In this section I elaborate on what it would mean for technical apparatuses (e.g., living bodies or technical machines) to do the work of concepts. This includes developing an eco-operational framework that emphasizes the technicity of thought and being. In the proposed approach, bodies and machines are treated as conditions of sorts, more precisely as adaptive mediators.
3.1. Mediation as the Principle of Individuation
Having pointed out the shortcomings of substantialist and hylomorphic understandings of the individual, Simondon proceeds to suggest “a complete change in the general approach to the principle governing individuation” (Simondon 1992, p. 300
). Instead of the established vocabularies of substance, matter, and form, he theorizes being in terms of systems
. A system of being is further defined as metastable
, which means that it “contains latent potentials and harbors a certain incompatibility with itself, an incompatibility due at once to forces in tension as well as to the impossibility of interaction between terms of extremely disparate dimensions” (Simondon 1992, pp. 300, 302
). Individuation, in turn, is defined as “a partial and relative resolution” manifested in such a system (Simondon 1992, p. 300
Simondon’s focus on heterogeneous and metastable systems of being has thoroughgoing implications, not the least when it comes to understanding the status and role of mediation. With the onset of individuation, being adopts a certain structure and becoming—a certain “mode of resolving an initial incompatibility that was rife with potentials” (Simondon 1992, p. 301
). This is precisely what mediation
means for Simondon: the action of resolving an initial incompatibility between higher and lower orders of magnitude through a redistribution of elements and powers into “structured individuals of a middle order of magnitude” (Simondon 1992, p. 304
). The mediating action of resolving the initial incompatibility initiates a new phase in the system, which is why Simondon refers to mediation as the “true principle of individuation” (Simondon 1992, p. 304
). Moreover, the mediating action of putting disparate parts of the system into communication releases new potentials for further developments, which is why Simondon characterizes individuation as a “mediate process of amplification” (Simondon 1992, p. 304
). Both these points imply that the system of being remains heterogeneous and metastable even after
individuation has taken place—which for Simondon is a good thing because the remaining preindividual tensions are what keep the system alive and enable it to undergo further changes. To pick up on the previous discussion (in Section 2.1
) of the relative existence of the individual, the Simondonian individual can now be further defined as a mediating or resolving structure that institutes and sustains a certain phase
of a larger metastable system of being.
Simondon’s notion of metastability takes inspiration from the phenomenon of metastable equilibrium
as studied in modern physics (thermodynamics and quantum mechanics). Simondon’s adoption of this concept frames individuation as a process that proceeds “by quantum leaps through a series of successive equilibria” (Simondon 1992, p. 301
). This implies two things: first, that being undergoes a stepwise evolution that occurs through a series of inventive phase shifts; and second, that being has the capacity to fall out of phase with itself, only to resolve itself by entering a new phase in its development. This suggests that individuation has an energetic aspect that is missing in substantialist and hylomorphic accounts of the individual. As Simondon points out, the ancients were unable to define being in its metastable state because they lacked the physical paradigm that would allow them to conceive of such a state. Recognizing only movement and rest, the ancients presumed being to be “in a state of stable equilibrium at all times”—thus excluding the idea of becoming (Simondon 1992, p. 301
). A metastable system of being, by contrast, is characterized by its capacity to undergo transformation, to “break its own bounds in relation to its center
” (Simondon 1992, p. 311
, original emphasis). This is also why the concepts and principles of classical logic (such as the principles of identity and the excluded middle) fail us: They do not apply to being in its metastable state. The reason for this is that a metastable system of being always contains more
than that which is identical to itself. As Simondon puts it, a metastable system is “more than a unity and more than identity” (Simondon 1992, p. 312
). Concepts, as traditionally understood, are valid only for the results
of individuation—and even then, they refer only to a diminished being, to the individual taken in isolation, failing to factor in the corresponding milieu.
