Notes on Muriel Combes’ book on Simondon

Here are the notes that formed the raw material for my presentation at SLSA on Muriel Combes' book on Gilbert Simondon (newly translated by Thomas Lamarre, and to be published by MIT Press in October). I guess I don't have the time & energy to write them into more finished form; but hopefully they will give some sort of indication of what I found to be valuable in the book, and how it relates to current discussions about speculative realism, systems theory, ontology, etc.

The book is very short and very dense and concise. I am less interested in asking whether it is an accurate account of Simondon — though it has certainly played a great role in my understanding of Simondon — than in asking what it can do for us, where it can bring us.

The crucial point: Initial non-identity of being. Being is not one. The important question to ask in such circumstances is: Excess or deficiency? In Combes' account, being is always in excess, it is always more-than-one. "Being is constitutively, immediately, a power of mutation… because being contains potential, and because all that is exists with a reserve of becoming, the non-self-identity of being should be called more-than-identity. In this sense, being is in excess over itself." (3) Contrast this excess to deficit or negation in the dialectic. What are the implications of seeing excess, or unfulfilled potentiality, rather than deficit?


This formulation in the opening chapter relates to Combes' critique of Stiegler towards the end of the book. Stiegler sees technics as a prosthetic for an originary deficit. Combes rejects this, since she says that, for Simondon, alienation is the result of excess unrealized potential rather than of a deficit or lack.

Against Stiegler's theory of the prosthetic. This is because each individual's incompleteness is itself something positive, the continuing existence of a reservoir of potentialities. (49-50 & 67ff). "Stiegler does not seem to countenance the possibility that humans share more than default or lack… If human individuals should not be conceived on the basis of fixed bioanthropological nature, I do not see why they should be conceived on the basis of original defect that we then take pains to call originary in entirely metaphysical nostalgia for foundations." (69)

Both Stiegler and Simondon are problematic from a Marxist point of view. One might criticize Stiegler for turning a particular historical situation (that of alienation under capitalism) into an originary characteristic of the human species in general. While much in Stiegler's critique of capitalism is spot-on, he turns cultural symptoms into to basic existential situations, while omitting to consider capital accumulation & exploitation as the motors of capitalism. This is what's weak (although not false) about his saying that capitalism short-circuits vital processes of individuation. In terms of Combes' analysis, Stiegler fails to articulate the way in which all new individuations, and especially group and collective ones, work by undoing or going before previously accomplished individuations. "Any collective individuation wherein a subject is constructed begins with disindividuation" (69).

Of course, Simondon himself (according to Combes' account) criticizes Marxism. He thinks that Marxism is too economistic, and too wedded to Labor, to be able to grasp the transversal relations between human beings and machines, or to understand the real source of alienation (which comes from human beings seeing themselves as either superior or inferior to machines, instead of existing in equality alongside machines). However, Combes adds that "at the very moment he critiques Marx, Simondon is far closer to him than he thinks." (72-73)."

For me, if this is the case it is because Simondon expresses a utopian vision in which "technical activity" becomes a "model of collective relation" (77), in a process of reticularity against hylomorphism (69). A transindividuation involving both human beings and machines, in equality: this to me matches Fourier as a vision of a "socialism" that would be radically different from our capitalist present. — But also, Simondon's vision is only thinkable in a situation of the real instead of merely formal subsumption of labor (and everything else) under capital, together with the sort of machine embodiment of general intellect envisioned in Marx's fragment on machines — in other words, Simondon-via-Combes makes thinkable what I otherwise haven't found convincing: Hardt & Negri's claim that real subsumption & general intellect make a reversal into communism possible. — The point being that this has to be, not the old dialectical reversal, but one that has to do with reservoirs of potential. In this respect Simondon is further away from Hegelianism, and less in danger of reverting to it, than are Hardt and Negri.


Combes' account of Simondon also gives us a different perspective on the arguments about substance and relation which have come up in connection with OOO, and about the functioning of systems in connection with theories of autopoiesis.

