“What does ‘milieu’ mean?”
Technical Invention: Form and Content in Life and in Inventive Thought
For the reasons already outlined, we can rightly state that the individualization of technical beings is the essential condition for technical progress. Such individualization is possible because of the recurrence of causality in the environment which the technical being creates around itself, an environment which it influences and by which it is influenced. This environment, which is at the same time natural and technical, can be called the associated milieu. By means of this the technical being is conditioned in its operation. This is no fabricated milieu, or at least it is not wholly fabricated; it is a definite system of natural elements surrounding the technical object and it is linked to a definite system of elements which constitute the technical object. The associated milieu is the mediator of the relationship between manufactured technical elements and natural elements within which the technical being functions. The ensemble constituted by oil and water in motion within and around the Guimbal turbine is of this sort. This ensemble is concretized and individualized by the recurring thermal changes that take place in it. The faster the turbine turns, the more the generator expels heat by Joule effect and magnetic loss. But the faster the turbine turns, the more the oil in the rotor and water around the housing increase in turbulence and activate heat exchanges between rotor and water. This associated milieu is the invented technical object’s condition of existence. The only technical objects that, strictly speaking, can be said to be invented are those needing an associated milieu to make them viable. Indeed, they cannot be formed part by part in the course of a gradual evolution, because either they exist in their completeness or not at all. Technical objects which in their liaison with the natural world put into play what is essentially a recurrent causality must be invented rather than developed in stages, because such objects are the cause of their own condition of functioning. Such objects are viable only if the problem is resolved; that is to say, only if they exist along with their associated milieu.
It is for this reason that so much discontinuity is noticeable in the history of technical objects with absolute origins. Previsionary and imaginatively creative thought alone can effect such a reversed conditioning in time. Elements that materially are to constitute the technical object, and that are independent one of the other, lacking an associated milieu that precedes the constitution of the technical object, must be organised in relation to one another by means of circular causality which will exist once the object is constituted. What is involved here, then, is a conditioning of the present by the future, or by what up to now does not exist. It is only very rarely that any such function of the future could be the result of chance. The reason for this is that this function depends upon a capacity for the organisation of elements in terms of requirements that are meaningful as a whole in terms of the goal towards which they aim and that act as symbols of a future ensemble as yet without existence. The unity of that future associated milieu in which causal relationships will be so deployed as to make possible the functioning of the new technical object is represented or acted out by systems of the creative imagination, in much the same way as an actor can play a role in the absence of the real person.
The dynamism of thought is like that of technical objects. Mental systems influence each other during invention in the same way as different dynamisms of a technical object influence each other in material functioning. The unity of the associated milieu of a technical object has an analogue in the unity of a living thing. During invention living unity is the coherence of mental systems that are arrived at because they exist in and are deployed in the same being; systems that are contradictory come into confrontation with and reduce each other. That which is alive can invent, because whatever is alive is an individual being that brings with it its own associated milieu. The ability to be self-conditioning is a principle of production capacity in self-conditioning objects. What escapes the attention of psychologists in their analysis of the inventive imagination is not so much the systems or forms or operations of this faculty, those elements that so immediately demand attention, as the dynamic background on which these systems confront each other and combine with each other, and with which they participate.
The Psychology of Form, clearly taking into account the function of totalities, attributes force to form. But, a more profound analysis of the imaginative process would undoubtedly reveal that the determining factor playing an energising role is not forms but that which supports form, that is, their background. However marginal it may always be in terms of our attention, the background is the harbour for dynamisms, and it is what gives existence to the system of forms. Forms interact not with forms but with their background, which is the system of all forms or, better still, the common reservoir of the tendencies of all forms even before they had separate existence or constituted an explicit system. The participational relationship connecting forms to their background is a relationship which straddles the present and brings the future to bear upon the present, that which brings the virtual to bear upon the actual. This is so because the base is a system of virtualities, of potentials, and of moving forces, whereas forms are a system of the actual. Invention is a taking into account of the system of actuality by a system of virtualities; it is the creation of a new system from these two.
Forms are passive to the extent that they represent actuality. They become active when they are organised in relation to their base, and thus bring to actuality former virtualities. It is undoubtedly very difficult to clarify those modalities by which a forms system relates to a background of virtualities. All we can say is that it happens in much the same manner of causality and conditioning as that by which each of the structures in a constituted technical object relates to the dynamisms of its associated milieu. These structures are in the associated milieu, and they are influenced by it and, through it, by the other structures of the technical being. They exert a partial influence on it in turn, while the technical milieu, which is influenced by each structure individually, influences them all together by supplying them with energetic, thermal, and chemical conditions of functioning. There is a recurrence of causality between associated milieu and these structures, but this is not a symmetrical recurrence. The milieu plays an informational role. It is a basis for self-regulations, and it is a vehicle for information or for information-controlled energy (for example, water shaken at a certain speed cooling a housing at a certain rate). The associated milieu, on the other hand, is homeostatic and the structures are affected by a non-recurring causality, each of them going in its own direction.
