Review of Andrea Bardin’s Epistemology and Political Philosophy in Gilbert Simondon by @benturner91

On the website for the new journal La Deleuziana there’s an interesting review of Andrea Bardin’s Epistemology and Political Philosophy in Gilbert Simondon by Ben Turner.

I’ve not read Bardin’s book but probably should(!)…

Check out the review below:


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.

  1. Muriel Combes (2014), Gilbert Simondon and the Philosophy of the Trans-Individual, trans. T. LaMarre, Cambridge: The MIT Press. â†©
  2. Maurice Merleau-Ponty (2000), Nature: Course Notes from the Collège de France, ed. , trans. R. Vallier, Evanston: Northwestern University Press. â†©
  3. Oliver Marchart’s Post-Foundational Political Thought (Edinburgh University Press, 2007) is a key text for analysing many thinkers through this heuristic. â†©

Why so few translations of Simondon?

The politics of a scholar’s work after (or even before!) their death and how one interprets their wishes (often unclearly expressed) is difficult. Likewise, there are plenty of people with ‘vested interests’  in how that work is communicated. This is a particularly thorny issue in translation.

I do not pretend to have any special insight but the following excerpt from an excellent interview conducted by Andrew Iliadis (whose work is very much worth exploring) with Jean-Hughes Barthélémy perhaps offers some clue about why we have seen so little of Simondon’s work translated into English:

Iliadis: You are the editor of Cahiers Simondon. Who else is involved in that project, and do you see it growing? Where is it heading?

Barthélémy: I created the Cahiers Simondon in 2009, thanks to the Maison des Sciences de l’homme de Paris-Nord and the editor Jean-Louis Déotte. My friend and collaborator Vincent Bontems and I decided to establish each year a selection of papers, among them those that were presented at the Atelier Simondon, derived by Vincent at the École Normale Supérieure. But some papers come from proposals that are external to the Atelier Simondon. Sometimes, I have to translate – or at least to correct –the papers in the French version. My criterium for the selection is only the seriousness of the work of exegesis, and that’s why it is difficult, each year to have enough papers. Interest in Simondon is really growing in the world, but the seriousness of Simondon’s studies is still a dream. Young researchers that are not French get an excuse: there is no English translation of Simondon’s books, and some partial translations are quite wrong. I must add that when I worked with Arne De Boever, I corrected the American translation of L’individuation psychique et collective–I spent many hours on this passionate and voluntary work. But Nathalie Simondon asked the editor to publish the entire text of L’individuation à la lumière des notions de forme et d’information. Therefore, I have no news concerning the translation of L’individu et sa genèse physico- biologique. I just know that this part of the main thesis is the most difficult: its translation into English needs one or two philosophers of science that are also specialists on Simondon! Now, about the current translation of Du mode d’existence des objets techniques: here again, the information we have had does not make us optimistic.

It is tempting to see a kind of intellectual policing going on here, but I simply do not know the institutional and legal contexts of what Barthélémy is saying… Nevertheless it is tremendously sad (and rather frustrating) that it appears likely that Anglophone scholars will have to wait some time before they have access to an ‘approved’/ published translation of Simondon’s major work(s): L’individuation à la lumière des notions de forme et d’information.

I am given to understand that The Mode of Existence of Technical Objects (Du mode d’existence des objets techniques) will be published by Univocial, which is associated with University of Minnesota Press, at some time in the latter part of 2015. I have also heard that another of Simondon’s lecture courses will be translated and published by Univocal, I do not know the likely time-frame.

