Thursday May 22nd  2014

“which definition of the work-of-art can a critique both of hylomorphism  and modern conception of the image produce?”



Simondon’s constructive and operational grasp radically transforms the traditional teleological, structural and functional approach to technology by recentering the problem within an operational and relational approach. Whereas a functional approach emphasizes structures after their process of formation as well as their corresponding functionings, an operational undertaking privileges the formative processes at play in the genesis of forms. Emerging forms, by this account, cannot be deduced from pre-given forms. In other words, technological functionings cannot be explained by the forms to which they are related, and conversely. A functioning is an effect rather than a correspondence or an explanation. Simondon argues for the becoming of technical objects and individuals to be understood in terms of a concretization or individuation emerging from a preindividual field of relation. The technical object or individual is not a concretization in the sense that it instantiates an abstract object. Rather, it is a novel emergence from the preindividual, whose tensions it resolves in its mode of being. In the process, it potentializes an “associated milieu,” which acts as a connective force maintaining the solidarity of its subsequent operations as a constituted being.

Further, Simondon situates technology in relation to magical, religious, aesthetic and philosophical thought. These domains are not in causal continuity with one another, but participate in a complex set of relationalities that enable the emergence of a heterogeneous unity in movement enveloping the totality of all modes in virtue of a process of reticulation, or networking, effected by aesthetics. The modes of thought are therefore not juxtaposed – fused or confused – but given all at once in their genetic or formative processes. More precisely, technical and religious thought results from the unfolding of magical thought. Magical thought is a primitive unity, a plurality of modes of existence, a living and linking relation between humans and the world that precedes the distinction between subjects and objects. An aesthetic engagement recalls the rupture of the magical state of primitive unity, and in so doing brings the potential for reticulating it anew, enabling the emergence of a future unity. Aesthetics, Simondon warns us, does not unfold. Rather, it operates horizontally, and maintains the function of totality in a field of reality that tends to diverge through specialization. In other words, it facilitates the unification of heterogeneous domains –disciplines, modes of thought, etc.– by allowing them to get networked back together. Aesthetics constitutes a remarkable point carrying the trace of a unity from which a new unity can be reticulated/networked. Aesthetics is therefore never determined; it is a tendency carrying the power of reticulation. Aesthetics enables an engagement with the magical state, while negotiating the vast milieus of its creation. Thus, art is conceptualized as a meaningful reaction to the loss of signification generated by the divergent unfolding that split the magical unity. Art works recapture something of the feeling of the primitive unity as their own aesthetic feeling, but they do not reconstitute the primitive unity. While it is the technical object that Simondon privileges in his work, he conceptualizes it as an allagmatic theory: a theory of operations. The operations in question do not only reside in the individuation of the technical object. Their interlinkages connect all aspects of human endeavour. Simondon guides us in thinking through how an isomorphism between operational relations between domains of emergence – as opposed to structural relations between constituted forms – valorizes the objective conditions of a processual and relational approach to the becoming of technique. This is how energetic milieus are entangled in processes of potentialization that improvise connections and carry implicit forms/virtual motifs. What we see as a “work of art” then, is a snapshot of an intensive and ongoing process of concretization and individuation. We are thus far removed from the traditional domain of representational art. Both the terms aesthetic and technique have the possibility of a radical redistribution of meaning as is suggested in his term the ‘techno-aesthetic’.

Marie-Pier Boucher and Patrick Harrop

Inflexions 5, “Simondon: Milieu, Techniques, Aesthetics” (March 2012). 




Simondon devoted a course at the Sorbonne to imagination. His theory broke with modern conceptions of the image. The image is not subjective but intermediate between object and subject. His conception is closer to those of the Ancients: Homer accorded to dreams a force of premonition that was independent of the dreamer; Lucretius saw the image as a simulacrum caused by vapours and possessed of an independent reality. Simondon also assigns an ontological status to images. He shows that imagination leads to invention. It can be materialized to become an object, a situation or an event.

Simondon’s course, taught from 1965 to 1966, followed the genesis of the image in all orders of reality to show how it brings together heterogeneous contents, how it extracts from these contents orientations, and how these orientations can be materially realized through invention. Simondon brought together as much evidence as possible to support his hypothesis of an image whose dynamism is at once generative and cyclical. The schema that leads from imagination to invention is relatively simple. But the conceptual developments addressed by the course fade into the background as Simondon conjures up a veritable compendium of biological facts, observations on the politics of the 1960s, mythological reminiscences, dialogues with psychoanalysis, cinematographic images, desires, theories of physics, spirituality and analogies with the animal world. We encounter Shirley Temple (affectionately referred to as the ‘optimum baby’), cargo cult practitioners and characters from fairy-tales. There are also experiments on bees, suggestions for making night workers’ clothing visible in the dark, a theory of subliminal perception, an explanation of the behaviour of mental calculators, and long passages on toys and games. The whole thing resembles Ferdinand Cheval’s Ideal Palace, a whimsical structure of which Simondon was very fond.

