Notes on Muriel Combes’ ‘Gilbert Simondon and the Philosophy of the Transindividual’

My last post was a translation of a piece by Erik Bordeleau introducing the work of Bernard Aspe. Aspe draws critically on Simondon’s work, in particular his concepts of collective individuation and the transindividual. For Aspe, these concepts provide useful insights into the affective dimension of collective life, especially in the context of revolutionary political collectives. In my post prior to that I discussed the self and what I consider to be its problematic status as ‘real’, which nonetheless leaves me insisting on its important place in political struggle. More specifically, I attempted to articulate the inherent vulnerability of the self to capture by external forces, such as capitalism for example (e.g. as described in Isabelle Stengers’ Capitalist Sorcery). Simondon’s work seems to provide a productive framework for grasping the relation between the individual and the collective. Simondon calls this the transindividual; that which circulates through the collective, binding it together and characterising the quality of the collective individuation (and, therefore, what the collective becomes capable of). This seems like a productive line of thought for those engaged in such collectives and so in this post I will explore Simondon’s ideas in more depth via Muriel Combes’ treatment of his work in Gilbert Simondon and the Philosophy of the Transindividual.

Rather than beginning with ontology, Simondon focuses on ontogenesis: the process through which things come into being, or become. The process of becoming is referred to as individuation since it entails the becoming of an individual from something fundamentally prior to it, yet exceeding it. Simondon calls this field of origin the preindividual. The preindividual operates as a field of potentials full of tensions, something like the virtual in Deleuze. Individuation then entails a certain operation of drawing from the preindividual, the individual constituting itself from a particular folding of the tensions that characterise it. Combes notes that “The emergence of an individual within preindividual being should be conceived in terms of the resolution of a tension between potentials belonging to previously separated orders of magnitude” (p.4). A plant, for example can be understood as mediating – or resolving the tension – between the cosmic order of light and the mineral order of its elemental components, from which it also composes itself. Combes continues: ” … we may consider individuals as beings that come into existence as so many partial solutions to so many problems of incompatibility between separate levels of being.” (p.4)

Importantly, individuation does not only give rise to the individual but also its milieu, which exists on the same level of being as the individual and without which it cannot exist. The milieu exists not so much as the ‘environment’ in general but the specific relational field required for the continued existence of the individuating individual. Equally important is the notion that the pre-individual is in no way exhausted by the individual but rather always exceeds it, holding open further potential for different trajectories of becoming.

Individuation occurs through a process that Simondon calls transduction:

“… a physical, biological, mental, or social operation, through which an activity propagates from point to point within a domain, while grounding this propagation in the structuration of the domain, which is operated from place to place: each region of the constituted structure serves as a principle of constitution for the next region” (IG, 30; IL, 32).” (p.6)

That an individual results from transduction, implies that it is constituted through relations. Indeed, according to Simondon, the relation is real (it is not something that exists in the mind of a subject apprehending an object) and it is this reality of the relation that makes the individuated/individuating being real: “individuals consist in relations, and as a consequence, relation has the status of being and constitutes being.” (p.21)

As noted, individuation operates across domains, each with its own distinct type of milieu. While physical, biological or psychic individuation may all share a common mechanism of transduction from the pre-individual field, the individuations to which they give rise have their own distinctive qualities and require/produce their own distinctive milieus. But how can we account for these different domains?

“What differentiates two domains [...] lies in the individuation giving birth to the individuals populating each domain. What does this mean? It means that we must conceive of biological individuation not as something that adds determinations to an already physically individuated being, but as a slowing down of physical individuation, as a bifurcation that operates prior to the physical level proper.” (p.22)

In this sense individuation can be thought of as proceeding along multiple dimensions simultaneously, resulting in multiple, related yet distinct individuations, each associated with a different domain (or mode of existence).

“What divides being into domains is ultimately nothing other than the rhythm of becoming, sometimes speeding through stages, sometimes slowing to resume individuation at the very beginning.” (p.23)

It is this slowing down, then, that opens up the possibility of creating new trajectories of becoming since ‘the very beginning’ is to tap into the preindividual and its innumerable potentials.

While the physical domain serves as a paradigmatic case for thinking individuation and the pre-individual, radical differences exist across domains. For example, according to Combes, Simondon identified a critical distinction between physical beings and living beings in that whereas the former possess no interiority (their milieu is entirely external), the latter do (they have both an external and internal milieu). This internal milieu means that there is a flow of the pre-individual that permits a second and continuous individuation, which is the individuation of life itself.

“In addition to an exterior milieu, living beings possess an interior milieu, such that their existence appears as a perpetual putting into relation of the interior milieu and the exterior milieu, which relation the individual operates within itself.” (p.23)

But if all individuals are composed of other individuations/individuals, then how can one distinguish between an individual and the society to which it belongs? Simondon uses the example of the relation of an ant its colony to explore this. Is the ant an individual or an organ? For Simondon the answer lies in the capacity of the biological being to separate itself and produce new individuations beyond the group in which it originated. It is the existing-between groups that gives the individual its individuality.

We find ourselves, then, with an individuation that arises at the point where being must bridge two orders of magnitude. But it is first and foremost a relation that makes possible the emergence of a structure and the operation that produces it: transduction. But in terms of the pre-individual, becoming can follow numerous paths or directions, corresponding to different domains. This includes the individuation of physico-biological individuals and the individuation of societies or collectives of these individuals. With this conceptual framework now hopefully somewhat clearer, the question of collective individuation and the transindividual can be better grasped.

For Simondon psychic and collective individuation must be grasped as a unified, yet internally differentiated process, characterised by a reciprocity between the two. To grasp this, however, psychic individuation can be considered as internal to the individual, whereas collective individuation is external. However, the emergence and becoming of the psyche cannot be separated from the becoming of collectives that the individual participates in and constitutes. The way this functions, according to Simondon, is that psychic individuation, unlike biological individuation for example, does not give rise to a psychic individual. Rather, “psyche is made of successive individuations allowing for the being to resolve problematic states corresponding to the permanent putting into communication of what is larger than it with what is smaller than it” (IPC, 22; IL 31).” (p.27). In effect, there is “not properly speaking a psychic individuation but an individualisation of the living being giving birth to the somatic and the psychic. (IPC 134; IL 268)” (p.27). The psyche does not constitute a substance but rather contributes to the ongoing individuation of the biological individual. It effectively mediates between a ‘self’ (biological individual) and the outside world of the collective. Its mode of existence is that of a relation existing between these two levels and is “operated through affectivity and emotivity.”

