I’ve finally read the second half of Gilbert Simondon’s thesis on “individuation”: L’individuation psychique et collective (Psychological and collective individuation) (thanks to Glueboot for procuring me a photocopy of this hard to find, out-of-print text). (I wrote about the previous volume, L’individu et sa genèse physico-biologique, here; and Simondon’s other book, on technology, here). (I have just noticed that both “individuation” volumes, together with a previously unpublished section called “Histoire de la Notion d’Individu” — history of the notion of the individual — have just been re-published in a new edition, in France as a single volume, entitled L’individuation à la lumière des notions de forme et d’information — individuation in the light of the notions of form and information. Unfortunately, there still seems to be no English translation). What follows is more in the order of a bunch of notes, than a coherent presentation, but hopefully it will help me to pull together what I have gotten from this reading.
L’individuation psychique et collective continues the discussion of “individuation” that Simondon began in the previous volume. Here, the emphasis is on human society (where the previous volume dealt more with crystals and colonial organisms like coral). Simondon discusses how the multiple sensations received by our sense organs are turned into unified perceptions (he thus gives a developmental account of the Kantian synthesis of perception); how psychological individuation is an affective process before it is a cognitive one; and how social individuation (the production of social groups larger than the single biological person) takes place.
What is individuation? Simondon’s most basic argument is that the “individual” is never given in advance; it must be produced, it must coagulate, or come into being, in the course of an ongoing process. This means, first, that there is no “preformation”; the DNA in a just-fertilized egg cell, for instance, does not already determine the nature of the individual who will be produced in the course of nine months of gestation and years of growth after birth. DNA is not just a code, it is also a set of potentials, which can unfold in various directions, and which do not attain form except in the actual process of unfolding. Everything always starts in the “preindividual” realm. The preindividual is not a state in which identity is lacking — not an undifferentiated chaos — but rather a condition that is “more than a unity and more than an identity”: a state of radical potentiality, of excess or “supersaturation,” rather than one of negativity. Simondon rejects fixed entities as much as any dialectician; but he offers an account of process that is radically different from the Hegelian or “dialectical” account.
In the second place, this means that an individual is never final; there are always untapped potentials, additional possibilites for metamorphosis, further individuations. “The living organism conserves within itself a permanent activity of individuation” (16). Even at the end of the maturing process, the individual is not a complete and closed entity. A reservoir of untapped potential, of metastable, preindividual being, still remains. Further individuation can happen to any individual, but it can also happen transindividually, on the level of a group. Simondon uses this to talk about a wide range of social formations: in any society, there are additional individuations, and hence additional (incomplete) individuals, that are “collectives,” composed of more than one person or entity. This refers less to society as a whole, in the sense that classic sociologists like Durkheim and classic anthropologists like Levi-Strauss talk of society/societies, than it does to smaller groups that exist within societies, and that define their own identity both internally (in terms of what members of the group share) and externally (in terms of how they relate to the Outside of other members of society and other social groups). Simondon discusses this in terms of politics and religion/spirituality. This whole line of thought is interesting for several reasons: for one, Simondon suggests that a social group (whether a political party, or a religious cult, or the group of, say, fans of Star Trek or readers of romance novels) is in its own right just as much (and as little) an “individual” as is a single (biologically delimited) person. This is a very radical suggestion, if we really follow through on its implications. Another reason this is significant is that, as Fredric Jameson points out in his recent book on science fiction, there are astonishingly few thinkers who have ever even endeavored to theorize the nature of social groups larger than a single person or household/family, but smaller than an entire nation or society or social class (Jameson lists Charles Fourier, and the Sartre of Critique of Dialectical Reason as the only thinkers he knows of who have actually done so; Simondon makes a third in this select company).
The mechanism driving the process of individuation is what Simondon calls transduction. He defines this as “a physical, biological, mental, or social operation by means of which an activity propagates itself from one location to another (de proche en proche) within a given domain, basing this propagation on a structuring (structuration) of the domain operating from one place to another (de place en place): each region of the constituted structure serves the following region as a principle and model, as a beginning (amorce) of its constitution, so that a modification extends itself progressively at the same time as this structuring operation” (24-25). The growth of a crystal is the simplest example of the process of transduction, but Simondon develops the concept much further. Ultimately, transduction is any transfer of information through a material medium. It applies to processes of differentiation and crystallization of all sorts, from the growth of an embryo, to the learning of a concept, to the spread of what today are called “memes” through a society.