The Simondonian criticism of classical logic and concepts also extends to Kant, whose distinction between the a priori and the a posteriori reinserts the hylomorphic schema, which, as Simondon notes, “obscures, with its dark central zone, the true process of individuation that is the seat of knowledge” (Simondon 1992, p. 309
). To rectify this, Simondon returns to the middle, probing into the dark central zone in which individuation occurs as a process. Moreover, to get a better grip on the true process of individuation, he introduces the term transduction
, which is at once a logical and metaphysical notion. As defined by Simondon, transduction applies to any situation where an individuation occurs—to any situation where there is “activity, both structural and functional, which begins at the center of the being and extends itself in various directions from this center, as if multiple dimensions of the being were expanding around this central point” (Simondon 1992, p. 313
). The transductive process, which may be physical, biological, mental, or social, is further defined as an activity whose “dynamism derives from the primitive tension of the heterogeneous being’s system, which moves out of step with itself and develops further dimensions upon which it bases its structure” (Simondon 1992, p. 313
). Accordingly, when it comes to knowledge, transduction “maps out the actual course that invention follows, which is neither inductive nor deductive but rather transductive” (Simondon 1992, p. 313
). Individuation, therefore, is not about synthesis or a return to unity (as in Kant). The notion of transduction suggests, rather, that the process of knowledge involves invention
, as does the process of becoming.
To illustrate the transductive process, Simondon uses the example of a crystal that grows and extends itself in its supersaturated mother-water, where already formed layers of molecules serve as structuring bases for new layers of molecules. His point is that, even in the simple case of crystallization, the vocabulary of form and matter fail to account for the process. To better understand the process of crystallization, we need to talk about information
in a new transductive sense, which presupposes the existence of a metastable system in a state of supersaturation, and which approaches individuation as an amplifying communication that resolves the initial incompatibility. Thus, contrary to the notion of form, information (as understood here) is not a unique term, but rather a “meaning that arises on the heels of a disparation” (Simondon 1992, p. 316
). In its focus on disparation, the transductive approach to information differs markedly from the approaches developed in modern information theory—most notably in Claude Shannon’s mathematical theory of communication (Shannon and Weaver 1949
)—where, as Simondon indicates, the notion of information is “derived by abstraction [...] from transmission technology
” (Simondon 1992, p. 316
, original emphasis).
While discussing physical individuation, exemplified by the formation of a crystal, Simondon sometimes talks as if there were an initial primitive state of being without steps or division into stages, without becoming that “affords the being mediation” (Simondon 1992, p. 307
). Simondon refers to this initial state as “the preindividual being” (Simondon 1992, p. 301
). In the same vein, he argues that the transductive process “derives the resolving structure from the tensions themselves within the domain [...], and not through the help of some foreign body” (Simondon 1992, p. 314
). It is, above all, formulations such as these that warrant Deleuze’s adoption of the preindividual to his own metaphysics of difference, including to the Deleuzian notions of the virtual and non-mediated difference. However, as soon as we shift our focus from physical
individuation to biological
individuation, the identification between the Simondonian preindividual-individual pair and the Deleuzian virtual-actual pair becomes more strained.
While crystallization furnishes us with a simple and illustrative example of the transductive process, it falls short of accounting for the individuation of a living
being considered as an individual. This is because the living individual “is not only the result of individuation, like the crystal or the molecule, but is a veritable theater of individuation” (Simondon 1992, p. 305
). As conceived by Simondon, the living being is characterized by “a perpetual individuation that is life itself” (Simondon 1992, p. 305
). The example of the crystal falls short also because the living individual “is not, like that of the physical individual, concentrated at its boundary with the outside world” (Simondon 1992, p. 305
). The living individual possesses a “genuine interiority,” which means that there exists within it “a more complete regime of internal resonance
requiring permanent communication and maintaining a metastability that is the precondition of life” (Simondon 1992, p. 305
, original emphasis). This means that, in contrast to the physical individual, the living individual resolves its problems “by modifying itself through the invention of new internal structures” (Simondon 1992, p. 305
). This, then, is why Simondon characterizes the living individual as an “agent” of individuation—as a system of individuation that to a certain extent “individuates itself
” (Simondon 1992, pp. 305, 307
, original emphasis).