Harman would undoubtably say (& I think he does in fact say someplace) that Simondon "undermines" objects by reverting to the primordial undifferentiated flux out of which objects would emerge, and back into which they would revert. — But I think that this is too simple. Simondon complexifies Harman's binaries.

For one thing, I think that Simondon's basic question of where individuals come from, how they come to be, is an unavoidable one. I don't think that OOO answers this adequately (though the best OOO answer would be to say things emerge from Lucretian clinamens — does Bryant maintain this?). Simondon presents an account of emergence that actually works in detail, as opposed to the usual hand-waving invocation of emergence to explain anything that can't be explained otherwise. Becoming, for Simondon, is not a characterless flux (as Bergson's becoming is sometimes accused of being, e.g. by Bloch as well as by OOO people); it is rather a particular and well-defined OPERATION (or series of operations). "Being only is in becoming, that is, by its structuring in diverse domains of individuation (physical, biological, psychosocial, and also, in a certain sense, technological) through the work of operations." (4).

The preindividual out of which an individual emerges is itself a particular energetic state (or metastable equilibrium of states). Because it is metastable, it is extremely sensitive to initial conditions (in this way Simondon prefigures theories of chaos and complexity).

There is an initial nonindividuated state. But I want to argue that this is a situation in which Harman's opposition between distinct entities vs total undermining indistinction doesn't really apply. One can see this even, or especially, in Simondon's explicit treatment of Anaximander's apeiron. This is because, as Combes says, "apeiron, nature indetermined because still nonstructured, is charged with potentials: indetermined is thus not synonymous with undifferentiated" (49). Individuation is a process of DEPHASING (4). This involves the playing out of incompatibilities that are not oppositions, but that unfold in the process of crystallization.

RELATION: "relation would no longer be conceived of as something that "springs up between two terms that are already individuated": in effect, within the theory of individuation, relation is redefined as "an aspect of the internal resonance of a system of individuation" (IG, 27; IL, 29). In this respect, it has a "rank of being" and cannot be considered as an entirely logical reality" (16). — So, for Simondon, being is always relational, but this relationality is not absolute & cannot be pejoratively defined as OOO tries to do (nor can we simply make a division between internal and external relations). Indeed: "Already at the level of physical beings, that relation is constituting means that interiority and exteriority are not substantially different; there are not two domains, but a relative distinction; because, insofar as any individual is capable of growth, what was exterior to it can become interior. We may say then that relation, insofar as it is constituting, exists as a limit. As a function of this constituting power of the limit, the individual appears not as a finite being but as a limited being, that is, as a being in which "the dynamism of growth never stops" (IG, 91; IL, 93)." (20) — so, relations actually constitute the separation of interior from exterior, and guarantee that this border is itself never fixed.

The radical temporality of relations is why Harman's & Bryant's critiques of determining relations does not apply here. Relational processes determine the interior as separate from the exterior, i.e. these relations determine the individual as that which is not pre-defined by its relations.

Against predicates or qualities: "the characteristics of individuation that appear when we study the formation of crystalline forms of a same type (here: sulfur) are not "qualities" insofar as "such characteristics are prior to any idea of substance (since we are dealing with the same body)" (IG, 75; IL, 77). Transparency and opacity in particular can characterize the same form (sulfur crystal) in succession as a function of the temperature imposed on the metastable system at the moment of crystallization. Transparency and opacity thus cannot be thought of as qualities of a substance, but as characteristics appearing in a system undergoing a change of state. We must cease to apprehend being as a substance or a compound of substances if we are to cease understanding relation as that which links, within thought, elements separated within being." (16-17) — Thus relations are real, rather than being mental impositions upon objectively separate mental impressions.
"Being itself now appears as that which becomes by linking together." (17)

Simondon "takes great care to distinguish the notions of adaptation and equilibrium, which he rejects, from notions of evolution and invention" (62); this is why individuation must be opposed to autopoiesis. The linking of individual and milieu in Simondon is reminiscent of, but actually different from, the structural coupling of system and milieu in Luhmann-via-Bryant. Because potential transductively crosses the membrane or boundary, so that there is no question of operational closure. Difference between individuation and either conatus or autopoiesis. (This is a hesitation or ambiguity in Deleuze).