The psyche is what allows the mediation between the physico-biological individual and the collective. However it never results in its own individuation (such as with the physico-biological individual); it never becomes its own constituted reality:

 

“it is not relation to self that comes first and makes the collective possi­ble, but relation to what, in the self, surpasses the individual, communicat­ing without mediation with a nonindividual share in the other. What gives consistency to relation to self, what gives consistency to the psychological dimension of the individual, is something in the individual surpassing the individual, turning it toward the collective; what is real in the psychological is transindividual.” (p.64)

Thus, while psyche is real, it cannot be understood as object-like – at not least in the common scientific sense. As Combes notes, the result of this is a distancing from traditional conceptions of psychology, which take consciousness and the unconscious as more or less the substances of the psyche and, indeed, individuality. Rather, for Simondon, individuality subsists subconsciously and is, therefore, first and foremost affective rather than ‘conscious’.

Affectivity essentially concerns the capacity of a body to affect and be affected by others. Unlike perception which can be relatively unproblematically experienced as individualised, affect always seems to exceed the individual and is experienced as more-than-individual, as something that must flow or circulate between individuals. And yet affectivity serves as:

“the relational layer constituting the center of individuality,  [it] arises in us as a liaison between the relation of the individual to itself and its relation to the world. As such, it is primarily in the form of a tension that this rela­tion to self is effectuated [...] Affectivity includes a relation between the individu­ated being and a share of not-yet-individuated preindividual reality that any individual carries with it: affective life, as “relation to self,” is thus a relation to what, in the self, is not of the order of the individual. Affective life thus shows us that we are not only individuals, that our being is not reducible to our individuated being.” 

[...]

“… if the problem of the individual as such is that of perceptual worlds, “the problem of the subject is that of the heterogeneity between perceptual worlds and the affective world, between the individual and the preindividual” (p.31).

According to Simondon, there are two ways that the subject can attempt to resolve this tension. One, he calls anxiety; the other, the transindividual. Anxiety results from the individual attempting “to resolve the experience of tension between pre-individual and indi­viduated within itself; an attempt to individuate all of the pre-individual at once, as if to live it fully.” Such a resolution, however, is impossible and can only result in failure. This failure results in anxiety; an affective state that undoes the self and leaves it that way, unable to activate new becomings.

It is the transindividual relation – the relation that constitutes a collective – that provides an alternative means of resolving the tension:

“the subject can truly resolve the tension characterizing it only within the collective; the subject is a being tensed toward the collective, and its reality is that of a “transitory way.” (p.32)

And yet, the transindividual is not given. It too must somehow become. Simondon locates this becoming of the transindividual, somewhat paradoxically, in solitude. This solitude must be sought out by the individual and is experienced as an ordeal. Indeed, for Simondon, solitude arises as a result of an ‘exceptional event’ that triggers a withdrawal from the inter-individual relations that characterise society, with its established positions, roles and functions. Typically, these inter-individual relations obstruct the subject’s ability to relate to the preindividual within it, thereby closing off the possibility of novel becomings. Withdrawal from these relations makes possible a certain relation with the preindividual such that solitude is also an engagement with a dense field of potential, of relations. Rather than seeking the resolution of the self in the preindividual, the ordeal of solitude involves tapping into the preindividual to surpass the individual through an external relation. It is in this sense that solitude is the milieu of the transindividual’s becoming. In this sense, solitude is at once disindividuating (because it loosens the hold of constituted individuality) and holds open the potential of a new or different individuation.

The transindividual could be said to occuppy a dual nature as both subjective and objective. The subjective transindividual is fundamentally linked to the becoming – or rather the individualisation of – the psyche. The psyche can only emerge in relation to the collective. However, according to Simondon, the collective exists within the individual as the preindividual, and constitutes a condition for the ability of the subject to relate to itself. Combes explains this thus:

“when we say that the collective is, in a sense, already in subjects, we are adopting the “energetic” point of view on the mode of potentials [from Tarde, signifying that novelty is produced by the unleashing of that which passes through the individual, modifying it too, rather than being created by (i.e. of) the individual] that may drive individuation of the social field; we should thus think of novelty in terms of collective-in-becoming or (be)coming-collective, and not, especially not, in terms of a preformed structural germ.” (p.76)

As a result of the transindividual, Simondon departs significantly from the prevailing psychology and sociology of his time, as well as the recurrent question of the relation between the individual (the object of psychology) and society (the object of sociology). While, on the one hand, Simondon’s version of the psyche is not an object, society – as constituted whole – leaves does not account for the Simondonian collective. The relation between the individual and society, then, emerges as a problem that must, to begin with, traverse the collective.

Although the individual clearly engages in sociality, this comes in two forms. The first, can be understood in terms of species characteristics – i.e. the responses of beings of a particular species to the challenges of survival and existence. These are biological, biosocial and inter-individual and do not leave space for new types of individuation. The second is transindividual and is concerned with relations that are not governed by species characteristics, the background of inter-individual relations that usually remain unquestioned. Rather it demands what, according to Simondon, is a ‘properly human’ individuation, that makes a new becoming possible. The human here is not defined in opposition to animal, but rather to that element of sociality in humans that can be reduced to species characteristics and which, in this sense, lacks novelty. Simondon’s argument is that this can only happen through the individuation of collectives.