My point here is that, depending on whether we take physical individuation or biological individuation as our paradigm case, we end up with a somewhat different understanding of the process of individuation. This is because, in the domain of the living, there is no preindividual being in the pure sense Simondon sometimes indicates when discussing physical individuation—no initial primitive state of being that is “without the refinements of mediation” (Simondon 1992, p. 302
). In the development of the living being, such as a living organism, there is always already a mediating or resolving structure at work. This means that, in the domain of the living, individuation is not strictly speaking a process of actualization in the Deleuzian sense (i.e., a process that moves from
the virtual to
the actual). The development of the living organism seems to move, rather, through an open-ended series of metastable stages that are always already actual. However, we are dealing here with an understanding of the actual that differs from the Bergsonist definition in terms of an “arrest of movement” by which “the living being turns on itself and closes itself
” (Deleuze 1988, p. 104
, original emphasis). For in Simondon’s view, the living individual is a mediating or resolving structure that remains open
—and hence more than a unity
—even after individuation has taken place.
Simondon’s characterization of the living individual as the result, theater, and agent of individuation implies that the living being, in some sense or other, does the work of concepts. As already hinted, we are dealing here with concept work in a sense that emphasizes action
rather than representation
, more precisely the normative activity of bodies and machines as they negotiate their terms with their environments. As Simondon sees it, living individuals and technical individuals are both characterized by the way they actively create—and not merely adapt to—their environments (see Section 3.4
for further details). This implies in turn that we have to do with a new understanding of the term concept
that goes beyond the options we have discussed so far: the Kantian abstract and general concept and the Deleuzian concrete universal. As a mediating or resolving structure, the living individual is neither
singular in the established senses of these terms. Instead, we are dealing with a concept that grows from the middle, from the dark central zone—a concept, therefore, that “is neither a priori nor a posteriori but a praesenti, because it is an informative and interactive communication between that which is larger than the individual and that which is smaller” (Simondon 1992, p. 310
By introducing a praesenti concepts, Simondon embarks on an eco-operational conceptual path that is further developed in his work on technology. It is no coincidence, therefore, that when Simondon sets out to explore the mode of existence of technical objects, it is his account of biological individuation (and not that of physical individuation) that is brought to bear on the technical individual or machine.
3.2. The Eco-Operational Underpinnings of Simondonian Technicity
As is well-documented in the literature, Simondon’s philosophy was deeply influenced by cybernetics, from which he adopted much of his vocabulary, including the notion of information.4
Both approaches undo long-standing dualisms of living beings and technical objects by emphasizing their adaptability and responsiveness to changes in the world around them. For all that, Simondon remains critical in his reception of cybernetics, warning against the tendency of some cyberneticists (e.g., Norbert Wiener) to assume an “improper identification of the technical object with the natural object” (Simondon 2017, p. 50
). Instead of conflating living bodies and technical machines, Simondon suggests that we approach the latter as quasi-organisms.
Simondon’s preoccupation with the living being is indicative of another major influence on his work that has been less commented upon in the literature, namely that of a certain strand of ecological
theory. This line of theory was initiated by the biologist Jakob von Uexküll (Uexküll 1926
), who coined the term Umwelt
—suggesting that different kinds of organisms inhabit different Umwelten
or surrounding worlds even when they share the same physical environment. The notion of Umwelt
was adopted and critically adjusted by the neurologist and psychiatrist Kurt Goldstein (Goldstein 1995
), who in turn influenced thinkers such as Georges Canguilhem and Maurice Merleau-Ponty—both of whom were Simondon’s teachers.
