April 15: Simondon part 1: On the Mode of Existence of Technical Objects
Over the next few weeks the TCRG explores the work and influence of Gilbert Simondon (1924 – 1989). We will be led through this difficult terrain by Tom and Scott, who are editing an upcoming special issue on Simondon for Platform.
Our reading this week is taken from Simondon’s first major publication: Du mode d’existence des objets techniques [On the Mode of Existence of Technical Objects], first published in France in 1958. This book was based upon the complementary thesis to his main doctoral dissertation, L’individuation à la lumière des notions de Forme et d’Information, which would later be published as two separate books – L’individu et sa genèse physico-biologique [The Individual and Its Physico-Biological Genesis] (1964) and L’individuation psychique et collective [Individuation Psychic and Collective] (1989) – and had an immediate and decisive effect upon subsequent French philosophy of technology. Unfortunately, like all of Simondon’s major works, there is no official English translation of this book available; unlike the two other aforementioned books, however, there is a partial translation by Ninian Mellamphy available, which is what we’re using this week.
Simondon argues that we are not alienated from technology because it is somehow external to human culture or values, but rather, because we have increasingly failed to recognize the human essence of the technical object. In this he is implicitly following Lewis Mumford, whose 1934 Technics and Civilization (essential reading!) puts forward the contention that technics ‘are the result of human choices and aptitudes and strivings, deliberate as well as unconscious… even when they are uncontrollable they are not external’, Our response to the problem of technical objects, Simondon suggests, is contradictory: on the one hand, we treat them as merely tools or instruments subordinated to human purposes; on the other hand, though, we simultaneously treat them as an autonomous threat to human nature (as ‘robots’), and as a consequence, try as hard as possible to preserve the former character in order to prevent the second – that is, we reduce the machine to the position of a slave.
‘Human reality,’ Simondon declares, ‘resides in machines as human actions fixed and crystalized [sic] in functioning structures’. What we need, therefore, is to understand the nature of the machine, and its intertwined relationship with humanity; we need to avoid turn back the specialization that has more and more dominated our understanding of machines, and embrace a ‘general culture’ wherein technical objects are once again included as a fundamental component of human culture, rather than merely a means to its continued existence. In the final section of this reading – the first section of chapter one – Simondon begins to outline such a project through a description of the genesis of the technical object.
We meet as usual in the Pierre Gorman Room, 5pm. All are welcome.
[PDF] Simondon, G. On the Mode of Existence of Technical Objects (trans. Mellamphy, N.)