Freud analysed the influence of background on form in psychic life. He interpreted it in terms of the influence of hidden forms on explicit forms; hence the notion of suppression. The existence of symbolization has indeed been demonstrated (experiments on a hypnotised subject to whom a violently emotional scene is described and who, on waking up, uses symbolic transposition in his account of the scene), that the unconscious is populated by forms comparable to explicit forms has not been demonstrated. The dynamic of tendencies is sufficient to explain symbolization if we accept as efficacious the existence of a psychic background on which are deployed, and which is influenced by, explicit forms which the conscious and waking state shows forth. The environment associated with the systematic of forms establishes recurrent causal relationships between forms and causes reorganizations of the system of forms taken in its totality. Alienation is a rupture between background and forms in psychic life. It occurs when the associated milieu no longer effectively regulates the dynamism of forms. The reason why the imagination has never been properly analysed up to the present day is that forms have been accorded an active role and have been considered to take the initiative in both psychic and physical life. In reality, there is a strong kinship between life and thought. In a living organism all living matter cooperates with life.
The most obvious and clearly defined structures in the body are not the only ones with life initiative; blood, lymph and conjunctive tissues play their part in life. An individual is not only made of a collection of organs joined together in systems. He is composed too of something that is no organ and that is not a structure of living matter in the sense of forming an associated milieu for the organs. Living matter serves as background for the organs in that it connects them one to another and makes then into an organism. It preserves the fundamental chemical and physical equilibriums on which the organs exert sudden, though limited, variations. The organs participate in the body. Living matter is far from being pure indetermination or pure passivity. Neither is it a blind tendency; it is, rather, the vehicle of informed energy. In similar fashion, thought comprises precise and distinct structures such as representations, images, memories and perceptions. But all these elements relate to a background which gives them direction and homeostatic unity and conveys informed energy from one to the other and from all to each. We might say that the background is axiomatic that is implicit. New systems of forms are elaborated in it. Without a background of thought, there can be no thinking being but only a unconnected series of discontinuous representations. Their background is the mental associated milieu of forms. It is the middle term between life and conscious thought just as the environment associated with the technical object is a middle term between the natural world and the technical object‘s fabricated structures. We are able to create technical beings because we have within ourselves an interplay of relationships and a matter-form association which is remarkably analogous to that which we establish in the technical object. The relationship between thought and life is analogous to the relationship between a structured technical object and the natural environment. The individualized technical object is an invented object, one that is a product of the interplay of recurrent causality between life and thought in man. An object that is associated either with life or thought alone is a utensil or tool rather than a technical object. It has no internal consistency, because it has no associated milieu to institute recurrent causality.
This text is the second part of the second chapter : “The Evolution of Technical Reality: Element, Individual and Ensemble”
out of Gilbert Simondon, ‘On the Mode of Existence of Technical Objects’
Paris: Aubier, Editions Montaigne, 1958
Translated from the French by Ninian Mellamphy with a Preface by John Hart, University of Western Ontario, June 1980
Simondon shares the cyberneticists’ ideal of a unified theory of being, based on the concept of information. This concept extends far beyond the philosophy of technology: it is also applicable to physics, biology and psychology. (1) Information may be understood in three different senses: syntactical, semantic and pragmatic. The first sense concerns problems in the transmission of information. Its initial applications are strictly technical. Questions of syntax concern how information is to be coded, the channels of transmission, the physical capacities of information systems, and issues of redundancy and noise. Information may also be approached from a semantic angle. In this case, the primary concern is the meaning of the symbols that constitute a message. An important issue for semantics is identifying the common conventions that must be shared by the transmitter and receiver of a signal so that the meaning of the information trans- mitted may be mutually understood. Finally, information lends itself to a pragmatic analysis: How does it affect the behaviours of transmitter and receiver? (2)
The pragmatic study of information has more than a few things in common with the scholastic investigation of forms. In both cases, the primary concern is to discover the effect of form on matter. The theory of information allows us to reformulate this question. (3) It asks: What is the effect of information on the milieu that receives it? Dissatisfied with the logical conception of form, Simondon revisited the medieval question of individuation with the notion of information in hand. Some of the scholastics held that all forms were static. Those who believed in a unique, rigid form maintained that its sole function was its determining effect on matter. This function is diametrically opposed to dynamism: its adherents refused to accept that a form could be active on its own, independent of its role in specifying the properties of individual things. Simondon favoured the opposite interpretation. In his theory, form and action are combined in a single notion: information. ‘It is necessary to replace the notion of form with that of information’, he wrote. (4) Like the cyberneticists, he viewed information as an operation. Its function is not only one of determination; it causes a mutation, it triggers change. Information becomes the factor that sets in motion the process of individuation. This active role was first described by Simondon in the context of crystallization.