For the last twenty years especially, but really since at least the invention of cybernetics in the 1940s, we have been plagued by the idea of the alleged immateriality of information, its supposed independence from any particular material base. (See Katherine Hayles for a history of th ideology of immaterial information) This is, of course, the assumption behind current computing technologies: the way that all sorts of data, no matter how qualitatively distinct, can be coded in terms of digital bits. There is no doubt that such digital coding works; but we have been too dazzled by the magic of our new technologies to ask hard questions about the presuppositions that underlie them. Thus we get such dubious ideas, maintained with a fervor that borders on the religious, as the one that some day we will be able to “download” our minds into computers (Ray Kurzweil), or more generally, the idea that the “same” patterns can be found in all sorts of complex systems, no matter what the material substrate, so that the fluctuations of the stock market or the patterns of housing segregation are made to seem as “natural” and unchangeable as the balance between predators and prey in an ecosystem, or the vagaries of weather and climate (despite all we know about how human interventions are changing the latter). The idea of transduction works, I think, as a materialist explanation of what lies behind such fantasies. Information often seems independent of materiality, because it operates precisely by transduction: it is the continual transfer of patterns both within a given medium, and from one medium to another. But transduction is never independent of its material medium in the way that we sometimes imagine “information” to be. The medium has a great degree of influence on what patterns are possible and how they can be propagated. Just as Simondon shows the process of individuation to take place in between “form” and “matter” — rather than being the sheer imposition of an already-existing form upon a previously shapeless matter — so “information” cannot just be abstractly opposed to the medium in which it is instantiated, or across which it is transmitted. Medium and message intersect. The shape of the information transmitted within a medium, or between media, is in important ways a function of the qualities and potentialities of the medium or media in question. (Besides giving a better account of information than the mainstream cybernetics tradition has done, Simondon also suggests — from the opposite view point — a way of taking information into account that is missing altogether from Deleuze, who follows Simondon in many other respects — see the discussion by Mark Hansen).
Individuation, for Simondon, is always a process of the in-between. It undoes dualities (form and content, message and medium), without entirely abolishing them. Philosophically, this includes the Kantian duality between the contents of perception out there, given to us in passive sensibility, and the forms we impose a priori upon those contents. This means that Simondon radically revises and renews Kant, without altogether abandoning him. In terms of the psychology of perception, Simondon makes an argument that cuts across the opposition between associationism or behaviorism on the one hand, and Gestalt or phenomenological theories of perception on the other — in almost exactly the same way that Kant’s argument cuts across the empiricism vs. rationalism opposition of his own way. Simondon, like Kant, offers a theory of the synthesis of perception. Only where Kant still adheres to a kind of form/content duality in presenting his synthesis, Simondon moves more decisively to an idea of synthesis as a process. “The conditions of possibility of knowledge are in fact the causes of existence of the individuated being” (127). Simondon traces two stages of individuation, the first one producing the individuated subject (which is equivalent to Kant’s a priori transcendental subject), and the second giving rise to the individualized subject (which is equivalent to Kant’s a posteriori empirical subject. This can also be stated in more or less cybernetic terms, as follows: Individuation is a continuous process. Each time an organism resolves a problem in its milieu, it transforms signals into signification (or mere information into meaning), which also means that it reaches past its prior limits and continues to individuate itself at those limits. What exist as fixed structures in Kant thus become continuing processes of becoming in Simondon — but Kant’s fundamental insistence on limits is retained.
(Note: I need to explore this more, but it seems to me that there are important parallels here between Simondon and Whitehead, whose theory of prehension can similarly be read — as I have tried to do in an as yet unpublished paper — as a radical revision of Kant in the direction of emphasizing becoming and process).
The individual, as (continually) produced in a process of individuation, is never an isolated Self. It is always coupled or coordinated with a milieu; the individual can only be understood together with its milieu, and cannot subsist as a unity without it. The contact between individual and milieu (the membrane between them, though Simondon doesn’t emphasize this aspect of the matter) is mediated by affect. Affectivity comes in between inside and outside, just as it comes in between sensation and action. Just as sensation gets oriented along a series of gradients in order to become perception, so (unconscious or preconscious) affect gets oriented along a series of processes of becoming in order to become (conscious) emotion. (The contrast between unconscious, presubjective affect and conscious, subjective emotion is something that both Deleuze and Brian Massumi take ultimately from Simondon).
(Note: This also means that individuation is quite similar to autopoieisis, as expounded by Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela, and as lucidly explicated most recently by Ira Livingston. Both autopoiesis and individuation understand sameness through difference — rather than the reverse — by coupling the living individual with its milieu, and understanding what is unique and enclosed about the individual precisely in terms of its relation to the milieu which it is not, but which it requires contact with and nourishment from. Autopoiesis has become quite popular in recent years, and is a major reference point for (among other things) biological theories that contest the atomism of neo-Darwinist orthodoxy. But I think that Simondon’s theory is in fact superior to Maturana’s and Varela’s, precisely because, while the latter privileges the organism’s basic drive for auto-regulation or self-preservation — or Spinozian conatus — Simondon’s theory instead emphasizes continual change or becoming, not its constancy but its continuing ability to grow by altering itself).