The psyche then takes on a consistency within and through collectives. As the collective individuates, the individuals within the collective do too. While these are distinct individuations they are related by the transindividual, in the sense that the individuation of individuals is marked by the collective: they become, in a crucial sense, ‘group individuals’. At the same time, the individuation of the collective – i.e. its own ontogenesis – operates by “utilizing the potentials carried by preindidvidual reality contained within the individuated beings” (IPC, 211; IL, 313-314) (p.47). Rather than being the creation of the individuals that constitute it, the collective itself crystallises by drawing from the preindividual that exists in and exceeds the individuals that constitute its own preindividual field, the milieu that nourishes its own becoming. Thus the collective is said to exist physicos (as the preindividual, as nature), not as logikos (as posited relation in the mind).

Finally, the collective can be said to exist “to the extent that emotion is structured [...] across many subjects, as structuration of such emotion.” (p.51). This structuration of emotion is a concept I will return to in subsequent posts looking at some of the work of Erin Manning, who also draws on Simondon’s work, particularly in relation to the concept of affective attunement. I will also return to these notes on Simondon in relation to subsequent posts on Latour’s AIME.

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The Transindividual and the Demonic according to Bernard Aspe

This post is a translation of Erik Bordeleau’s ‘The Transindividual and the Demonic according to Bernard Aspe’i. Erik Bordelau is a postdoctoral researcher at the Free University of Brussels. We met at Gestes Spéculatifs (a colloquium with Stengers, Latour, Harraway and others) in France last year and discovered some strong political and philosophical resonances.  I posted a translation of his presentation from Gestes Spéculatifs entitled ‘Dreaming the dark: Speculative presence and the politics of contraction ‘ several months ago on this blog – worth checking out again if you haven’t seen it already. You can also find various articles by him on his Academia.edu page (here), including an English translation of an interview by him with Bernard Aspe (here). For me, the translation process has presented a welcome opportunity to be introduced to the work of Bernard Aspe as well as Simondon’s work beyond ‘On the mode of existence of technical objects’.

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The Transindividual and the Demonic according to Bernard Aspe

A revolutionary war against the modern metropolitan state can only be fought in hell.
Nick Land

What appeared as politics and imagined itself to be so, will reveal itself a religious movement
Søren Kierkegaard

Bernard Aspe, so far relatively unknown in the English speaking world, is one of the most interesting emerging figures in contemporary French political philosophy. Born in 1970 and agrégé in philosophy, he is the author of L’instant d’après: projectiles pour une politique à l’état naissantii(La Fabrique, 2006) and Les mots et les actesiii (Nous, 2011), and collaborated in various publications such as Alice, Persistances, Chimères et Multitudes. He is part of the group Collectif pour l’Intervention, to whom we owe Communisme: un manifeste (Nous, 2012), a proposal for the renewal of forms of struggle and revolutionary political organization which echos l’Appeliv(‘The Call’), an anonymous text of Tiqqunian inspiration from 2003 which has had a significant impact in militant milieus. More recently, he published a collection of articles called Horizon Inverse (Nous, 2013) and Simondon, politique du transindividuel (Dittmar 2013), which constitutes a reworked version of his doctoral thesis conducted under the direction of Jacques Rancière and defended in 2001 before a prestigious jury composed of Alain Badiou, Etienne Balibar and Isabelle Stengers.

The work of Bernard Aspe is characterised by the acuity of his theoretical positions and the remarkable coherence of the ensemble. It is founded on the idea of individuation and the transindividual (of Simondonian inspiration), but resists all solutions based on philosophical continuity and affirms the irreducibility of political subjectivations to speculative thought and ontology. Aspe elaborates this constitutive distinction through the works of Foucault, Badiou, Marx, Rancière and, most of all, on the spiritual side, Kierkegaard. One finds a first expression, no doubt too schematic but illuminating nonetheless, of his programme of thought in the first pages of his thesis:

“Ontology is not up to the task of providing a complete account of what is contained in the idea of a politics of truth. It is a dimension that the philosophical point of view, characterised by the real inclusion of the subjective in the effectiveness of thought, cannot confront directly. Once this dimension is forgotten, idealism appears, that is, a perspective capable of resolving the sole point of view of the thinking subject, to which what is known as ‘political philosophy’ has held. [There is] a necessity in order to think politics, to think the ‘presupposed real’ (Marx) in its concreteness and to envisage the acts that it requires.”v (emphasis added)

Aspe takes as a point of departure for his analysis the fact that philosophy and politics’ subjective modes of implication differ essentially from one another. In contrast with the pragmatist and speculative turn found in contemporary French thought under the influence of Bruno Latour and Isabelle Stengers, or else with the ‘monadological jubilation’ (which he doesn’t miss stigmatising amongst certain Deleuzians), Bernard Aspe’s approach is characterised by a certain sense of the tragic, employing himself in “marking the heterogeneity of saying and doing” and “grappling with [faire l’épreuve de] the gulf that separates them”vi. His thought is entirely strung upon this primordial question: what is a political act? Paraphrasing Wittgenstein, and in opposition to what he considers the “philosophical temptation” of the speculative, Aspe would say: “How is the path from saying to existing made: this does not tell itself, it shows itself; we cannot theorise this passage”vii.

This “mystic” tension – in the Wittgensteinian sense of that which arises and can be shown only on the indirect mode of example and affinity – animates political subjectivations and assures their inscription in the real. All the works of Aspe tend, thus, to demonstrate a spiritual component inherent to the modes of subjective implication which define collective militant engagement. Critically, his thinking portrays, with admirable clarity and confidence, the way in which collectives – those “groups in fusion” as Sartre called themviii – place their stakes intensely and irreversibly, risking themselves on the “infernal” threshold of what Aspe, following Kierkegaard, calls the ‘demonic’. Transindividual experience is what allows life to gain amplitude; the incandescent intimacy gives affective and effective consistency to collectives, and particularly those revolutionary collectives which are “sincerely ready to put the world on fire so that it shines brighter.” Nothing can a priori protect such groups from the danger of self-combustion in the intensity of a present with no return, as captured in the tragic Latin palindrome celebrated by Guy Debord: In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni (we turn around in the night and are devoured by the fire).

