Andrea Bardin. Epistemology and Political Philosophy in Gilbert Simondon: Individuation, Technics, Social Systems. Dordrecht, Heidelberg, New York, London: Springer, 2014. 251pp. £90.00/€103.99, 978-9401798303.
Review by Ben Turner (University of Kent, UK)
For the English reader, published works on and by Simondon are out of step. Despite several monographs, journal issues, and an edited collection of essays on his work, translations are severely limited. Given its length, it is productive to assess Bardin’s book with regards to the problem of this absence of primary texts for the English speaking world. In this respect, Bardin has made three achievements. The first is the breadth of primary material that Bardin draws on. Not content with limiting himself to what might be considered the central thesis of Simondon’s work – the relationship between structure and individuation – Bardin makes connections across all of Simondon’s published material, simultaneously charting the transformations in terminology and the continuity of problems across his work. Second, Bardin does not isolate these texts. He situates the problems that Simondon attempted to address in the context of the work he inherited. This context is extensive, covering Simondon’s tutors Georges Canguilhem and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Henri Bergson, the cybernetics of Norbert Wiener, Emile Durkheim and positivism, the anthropologies of Marcel Mauss and Andre Leroi-Gourhan, as well as the physical and biological sciences. Discussion of these influences is woven into three thematic sections: ‘Nature and Knowledge’ (2-66), ‘Organism and Society’ (67-142), and ‘Technicity, Sacredness, and Politics’ (143-241). The last is dedicated to what can be seen to be Bardin’s third contribution. This is an account of Simondon’s politics on their own terms, rather than through the interpretations and re-readings of other authors. This ground has been addressed to some extent by the translation of Muriel Combes’ Gilbert Simondon and the Philosophy of the Trans-Individual (2012)1, but without the in depth work on Simondon’s transformation of his influences. I will discuss the success of his connection of Simondon’s work to its scientific and philosophical precursors, and conclude by assessing Bardin’s claim on what a Simondonian politics would consist of.
The scientific developments of importance for Simondon are quantum physics, thermodynamics, and biology read from the perspective of the cybernetic theory of information. Bardin shows that appropriating findings from these realms does not signal scientism, but the use of scientific developments within philosophy in order to fold this advance reflexively upon science itself. The aim of this folding is to complement sciences of structure with one of the processes that constitute individuals within these structures; an analysis of individuation across different domains of being (5-6; 16-17). Structure and process are rendered inextricable, and in an indeterminate relation through the adoption of three scientific concepts. Structures are considered as ‘phase-shifts’, a complex set of simultaneous parallel and divergent processes that make up a system (4). Individuals are defined in reference to transduction, a sequence emerging from a structure that is characterised by indeterminacy (4, 10). Lastly, a system is a ‘metastable’ relationship between a distribution of potentials that make up a structure, and the relationship between these potentials which are determined by an operation that distributes them (6). On this definition, there appears to be a tautological relationship between the terms structure and process. However, this is only apparent: Simondon applies scientific findings to show that they emerge together, transductively in complex processes of individuation, irreducible to structure, mechanism, or determinism (31). The cybernetic theory of information is transformed to complement this combination of structure and operation (a synonym for individuation), splitting the term information into a distinction between itself, and signal. The latter refers to the metastable operation of a system, whereas information is an aleatory interruption which can induce a phase shift, transforming this metastability and causing a new transductive process to emerge (27-31). As a result all systems are opened up to the outside, given the necessity of a piece of information to allow a relationship between structure and operation (73). The metastability between structure and operation traverses different domains of being, the physical, the vital and the psycho-social. The transition from one to another is a transformation of this logic, rather than the emergence of a new one.
