Translation: Simondon and the Physico-Biological Genesis of the Individual

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abstraction / French Translation / individuation / metastability / morphology / ontogenesis / ontology / Simondon

Simondon, Gilbert. L’individu et sa genèse physico-biologique. Paris : Presses Universitaires de France, 1964. Original Translation by Taylor Adkins.


Chapter One: Form and Matter

Section I—Foundations of the Hylemorphic Model: Technology of the Capture of Form

1. The Conditions of Individuation: pp. 27-39.

The notions of form and matter can help solve the problem of individuation only if they are first compared to its position. So if by the contrast it was discovered that the hylemorphic system expresses and contains the problem of individuation, it would be necessary, under pain of locking ourselves [sous peine de s’enfermer] into begging the question, to regard the research of the principle of individuation as logically anterior to the definition of matter and form.

It is difficult to consider the notions of form and matter as innate ideas. However, at the moment when one would be tempted to assign a technological origin to them, one is arrested by the remarkable capacity of generalization which these notions have. It is not only the clay and the brick, the marble and the statue which can be thought according to the hylemorphic model, but also a great number of formal, genetic and compositional actualities, in the living world and the psychic domain. The logical force of this model is such that Aristotle could use it to support a universal system of classification which applies itself to reality by following a logical path as well as a physical path, by ensuring the agreement of the logical order and the physical order, and by authorizing inductive knowledge. Even the ratio of the soul and the body can be thought according to the hylemorphic model.

A base as narrow as that of the technological operation hardly appears able to support a paradigm having a similar force of universality. It is thus appropriate to examine the base of the hylemorphic model, to appreciate the direction and the range of the role played in its genesis by the technical experiment.

The technological character of the origin of a model does not invalidate this model, with the condition that the operation which is used as a basis for the formation of the utilized concepts passes entirely and expresses itself without deterioration in the abstract model. If, on the contrary, the abstraction is carried out in an unfaithful and summary manner, by masking one of the fundamental dynamisms of the technical operation, the model is false. Instead of having a true paradigmatic value, it is nothing more than a comparison, a more or less rigorous juxtaposition according to the cases.

However, in the technical operation which gives rise to an object having form and matter, like a clay brick, the real dynamism of the operation is extremely far from being able to be represented by the matter-form couple. The form and the matter of the hylemorphic model are an abstract form and an abstract matter. The definite being that one can show, this brick drying on this board, does not result from the union of an unspecified matter and an arbitrary form. If one takes fine sand, that it is wet and then one puts it in a brick mould: with the release from the mould, one will obtain a sand heap and not a brick. If one takes clay and then passes it to the rolling mill or the spinneret: one will obtain neither plate nor wire, but an accumulation of broken layers and course cylindrical segments. The clay, conceived as supporting an indefinite plasticity, is the abstract matter. The right-angled parallelepiped, conceived as a brick form, is an abstract form. The concrete brick does not result from the union of the clay’s plasticity and the parallelepiped. So that there can be a parallelepipedic brick, a really existing individual, it is necessary that an effective technical operation institutes a mediation between a given clay mass and this notion of the parallelepiped. However, the technical operation of molding does not itself suffice. Moreover, it does not institute a direct mediation between a given mass of clay and the abstract form of the parallelepiped[1]; the mediation is prepared by two chains of preliminary operations which make matter and form converge toward a common operation. To give a form to clay is not to impose the parallelepiped form on rough clay: it is to pack prepared clay in a manufactured mold. If one divides the two ends of the technological chains, the parallelepiped and the clay in the quarry, one tests the impression of realizing, in the technical operation, an encounter between two realities of heterogeneous domains, and institutes a mediation, by communication, between an inter-elementary order, macro-physical, larger than the individual, and an intra-elementary order, micro-physical, smaller than the individual.