"To perceive is not primarily to grasp a form; rather it is the act taking place within an ensemble constituted by the relation between subject and world, through which a subject invents a form and thereby modifies its own structure and that of the object at the same time: we see only within a system in tension, of which we are a subensemble." (27) — Perception defined in system terms, instead of in phenomenological terms. But this system is quite different from those of the structuralists or from that of Derrida or Luhmann.

"The reality of psyche is transductive, that of a relation connecting two liaisons. This relation, as we have seen, operates in the individual as individualization; and it is operated through affectivity and emotivity, which define the "relational layer constituting the center of individuality" (IPC, 99; IL, 248). By situating the center of individuality in affectivity and emotivity, Simondon distances himself from the majority of conceptualizations of psychic individuality, which rely on a theory of consciousness or on the hypothesis of the unconscious." (30). — The psyche is a double process of (inner & outer) individuation, driven noncognitively by "affectivity & emotivity".

"The liaison between relation to self and relation to the world" takes place in "the affectivo-emotive layer, the domain of intensities" (30). Combes links Simondon's affectivity to Spinoza's "capacity to affect and to be affected" (30-31). This implies "an understanding of the subject wherein relation to the outside is not something coming to an already constituted subject from without, but something without which the subject would not be able to be constituted" (31). The individual needs an outside in order to be constituted at all. It doesn't encounter an outside in contrast to its own constituted insideness.

"Simondon opens a perspective in which "psychic reality is not closed upon itself. The psychic problematic cannot be resolved in intraindividual terms"." (31)

"Affectivity, the relational layer constituting the center of individuality, arises in us as a liaison between the relation of the individual to itself and its relation to the world. As such, it is primarily in the form of a tension that this relation to self is effectuated: affectivity, in effect, puts the individual in relation with something that it brings with it, but that it feels quite justifiably as exterior to itself as individual. Affectivity includes a relation between the individuated being and a share of not-yet-individuated preindividual reality that any individual carries with it: affective life, as "relation to self," is thus a relation to what, in the self, is not of the order of the individual. Affective life thus shows us that we are not only individuals, that our being is not reducible to our individuated being." (31).

"The elaboration of psychic individuality is transindividual… individual cannot psychically consist in itself." (40) "It is not relation to self that comes first and makes the collective possible, but relation to what, in the self, surpasses the individual, communicating without mediation with a nonindividual share in the other" (41). The social "is neither a substance, that is, one term of a relation, nor a sum of individual substances, but a "system of relations" (IPC, 179; IL, 295)." (43)

For this reason, neither psychologism nor (Durkheimian) sociology is valid — neither individuals nor society are preconstituted & self-contained. "In sum, if psychology and sociology misunderstand the reality of the collective, it is because, when they apprehend it from the angle of the individual or that of society, which are but two polar extremes, both of them forget that this reality consists principally of "relational activity between inside group and outside group" (IPC, 179; IL, 295)." (43) — & note that "relational activity" = processes of individuation.

How does this relate to Latour's Tarde-against-Durkheim?

Emotion: "Properly speaking, emotion coincides so entirely with the very movement of constitution of the collective that we may say, "there is a collective to the extent 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" (51). — "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." (51) — Hence an idea of the common (again cf Hardt & Negri)

How Simondon undermines the rigid distinction between life & nonlife (Lamarre). (Cf Hayles' praise of OOO for doing this).

2 Responses to “Notes on Muriel Combes’ book on Simondon”

  1. Ken says:

    I very much appreciate the way you show how Simondon “undermines” — I would say undoes — are all to rigid distinction between life and “nonlife.”

  2. Tyler says:

    Thanks for posting this! I look forward to reading the book in the next few days.

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