A few weeks ago Andrew Feenberg organized a small conference titled Simondon, French Theory and the Political at Harbour Centre. I’ve attached the original invitation in case someone is interested in the other talks (click here). I had never heard of Gilbert Simondon before but Dr. Feenberg’s talk was supposed to be about his philosophy of technology and the impact on STS. Thus, I decided that walking 25 meters from my office to the lecture room was an acceptable risk to learn a bit about Gilbert Simondon. This blog post is meant as a brief introduction to Gilbert Simondon, his theory of individuation, and its (potential) influence on STS & communications.
Gilbert Simondon and the Theory of Individuation
Gilbert Simondon was one of the most influential contemporary French philosophers, only recently have his works been translated into English and thus been discovered by a broader audience. He was a student of Georges Canguilhem, just like Michel Foucault, and also the famous phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty. He is best-known for his theory of individuation, which in turn was a major inspiration for philosophers like Gilles Deleuze, Bruno Latour, and Bernard Stiegler. The majority of his work has not been translated into English and, thus, not really found the attention of an international audience. This also means that the almighty internet does not provide many synopses or digested pieces about his work1. Not having the time to dive into his works and secondary literature, I will try to briefly outline Simondon’s theory of individuation loosely based on Andrew Feenberg’s talk and two essays (Feenberg, 2016; Iliadis, 2013).
How do we discern individual units from each other? How and why do we draw lines between an object that we focus and the background instead of simply perceiving a mixture of colors and patterns? Simondon argues that this questions all relate to individuation, the process of coming into existence as an entity. While the question of genesis has been covered by metaphysics before Simondon argues that the focus has been wrongly on the individual instead of the individuation. He problematizes the fact that any consideration of individuation begins at the individual as a pre-existing fact, thus rendering the process of individuation a mere reflection of that entity. In his own theory of individuation Simondon is challenging traditional substantialist metaphysics by shifting the focus to the genesis of an individual away from the substance.
“from being to becoming, from substance to individuation” (Simondon, 1989, p.5)
This move away from a single source of the potential to come into existence to emphasising the importance of the internal potential and its environment. Feenberg gives the example of the acorn, which in Aristotelian terms carries the essential potential to become an oak, while, Simondon would include the internal tensions and relations of the acorn but also include the environment of the acorn. “Where Latour dismisses the notion of essence, Simondon reconstructs something similar by shifting the level of potentiality from the person or thing to the combined individual and its associated milieu. Simondon constructs a theory of progress motivated by the internal tensions and potentials of technical systems.“ (Feenberg, 2016, p.12)
I have tried to give a very short and brief outline of the main idea of Simondon’s theory of individuation. Andrew Feenberg furthermore suggests that ensuing from the theory of individuation, and related theory of concretization (a similar take on technological genesis; the coming into existence of technology), Gilbert Simondon’s philosophy could prove to be a useful tool for STS. The second paper I read by Andrew Iliadis concludes that Gilbert Simondon’s work could finally become the true philosophy of communication, instead of referring to the interdisciplinarity of the field and settling with a potpourri of methods and theories. Admittedly, I have understood very little of Dr. Feenberg’s talk and barely got through the two papers, but I have definitely found some interest in Simondon as a new(ly discovered) philosopher relevant to my future work.
 This reminds me of the Matthew effect observed in citation patterns in academic literature (Merton, 1968). Just as “the rich get richer, the poor get poorer” it has been observed that highly cited papers accumulate more citations than less cited ones. Similarly I assume that well-known theories and philosophers also spread quicker than less famous ones (such as Gilbert Simondon)
Feenberg, A. (2016). Concretizing Simondon and Constructivism: A Recursive Contribution to the Theory of Concretization. Retrieved 16 March 2018, from http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0162243916661763
Iliadis, A. (2013). Informational ontology: the meaning of gilbert Simondon’s Concept of individuation. Communication+1, 2(1), 1–19.
Merton, R. K. (1968). The Matthew Effect in Science: The reward and communication systems of science are considered. Science, 159(3810), 56–63. doi:10/b879j2
Simondon, G. (1989). L’individuation psychique et collective à la lumière des notions de forme, information, potentiel et métastabilité.