On Psychic and Collective Individuation: From Simondon to Stiegler
“All our strivings, or Desires, follow from the necessity of our nature in such a way that they can be understood either through it alone, as through their proximate cause, or insofar as we are a part of nature, which cannot be conceived adequately through itself without other individuals.”
—Spinoza, 1985, 588.
In his recently translated magnum opus, Individuation in Light of Notions of Form and Information (2020), Gilbert Simondon constructs a complex theory which aims to overturn the traditional notion of ontology. Simondon was a thinker interested in developing a philosophy that crossed disciplinary boundaries, once being described as “a 1960s encyclopaedist who marvellously linked physics, biology, and philosophy” (Dosse, 2011, 162). Yet, his interdisciplinary approach was united by a unique and original theory of individuation, reconceptualised as an ongoing, never ending process, in which the individual serves as a mediation between two disparate orders of magnitude. In other words, Simondon’s world view is not static, but dynamic. He sees the world not in terms of fixed principles, but in terms of process. The individual beings which fill the world are therefore merely a singular phase of the ongoing process of individuation.
The first two stages of this process are physical individuation and biological (or vital) individuation. Physical individuation is the operation that determines the formation of non-living matter, and vital individuation determines the development of living organisms. To Simondon, the individual produced by this process of individuation (whether that be an individual crystal, a plant, or an animal) is always a relation; in particular a relation between different orders of magnitude and the milieu of which the individual is a part. As I summarised previously:
“This idea of a co-individuation between the individual and the milieu in which it exists is perhaps one of the most important ideas in Simondon’s philosophy. No individual can exist without the milieu of which it is a part; a milieu that arises at the same time as the individual from the process of individuation. Thus, we start to see a concrete example of how an individual should only be seen as a partial result of the transductive operation or process that brings it into being; it is not the beings which are formed that are primary, but the process of individuation itself.” (Bluemink, 2020)
Simondon uses the theory of vital individuation to account for the development of living beings, using plants as a paradigmatic example. However, his theory also extends into the more complex world of human existential understanding and the development of collective systems of interaction: the dual processes of psychic and collective individuation. This essay will attempt to shine a light on these often underappreciated aspects of Simondon’s work before showing their importance for philosopher of technology Bernard Stiegler.1placeholder
Individuation in the Creation of Psycho-Social Systems
Simondon sees that the biological individual arises as the resolution of a problematic that cannot be resolved through physical individuation alone. It requires the development of vital individuation as a new stage in the ongoing individuation process. Similarly, the appearance of a psychic reality, or a psyche, must arise from an unresolved problematic within the biological individual. As he writes:
“The psyche continues vital individuation in a being that, in order to resolve its own problematic, is itself forced to intervene as an element of the problem through its action as subject; the subject can be conceived as the unity of the being qua individuated living being and qua being that is the representative of its action through the world as an element and dimension of the world.” (Simondon, 2020, 9)
So, just as the living being comes into existence through the creation of an interior which serves as the partial resolution of a problematic within the physical being (and acts as a source of new individuation processes), the psychic individual comes into being through the creation of a subject-world distinction which denotes a new kind of interiority within the living individual: that of the psyche. The psychic individual is therefore defined by its conscious intervention in the problematic that constitutes its continual individuation; i.e. a human being, as a psychic individual, is consciously making decisions that will affect its becoming. However, the psychic being, for Simondon, is not of a separate distinct nature to the biological/vital individual. Psychic individuation is merely an individuation process that serves to perpetuate the living being. Here, like in much of Simondon’s work, he is aiming to overcome Aristotelian categorisations by showing how the distinction between plant and animal, or animal and human is one of degree or level, rather than one of nature.
However, Simondon goes further to claim that psychic individuation is not a complete process; the psychic being can never fully resolve the problematic that defines its existence on its own. The preindividual realm of potentials within the psychic being provides the condition for the creation of the collective. Indeed, this collective and the individual are not separate entities but are unified in their mutual individuation. Just as the crystal becomes a physical individual through the creation of a supersaturated milieu which serves as the source of its individuation, the psychic being is constantly part of a collective milieu of other psychic beings, through which they form a collective unity:
“individuation turns the individual into a group individual that is associated with the group through the pre-individual reality that the individual bears, a pre-individual reality that, paired with the pre-individual reality of other individuals, individuates into a collective unit. Collective and psychical individuations are both reciprocal with respect to one another.” (ibid.)