I welcome any clarifications or comments from those ‘in the know’…

Theorising Bioart encounters after Simondon – paper by Andy Lapworth

Alba the transgenic rabbit – bioart by Eduardo Kac

Andrew Lapworth, who recently finished a PhD in Geography at Bristol, has written a really interesting and accomplished article that has just come out as ‘Early Online‘ in Theory Culture & Society. I recommend reading it if you have any interest in the philosophy or sociological studies of science, technology and bioart. Sadly, its behind the paywall…

Here’s the abstract:

In recent years ‘bioart’ has been lauded in the social sciences for its creative engagements with the ontological stakes of new forms of biotechnical life in-the-making. In this paper I push further to explore the ontogenetic potentials of bioart-encounters to generate new capacities for thinking and perceiving the nonhuman agencies imbricated in the becoming of subjects. To explore this potential I stage an encounter with Gilbert Simondon’s philosophy of individuation, highlighting three implications for theorizations of the constitution and transformation of subjects. First, Simondon forces us to rethink the subject in terms of its transductive emergence from pre-individual processes, and its metastable susceptibility to ongoing transformations. Second, he substitutes voluntarist conceptions of thought with an involuntarist primacy of material encounters as the conditions for novel individuations. Finally, I argue that Simondon enables a thinking of the politics of the (bio)art-encounter in terms of its ontogenetic capacity to materially produce, rather than merely represent, new subjects and worlds.

Simondon news…

The International Centre for Simondon Studies (CIDES) has some news (in French) over on their website that I find encouraging.

It is great that both Andrew Iliadis and Yuk Hui have been integrated into the work of CIDES and brilliant to see new translations and secondary literature on the way for anglophone scholars.

I’ve copied the news below and will preface it with a rough translation into English:

Summer Newsletter (July-September 2015):

CIDES was created in 2014, with a team of researchers drawn from four countries. However, since the end of 2014 and beginning of 2015, work on Simondon has multiplied and at the same time we have seen a growth in the publication in French of his works and also several translations of his major works. It is for this reason that CIDES has recruited two young researchers who are very active at a global level pushing for international recognition of the work of Simondon: Andrew Iliadis, doctoral student at Purdue and Yuk Hui post-doctoral research at the University of Leuphana, Lüneburg.

Iliadis, amongst others, recently edited a book symposium for Philosophy and Technology on The Concept of Information in Contemporary Science [Le concept d’information dans la science contemporaine] a published proceedings of a colloquium organised by Simondon in 1962 in Royaumont to introduce to France a debate with the work of cyberneticist Norbert Weiner. One can find the editorial for this book symposium online here:

Hui, in collaboration with another member Erich Hörl, has begun to create the collection “After Simondon” for Meson Press. Furthermore, his thesis On the Existence of Digital Objects will be published by the University of Minnesota Press in February 2016.

Information on our two new members, along with their main publications, can be found online:

Jean-Hugues Barthélémy
Director of CIDES

LE BILLET DE l’ÉTÉ (juillet-septembre 2015):

Le CIDES a été créé début 2014, avec une équipe composée de chercheurs de quatre nationalités différentes. Or, fin 2014 et début 2015 les travaux sur Simondon se sont multipliés, dans le même temps que se poursuivaient d’une part l’édition française de son oeuvre, d’autre part les traductions diverses de ses grands textes. C’est pourquoi le CIDES a décidé d’intégrer les deux jeunes chercheurs les plus actifs à l’échelle internationale pour la reconnaissance de l’importance de l’oeuvre du philosophe français : Andrew Iliadis, doctorant à l’Université de Purdue, et Yuk Hui, post-doctorant à l’Université Leuphana de Lüneburg.

Le premier a entre autres dirigé récemment, pour la revue Philosophy&Technology (Springer), un Book Symposium sur Le concept d’information dans la science contemporaine, ouvrage qui avait publié les Actes d’un colloque organisé par Simondon en 1962 à Royaumont pour introduire en France un débat avec la cybernétique de Wiener. On trouvera la présentation par Andrew Iliadis de ce Book Symposium au lien suivant :

Le second, avec la complicité de notre autre membre Erich Hörl, vient de créer la collection “After Simondon” aux éditions Meson Press. Par ailleurs, sa thèse On the Existence of Digital Objects paraîtra en février 2016 aux University of Minnesota Press.

