Rowman & Littlefield International
Reviewed by: Pierluca D'Amato (Durham University)
In an age in which psychic and social spheres are heavily influenced by means of pervasive and inscrutable technologies, Gilbert Simondon’s ideas are progressively being recognised as crucial for the comprehension of the current relation between humans and technics.
Situated at the crossroad between philosophy of science, phenomenology and the study of social and developmental psychology, Simondon’s thought matured under the guidance of teachers of the calibre of Georges Canguilhem, Jean Hyppolite and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and deals with two main themes: the reflexion on the notion of individual, and the development of a theory of technics. With the publication of his doctoral theses L’Individu et sa Genèse Physico-Biologique (1964) and Du Mode d’Existence des Objets Techniques (1958), Simondon’s work on these topics influenced central names of the philosophical landscape of our epoch, such as Gilles Deleuze and Bernard Stiegler, and keeps fuelling the new generations of thinkers involved in a quest for the comprehension of times thanks to the generous quantity of essays and lectures that are in the process of being published for the first time, and slowly starting to be translated from French.
The processual account that Simondon develops for the notion of individual, indeed, sets off form a critique of the hylomorphic model, the Aristotelian account of beings as composed by a form and a matter, that is defined by Simondon as a technological schema derived from a cursory consideration of technics, and whose application has significant social implications. In this framework, his theory of technics, that he calls mechanology, represents an experiment at the same time theoretical and pedagogical, that is meant to fight a double problem: the general alienation of technics from the cultural debate, and the consequent unawareness regarding the material foundation of social systems, whose status and potentialities for change are always grounded on and constrained by technical forms of mediation.
Except for the article titled La perception de longue durée, appeared in the Journal de Psychologie normale et patologique in 1969, the essays collected in La Résolution des problémes were prepared as support material for psychology courses that Simondon gave between the 1974 and 1976, in the late stage of his philosophical production, and appear for the first time published in a collection.
Ranking among the many that the philosopher has produced during his intense life of work, these essays share the same emancipatory motivation underlying the thesis on the technical object, namely that the knowledge of the technician has to become the support for a theory of machines and tools, in order to shed light on the ways in which individuals relate to the world and on the relations of which social fabrics are woven. The four essays collected in this book, in fact, can be thought of as being linked by the notion of relation, declined as the one between the individual and the object, and the one between a movement and an obstacle. These two types of relations are based on the definitions of two main concepts, namely the one of object and the one of problem.
The first essay, L’homme et l’objet, is dedicated to the relations between the individual and different types of objects, and the last one, La perception de longue durée, to the character of the objet quelconque, the any-object-whatever. The remaining two essays explore the notion of problem, one from the point of view of its possible solutions (La résolution des problémes), and the other from the point of view of the intellectual resources at work behind these operations (Invention et créativité).
This book connects the concepts of object and problem through the notion of instrumentality, by which Simondon explains how, under certain circumstances, objects can become means to solve problems, and problems, in turn, represent a way for objects and techniques to evolve.
This review will focus on addressing this set of interactions, proposing a way to read the collection through a line that crosses three major relations: the one between individuals and objects, the one between oriented movements and the obstacles to their completion, and the relation established through the instrumental mediation between objects and problems. We will then conclude by addressing the definition of philosophy that can be modelled on the latter relation.
In the first essay of the collection, the concept of object is defined in relation to the individual that perceives it. Simondon’s idea of this phenomenological relation can be summarised as follows: ‘For there to be an object, motricity is not enough, a differentiated sensorium and the combination of the data of the different senses are also necessary’ (23). For the author, objects are given as results of the integration of different perceptions, that can be carried out by individuals equipped with the appropriate cognitive system, as the one developed in adults and generally present in animals provided with complex nervous systems. On this basis, Simondon claims that ‘the object is an already complex and elevated construction, which… characterizes a defined level of the structure or of the development of the living being’ (23).
