Tuesday, January 23, 2024

Profane Illumination, Chapter 4

Summary of Chapter 4: The Ghosts of Paris

In this long chapter, Cohen works to distance Breton’s writing in Nadja from several other representational modes. First off is the monumental history critiqued by Nietzsche:

Breton's Nadja offers no such monumental vision of Parisian histor­ical grandeur. Rather than encompassing the city in a panoramic glance, Breton wanders in among its streets, catching enigmatic glimpses of scenes from daily life or dwelling on places singularly tangential to the great structures of collective memory. (79)

She takes as an example the Vendôme column; when Breton visits this location in Nadja, he is immediately reminded of how it had been torn down during the Paris Commune. In terms of monumental history, the restoration of the column means that the revolutionary moment has been erased and the column now appears as “one more image of the bourgeois state’s eternal reign” (79). For this reason, the non-monumental historiographic project “cannot rely on realist methods of representation” (80) (since these would show the literal, physical presence of the column, and not be able to show its former non-presence). [Though it seems to me this is not wholly true. Breton mentions the former overthrow of the column by Courbet and the communards; the memory of this event is still part of the column, so even as it stands it also lies in ruin, inevitably, to any observer who knows the history. THOUGH C is arguing not about the column as an object having various “real” or “unreal” qualities, etc., but about ways of seeing the column; realism privileges the visual, and it is thus according to realism that the column has only the present, visual meaning, not the past, haunting meaning.] [It’s a bit ironic for Courbet to be used in an argument against realism.]

“In Nadja Breton explores the pos­sibility of writing surrealist historiography by applying a Freudian paradigm of memory to collective events.” [She is making the move I inferred above, though does the connection to Freudianism lessen the ambiguity and productive ambivalence? of the column being both standing and fallen.] She quotes Benjamin’s description, from his Surrealism essay in Reflections, of Breton’s method in Nadja (though he says it is more of a “trick” than a “method” of substituting “a political for a historical view of the past” [by “historical view” is presumably meant something along the lines of monumental history.]

Cohen then explores Parisian panoramic literature of the 1920s, and of some earlier decades, to reconstruct the discourse and [structure of feeling] of the era in which Breton was writing, in order to get a better sense of how a reader of his time would have recognized the various “ghosts” haunting the Paris through which Nadja and Andre travel. She started off doing an exhaustive survey of panoramic literature on Paris from the 20s, but realized this was not necessary as it was all very redundant:

Repeatedly, the same historical associations were identified with Breton's charged Parisian sites, confirming the hypothesis that there did indeed exist a contemporary res­ervoir of Parisian phantoms that Breton could invoke.

The uncanny effects of Parisian places, Breton suggests, derive from ef­faced historical memories that continue to cluster around the place of their occurrence in invisible but perceptible form. (83)

Comparing Breton’s text with that of the panoramic literature on the various sites he mentions, C finds that Breton consistently pursues the connections between Parisian bohemia and the history of insurrection at any particular locations; this is “a crucial component to Nadja's attack on orthodox Marxist notions of praxis” (94). Nadja is continuously associated with the side of the revolution that lost out, from the royalists to the Girondins (and Lepeletier, more of a radical, but an early martyr). Acc C, Breton is outlining an opposition to violent revolution, through contrasts or whatever with all these ghosts of failed past revolutions. Reference is made to the Sacco-Vanzetti riots on 1927, which were also failures, because the French Communist party hoped they would spark a more general revolutionary movement.

For in these experiences Breton finds confirmation for a haunting notion of subjectivity which calls into question the possibility of establishing an enlightened and conscious subject outside of ideology in several ways. Posing the problem of whether there exists a self-present subject at all, Breton also suggests the conscious subject as the locus where the reigning ideology reproduces itself. Ghosts endowed with powers of resistance only surge up in moments when the subject's conscious experience is disrupted by forces coming from a mysterious unconscious realm. In addition, the collective uncanny suggests that history is composed of temporal strata layered as in the situations of individual psychic repression at issue in psycho­analysis. (106)

In contrast to mainstream Marxism, Breton focuses on Bohemians and lumpen as the revolutionary class; “ragpicker as revolutionary” (106ff). Cohen recounts Breton’s annoyance at the shiny happy people on the sidewalk shaking hands, etc. which I had found so amusing; C, in contrast, appears to read this as Breton’s distrust of the working class as having revolutionary potential.

Rather, against the Marxist interest in mobilizing the proletariat, Breton stresses the need for individual, tactical disruptions of reigning social orders in what he calls “unchaining.” In doing so Breton disqualifies the class from which orthodox Marxism expects revolution, for he suggests as precondition to praxis the subject’s being freed from the material conditions of industrial production. Socially transformative activity becomes instead the province of subjects who no longer define themselves according to their work: (107)

The key concept Cohen pulls out of Breton’s book is désenchaînement, “perpetual unchaining.” The need for this is his response to Nadja’s insistence that the working class are “good people;” he takes this to mean martyrs for the cause (for work, for the nation in wars, for the CP in revolutionary struggles). It involves an openness to “the marvelous,” “an interest that surrealism itself took over from the Gothic tradition” (107).

Chaîne also means assembly line:

Enchainement is a word resonating not only on the material level but also on the conceptual level, as the enchainement of ideas; the disruption of dominant conceptual structures is an oft-stated goal of surrealist revolution. (108)

If Breton appropriates the Marxist liberatory language of “unchaining,” then, it is to displace Marxism's vision of the working class rising up and casting off its chains.

