John Reader on Simondon

11 11 2013

Remembering that the main purpose of this network is to explore and identify points of connection between politics, public policy and contemporary philosophy, I want to experiment with what, I believe, is one of the more challenging and difficult questions that we face. How is it that it is possible for people to be prepared and willing to submit themselves voluntarily to policies and practices that are so clearly either unjust, or in opposition to their own self-interest? An example of this would be the inequalities across the UK. For instance, research by the Church Urban Fund reveals that, in the most affluent parishes, less than 1% of children live in poverty and boys can expect to live for 85 years or more, whilst in the more deprived parishes, up to two-thirds of children live in poverty, and male life expectancy is around 70 years or less (July 2013). There is a concentration of poverty in the north of England, and in urban and coastal areas, and yet there are also examples of areas of deprivation existing cheek by jowl with affluent ones. How can this happen?

In a previous generation one might have talked about the need for an ideology critique, a raising of awareness of the inequalities themselves, and the fact that people can, under certain conditions, perpetuate political structures and patterns of behaviour without fully realizing or acknowledging that is what they are doing. But it is clear now that, despite being aware of the inequalities, people may still defer to policies that contribute to their own misfortune. As Zizek might say, we know that what we are doing is to our own disadvantage, and yet we still persist in going along with it. There are of course issues here about the role of the media in the way that certain social situations are presented, and a politically motivated victimization of those who find themselves dependent upon voluntary or statutory welfare. Also, within current political structures, it is not easy to gain a voice in the public debate from some locations. It would seem then that awareness raising is not in itself enough to encourage a challenge to unjust structures.

I am going to suggest that an exploration of some of the ideas from a lesser known (and now dead) French philosopher, might contribute to a greater understanding of how this comes about, and indeed to how one might respond differently. The philosopher in question is Gilbert Simondon (1924-1989), whose work is only recently becoming available in English, and who can be seen to have been an influence upon both Deleuze and Latour. This can be no more than a hint of ideas that will be developed further in due course. What Simondon offers us is an “ethics of actualization”, and a different understanding of how humans themselves are formed and developed, one which allows for greater fluidity, flexibility, and scope for change that is perpetual. Key concepts in his thought are those of metastability and individuation. Metastability is an idea derived from non-equilibrium thermodynamics and presents an alternative to the usual distinction between stability and instability. It suggests that the processes of formation and development are ongoing, and that therefore the possibilities for transformation remain in place even when it might appear that stability and/or equilibrium has been achieved. How might this be helpful for our interpretation of political behaviour?

It could be that, to borrow from the discourse of Latour, the blocks to change are the result of preventing the circulation of references, suggesting that there can be a premature or forced assumption of stability or equilibrium. This is where and when we get stuck in our view of “the way things are”, or “the way they have to be/there is no alternative”; an interpretation of life that serves the purposes of those who benefit from a status quo, but work against the interests of those who lose out. If it were possible to grasp the vision that human beings are always metastable and thus open to change, then other options become viable. As one feminist commentator says (Elizabeth Grosz: Chapter 3 “Identity and Individuation; Some Feminist Reflections” in eds  De Boever, Murray, Roffe and Woodward: “Gilbert Simondon: Being and Technology”, Edinburgh University Press, 2011) talking of Simondon’s work: this may be regarded as a provocation to continue to question the dominant assumptions that structure our thought at a particular moment in time; to question whether individuals, biological, social or collective are given, and their characteristics static rather than evolving, self-transforming and milieu-transforming elaborations (P55). What Simondon offers is an understanding of what he calls the pre-individual, individuating and individuated processes. So Being becomes something, something emerges or erupts, but it leaves in its context or milieu a residue or excess that is the condition for future becomings (P38).

The pre-individual is essentially dynamic, generating forces which act upon each other, tensions, points of excess, the development of tipping points or a form of emergence, forms of becoming that co-exist uneasily. These points of instability are the sites around which individuality may emerge. It is important to note here that Simondon is not talking simply about individuation as the process which shapes us as lone individuals, but also about the collective and communal dimensions of human existence. Such sites can be understood as problems or questions which do not so much seek a solution as address an emergent force. Identifying those questions as the way into a process of transformation becomes a critical task though. So whatever emerges is itself provisional, and always subject to the metastability which will lead to further developments. Re-ordering and re-forming remain permanent possibilities. The ethics of actualization then is the movement that includes and incorporates more and more of the pre-individual, not in its pre-individual states of tension and potential, but through forms of actualization. Rather than superseding or leaving behind that which it cannot incorporate or resolve, it aims through the opening up of the future, to aspire to the maximization of actualization.

As I said, this can offer no more than a brief outline of what is a highly complex and intriguing philosophical approach, but it does, I would suggest, give some clues as to how one might view the blocking which leaves us working against our own interests, and indeed the common good, in a different perspective. “Things don’t have to be this way”, as the potential for change and transformation is a permanent component of life. If we could begin to see the processes by which we take on our form both as individuals and collectives differently, then we can both identify how and where the blocks to learning and development occur, and also open up more possibilities for challenge and change.

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