06 July 2006

Simondon and Individuation

Now that my summer session classes are over, I've finally been able to sit down and begin reading Gilbert Simondon's L'individuation: à la lumière des notions de forme et d'information, which is a combined reprint of his earlier works L'individu et sa genèse physico-biologique and L'individuation psychique et collective. Readers familiar with Deleuze's Difference and Repetition will be familiar with Simondon as playing a crucial role in Deleuze's discussion of intensity and individuation in the the difficult chapter entitled "Asymmetrical Synthesis of Difference", where Deleuze enlists Simondon's account of individuation to articulate the process of actualization in the movement from the virtual to the actual. It is astonishing to me that this work has not yet been translated, and that the most we currently have available in English by Simondon is the selection entitled "The Genesis of the Individual" in Zone's Incorporations.

The philosophical problem of individuation is rather obscure and one might wonder why it is worth being concerned about at all. For a long time I scratched my head reading Deleuze, wondering why he devoted so much energy to this question in Bergsonism, Difference and Repetition, The Logic of Sense, and The Fold. Why would Deleuze be so capitivated by the medieval problem of what makes an individual and individual or how an individual is distinguished from other individuals? It is not difficult to see that Deleuze's aim of producing a concept of difference that would no longer be shackled to the primacy of identity or representation, also calls for a new conception of just what we understand by an individual. If Deleuze is commited to the thesis that representation is an effect, that identity is a product, then it necessarily follows that individual difference precedes difference inscribed in the concept. This comes out, above all, in Deleuze's discussions of biology and evolutionary theory in chapter 5 of Difference and Repetition, where he paradoxically argues (correctly) that for post-Darwinist biology the individual precedes the species and that species are to be thought as populations (rather than classes possesing an intrinsic essence) undergoing various rates of change and divergence. However, what is required here is a dynamic conception of individuation, or a concept of individuation as a continuous process, rather than as an intrinsic feature possessed by an individual like a predicate. It is precisely this that Simondon delivers.

Simondon begins by critiquing substantialist, hylomorphic, and atomistic conceptions of individuation, for all sharing the common prejudice of emphasizing the constituted individual. Substantialism looks for the principle of individuation as intrinsic to the individual, whereas hylomorphism sees individuation as resulting from the combination of form and matter. Both focus on the individual as already constituted, and ignore the process by which the individual comes to be. In contrast to this, Simondon proposes that we view the individual ontogenetically, as an ongoing process of individuating itself, as an individual constantly individualizing itself, yet this requires us to reject any account of individuation that focuses on the individual alone, in isolation (we could call this a variant of the fallacy of misplaced concreteness), but rather we must view the individual as individuating or becoming within a mileux. That is, an individual must be thought as both emerging from a mileux and acting in a mileux. For instance, we might think about the relationship between a California grape and the weather conditions, soil conditions, etc., out of which it emerges. In this regard, Simondon's thought somewhat resembles the interactionist philosophies of figures such as Bergson or Dewey, where the primary datum isn't thought passively representing the world, but a body engaged with an interacting the world, leading world to disclose itself in and through actions and movements.

What is interesting here is that individuation, for Simondon, isn't a result, but an ongoing process whereby the individual perpetually constitutes itself as an individual out of a pre-individual field of singularities or potentialities. That is, an individual for Simondon is a process. What, then, is the process through which these potentialities come to be actualized? I have not yet gotten very far in the text, but Simondon seems to argue that this process takes place through a resolution of tensions, incompatabilities, and inequalities seeking equalibrium pertaining to the system of potentialities inhabiting the system. It will be recalled that Deleuze, in his analysis of intensities in Difference and Repetition makes precisely this claim when he argues that the given or world comes to appear through inequalities that cancel or cover themselves over in extensities. Of course, the intensive factors in question and the processes of equalization must be surveyed in each system we examine. Thus, for example, the relevant intensities characterizing a social system would differ from those of a biological system, a psychic system, a weather system, a physical system, a musical system, etc.

As a sort of offhand, off the cuff observation, I was interested to note Gore's discussion of the evaporation of a major lake in the Darfur region due to climate change in An Inconvenient Truth. Here we have a relationship between the individual and its mileux (the warring tribes of the Sudan/Darfur region and the mileux in which they live) being equalized in a particular way that shares no resemblance to the mileux itself. Thus, the paucity of water resources gets taken up by the social and semiotic systems not as a problem about resources, but as an ideological and religious struggle. What we have here is a confirmation of Luhmann's claim that systems always relate to their environment according to the distinctions that they themselves draw (operational closure).