Simondon observed the growth of a crystal in its mother-water. He studied the parameters that determine the nature of a crystal: temperature, pressure, shock, chemical composition. He contemplated ancient sources which saw the perfection of the crystal as a link between the organic and the inorganic. He also studied the refraction of light through crystalline structures and the implications of these structures for atomic theory. Finally, he alighted upon the crystal as the paradigm for his theory of individuation.
At the end of the eighteenth century, the Abbé Haüy advanced the hypothesis that crystals were formed periodically from an ‘integral molecule’. (5) From then on, the study of crystals had to move beyond the phenomenological plan of the crystal’s external form and try instead to understand its internal, molecular organization, concealed beneath the surface structure of the crystal. Prior to this, crystal- lography was primarily concerned with problems of classification, inventory, and collection of specimens from mines and volcanic regions. This descriptive activity, accompanied by research into the role of crystals in the formation of the earth, was as much a metaphysical examination as it was a matter of physical exploration. In addition to their many applications in medicinal and magical practices, crystals sparked the imagination and spurred reflection. Jean Buridan (1300–58) attributed the presence of crystals on the earth’s surface to a process of ‘coagulation’ originating at the earth’s core, where matter was subjected to very low temperatures. The resulting crystals were brought to the surface through orogenesis, a phenomenon in which rocks are pushed above ground by the pressure of forces emanating from the centre of the earth. Once the rocks had undergone the effects of erosion, the crystals were revealed. This idea of ‘coagulation’ came from Aristotle and was confirmed by the formation of stalactites. Kepler (1571–1630) was also influenced by Aristotle in formulating the hypothesis that hexagonal snow crystals had a liquid origin. For Kepler, the arrangement of their crystalline facets was the effect of forces whose geometrical action reflected the soul of the earth. (6) These two examples demonstrate that the process of crystal formation could be linked to cosmogonies. Thus, Buffon saw in the ‘figuration’ of minerals a principle of organization that he identified as a first step towards life (‘ébauche de vie’), (7) due to the presence of organic molecules. The crystal exists at the border between two realities. Although it belongs to the class of minerals, its organization, its genesis and its beauty prompted many philosophers and scientists to perceive in it the vestiges of a common ancestry with living things. Jean-Claude de la Métherie spoke of the ‘crystallisation of the foetus’. He also viewed the soul, which is the centre of being, as the result of a crystallization. The process of crystallization went beyond the domain of mineralogy. Identified with organic processes, crystallization was for a long time viewed as the ‘missing link’ between organic and inorganic matter. The perfectly ordered structure of the inorganic crystal, and its genetic formation starting with a ‘germ’ or seed, which the Greeks called spermata, led many early scientists to situate crystals at the outermost edge of the inorganic and thus, for those who took a ‘continuist’ view of evolution, at the frontiers of the organic. (8)
The discoveries made by Romé de l’Isle and Haüy in the eighteenth century put an end to these speculations. Simondon demonstrates, nonetheless, that a thorough understanding of the physics of crystals can lead to speculative conclusions that go far beyond physics. The crystal, paradigm of individualization, constitutes for Simondon an opportunity to reaffirm the connections between the phases of being and becoming. Moreover, the crystal occupies a strategic position: it serves as the model for physico-chemical individuation, which Simondon will use as the starting point for his theory of biological individuation. (9) Thus, in Simondon’s hands, the object of scientific study becomes a subject for philosophical reflection.
Form and matter do not explain the genesis of the crystal. They allow us to formulate a theory a posteriori, when the crystal has already been individuated. But if we follow the process of individu- ation step by step, other observations present themselves. The milieu in which a crystal first forms is its mother-water, a substance (matière) which crystallographers describe as ‘amorphous’, to emphasize that its molecules are in an unstable, disordered state, lacking, above all, the periodic order which determines the geometry of the crystal. The amorphous substance must be in a meta-stable state to produce a crystal: it must be at a temperature that will support rapid evolution. Crystallization will not occur if the environment is too stable.