While the ecological approaches mentioned are all influenced by Kant, they diverge from the Kantian path in that they replace the subject-object model with a reciprocal organism-environment model. That said, the organism-environment model has evolved and transformed considerably since Uexküll’s original formulation. While Uexküll envisions the living organism as always perfectly adjusted to its habitat, subsequent thinkers such as Goldstein assumes a less harmonious model, characterizing the relationship between the organism and its environment as an ongoing confrontation. Thus, while Uexküll understands the life-path of an organism as a fixed life-tunnel (Uexküll 1926, pp. 84, 322
), Goldstein leaves the organism a certain leeway, allowing it to negotiate its terms and conditions of existence.
Canguilhem, like Goldstein before him, emphasizes the negotiation between the organism and its environment to help explain health and disease. In Canguilhem’s view, the healthy organism is characterized by a “superabundance of means,” which endows it with a certain “normative capacity”—a capacity to “establish other norms in other conditions” (Canguilhem 1991, pp. 183, 200
). Instead of simply complying with the demands of the environment, the healthy individual is “set on gaining constants anew,” being capable of “following new norms of life” (Canguilhem 1991, pp. 194, 200
). Thus understood, the healthy state of the organism is one that “allows transition to new norms” (Canguilhem 1991, p. 228
). The pathological state, by contrast, is characterized by a loss of normative capacity, the sick organism being less open to eventual change. To be cured, then, “is to be given new norms of life” (Canguilhem 1991, p. 228
). Canguilhem’s discussion of the living being in health and disease resonates deeply with Simondon’s account of biological individuation, according to which the living individual evolves by constantly falling out of phase with itself only to resolve itself anew—and in this way entering new stages in its development.
Canguilhem’s treatment of the ecological motif takes steps toward what I call an eco-operational
approach: The Umwelt
is defined by Canguilhem in operational terms as the “milieu of behavior proper to a certain organism” (Canguilhem 2008, p. 111
). However, the organism’s surrounding world of possible actions is not a static given. For what does it mean to say that the living organism is engaged in normative activity? It means that life “establishes norms,” that it “posits values not only in the environment but also in the organism itself” (Canguilhem 1991, pp. 127, 227
). Thus understood, life cannot possibly be “the blind and stupid mechanical force that one likes to imagine when one contrasts it to thought” (Canguilhem 2008, p. xviii
). By acknowledging the organism’s normativity (including its action on the environment), Canguilhem rejects the idea of a fundamental conflict between life and thought. Instead, he defines knowledge in integral and
operational terms as the “general method for the direct or indirect resolution of tensions between [hu]man and milieu” (Canguilhem 2008, p. xviii
). Canguilhem’s integral and operational notion of knowledge resonates with Simondon’s account of individuation as a transductive process (i.e., as a mode of resolving tensions in a metastable system of being), and of the individual as a mediating or resolving structure. However, what truly marks the theory developed in this article as an eco-operational
approach (as opposed to a merely ecological approach), is the extra ingredient of technicity
. This notion entails a specific understanding of operativity, which includes the establishment of a materializing or idealizing recurrence—a metastable behavioral norm of sorts—through which the organism-environment system gains a certain readiness for action (as explained in further detail in Section 3.4
Merleau-Ponty also make important contributions to an eco-operational approach. Like Canguilhem he draws inspiration from Goldstein, and the references to the latter are particularly plentiful in one of the central chapters of Phenomenology of Perception
), where he discusses the relation between the spatiality of one’s own body and motricity. This is the chapter where Merleau-Ponty introduces the notion of body schema
, which explicates the peculiar unity of the lived body (i.e., the body considered in its lived relationship to the world). As Merleau-Ponty explains, the body schema is neither a “result of associations established in the course of experience,” nor a “form, or phenomenon in which the whole is anterior to the parts” (Merleau-Ponty 2012, p. 102
). In fact, the body schema, as Merleau-Ponty understands it, is not a mental representation at all. It is defined, rather, as the lived integration of body parts that situates the organism in a certain configuration of possible actions. The body schema, therefore, appears to the living being “as a posture toward a certain task, actual or possible” (Merleau-Ponty 2012, p. 102