La présentation de ces deux nouveaux membres, ainsi que leurs principales publications sur (ou à partir de) Simondon, sont accessibles au lien suivant :

Jean-Hugues Barthélémy

Directeur du CIDES

Reblog> Gilbert Simondon and the Philosophy of Information: An Interview with Jean-Hugues Barthélémy

Andrew Iliadis blogs that an interview he conducted with Jean-Hughes Barthélémy has been published. This is a really valuable contribution to anglophone scholarship on the work of Simondon and Andrew should be congratulated (well I do anyway!). This is well worth a look if you are interested in the philosophy of technology or in how we understand the idea of ‘information’.


homeHeaderTitleImage_en_USThe new issue of Journal of French and Francophone Philosophy is out. It includes an interview that I conducted with Jean-Hugues Barthélémy entitled “Gilbert Simondon and the Philosophy of Information.” For those of you who don’t know, Barthélémy is a leading expert on Simondon as well as director of Centre international des études simondoniennes.


Computing the human – biometrics and our dividual selves

Over on the excellent Aeon website there’s a beta section called ‘Ideas‘ that poses questions and solicits responses. One such question is: “How will biometrics transform surveillance culture?“. To which Kelly Gates (UCSD) offers an adroit response in the form of a short essay entitled ‘Computerising Humans‘.

Gates unpicks the technological deterministic fatalism of the expectation that the widespread deployment of biometric technologies is a foregone conclusion. She argues:

There’s also an assumption that in the very near future, these technologies will be capable of automatically identifying us with near-perfect accuracy, free of the messy cultural baggage that muddles the way humans identify one another. Human perception is inherently biased and flawed, according to this logic, while computers are inherently objective, free from error and prejudice.

It follows that, and as Gates goes on to argue, to invent the technology, be the owner of the data upon which it operates and then verify the ‘accuracy’ of that technology (as Facebook do with their facial recognition systems) means that one necessarily invents the accuracy of that technology as well. Likewise, in creating such systems and the parameters in which they (must) operate (to be effective) we necessarily circumscribe and predetermine their uses, and thus also invent their usefulness. Therefore, in this sense, by inventing the technology and its usefulness we invent the future in which it is necessary:

In other words, inventing the accuracy of biometric technologies involves making bigger claims about what they can do than their limited experimental results can support.

Of course, such a process of invention is also, necessarily, a (re)invention of our ‘selves’, in multiple. It is a kind of ontogenetic (and more specifically here, technogenetic process, as Gates highlights – although I prefer Simondon to Hayles on this point). The multiple nature of the data representations of our ‘selves’ convenes the various ways in which we are conceived as entities, in data and in flesh, and thus the multiple ways our identities are performed. We are reinvented by looking back at our-selves through  the ‘eyes’ of the technology: the surveillant relation between the unblinking gaze of the technology and our performance of identity is co-constituted.

Understanding ourselves as fully enmeshed with technologies might help us get a better sense of what biometrics portend for our already surveillant culture. We already conceive of ourselves as people with official identities composed of disembodied aggregates of transaction-generated data–digital representations of ourselves that circulate over networks. In fact, it is a necessary precondition of biometric system development that we conceive of ourselves in this way. In short, if computers are getting better at recognizing humans, it’s because humans are getting much better at looking at, and seeing themselves, much like computers.

A helpful way of understanding this is through the brief exposition of the ‘dividual’ Deleuze makes in his Postscript on the Societies of Control: “a physically embodied human […] that is endlessly divisible and reducible to data representations via the modern technologies of control, like computer-based systems” (as Robert Williams has it). If we look at the production and performance of our selves, as ‘dividuals’, we are, I would argue, confronting the necessity to un-think “the subject” (following J-D Dewsbury’s Deleuzian reading of Badiou). We accordingly consume our selves by trusting in the apparatuses of multiple surveillance (Facebook etc.) and are invited to deny what is incalculable.

Stiegler would perhaps argue that to combat our rendering as biometric surveillant subjects we must take care of our selves, of our incalculability; believe in that incalculability, and make that care a basis of our political economic relations. Of course, that is far easier said than done. Biometric technology does not necessitate the rendering of ‘dividuals’, that future is not a forgone conclusion, but it will take a lot of work to invent an alternative.