One of the shortcomings I often find present in Lacan's theorizations of the unconscious and symptoms is the lack of any clear account as to why some particular unconscious formation is actualized at a particular point rather than another. Lacan's discussions of metaphor and metonymy provide the resources for analyzing these formations, yet they have very little to say about the processes by which these formations come to be, nor the subject as an ongoing process. From the perspective of the clinic this, of course, makes sense as there we're dealing with the structure of the analysand, and not giving an account of how this or that symptom comes to be ontogenetically. Indeed, raising these questions among more militant Lacanians is often rewarded with rather hostile responses about how genetic and developmental questions are irrelevant to psychoanalysis. No doubt this hostility towards developmental accounts emerged in response to vulgar appropriations of Freud's stages (oral, anal, phallic) that presents these stages as inevitable and converging on a unity, but does it follow that we should ignore developmental questions altogether? Clearly there is a vast difference between a child raised among other humans and a child like Genie raised in extreme confinement, and this difference has something to do with how the two respective children are individuated or the process of individuation they undergo (http://www.feralchildren.com/en/showchild.php?ch=genie). Would not being cognizant of these sorts of issues also raise possibilities of how fruitful change might be possible, and also indicate new possibilities for effective analytic interventions?

Why would the Lacanian wish to ignore these sorts of considerations, and is it even clear that Lacan, despite his focus on structure, mathemes, topology, knots, etc., thought it necessary to avoid these considerations? A glance at his early thesis Family Complexes and the Formation of the Individual, seems to suggest otherwise, as there Lacan focuses on the relationship between the individual and its mileux, implicitly describing the ontogenesis of the individual out of its social field. In many regards, Simondon's account of individuation is closer to Freud's discussion of the primary process, where formations of the unconscious are understood to be products of disequalibriums in the psychic system (which Freud had already elaborated beautifully in his unpublished Project essay). On the other hand, we should wonder whether Simondon's focus on equalization is consistent with the Freudo-Lacanian account of the death drive, which is an ineradicable tension within the psychic system governing the subject's relationship to the world and Others. I confess that I find myself powerfully attracted to Simondon's account of individuation, and wonder what Lacan would look like if his accounts of structure, topology, and the mathemes were seen from a systems perspective as models of a system modeled and of processes, rather than has hard and fast structures.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Levy - This is a fascinating summary of Simondon's work on individuation. Please continue when you have read more.

As a linguistic aside I have always missed a concept in English for the individual being formed by milleux or situations.

In Danish we have the word INDIVID = individual (taken from its Latin origin, meaning that which cannot be divided any more), but also now the new concept SITUID (= an individual modulated by the situations he/she participates in).

It would be interesting if you could also discuss Deleuze's idea of haecceities in this connection:

The following remarks by Alan Taylor
from the University of Texas at Arlington are good starting points,

Within the framework of Deleuze and Guattari's positive ontology, one concept, more than any other, testifies to the nature of the universe as pure flux. That concept is the haecceity. Take a look at what D & G have to say about haecceities in A Thousand Plateaus:

"It is the entire assemblage in its individuated aggregate that is a haecceity; it is this assemblage that is defined by a longitude and a latitude, by speeds and affects, independently of forms and subjects, which belong to another plane. It is the wolf, itself, and the horse, and the child, that cease to be subjects to become events. (262)

You will yield nothing to haecceities unless you realize that that is what you are, and nothing else. ... You are longitude and latitude, a set of speeds and slownesses between unformed particles, a set of non-subjectified affects. (262)

A haecceity has neither beginning nor end, origin nor destination; it is always in the middle. It is not made of points, only of lines. It is a rhizome. (263)

It would seem that the need to formulate the concept of the haecceity arises out of a fundamental flaw in our language.

Basically, language is dependent on is-ness. It is a stasis discourse. When we speak of a dog, we employ the stasis-word "dog" that implies some fundamental and intractable characteristics, a definition that freezes "dog-ness" into a stratum that can be seen and grasped. The word "dog" functions as a stratum in that it grasps "in its pincers a maximum number of intensities or intensive particles over which it spreads its forms and substances" (54).

The function of the word, indeed of any noun, is to bind together a disparate set of unique multiplicities, and to construct for those multiplicities a common stasis, a "meaning," that is distinct from other stasis groups.

The problem, of course, is that the universe itself is perpetually opposed to stasis. Ours is a universe of flux, and any theory (language), that attempts to describe the world in terms of stasis must, by necessity, miss the point. And the situation is even worse than a simple mis-description.

Language is a force. It has power and affects that are real (material). Nouns effect an incorporeal transformation on unique multiplicities that restricts flux and creates stasis. Thus, any mis-description (any noun) becomes a force of stratification, a totalizing theory, that constructs the world according to its own model, restricting the free flow of particles and energy, and shutting down desiring-production.

Stasis-nouns are deadly, in that they effectively kill the vital and unique energies of unique multiplicites by forcing them together into a group in which they may not belong and to which they may not be attached, thus shutting down the available lines of flight of a given multiplicity.