Communist incorporation
For Aspe, Communism constitutes itself as a political option in as much as it operates as a “subjectivating scission” whose associated partiality is the guarantee of its effectiveness. “We must relearn to hate”
ix, he writes with great caution, in order to establish [instaurer] a dividing line that simultaneously binds the community and differentiates the adversaries.  Against the disarticulated subject of the economy, neutralised in larval scepticism and reduced to being “nothing other than one’s own trajectory“, the political subject makes the choice of incarnating a truth on the basis of which he is able to constitute himself collectively and “effectuate the work that connects thought and existence”x. In this, Aspe shows himself loyal to the Badiousian conception of political incorporation. For the latter, in effect, the authentic revolutionary subject is the one who realises this imaginary operation by means of which the truth of communism integrates itself with the individual and becomes a subjective “body of truth”. This militant conception of truth, modelled on the Paulinian profession of Christian faith that Badiou takes as a model, demands to be declared on a mode that is at once public and performative. Thus, for Aspe as for Badiou, political revolutionary subjects “litteralise discourses of truth by inscribing them in the world through their acts.”xi

Meanwhile, and differently from Badiou, Aspe envisages this decisional and rather voluntarist element of political subjectivation in close relation with what he calls, following Simondon, the transindividual experience. We can define the transindividual in a number of ways. Primarily, for Aspe, the transindividual is that from which flows the possibility of a full and accomplished life, a life that is worthwhile. It is in this sense that Aspe says: “there are not atomised individuals, but mutilated transindividual consistencies.”xii On a more technical level, the transindividual concerns the affective-emotional dimension of the process of collective individuation. In her influential work, Simondon, individu et collectivité: pour une philosophie du transindividuel, Muriel Combes – who not only shared her life with Aspe for several years but also a common basis of thought – defines the transindividual as the intimacy of the common thus:

“intimacy arises less from a private sphere than from an impersonal affective life, which is immediately in common [...] The transindividual ultimately refers just to that: an impersonal zone of subjects that is simultaneously a molecular or intimate dimension of the collective itself.xiii

In this impersonal and pre-individual affective dimension, emotion serves as a force of individuation. Emotion unifies and polarises diffuse affectivity; it converts affective plurality in a unity that operates a signification. In this sense, it is emotion which, in Simondon’s eyes, constitutes the veritable foyer of transindividual experience, in that it coincides with the effective structuration of a collective. Conversely, the collective is necessary for emotion to actualise itself and resolves itself with action: “For there to be a resonance of action and emotion, there must also be a superior individuation that encompasses them: this individuation is that of the collective.”xiv Surprisingly, Simondon calls this transductive relationship between action and emotion “spiritual unity.” And it is thus, as Aspe observes it, that for Simondon “spirituality and the instauration of a collective appear as two aspects of the same process,”xv transindividual emotion incorporating itself in the learning and transmission of gestures that fabricate forms of life.xvi

Incandescence or the good usage of the negativity-that-consumes
Aspe’s interest in the question of the transindividual is rooted in a profound concern for the challenges and obstacles that are faced by collectives trying to constitute themselves as political forces. The Simondonian frame is supple and dynamic; it sensitises us to the impersonal and pre-individual dimension of collective life and, moreover, enables us to collectively incorporate the unassignable affects of the various agents of
metamorphosis that transit between individuals. But, and this is an element that a number of commentators on Simondon have the tendency to pass over too quickly, it equally permits us to think the subjective necessity of closure and the production of a common interiority (Simondon speaks of “group of interiority”) in which the link between action and emotion operates effectively – “the effectiveness of a divide that assumes the existence of a real inseparation between a number of beings.”xvii

It is in Aspe’s affirmation of the reality of relations and the radical contingency of any political leap that the tragic inflection of his thought is most poignant, finding its fullest expression in his most recent work Horizon inverse. Allergic to the “subjectivities sunken in the comfort of multi-relational solipsism”xviii, Aspe revitalises the work of dialectics in order to better expose us to the “possibility of the abyss”. He asks, following René Char, how revolutionary politics can muster up poetry in its task of “expanding the blood of gestures”. It is unsurprising, then, that his dramatisation of political existence ends up in the domain of theology where the questions of freedom and radical evil are posed with the greatest intensity. It is here that, following Jacob Taubes, but also Marx, he interrogates the manner of linking forces of interiority (religion) and exteriority (politics). For as with Simondon, access to the presence of the transindividual relation is understood as being intimately linked to crossing the threshold of anxiety and solitude, to the point of identifying religion as the privileged domain of the transindividualxix.

If, therefore, the confrontation with the religious option is so crucial for Aspe, it is primarily because he is not content with thinking communist politics as a simple redistribution of riches. Rather, it is bound to the criteria of the transindividual, and thinks political life as the carrier of a promise of happiness. The process of politicisation is thus conceived as a leap of secularised faith. It is in this enlarged theological context that the question is posed, for Aspe, of what I have earlier called the incandescent intimacy of revolutionary political collectives; an intimacy which activates the potentially destructive force of their charge of negation and which, when they turn themselves away from the dramas of private interiority, drives them to give way to sensual immediacy and “the enthusiasm of revolting crowds”xx. Marx described this revolutionary process as a manner of turning the flame of religious fervour toward the outside in order to consume that which, though of this world, deserves to be destined to destruction. To this characterisation of the revolutionary force as a “spark of spirituality that the bourgeois world is unable to put out”, is opposed Kierkegaard’s analysis, for whom “the force of communism is visibly the ingredient of religiosity and even Christian religiosity”, while it presents itself in the opposite manner, which is to say, contained in a “demonic” mannerxxi. In the last instance, Kierkegaard sees in the revolutionary adventure an escape before the trial of solitude and interiority, a movement of revolt that misrecognises the religious nature of its being-against and betrays its latent hopelessness. Whichever way we look at it, the politicisation of the suffering of being-in-the-world – founded on the passion for totalisation and related to an ultimate political antagonism – cannot escape from the spiritual question of how to make the best use of the negativity-that-consumes.