The relation between individuals and objects varies then according to the age of the individuals and to their place in space and society and is configured on a case-by-case basis according to the relative size of the object, i.e., its order of magnitude. According to Simondon, it is precisely ‘according to orders of magnitude of the object that this relation has to be studied’ (12).
Infants, for example, intervene clumsily on what surrounds them because they relate to an object that is perceived as greater than them, a “complex and constant”, enduring world of objects that is somehow difficult to handle. With the growth of individuals, their relationships with people and objects change, and the world appears gradually smaller. During their growth, in fact, a new psycho-social “situation” (20), that Simondon defines as the instance of the acquisition of a system of objects (21), comes to describe the novel point of view assumed by individuals in relation to the world. From this more mature point of view, objects appear richer, as consisting of multiple dimensions and offering different possible uses. Occupying a new psycho-social situation as a novel point of view, individuals assume a new perspective on the material world and re-situate themselves in relation to it.
The development that leads to this change in perspective causes somatic and mental changes. The latter are produced not only by the individual’s biological growth, but also by the culture-induced classification of objects. The individual doesn’t change point of view and perspective exclusively because of its status of development then, but also because of the web of relations of which he is part, as an object among other objects. Once the individual reaches the psychosocial situation of the adult, the world of objects doesn’t appear as a unicum anymore, nor as a “fixed system”, but as a system composed by interconnected and mobile parts whose alteration can disclose useful energy (24).
When the individual reaches the psychosocial situation that corresponds to a renewed point of view, he assumes a new perspective over this world of objects, and the latter appears as composed of a series of objects culturally classified among which he can orient himself and on which he can intervene. The possibility of acting on the world is dependent on the proportions between the individual and the objects that surround him, that ‘varies according to the distance that separates them’ (12). The distance of which Simondon is speaking can be shortened by technology, whose mediatory character allows to access “distant” magnitudes and to intervene on the infinitesimally small or big. For this reason, the first essay will conclude by establishing the importance of technical mediation in the discourse on the relation between men and the object.
Simondon’s world of objects is then characterised a system of related magnitudes, whose relation to individuals is disciplined by cultural frameworks and alterable by the use of instruments. In his perspective, the greater the difference between the sizes of the individual and of the object, the greater is the role of tools that support the observation or the manipulation of the latter. The individual himself is an object among others whose perspective is influenced by the status of the system of relations of which it is part.
The second half of L’homme et l’objet is devoted to the consideration of the principal types of objects and to the perceptive relation with the extremely small or extremely big ones. In his classification, Simondon reserves a special place to tools, defined here as objects related to the definite actions that they allow, included the acquisition of information. With this characterization on the background, the author specifies that ‘technics are not necessarily a reconstruction of the natural through materials or different assemblages [and that] they can consist in an interweaving of natural objects of different categories’ (23). The possibility to encounter or produce couplings among different types of objects is connected to an interesting rethinking of the primacy of the solid in the general reflection on matter. On this topic, Simondon claims that objects can comport different states of matter and even include voids. Indeed, he explains, objects are not always “full”, and ‘an object may not be everywhere materialized and have real or apparent voids. The real void is a space without function in the object. The apparent void is a medium of transmission’ (23).
The discourse on transmission media and apparent voids brings about the notion of milieu, characterised as an object of a special class. According to Simondon, what he defines as “enveloping objects” have the property to influence the reciprocal relations of the objects that they contain, and can easily go unnoticed, “become invisible”, despite the importance of their effect on what they contain. The author specifies that the milieu is an object too, specifically because ‘it intervenes in the phenomenon. The position of the object is part of the object because it designates its potential energy’ (24). According to this view, the surroundings of an object not only act on the individual, influencing his perspective, but determine the state of the object itself, that “appears” because of the stability of its conditions. It is this stability, although relative because ‘situated between two orders of magnitude unstable or metastable’ (24), that makes possible to speak about objects in general. In Simondon’s account then, the milieu represents one of the most relevant parts of the coordinate reference system that shapes the relation between individuals and objects, and determines various effects of constancy, but also clichés and stereotypes, which influence the perception of objects.
