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 ( 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.