Precisely, in the technical operation, it is the mediation itself which should be considered: it consists, in the chosen case, in making a prepared block of clay fill without void a mold and, after release from the mold, dry while preserving without cracks or damage this definite contour. However, the preparation of clay and the construction of the mold are already an active mediation between rough clay and the imposable geometrical form. The mold is constructed so as to be able to be opened and closed without damaging its contents. Certain shapes of solids, geometrically conceivable, became realizable only with very complex and subtle artifices. The art of constructing the mold is, nowadays still, one of the most delicate aspects of the foundry. The mold, moreover, is not only built; it is also prepared: a defined coating, a dry powdering that will prevent wet clay from adhering to the walls at the time of the release from the mold, by disaggregating it or by forming cracks. To give a form, it is necessary to construct such a defined mold, prepared in such a fashion, with such a species of material. There thus exists a first advance which goes from the geometrical form to the concrete material mold, parallel with the clay, existing in the same way as it, posed by the dimensions of it, does in an order of magnitude that is easily formalized. As for clay, it is also subjected to a preparation; as a raw material, it is what the shovel raises to the surface at the edge of the marsh, with roots of rush, and gravel grains. Dried, crushed, sifted, shaped, lengthily kneaded, it becomes this homogeneous and consistent dough having a rather great plasticity to be able to embrace the contours of the mold in which one presses it, and firm enough to preserve this contour during the time necessary for that plasticity to disappear. In addition to the purification, the preparation of rough clay has a goal of obtaining homogeneity and a more appropriate degree of humidity for reconciling plasticity and consistency. There is in the rough clay an aptitude for becoming a plastic mass with the dimensions of a future brick because of the colloidal properties of aluminum hydro-silicates: these are those colloidal properties that effectuate the action of the technical half-chain bordering on the prepared clay; the molecular reality of clay, and the water which it absorbs, organizes itself by the preparation so as to be able to direct itself during the individuation as a homogeneous totality to the stage of the brick in a train of appearances. The prepared clay is that through which each molecule will effectively be put in communication, whatever its place compared to the walls of the mold, with the ensemble of pressure exerted by these walls. Each molecule intervenes on the level of the future individual, and thus enters in an interactive communication with the order of magnitude superior to the individual.

From its dimension, the other technical half-chain descends towards the future individual; the parallelepipedic form is not any form; it already contains a certain schematic which can direct the construction of the mold, which is an ensemble of coherent operations contained in an implicit state; clay is not only passively deformable; it is actively plastic, because it is colloidal; its faculty of receiving a form is not distinguished from that of keeping it, because to receive and to keep are the same: to undergo a deformation flawlessly and with coherence of the molecular chains. The preparation of clay is the constitution of this state of equal distribution of the molecules, of this arrangement in chains; the setting into form is already commenced at the time when the craftsman stirs the paste before introducing it into the mold. Because the form is not only the fact of being parallelepipedic; it is also the fact of being without cracks in the parallelepiped, without bubbles of air, split: fine cohesion is the result of a formalization; and this setting into form is only the exploitation of the colloidal characters of this elementary form without which nothing would be possible, and which is homogeneous compared to the form of the mold: there is only, in the two technical half-chains, a change of scale. In the swamp, clay has its colloidal properties as well, but they are there molecule by molecule, or grain by grain; this is prior to the form, and it is what later will maintain the homogeneous and well molded brick. The quality of the matter is the form’s origin, the form’s element which the technical operation forces to change its scale. In the other technical half-chain, the geometrical form concretizes itself, becomes a dimension of the mold, collected wood, sawdust or damp wood[2].