* * *

I return here to the question left in suspense: does something like a transindividual collective really exist? The structural inconsistency of collectives, no doubt, has psychological, or rather subjective, reasons. They condense in what we could call the desire for deception, the need to be disappointed and to assure that our initial mistrust had its reasons; in the anticipated nostalgia of what would have been important ‘despite everything’ in such and such experience (which is to say in that which is reduced to being nothing but ‘experience’); in the jouissance which finds itself in the fact of knowing too well the limits of some other people, and of being able to foresee their errors; in the jouissance, as well, of undoing what we had constructed ourselves; in brief, in what Kierkegaard called “the demonic”, the anxiety one faces before the good. What the demonic refuses, is what it foresees as being able to give it a good that is too great, something that would oblige it to stretch its limits, to live more fully, be more full of life, and, for the same reason, be more exposed. We have been educated to want to always return to familiar structures that have already been explored, already known (even if of a knowledge that is unknown). But, the return to structures is the return to the already individuated, to the ‘purely’ individuated – and as Simondon says, the only ‘pure’ individual is death.

Anxiety in the face of ‘the good’ is, thus, nothing more than the anxiety in the face of freedom. “The demonic does not enclose itself with something. It encloses itself alone. And it is here, in the depths of existence, that non-freedom makes itself prisoner.” (The concept of anxiety and other texts, Paris Gallimard, “TEL”, 1990). The demonic wants to redouble non-freedom, as if to guarantee that no escape will be possible – that one wouldn’t even consider hoping for it. If freedom is what expands, the demonic is what, in us, desires the return to narrowness and the locking down in this narrowness. This is not to be confused with folding back on individuality: it can just as well experiment – and it is generally the case – in the very centre of collectives, so long as the transindividual relation no longer transits or transits all too rarely.

The challenge is on for revolutionary collectives – which is to say those that would be prepared to risk themselves to take up anew that word ‘revolution’ so often destined for disuse – to find the way to struggle against the demonic.”xxii

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Endnotes

i A shortened version of this text was published in Spirale, N.54, Montréal, printemps 2014.

ii Translates as: The instant After: projectiles for a politics of the nascent state.

iii Translates as: The Words and The Acts.

iv The text is available at the following address: http://www.bloom0101.org.

v Bernard Aspe, Simondon, politique du transindividuel, Éditions Dittmar, Paris, 2013, p.25.

vi Bernard Aspe, Les mots et les actes, Nous, Caen, 2012, p.17. Or on a more technical mode: “It has been a question of considering speculative thought as that with which a distance must be marked in order to adequately carve out the dimension of the act.” p.181

vii Érik Bordeleau, « Le temps de l’œuvre, le temps de l’acte : entretien avec Bernard Aspe », Inflexions N.5, available at: http://www.inflexions.org/n5_t_Aspe%20Bordeleau.pdf

viii “Struggle requires new agents to arise with hitherto unknown powers. In Sartrian logic, it can only be a matter of individual acquiring a different status: Sartre calls those actors capable of tearing men out of the hell of inertia and to hold, if not to exorcise, evil, groups in fusion.” Bertrand St-Sernin “Pouvoir et figures du mal chez Sartre”, 1983, available at: http://1libertaire.free.fr/SartrePouvoirMorale.html

ix Bernard Aspe, « Notre part de violence », Grumeaux, N.3, Nous, Caen, Novembre 2012.

x Les mots et les actes, p.76, 44.

xi Bernard Aspe, “Notre part de violence”. “What have the contemporary thinkers of the revolutionary event discovered really? They discovered, first of all, a new concept of truth: one that does not refer to the necessity, for a subject, to accomplish in the real what has been thought. What has been thought is true only on the condition that it passes from the order of thought to the real.” Bernard Aspe, Horizon inverse, Caen, 2013, p.28.

xii Bernard Aspe, Horizon inverse, p.37.

xiii Muriel Combes, Gilbert Simondon and the Philosophy of the Transindividual translated with preface and afterword by Thomas LaMarre, MIT, Massachusetts, 2013, p.51. The French original Simondon, individu et collectivité : pour une philosophie du transinsdividuel, PUF, Paris, 1999, is available at:
http://www.cip-idf.org/article.php3?id_article=4433

xiv Gilbert Simondon, L’individuation psychique et collective, Aubier, Paris, 2007, p.108.

xv Simondon, politique du transindividuel, p.208.

xvi “All forms of life define themselves through the ensemble of gestures, corporeal or incorporeal, that animate them. In this sense, all forms of life are transindividual; they are, so to say, the mark of transindividuality in each of us.” Bernard Aspe, Horizon inverse, Nous, Caen, 2013, p.29

xvii Bernard Aspe,Horizon inverse, p.20.

xviii Bernard Aspe, Horizon inverse, p.55. “The spontaneous ontology of the contemporary human, in the most modern societies, is an ontology of singularities. We accept to mourn the old ‘Me’, but on condition that there is nothing else besides trajectories, comparable to monads that would consist of nothing but their unfolded selves, with no internality.”

xix “The true transindividual relation only begins beyond solitude; it is constituted by the individual who has put him/herself in question, and not by the convergent sum of inter-individual relations” Gilbert Simondon, L’individuation psychique et collective, p. 154-155.

xx Bernard Aspe, Horizon inverse, p. 28.

xxi Bernard Aspe, Horizon inverse, p.26, 25.

xxii Bernard Aspe, « Notre part de violence ».

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The being that says “I”


Everything that attaches me to the world, all the links that constitute me, all the forces that compose me don’t form an identity, a thing displayable on cue, but a singular, shared, living existence, from which emerges – at certain times and places – that being which says “I.”

The Coming Insurrection

For those who aren’t regular readers of Steven Hickman’s Noir Realism, he’s been prolifically posting terrifying accounts of what the latest in neuro-science, neuro-technology and neuro-capitalism mean for the future of life as we know it. As I read these posts, I oscillate between fascination, horror, outrage and frustration. But for now I want to focus on just one of the many themes that keeps gnawing away at me. I’m referring here to the brain versus mind debate and, in particular, the idea that neuro-science shows that the Self is an illusion. While I don’t exactly disagree with this, I feel that the disclaimer to this – I.e. the defence of the self – is critical for a radical politics.