Repost > “Against ideological determinism : Simondon’s political epistemology”, Andrea Bardin

Following a link to the Centre International
des Etudes Simondoniennes (CIDES) in a blogpost by Andrew Iliadis I saw the following paper transcript, in English, by Andrea Bardin (author of Epistemology and Political Philosophy in Gilbert Simondon). The paper concerns Simondon’s theorisation of individuation as ontogenetic. This is a paper rich with ideas and I suspect of interest to anyone interested in theories of information, of being/becoming, and in epistemology more broadly…

I am daring to reproduce the paper here – in the hope that it reaches a broader anglophone audience. Please do cite/link to the original though – not to this page. (I also do not know if Bardin wrote this in English or if it is a translation, there are no clues on the CIDES page.)

“Against ideological determinism : Simondon’s political epistemology”*, by Andrea Bardin

* This paper was presented at the London Conference in Critical Thought, 7 June 2013. Part of it has been further developed as “On Substances and Causes Again: Simondon’s Philosophy of Individuation and the Critique of the Metaphysical Roots of Determinism.” In Galofaro, F. et al. (eds.) Morphogenesis and Individuation. Springer, 2014.

My aim is to ‘introduce’ today the two-sided philosophical enterprise Simondon developed in 1958 in his main work, Individuation in the Light of the Notions of Form and Information. His philosophy was both concerned with an encyclopaedic and entirely ‘modern’ project of axiomatisation of all sciences (the social sciences included), and with a quite original, experimental conception of epistemology he called philosophy of individuation or ‘ontogenesis’ which, I believe, has some interesting political consequences.

This double aspect he inherited from one of the fathers of cybernetics, Norbert Wiener, who conceived information as a paradigm which could be at least in principle extended to all the fields of scientific research: biology, psychology, psychopathology, sociology and political economy. From Wiener’s research Simondon not only derived his far-reaching project, but also a peculiar view on the individual – I quote from Wiener, The Human Use of Human Beings (1950):

The individuality of the body is that of a flame rather than that of a stone, of a form rather than of a bit of substance.

Now, Simondon’s philosophy of individuation neither maintains a substantialism of the individual, nor dissolves it into a complex system of relations: ‘the individual is being and relation’ (Simondon 1958: 143). And at the same time it refuses two apparently opposed views on physical, biological, psychical and social processes: determinism and indeterminism. Simondon does not believe in pre-constituted objects or subjects, and therefore he is interested in the processes they both emerge from. In general, he is well aware that – despite any possible disguising – the same subject underlies Descartes’s metaphysical ontology and Kant’s transcendental epistemology, since both are the counterpart of what we still refer to as Nature, the deterministic whole we are supposed to accept as a ‘matter of fact’. On the contrary, philosophy is rather concerned with ‘the processes of individuation from which the subject of  [both] critical thought and of ontology emerges’ (Simondon 1958: 269).

Today, after briefly introducing Simondon’s epistemology – which is still quite new to the Anglophone context – I’ll suggest in which sense his conjoint critique to determinism and indeterminism can be read as a critique of ideology.

1. How does Simondon proceed? (Fortunately) he does not have a predetermined method. So, he looks for different theoretical tools to describe processes and systems far from equilibrium (metastable) instead of ‘beings’. And he does that – I would say – ‘experimentally’: throughout the text of Individuation (but also before and after it) one can witness subsequent attempts to define different ‘paradigms’ he derives from the whole spectre of the natural sciences. ‘Crystallisation’ and ‘modulation’ are in fact two of them he had already developed before writing the book on Individuation. There he also speaks of ‘transductive processes’ or more simply ‘transduction’. The categorisation of such paradigms was further widened and complicated by Simondon: he added ‘continuous modulation’ and ‘discontinuous transduction’, ‘organising amplification’ (Simondon 1962: 417).

It is not necessary here to go through the different connotations of these expressions, but it is interesting to discern what actually links all of the recurrent attempts to ‘name’ these processes. From this perspective the entire Individuation appears as a kind of powerful experimental-setting of concepts. The genuinely philosophical performance of the book lies in the attempt to enable different ‘schemas’ or paradigms – modulation, crystallisation, metastability, transduction, and many other conceptual tools – for the analysis of the different domains of being, of their structural conditions and the processes they emerge from: these models are tools for defining the thresholds between different domains in order to make a problem of them, rather than to fix them.