The technical operation prepares two half-chains of transformations that meet at a certain point, when the two created objects are compatible, are on the same scale; this comparison is not single and unconditional; it can be done through stages; what one considers as single formalization is often only the last episode of a series of transformations; when the block of clay receives the final deformation which enables it to fill the mold, its molecules are not reorganized completely and in one move; they displace a little the ones compared to the others; their topology is maintained, it only acts as the latest total deformation. However, this total deformation is not only a formalization of clay by its contour. Clay gives a brick because this deformation operated on masses in which the molecules are already arranged the ones compared to the others, without air, without sand grains, with a good colloidal equilibrium; if the mold did not control in a recent deformation all these pre-established former arrangements, it would not give any form; one can say that the shape of the mold operates only on the shape of clay, not on the clay matter. The mold limits and stabilizes rather than only imposing a form: it gives the end of the deformation and achieves it by stopping it according to a definite contour: it modulates the ensemble of the already formed networks: the gesture of the workman who fills the mold and compresses the clay continues the former gesture of kneading, stretching, shaping: the mold plays the part of a fixed set of modeling hands, acting like arrested forming hands. One could make a brick without a mold, with one’s hands, prolonging the shaping by a fashioning that would continue it without rupture.

Matter is matter because it receives a positive property which enables it to be modeled. To be modeled does not mean to undergo arbitrary displacements, but to order its plasticity according to definite forces that stabilize the deformation. The technical operation is the mediation between an inter-elementary unit and an infra-elementary unit. The pure form already contains gestures, and the primary matter has the capacity to become; the gestures contained in the form meet the becoming of the matter and modulate it. So that the matter can be modulated in its becoming, it is necessary that it is, like the clay at the time when the workman presses in the mold, of a deformable reality, i.e. of the reality which does not have a definite form, but all the indefinite forms, dynamically, because this reality, at the same time that it possesses inertia and consistency, is the agent of force, at least for a moment, and is identified point by point with this force; so that the clay fills the mold, it is not enough that it is plastic: it is necessary that it transmits the pressure that the workman presses on it, and that each point of its mass is a center of forces; clay is pushed in the mold which it fills; it propagates with it in its mass the energy of the workman. During the time of the filling, a potential energy actualizes itself [3]. It is necessary that the energy which pushes the clay exists, in the system mold-hand-clay, in potential form, so that the clay fills all empty space, being developed in any direction, arrested only by the edges of the mold. The walls of the mold intervene then not simply as the materialized geometrical structures, but point by point as fixed places which do net let the expanding clay advance and oppose to the pressure only a developed equal force in the contrary direction (principle of reaction), without carrying out any work, since they are not displaced.

The walls of the mold play compared to a clay element the same part as an element of this clay compared to another close element: the pressure of an element compared to another within the mass is almost as strong as that of an element of the wall compared to an element of the mass; the only difference resides in this fact that the wall does not displace, whereas the elements of clay can displace the ones compared to the others and to the wall [4]. A potential energy being translated within clay by compressive forces actualizes itself during the filling. The vehicular matter with potential energy actualizes itself; the form, represented here by the mold, plays an informative part by exerting forces without work, forces that limit the actualization of the potential energy which the matter is momentarily carrying. This energy can, indeed, actualize itself according to such or such direction, with such or such speed: the form is the limit. The relation between matter and form is not thus made between inert matter and form coming from the outside: there is operation common to and at the same level of existence between matter and form; this common level of existence, is that of force, coming from an energy momentarily transported by the matter, but extracted from a state of the total inter-elementary system of a superior dimension, and expressing individuated limitations. The technical operation constitutes two half-chains which, starting from the raw material and from the pure form, come into contact with one other and reunite. This union is made possible by the dimensional congruence of the two ends of the chains; the successive links of development transfer characters without inventing new ones: they establish only changes of order of magnitude, levels, and of state (for example the passage of the molecular state to a molar state, of the dry state to a wet state); what there is at the end of the material half-chains, is the aptitude of the matter for transporting point by point a potential energy which can cause a movement in an indeterminate direction; what there is at the end of the formal half-chains, is the aptitude of a structure to condition a movement without achieving a work, by a play of forces that do not displace their point of application.This assertion is not rigorously true however; so that the mold can limit the expansion of the plastic dough and direct this expansion statically, it is necessary that the walls of the mold develop a force of reaction equal to the pressure of the clay; the clay ebbs and squashes itself, filling the voids, when the reaction of the walls of the mold is slightly more elevated than the forces which are exerted in other directions at the interior of the clay mass; when the mold is filled completely, on the contrary, the internal pressures are everywhere equal with the forces of the reaction of the walls, so that any movement becomes impossible. The reaction of the walls is thus the static force which directs clay during the filling, by prohibiting the expansion according to certain directions. However, the forces of reaction can only exist in consequence of one very small elastic inflection of the walls; one can say that, from the point of view of matter, the formal wall is the limit from which a displacement in a determinate direction is only possible at the price of a very large increase in work; but so that this condition of the increase in work is effective, it is necessary that it starts to be realized, before the equilibrium merely breaks and so that the matter does not take other directions in which it is not limited, pushed by the energy that it transports with it and self actualizes while advancing; thus it is necessary that there is a light work from the walls of the mold, that which corresponds to the weak displacement of the point of application of the forces of reaction. But this work is not added to that of the actualization of transported energy produced by the clay; it is not cut off any either: it does not interfere with it; it can moreover be reduced as needed; a mold out of thin wood deforms notably under the abrupt pressure of clay, then returns gradually in place; a mold out of thick wood displaces less; a cast iron or flint mold displaces extremely little.