So, in simple terms, we might say that when tensions arise within the psychic individual (anxiety,2placeholder boredom etc.) they cannot fully resolve themselves without a mutual recognition of the collective. Similarly, tensions between the individual and collective (guilt, shame, etc.) can also only be resolved mutually. Here it seems that Simondon is drawing nearer to Hegelianism in that the self-consciousness of the psychic individual is inherently tied into the recognition of the other. However, Simondon’s rationality is perhaps better understood in Deleuzian terms: we might say that it is the preindividual intensities which generate the sensations and affects that are at the core of our psychic being, yet these intensities are never resolved within the psychic individual; psychic individuation attempts to resolve itself within the collective structures and relations that it is part of. The form of mutual recognition Simondon uses also places a more crucial importance on the idea of interiority and exteriority. Therefore, we can see that psychic individuation is interior to the individual whereas collective individuation is exterior.
The psychic and collective aspects of Simondon’s theory of individuation had often been overlooked by many of his contemporaries, even by Deleuze who served as perhaps his biggest advocate. This oversight was perhaps due to the fact that the publication of Simondon’s work on psychic and collective individuation only appeared in France over 20 years after his work on physical and biological individuation (despite the fact they were intended as part of the same book). However, upon the publication of the second half of Simondon’s main thesis, L’individuation psychique et collective (1989), in France there was another philosopher who saw the immense value of Simondon’s theory: Bernard Stiegler.
Technics, Adoption, and Projection
Simondon played a vital role in the development of Stiegler’s ideas ever since his first book, Technics and Time, 1: The Fault of Epimetheus (1998). Throughout his work, he took on many of the questions that concerned Simondon himself, including the question of technics which would serve as the core of his philosophy. Stiegler saw that Simondon’s work on technics, along with his unique conception of psychic and collective individuation, opened up new avenues for philosophical inquiry that were directly applicable to the modern technological world we live in. As he states in the general introduction to Technics and Time 1, “Simondon, with his analysis of psychic and collective individuation, allows one to conceive through the concept of “transduction” an originarily techno-logical constitutivity of temporality” (Stiegler, 1998, 18).
Indeed, much of Stiegler’s early work is based on the idea that technical objects (such as tools, arts, crafts, and technology in general) are created by exteriorisation. To Stiegler, exteriorisation is the process through which internal operations of the brain (such as the knowledge of techniques) are stored in outer objects (such as tools). He argues that the exteriorisation of consciousness into technical objects can be seen as a third kind of memory that is separate from the internal, individually acquired memory of our brains (epigenetic) and the biological evolutionary memory that is inherited from our ancestors (phylogenetic). This technical from of memory is thus referred to as epiphylogenetic memory (or following Husserl’s theory of time-consciousness, as tertiary retention3placeholder). To Stiegler, these technical objects, insofar as they constitute an external form of memory, are a fundamental feature of the way we understand time. Tertiary memories are traces4placeholder of the past in the world around us; they allow us to conceptualise a past that existed before we, as individuals, were born.
In Technics and Time, 3: Cinematic Time and the Question of Malaise (2010), Stiegler moves beyond this philosophical-anthropological understanding of time to provide a reading of Simondon’s work that highlights the importance of individuation in thinking and acting politically. He argues that psychic and collective individuation, the processes that Simondon sees as necessary for the formation of groups, can only take place through the adoption of a common past. As Stiegler writes, “this adoption process rests on the possibility—opened by epiphylogenesis (i.e., by technical memory)—of gaining access to a past that was never lived, neither by someone whose past it was nor by any biological ancestor” (Stiegler, 2010, 90). Nevertheless, although it was ‘never lived’, this common past is the condition of the possibility for a collective future. Simply put, it is only through the process of adopting a common past that can we collectivise ourselves to project a common future. As Stiegler summarises: “Connection to the future, which does found groups, obviously requires them to share a common past, but this past can only be common through adoption, concretized only through projection” (Stiegler, 2010, 89). The processes of adoption and projection are, therefore, part of the overarching psychic-collective individuation process that connects individuals together through the idea of a shared past and future.