). Moreover, the body schema is defined as a habitual system that is “open onto the world, and correlative with it” (Merleau-Ponty 2012, p. 526, footnote 115
)—and hence transformable. He proceeds to specify the body schema as the “always implied third term of the figure-background structure” (Merleau-Ponty 2012, p. 103
). Merleau-Ponty’s theory of the body schema resonates profoundly with Simondon’s account of the technical individual or machine, which Simondon specifies precisely as a technical schema
, more precisely as a schema of operation
—a system of behavior that is open onto, and correlative with, the surrounding environment, which is referred to by Simondon as its associated milieu
(Simondon 2017, pp. 45, 59
In Phenomenology of Perception
, Merleau-Ponty breaks with Kant by replacing the thinking subject (“I think that”) with an anonymous and pre-personal motor subject (“I can”) (Merleau-Ponty 2012, p. 139
). Merleau-Ponty’s idea of motricity as an original motor intentionality is symptomatic of his integral approach, which no longer adheres to the Kantian distinction between the sensible and the intelligible world. The notion of body schema indicates, rather, the existence of a more fundamental logos—of a concept or generality that is “not the generality of an idea, but rather that of a style of behavior” (Merleau-Ponty 2012, p. 425
). In his later work, Merleau-Ponty pushes even further in the eco-operational direction by conceiving the lived body as a site of exchange with the world, while at the same time serving as the standard or measure of things: “my body is not only one perceived among others, it is the measurant (mesurant
) of all, Nullpunkt
of all the dimensions of the world” (Merleau-Ponty 1968, pp. 248–49
). Rephrased in Canguilhemian terms, Merleau-Ponty’s characterization of the lived body as a standard or measure indicates that the lived body has a normative capacity, enacting a certain resolution of its environment, and in doing so, configuring the latter as a specific milieu of behavior. As we shall see, this is very much how Simondon understands the mediating role of bodies and
machines—the notion of technicity covering the resolving and normative action of both.
3.3. Technical Individuation and Technical Mediation
In their efforts to vindicate the rationality of life and sensibility, Canguilhem and Merleau-Ponty both criticize the Cartesian theory of the animal-machine. Each in their own way, they make the point that the living organism cannot be reduced to a machine.6
Simondon takes the next decisive step by advancing the view that not even a machine can be reduced to a machine
(in the established mechanical sense of the term). This step is important, as it clears the way for a broad understanding of technicity that factors in the resolving and normative action of both living bodies and technical machines.
Simondon’s philosophy of technology treats the technical object as a quasi-organism. The technical object is a quasi-organism, first, in that it undergoes an ontogenetic development; and second, in that it exists in conjunction with a specific environment—its Umwelt
, so to speak. Furthermore, the technical object is best defined as a being that operates
This means that it operates “neither according to causality, which is too fragmentary, nor according to finality, which is too unitary, but according to the dynamism of lived functioning” (Simondon 2017, p. 151
). In Simondon’s view, the living organism is the paradigmatic example of what he calls concrete being
: It is a metastable entity that is highly integrated, and that forms a joint system with its surrounding environment (Simondon 2017, p. 51
). For all that, in its newly invented state, the technical object is still abstract
: It consists of fragmented parts; and, as it is not yet connected to an environment, it lacks real efficacy. It is only when it starts to develop that the technical object comes closer to the mode of existence of the living being: first, in that its elements become more integrated (approximating the integration of organs in the living body); and second, in that it becomes coupled to its surroundings (approximating the vital reciprocal linkages between the living being and its environment). This explains why Simondon conceives technical individuation as a process of concretization
—a process through which the technical object becomes naturalized
in the sense of becoming integrated into “the world of natural causes and effects” (Simondon 2017, p. 251
). For all that, Simondon never goes so far as to conflate technical and natural (in this case: living) objects. While technical beings “tend toward concretization,” they will always differ from living beings, which are “concrete to begin with” (Simondon 2017, p. 51
). Still, the point is that the evolved
technical object is more real
than the primitive or undeveloped technical object in the sense that it is more connected and more efficacious.