The introduction of a ‘germ’ into the mother-water initiates the process. The germ is a foreign body or a shock to the system. It is a piece of information – that is, an element (or an event) that is singular and new. (10) The germ introduces an asymmetry into the amorphous substance. ‘It has the value of a principle’: (11) it provides energy and transmits a structure to the substance that it did not previously possess. It brings geometry to the substance: cube, pyramid, octahedron, rhomboid…. It is the first layer of the crystal. Its structure polarizes the material around it, triggering a corresponding change in structure and release of energy. The newly transformed structure thus serves as the germ for the transformation of matter further from the nucleus. The limits of the crystal expand outward. Its growth is the propagation of order in chaos.
Becoming is not opposed to being. Becoming is ‘the relation that constitutes the being as individual’. (12) It is not only that pure movement, that process disconnected from any support, which opposes the stability of being. Simondon looked for compatibility between these two aspects of individuation. He sought to treat them as a mixture, not wanting to confine being to a rigid substantialism in which it would be essentially insusceptible to mutations, nor to compress becoming into an immaterial energeticism. The example of the crystal furnished him with a model for thinking about the coalescence of being and becoming. In what sense can we say that the crystal is a mixture of being and becoming? The individuation of the crystal unfolds between two realities: the already structured crystal and the inchoate milieu, capable of being structured. For Simondon, the already structured crystal symbolizes being, that which is present and given, while the dynamic, energized milieu symbolizes becoming, a virtuality that awaits determination. If ‘thought’ considers only these two states, the crystalline and the crystallizable, it remains in a conflictual situation that presents an impossible choice. If it chooses the crystal and thereby presents itself as a ‘thought of being’, it misses becoming and cannot explain the modifications, progressions or actualizations of virtualities. Similarly, if this thought chooses the dynamic, energized milieu as its model for becoming, it becomes, as it were, evanescent, a pure contemplation of virtualities. In Simondon’s view, by reflecting on the process of crystallization, we can provide a solution to this conflict. The two preceding positions each depend on a particular state of matter. Simondon chooses the milieu and the operation. Between the already formed crystal and the structurable milieu exists the limit of the crystalline individual. ‘The limit’, explains Simondon, ‘is neither potential nor structure’. It is neither the past of the crystal nor its future. It is the point where growth is occurring in the crystalline individual at a given moment in time. Potential and structure, past and future communicate on this shifting frontier. Combining being and becoming, the limit is never completely one or the other. It is the here-and-now (lieu- moment) of individuation, the point where that which is and that which is becoming interact. It is this reality that Simondon sought to visualize in order to resolve the antinomy of being and becoming: the here-and-now of what he called ‘transduction’ – the propagation of information in an amorphous milieu.
This amorphous milieu, rich in energy but lacking structure, is a self-organizing chaos. Simondon was aware of a limitation of language. (13) It is impossible to speak of chaos without reference to some kind of order. The adjective “amorphous”, which bears the mark of an absence, (14) defines a milieu in terms of its lack of form. Chaos has no logical positivity of its own. It is not individuated. But Simondon plays time against logic. Rather than expressing it in negative terms, he describes chaos as the ‘not yet’. The empty glass is not yet full. The chaotic milieu is not yet individuated: it is ‘pre-individual’. It is awaiting individuation; the necessary energetic conditions have already been met; all it lacks is a germ to initiate the process. In Aristotelean terms, the pre-individual would be potency without action – a pure passivity. But Simondon rejects this terminology: Aristotle gives primacy to the act and defines potency in terms of that which the act is lacking. This conception of potency is framed in terms of logical absence (i.e. negation). And yet, the pre-individual is positive. It is a generative and creative potency. Its potency is a vitality that is still untamed, a pure nature, a physis, a natura naturans. The pre-individual is nature seized at its source, nature still untouched by determination, formless and limitless, but already full of a vitality that will be shaped by determination.
