The fifth episode of the “Simondon week” is rather special as it is also the forty-fourth Funambulist Papers that friend Sarah Choukah was kind enough to write for us. Sarah shares her time between being a brilliant scholar and a bio-hacker (as well as a mycologist cook!) that she investigates in the following text in relation to the work of Gilbert Simondon. Her essay is thus an attempt to invent an applied simondonianism to the relatively recent political practice of bio-hacking, a Do It Yourself resistance against the laboratorian/pharmaceutical industries that are deeply entangled within capitalist logic. The fourth episode ended on this notion of associated milieus developed by Simondon; this is where Sarah starts her text.
Recently as I was strolling through my neighborhood in Montreal, I came across a toy I saw kids play into in the eighties: the Cozy Coupe car with a bright yellow body and a red foot-powered chassis, a popular toy around that time. I remembered how the car’s cockpit allowed interfacing with familiar surroundings while giving a first sense of leg-powered, seated motility outside the house.
In a contemporary videogame, by contrast, motility is delegated through the interface to avatars. One would be quick to think that the issue of delegation or that of the materiality of the interaction through the interface has gone from physical, bodily affect (represented by the 80’s Cozy Coupe, among other toys) to that of an increasingly dematerialized network of programmed bodies in games. But the transition can’t be so easily reduced to this. For example, Ingmar Riedel-Kruse and his team at Stanford University designed a new set of videogames, this time involving the use of living microorganisms instead of electronically programmed sprites or avatars (2011).
This shift is also visible if we think of the main lines of industrial and research development Westerners experienced since the First World War. The 20th century saw petroleum-based and synthetic polymers such as plastics and latex change means of transformation and transportation of goods and people. In contrast, 21st century biotechnologies promise to have a similar, if not greater, effect. Instead of printing out instructions on paper in the twentieth century, in the twenty-first century printing technologies promise the possibility of extruding living cells or entire organs in 3 dimensions. Parts of our bodies would be augmented with modular, replaceable sub-systems, a mix of hardware and software development techniques. Our homes, instead of depending on external sources of energy to sustain us, should start growing themselves into self-sustaining organisms of which we’d be an integral part.
In areas such as energy and fuel engineering, health and medicine, manufacturing and environmental control, new production paradigms arise (see IGEM competitions). Applications and technologies can be grown and cultivated in addition to being manufactured. By tapping into the way energy transfers operate within organisms such as plants or colonies such as bacteria, it is hoped that the design of industrial production and consumption processes better integrate with other types of life forms. In considering technology from a biological point of view, biological life itself is also considered as a kind of technology.
From associated milieux to individual-milieux coupings
The point where biology and technology intersect, when we come to think about it, is hard to define. To better understand how life has become so valuable a means to different ends, we better look not at the transition from the non-organic to the organic as preferred building materials. Rather, inspired by Simondon, we could see both non-organic and organic components as different chemical and energetic phase transitions belonging in a wider spectrum. I’ll argue that in the case of biomaterials just as in the case of silicon-based materials, at least two things emerge at once in their production: the material and the milieu in which it grows.
To get a better sense of these two terms, I will first turn to Gilbert Simondon’s theory of individuation and one if his most well-known illustrations (which I refer to as the “brick example”, 2005). I’ll then expand on the idea that Simondon’s notion of milieu is necessary for the development of both physical, living and machine systems. Simondon’s philosophy can help mitigate the way we, as consumers, often value “finished” products over the processes that tend to their making. In doing away with a conception that would have technology to stand strictly as a set of means to pre-defined ends, we can be better attentive to the role milieux have in the formation of “end products”.
I’ll conclude with a few suggestions, namely that turning to this particular conception of milieu can help, in return, to better grasp its role in the shaping of our contemporary informational and biotechnological political economy.
Simondon refers to the example of the making and the molding of a clay brick to illustrate how such a technical operation can be used to explain individuation. He discusses the preparation of the clay at length to make the reader aware of its distinct material properties. The mold used to shape the clay is similarly discussed: the mold has to be prepared in a specific manner so it can give shape to the clay. Thus the molding of a clay brick involves not one but at least two distinct series of operations converging together: the abstract form of the matter (clay) is involved in its preparation just as the matter of the form (the mold) is crucial for the operation to succeed. For Simondon, what is involved in this kind of technical operation is the mediation, or the communication of two initially disparate domains of reality.
As matter and form get both in-formed into an invented structure, other disparate elements of reality also converge. The natural matter the brick maker utilizes and the forms invented in the double process I was discussing above also constitute what Simondon calls an associated milieu. In his book entitled On the mode of existence of technical objects, Simondon specifies pretty early on how technical objects undergo a process of individualization that is the “true condition of technical progress”.