Bardin’s summary of Simondon’s complex reading of this scienfic literature is erudite, and he provides a clear presentation of how concepts from physics, biology and cybernetics are used to construct a general understanding of structure and operation. There are three shortcomings that must be flagged up however. First, despite the crucial role they play, non-specialists are left somewhat in the dark as to the original meaning, content and development of these concepts. The re-construction of scientific theory is generally in deferral to Simondon’s usage of a particular concept, rather than their contribution to the field. Bardin’s choice appears to be motivated by fidelity to Simondon’s texts, but the lack of more than a minimal reconstruction of the scientific fields is a barrier to understanding the real innovation of Simondon’s reading. Second, the lasting validity of scientific research used by Simondon leaves one wondering if Simondon’s work could be outdated or outstripped at the scientific level? Lastly, and connected to the previous point, since Simondon’s claim is at heart an epistemological one, the real ramifications for science of a theory of structures and operations is left without conclusions beyond the field of philosophy (61-66). The possibility of a truly ‘ontogenetic’ practice of science is left open. Given the title, Bardin’s book is clearly not aimed at answering these questions. Nevertheless, pertinent questions are made possible not just for the English speaking audience, but all readers of Simondon, which may have been better served by a stronger presentation of the scientific background and contemporary state of affairs in science.
Contrastingly, Simondon’s relation to his philosophical precursors, in particular his tutors Canguilhem and Merleau-Ponty receive an exemplary treatment. Simondon’s extension of their thinking into his own is clearly set against the background of his use of scientific work. The critique of structure in the sciences is simultaneously a critique of hylomorphism in philosophy; the assumption that substance and form can be separated. Simondon assumes the anteriority of the pre-individual, which is not a substance to be formed, but a set of potentials that do not pre-exist individuation temporally, but logically (37). It is never exhausted by any process, accompanying it as latent potential for further transformation by new information. Bardin shows how the pre-individual furthers the work of Merleau-Ponty and Canguilhem. Merleau-Ponty’s lecture course on nature is claimed to influence Simondon here (40-41)2. He radicalises the vision of an unstable, primordial reality with the cybernetic concept of information to restrict the phenomenological assumption of sense to the psychic and collective level of individuation (41-3). The ramifications of such a move are clearly shown by Bardin to differentiate Simondon from phenomenology, without forgetting Simondon’s own debt to phenomenology (43-7).
Bardin shows that from a phenomenological perspective, Simondon’s concept of the pre-individual assumes an understanding of ‘nature’ that seeks to go beyond the horizon of sense that limits thought. Drawing on Canguilhem, Simondon avoids this pitfall, as the pre-individual is not assumed to be a homogenous substance. The dynamic intertwinement of pathology and normativity that Canguilhem uses to define life as error, is applied by Simondon to all individuation (76-7). The pre-individual is not anterior to processes of individuation, but rather emerges as a metastability within a regime of transductive individuation, at the same time as knowledge of these processes. The individual must emerge within a milieu, but this milieu emerges at the same time and in a transductive relation (58-9). This insight is utilised by Simondon to criticise the assumption of the possibility of closure at the level of both vital, and psychic and collective individuation. While structure is important, individuation transforms the pre-individual, animating structure. Canguilhem’s introduction of the intertwinement of normativity and milieu thwarts the closure relied upon by the cybernetic theory of systems, complementing Simondon’s introduction of the signal/information distinction (113-116). Bardin also shows how Simondon moves beyond Canguilhem’s assumption of the exteriority of regulation to the organism, as an individual is always a phase shift in a complex transductive relation between inside and outside, and various domains of being (117-18).
This complex leads to a presentation of a Simondonian politics. This begins from the distinction between open and closed societies, or society and community, that Simondon adopts from Bergson (91-2; 108-9). These two tendencies within psychic and collective individuation refer to its amenability to new forms of individuation (society), and an attempted move towards closure (community) (97-8). The condition of possibility of any group is a transductive relation between transformation and the upkeep of identity. This precludes anthropology imposing itself upon the study of societies from above, because the forms of opening and closure that Simondon describes (belief, work, language) are a phase shift of the relationship between individual and milieu at the vital, non-human level. For example, work is a tendency that exists at the level of the biological community of animals, as a tendency towards closure. At the level of psychic and collective individuation, community phase shifts an existing tension into a new one (101-2). Following the critique of determinism, and the notion of the pre-individual that only exists insofar as it is transformed, these individuations of societies are seen as singularities. The structuring capacities of community and the ways these are opened by society are limited to the process they are involved in. So while structural limits play a role in determining these processes, Bardin demonstrates how Simondon’s assumption of the singularity of process moves him beyond the Structuralist paradigm that was establishing its hegemony in France at the time (158-9).