The inclusion of various lumpen/bohemian characters in the novel is contrasted with Marx’s distrust of this class.

But precisely its marginal relation to capitalist processes of production endears bohemia to Breton. In its Lumpen constitution and practices, bohemia embodies the unchaining of social hierarchies that surrealism seeks. (109)

She discusses Breton’s [détournement] of the word “perverse” into something positive (from Latin pervertere, to overturn, C notes]. This “more closely approaches his flea-market vision of social change than does the word revolution” (110). Breton is also interested in bohemia’s links to the libidinal unchaining of the erotic, which is also traditionally distrusted by mainstream marxism:

In Breton's subsequent theoretical writings he will try to reconcile Marxism with his interest in unchaining libidinal forces, speculating that the seemingly differentiated fields of libidinal and economic production may in fact turn out to be one. (110n58)

C turns to criticisms that mainstream surrealism accorded women a secondary status, stating that there are two ways to put surrealism’s treatment of women in perspective; first, by looking back, Cohen notes that the subordination of women in surrealism, even as they were made into “emblems of its power” goes back to the Jacobin revolutionary tradition (110-1). Second, looking forward, she finds that surrealism had some positive influence on feminist theory, through the concept of “subversion.” C provides some interesting comments on the status of “subversion” for “politicized postmodernism” at the time of her writing in the early 1990s:

After over a decade, subversion is losing its prestige; touting it as a political practice all too often seems like prescribing snakeoil for gaping social wounds. The pressing critical questions, we have started to feel, are elsewhere (nothing is so profoundly anti-erotic as the recently out­moded, Benjamin remarks), for example in exploring the complex relation of the aesthetic to other forms of social production rather than in denying its specificity or simplistically exalting its effect. I suspect moreover that the death-knell of subversion has, at least for the moment, been sounded with the fracturing of the Reagan-Bush right. Alleviating in some measure the academic left’s sense of social and political marginalization, this fracturing removes a key factor in the appeal of subversion to the politically engaged wing of American critical postmodernism throughout the 1980s. (111)

In a discussion of de Certeau’s influences, the distinction between Bataille and Breton is neatly summarized:

But in the case of tactics de Certeau’s view more resembles Bretonian unchaining than the equivalent therapeutic unleashing of the forces of the unconscious onto existing social order prescribed by Bataille. (111)

Bataille celebrates absolute negation and general collapse through expenditure; Breton and de Certeau are more interested in “small-scale moments of intervention” (e.g., de Certeau’s interest in “tactics”). The trouvaille, or lucky find, is dear to both surrealism and de Certeau. She also finds a link to D&G:

I think, for example, of Deleuze and Guattari’s “molecular multiplicities of desiring-production,” which owe much to Nadja’s haunting subjectivity; the trajectory here runs from unchaining to deterritorialization. (112)

Though she notes that “High surrealism is cer­tainly a conspicuous absence in Anti-Oedipus” which prominently cites the Beats and the renegade surrealists of Bataille’s faction.

She raises the issue of aestheticization, or the rendering of workers, bohemians, etc. into aesthetic tools via representation, in a way degrading them and stealing their agency: Breton is opposing aestheticization by traditional Marxism, but he himself risks doing it himself, and navigating this takes up most of the rest of Cohen’s discussion.

Discussing the degraded life of the urban proletariat, Breton points out that to make the worker into an agent of social change is to aestheticize the social realities of the worker’s life. One can certainly argue, however, that Breton’s interest in bohemian practices lends glamour to the dirty business of sifting through society’s trash. … It could equally be objected that Breton glamorizes prostitution and madness. (113)

However, according to C, Breton does not in fact aestheticize these positions because “Breton simultaneously narrates his encounters with Nadja in a fashion undoing the bohemian suggestions for revolutionary practice that he proposes” (114).

[Fanny Beznos, a character from the book who plays a key in this part of Cohen’s discussion, and who Breton recounts seeing at a flea market selling books, later died in Auschwitz].

Cohen’s summary of the plot; Nadja is a stock character from 19th century social novels, the newcomer woman to the city who falls into prostitution:

In this desperate state, she meets a bored, young, married aesthete. Fascinated by her fragile mental health, the aesthete seduces her, driving her to madness; repelled by the sordid details of her life, he eventually abandons her. Later learning that, utterly destitute and alone, she has been institutionalized, he does nothing to help her but only abstractly bemoans her fate. (114)

This somewhat callous ending has disappointed many critics and indeed, readers in general (Breton comes across as so bourgeois in the end); Cohen, however, sees it as part of what makes Breton’s novel actually revolutionary; he is contrasted in particular to the writers of social novels, such as Eugene Sue, and Zola, and she describes how each would have written the story differently, to elicit particular feelings, so as to prompt readers to support social reforms. Breton denies us these nice cathartic feelings, and further complicates his books relation to the social novel by also bringing in elements of the post-Romantic prose poem a la Nerval or Rimbaud, precursors to surrealism.

In valorizing the prostitute, for example, Baudelaire’s prose poem redeems as aesthetically fertile her availability to chance and to the unknown as well as her refusal to engage in the forms of behavior which bourgeois morality defines as work.