Anaximander called this radical origin ἄπειρον (apeiron), (15) a concept which Simondon makes his own. The pre-individual is nature in a pre-Socratic sense. It is the reservoir of becoming. The pre-Socratics were, for Simondon, the true thinkers of individu- ation. Their worldview was not informed by the fascination with the individuated being which dominated later philosophies and forced an understanding of reality as the sum of all individuated things. They did not settle upon a principle of individuation, a first term from which individuals develop, as a monad unfolds its essence. They had the intuition of a verb (to grow) and of a milieu as yet unformed, ‘phase-less (sans phase)’, but alive. The ‘pre-individual’, which Simondon postulated to refer to the milieu of individuation prior to the emergence of the individual, is Anaximander’s apeiron. It is rare for Simondon to borrow a concept. In fact, this particular borrowing is unique in his philosophy. His other borrowings, from Plato or Descartes, always concern processes, operations, ways of doing or organizing, but never, as here, the name of a phase of being. (16) Simondon’s privileged relationship with the pre-Socratics explains this borrowing. They were thinkers and technicians. ‘For them’, wrote Simondon, ‘the present reality of the world is under- stood by its genesis, and cosmogony is tangible and concrete like the progressive change of state undergone by clay as it absorbs more water under the hand of the potter’. (17) Their thought also belonged to a time of beginnings; they preceded the history of philosophy, which Simondon views as the history of the rediscovery of individuation by the already constituted individual. The pre-Socratic influence is apparent at yet another level. In the same way that Anaximander imagines the apeiron to be determined by a gonimon (γόνιμον: ‘that which is capable of engendering’), Simondon explains that the pre-individual is determined by information.
(1) W. R. Ashby writes of cybernetics that it is ‘heaven-sent’. It is a bridge between simple systems and hyper-complex ones: ‘until recently we have had no experience of systems of medium complexity; either they have been like the watch and the pendulum, and we have found their properties few and trivial, or they have been like the dog and the human being, and we have found their properties so rich and remarkable that we have thought them supernatural. Only in the last few years has the general-purpose computer given us a system rich enough to be interesting, yet simple enough to be understandable … . The computer is heaven-sent … for it enables us to bridge the enormous conceptual gap from the simple and understandable to the complex and interesting’ (W. R. Ashby, ‘Principles of the Self-organizing System’, in Mechanisms of Intelligence: Ashby’s Writings on Cybernetics, (ed.) Roger Conant, Seaside, CA: Intersystems Publications, 1981, pp. 66–7. Cited by H. Atlan, Entre le cristal et la fumée, Paris: Seuil, 1979, p. 40).
(2) Research at the Palo Alto Institute, another heir to the legacy of cybernetics, has focused on the human behavioural aspects of information systems. Cf. P. Watzlawick, J. Helmick Beavin and D. D. Jackson, Une logique de la communication, Paris: Seuil, 1972.
(3) In the second part of his introduction to Individuation Psychique et Collective, Simondon discusses the question of form as addressed by Plato and Aristotle. He subsequently notes: ‘It is necessary to bring to bear upon the theory of information a term not related to probability. It might perhaps be possible – and it is the starting point of my thesis – to speak of a quality of information, or of an informational tension’ (p. 52). This tension, as we will see, may be carried like a seed or ‘germ’. Individuation depends on the relation between ‘informational tension in the structural germ and unformed, metastable potential’ (p. 54). Simondon replaces the earlier concept of form with a new theory of information.
(4) L’individu et sa genèse, p. 211.
(5) F. Balibar, La Science du cristal, Paris: Hachette, 1991, p. 29.
(6) Cf. D. Lecourt, ‘Introduction’, in F. Balibar, La science du cristal, op. cit., p. 11
(7) Idem, p. 12.
(8) Thus, the botanist Joseph Pitton de Tournefort (1656–1708) wrote: ‘The different species of pyrites, rock crystals, and an infinity of other stones can be supposed to originate from seeds (germes), like mushrooms, truffles, and many species of moss for which we have yet to discover their method of propagation.’
(9) Such is the case in the first edition of L’individu et sa genèse physico-biologique published by the P.U.F. (Presses Universitaires de France) in 1964. The Millon (1995) edition includes a supplementary section entitled ‘Form and Substance’ (Forme et substance) which consists of 85 pages copied from the thesis submitted to the Sorbonne in 1958 (shelf mark W1958 (33), printed in quarto). This supplementary section is devoted to an interpretation of quantum mechanics. It is inserted between a section devoted to crystals and one devoted to life, but it should be noted that in the final section of the chapter ‘Form and Substance’, entitled ‘Topology, chronology, and order of magnitude of physical individuation’ (Topologie, chronologie et ordre de grandeur de l’individuation physique), Simondon returns to the problem of the crystal and hypothesizes that ‘the individuation of life inserts itself into physical individuation by suspending its course, slowing it down, making it capable of propagation to the inchoate state. The living individual is in some sense, at its most primitive levels, a crystal in its nascent state, growing in its metastable environment’, (L’individu et sa genèse, p. 150).