The Deleuzo-Guattarian response to this problem is the haecceity. It acknowledges that everything is in a constant state of flux, composed of speeds and affects, not forms and subjects. It makes no sense to speak of things in terms of stasis. Since everything is constantly in motion, it makes more sense to speak in terms of longitudes and latitudes, relative positions, speeds, and affects ... perpetual motion and perpetual change.

In this framework, one cannot speak of "things" but of events and becomings. Every "thing" is unique and new at every moment. Every "thing" is, therefore, an event. Every "thing" is becoming.

PS: I posted a reply to your essay on psychoanalysis and philosophy that you might care to comment on.

Thanks for providing so much stimulation, Levy. It's greatly appreciated.

Orla Schantz

July 06, 2006 1:21 PM  
Blogger Sinthome said...


Interesting observation about Danish. I'm unable to think of a comparable distinction in English, which perhaps contributes to the American tendency to think of individuals in a vacuum or with no connection to a field. For instance, the popular debate in the States between "nature" or "nurture" seems to recapulate this abstraction by treating the individual as *either* intrinsically what it is (nature) *or* a product of its environment, without seeing that this is a both/and relationship.

I find myself a bit uncomfortable with Taylor's characterization of the universe as a *pure* flux, as pure flux connotes to me absolute formlessness, whereas Deleuze, by contrast, talks about the genesis of forms or islands of stability within a sea of change.

I think this issue will become increasingly pressing. I've just begun reading Hallward's book on Deleuze, _Out of this World_, and it is precisely this issue of pure flux that he uses to take Deleuze to task. Hallward wants to argue that Deleuze wants to dissolve anything that stands in the way of creative production (organism, object, representation, identity, or relations of power) so as to affirm absolute creation or becoming. If we put this in terms of Bergson, Hallward is effectively claiming that Deleuze is rejecting matter (the principle of brute repetition/habit/identity) in favor of the absolute flows of duration. That is, Hallward seems to see this relation as an either/or proposition in Deleuze, or as an abstract opposition.

Now I find Hallward to be a sensitive and brilliant reader of just about anything he engages with, but I wonder if this characterization of Deleuze is fair. When Deleuze talks about "counter-actualization" or the body-without-organs, etc., I don't take him to be saying that we should reject the material dimension or reject the body, but rather that we should aim at those potentialities that reside within matter so as to set fixed and crystalized structures in motion. Deleuze's claim isn't that there's an incorporeal world of becoming and then a corporeal world of stasis, but that the material world is populated by pre-individual potentialities opening the way to new individuations. It seems to me that this thesis would be highly relevant to questions of how social change is possible.

July 08, 2006 10:09 AM  
Blogger Art said...

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September 04, 2008 11:15 AM  
Blogger Art said...

Absolutely. And this question is described directly in Deleuze's "Bergsonism", when he argues that the difference between duration and extension is a question of tension.
I suppose that the enphasis on the pre-individual concepts of fluxes are due to the counterposition at the strong substatialist point of view whithin not only philosophy but so many areas which try ontologies.
And it's all about war machines. We must not make Deleuze a dualist, what makes no sense if you stand with the rigorous thought of processes. Of course he is not trading matter for a plane of fluxes; it's the exact opposite. They are binded together (double-bind). Spinoza would say Natura Naturans, Natura Naturata - both sides of Natura (Nature). It's reather difficult to make an image of it. It's necessary some velocity. Virtual and actual, both real, only existing in motion, in production, virtual being atualized, actual being virtualized. And apparently paradoxaly, we could say that Deleuze is much more of a corporeal thinker than a metaphysical. The thing is that matter is arranged in a diagram of forces that produces the real, and that's why things are the way they are. But that's also exacly why overcoming the stasis is necessary: a reality that is being produced all the time, at every instant, becoming through actualization that traspasses the individual whith a specific desire-arangement.
It has to do with selecting the notourius points in the imanance plane, constituting own problems, following the ideas of Uexküll's "Umwelt" - the precise ontogenesis that put individual and milieux absolutly together. For that, understanding the potencial of real not being conditionned by State (whether it's the Significant empire, the overcodifying, work, money, property, the striated space, territorialization) or even captured by the capitalistic axiomatization must be noticed. It's a wide quest of nomadic thought and being, which is always interacting with the sedentary structures.
I believe that this is the great power of Deleuze's way of thinking: one can never be trapped in a single concept without creating a web of understanding.

I'm sorry for the bad english, but it had been a long time since I didn't write anything. I also don't know if some of the concepts are correctly translated (I have them only in portuguese)... I'm here under tropical Sun in Brazil, but not as lazy as europeans thought we were. I was very happy to find this Blog, with such a productive encouter.

September 04, 2008 11:45 AM  
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