Unlike Sue or Zola, Breton’s account of Nadja does not place the reality of prostitution, insanity, etc., under the obligation of communicating “a certain ideological necessity” linked to bourgeois moralizing, like that which Marx criticized in Sue (116). Instead of “replacing the social Nadja with the aestheticized Nadja” Breton problematizes all this with his constant questioning as to “who is the real Nadja?” This also does not romanticize bohemian unchaining, because it can lead to madness, etc. Instead, Breton’s setting up the possibility of unchaining, then showing also its pitfalls, creates for the reader an aporia or aporias, (in the Derridean sense of the word):

Breton’s generic disruption does not offer transcendence or liberation but rather throws the reader into impasse, aporia, and specifically the aporia of oppressive material conditions which destroy the efforts at ideological unchaining necessary to change them.

Nadja’s fate raises the possibility that surrealist désenchaînement may not only fail to undermine the superior force of the ruling order; it may exist only as an effect of the order it thinks to challenge. (117)

[The above implication that romantic désenchaînement might be part of the [spectacle] is not pursued any further in this chapter].

She notes criticisms that B’s attitude toward the insane prisoners of the asylum is patronizing and condescending, tinged with bourgeois moralism.

Many readers have expressed disappointment that Breton does not present his and Nadja’s adventures as heady and intoxicating transcendence. Condemning Breton for his final betrayal of Nadja, they link it to his betrayal of the marvelous series of steps the text sets out to take. It seems to me, however, that such betrayal does not mark the failure of the text’s disruptive power but instead its accomplishment. The disruptive force of the betrayal can indeed best be gauged by readers’ persistently negative reactions to it, which bear witness to their own unexamined needs for texts presenting optimistic schemas of social change. (118)

Interestingly, Cohen’s defense of Breton here could be said to be similar to his approach in the book: she defends him but also allows cracks and doubts in the edifice, so that Breton can be seen as both brilliant revolutionary and failed, un-self-critical bourgeois consumer of the spectacle, at the same time.

Thursday, January 11, 2024

Labor and Monopoly Capital, Chapter 14

Summary of Chapter 14: The Role of the State

In the most elementary sense, the state is guarantor of the conditions, the social relations, of capitalism, and the protector of the ever more unequal distribution of property which this system brings about. But in a further sense state power has everywhere been used by governments to enrich the capitalist class, and by groups or individuals to enrich themselves. (197)

The state has always played this function, but it is expanded with monopoly capitalism. In the cases of post-war Germany and Japan, the state and the new capital form are created simultaneously; however, in older states such as the US and UK, a more circumscribed role for the state existed earlier, so the transformation to the more interventionist state appeared to be a struggle against capital, though this was only an illusion.

the maturing of the various tendencies of monopoly capitalism created a situation in which the expansion of direct state activities in the economy could not be avoided.

This is explored under four “headings.”

1. “Monopoly capitalism tends to generate a greater economic surplus than it can absorb,” leading to periodic stagnation and depressions. Government spending is necessary to buy up the surplus; Braverman points to Baran and Sweezy’s text for a more complete analysis.

2. The new, international/trans-national structure of capitalist production, along with resistance movements which arise to oppose it, means that, to police this order, the leading capitalist states need to have a permanent active military. This in turn assists in creating effective demand (per #1) with the added bonus that military spending, unlike welfare spending, does not redistribute income, and is thus more acceptable to the capitalist class. B states this solution originates with the Nazis, and is picked up by the US and other nations after WWII.

3. Increased poverty and insecurity under monopoly capitalism lead to a need for welfare spending focusing on cities to render this population manageable; “the disputes within the capitalist class over this issue, including disagreements over the scale, scope, and auspices of the welfare measures to be adopted, offer an arena for political agitation which engages the working population as well, and offers a substitute for the revolutionary movements which would soon gain ground if the rulers followed a more traditional laissez-faire course” (198).

4. Another new role for the state today is as provider of institutionalized education, replacing the home-and-community-based practical education of yore:

The minimum requirements for “functioning” in a modern urban envi­ronment—both as workers and as consumers—are imparted to children in an institutional setting rather than in the family or the community. At the same time, what the child must learn is no longer adaptation to the slow round of seasonal labor in an immediately natural environment, but rather adaptation to a speedy and intricate social machinery which is not adjusted to social humanity in general, let alone to the individual, but dictates the rounds of production, consumption, survival, and amusement. Whatever the formal educational content of the curriculum, it is in this respect not so much what the child learns that is important as what he or she becomes wise to. In school, the child and the adolescent practice what they will later be called upon to do as adults: the conformity to routines, the manner in which they will be expected to snatch from the fast-moving machinery their needs and wants. (199)

The opposition between “learning” (facts, techniques, etc.) and “getting wise” is interesting, and the latter has an interesting link to metis. B’s primary point is that it is the form of schooling which teaches the patterns of obedience, conformity, etc., which is more important than the content of what is taught; there is also the sense in which the actual knowledge that is relevant in this ever-changing work environment is very fleeting and always shifting, so it is more a sense of what is going on and a readiness to adapt, in order to “snatch from the fast-moving machinery their needs and wants,” that students need to obtain.

Tuesday, January 9, 2024

The Revolution of Everyday Life, Chapter 2

Summary of Chapter 2: Humiliation

This is the first of five chapters on “the mechanisms of attrition and destruction,” which render “participation” “impossible,” through “power” as a “sum of constraints." The five mechanisms are humiliation, isolation, suffering, work, and decompression.