« The process of individualization is made possible by the recurrence of a cause (or feed-back) in a milieu that the technical being creates around himself and that conditions him just as he conditions the milieu. […] The associated milieu mediates the relation between fabricated technical elements and the natural elements within which the technical being functions. […] This associated milieu is the invented technical object’s condition of existence » (my loose translation, 1989, p. 57).
The two domains, natural and technical, are very difficult to separate from the onset. Technical form is also natural matter; natural matter also exhibits technical form to structure itself and function.
Similarly a biologist wishing to grow particular cells will have to order the ones appropriate for the kind of experiment he wishes to undertake. She will have to grow them in a liquid or gel medium (that is the broth, in liquid form or gel, which both nurtures and contains the growth of colonies of cells, bacteria or yeast for example. Its composition has to be controlled). This growing in medium will have to be done at certain temperatures and will take specific periods of time, just to mention a few of the initial conditions one would have to be confronted with if one wished to culture bacterial cells of some kind in a laboratory setting. In designing her experiments, the biologist has to create very specific environments for her cells to grow into and for enzymatic reactions to take place. We might say that both the clay brick maker and the biologist are never dealing with stable systems, but with metastable ones, systems where energy transfers can occur and form between two initially incompatible domains.
At another scale, a communication or mediation can happen between two initially incompatible domains of reality: what’s outside of the culturing medium for the bacteria or the yeast does not matter to it, but it does to us. The biological medium itself is essential for this organism’s survival, just like clean air (with a certain kind of composition) is essential for us humans to survive. Through the molecular reactions and chain alignments involved in the preparation of clay and liquid medium for cells, both the biologist and the brick maker get introduced to the reality of the technical and biological objects they individuate through their experiments. The clay brick and the prepared cells become milieux for further experiments as well: the construction of a wall or building of some kind (which involves countless other operations), and the completion of an experimental protocol in molecular biology for instance. We can say that technological as well as biotechnological domains of reality constantly involve not one but many milieux and technical objects co-existing together, one being the condition of existence of another.
Without their culturing media the organisms cannot support themselves_. Badly maintained media lead to badly maintained cultures: the lab technician will have to reconsider his whole experiment. Carelessly prepared clay leads to an unstable blend, a poorly executed brick and therefore a poorly executed building. Experiments are perturbed and life is again at stake, as contamination can easily happen.
We could say that in general, just as media and organism go together, a third entity, the contaminant or the parasite, is also a constant eventuality. As the life system is metastable, it stays that way. Once some life problems get solved in a certain form or another (say a particular configuration of organs or proteins, or the stabilization of certain properties in design materials), others appear. The only kind of system that cannot further transform itself, or can do without confronting more problems according to Simondon, is a dead system.
A microclimate like the one cells grow in offers us the opportunity to see their embedding in the wider milieux they are connected with. Bacterial communities individuate and proliferate in their media, but they’re also media for other kinds of biological processes and enzymatic outcomes[i]. A milieu and the individual it supports can thus be understood in its ability to foster other kinds of milieux, to coexist in relation to other climates where individuals, also borne out with and through their milieux might eventually communicate and inform each other. If we extend this idea to physiological and psychological levels of being, we can observe that with a particular type of activity or culturing practice comes a particular kind of human being (or more specifically, a practitioner).
Simondon’s ontology primarily relies on trying to understand how certain types of energy transfers (known as transductions) inform systems that would not have communicated together before an initial gap or signifying difference²_ would have thrown them together into an individuation process. That is, a process resulting into both an individual and its milieu. For Simondon, systems resulting into individuals and milieux can still contain enough potential (Simondon calls it “pre-individuality”) to provoke more individuations: an individual then undergoes “dephasing” and becomes by communicating with a different domain of reality. One milieu-individual coupling is the field of individuation of another future individual.
Basing ourselves on Simondon’s philosophy, we can come to observe that an individual body is continuously informed by the associated milieu it derives from in its emergence. A body cannot be so easily understood when cut off from its milieu. For Simondon, a body would be akin to an individual that is always understood as a “relation of relations” (Combes, in Chabot, ed., 2002, p. 39). In other words, even in order to start understanding what “a body can do”, one has to look at the way a body’s initial medium of emergence gets individuated Simondon would write, into this milieu and its individuality.