Simondon’s concepts, in fact, do not define any separate ‘realms’ – matter, living beings, human beings, psyche, society – which would be traversed by some fixed individuals or by any kind of substances of which individuals would be composed. On the contrary, they indicate ‘phases’, processes, whose tension and dynamic composition continuously constitute and modify the configuration of individuals, both as objects and as subjects, as it happens within a magnetic and gravitational field, in which different forces and processes constitute an irregular and unstable space, full of potentials, which can modify or be modified by whatever – matter or energy – becomes part of it (as information).

No ontological guarantee, then, of a stable and secure domain, and no science capable of defining the specific processes characterising a domain: only a singular enquiry of the singular processes and of the different emerging structures. And nevertheless we do not have a kind of vague postmodernist free speech. In fact, Simondon’s philosophy of individuation is based on the critical analysis of the results of the sciences, even if aiming to criticise rather than to confirm the alleged ‘identity’ of their objects, but still starting from them. And from such results Simondon recurrently reactivates the ontogenetic hypothesis in order to discover the actual tensions that render each single being a metastable system undergoing a process of individuation. In this sense, as I am going to explain, philosophy as ontogenesis is not any a-priori axiomatisable method, but rather a meth-odos through the hard pathway of scientific research. Not to acquire metaphors, but to transport schemas of functioning from one domain to another: to experiment their heuristic efficacy.

At this point we can ask ourselves what does Simondon abandon and what does he gain through this shift from a science of the universal laws of nature to a science of the partial regularity of processes.

– What does he abandon? The myth of modern science: granted on the one hand by ontological objectivity, offering a whole set of substantialist and deterministic explanations, and on the other hand by epistemological universality, which surreptitiously hypostatised a pure and non questioned subject of knowledge to ground its forecasting power. (à While, on the contrary Simondon – as aforesaid – wants to understand precisely ‘the individuation from which the subject of  [both] critical thought and ontology emerges’, Simondon 1958: 269)

– What does he gain through the study of the processes of individuation? A new place for philosophical thought which is no more the alleged king of sciences (in fact a servant or better a clown deprived of any power and confined in a kind of imaginary world deprived of extension).

In short, the philosophical force of Simondon’s oeuvre, of which he is not always aware, appears to me to emerge precisely in the obstinate repetition of the same operation of structuring a subject-object relation: a relation of knowledge which is not THE relation between the subject (of science) and an object anymore. It is a relation at the exact scale of each of the systems concerned: always mixed systems in which different physical, chemical, biological, psychical and social processes simultaneously take place according to a singular and unique configuration. The singularity of individuation, in short, requires a singular exercise of knowledge, a kind of ‘clinical’ thought which is itselfan individuation:

An operation of knowledge which is parallel to the known operation; we cannot, in the common use of the term – know individuation; we can only individuate, individuate ourselves, and individuate in ourselves [“¦] Beings can be known through the subject’s knowledge, but individuation of beings cannot be grasped out of the individuation of the subject’s knowledge. (Simondon 1958: 36)

Because of that, philosophical knowledge is in this sense an operation about which Simondon at least once explicitly assumes the impossibility of providing a definitive formalisation:

It might be that ontogenesis cannot be axiomatised, which would explain the existence of philosophical thought as perpetually marginal in relation to all the other studies. Philosophy would be the kind of thought set in motion by the implicit or explicit research of ontogenesis in all orders of reality. (Simondon 1958: 229)

2. For our present purpose we can ask: what did he conclude about processes in general, and what can we derive from his philosophy? When building a ‘philosophy of individuation’ Simondon was in search of what he called ‘a non Cartesian epistemology, borrowing Bachelard’s expression, neither conceived in the sense of determinism nor in the sense of indeterminism’ (Simondon 1958: 144).

