This paper was delivered at the Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts in 2017.
Gilbert Simondon’s minor thesis, On the Mode of Existence of Technical Objects, occasionally forgets its opening claim: that the technical object is a “coming-into-being.” Simondon tends to privilege the technical object in its relative stability as an individual rather than keeping in mind what, in L’individuation, his principal thesis, he calls “ontogenesis,” that is, a theory of the becoming of being in which constituted individuality is but “a partial and relative resolution” to the problematic borne by an individuation (25, 310). This distinction can be indexed by noting that the first chapter in L’individuation primarily considers not the technical object under discussion, the clay brick, but the technical operation that brings it into being.
In this talk, I show how Simondon provides the resources by which to break with his own tendency to substantialize technics into individuals. My goal in this regard is to show that technicity deserves a philosophical categorization on par with that of individuation, transduction, and transindividuation, rather than playing the role of a mediator between natural world and human culture. The root problem with Simondon’s designation of the intrinsic technical values of technics is that it frames technicity as a domain of being in the same way that physical, biological, psychical, and so on, are domains. I contend that a Simondonian philosophy of technicity ought to be not a theory of the mode of existence of technical objects, but rather of a category of technological becoming which, as individuation, is anterior to such domains or phases.
To illustrate my argument and to foreground the cosmological expansion of Simondon’s idea of technicity, I shall discuss his philosophy alongside stomp boxes: the effects pedals that are daisy chained in between an electric guitar and amplifier.
On the Mode of Existence of Technical Objects
Technics, Simondon writes, “result from an objectivation of technicity” (176). Thus, any one technical object is but a moment in a trajectory of an abstract technical schema’s increasingly concrete implementation. One of Simondon’s examples is the vacuum tube, which enables an amplifying transfer of electrons. Prior to the introduction of solid-state transistors, which compose contemporary electronics, vacuum tubes were used when a signal needed to be amplified, modified, and/or controlled. Within a vacuum, the transmission of electrons can be directed from a positively charged cathode to an anode, referred to in this context as the plate. With cathode ray tube (CRT) monitors, the images on the screen are the result of a vacuum tube’s directing electrons onto the plate. In addition to being used in mid-20th-century electronics, including the guidance systems in nuclear weapons still in place today, vacuum tube amplifiers have remained a staple in the creation of sound by musicians and music listeners. When paired with a guitarist’s tube amplifier, an overdrive effects pedal (like the Ibanez Tube Screamer) increases the gain of an electric guitar’s signal in order to push the amplifier’s tubes beyond their range of amplitude, producing distortion. According to Simondon’s approach, each of these implementations of vacuum tubes objectivates a common technical schema: the control and amplification of electrons proceeding from cathode to anode.
A technical schema is a functioning without intrinsic relation to its utility, that is, how it might be used in a specific industry. More precisely, for Simondon, “The concrete technical object is a physico-chemical system in which reciprocal actions take place according to all the laws of the sciences” (39). But these physico-chemical laws have undergone a reorganization, such that the technical object introduces a relatively original structuration of physical individuation. Simondon writes that the technical object is
“an eminently synthetic structure […] The technical schema, which is a relation between several structures and a complex operation taking place through these structures, […] leads to a circularity of knowledge, a synergy of elements of knowledge that are still theoretically heterogeneous” (125).
Thus, one of the key features that sets a technical object apart from other individuals is the design of mediations between multiple structures operating across different domains of phenomena. Invention superimposes modifications and superintends them with a coherent schema of functioning.
Moreover, the technical object exists in between nature and culture. Invention of technics provides an empirical resource for discoveries insofar as their schema has been hitherto unthought. In this way, Simondon’s theory of the technical object is an inversion of Marshall McLuhan’s claim that technical media are extensions of man. Instead, technics are extensions of nature; they expand on natural modes of existence and extend them into culture. As technical schemas progress, defined by Simondon in terms of efficiency, recurrent causality, and relative autonomy from an associated milieu, they introduce technical problems that only the human inventor can resolve. Invention is a creative, and therefore discontinuous, operation of a technic-human system. Information is exchanged between the mental functioning of the inventor and the physical functioning of the technical object such that the forms of the latter incorporate the information of the former. A technical schema thereby increases its degree of technicity, and culture increasingly engages with nature via the intermediary of technical objects.