Just to be clear, Noir mentions in a comment that “The point of this exercise is not that the Self doesn’t exist, it just no longer exists as many in philosophy or religion might think.” He is referring to a conception of self that is grounded in metaphysics, linked perhaps with idea of a soul, or perhaps a hermetically sealed, autonomous ‘I’. Although Noir and I have our differences – (for example, I don’t feel the same contempt for the idea of a soul as he seems to) – I think we’re generally on fairly common ground.

But what irks me about neuroscience are snappy phrases such as “we are our brains” (the title of a book on neuro-science that Noir discusses in a post of the same title, see the link) that serve to debunk the idea of an ‘I’ that cannot be reduced to a load of neuronal activity, giving the impression that brains are the be-all and end-all of ‘our’ existence. Doesn’t neuro-science run the risk – or fall into the (pop-science) temptation – of claiming to answer more than it is entitled to? ‘I’ can’t say what ‘I’ think because there is no ‘I’ to do the thinking. There is, rather, just a brain chugging along doing the real stuff while this illusory ‘I’ just clouds over the neurological happenings that actually matter. Of course, it is widely recognised these days that much (if not all) of what goes on in the brain happens unconsciously – and more to the point free from the interference of intention (again, an illusion). Experiments, for example, have demonstrated that ‘decisions’ are ‘taken’ before they even register in consciousness. The unsettling (or even frightening) conclusion, particularly for those who want to change the world for the better, is that ‘I’, and so ‘we’, have no agency because, basically, there is no ‘I’!

Now, of course, this sounds a bit radical, as though we have been wrong about ourselves all along. But is it really? And does it present itself as more significant than it really is? And why do I think it is important to reclaim the ‘I’ and the ‘Self’ even if it is in a somewhat new image? In my view ‘I’ is first and foremost a term that emerges and obtains significance through relationships between sensing, communicating and acting fleshy beings ensconced in a world. These are, invariably, beings with bodies and brains. The ‘I’ demarcates a territory, a network of significant – lived and real – attachments (between the brain, the body and the world) and are experienced affectively. An ‘I’ cannot come into existence in isolation. Rather it is through the reciprocal gesturing between embodied beings that the neuronal configuration that produces and distinguishes ‘I’ and ‘not I’ arises to begin with. If this de-centres the notion of agency as welling up uniquely from the depths of ‘the subject’, understood as cut-off, autonomous, wholly independent, then so much the better. However, if it means dismissing the subject altogether then I’m not so sure.

As humans we come into being and develop or acquire our capacities through our interactions with others. What we tend to think of as ours, we invariably get from elsewhere and typically, for all but our most basic functions, we rely fundamentally on others for achieving anything. We are also caught up, entangled, in complex social formations and infrastructures that steer us unwittingly through so much of our lives. While all this points to the non-individuality (or the pre-individuality or more-than-individuality) of ourselves, the notion that there is no “I” capable of intentional action is hard to swallow. Is this nostalgia and resistance to ‘science’ or is there more to it?

Why do we separate out the illusion of consciousness and selfhood from what is neuronal, material and real? Isn’t it all real? Isn’t there something more going on here? After all, can we not cultivate new patterns of thought? Yes, we rely on all kinds of external supports and crutches for thought and action – especially when it comes to changing hard-wired habits – but perhaps the ability to harness our capacity for thought, for disrupting subconscious routines, and creating a situation in which something else – call it intentionality – intervenes, is something that, perhaps, we can and must learn to cultivate.

As I see it, with the introduction of what Latour calls psychogenic beings (see AIME, p.186), we can grasp that there are forces from without that we humans can become receptive to, and be affected or transformed by. But clearly this hinges on the existence of some kind of ‘I’ or ‘we’ that can be affected. Is this ‘I’ or ‘we’ just the brain? Or is this ‘I’ something more obscure that somehow bridges the brain and the social world in ways that make a real difference. Having our psyche (or ‘soul’, the terms are pretty much interchangeable for Latour) metamorphosed by our encounter with psychogenic beings transforms our affective dispositions, tunes us differently to the world and primes us for different modes of apprehending and participating in reality. The real illusion that frightens me is the one that places what Latour (see here for example) calls second nature – I.e. the laws of the economy (i.e. capitalism) – above first nature – the physical, chemical, biological reality that constitutes our fragile planet. I’m interested in how we attune to injustice and to ecocide, how we make ourselves hesitate and disrupt our pre-conscious routines just enough to be touched by the world in ways that change our relationship with it and each other; that make us more caring, more courageous and more lucid; more equipped to act politically and decisively in favour of a world in which life is not merely a raw material for capital hungry psychopaths.

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My addition to the discussion on ontological pluralism

Well I’m not sure what it adds but somehow reading through the various views on ontological pluralism I found myself compelled to add my own pontifications. Ontological pluralism has been doing the rounds quite a bit on some of the blogs I like these last few weeks, arguably, it seems to me, in the wake of Latour’s AIME. Some of the key links that I have seen are here (Jeremy Trombley), here (Levi Bryant) and here (Adam Robbert) – though if you visit these pages, I’m sure you’ll find they have more to say and will offer links to plenty more worthwhile contributions. Though the horse has probably been flogged beyond its death, as someone who has read AIME and, perhaps equally importantly, Stengers 2006  book ‘La vierge et le neutrino’ (The Virgin and the Neutrino, which really ought to be translated into English!), I feel compelled to share my take on it all.

Firstly, ontological pluralism is clearly not the idea that different cultures have different ontological beliefs. That is simply a description of how different cultures perceive or comprehend the world. Ontological pluralism is the idea that there is more than one type of entity that is real – i.e. that there are different ways of being real and that none is more real than any other. As such, ontological pluralism is pretty much opposed to physicalism or materialism or any other such monist ontology that denies the reality of those entities that cannot meet the criteria of the particular monism in question. Passionate appeals to ‘science’ as the ultimate test of what is real begin to look pretty flaky face here and point at a rather worryingly flawed conception of what science is and what science is capable of.