Moreover, the positive work of re-installation compensates for the mainly negative of deformation. The mold can have some elasticity; it must not be plastic. It is as forces that matter and form are put in presence. The only difference between the mode of these forces for the matter and the form reside in that the forces of the matter come from a transported energy by the matter and are always available, while the forces of the form are forces which produce only a slight amount of work and intervene as the limits of the actualization of the energy of the matter. It is not in the infinitely short moment, but in becoming it, that form and matter differ; the form is not the vehicle of potential energy; the matter is in-formable matter only because it can be point by point the vehicle of an energy which actualizes itself [5];the preliminary treatment of the raw material has as a function to render the support matter homogeneous from a definite potential energy; it is by this potential energy that the matter becomes; the form, it does not become. In the instantaneous operation, the forces which are those of the matter and the forces which come from the form do not differ; they are homogeneous the ones compared to the others and form part of the same instantaneous physical system; but they do not form part of the same temporal unit. The work exerted by the forces of elastic deformation of the mold is nothing anymore after the molding; the forces were canceled, or were degraded in heat, and did not produce anything on the order of magnitude of the mold. On the contrary, the potential energy of the matter is actualized on an order greater than the clay mass by giving a distribution of the elementary masses. For this reason the preliminary treatment of the clay prepares this actualization: it makes the molecule interdependent of the others molecules and the deformable unit, so that each piece also takes part in the potential energy whose actualization is the molding; it is essential that all the pieces, without discontinuity or privilege, have the same chances of deforming in any direction; a clot, a stone, come within provinces of non-participation to this potentiality which actualizes itself by locating its support: they are parasitic singularities. The fact that there is a mold, i.e. limits of actualization, created in the matter a state of reciprocity of the forces leading to equilibrium; the mold does not act on the outside by imposing molecule on molecule, piece by piece; the clay, at the end of the molding, is the mass in which all the forces of deformation meet in all the directions of the equal forces and contrary direction which founds its equilibrium. The mold translates its existence within the matter by making it tend towards a condition of equilibrium. So because this equilibrium exists it is necessary that at the end of the operation there remains a certain quantity of potential energy still unactualized, contained in the whole system. It would not be exact to say that the form plays a static part whereas the matter plays a dynamic part; in fact, so that there is a single system of forces, it is necessary that matter and form both play a dynamic role; but this dynamic equality is only true in that moment. The form does not evolve or modify itself, because it receives no potentiality, whereas the matter evolves. It carries uniformly widespread potentialities and sets out again in it; the homogeneity of the matter is the homogeneity of its possible becoming. Each point has as many chances as all the others; the matter taking form is in a state of complete internal resonance; what occurs in a point redounds on all the others, the becoming of each molecule retains itself in the becoming of all the others in all the points and in all directions; the matter is that whose elements are not isolated the ones from the others nor heterogeneous the ones compared to the others; any heterogeneity is a condition of the non-transmission of the forces, therefore of internal non-resonance. The plasticity of clay is the capacity to be in a state of internal resonance as soon as it is subjected to a pressure in an enclosure. The mold as limit is that through which the state of internal resonance is provoked, but the mold is not that through which the internal resonance is realized; the mold is not that which, within the plastic earth, uniformly transmits in all directions the pressure and displacements. One cannot say that the mold gives form; it is the earth which takes form according to the mold, because it communicates with the workman. The positivity of this capture of form belongs to the earth and to the workman; it is this internal resonance, the work of this internal resonance [6]. The mold intervenes as a condition of closing, limiting, stopping of expansion, direction of mediation. The technical operation institutes the internal resonance in the matter taking form, by means of topological conditions that can be named form, and the energy conditions that express the whole system. Internal resonance is a state of the system which requires this realization of the energy conditions, the topological conditions and the material conditions: resonance is movement and energy exchange in a determined enclosure, communication between a microphysical matter and a macrophysical energy starting from a singularity of average magnitude, topologically definite.</font