The first aspect of Simondon’s political thought derives directly from this re-thinking of the epistemological problem of structure and individuation. It can be analysed using an onto-genetic method, investigating the singular processes in which a pre-individual set of potentials is transformed through the tendency towards society, and the way in which these processes are closed in upon themselves by community. Bardin provides the insight that this distinction cannot be mapped onto the ‘political difference’ put forward in recent thought, between ‘politics’ as governance and ‘the political’ as an ontological field of contestation that is both the condition of, and what disrupts politics3. Simondon’s political project is closer to mapping the intersections between these two realms, between communal regulation and societal invention, in accordance with his theory of individuation at physical and biological levels (220-21). There is no political force outside of structure that can be appealed to in and of itself; the political is a mobile concept that must be traced through these processes of individuation.
The second key aspect of Simondon’s political thought is an extra term that must be taken into account in this onto-genetic exploration of the political dynamic between openness and closure. This is the one for which Simondon first became known for: technics. While the dynamic between openness and closure depends upon the first two sections of the book, Bardin devotes extended time to the issue of technics in the last section. This continues the understanding of the political as the product of a mobile relationship between structure and operation, it is technics that structures the norms of community, and simultaneously opens it up to the re-evaluation of these norms by society (136-9). Culture finds its source in technics as the envelope in which social systems encounter the world, founding an external milieu that filters interaction with the environmental milieu (129-30). This includes, as Bardin summarises, distinctions between phase shifts across human history that differentiate the way in which forms of organisation such as magic, the sacred, and religion interact with technics. What makes Bardin’s summary particularly insightful is a balance between showing how these terms (culture, magic, the sacred, technics) transform their meaning within Simondon’s work, and establishing a coherent reading. He claims that that there is a complex intertwinement between environment, biological individuation, psychic and collective individuation enabled by technics, which makes the latter political (148-9, 165). Tracing the individuation of the relationship between invention and regulation in social systems, requires the investigation of how this ontogenetic political dynamic is sutured by technics.
Bardin provides two political strategies that emerge from this understanding of the political. The first is pedagogical. Technics is taken to possess a form of universality that transcends the universals of any individual social system (199). The insertion of technical schemas into social groupings is not taken to be universal in a teleological sense, as it can only determine the transformation of groups under the conditions of relative compatibility and indeterminacy. A pedagogy of the technician would understand and institute technical schemas, not in order to reduce their effects to the logic of identity as the ‘same’, but to allow the potential of technics to render the openness of society and revalue the norms of community. This pedagogy of technics appears as a drive towards a politics of the reflexive understanding of how technics conditions and transforms the cultural milieus in which it emerges and can be placed into (200-202). The second political strategy derives from the ambiguity of the meaning of the political in the paradigm of individuation (232-3). A propensity towards both universality and incalculability is possessed by technics. (226-27). This is, therefore, a form of universality without origin or end, open to aleatory transformations (232-3), rather than immobilisation in the case of the sacred (183-4). Technical universality is therefore the enveloping, transformative, and political potential it has for psychic and collective individuation. According to Bardin, the transformation of scientific concepts and his use of the paradigm of information allows Simondon to put forward this non-technocratic pedagogical politics of technics, for it relies on openness and transformation inherent to processes of individuation (236-7).
Bardin does not make extensive comparison to others use of Simondon’s work (Agamben, Deleuze & Guattari, Stiegler, for example), but he gives a convincing account of Simondon’s politics on its own terms. A mobile concept of the political is derived from the analysis of regimes of individuation, and technics is what intertwines psychic and collective individuation with the physical and the biological. Such a theory that simultaneously provides a mode of analysis of processes, and a politics to navigate them, is crucial today, particular when one considers the most urgent example of our intertwinement with biological and physical forces: climate change. Under the stresses of a rapidly changing relationship between climate and humanity, returning to Simondon’s work can move us beyond a politics that derives its principles from the mere fact of our ‘non-anthropocentric’ entanglement with matter (the worst excesses of new materialism). Instead, it impels us to begin from the necessity of thinking how specific human organisations emerge, and provides a paradigm for studying, and implementing technical strategies to deal with their problematic elements. In this sense, Bardin has made a valuable contribution not just to the study of Simondon, but to research on the relationship between the political and the material, in a way that does not privilege either.