In his thesis on the mode of existence of technical objects, Simondon considers technical objects on three levels: elements, individuals, and ensembles. He devotes most attention to the mid-level, that of technical individuals or machines, because this is the level at which the technical object can be properly described as a being that operates. He focuses on the level of technical individuals also because this is where the technical object pairs up with a specific environment: its associated milieu. In Simondon’s view, the technical individual or machine exists as an individual-environment system—which is to say that the technical individual cannot be properly defined without also taking the associated milieu into consideration.
The Simondonian machine, then, is not a separate being, closed upon itself. It progresses toward individuality only by mixing
with non-technical elements and powers. Nor is the machine a singular being. The gasoline engine, for example “is not this or that engine given in time and space, but the fact that there is a succession, a continuity that runs through the first engines to those we currently know and which are still evolving” (Simondon 2017, p. 26
). The technical object, in other words, progresses toward individuality only by multiplying
itself—by engendering a “family” of related technical objects (Simondon 2017, p. 46
). The oneness of the technical object, therefore, is a certain “unit of coming-into-being” that evolves through convergence and self-adaptation across an evolutionary lineage (Simondon 2017, p. 26
). The idea is that, in the course of its development, the technical individual “unifies itself internally according to a principle of inner resonance” (Simondon 2017, p. 26
). Thus, in an evolved technical object, all important parts “belong to the same system within which a multitude of reciprocal causalities exist” (Simondon 2017, p. 26–7
). Put another way, the technical individual or machine is not this or that thing but a certain schema of operation
that evolves by adapting itself to the regime of reciprocal causalities that holds in its associated milieu.
Having said that, the process of adaptation-concretization is not a mere defensive reaction to a pre-existing environment. Rather than simply being conditioned by an already given milieu, the technical object conditions the birth of a new
milieu of a middle
order of magnitude (i.e., its associated milieu). In other words: In the process of adaptation-concretization, the machine negotiates its own terms of existence by mediating or resolving an incompatibility between two heterogeneous orders of magnitude, the technical and the natural (“geographical”), thus conditioning the birth of a “third techno-geographical milieu,” which consists of a mixture of technical and natural elements and powers (Simondon 2017, p. 58
). The machine-milieu system is further characterized as a regime of reciprocal exchanges
in and through which the powers (technicities) of technical and natural elements come to be modified in their mutual reactions (Simondon 2017, pp. 26, 26–7
). The machine, in other words, conditions itself by conditioning the environment that it comes to depend on for its operation and development. Even so, Simondon emphatically insists that the associated milieu is not a mere fabrication. This is because, by allowing a part of the natural world to intervene as its condition of functioning, the evolved machine loses some of its artificial character and becomes “part of the system of causes and effects” (Simondon 2017, p. 49
). Simondon is emphatic about the machine’s strange dependence on its associated milieu, because it is what secures its relative autonomy. For even though the technical object is invented by humans, it cannot be reduced to a mere product of human intention. For, as soon as the technical individual or machine is coupled to its environment, and thus inserted into the more-than-human world of reciprocal causes and effects, it continues to be invented and to evolve in ways unforeseen by its makers.
Simondon is renowned for his ontogenetic take on technical objects. Yet, there is more to his philosophy of technology than the theory of technical individuation. Mode of Existence
also provides an ample number of clues for a theory of technical mediation
—a theory of how the technical object contributes to the understanding and individuation of other
realities. To appreciate the full scope of technicity, therefore, we need to consider the impact of technicity on other beings, including on human existence and the relation of human to nature. As Simondon points out, technicity takes on a broader philosophical significance due to the way it “intervenes as mediator between [hu]man and the world” (Simondon 2017, p. 183
). Technicity does this by building intermediate structured worlds through which the relation of human to nature “takes on a status of stability, of consistency, making it a reality that has laws and an ordered permanence” (Simondon 2017, p. 251
). Technicity impacts human existence by provoking a phase shift or change of level in the human-world system, thus releasing new potentials for development and action that were not accessible to the less evolved system.