Clearly scientists cannot make up whatever they want; they are constrained by their obligations to ‘make nature speak’ in a reliable way that can force their competent peers to accept a new interpretation of reality – or, more often, some specific aspect of reality. There is of course, no unified scientific method for proving whether something – regardless of what it is – exists or not. Rather, the specific methods must be constructed in entirely unique ways in order to enable the particular entities in question to register in a manner that can make competent peers, for whom it matters, unable to ignore what has been demonstrated to them.

It is against a unified vision of science that Stengers writes so meticulously in her Cosmopolitics series which take the reader on a journey through the history of the sciences from the invention of mechanics, through thermodynamics to quantum mechanics, dissipative structures, life and psychology. In doing so, Stengers details the fabrication of subtle fictions that are so central to the history and development of scientific practices: fictions like the Carnot cycle that describe ideal systems that reality simply cannot approximate, of frictionless worlds, or worlds where time is reversible… Her aim with this is not to diminish the value of science, or to argue that what goes by the name of science – or rather ‘fact’ – is just a social construct. Not at all. Rather, she takes great pains to highlight precisely the manner in which, amidst all the social activity of humans, non-humans too must be made to intervene in order for scientists to be satisfied with the reliability of what they go on to defend as facts.

But when it comes to the question of what is real, it is hard not to see Stengers’ point, that the sciences too have their limits. Experimental practices might work well for showing that atoms or neutrinos exist (entities whose existence was in question) but are hardly required for tsunamis (we might turn to science to define the cause of a tsunami, but not to ascertain whether it actually occurred or not). Moreover, when humans are made the subject of supposedly scientific experiments, the experiments rapidly break down. Of course, great pains are made to attempt to cancel out the very qualities that make such subjects so particular: i.e. their capacity to question and change their behaviour to defy the experimenters. Behavioural psychology is a case in point. If experimental methods struggle with human subjects how much more would they struggle with those beings that have been relegated to the realm of superstition, what could be called ‘invisibles’, ‘more-than-humans’ or ‘other-than-humans’, beings that feature prominently in many human relationships.

The idea that only that is real which is independent of human mind or culture, is a position that one may take. By doing so one draws a boundary that ascribes reality to certain things and denies it to others. One can claim that this is the truth and that science is the only way to get at it. Personally, I am not so sure. I am interested in what happens when those entities relegated to the Enlightenment’s dustbin are given a place at the table along with atoms and neutrinos. I believe that a well-crafted fiction, woven systematically into the very fabric of social existence, into the words, buildings, artefacts, landscapes that people inhabit are able to obtain an agency and efficaciousness that can no longer be reduced to ‘mere belief’. I don’t think this is always good. But then, I don’t think that it is always bad either. Similarly, I don’t think that what happens in the name of science is always good either. Indeed, I think the judgement of what is good and what is not good is a very different matter altogether. At the end of the day, someone can tell me that a fiction, however well crafted, however efficacious, cannot be real because it does not have its own material, mind and culture independent reality. If that is how that person chooses to define what is real, is it worth me arguing? Ultimately, humans cannot live without fictions. Fictions are a part of what enable us to invent, to imagine, to dream – whether as scientists, as activists or as mundane consumers. We will never be rid of them and I don’t think we should be. Perhaps, instead, we should turn our attention to how we craft our fictions and what their consequences are. To me, they are real enough to warrant that we pay attention to them and fundamental enough to our survival and co-existence that they should be treated with the same respect as quarks, DNA and earthquakes.

Along with Niyamraja, the creator ‘god’ that resides in the mountains, forests and streams defended so valiantly against a massive bauxite mine by the Dongria Khond (a so-called ‘primitive’ tribe from the Indian state of Odisha that I have written about before on this blog and who have probably done more to protect this planet from destruction than most readers of this blog could hope to achieve in a life-time), ‘human rights’ are also a fiction. Just sayin’.

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Changing rhythms

Our lives are lived in rhythms
Distinct
But not severed from each other
Rather weaving
Intertwining
The rhythm of work
The segmentation of life-time
The patterns of relations
And the change they undergo
Dialectical
But not reducible
To the common substrate called matter
Nor the transcendent synthetic unity of the Idea
Rather a proliferation of disjointed becomings
Played along an explosion of dimensions
Proliferating on every scale
At times intensifying
At others shifting key
An irregular beat
And its dance roulette
Rigged – of course -
In favour of the house
A house held together
Not just by bricks and pipes
(Important as these may be)
But by busy hands
And grand ideas
Not only theirs
But ours
That is to say
Yours and mine
And so the way you dance
The rhythm that moves you
Is an expression of the forces at work
Playing out on every scale
On every plane of being
(Or immanent mode of existence)
An unfolding succession
Of bifurcating fragments of reality
Connecting in the passes they make
Now here
Now there
Now like this
Now like that
But always reconfiguring
The terrain
Always forging structures
Out of structures
Always creating assemblages
Relations of reciprocal capture
A cosmic entanglement
Of heterogeneous beings
Including you and I
Caught in a metamorphic battleground
From which there is no escape
The risk and dream
Of forging new alliances
In the midst of ruination
Of working a foothold between the cracks
Of breathing and fighting
And nurturing a possible into existence
And with great trepidation
And meticulous attention
Nudging and tipping the rhythms and the melodies
Guided by the legacy of our creations
Or rather the events that birth them
By the continuous reinvention of our traditions
Of the commitments that constrain us
By our hopes and doubts
Dreams and fears
And by the stubborn brute insistence
Of the world
That we inhabit
Often poorly
With which we may learn at last to commune
Or at least to commune better
To wrest this terrain
And ourselves as part of it
From the destructive clutches
Of the relentless march of Progress
And a history that is already written

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Experience, perception, values and the world: some riffing and stitching

I just watched the video of Alva Noe over at synthetic zero talking about concepts and practical knwoledge after chipping in some thoughts over at Knowledge Ecology’s post on Philosophies of Significance. This inspired me to write a longer response which I finally decided was long enough to deserve me posting it here. These are preliminary thoughts and I’m groping around in the dark too… so here goes… My understanding of Alva Noe’s main point is to demonstrate that what we think of as thinking is essentially just another mode of perception, of access, a skill for grasping presence in any one of countless ways.