It is worth recalling here where he started from: his debt to the physicist Louis De Broglie is not always evident, but constant and decisive throughout the book. According to De Broglie, although referring to microphysics, the discovery of the ‘indeterminacy principle’[1] should be extended also to biology[2], and, furthermore, to social sciences:

[Microphysics’] relevance is not limited to the domain of physical sciences, it applies to the sciences studying life, man and human societies. (De Broglie 1947: 225)

Simondon’s debt towards quantum discontinuity is evident throughout the whole of Simondon’s production: processes are non-continuous, they are always partially deterministic, triggered by singularities and resulting in the emergence of non-stable structures. From his point of view, determinism itself is a conceptual tool that allows the understanding and forecasting of portions of reality, while modern mechanicism has progressively transformed it in the metaphysical assumption typical of the ‘deterministic age’ that still haunts our totalising conception of nature.[3] In a way Simondon was following Bachelard’s line of conduct in Le nouvel esprit scientifique (1934), where the latter invited to ‘dissolve the huge block of metaphysical determinism which burdens scientific thought.’ And to this purpose Simondon’s theory of the singularity of processes was quite fit, since it entailed the abandonment of the ideological couple determinism/indeterminism:

It is possible, in the last instance, to suppose that the theory of singularity can be ascribed neither to the framework of a deterministic physics nor to the framework of an indeterministic physics. The two would rather be considered the particular cases of a new conception of the real that one might call the theory of transductive time or theory of the phases of being. This completely innovative mode of thinking – which conceives determinism and indeterminism as mere limit-cases – can be applied to different domains of reality beyond the one of elementary particles. (Simondon 1958: 144)

As it is clear, Simondon does not take quantum physics as an alternative model to the modern mechanistic one, in order to build a kind of new ontology. No, it is according to Simondon an ‘innovative mode of thinking’ which quantum physics brings about. In fact in his philosophy of individuation Simondon always struggled to maintain all epistemological models in their technical, clinical, inventive dimension, out of any metaphysical assumption. It is in this sense that, a few years later, he assumed this enterprise required a technical and ‘clinical’ exercise of thought that he defined as a regime of functioning in which ‘the appropriation of each single problem is probably the highest task the effort of philosophy can assume’ (Simondon 1965: 16).

From this perspective, the emergence of nature as a deterministically conceived object within the modern dualistic framework goes far beyond the exigency of scientific research, and rather appears the counterpart of an absolute, metaphysical ‘subject of science’. In fact, both constitute the non-existing limit-cases of a relation in which social and natural processes dangerously play their productive role out of any effective control, precisely because of the fixed dualistic image that ideology projects on them, hiding their actual non-simply-deterministic becoming.

In this sense dualistic metaphysics, born from the reflection on the principles of modern science by some of those who invented and practised it, can be interpreted as the attempt to stabilise the shift between knowledge and reality – opened by the productive method of science and immediately ontologically hypostatised by making of the mathematisable reality of primary qualities reality in itself. To this reality, a deterministic Res extensa provided adequate ontological repair, while to its scientific knowledge Res cogitans offered, – in all its metamorphoses – on the other hand, a metaphysical umbrella which saved the subject of science from the vicissitudes of collectivity and of history (and of biology), in which it is nevertheless embodied.


3. Today this early-modern – anthropomorphic indeed – model offered by mechanistic science still inhabits our understanding of nature, and still pushes us to take position for or against its imagined determinism, according to a false alternative:

– to embrace it, and conceive the universe as entirely deprived of any sense, or

– to abandon it, following the alternative of believing in a different kind of being (as Descartes did), in order to maintain the possibility of a freedom of choice, a reference to established truths and so on…

In fact, the non-substantialistic and non-deterministic epistemology Simondon presents in Individuation can play a demystifying and anti-ideological function. It programmatically dismantles the ‘conceptual couples’ (form/matter, active/passive, subject/object) that have for centuries grounded a whole series of false alternatives. And first of all, Individuation contributes to the overcoming of the epistemological and political machine represented by the alleged ontological opposition between liberty and necessity, the key institution of a supposed ‘ontological difference’ between the human being and nature (Or better – to use a Spinozian rather than an Heideggerian expression – any presupposition of an ‘imperium in imperio’).

