# SIMONDON /// Episode 03: Topological Life: The World Can’t Be Fathomed in Plans and Sections


Alexandros Tsamis, Surrogate House, MIT 2010.

In the second episode of this “Simondon week,” I was evoking the instance of the wood evoked by Gilbert Simondon to address the question of “implicit forms” within any “raw matter.” That is from where I would like to start this article. In this passage from L’individu et sa genèse physico-biologique (The Individual and its physical-biological genesis), Simondon describes the various technical means that allows a crafts(wo)man to cut a piece of wood in order to make a beam out of it. In a detailed description of these techniques, he contrasts those that involve an accurate knowledge of the matter itself, that is the understanding of what its implicit forms might be, from those that might facilitate the task, or even sometimes allow a form to be more conform to the idealized abstract idea of the form (“a beam must be parallelepiped”), yet ignore the essence of the matter. In this regard, Simondon repeatedly uses the term haecceity (eccéité) to describe the particularity, the individuality, of each material assemblage considered (my translation):

…the existence of implicit forms manifests when the craftsman elaborates the raw matter: a second degree of haecceity emerges.  A trunk chopped with a circular saw or with a band saw gives two beams more regular, but it would be less solid than those that the same tree gives when chopped thanks to wood wedges. The four masses of wood produced here are more or less equal whichever technique was used, but the difference consists in the fact that the mechanical saw abstractly cut the wood, according to a geometrical plan without respecting the slow undulations of the fibers not their helical torsion: the saw cut the fibers whereas the wedge only separate them into two half trunks. The crack goes along the continuity of the fibers, it curves around the core of the tree guided by the implicit form that the wedges’ effort reveals. Similarly, a “turned” piece of wood acquires a geometrical form of revolution but the turning operation cuts a certain amount of fibers in such a way that the geometrical envelope of the obtained figure cannot coincide with the fibers’ profile. True implicit forms are not geometrical, they are topological. The technical gesture has to respect these topological forms that constitute a parceled haecceity, a possible information that does not fail at any point.  (Gilbert Simondon, L’individu et sa genèse physico-biologiqueParis: Presses Universitaires de France, 1964, 52.)

Topology is opposed to the Euclidean geometrical representation of space. When an Euclidean wall associates itself to other flat surfaces (walls, ceiling, floors), it is simple to define an inside and an outside. Topological surfaces like the well-known Möbius strip, complexifies this strict definition of inside and outside since the inflection of these surfaces does no longer allow them to contain space, but rather to constitute an interface between two milieus. This notion of topology is studied in various schools of architectures and architectural practices around the world (see Alexandros Tsamis above or the work of Kokkugia for some instance) as the representation/generation of such complexity of space has been reachable for the last two decades thanks to the computational tool (although people like Vittorio Giorgini or Frederick Kiesler did not seem to need computers to build such forms).

This is however, not the only passage in Simondon’s work where he evokes the principle of topology. Further in the text, he includes a chapter entitled “Topology and Ontogenesis,” where he describes the topology of multicellular organisms:

In a multicellular organism, the existence of the interior milieu [milieu intérieur] complicates the topology, in the sense that there are several levels [étages] of interiority and exteriority; thus an internal secretion gland pours the products of its activity into the blood or another organic liquid: in relation to this gland, the interior milieu of the general organism is in fact a milieu of exteriority. By the same token, the intestinal cavity is an exterior milieu for the assimilating cells which assure selective absorption along the length of the intestinal tract. According to the topology of the living organism, the interior of the intestine is in fact exterior to the organism, even though it accomplishes in this space a certain number of transformations conditioned and controlled by organic functions; this space is an annexed exteriority; thus if the contents of the stomach or intestine is noxious for the organism, the coordinated movements that direct the expulsion finish by emptying these cavities and rejecting into the completely (independently) exterior space the noxious substances which were previously in the exterior space annexed to the interiority. (Gilbert Simondon, L’individu et sa genèse physico-biologique, trans. John Protevi, Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1964, 223.)

Let us pause for a moment and imagine indeed the topology of the multicellular organism that is the human body. As I wrote in the past, the body does not consist in an epidermic bag containing a set of organs (this would be the Euclidean reading of it). One would commonly agree that what is inside our throat is “inside our body;” yet, what is outside our throat is also “inside the body.” Which part is inside and which part is outside? This question is irrelevant because our body is not an Euclidean space, it is a topological one. Our throat is only the top part of a long tube that eventually reaches our anus. If we simplify to the extreme, the body is a sort of Klein bottle from which it is impossible to distinguish the exterior milieu from the interior one. The body is the material assemblage that Spinoza describes, but it is not a closed material assemblage: it is a folded surface that interacts with an exterior milieu whose limits cannot be established because of the impossibility to establish an interiority of the body. Wanting to unfold this topological surface to analyze it would bring us back to Euclidean problems since it would require to section this surface to do so, and thus to rationalize it in the separation of ‘face A’ from ‘face B.’

What then becomes fundamental to understand the topology of the body is what Simondon calls “membrane,” that is this folded surface that separates two milieus (neither exterior, nor interior) from one another. This membrane constitutes the interface of exchanges between these two milieus and Simondon sees in these exchanges the essence of life: “all the content of the interior space is topologically in contact with the content of the exterior space on the limits of the living being; there is no distance in topology.” Simondon opposes the crystal and its clear limit between exterior and interior to this topological condition of the living. From this opposition we can draw the hypothesis that death might consists in the crystallization of topology. Since life consists in a metastable state for Simondon, death might be the element that perturbs this equilibrium and triggers the threshold embodied by crystallization.