V’s summary of this chapter:

The economy of daily life is based on a continual exchange of humiliations and aggressive attitudes. It conceals a technique of attrition itself prey to the gift of destruction which paradoxically it invites (1). Today, the more man is a social being, the more he is an object (2). Decolonisation has not yet begun (3). It will have to give a new value to the old principle of sovereignty (4). (29)

He begins with an example of Rousseau being ridiculed by villagers:

Aren’t most of the trivial incidents of daily life like this ridiculous adventure? But in an attenuated and diluted form, reduced to the duration of a step, a glance, a thought, experienced as a muffled impact, a fleeting discomfort barely registered by consciousness and leaving in the mind only a dull irritation at a loss to discover its own origin?

“Humiliation” for V is about the micropolitics of interpersonal interaction, microaggressions in particular, along with the “timid retreats, brutal attacks,” the  momentary failures and embarrassments which constitute the sort of war of everyday interaction in a meaningless society.

All we can do is enclose ourselves in embarrassing parentheses; like these fingers (I am writing this on a cafe terrace) which slide the tip across the table and the fingers of the waiter which pick it up, while the faces of the two men involved, as if anxious to conceal the infamy which they have consented to, assume an expression of utter indifference. (30)

There is an economy of insults: “From the point of view of constraint, daily life is governed by an economic system in which the production and consumption of insults tends to balance out.” He places this economy of insults in relation to the claimed victory of capitalism over the loss of a sense that the state socialisms formed any kind of real alternative. He calls for an economy of the gift to replace the stale and soulsucking capitalist model of exchange

In fact, a truly new reality can only be based on the principle of the gift. Despite their mistakes and their poverty, I see in the historical experience of workers’ councils (1917, 1921, 1934, 1956), and in the pathetic search for friendship and love, a single and inspiring reason not to despair over present “reality.” Everything conspires to keep secret the positive character of such experiences; doubt is cunningly main­tained as to their real importance, even their existence. By a strange oversight, no historian has ever taken the trouble to study how people actually lived during the most extreme revolutionary movements. (31)

There are two sides to the point he is making. On the one hand, the economic relations of life (exchange in capitalism, control in state socialism) are seen as entering into the logic of everyday interpersonal interaction, transforming it to match the image of society. At the same time, everyday life is more the engine of real revolution than the surface form of worker’s councils, etc. Even the “pathetic search for friendship and love” is of the same material or force as revolutionary actions. Cynicism about the importance of such yearnings plays a role in keeping everyone docile and accepting, because there is no alternative.

He celebrates the violence of anarchist terrorists, but also murderers like Lacenaire, etc. as the “concave form of the gift” motivated by rejection of “relationships based on exchange and compromise” and “hierarchical social community.” V does not agree with murder, but wants to seize the emotional passion and rejection that motivates murderers like Lacenaire. Revolutionary tactics must have collective attraction (not just radically individual like Ravachol, the Bonnot gang, etc.); they must “attract collectively the individuals whom isolation and hatred for the collective lie have already won over to the rational decision to kill or to kill themselves” (31-2).

No murderers – and no humanists either! The first accepts death, the second imposes it. Let ten people meet who are resolved on the lightning of violence rather than the agony of survival; from this moment, despair ends and tactics begin. Despair is the infantile disorder of the revolutionaries of daily life. (32)

[Propaganda by the deed] is effective in that it exposes the workings of power:

Hierarchical social organ­isation is like a gigantic racket whose secret, exposed precisely by anarchist terrorism, is to place itself out of reach of the violence it gives rise to, by consuming everybody’s energy in a multitude of irrelevant struggles.

The uneasiness of handshakes, of eye contact:

When our eyes meet someone else’s they become uneasy, as if they could make out their own empty, soulless reflection in the other person's pupils. Hardly have they met when they slip aside and try to dodge one another; their lines of flight cross at an invisible point, making an angle whose width expresses the divergence, the deeply­ felt lack of harmony. (33)

A whole ethic based on exchange value, the pleasures of business, the dignity of labour, restrained desires, survival and on their opposites, pure value, gratuitousness, parasitism, instinctive brutality and death: this is the filthy tub that human faculties have been bubbling in for nearly two centuries. From these ingredients -refined a little of course – the cyberneticians are dreaming of cooking up the man of the future. (33-4)

[This is one of several references to “cyberneticians” planning a future perfect society, perhaps what he means when he says capitalism will end in a planned economy, that would put the paltry Soviet model to shame.]

The feeling of humiliation is nothing but the feeling of being an object. Once understood as such, it becomes the basis for a combative lucidity in which the critique of the organisation of life cannot be separated from the immediate inception of the project of living differently. Construc­tion can begin only on the foundation of individual despair and its transcendence; the efforts made to disguise this despair and pass it off under another wrapper are proof enough of this, if proof were needed. (34)

He then adds:

What is the illusion which stops us seeing the disintegration of values, the ruin of the world, inauthenticity, non-totality?

The link between humiliation and this question is objectification: the illusion is happiness—not yours, because you aren’t happy—but that of others, whom you suspect to be happy, and envy.