Objects can appear to be near or far, and be perceived as familiar, rare or extraneous. According to the author, the “proximity” of a type of object grows proportionally to its degree of circulation among individuals and causes variations in society (29-32). For Simondon, the “extraneity” of an object is directly connected to the ideology on which a society is shaped and reflects the consequence of the division of work. Indeed, the degrees of extraneity of a type of object correspond to specific modes of production and to the distance between the figures of the user, the producer and the designer. The various relations between these figures produce three cultural models, that Simondon shapes on “different degrees of extraneity”: style and tradition are the ones in which the user has a relationship only with the designer or with the producer, while consumerism is the pole of the relation in which the user doesn’t have any relation with the other two figures. The last model, representing the opposite pole on the scale, is designated as the anthropological one, in which the three figures are all related.
On the basis of this classification, Simondon describes the current situation of technology, in which the arrangement of the relations between objects is such that things are submitted to a process of premature obsolescence, and in which the possibility to intervene on the configuration of objects is being denied by design choices that favour disposables and their endless production and consumption (32-34).
Beyond all the possible configurations of this network of relations, and all the kinds of particular objects that he classifies, Simondon posits what he calls the any-object-whatever. This notion describes the most generic object, that however has a peculiar characteristic: ‘Th[is] object is, first of all and existentially, supposed to be another organism or product or announcement of an organism, or even a group of organisms’ (57).
This idea is considered more in depth in the last essay, that consists in a detailed exposition of experiments with vision that should provide evidence for this thesis through an illustration of what Simondon calls the organism-effect. Such conception is grounded on the claim that ‘the perception of the object bears on a functional real enhanced and pre-marked by a signage’ (58). This means that objects appear because the perceiver, as agent, has a functional relation with its surrounding, and that the objects that appear to him are already filtered by his own physiological needs.
Because of this filtering function, the object is perceived on a background that Simondon describes as continuous and unlimited, because not fractioned by the selective attention of the perceiver. This background, he adds, ‘has an ecological sense, it is a texture’ (58), and ‘the texture is a characteristic of the milieu… [or better still] it is the support, the milieu’ (59).
Since the triple relation between the perceiver, the morphology of the object and this texture allows the object to be grasped, Simondon defines the milieu as a “perceptive mediator” between subject and object. This texture is defined as a microstructure, a multilevel code whose internal differences provide the basis for the action that is taking place on them and exert a regulatory function on it. According to the author, form and texture are two extreme orders of magnitude coexisting on the same perceptive field, the middle term of which is the structure. Different microstructures can produce the exact same form, so that a form is said to be the global result of a texture, i.e., a level of perceptual approximation.
With the series of experiments illustrated in the last essay of the collection, La perception de longue durée, Simondon argues that perception is always biased, and that this bias characterizes the any-object-whatever as an organism.
The experiments illustrated in the article concern prolonged observations of objects and rotating surfaces projected on a screen. According to Simondon, the optic effects generated by long periods of fixation should testify that perception is modelled on organisms, be them friends, partners, prays, food or foes.
This essay, however, has at least two problems: the first is that the study focuses only on the sense of sight, when, as shown, Simondon believed that to have an object is necessary to integrate data from different senses. Moreover, this research does not appear to be scientifically rigorous because, by admission of the author himself: ‘it would be advisable to multiply the observations, to operate with the participation of various subjects, and … by involving subjects that ignore the true nature and the real movement of the object’ (289). This issue is connected to the second problem of the essay: Simondon’s formula tends to project the quality of being an organism onto the object, while the organism-effect takes place not because the any-object-whatever is an organism, but because the perceiver is. Long durations entail the prolongation of the natural intersaccadic periods of fixation, and the effects Simondon describes can be the result of ocular drift and microtremors: it is not the object that moves then, but the eye, and because of its constitution.