(10) The appearance of a germ in the amorphous meta-stable fluid is ‘spontaneous, and to date inexplicable’, writes Simondon (L’individu et sa genèse, p. 102). He rejects the proba- bilistic explanation. It does not seem possible to give an ‘explanation’ for this appearance, since the germ might be a speck of dust, or any other physical entity, as long as it has an effect on the meta-stable milieu. This remark by Simondon reveals that the origin of the germ is a blind spot within his doctrine. The germ is envisaged here as a piece of information. In information theory, information may appear at random without being random, since its content is distinguishable from pure noise. This classic antinomy of information theory, noted in Mode d’existence, p. 136, guides Simondon’s description of crystallization to the point of shifting its focus: the problem is not to find out the origin of the germ, but to discover the conditions under which it will be able to have an effect, just as information is distinguished from pure noise, which has no effect, other than to produce static.
(11) L’individu et sa genèse, p. 84.
(12) Idem, p. 89.
(13) ‘The concepts are adequate only for individuated reality’ (L’individu et sa genèse, p. 25).
(14) Translator’s note: because it begins with the prefix of negation: a-, ‘not’.
(15) Marcel Conche explains that for Anaximander, ‘the apeiron is neither matter (ὑλο-/ hylo-), nor an intermediary (μεταξύ/metaxu) between two elements (such as water and fire, water and air, etc.), nor a mixture (μίγμα/migma)’. The apeiron is doubly indeterminate: physically, since it has no topological demarcations, and logically, because it precedes categorical determinations. Cf. Anaximandre. Fragments et témoignages, (ed.) M. Conche, Paris: P.U.F., 1991, p. 87.
(16) The pre-individual is the first phase of being.
(17) Course on Perception, op. cit., p. 570. In his book Early Greek Science, the British historian G. E. R. Lloyd noted that even if the sources of information about Ionian technology in the fourth century AD are exceedingly limited, it has been established that this technology provided the basis for the naturalist explications of the physi- ologists. Cf. Lloyd, Early Greek Science: Thales to Aristotle, New York: W. W. Norton & Co, 1970. According to the German philologist Bruno Snell, it was Empedocles whose analogies were the least anthropomorphic and most concerned with inanimate nature. Nevertheless, ‘Anaximander and Anaximenes were also familiar with technical analogies, but since we have only incomplete remnants of their theories, we know less about the details, much less their formulation, than we do with Empedocles’. Cf. B. Snell, La découverte de l’esprit: la genèse de la pensée européenne chez les Grecs (trans. M. Charrière and P. Escaig), Combas: L’éclat, 1994, p. 287. It should be noted, by way of qualification, that Conche rejects the strictly empiricist interpretation, recalling the role of thought in the selection of natural analogies: ‘The processes by which things have become that which they are must be discovered in, and according to, the result being examined – namely, the world – and that can only be achieved through Thought’ in Anaximandre, (ed.) M. Conche, op. cit., p. 79. But this thought is nourished by an empirical study of transformations.
The scholastics recognized that when a man eats, he incorporates the substance of the food. He makes its form and its matter his own. It is necessary, then, to acknowledge that this man is determined by two forms: his own and that of his food. Saint Thomas considered this a perilous consequence. The unity of man is ruptured if another form exists within him. He is no longer substantially one, but two, or several. This is tantamount to saying that man is determined by a principle other than the soul, which is contradictory, since the soul is the one defining principle of individuation.
The scholastics got around this difficulty by means of the theory of substantial mutation. Ingested foods lose their form. They are corrupted, degenerating back into unformed matter before submitting to a new determination, that of the soul that presides in this body. Pedro Descoqs, in the essay cited earlier, shows that this solution is artificial. Ingested foods retain some of their essential properties. Salts remain salts; minerals preserve their chemical structure. Conversely, the body’s cells each have a form and can subsist outside the body in tissue cultures. Descoqs therefore advocates for a pluriformist conception, already championed by medieval scholars: the body contains millions of determining principles. This does not prevent us from affirming that, from a metaphysical perspective, man is still determined by a single substantial principle.
This debate is of the utmost importance for the philosophy of individuation. What is an individual? A single, indivisible being. But when human beings eat food, do they become double? One could say of the individual what Saint Augustine said of time: everyone knows what it is, but no one can explain it. Etymology is of no help. The individual is ‘indivisible’, yet life is maintained within the individual through a process of cellular division. This peculiarity of language is a symptom of the problem. It is also occurs in atomism: the ‘a-tom’ is, by definition, indivisible, yet what energy is spent on splitting it into subatomic particles! (1)
Simondon brought a new method to bear on this debate. He examined the processes involved rather than starting from first principles. Metaphysical necessities were of little concern to him. He rejected the idea that matter is animate because it possesses a principle of animation. As a philosopher of science, he saw in the passage from inert matter to living entity the emergence of new processes. The difference between a crystal and a macro-molecule in organic chemistry is a difference of information. When a crystal is first formed, a single piece of information initiates the process of individuation: the germ unfurls its structure, giving form to matter. The molecule, however, can receive multiple pieces of information. It may be modified by one chemical reaction, then another. It can itself become a source of information for a bacterium. It changes constantly. It integrates and differentiates between pieces of information.
