Simondon and Media Archaeology: Notes for a Study on The Life of Objects

Simondon’s “Du Mode d’Existence des Objets Techniques”, like all great works of theory, is eminently criticizable.   In fact, people frequently make the mistake of treating such works as religious treatises, which in no way does justice to them.  These monuments of thought not only welcome criticism, but also demand it, as if they had some inbuilt mechanism that allows their perpetual revision and improvement.  To quote one of Benjamin’s most interesting ideas, every masterpiece (be it literary or philosophical) has its survival and renewal (Überleben) guaranteed by the work of the translator and the critic.  This is even truer in the case of a book like “Du Mode d’Existence…”, published in 1958 and thus long before the impact of digital technologies.  On the other hand, if some of Simondon’s secondary assertions deserve revision in light of the emergence of new technologies, his fundamental theses still apply to our current situation.  For me, the most significant contribution of this work is a perspective on the process of technological evolution that is, to a large extent, autonomous in regards to external factors.  The “laws” of technological innovation follow the demands of a rigorously internal necessity, as if apparatuses would ‘evolve by themselves’ – not unlike what happens with living beings[1].  In other words, Simondon’s theory of “concretization” (the process whereby technological objects become increasingly more “synergetic”) suggests that devices become more efficient and evolved as their components begin to act in mutual cooperation performing several tasks at the same time.  But this is not the history of a uniform and linear evolution.  It is rather a complex trajectory, characterized by ruptures and discontinuities.  I even suspect that – if we read him carefully – Simondon provides us with some insights that are not so different from those of media archaeology.  Let us consider, for instance, the following affirmation: “Several abandoned technical objects are unfinished inventions that remain an open virtuality (une virtualité ouverte) and can be retrieved, prolonged within another domain, according to their deep intentions, their technical essence” (p. 40).  One cannot but wonder if Siegfried Zielinski had Simondon in mind when he wrote his Tiefenzeit der Medien (something that I forgot to ask him in our last conversation).  In fact, Zielinski’s proposition consists fundamentally in a “variantology of the media” capable of recovering the potentialities of failed or forgotten old technologies.  Zielinski not only criticizes the (already worn-out) rhetoric of the novelty that is so characteristic of the discourses on digital technologies, but also pledges for “dramaturgies of difference” (Dramaturgien der Differenz) that would enable us to fight the growing tendencies to uniformization and padronization of the media system.  By the way, both thinkers are granted a prominent position in Jussi Parikka’s brilliant last book (Insect Media: an Archaeology of Animals and Technology, University of Minnesota Press, 2010).  In that sense, Yves Deforge’s posface to “Du Mode d’Existence…” is of the utmost importance for media archaeologists.  In an attempt to revise and update Simondon’s work, Deforge repeatedly discusses the necessity of a historical approach to technology that takes our technological past very seriously.  This approach is “familiar to those who study phenomena that develop over long periods of time (…) something that we call ‘the systemic study of the thin temporal layers’” (italics mine, p. 306).  Curiously employing a term that has recently been receiving a great deal of attention – “object ontology” (l’idée d’une ontologie de l’objet)[2] – Deforge discusses how this perspective might help us recuperate past ideas and projects in order to engender new solutions “in the light of a hypothetical future system” (p. 309).  There is a lot more that could be said about “Du Mode d’Existence…” in regard of the emergence of new digital technologies and some contemporary approaches to media theory, but that is the project for a paper that shall hopefully materialize in the next few weeks.

[1] This is, of course, an oversimplification, but I believe it to be faithful to the essence of Simondon’s arguments.

[2] The expression “object ontology” is used in connection to thinkers such as Simondon, Moles and Denielou, whose works announce what we could nowadays define as a form of  “object-oriented” philosophical approach.


2 thoughts on “Simondon and Media Archaeology: Notes for a Study on The Life of Objects

  1. I’m always happy to see references to Simondon, unjustly forgotten for so long. The great problem about reading Du Mode d’Existence… is that we easily lose track of it’s relation to Simondon’s main thesis (MEOT being his auxiliary thesis), L’Individuation à la Lumière des Notions de Forme et d’Information. In fact, the main thesis was partially published in 1968 and the whole thing only in 1989 (the year Simondon died). Which means that before the 90s it was impossible to read MEOT as a development of what Simondon called “technic individuation” (l’individuation technique) and that Bernard Stiegler develops much further in his work. Even the process of concretization is the development (mode of existence, one could say) of such a means of individuation (a phase, to talk like Simondon); this is central to the work of Simondon as, for him (as Stiegler states in the introduction to his Technics and Time (La Technique et le Temps, vol. I, La Faute d’Épiméthée), “technics is the only horizon in the construction of the future”), technics represents an authentic vector of transindividuation, or psychic and collective individuation. This explains the otherwise obscure last part of MEOT, in which Simondon unfolds the “phases” of cultural and technical development / individuation: they are all transductive processes by which transindividuation takes place and form. One good way to articulate these two dimensions of Simondon’s work is through Jean-Hugues Barthélémy’s “Simondon: une Philosophie de l’Individuation et de la Technique”. As for myself, I had the good luck of coming across Simondon through his “L’Individuation Psychique et Collective”, last part of his main thesis but published separately. It helped me enormously in the first part of my Master dissertation about the concept of “mass” in “mass culture” and “mass society”. But I was only able to do anything useful about me after reading the other two parts (ILFI) and the secondary thesis (MEOT), in which the technical dimension of the “mass” comes forth. I’m telling this because there was a special chapter on media, most particularly digital communications technologies and the way they redesign the topology of what we would have called “masses”.

    • Dear Diego, thanks for the excellent comment. I have read Simondon’s treatise (published by Aubier in two separate parts) and I also have the Barthélémy book that you have mentioned – althought I still did not have time to read it. Your observations are very pertinent and I have briefly discussed some of these issues in an older post (in a very didactic form, specially for my students): It is also worth noting that Simondon’s work has been experiencing a kind of revival in these last few years. You are probably aware that some contemporary authors such as Manuel de Landa and Steven Shaviro have demonstrated great interest in his ideas. I would go as far as saying that he might be an important source for the work of the celebrated sociologist (and philosopher) Bruno Latour. He is a very complex, albeit enthralling philosopher and I’m glad that you share my enthusiasm for him. I hope we can exchange some ideas about Simondon and your particular take on his philosophy.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s