Unification of the We
Stiegler’s utilisation of Simondon’s work can therefore be seen as a way of understanding the unification of multiple individuals into groups with shared aims, ideals, and values. Here Stiegler builds on Heidegger’s phenomenological language to call this process the unification of the We. He writes that: “The unification process of a We is an identification, an organization, and a unification of diverse elements of the community’s past as they project its future” (Stiegler, 2010, 93). That is to say, it is the process through which individuals create their own individual identities in relation to their shared collective identities. For example, in Marxist revolutionary politics the idea of the ‘proletariat’ is a unification of a We founded on the adoption of a particular past (class struggle) which allows for the projection of a collective future (socialism). However, what is crucial here is that the unified past only exists phantasmagorically: “it assumes that this past of the We was never actually lived by this or any We, nor by anyone currently living, nor by any of their ancestors” (ibid.). That is, for the I to collectivise itself into a We, it must be capable of adopting an imagined past in order to project a common future of which it will not be a part. To see this in action we only need to look at the regular use of collective pronouns to describe past events not lived by the individual, or future events that will not be lived by the individual e.g. “we won the war” or “we’re going to win the cup.” These events are phantasmagorical, but they are adopted by an individual in order to form its identity.
On this note, Stiegler claims I and We are individuation processes in the Simondonian sense. He writes that:
“the individual, whether psychological or social … is an incomplete process of a metastable equilibrium … But these two individuation processes—these two metastable equilibria—are two facets of a singular reality that can be apprehended after being analyzed separately but that must then be re-assembled in order to be understood within the context of the unique processuality that both includes and characterizes them: the individual psyche is originarily psychosocial, and the social is not an ‘intersubjective’ aggregate of already constituted individuals. The individuation of the I is that of the We, and vice versa.” (Stiegler, 2010, 94)
What this means is that psychic individuation and collective individuation are two sides of the same coin; one cannot exist without the other. The processes of adoption and projection individuate a group identity which simultaneously individuates a personal identity. However, as Simondon showed, the concept of identity is never fixed, it is always part of an ongoing individuation process. Therefore, this reciprocal dynamic between the psychic and the collective is at the heart of Stiegler’s politics as much as it is Simondon’s.
Synchronising Consciousness, the Loss of Knowledge
However, a novel aspect of Stiegler’s work is where he builds on Simondon’s theory of individuation by introducing technology and media as a key element in the process. He claims that the process of adoption (of a We) reached its peak in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries with the widespread implementation of technical media such as radio, cinema, television, and now modern digital networks. These technical devices and systems produce ‘temporal objects’ (such as commercial music, cinema, or television shows) through which the consciousness of individuals has been ‘industrialised.’ As he states:
“The programming industries, and more specifically the mediatic industry of radio-televisual information, mass-produce temporal objects heard or seen simultaneously by millions, and sometimes by tens, hundreds, even thousands of millions of ‘consciousnesses’: this massive temporal co-incidence orders the event’s new structure to which new forms of consciousness and collective unconsciousness correspond” (Stiegler, 2010, 1)
In other words, through the development of mnemotechnics5placeholder (memory technologies) industrial capitalism has produced new forms of control that capture the attention of psychic individuals by synchronising their consciousness (through industrial temporal objects such as television advertising) to create a more compliant proletarian workforce. Therefore, the industrialisation of consciousness also operates through the adoption of the We which, despite its phantasmagorical nature, is inherently connected to the question of technics, and thus the question of political economy in general.