Importantly he seeks to demolish the boundary that cordons off thinking and cognition (the domain in which concepts are typically believed to reside) from other modes of understanding: perceptual, practical – as well as the more traditional – judgemental. Key here are the notions of presence and access. That presence, in some sense, is a function of – or equivalent to – access. And that our various senses give us countless ways of grasping what is present – and, furthermore, that each of these ways of grasping the present can be thought of as a particular set of skills or abilities: the way we visually recognise things, how our sense of touch prevails, the way we swim through the water or slip a key into a lock and, of course, think about things.

All these different ways of having access can be understood as different configurations of understanding, of ceaselessly channelling presence in punctuated relay to recipients in whom it evokes diverse sets of responses. These responses – as they somehow cohere and are made present to that (body, entity) which is capable of experience – constitute access, and are made possible by a set of embodied capabilities, running through (in us) skin, and nerves, through our cellular and oozing flesh, the rhythmic contractions of our hearts, our breathing, the tensions in our muscles, the straining of our eyes and the intense exchanges that unfold in our brains, the cocktails of hormones, the flows of electrical impulse, memories, emotions, images, stories, symbols, formulae. Thinking is just another mode of experiencing what is available to experience. In this sense, it is not unlike sight. It does, of course, give us a different mode of accessing what is present and it – to at least some extent – uses different circuits and channels – or parts thereof. But the same goes for touch, skiing, playing the piano or designing a bridge.

While it is clear that we can learn to see in new ways, we must still address the question of how we can learn to see in new ways. In my estimation, it is in the simultaneous deployment of multiple techniques of access – each one a formidable choreography of sensory relay amongst the myriad micro-bodies that compose us and that extend outward beyond us and make up the world (with which are discretely and unevenly and partially-ever-recedingly co-extensive) – coupled (in a state of reciprocally capture) with the very matter that is being accessed, that gives rise to new skills, techniques, technologies or modes of access. And I think valuing and values are integral to the way that this happens.

If values denote significance or importance for some perceiving, experiencing, enacting and embodied being, however dimly we might endow this being with some kind of awareness, then they are clearly at least a factor in the way that the inter- or intra-actions amongst or within entities or assemblages of entities unfold. Perhaps values are biasses in our gropings or ways of reaching out into and apprehending the world; gropings that display a wide array of subtle and not-so-subtle variation, that deploy all manner of tools and instruments in diverse combinations – cognitive, biological, machinic, electronic, and so on.

But what is valued is not merely whatever is available to experience, but precisely that which is selected for – or, more accurately, which is given the power to impose the conditions that must be satisfied in the production of that experience which is selected for.
Let us assume, for a moment, that life is merely a proliferation of possible ways of dying. Here dying presents itself not as a condition, but rather as a constraint that compels us to seek out possible ways of dying. There are multiple ways of dying – and many of them are quite life-affirming. However, what and how we value (as a society) shapes the (material, institutional, etc.) conditions that we impose upon on ourselves and therefore coordinates, carves out and channels the way we spend out our lives.

But my aim here is not to cast values in a negative light, as what impose conditions. Rather it is to explore the very fortunate capacity for creative deployment of the multiple perceptual faculties or technologies that we have at our disposal for reassessing what is important. The conclusions we reach are driven largely by what we find ourselves surrounded by, but also by our own efforts to put our hopes and dreams, doubts and fears to the test, to take risks and to let completely incongruous proclivities guide our moves. However, I think that as we do this, we draw on all our abilities, techniques and apparatuses to reach out into the darkness toward that which we value; that which we think is important, and which, yet, is so crushed, hidden or distorted in the world that is given to us with the great ‘values’ of our contemporary societies – far too invested in the engine of this destruction to really do anything about it.

And yet, there is something not altogether arbitrary in the realm of value. What we value not only shapes the way that we compose the world around us – even if this is totally inadvertent or unintentional and we only later find ourselves confronted with an inability to escape the return of the products of our passions; it also proceeds through a systematic and increasingly sophisticated and abstract probing of complex responsive phenomena, the world that we inhabit, including ourselves. As, such, as our understanding of how the world – and ourselves – are held together and continue to be so, we gain the capacity to cultivate new values.

Amongst other important insights that arise from this perspective, we also recognise that no value is all-purpose or all-terrain, suitable for all situations. Rather values – in the sense that they define what matters – only rise up adequately to meet reality when they are evoked in specific situations and through the specific practices that permit their culmination in the production of an event that transforms a particular field of practice in ways that enhance rather than diminish what it is capable of perceiving and creating. In this sense, I would venture that there is something more to values than mere subjective judgements.

There is some manner in which value – what we value and how we value – is profoundly linked to our evolution, to the processual unfolding and the complex weaving that makes of our planet a volatile and extraordinary hive of proliferating life and death, discovery, creation and desutruction. While we may choose our values ‘freely’, our freedom to choose them is contingent on our continuing to exist. And our continuing to exist is contingent on what and how we value because this determines how what we consider important comes to structure our behaviours and the impact that we exert, collectively through society, on the world around us. As we learn to value that which is most forgotten, most fragile, most neglected and most exploited in the world, we also learn to trace the previously unimaginable, unthinkable or unspeakable ways in which these very entities – people, organisms, traditions, practices – are an intimate part of the fabric of that holds the world together. We also open up new channels of becoming, desuturing ourselves from the ‘politico-existential’ contractions and grooves of our times, and opening the possibility of a very different way of inhabiting this planet.

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Blog Redesign – work in progress

Hello. I’m going through a phase of mucking about with the design of this blog, which will happen in bits and pieces, so apologies if it’s got something not quite right about it – I’m only just getting started on this… Thank you for enduring it!

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