Simondon meant to dismantle this dualistic ‘machine’ neither by reducing human beings to an imagined natural determinism nor by saving their alleged metaphysical nature. From this theoretical stance one can derive that determinism has to be programmatically adopted as a tool, although with the caution required since when, from the seventeenth century onward, the conceptual instruments of modern science have massively participated in social ontogenesis, with direct efficacy not only at the level of technological development, but also at the level of ideology.

Along this line of thought I believe a conjoint critique of the shared teleological grounds of fascism and technocracy can be derived. On the one hand ontological indeterminism frees political voluntarism from its ties to reality, thus instituting an unconditioned domain of pure political will and of its absolute goals. On the other hand ontological determinismgrounds a technocratic politics which, apparently depriving teleology of any possible significance, in fact restrains any political project to the calculable conditions of possibility that underlie it and therefore to the definition of predetermined goals. In effect, Simondon’s philosophy of individuation struggles to maintain determinism in its technical, inventive and epistemological dimension, out of any metaphysical assumption of ontological determinism.

In a similarly accurate fashion, from a dossier dated February 1945, Canguilhem attacked

The kind of Laplacean determinism [which] entails a conception of the relationship between man and reality analogous to the Newtonian conception of the relationship between God and Universe [“¦] Human intelligence is understood as an imitation, and as a limitation of divine intelligence. The observers and measurers of the universe are exterior to the universe. (Canguilhem 1945: 9)

And yet Canguilhem continued to denounce the rhetorical tool of anti-scientistic indeterminism, whereby the rigour of scientific knowledge would be lost, thus opening a path to the myth of political voluntarism. In this sense it is worth recalling how – with as much exactitude and severity – in the same dossier he schematically noted the political costs of deriving indeterministic ontological conclusions from a conjoint critique of substantialism and determinism:

Exploitation by fascism of some possible interpretations of the new discoveries in physics [“¦] – dissolution of the concept of individuality. Individuality destroyed at the ultra microscopical level [“¦] – liberty in the object itself. Therefore two arguments: against individualism à liberalism; against materialism à Marxism. (Canguilhem 1945: 10)

In this precise sense Simondon’s philosophy can be said to preserve the efficacy of science as a weapon against the ideology of determinism without defending the counter-ideology of indeterminism. And Simondon’s epistemological critique of the ideological assumption of the deterministic model as an ontological reality, opens up a field for political invention, conceived as the process of experimentation within which finality does not pre-exist (either in the form of a disincarnated subject or of an ordered objectivity) the transindividual processes and the political struggles it emerges from.


Bachelard, G. 1934. Le nouvel esprit scientifique. Paris: PUF, 2006.

De Broglie, L. 1947. Physique et microphysique. Paris: Albin Michel.

Canguilhem, G. 1945. Dossier “Déterminisme et indéterminisme » (février 1945). In Archives de Georges CanguilhemG.C 11.3.7. CAPHES, ENS Paris.

Simondon, G. 1958. L’individuation à la lumière des notions de forme et d’information. Grenoble: Millon, 2005 (First edition: PhD thesis, Archives de Georges Canguilhem: GC. 40.2.1. CAPHES, ENS Paris).

___ 1962. “Résumé de la séance de travail sur l’amplification dans les processus d’information.” In Le concept d’information dans la science contemporaine, 5ème colloque philosophique de Royaumont. Cahiers de Royaumont, Philosophie n° 5, 417. Paris: Minuit, 1965. (paper originally delivered at the Colloque de Royaumont in 1962).

___ 1965. “Culture et technique.” Bulletin de l’institut de philosophie morale et enseignement. Université libre de Bruxelles 55-56: 3-16.

___ 1966. “Initiation à la psychologie moderne. Première partie.” Bulletin de Psychologie 1966 5/254: 288-98.

Simondon, G. and Le Terrier F. 1957. “La psychologie moderne.” In Encyclopédie de la Pléiade – Histoire de la science, 1668-703. Paris: Gallimard.