Besides of these issues, the idea underlying the series of tests conducted by Simondon can be summarised as follows: ‘It may be thought that, just as there are stimuli-signals, studied by ethology, there exist archetypes and types providing to perception in critical condition its hypotheses’ (334). According to Simondon then, the illusory movement of the images resulting from long periods of fixation is a manifestation of the archetypes that orient perception. As a consequence, the idea that the any-object-whatever is an organism, means that there is an inclination of perception to expect to find organisms, and this because perception serves action, as in the case of the search for food or in the attempt to avoid predators, facilitating the survival of the living being.
Problems and Solutions
Survival is the result of a constant practice of problem-solving.
In the essay that gives the name to the collection, Simondon defines problems as follows: ‘a problem exists as soon as a finalized conduct encounters an obstacle to its realization’ (61), and problems can be classified on the basis of the kind of operations required to overcome these obstacles or avoid harmful stimuli. These operations are the result of a “change of strategy” of sorts, that can be performed as the result of blind attempts in different directions, in view of a plan and recurring to some sort of mediation, be it material or symbolic.
The easiest example of the first modality of problem-solving involves a change in the original direction of a movement. The new direction can be found accidentally and chosen after a random series of unsuccessful trials that increase the chance of not encountering the obstacle again. Simondon shows that this type of conduct is already observable in organisms that are not able to perceive stimuli at a distance, that don’t possess a spatial memory, and in which the motor function is predominant on the sensory one (67).
A more complex way to solve a problem involves the production of a “plan” and requires memory and the capacity to perceive from a distance. Differentiated from the previous by the neurophysiological capacities of the individuals, the presence of acquired habits and hereditary behavioural schemes (77), this kind of conduct presupposes the perception of an actual object instead of isolated uncomfortable sensations (69). The solution of labyrinths by laboratory mice represents a good example of this second type of strategy because mice possess both the capacity to perform a cognitive synthesis of stimuli coming from different senses and the ability to memorise simple information.
The learning process of the subjects of these tests is defined as the gradual limitation of errors, which is complemented by the memorisation of specific spatial relations, and their characterisation as either useful or unattractive. What the mice learn is therefore a new pattern of relations. At this level of complexity, the “plan” is nothing more than the memory of this pattern: ‘”what the rat learns is the labyrinth itself”, that is to say spatial relationships, a topography that had to be sought … learning is not about movements, but about spatial relationships’ (79).
Other problems ‘involve the preparation of instruments’ (88), and necessitate a more complex nervous system, as it is the case of monkeys and humans.
The usage of complex tools is crucially related to their preparation and improvement, and implies the identification of non-urgent needs. Conservation and reparation of the tools derive from this capability of the users, whose activities include the search for materials and the use of other tools in order to produce the ones desired. The conservation of the means of production represents another practice that has direct social implications, because it generates what Simondon describes as the social filters that new inventions must overcome in order to see the light. This highlights the fact that the conditions of the birth of technical objects are not only environmental, but also socio-economical.
La résolution des problèmes focuses then on the consideration of the process of invention, the analysis of which can be found, with more details, also in the third essay of the collection, Invention et créativité.
An invention can be defined as the creation of a group whose elements are in a functional relation, and the sum of which results in a function or a number of functions available to the user (105). The elements of this functional unity, the “organs” of an invention, are arranged and chosen so that ‘there is not necessarily one organ per function or one function per organ’ (105), and their assemblage derives from the articulation of a ‘plurality of tensions towards the fulfilment of functions thanks to the state created by their simultaneous fulfilment’ (100).
The equilibrium between these tensions is reached through a process constituted by three phases: a syncretic phase, an analytic one and a synthetic one. The scheme theorised by Simondon applies to the most complex objects, and is exemplifiable by the invention of industrial machines, which ‘is characterised by … a syncretism, that consist in the act of amalgamating, of blending functional parts, an analysis of the functions and of the structure of the objects, and a synthesis acting as a multifunctional combination of the structures’ (160).