Through the formalized principles of electrical and sound engineering, effects pedals bring the physical properties of sound waves into contact with the cultural and aesthetic trials of technical structures. Take as an example the DigiTech Whammy Pedal, which features a potentiometer in pedal form on one half of the board next to the other half’s on/off switch and options selector. Its namesake, the whammy bar, performs the same effect through a different function. The whammy bar’s placement on the bridge of the guitar transfers pressure to bend the bridge. This either loosens or tightens the strings, which increases or lowers the frequency of their vibrations. Digitech’s Whammy Pedal applies this principle digitally to the signal in its transmission, rather than its initial production. Its technical schema differs from that of the whammy bar: the pedal modifies the wave form of the electronic signal, whereas the bar adjusts the macrophysical balance of the instrument. To the listener, the Whammy Pedal is a pitch shifter, meaning it changes the received note to a higher or lower note at output depending upon the degree to which the pedal has been pressed. It can also add harmonies to the host signal in accordance with the understanding of sine waves and western musical theory.
In its physical functioning, in the silence of the Whammy’s sonic mold, the pedal modulates the frequencies of the input signal. It brings to bear a scientific understanding of physical phenomena on an aesthetic experience by intervening in a phase of being at an order of magnitude different from that of the aesthetic experience. To anticipate my argument below, the individual here, that is, the technical coming-into-being, is not the pedal, but the superposition of signal and tone. Another, industrial process of production, individuates the pedal.
Now, as I shift attention to the major thesis on individuation, keep in mind a difference in the register of process with regard to the technical object. In the Mode of Existence of Technical Objects, the notion of process typically pertains either to the lineage of a technical schema as it materializes differently across the course of its evolution or to the functioning of a technical object. In both cases, a technical object has already come into being, it is a constituted individual and thus a support for process. By contrast, Simondon’s task in L’individuation is to think the individual in terms of its structural conditions and operations across different and simultaneous processes. As Andrea Bardin points out, this undermines the classical connection of identity to individuality, for the individual becomes a transient ordering of non-self-identical processes into a system that always maintains potentials by which to change the system into something else.
Scalar difference is foundational to the theory of individuation. Simondon writes in the introduction: “The true principle of individuation is mediation, generally supposing an original duality of orders of magnitude and an initial absence of interactive communication between them” (27). Potential energy, according to Simondon, is the condition of a higher order of magnitude; while organization and division of matter are the conditions of a lower order of magnitude. Scale or magnitude must therefore be thought in terms of relations between fluctuating structures and their operations, and not as a preordained topology bound to differences only expressible in terms of size.
A technical schema therefore intervenes both in the division of matter and in the particular denouement of some potential energy’s capacity to perpetuate or shift an individuation; and, furthermore, the schema integrates these two incommensurable domains or phases of being. It is for this reason that I refer to technicity, or technical individuation, as a mediation of mediation. I argue that technicity at the level of the object is itself a becoming, the resources of which are not just two disparate domains, but also the information between them, that is, the communication of forms that institutes, and becomes, their individuation. The technical object is not so much detachable from the human’s natural milieu as it is inventive of a new milieu altogether.
In the case of effects pedals, consider the tripartite superposition of humanly experienced tone, sonic vibrations in metal coiled guitar strings, and electronic signals transduced by the magnetic pickups of the guitar and transmitted via instrument cables. Stomp boxes are emblematic of technicity insofar as they intervene on all of these domains by modifying phenomena at the level of their ground: the structural conditions or forms of sound waves rendered manipulatable as digital data by subsonic microelectronics. I speak of a parallel intervention and not merely a ground-level one because the entire process involves the modified signal transduced into sonic waves through the amplifier and then by the speaker. An effects pedal is but one component process participating in a technologically organized, metastable system. As Simondon explains of the wooden mold used to shape clay into bricks, the “implicit form,” which is “a certain schematism” that the clay already possesses, exists on the molecular scale, but it is technologically manifested, or brought to bear, on a larger scale. Likewise for the signal passing through the stomp box, there are two “half-chains of transformations” that communicate on the same “scale” during the functioning of this technical ensemble (41). The stomp box’s parameter-setting knob is a site of overdetermination where disparate processes participate in and thereby constitute a technical individuation. What makes this individuation technical is that it organizes these disparate domains into a complex ensemble of now commensurable component processes.