To define oneself by reference to others is to perceive oneself as other. And the other is always object. Thus life is measured in degrees of humiliation. The more you choose your own humiliation, the more you ‘live’ the more you live the orderly life of things. Here is the cunning of reification, the means whereby it passes undetected, like arsenic in the jam. (34-5)

So being envious of others turns you into an object (you self-objectify), and you thus become a thing. This is the “gentle” oppression of the [post-modern liberal-capitalist state]:

The gentleness of these methods of oppression throws a certain light on the perversion which prevents me from shouting out "The emperor has no clothes" each time my sovereignty over daily life is exposed in all its poverty. (35)

So “My Sovereignty” is perhaps the illusion of agency or heroism, or whatever the belief in the subject is or that it should have (the dream of real liberation or individual sovereignty a la Stirner), but in capitalism, there is only a mockery, a shadow version. Would shouting about the nakedness of “the emperor” (which is you, but in third person, or “your sovereignty” separated from you and treated like an object) be some dialectic of separating the objectified self, of disarticulating the abstract subject? The subject of the statement being separated from the subject of enunciation? In any event he feels this shock of humiliation and objectification is one the one hand the effective means of oppression, but also a first step to the development of [critique] and [the whole master-servant dialectic of liberation].

The new-style police are already with us, waiting to take over. Psychosoci­ological cops have need neither of truncheons nor of morgues. Oppressive violence is about to be transformed into a host of equitably distributed pinpricks. (35)

Humanism is taken to task as more of a [loyal opposition] than a real challenge, and itself a pacifying illusion. He returns to the point that even apparently superficial or minor humiliations and angers are in fact important, perhaps moreso than those that are supposed to me most significant:

There are no negligible irritations: gangrene can start in the slightest graze. The crises that shake the world are not fundamentally different from the conflict in which my actions and thoughts confront the hostile forces that entangle and deflect  them.

Sooner or later the continual division and re-division of aggravations will split the atom of unlivable reality and liberate a nuclear energy which nobody suspected behind so much passivity and gloomy resignation. That which produces the common good is always terrible. (35-6)

Colonialism has played a role as a useful enemy for the left, as an acknowledged evil they can criticize without being able to actually do anything about:

FROM 1945 to 1960, colonialism was a fairy godmother to the left. With a new enemy on the scale of fascism, the left never had to define itself (there was nothing there); it was able to affirm itself by negating something else. In this way it was able to accept itself as a thing, part of an order of things in which things are everything and nothing. (36)

After the “end of colonialism” (which is just a change of stance, since it has not ended). the left has turned to anti-racism, etc.; but V dismisses these concerns as just phenomena of humiliation, which is the core of it all.

Aime Cesaire made a famous remark: “The bourgeoisie has found itself unable to solve the major problems which its own existence has produced: the colonial problem and the problem of the proletariat.” He forgot to add: “For they are one and the same problem, a problem which anyone who separates them will fail to understand.” (37)

On the subject of “sovereignty” he makes a Stirneresque/Nietzschian sort of argument (reminiscent also of the debate on kings in For Whom the Bell Tolls):

Today France contains twenty-four million mini-kings, of which the greatest - the bosses - are great only in their ridiculousness. The sense of respect has become degraded to the point where the right to humiliate is all that it demands. Democratised into public functions and roles, the monar­chic principle floats belly up, like a dead fish: only its most repulsive aspect is visible. Its will to be absolutely and unreservedly superior has disappeared.  Instead of basing our lives on our sovereignty, we try to base our sovereignty on other people's lives. The manners of slaves. (37)

Saturday, January 6, 2024

On the Mode of Existence of Technical Objects, Chapter 2

Summary of Chapter Two: Evolution of Technical Reality; Element, Individual, Ensemble

I. Hypertely and self-conditioning in technical evolution

“Hypertely” (or “hypertelia”) is a word with a fascinating history, apparently beginning in Lamarckian evolutionary theory. Many sources (e.g., Merriam-Webster) give definitions such as “an extreme degree of imitative coloration or ornamentation not explainable on the ground of utility,” but those are examples of hypertely, not definitions. The main point seems to be evolution to a degree or direction which is not really adaptive: over-specialization; Pierre Jolivet (2008: 1897) summarizes hypertely as “beyond the bounds of the useful,” while pointing out that alleged cases of hypertely can be better explained by natural selection (and it is thus interesting to consider how Simondon’s thinking on evolution was affected by non-synthesis strands which apparently survived longer in France than elsewhere (Boesiger 1980). The concept seems to have remained much more popular in France than in the US; Baudrillard, for example, uses it to refer to processes like cancer, capitalism, and so on, which have “no other end than limitless increase, without any consideration of limits” (Baudrillard 1990: 52).

Commentators on Simondon seem to get two related meanings out of his usage, both of which are referenced by Stiegler in Technics and Time. The first, and most broad, is “functional over-adaptation” (53); an example that comes to mind would be a Christmas present of pot-holders that fit over the end of the pot’s handles, thus being specialized and useful in particular circumstances, but less widely useful than square flat potholders, which could be used for the same purpose, and many others. (It seems likely that such hypertely is more common among Christmas presents compared to other objects). The second, more particular, sense, is that in which hypertely “limits the object’s indetermination by leaving it dependent upon an artificial milieu” (Stiegler 1998: 78). Simondon’s example is a transport glider, which can only fly with the assistance of a tow plane (54). “Indetermination” in the Stiegler quote refers to the openness of the technical object to be adapted to a broader range of uses, or to further technical evolution; the “artificial milieu” is a technological milieu upon which the object is dependent, and thus stands in contrast to the associated milieu, which it carries with itself, thus making the technical object more autonomous. 