Indeed, the syncretic phase can be described as the act of putting together elements that may lack functional and structural separation, and whose defective assembly makes the object impossible to be industrialised and difficult to automatize. In order to overcome the drawbacks of the initial configuration of the machine, to improve its effects, and/or to produce a new effect, the device must go through an analytic phase, in which the functions of the object are considered separately, and their functions dissociated. This leads to a reshuffle of structures and functions (147) that can be performed also to solve problems belonging to the internal milieu of the object. Problems of this sort can be risen by the fact that one of the components has been transformed by evolution, and because ‘The introduction of a new element affects the way of being of the totality, but must conform to the new laws of the totality resulting’ (105).
Leaving behind ‘a new arrangement of objects or the production of a movement that wasn’t existing before’ (131), the solution of a problem trough instrumental mediation brings about something new, qualifying as a not completely reversible activity that entails a genuine progress.
Theoretical problems or obstacles that cannot be solved by resorting to a material basis to manipulate can be approached through a different “strategy”, that involves the use of symbols.
Very interestingly, part of Invention et créativité is dedicated to the consideration of the process of invention in Greek philosophy. In Simondon’s view, the monism of the primordial element selected by Thales, Anaximander and Anaximenes represents the syncretic phase of the early western philosophical invention, whilst the dualistic doctrine of Plato assumes the character of an analytic phase. The synthetic moment of invention in Greek philosophy is instead represented by Aristotle’s philosophy, who, in Simondon’s view, ‘replaced the Platonic opposition between the Idea and the object with the asymmetrical coupling of form and matter, which constitutes the whole universe’ (201). According to the author then, it is possible to apply these schemes to the rest of the history of philosophy, parsing it in a dialectic taxonomy that echoes the Hegelian one.
Even more interesting than this classificatory exercise, however, is the fact that philosophy is considered as ‘a mode of thought capable of real inventions, in the manner of technical thought’ (203), and therefore essentially as a way to solve problems. This definition of the nature of philosophy can be shared or not: what is perhaps more important, is to consider it in relation to what Simondon omits. Among all the possible strategies considered by the author, in fact, solving problems through the creation of new problems has been remarkably left out. Thinking of hungry rats and mazes, for example, makes evident that all sorts of traps have been designed to solve the problem of infestation through the production of a new problem, a very difficult one to solve for the rat.
The nature of these kinds of solutions, that at the same time are also problems, forces us to re-consider Simondon’s conception of philosophy: the idea that the discipline is an inventive one is definitely acceptable, even though the condition of this invention should be debated, but the qualification of philosophy as a problem-solving technique can be quite limiting.
Unlike Simondon, Gilles Deleuze was well aware of this issue: he believed that philosophy is the art of fabricating concepts, but also that these can be created only as ‘a function of problems’ (1991, 2). According to Deleuze, problems are not simply found, they have to be posed, and raised in order to allow the invention of concepts. From this point of view, the creation of problems assumes a certain kind of primacy over their solution. This conception is explicit in a passage of Deleuze’s Bergsonism (1988), in which the philosopher quotes Bergson’s La Pensée et le Mouvant (1934), and with which is probably appropriate to conclude this review of La Résolution des Problèmes:
True Freedom lies in a power to decide, to constitute problems themselves. And this “semi-divine” power entails the disappearance of false problems as much as the creative upsurge of true ones. “The truth is that in philosophy and even elsewhere it is a question of finding the problem and consequently of positing it, even more than of solving it … its solution may remain hidden and, so to speak, covered up; The only thing left to do is to uncover it. But stating the problem is not simply uncovering, it is inventing (1988, 15).
 First part of the major theses, later published in its entirety as L’individuation à la Lumière des Notions de Forme et d’Iinformation (1989).