Again, to designate technicity a mediation of mediation means that technics directly modify the communicative transfer of material information that is individuation, not just one aspect or component operation. In order to accomplish this second-order individuation, technics must operate on both sides of the scalar difference explained above: potential energy and division of matter, or, respectively, the conditions for higher and lower orders of magnitude. The example system of effects pedals, musician, instrument, and amplifier showcases how interventions on either side enable modifications of one by the other. A sound’s organization of material effects becomes a modular arrangement of frequencies, amplitudes, temporal patterns, and so forth; while the modified electronic signal becomes the basis for producing layered tones, novel timbres, and looped recordings. For Simondon, technics can be measuring tools, or instruments, merely for perception by human senses (On the Mode of Existence 130). What he should have said is that technicity takes the measure of multiple phases of structural conditions and their becomings; and technics are the relatively stable, yet always ongoing, individuation of those phases’ common measure.
My development of technicity out of its object-bounded functioning accords with the resources of Simondon’s philosophy of ontogenesis, the last of which I will draw from now. Simondon accounts for the communication of heterogeneous domains of phenomena by accomodating all domains with a common metaphysical ground. This is the pre-individual. He describes it somewhat enigmatically in the introduction to L’individuation: “Concrete being, complete being, that is to say preindividual being, is a being that is more than a unity” (25). Every individuation bears with it its own pre-individual nature, or structural tensions which are a source for future metastable states. Metastability, like many of Simondon’s concepts, comes from the physical sciences, where it refers to potential energy, as in an electron orbital. I think Simondon links metastability to something as metaphysical as the pre-individual because it indicates how potentials have as much meaning beyond their particular phase as they do within their proper domain of operation, which of course is crucial for individuation.
Now I shall bring my talk to a close with the reference to the pre-individual at the end of the minor thesis. Simondon uses the term when claiming that the technical object is an intermediary for an inter-human, psycho-social relation called transindividuality. This relationship is founded “by means of this weight [charge] of pre-individual reality, this weight of nature preserved with the individual being” (On the Mode of Existence 253). As Mark Hansen pointed out to me, it is not the individual that carries its pre-individual nature, but rather both are processual poles that together shape an individuation. Reading on, I want to generalize the pre-individual nature of technics beyond its implication in psycho-social transindividuality. Simondon writes:
“…one could say that there is some of human nature in the technical being, in the sense where the word nature could be used to designate that which remains original, anterior even to the constituted humanity in man; man invents by implementing [mettre en oeuvre] his proper natural support, this apeiron which remains attached to each individual being. […I]t is not the individual who invents, it is the subject, vaster than the individual, more rich than it, and bearing, outside of the individuality of the individuated being, a certain charge of nature, of non-individuated being” (Du Mode 336 [translation mine]).
In a thought of cosmological scope, Simondon broaches an ontogenetic theory of technicity that would outstrip the subordinated, intermediary position of technical objects otherwise on display in this book about the technical mode of existence. The passage suggests a view of technical genesis from the perspective of the world’s potential for individuation, a potential which insists in all manner of metastable systems, regardless of their phase of being.
This is not to say that Simondon is wrong about technics resolving problems that the human confronts in its external milieu. Rather, such an account is a derivative abstraction of a more ultimate set of processes in which such component individuations as a human musician, electric guitar, instrument cables, effects pedals, and so forth participate. To consider the pre-individual nature of this system anterior to any of its constituted structures shifts the focus from objects to realities, and from individuals to individuations, exactly as Simondon intended. Technicity needs to be thought in terms of technocultural fields of processes shaped by pre-individual tensions, that is, real potentials for further individuation. In my example, I have referred to these tensions as aesthetic trials because effects pedals engage with physico-chemical potentials as much as with artistic style, human experience, communal practice, and the differentiation of cultural taste. Technicity, says Simondon, intervenes in the relation between man and world (On the Mode of Existence 162). However, if we maintain the processual model of technics I have advocated here, for which invention is a novel superposition of both grounding realities and figural realities, then technicity is the mode of relation between the world and itself. It phases into being an environmental reflexivity.
My point of critique here is to involve technicity in more than the physico-chemical, but also the cultural and the biological, and to do so with Simondon’s philosophy of ontogenesis. As one result of such an expansion, technics cannot be reified into a single mode of existence that might stand—–as it does in the work of Bernard Stiegler, for instance—as the material basis for a technical system functioning in contraposition to both a non-technical social system and a worldly, external milieu. The philosophical problem is not, as Yuk Hui frames it, to think the individuation of a technical object or a digital object. Instead, the philosopher must conceptualize the individuation that is technical. More than mere supports to transindividuation, I argue that technics intervene in the processual grounds of multiple domains of constituted being.