Furthermore, in his For a New Critique of Politics Economy (2013), Stiegler builds on this idea drawing on Simondon’s On the Mode of Existence of Technical Objects (2017). He writes that: “The proletarian, we read in Gilbert Simondon, is a disindividuated worker, a laborer whose knowledge has passed into the machine in such a way that it is no longer the worker who is individuated through bearing tools and putting them into practice” (Stiegler, 2013, 37). This means that the proletarian has lost the understanding of its role as an I within the We that constitutes society as whole; it has become disconnected from the collective individuation processes which define its existence as a psycho-social individual. Rather, the worker has become a servant of the machine-tool, and the machine-tool has become individuated as the ‘technical individual’6placeholder because it is only within the machine’s technical system that individuation is produced. Here Stiegler is not claiming that technology is inherently negative, but that due to an inherent tendency within capitalism workers have become disconnected from their work. It is the capitalist machine itself that controls the ‘flows of desire’, not the individual or the collective. To Stiegler, the dual process of psychic and collective individuation that is necessary for the functioning of society is interrupted by this proletarianisation, and because of this the proletarianised worker becomes disindividuated. The worker is no longer capable of projecting the future that is necessary for political action.7placeholder
Finally, although Stiegler tries to marry the two sides of Simondon’s thinking (individuation and technics) by introducing the technical concept of tertiary retention as a fundamentally important factor in process of adoption, for Simondon the technical is only given secondary importance when considered alongside the process of individuation in general. What is important for Simondon is that the dual psychic/collective individuation process creates a new category which traverses the psychic and collective realm, this he calls the transindividual. Simondon claims that: “Collective and psychical individuations are both reciprocal with respect to one another; they make it possible to define a category of the transindividual, which attempts to account for the systematic unity of interior (psychical) individuation and exterior (collective) individuation” (Simondon, 2020, 9). The transindividual is therefore not merely that which serves as the connection between the psychic individual and the collective individual, but that which appears as “a relation interior to the individual (defining its psyche) and a relation exterior to the individual (defining the collective): the transindividual unity of two relations is thus a relation of relations” (Combes, 2016, 26). In other words, the transindividual is the relational world that constitutes the connection between the psychic individual and the collective. In Stiegler’s later works he also develops the notion of ‘transindividuation’ which reconceptualises Simondon’s transindividual through a process of technical adoption. Technics, for Stiegler constitutes this transindividual relation as it is both a necessary part of the psychic/collective individual and one that is inherently beyond or outside of it. Therefore, as Jason Read notes in his excellent book, transindividuality, both the transindividual and transindividuation, break with “a longstanding binary that sees the relationship between individual and collective as a zero-sum game – seeking instead their mutual points of intersection and transformation” (Read, 2015, 6).
In conclusion, when looking at these two important philosophers we can begin to see the scope of this reconceptualisation of individuation that Simondon pioneered in his early work. The individuation process which can be seen in the physical, biological, psychic, collective, and technical realms aims to provide a detailed ontological understanding of the world and our place in it. But crucially, when focusing on psychic and collective individuation, we can see the political implications of such a theory. Both Simondon and Stiegler show us that the individual can never be removed from the collective structures that surround it, or the processes that form it. In order to live well, we must understand that we are all connected through these processes. Individuation exists at different orders of magnitude, on the psychic level, and the collective level, and it is this transindividual connection that provides that backbone of this new theory of society. It’s my hope that, in light of Stiegler’s untimely death last summer, we can take up his call to action and rediscover the processes that connect us, rather than those which divide us.
Bluemink, M. (2015). The Exploitation of the Technical. 3am Magazine.
Bluemink, M. (2020). Gilbert Simondon and the Process of Individuation. Epoche 34.
Combes, M. (2013). Gilbert Simondon and the Philosophy of the Transindividual. Trans. T. LaMarre. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Dosse, F. (2011). Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari: Intersecting Lives. New York: Columbia University Press.
Read, J. (2015) The Politics of Transindividuality. Leiden: Brill.
Simondon, G. (1989). L’individuation psychique et collective. Paris: Aubier.
Simondon, G. (2017). On the Mode of Existence of Technical Objects. Trans. C. Malaspina and J. Rogrove. Minneapolis: Univocal.
Simondon, G. (2020). Individuation in Light of Notions of Form and Individuation. Trans. Taylor Adkins. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Spinoza, B. (1985). The Collected Works of Spinoza: Volume 1. Trans. E. Curley. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Stiegler, B. (1998). Technics and Time 1: The Fault of Epimetheus. Trans. R. Beardsworth and G. Collins. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Stiegler, B. (2010). Technics and Time, 3: Cinematic Time and the Question of Malaise. Trans. R. Beardsworth and G. Collins. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
For explanations of the preindividual, transduction, metastability and the different stages of individuation please see: ‘Gilbert Simondon and the Process of Individuation’ (Bluemink, 2020).
The concept of anxiety is discussed in more depth in Simondon’s chapter on ‘Psychical Individuation’ (Simondon, 2020, 282-285).
These terms are used interchangeably.
He adopts this term from Jacques Derrida who was his teacher.
For Stiegler, all technics can be considered mnemotechnics in that technics and memory are inherently linked together through the exteriorisation of memory into technical objects. In essence, Stiegler’s whole philosophical project is based on this idea of ‘forgetting’ in relation to mnemotechnics. See: ‘The Fault of Epimetheus’ in Technics and Time 1 (Stiegler, 1998, 183-279).
See Simondon (2017).
For more on Stiegler’s later work, including his concepts of proletarianisation and disindividuation see: ‘The Exploitation of the Technical’ (Bluemink, 2015).