The living entity (le vivant) is characterized by a plurality of inputs and outputs, unlike the crystal which is the result of a single initial input. (2) Living things possess multiple ‘systems of information (régimes d’information)’. Furthermore, their reactions to information received are at times deferred or indirect. Information must be processed. The living entity digests information and determines the appropriate response. It is a network. Contrary to the theories of the scholastics, multiplicity is not a property of forms, but a feature of systems that regulate activity: nutrition, chemical defence mechanisms, etc. These systems of activity presuppose the existence of an internal milieu that is specific to life.
The Great Barrier Reef in Australia is 2400 km (roughly 1500 miles) long. It is sometimes considered the largest life form on earth. But is it an individual? According to Simondon, a colony of micro-organisms is not a unique being. This criterion for individu- ation is based on appearances: it is topological. The spatial proximity of micro-organisms does not, on its own, imply the existence of a unique being. Simondon prefers to focus on the roles of different elements within the colony. He notes that certain ‘sub-individuals’ specialize in nutrition, while others serve a sexual function, or specialize in defence. Each subdivision has its role. There is no centralized coordination. Moreover, the birth and death of these ‘sub-individuals’ is for each one singular and independent of the rest of the colony. Simondon sees in this a criterion for defining individuality: the individual reproduces and dies. A colony is therefore not an individual. In a study of Simondon’s biology, Anne Fagot-Largeault characterizes this classic position: ‘The individual in a strict biological sense is, thus, the organism’. (3)
‘This is not a doctrine of materialism’. (4) It assumes that there is a connection between physical reality and biological reality, but that the two are not identical in nature. Materialism expects that the two will be identical. Simondon’s philosophy, on the other hand, examines the continuities and discontinuities along the chain of connections between the physical and the real. One example of continuity is that of the relation between the meta-stability of systems and the capacity to receive information. A corresponding discontinuity exists between the direct systems of information at the physico-chemical level and the relayed systems of information that are characteristic of life. Discontinuity, which corresponds to the crossing of a threshold, cannot be used to establish distinctions between genus and species. Simondon points to another way of establishing different classifications of reality. These classifications are based on the types of information processes that the system is subject to in the course of its individuation. Information processes may include active properties, systems, or the organizing processes that act upon matter (polarities).
Simondon rejects the initial postulate of materialism, according to which inert nature does not conceal within itself a higher organization. With this postulate, materialism seeks to reduce living systems to simple systems, which are by all indications purely ‘material’. But this postulate leads to the idea that the physical world consists entirely of matter, that it is substance. This presents an impoverished notion of matter, depriving it of all that could account for physical individu- ation: potential energies and relations. ‘Materialism does not take information into account’. (5) More precisely, it only takes information into account when considering the later stages in the evolution of species. Materialism valorizes these more ‘advanced’ stages, while devaluing the organization of inert matter. This approach, says Simondon, reveals a doctrine of values and even an ‘implicit spiritualism: matter is taken to be less richly organized than living beings, and materialism seeks to demonstrate that the superior can emerge from the inferior’. (6) For Simondon, who is fully aware that he is going against tradition, and that his hypotheses may appear ‘quite surprising’, the physical world is already highly organized. Certain large metastable molecules in organic chemistry reveal organizations as complex as those found in the most elementary forms of life. But life is not a substance distinct from matter. Only physical structures can support the processes of integration and differentiation. (7)
The pages concerning the biology of the ocean floor introduce a theoretical invention which reappears elsewhere in Simondon’s analyses. After describing the typical organization of coral colonies, he considers the behaviour of what he calls the ‘pure individual’. This pure individual detaches itself from its colony of origin, allows itself to be carried by the ocean currents and, far away, deposits eggs that will give rise to a new colony. The pure individual is a pioneer. It abandons the habitual functions of nutrition, defence and reproduction within the colony. Its existence is a bridge. ‘It does not belong to a colony,’ says Simondon, ‘it inserts itself between two colonies without being integrated into either, and its beginning and end are in equilibrium, in that it comes from one community but engenders another; it is (a) relation’. (8) The pure individual is also the human being who disregards social conventions, to be guided only by basic generative and thanatological instincts. This pure individual is faithful to the fundamental aspects of individuation. Unaffected by the habits of the community, the pure individual propagates and exalts individuation, instead of allowing it to be obscured by routine. Such is the case of the inventor who pursues the new and novel, disregarding communal resistance to change. (9)
Individuation must be understood in two ways. It is, first of all, synonymous with evolution. It explains individual development, life and death. In this sense it is universal. But the analogy between the wandering micro-organism and the socially emancipated human being already discloses a particular vision of the world. Individuation is a general framework. It allows for infinite arrangements. It diversifies as living entities become more complex. In another sense it supposes choices, value judgements, fatalities. It remains universal: the fundamentals are fixed. But it is also singular. Individuation is a way of telling the story of life. It is a projective test, in which everyone sees what they want to see. These singular qualities become more evident when Simondon addresses issues of psychology and sociology.