The Politics of Milieux
As we try to examine our contemporary political economy in light of the notion of milieux, we can see how Simondon’s philosophical relevance allows us to emphasize certain reconfigurations. Along with the sophistication and increasing interdependence of contemporary modes of industrial production comes the necessity to value products as well as the means and modes of their making. The potential for biotechnology to make bodies and organisms grow and proliferate is also understood in its basis as a power to make and stabilize specific milieux. Biotechnology is not a mode of intervention or action set apart from politics: it constantly participates in reconfigurations corresponding to current commodities, subjectivities and discourses as much as other technologies.
Similarly, biotechnology can help us locate specific zones of subjective and collective politizations. Considerations pertaining to who is allowed to foster individual-milieux couplings and what kinds of bodies are allowed to proliferate are not politically neutral. With certain technological and biotechnological practices come certain configurations of power, but the locus of that power and its forms are not set in stone. They are also as metastable as the associated milieux and the individuals they inform.
With developments in the genetic modification of food emerged forms of resistance to its perceived irreparable consequences. Heirloom seeds are being rediscovered in ancestral attics and regain value; urban farms sprout in cities with the debated promise of immune, well-lived consumption and life. Organic farming techniques and practices have been reconfigured as alternatives to an agro-industrial, mass-scaled and controlled offer. Their respective promises and shortcomings are still the topic of prolonged concern and debate.
Within more general concerns about genetic engineering and modification, questions abound: how are certain transformed bodies and milieu couplings (genetically modified seeds for example) affecting others? What kinds of successive effects emerge from the prolonged ingestion and internal culturing of specific outside couplings within human and animal organisms? What about the countless toxins, waste products and byproducts released through contemporary industrial modes of animal farming? Perhaps what bothers us and equally surprises us is how they are increasingly addressed as the milieux of hybrid, biotechnological processes of selection and transformation of animals. The successive couplings they foster at numerous scales (environmental degradation, cellular mutation) also concerns us.
Practices of “Do-it-yourself” biology (DIYbio) have also emerged since 2009. In few and certainly reductive words, DIYbio can be considered a potential reconfiguration of previous ways of doing and talking about biology outside of established institutions and private laboratories. Motivations to get into DIYbiology can also stem from a wish to avoid constraints as they are commonly found within the practice of contemporary molecular biology and synthetic biology (patents and non-disclosure agreements for example)[ii]. Collective proposals for the sharing of scientific knowledge and practices centered on the growing and culturing of cells for experimentation outside of private of academic biotech centers surface in the form of biotech community labs. With other collective experiments such as community supported agriculture and the recent re-popularization of diverse fermentation and conservation processes (brewing and canning for instance), comes an interrogation, among others, on the very nature and specificity of milieu making and its politics. What these practices express and emphasize is the nature of our intricacy and relation to our milieux, as well as how our inherent caring for certain milieux can be seen as way to constitute ourselves.
These numerous instances of politization reveal more than the polarization around either of two extremes that consider biotechnology as inherently good or bad in public debate. What they tell us about is how inherent problems such atomic or microscale processes of intervention and engagement can pose for contemporary subjectivities as well. For Simondon, such different scales of reality (the microscale of enzymatic reactions and, in contrast, the macroscale of individual and collective life and psychology for example) have deep relations with each other that get worked out through processes of “transduction” and “individuation”. Very quickly explained, transduction refers to the successive structuration of a domain or scale (or phase) of reality after another, or the way energy exchanges operating in a domain of reality also structure another. Individuation is the overall process that tends to the information of both an individual and its milieu or associated milieu.
A Simondonian view on the relational aspect of individuation can certainly help in complicating issues concerning the well-being and modes of life the living can afford in diverse milieux, just as these milieux in turn inform the living. The perceived danger of an environmental or a human catastrophe after the incidental or voluntary release of a pathogen is one of the ways these configurations translate into different perceived effects of a break of isolation from an associated milieu. This both makes milieux as well as issues of practice, making, process and technology the objects of a continuous interrogation into what makes us come together as individuals and bodies, as well as participants to different kinds of cultures. It is in this sense, Simondon would say, that the possibility of psychic and collective individuation offers itself to us.
1 It would be a mistake to think that Simondon describes physical and vital individuation in the same way….
2 Simondon has called that kind of difference, a “singularity”
3 Simondon’s entire thesis on individuation can also be interpreted as a call to expand the notions of communication and information._
4 Advertising, for instance, can be comprehended as the techniques of control of internal affective and emotional milieux, driving bodies into particular exchanges with others.
[ii] In my case, DIYbiology represented a great opportunity to explore media theory and philosophy concepts outside of my disciplinary fields’ own major areas of applications.