[1] I.e. between the reality of an order of magnitude higher than future the individual, concealing the energy conditions of the molding, and the reality-matter, which is, by grain, in its availability, of an order of magnitude lower than that of the future individual, the real brick.

[2] The mold, thus, is not only the mold, but the technical term of the inter-elementary chains, which comprise vast sets locking up the future individual (working, workshop, press, clay) and containing potential energy. The mold totalizes and accumulates these inter-elementary relations, as prepared clay totalizes and accumulates the molecular inter-elementary interactions of aluminum hydro-silicates.

[3] This energy expresses the macroscopic state of the system containing the future individual; it is of an inter-elementary origin; however, it enters into interactive communication with each molecule of the matter, and it is by this communication that the form emerges, contemporary with the individual.

[4] Thus the individual constitutes itself by this act of communication, within a society of particles in reciprocal interaction, between all the molecules and the action of molding.

[5] Although this energy is an energy of state, an energy of the inter-elementary system; it is in this interaction of two orders of magnitude, on the level of the individual as it encounters forces through which the communication between orders of magnitude consists, under the aegis of a singularity, principle of form, that individuation starts. The mediating singularity is the mold here; in other cases, in Nature, it can be the stone which starts the dune, the gravel which is the germ of an island in a drifting river of alluvia: it is of the intermediate level between inter-elementary dimensions and infra-elementary dimensions.

[6] At this moment, matter is no longer pre-individual matter or molecular matter, but already individual. The potential energy which actualizes itself is an inter-elementary state of the system vaster than matter.

Continue to the next section of The Individual and Its Physico-Biological Genesis

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  1. thanks for this – i just traslated a short essay of simondon’s for the journal Cultural Politics. Rumour is that two of the books are being translated at present (heard from patrick Crogan at Adelaide). Can’t post the trans as its for the journal so all the better to see this

  2. Hey sean, thanks for the comment! I’m glad to hear that Simondon is still being read and translated in English. Do you mind giving the citation for the journal and the essay so that I might be able to get a legitimate copy? Thanks again!

  3. Pingback: French Translations: Works in Progress « Fractal Ontology

  4. Pingback: Translation: Simondon, Completion of Section I, Chapter 1, The Individual and Its Physico-Biological Genesis « Fractal Ontology

  5. Pingback: Gilbert Simondon: translations [updated] « Lukas Verburgt's Blog

  6. Thank you very much Taylor ! This is precious !

    Would you happen to have the French version in a text format as well? The book is completely sold out everywhere and I have to go to the New York Public Library if I want to read this magnificent first chapter !

    Have a good day


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