3.4. Bodies and Machines as Adaptive Mediators
Simondon’s theory of technical mediation is further developed in his 1965–66 lecture series on imagination and invention (Simondon 2014
). His approach to images and imagination differs from established approaches (e.g., Sartre 1962
) in that it refuses to identify images with human consciousness and intention. In Simondon’s view, images are external (or at least partly so) to the thinking subject, being concerned, rather, with the action potentials of living bodies. Conceived as intermediate realities between subject and object, images enjoy a relative independence from conscious and intentional activity. Simondon’s approach differs also in that it refuses to identify images with unreality (or at least not exclusively). Images are defined, rather, as mediators
that help establish the vital, reciprocal linkages that allow the living being and its environment to form a joint system (Simondon 2014, pp. 7, 92
). This implies, among other things, that images are not understood as entities that represent, present, or intend some external object. Images are appreciated, rather, for their adaptive role
. The definition given for an image is a broad one: “Everything that intervenes as an intermediary between subject and object can take on the value of an image and play the role of prosthesis, at once adaptive and restrictive” (Simondon 2014, p. 12
, my translation). This means that a great many things can play the role of images or adaptive mediators, including living bodies and technical machines. The eco-operational approach to images and imagination has far-reaching implications. For one, imagination is no longer conceived in opposition to perception (as it continues to be in Sartre). Instead, images and the imagination are understood to prepare the living being for its encounter with the environment.
The lecture series on imagination and invention differentiates between motor images
and object images
. Motor images are the most elementary kind of images, as they concern the behavioral dispositions of the living body or parts of the body. Emphasizing the primacy of motricity over sensibility, Simondon claims that before experience there is anticipation
of experience in the form of organized initiatives on the side of the living organism. Simondon mentions as an example the instinctual behaviors of a young honey buzzard, which, when held in captivity, exhibits movements adequate for catching bees and wasps even in the absence of the relevant environmental stimuli. The point of this example is that the living being comes equipped with a reserve of motor images, which Simondon further characterizes as complex schemas of action
or schemas of behavior
that are acted out spontaneously (Simondon 2014, p. 32
, my translation). This implies that, instead of passively waiting for stimuli to impinge upon its receptors, the living being actively anticipates these stimuli. This also implies that the living being has the capacity to play out and explore its action potentials as if in a “free state” (Simondon 2014, p. 19
, my translation).
For all that, in their undeveloped phase, motor images are but partial programs of comportment that need the refinement that comes with experience. According to Simondon, motor images undergo a development that consists of four stages: anticipation, experience, systematization, and invention. While anticipation is a crucial first step, allowing the living being to forge vital linkages with its environment, it is not until the second stage, that of experience
, that motor images become “a mode of receiving information from the environment” (Simondon 2014, p. 19
, my translation). This is the stage where the living being interacts with its environment, and where motor images become “effectively and directly operational” (Simondon 2014, p. 19
, my translation). Experience, in turn, sets off a process of adaptation through which motor images “organize and stabilize themselves into internally correlated groups along the dimensions of the relationship between the organism and the environment” (Simondon 2014, p. 19
, my translation). This is the third stage of systematization
, where the various motor images become integrated and develop into stable dispositions for action. The process of adaptation and systematization leads to the fourth and final stage, that of invention
, which effects a transfer to a new level of the organism-environment system by installing new general dispositions, or as Simondon puts it, new “long-term anticipations” (Simondon 2014, p. 62
, my translation). The installment of these more evolved anticipations releases new potentials for action, which in turn lead to more evolved experiences, systematizations, and inventions, and so on. The development of motor images, in other words, takes the form of an amplification cycle
through which the organism-environment system gains new readinesses for action.
