“Common AND singular?”





The Intimacy of the Common


The last pages of L’individuation psychique et collective present a hypothesis for thinking the collective without invoking a distinction between individual and society. In those pages, individuation of the collective is reexplained via the problem of emotion, whose definition is at the same time clarified. What had until then been called emotion – or more precisely “affectivo-emotivity”- which indicated that whereby an individual enters into relation with the preindividual carried within it, now receives the name “emotive latency”. When its affective dimension is shaken up, a subject experiences “incompatibility between its charge of nature and its individuated reality [which signals to it] that it is more than individuated being, that it harbors in itself energy for subsequent individuation” (IPC, 213; IL, 315). But emotion remains latent, only becoming fully effective as transindividual relation within collective individuation, which “can only happen through this being of the subject and through other beings” (ibid.). Properly speaking, emotion coincides so entirely with the very movement of constitution of the collective that we may say, “there is a collective to theextent that an emotion is structured” (IPC, 211; IL, 314; emphasis added). The collective, as Simondon understands it, is born at the same time as emotion is structured across many subjects, as structuration of such emotion.

This reversibility of individuation of the collective and structuration of emotion makes clear that the most intimate of ourselves, what we always experience in terms of inalienable singularity, does not belong to us individually; intimacy arises less from a private sphere than from an impersonal affective life, which is held immediately in common. Before being structured, the collective is, in a sense, already within subjects, in the form of shares of uneffectuated nature, the real potential that insists within each of us. As a consequence, as structured reality, the collective cannot be understood as a residual entity, and its existence merges with the process of structuration of shares of preindividual nature bearing the affective of subjects. But intimate life cannot be revealed as immediately in common without the collective thereby taking on a molecular dimension. And transindividual ultimately refers to just that: an impersonal zone of subjects that is simultaneously a molecular or intimate dimension of the collective itself.

In his attempt to think constitution of the collective at a molecular level, which is both infraindividual and infrasocial, Simondon moves closer to Tarde, who, for his part, desubstantializes the approach to social phenomena by describing them as processes of imitation. According to Tarde, we never imitate individuals; we imitate flows that traverse individuals, which are always flows of belief and of desire. From this point of view, even invention arises from the imitation of flows, which are conjoined in a new manner in the inventor (and not, properly speaking, by him, as if he were the author). We might thus say that an invention is always “a felicitous meeting, in an intelligent mind, of one current of imitation, either with another current of imitation reinforcing it, or with an intense exterior perception making a received idea appear in a new light.”1  Hence the importance that Tarde accords to phenomena of “suggestion at a distance” and “contagion,” 2  which according to him define the mode in which minds can influence one another at a distance simply by virtue of being conscious of the existence of other minds simultaneously in contact with the same ideas (an exemplary case is the public of readers of the same newspaper, and perhaps more exemplary today, the public of television spectators). We find in Simondon a similar interest in phenomena of affective propagation whereby a form is unpredictably precipitated within the social field, considered as a metastable field, as with the propagation of the Great Terror, which may, in his view, be explained through an “energetic theory of the taking on of form within a metastable field” (IPC, 69, n. 18; IL, 550, n. 5).

Like the theory of invention in Tarde, Simondon’s description of the social field, as a field in tension wherein taking on form occurs, proposes a conception of the emergence of novelty in society without recourse to the figure of the exceptional man, a political genius capable of “giving form” to social life. In effect, in a manner reminiscent of the birth of invention from the conjunction of flows of imitation and a series of small differences, which, in Tarde’s account, end up producing novelty, Simondon sketches out a social energetics wherein “chance can produce the equivalent of a structural germ” that initiates a transformation of the social field. Indeed, any transformation is produced “by the fact that an idea falls out of nowhere – and immediately a structure arises that spreads everywhere – albeit through some fortuitous encounter” (IPC, 63; IL., 550). According to Simondon, such a “human energetics”, which focuses on the gap between potentials throwing society into a metastable state, is an indispensable complement to a social “morphology” interested only in the stable structures of social groups. Thus, when we say that the collective is, in a sense, already in subjects, we are adopting the “energetic” point of view on the mode of potentials that may drive individuation of the social field; we should thus think of novelty in terms of collective-in-becoming or (be)coming-collective, and not, especially not, in terms of a preformed structural germ.

Simondon’s outline of a human energetics comes in response to a question that long preoccupied him, which he sets forth, before an audience of philosophers and scientists, at the end of a conference held on February 27, 1960, at the French Society for Philosophy: “We would need to ask ourselves why societies transform, why groups are modified as a function of conditions of metastability” (IPC, 63; IL, 550). How to explain the production of novelty within social reality? Simondon tries to interest his contemporaries in this question, boldly making it the condition for any human science wishing to be rigorous. Yet, to respond to this question supposes an interest in a zone that is neither that of the individual, the object of psychology, nor that of society, the object of sociology, that is, an interest in preindividual interstices left unexplored by either one. Apparently, however, a practice claiming to belong to the “human sciences” cannot venture into these sites without running the risk of losing its status as science at the same time; because, if we follow Simondon’s developments and especially his responses to the accusations of objectivism his contemporaries addressed to him, the preindividual zone wherein novelty is produced is prior to both any object and any subject. A human science, to be genuine, should thus become a science of the inobjective – and thus renounce what at first glance appears to define the scientific approach, namely, a domain of objects.