Imagination follows a cycle. Before experiencing a situation, the individual anticipates it. She creates an a priori image consisting of projections and desires. Then comes the experience. The confrontation with reality does not overwrite the image. On the contrary, the image remains practically operative. It is a ‘pattern’ that allows us to distinguish between the predictable and the new. Perception is drawn to the singular, the specific and the unfamiliar. It perceives change and movement. It is able to distinguish them as novel because the images to which it compares them contain the ‘normal’ elements of a situation. This is how a shepherd knows that he has lost a sheep without having to count the flock. His image of the flock serves as a reference.

The cycle of the image continues after the experience. In memory, it is refined and simplified. It becomes charged with affect. It becomes a symbol. But this symbol remains energetically charged; it is meta-stable, that is to say, capable of evolving. It is alive with the contradictions and differences between all of the situations it symbolizes. How are the different images connected? Realism argues that there is a continuity between perception and abstract images, a connection between particular sensations and the images that emanate from them. Idealists like Berkeley and Descartes support a theory of discontinuity. Berkeley argued that images are not drawn from an external reality; Descartes, for his part, was committed to the concept of innate ideas, uninformed by perception. Simondon’s theory, on the other hand, is firmly grounded in empiricism. The genesis of the image is rooted in the corporeality of the individual; it develops from perceptions which resound in the individual’s subconscious. It is clear that Simondon accepts an empirical basis for the imagination, but he corrects the inductivism of this conception on one point. The summation model supposes that all the images of a single reality are added together to form a generic image. Each of the linden trees seen in nature or on television progressively form an image of a linden tree. But if empiricist induction is right to postulate a connection between experienced realities and the development of images, it errs in homogenising the different realities encountered. Empiricism does not give priority to any particular experience. It puts them all on the same footing, refusing to acknowledge singularities. It obscures the importance of key moments and defining experiences in the generative development of images.

According to Simondon, priority must be given to the vivid experience that initiates the constitution of a class of images. This experience is the germ of the genesis. It may be an image stumbled upon in a book, or the lasting memory of a chance encounter. It remains a grounding presence – like a tree trunk. Simondon uses this metaphor to explain the constitution of a class of images. The tree trunk does not consist of the sum of all images concerning a reality. Instead, new images insert themselves into this trunk in the direction dictated by the polarity of the initial singularity. When they are in agreement with the germinal image, the new images conserve its direction. However, if they diverge from the initial image, they may graft themselves on as asymmetric outgrowths, to form the branches of this imaginary tree. Taking up Taine’s example of the constitution of the image of the araucaria tree (1), Simondon explains:

There is a first araucaria, an original image of this shrub with its regular form and thick green stems, which will remain the truest, most authentic, most prominent in memory, and which will be the source of the norm for all subsequent impressions. If the first araucaria was small, with bright green leaves, and planted in dark loam, a bigger, yellower one will be seen as ‘a big, yellow araucaria’, and a third as an araucaria with a smooth trunk or straight branches. (2)

The first impression plays the archetypal role of a model for all that follows. It is the principle of constitution for a class of images. The particular interest of this conception lies in the asymmetric outgrowths that form the branches of the tree. They present an answer to the canonical problem of induction: the case of white and black swans. The first swan from which we derived our initial impression forms the germ for the trunk of our imaginary tree, which expands with each subsequent sighting of a swan. The Australian black swan appears marginal, aberrant in relation to its constitutive class. It branches off from it in an asymmetric fashion, but it does not reform the original constitution of the class. The class remains as it was, and the comprehension (in the logical sense) of this class remains unchanged, even as it extends to include this new case. The singularity of the black swan does not prevent us from including the characteristic of whiteness in our comprehension of the class of swans. Logically, according to the principles of induction, this characteristic should have disappeared. If it remains, says Simondon, it is because the network of images does not obey this law. It allows contradictions to coexist and takes into account the marginality of the black swan. ‘The most important epistemological characteristic of the memory-image is the independence of extension from comprehension; an understanding based on images is thus different from an understanding based on classic induction’  (3). For the logician, the image of this tree presents a contradiction. For Simondon, however, it is the sign of a tension, the mark of the development of an inventive potential. The incompatibility of the different outgrowths leads towards the formation of a symbol. The symbol is a condensation of contradictory experiences. It connects antagonisms and welcomes divergences, forming an energised unity which, once saturated, becomes meta-stable and leads the individual to modify the structure of its organisation. Imagination drives invention. An individual who carries the image of a possible reality cannot remain inactive; she compares this image to the reality she sees and tries to weld them together. She invents. The symbol is tested and refined by reality. The inventor overcomes the contradictions of the imaginary by making real the image he has in his head. The examples Simondon gives are technologies (bridges, locomotives) and techno-aesthetic accomplishments (Corbusier’s architecture, Xenakis’ music). Individuation turns the human being into a builder of worlds.


(1) Cf. Taine, Hyppolite, On intelligence, trans. T. D. Haye, London, 1871, pp. 397

(2) Course on Imagination and Invention, op. cit., p.1087.

(3)  Idem, p. 1088.

Pascal Chabot, ‘Imagination’, Chapter 9 in ‘The philosophy of Simondon’, Bloomsbury, 2012, (orig. pub. in french, 2003)


” The community accepts the painter or the poet but refuses invention, because there is in invention something that goes beyond the community and institutes a transindividual relation, going from individual to individual without passing through the communitarian integration guaranteed by a collective mythology “

Gilbert Simondon, L’individuation psychique et collective

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1 Comment

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