Gilbert Simondon is often approached through his writings about technical objects, in particular, through his 1958 book On the Mode of Existence of Technical Objects (translated in English by friends Nandita Biswas Mellamphy, Dan Mellamphy and Ninian Mellamphy). As we will see this week, the technical objects are only one aspect of his work, but I am interested to introduce it here as it can be read as the elaboration of a societal ethics that highly contrasts the capitalist one. Although Simondon has a different vision for this ethics than the Marxist one as we will see further, he regularly refers explicitly or not to Karl Marx when he evokes the alienation of the industrial workers. In this regard, the following passage from Capital is fundamental to understand the Marxian definition of capitalism in the separation of the laborer, the means of production and the commodity itself:
The capitalist system presupposes the complete separation of the laborers from all property in the means by which they can realize their labor. As soon as capitalist production is once on its own legs, it not only maintains this separation, but reproduces it on a continually extending scale. The process, therefore, that clears the way for the capitalist system, can be none other than the process which takes away from the laborer the possession of his means of production; a process that transforms, on the one hand, the social means of subsistence and of production into capital, on the other, the immediate producers into wage laborers. The so-called primitive accumulation, therefore, is nothing else than the historical process of divorcing the producer from the means of production. (Karl Marx, Capital: Volume 1, chapter 26, New York: Penguin Classics, 1992.)
Simondon is also critical of this separation and, just like Marx, sees in it an alienation for the worker; however, when Marx analyses through it the exploitation of a social class by another, Simondon talks instead of a profoundly problematic relationships that humans have with the technical objects. Simondon is serious about the “modes of existence of the technical objects” that give the name to his book: he understands these objects/machines as vessels of human properties that fabricated them, which requires a relation to the technical objects that incorporate these properties. He does not argue like Marx for the collectivization of the means of production, but rather, he imagines a society in which each worker/citizen would have a harmonious relation to his/her technical objects as well as a clear understanding of its essence and function (my translation):
We should discover a social and economic mode where the user of the technical object would be not only the owner of the machine but also the person who chooses it and maintains it. […] The bases of norms and laws in the industrial realm is neither work nor property but technicity. Communication should go towards the technical activity, not through values of work of economic criteria. Social conditions and economic factors cannot be harmonized since they belong to different worlds: they can find mediation only through a technically dominated organization. This level of technical organization where the human meets the human, not as member of a class but as being that expresses itself through the technical object, which is homogenous to its activity, is the level of collective that goes beyond interindividuality and a given social order. (Gilbert Simondon, Du mode d’existence des objets techniques, Paris: Aubier, 1958, 342.)
When On the Modes of Existence of the Technical Objects tends to (legitimately) focus on the technical object itself, part of Simondon’s other book, L’individu et sa genèse physico-biologique (The Individual and its physical-biological genesis), published in 1964, tackles the question of the matter upon which the technical object acts. In a holistic understanding of the ethics he elaborates, it seems therefore appropriate to also address this question. In a long passage about the understanding of the implicit forms “already” — he uses this term several time — contained within the matter based on its characteristics, he evoke the instance of the wood and its fibers to illustrate the relationship of the matter and the technical object/tool (my translation):
Knowing how to use the tool does not only mean to acquire the practice of necessary gestures: it also consists in recognizing, thanks to signals that comes to humans through the tool, the implicit form of the matter that emerges at the precise place where the tool acts. The plane is not merely what makes a more or less thick chip raise from the wood: it is also a means to feel if the chip is raising softly, without shards, or if it starts to be rough which would mean that the wood lines’ direction is being denied by the movement of the hand. What makes some simple tools like the plane accomplish an excellent work is their non-automaticity, the non-geometric characteristics of their movements, entirely supported by the hand and not by an outside referential system. These tools allow the continuous and precise consideration of signals that invite to follow the implicit forms of the matter. (Gilbert Simondon, L’individu et sa genèse physico-biologique, Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1964.)
What is explicit in this passage is the rightful interpretation of the signals given by the tool by the worker when acting upon the matter. This rightful interpretation comes from the worker’s experience both in the use of this tool, as well as in the manipulation of this matter. It characterizes a holistic understanding of the milieu in which this operation is effectuated. This brings us back to Spinoza and his three degrees of knowledge: when the first one is characterized by the passivity of a body when encountering a material assemblage and the second consists for this body to compose a relation with this material assemblage, the third one is never fully reachable but constitutes a perfect understanding of the material composition of a milieu including its movement:
“This kind of knowledge proceeds from an adequate idea of the absolute essence of certain attributes of God to the adequate knowledge of the essence of things.” (Baruch Spinoza, Ethics, 1677)
Let us recall that what Spinoza calls God is an immanent entity rather than a transcendental one and can arguably be replaced by the term nature, made of an infinite substance. To explain this third degree of knowledge in more contemporaneous illustration, we might want to trivially refer to a perfect understanding of The Matrix‘s code that composes the material world. Simondon does not quote Spinoza for this question, but we can now look at his ethics through both the Marxian and Spinozist spectrum for which each citizen of a society should articulate two levels of desalienation:
– a harmonious relation with the technical object and a deep understanding of its function
– a tendencial perfect understanding of the material world in its composition (its “implicit forms” contained within it) and its movement.
The articulation of these two levels together allows the elaboration of a society in which each citizen is a crafts(wo)man who extends his/her individuality to his/her tools, as well as, for a moment, the matter on which (s)he operates.