S starts the chapter (53) by noting that the “schema that constitutes the essence of the technical object” can adapt in two ways: first, it can adapt to the “material and human conditions of production;” and second, to “the task for which it is made.” The second leads to overspecialization and hypertely. S then adds that there are two kinds of hypertely: 1) “a fine-tuned adaptation to well-defined conditions without breaking the technical object up and without a loss of autonomy” (e.g., the specialized pot-holders?) and 2) “a breaking up of the technical object” (54), as in the case of the transport glider and tow plane. He then describes a third kind, of “mixed hypertely,” in which the object becomes dependent on a particular environment to function. This leads to a distinction between two kinds of milieux or worlds: the geographical milieu and the technical milieu (55); the technical object is involved in both, at their meeting point: the two worlds act on each other through the technical object, which is “to a certain extent determined by human choice, attempting to realize the best possible compromise between these two worlds.” 

“The evolution of technical objects can only become progress insofar as these technical objects are free in their evolution and not pushed by necessity in the direction of a fatal hypertely” (58). There thus needs to be a third, “techno-geographic” milieu which allows for the “self-conditioning” of the object, that is, its evolution according to its schema or whatever, instead of imposed external conditions or whatever. Sorry if I sound like I’m not fully buying it here. At the end of this section S takes up the role of human intelligence, which will be explored in more detail subsequently.

II. Technical invention: ground and form in the living and in inventive thought.

S summarizes his argument so far:

We can therefore affirm that the individualization of technical beings is the condition of technical progress. This individualization is made possible by the recurrence of causality within a milieu that the technical being creates around itself and that conditions it, just as it is conditioned by it. This simultaneously technical and natural milieu can be called the associated milieu. (59)

Thus, individualization is a matter of increased autonomy, the technical object being able to re/act by itself in relation to its “associated milieu.” The “recurrence of causality” within this milieu is what allows for “self-conditioning,” which either means self-maintenance/homeostasis, or evolution, or both (if the former, it is a condition for the latter). The argument is in some ways a more sophisticated development on the cyberneticists’ interest in feedback, adding in the relationship between individual and milieu, and the insistence that these should be understood in time, as part of an “evolution.” 

“Invention” is distinguished by S from gradual development, apparently in line with his [saltationist] vision of technical evolution (the term he actually uses is “serrated” evolution). “The only technical objects that can be said to have been invented, strictly speaking, are those that require an associated milieu in order to be viable; these cannot in fact be constituted part by part via the phases of successive evolution, because they can exist only as a whole or not at all.” The example of the Guimbal turbine, from the previous chapter, is given again here as an example. “The reason the living being can invent is because it is an individual being that carries its associated milieu with it” in the form of culture, material culture, technical knowledge, etc.; this allows the [human] individual inventor to see beyond the present conditions to imagine a not-yet-existent future which then affects the present in a “reverse conditioning in time” (60).

The translators point out a key pun or word-play in the title of this section: the French term “fond et forme,” which normally means “content and form,” here is used by Simondon as a reference to Gestalt theory, and thus to mean “ground and form.” Much like it is necessary to understand the technical object in terms of its milieu, so is it necessary to understand form as contrasted against its ground; but here (in the case of invention),

the ground is the system of virtualities, of potentials, forces that carve out their own path, whereas forms are the system of actuality. Invention is the taking charge of the system of actuality through the system of virtualities... (61)

[I made a note that articulation in discourse works similarly, on the “form” of the present in terms of possible futures or alternative “systems of actuality.”] S continues to talk about symbolization and alienation, both of which will be returned to later; he ends the section with some remarks on the relations between organs and organisms.

III. Technical individualization.

In this short section S explores the relations between element, individual, and ensemble, starting by clarifying the distinction between a technical individual (of which the associated milieu is a necessary aspect of its functioning) and a mere “collection of organized individuals” working together, the latter of which is an ensemble. He explores the example of a laboratory as ensemble to show that the ensemble does not have a “truly associated milieu” (65); this appears to be because the different machines, experiments, etc. which are part of or can be done in the laboratory require different setups, cannot be allowed to interfere with each other, and so on, and thus the laboratory-as-milieu for these experiments or processes is adapted or changed in particular ways for each. There are nevertheless “relative levels of individualization” present (64), so the ensemble can contain relatively individualized sub-ensembles. This relativity of individualization extends as well to “infra-individual technical objects” (66).

IV. Evolutionary succession and preservation of technicity. Law of relaxation.

The “law of relaxation” has to do with causality within S’s theory of the  “serrated evolution” of technology, which means evolution that is not continuous but rather proceeds in stages, each of which apparently has its own “solidarity” or coherence or whatever. He illustrates this through the history of energy sources, with the pre- or proto-industrial artisanal stage powered by waterfalls, wind, and animal power (68). Within this era thermodynamic elements are invented, leading to the development of thermodynamic machines/individuals such as the steam engine, resulting in the transition, with thermodynamic ensembles such as factories and industrial centralization, to the succeeding thermodynamic or industrial era. [And it seems that “thermodynamic” applies here not only to the source of power but to the thinking that organizes this era.] Out of the thermodynamic ensemble emerges electrotechnics, which follows the same basic pattern, resulting in a new electrotechnical era, in which (in an interesting observation) the role of the railroad in spatially organizing and distributing production and relations in the thermodynamic era, is now played by high voltage transmission lines [and also of course by highways, railroads, etc.].