(1) Translator’s note: The words ‘individual’ and ‘atom’ both literally mean ‘indivisible’: ‘individual’ from the Latin individuus; in- ‘not’ + dividere ‘to divide’, and ‘atom’ from the Greek ἄτομος (atomos); ἀ- (a-) ‘not’ + τέμνω (temnō) ‘I cut’.
(2) In his book What is Life (1943) Erwin Schrödinger establishes a parallel between chromosomes and crystals. The chromosome contains, encoded in a miniature code script, ‘the entire pattern of the individual›s future development and of its functioning in the mature state’. In this respect, the chromosome is no different from the crystal, since the latter also develops from a limited number of repeating configurations. François Jacob writes regarding this idea of Schrödinger’s: ‘For reasons of stability, the organisation of life becomes similar to that of a crystal. Not the somewhat dull and monotonous crystalline structure where a single chemical configuration repeats itself over and over, with the same periodic intervals in three dimensions. But what physicists call an “aperiodic crystal”, in which the arrangement of non-repeating configurations creates the variety necessary to support the diversity of living beings. A small number of compositional elements is sufficient for this, adds Schrödinger. With Morse code, the combination of just two symbols allows us to represent any text. With a combination of chemical symbols, it is possible to map out the blueprint of an entire organism. Heredity functions like a calculator’s memory’ (F. Jacob, La logique du vivant (The Logic of Life), op. cit., p. 274). The terms of comparison are identical for Schrödinger and Simondon, but they make use of these terms for entirely different purposes. Simondon does not use the crystal to demonstrate that the chromosome activates a code, but to show that the living entity integrates and differentiates between singularities. In Simondon’s work, the crystal does not serve an analytical biology but a biology of the ‘life-agent (vivant-agent)’.
(3) A. Fagot-Largeault, ‘Individuation in biology’, in Gilbert Simondon. Une pensée de l’individuation et de la technique, op. cit., pp. 19–54, p. 22.
(4) L’individu et sa genèse, p. 156.
(7) Simondon frequently returns to the metaphor of the crystal to address questions of psychology and philosophy. For a critical analysis of the role of the crystal in his thought, cf. I. Stengers ‘Comment hériter de Simondon?’, in Gilbert Simondon. Une pensée opérative, (ed.), J. Roux Publications de l’Université de St. Étienne, 2002, pp. 300–23. See also P. Chabot, L’éncyclopédie idéale de Simondon in the same volume.
(8) L’individu et sa genèse, p. 167.
(9) Whitehead makes use of the analogy between animal colonies and human beings for other purposes. He shows that ‘understanding’ and ‘routine’ are to be found in both contexts. ‘Now it is the beginning of wisdom’, he writes, ‘to understand that social life is founded upon routine. Unless society is permeated, through and through, with routine, civilization vanishes …. The two extremes of complete understanding and of complete routine are never realized in human society. But of the two, routine is more fundamental than understanding, that is to say, routine modified by minor flashes of short-range intelligence.’ His analysis, less radical than Simondon’s, accords a central place to those small variations which do not appear to be inventions, so deeply are they ingrained in the habits of a society, but which nonetheless, by virtue of the moment at which they appear, the slight variations they introduce, or their style, can advance the progress of understanding. Whitehead’s pragmatism makes him dubious of the ‘pure individual’ or ‘complete understanding’ as concepts. ‘Indeed,’ he says, ‘the notion of complete understanding controlling action is an ideal in the clouds, grotesquely at variance with practical life.’ A.N. Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, New York: The Macmillan Company, 1933, pp. 114–15.