During the debate following the February 1960 conference, Simondon reaffirms the perspective he had developed, insisting that only a “philosophy of nature,” that is, a philosophy exploring processes of individuation and situating the origin of all change in a preindividual zone of being, that is, in shares of nature associated with individuals, can save us from impoverished conceptions of subject and object. Yet, reading the reactions to his talk today, we notice that most of the interventions are concerned with the status of this philosophy of nature, which is repeatedly conflated with objectivism. First, on the basis of a hermeneutic perspective postulating the primacy of discursive domains, Paul Ricoeur reproaches Simondon for objectifying nature, that is, for not recognizing its discursive reality (its status as signification within a discursive totality). Then he is criticized by Gaston Berger, according to whom, by not starting with consciousness, one necessarily lapses into objectivism, his postulate being that there can only be information for a conscious subject. Only a philosophy of language or of consciousness thus seems able to save us from the danger of objectivism. In response to such objections, it is enough for Simondon to expose the narrowness that inspires them. He first takes up the narrowness of the logicist conception of signification, against which he argues for an understanding of transduction that would transform logic as well as ontology. Thus, to Ricoeur, who stigmatizes “the metaphoric character of all transpositions from the plane of nature to the plane of human significations,” Simondon responds that it is not a matter of metaphors, and remarks: “You speak of metaphor because you begin with a conception of significations that does not integrate the notion of transductive relation.” 3  Then, in response to Gaston Berger’s objection, Simondon underscores the insufficiency of a philosophy of consciousness that does not see that consciousness can be adequately understood only “on the basis of a more primitive transconsciousness.” 4   For Simondon, consciousness individuates on the basis of preindividual nature, at once presubjective and preobjective, that is, prior to the face-to-face relation of subject and object, which results from a process of taking on form. The philosophy of nature to which Simondon lays claim – and this is what seems to scandalize his contemporaries – does not leave room either for philosophy of consciousness or for philosophy of language, or even for anthropology, whose impossibility he here reaffirms in favor of the study of psychosocial “correlations,” which alone are real. He could not be clearer. Still, such correlations can only be thought on the basis of the centrality of a preindividual zone of beings, of this share in common with nature in each of them, which is simultaneously the molecular dimension of the collective and the only basis for transformation of societies.

While the author of L’individuation psychique et collectiveis keen on drafting a philosophy of nature, the orientation of his notion of nature is opposed to the notion of nature as “objective” reality, whose description tends ultimately to neglect the subjective reality of consciousness or of discourse. Nature in Simondon is not the objectivist operator of repression of the subject, nor is it opposed to culture or society. This is precisely what seems to “trouble” some of his contemporaries, namely, that Simondon does not pass the baton to anthropology but rather thinks psychosocial reality straight from his philosophy of nature. This is because what he calls “nature” is what renders social transformation thinkable. It is precisely because the philosophy of nature, as he elaborated it, proved adequate to the problem of the appearance of novelty in societies that Simondon chose to move away from the theory of information, which was considered too normative. In fact, his reply to Jean Hyppolite offers an explanation for his choice of a philosophy of nature: “if we were indeed to define a theory of human sciences founded on the theory of Information, we would find that the supreme value is to adapt, to adjust.” 5   Against this social ideal of adaptation as the supreme value (the reactualized and stratified version of which today is recognizable in the imperative order-words for professional “insertion” and republican “integration”), Simondon places the emphasis on metastable social states as expressing more profoundly the reality of society: “A prerevolutionary state, this seems to me precisely the type of psychosocial state to study with the hypothesis that I am presenting here (IPC, 63; IL, 549).

Focusing attention simultaneously on the emergence of novelty in society, and on the impersonal-molecular zone of subjects bearing it, is one node in the philosophy of individuation that proves especially valuable for us today in rethinking the political. Simondon’s choice of the term “nature” for the intimate common zone of subjects whereby social change becomes possible seems to me less important in the larger scheme of things than what such a gesture points to – the necessity for making political thought as a whole depend on taking into account preindividual affective life. Simondon’s philosophy of nature only makes sense from the angle of the concept of transindividual implied in it, which ultimately expresses nothing other than this disposition toward the collective in each of us, which desubstantializes the collective and makes visible its being as transformation. But there is no doubt that calling it a philosophy of nature has led to misunderstandings.


 Muriel Combes, Gilbert Simondon and the philosophy of the Transindividual

Translated by Thomas LaMarre, MIT Press, 2013


1  Gabriel Tarde, Les Lois de l’imitation (Paris:Kimé, 1993), 47; cited in the introduction to this work by Bruno Karsenti, who remarks : “Through an entirely paradoxical reversal, Tarde thus situates imitation as the source of invention”

2  These two expressions appear in Tarde, L’opinion et la foule (Paris: Presse Universitaire de France, 1989), 33, 34.

3  Bulletin de la Société Française de philosophie, vol. 52, 182.

4  Ibid., 188.

5  Ibid., 184.

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