the actualization and reciprocal interaction of some of the virtualities that had hitherto remained at the preindividual level. What the philosophical tradition identifies as form is thus not thought of as a sudden imposition, but rather as the amplifying propagation of a structure, where a structured or individuated region of being serves as a principle of individuation, the model or form for other yet-unstructured and metastable regions (such that the distinction between individuating and individuated is always relative). Transduction is thus a “physical, biological, mental and social operation whereby an activity progressively propagates itself within a domain” (Simondon, 2005, p. 32), and “the notion of form must be replaced by that of information, which presupposes the existence of a system in a metastable state of equilibrium which can individuate itself: information, unlike form, is never a single term, but the signification that emerges from a disparation” (p. 35).

This last term is particularly important for an understanding of Simondon’s philosophy of interaction. Drawing on the physiological term for the integration of non-superimposable retinal images into unified visual perception, Simondon uses the idea of “disparation” to think how individuation implies the emergence or invention of a form of communication between hitherto incommensurable orders or potentials. As Deleuze noted in his 1966 review of Simondon, “what essentially defines a metastable system is the existence of a ‘disparation,’ the existence of at least two different dimensions, two disparate levels of reality, between which there is not yet any interactive communication” (Deleuze, 2004, p. 87). Veritable interaction is thus thought of as an event, wherein individuation and communication are indissociable.

 Alberto Toscano,  Technical Culture and the Limits of Interaction: A Note on Simondon

 Alberto Toscano is a lecturer in sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is the author of The Theatre of Production: Philosophy and Individuation Between Kant and Deleuze (Palgrave, 2006), translator of Alain Badiou’s The Century (Polity, 2007) and Handbook of Inaesthetics (Stanford, 2005), and co-editor of Alain Badiou’s Theoretical Writings (Continuum, 2004) and On Beckett (Clinamen, 2003). He has also co-translated and prefaced Éric Alliez’s The Signature of the World (Continuum, 2004) and Antonio Negri’s Political Descartes (Verso, 2007). He has published several articles on contemporary philosophy, ontology and social theory. He is currently working on two projects: an investigation into the persistence of the idea of communism in contemporary thought and a genealogical inquiry into the concept of fanaticism.



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