Wiener, N. 1950. The Human use of Human Beings. Cybernetics and Society. Sphere Books, 1968.

(article mis en ligne le 01/02/2014)

[1] Even if the current English translation is ‘uncertainty principle’, the original term used by Heisenberg was Unbestimmtheit, which can also mean ‘indeterminacy’. I will use the second term, since it better expresses an ontological lack of determinacy rather than an epistemological uncertainty of knowledge.

[2] ‘A mammal, for instance, belongs to the microscopic world as far as the elements directing its living dynamics are collocated, in effect, at the level of atomic systems. The functioning of living systems will therefore be studied one day thanks to microphysical concepts’ (De Broglie 1947: 162). By the end of the following decade, Simondon was planning to integrate an epistemology derived from quantum physics in the reform of the cybernetic concept of information: ‘The language of cybernetics, already applicable to nervous system physiology, could prove to be suitable for describing the relations between man and his natural and social milieu, overcoming the alternative between liberty and determinism, which seems to be the major obstacle for any psychological science’ (Simondon and Le Terrier 1957: 1701). This is what he actually tried to achieve through Individuation.

[3] According to Simondon, the ‘deterministic age’ is the one which postulates the order of Nature as ‘uniform, necessary, universal and analytical’. According to him the ‘deterministic age’ started collapsing at the end of nineteenth century, first attacked by evolutionary biology, then by holistic assumptions based on Maxwell’s theory of fields, later integrated by Gestalttheorie, Goldstein and Merleau-Ponty (Simondon 1966: 288-90).

Reblog> Book Symposium on Le concept d’information dans la science contemporaine

On his blog Andrew Iliadis shares an excellent book symposium article published in Philosophy and Technology (paywall), for those interested in the philosophy of technology and in the work of Gilbert Simondon this is a really valuable addition to the scant material in English. It also includes a stellar cast of interlocutors, so kudos to Andrew!

13347I’m happy to announce that our Book Symposium on Le concept d’information dans la science contemporaine has just been published online at the journal homepage of Philosophy & Technology. Many thanks to Nandita Biswas Mellamphy, Jean-Hugues Barthélémy, Marc J. de Vries, and especially Nathalie Simondon for contributing to the volume.Link:

PDF: Book Symposium on Le concept d’information dans la science contemporaine

The matter of ‘virtual’ geographies

Last year I wrote about two articles concerning digital geographies that I had coming out, the second of which was an article for Progress in Human Geography concerning the matter (both the issue and the materiality) of what have been called ‘virtual’ geographies. I am pleased to be able to say that this article is now available published in issue 3 of volume 38. Unfortunately this requires a subscription for access. However,  I am happy to share pre-print copies of this paper, please contact me if you’re interested.

The Matter of ‘Virtual’ Geographies“ revisits the articulation of ‘virtual’ geographies and reviews recent discussion within geography of digitally mediated activity. The aim of the article is to argue for a greater attention to the material conditions of ‘the digital’. This is achieved by articulating a theory of ‘technics’–the co-constitutive relation between the human and the technical,–and ‘transduction’–the iterative modulating and translation of a sociotechnical milieu from one state to another–through the philosophy of Bernard Stiegler. This article expands on existing work in geography, such as Kitchin & Dodge’s excellent ‘Code/space‘, that is pushing for more sophisticated understandings of software, code, and the plethora of increasingly sophisticated systems and devices with which we mediate ourselves and our (spatial) experience of everyday life.

Video > Anne Sauvagnargues talks through Deleuze on the composition of experience & meaning

This is an interesting and very rich video of Anne Sauvagnargues, at what must be a kind of postgrad workshop(?), talking through Deleuze’s (Simondon-ian) thinking concerning the composition of meaning and experience. It’s quite a master class! There’s so much in this that I can’t really offer a précis and its quite hard to hear Sauvagnargues because of persistent white noise but its definitely worth the effort of watching an accomplished exposition of a creative way of thinking:

Anne Sauvagnargues from Vasco Barbedo on Vimeo.