“At the moment in which electrical technics reaches its full development, it produces new schemes in the form of elements that initiate a new phase” (70); this quote reveals the sense in which this phase of  “relaxation” spends itself with a “full development” of its potentials or whatever, producing the elements of the new, succeeding phase. Here Simondon explores two related but competing technologies being developed in his day, which he sees as likely to form the basis of the succeeding stage – and, presciently, these are solar and nuclear power. (Though I do wonder what S would think about the fact that, over sixty years after this book was published, the confrontation between these two, and the promise of a new technological system following from this, has yet to have fully played out. Perhaps this is a limitation of the focus on “energy sources” as driving or shaping technological change; he does mention information elsewhere, but does not in this passage foresee the growth of computing and its high energy demands; nor does he mention fossil fuels in his discussion of “electrical technics.” (He drifts from focusing on the power source, to the mode of transmission, and back, without apparently realizing this). And of course we know that the fossil fuel industry and its vested interests would be, in Simondon’s eyes, an  “extrinsic cause” like all “economic constraints,” and thus not really of interest for his history of technological evolution.) For all that his discussion of nuclear and solar power as potentially competing, or potentially aligned, visions/power sources for a coming technological era, seems still quite relevant today.

V. Technicity and evolution of technics: technicity as instrument of technical evolution.

S asserts that, despite progressing in stages, his model of technical progress is distinct from dialectics because there is no negation or negativity playing a role as engine of progress in his model. Instead, negativity, in the form of a lack of individuation, plays a minor role and does not lead to progress, itself. He furthermore distinguishes between progress and change, per se, in that not all change counts as actual progress.

“For progress to exist, each age must be able to pass on to the next age the fruit borne of its technical effort” (71); this is passed not through individuals or ensembles (which must change more dramatically with each step of evolution), but through elements. He restates a key difference between technical beings and living beings: only the latter can engender other living beings (S dismisses as silly some attempts by cyberneticists to create machines that mimic the process). Technical beings, however, because they have less “perfection” than living beings, have more “freedom” of recombination and transmission of elements (rather than whole individuals); [this is perhaps why the Lamarckian-style evolutionary concepts can be applied to the evolution of technology, even if they don’t work for living creatures].

The question then becomes what “technical perfection” consists in, and S illustrates this with an adze, which, though appearing fairly simple, has several different parts which have to be forged to the correct strength, etc.; “as if, in its totality, the tool was made of a plurality of functionally different zones, welded together” (72). The point is that:

The tool is made not only of form and matter; it is made of elaborate technical elements according to a certain schema of functioning, and assembled into a stable structure though the operation of fabrication. The tool unites within itself the results of the functioning of a technical ensemble. In order to make a good adze a technical ensemble of a foundry, forge, and quench hardening is required.

The technicity of an object is thus more than a quality of its use; it is that which, within it, adds itself to a first determination given by the relation between form and matter; it acts as an intermediary between form and matter …. Technicity is the degree of the object’s concretization.

Even a simple element, like a coil spring, requires a complex and advanced technical ensemble to produce it; “It would not be an exaggeration to say that the quality of a simple needle expresses the degree of perfection of a nation’s industry” (73). “What the element transports is a concretized technical reality” (73-4) of the ensemble that produced it, “just as seeds transport the properties of a species and go on to make new individuals” (74). Technicity as a “positive aspect” of the element corresponds to the role of the associated milieu in constituting the individual (73).

Since this model of evolution does not have negativity a la the dialectic, invention appears to step in as the added ingredient causing progress. 

Invention, which is a creation of the individual, presupposes in the inventor the intuitive knowledge of the element’s technicity; invention occurs at this intermediate level between the concrete and the abstract, which is the level of schemas, and presupposes the pre-existence and coherence of representations that cover the object’s technicity with symbols belonging to an imaginative systematic and an imaginative dynamic. (74)

This appears to refer to not only an “individual” imagination, but a cultural imagination, involving representations and the capacity of prediction of new future individuals and ensembles assembled out of existing or possible elements. S does focus on the inventor as possessor of a particular sensitivity to the technicity of elements; yet the inventor does not give form to new elements and individuals out of the blue or out of their individual genius, but relies on the preexisting elements, ensembles, etc.

The technicities of elements are stable behaviors, or powers: “capacities for producing or undergoing an effect in a determinate manner” (75). S adds that “the higher the technicity of an element, the wider the conditions of deployment of this element are, as a result of the high level of stability of this element." He gives the example of a spring which can be used at a wide range of temperatures without losing its elasticity. Also, “the technical quality once again increases with the independence of its characteristics from the conditions of utilization;” S provides several technical examples, noting in passing that economic constraints affect the individual rather than the “element as element.” [Because it is at the individual level that cost, for example, might result in cheaper parts substituting for better or more efficient ones].

Simondon starts dropping in one of his key concepts, transduction, for which Barthélémy provides some dense definitions, “the process of individuation of the real itself,” and “a physical, biological, mental, social operation through which an activity propagates gradually within a domain, by founding this propagation on a structuration of the domain that is realized from one place to the next” (Barthélémy 2012: 230). (Ah, well that’s perfectly clear now!) A technical object here plays a “transductive role … with respect to a prior age” (76). Prior ensembles and individuals have become obsolete: but “at certain moments in its evolution the technical element makes sense in itself, and is thus a depository of technicity” that can be transmitted to the succeeding age. S turns to the role of technology in different cultures: there are always elements and ensembles, but pre-industrial tech seems to be characterized by “the absence of technical individuals” (77) (naturally, as it was already stated that the industrial era is that of the individual, while the pre-industrial was that of the element). Humans thus play the role of technical individuals in the pre-industrial era, providing the associated milieu for the various tools, etc, and this applies not only to individual human workers or artisans, but to “men employed as technical individuals rather than as human individuals,” which appears to refer to teams of workers operating together and thus forming one “technical individual” in Simondon’s sense.