In their role as adaptive mediators, motor images do concept work in the sense that they resolve tensions between the living organism and its environment. However, there are situations where the living being faces problems that cannot be resolved through modifications of bodily dispositions alone, and that require recourse to what Simondon calls “heterogeneous mediations” (Simondon 2014, p. 141
, my translation). These are situations where an independently existing object (most typically a created object) is used as an adaptive mediator. A simple example would be the use of a bucket to carry water over some distance, a task for which the human body is not very effective. Simondon refers to such mediators (in this case, the bucket) as “object images” (Simondon 2014, pp. 13, 142
, my translation). Object images allow the human being to handle phenomena from extremely disparate orders of magnitude (the very small, large, heavy, hot, cold, toxic, corrosive, etc.) as if these phenomena belonged to an order homogeneous to its own. The introduction of an object image (say, a lever) induces an inventive phase shift in the human-world system by initiating a new middle-order regime of reality in which a new readiness for action comes to prevail: Equipped with a lever, the human being can lift loads many times its own weight. In addition to tools and machines, Simondon’s list of object images includes artworks, monuments, clothing fashions, and proverbs in language. Indeed, by his lights, all
created objects or artifacts are to some extent adaptive mediators.
As already hinted, Simondon’s lecture series on imagination and invention endorses the hypothesis of a “primitive exteriority of the image in relation to the subject” (Simondon 2014, p. 7
, my translation). This means, among other things, that images tend to materialize and become institution
—in the case of motor images, by stabilizing into bodily dispositions for action. Object images, on their side, are mediations that materialize into detachable artifacts that, due to their independent existence, can be shared and transmitted on an altogether new scale: The detached existence of object images allows them to be used—and in a sense, come back to life—again and again, far from the time and place of their creation. Here, we touch on another takeaway from the lecture series, which concerns how materialization facilitates the process of formalization, allowing images to become (metastable) law. Simondon puts it thus: “Any image is susceptible to be incorporated into a process of materializing or idealizing recurrence” (Simondon 2014, p. 13
, my translation). This means that, independent of whether we are dealing with motor images or object images, the development of images amounts to a process of formalization
through which the images become institution by stabilizing into a behavioral pattern that tend to recur. Again, materialization furthers the formalization process, which may happen in one out of two ways: either through incorporation
, as in the formation of new bodily habits; or through externalization
, as in the formation of independently existing artifacts. What this all means is that there is something general
about motor images and object images. Still, they are not general in the sense that Kantian concepts are general—but nor are they singular in the Deleuzian sense. They are something in-between. It is no coincidence, therefore, that Simondon interchangeably refer to images as schemas
of action or behavior.
In Simondon’s 1958 thesis on technology, technical objects are specified precisely as technical schemas
and discussed in terms of their technicity
. At the micro-level, technicity concerns the stable behaviors of technical elements, their “capacities for producing or undergoing an effect in a determinate manner” (Simondon 2017, p. 75
). These are the behaviors or powers that come to be modified or concretized when technical and other elements are combined and incorporated into a technical individual or machine. At the mid-level, technicity concerns the schema of operation that marks the individuality of a certain machine (say, a gasoline engine), and that continues to develop across the evolutionary series of related machines.
In Mode of Existence, when Simondon describes how technical elements come to be incorporated into the machine, he draws an analogy with the integration of organs in the living body. This is not a solitary incident: Throughout the thesis on technology and the lecture series on imagination and invention, parallels between living bodies and technical machines abound. Bodies and machines are both defined as beings that operate, and both are understood to depend on their associated environment for their operation and development. I take the view that these parallels prepare the ground for a broad take on technicity, which allows us to talk about the technicities of living bodies just as much as of the lives of machines. I pursue this broad take on technicity, not to trivialize the differences between living beings and machines, but to advance technicity as an integral and operational notion of concept or generality that stakes out a middle path between Kantian representational generality and Deleuzian concrete singularity.