S has an interesting footnote on “a certain nobility of artisanal work” (77n9), and notes that

the existence of separate [i.e., non-human] technical individuals is a rather recent development and even appears, in some respects, like an imitation of man by the machine, where the machine remains the more general form of a technical individual.

However, S argues, this is only a superficial analogy, because machines usually operate very differently than humans; “yet if man often feels frustration before the machine, it is because the machine functionally replaces him as an individual: the machine replaces man as tool bearer.” (78)

This is the opening to a very interesting discussion which goes a step or so beyond Marx’s observations in the Fragment on Machines. S starts by pointing out that in the artisanal stage there had also been a frequent distinction between the artisan who was “bearer of the tools” and a helper, such as the hod carrier who assists a mason. [Naturally, here is where Braverman (for Ruskin, for that matter) could object that this could have been part of a guild system in which the master’s assistant is an apprentice, learning the trade; Simondon is, typically, disregarding this sociopolitical context.] There is certainly a discourse today that we are to think of ChatGPT, etc. as “assistants” rather than “replacements,” but S acknowledges that it is not only the role of helpers which are taken by machines today; “one could even define the machine as that which bears and directs tools” (78). Humans become disengaged from this direct production, taking roles either as overseers directing one or more machine-tool-bearers, or playing an “auxiliary” role, in which “he greases, cleans, removes detritus and burrs.” What takes S’s discussion beyond Marx’s instrument/machine distinction is the recognition that a human can play both this overseer and assistant role to machines, at once, both “servant and regulator.” [And which of these come into play takes us back to the social relations of production, despite S’s general neglect of these.] (Also cf. Stiegler on technology as pharmakon).

Simondon then more directly addresses Marx’s instrument-machine distinction, in his own terminology. When “man applies his own action to the natural world through the machine,” this takes the relation man-machine-world; the machine becomes “a relay, an amplifier of movements, but it is still man who preserves within himself the center of this complex technical individual that is the reality constituted by man and machine … the man is the bearer of the machine, while the machine remains the tool bearer” (79). 

S now gives a broad historical overview of the relation between humans and “technical individuals.” With the individualization of technical objects beginning in the industrial era, “human individuality is increasingly disengaged from the technical function through the construction of technical individuals; for man, the functions that remain are both below and above that of the tool bearer, oriented both toward the relation with elements and toward the relation with ensembles.” Because, in the artisanal era, technical individuality had been associated with human individuality, in the industrial era (he appears to be saying), “it became customary to give each individual just one function in regard to work.” [He could be referring to his earlier distinction between mason and hod carrier, but the point would make better sense in relation to discretized factory labor.] 

But it now creates unease, because man, who still seeks to be a technical individual, no longer has a stable place alongside the machine: he becomes the servant of the machine or the organizer of the technical ensemble; yet, in order for the human function to make sense, it is necessary for every man employed with a technical task to surround the machine both from above and from below, in order to have an understanding of it in some way, and to look after its elements as well as its integration into the functional ensemble. (80; emphasis added)

S is saying that the ideal, and non-alienating, situation, is for the human to play the above-and-below-the-machine roles, simultaneously, since this is the only way to obtain a full “understanding” of it (and this point appears to link back to the first chapter’s discussion of the need for a science of mechanology to enable this understanding, and the reasons why the situated knowledges of various kinds of worker, engineer, etc. were dismissed as potential foundations for this new science). In fact, S now states that it is wrong to see these two positions as “above” and “below” (or, perhaps, to separate them into an above and a below):

Technicity is not a reality that can be hierarchized; it exists as a whole inside its elements and propagates transductively through the technical individual and ensembles: through the individuals, ensembles are made of elements, and from them elements issue forth. The apparent pre-eminence of ensembles comes from the fact that the ensembles are currently given the same prerogatives as those of people playing the role of the boss.

Historically, work relating to the ensemble has been that of the boss, and work with the element that of the servant; with the middle role of technical individual that of the artisan (and thus associated with democracy, equality, etc.). However, the modern machine renders all these anachronistic: “Ideas of servitude and liberation are far too strongly related to the old status of man as a technical object for them to correspond to the true problem of the relation between man and machine” today (81). Simondon’s goal is to articulate the necessary new and more accurate understanding.

Barthélémy, Jean-Huges (2012) “Fifty Key Terms in the Works of Gilbert Simondon” in de Boever, et al., eds. Gilbert Simondon: Being and Technology. Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh.

Baudrillard, Jean (1990) Fatal Strategies. Semiotext(e), New York.

Boesiger, Ernest (1980) “Evolutionary Biology in France at the Time of the Evolutionary Synthesis.” in Mayr and Provine, eds., The Evolutionary Synthesis. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA. 

Jolivet, Pierre (2008) “Hypertely.” in John L. Capinera, ed., Encyclopedia of Entomology.

Stiegler, Bernard (1998) Technics and Time 1. Stanford University Press, Stanford.