# SIMONDON /// Episode 06: Transindividuation and Contagion of the Crowds After Tarde’s Sociology


March for the third month anniversary of Occupy Wall Street on November 17, 2011 /// Photograph by Léopold Lambert

The two last episodes of this “Simondon week” has been familiarizing us with the main concept of Gilbert Simondon‘s work: individuation. In a few words, we can redefine it as the operation in which some pre-individual embraces its becoming and supply a “solution to a problem” to form an individual. An individual is always incomplete and find itself (whatever it might be) always involved in new processes of individuation until its death/obsolescence. Simondon nevertheless does not stop at this concept of individuation developed in L’individu et sa genèse physico-biologique, he later invents the concept of transindividual in his book, L’individuation psychique et collective (Psychical and Collective Individuation, Aubier 1989). Transindividuation constitutes the operation in which a certain amount of individuals (born from successive operations of individuation) construct a relation between themselves that ultimately form a consistent aggregate that Simondon calls transindividual. It is important to understand this concept, not only in social terms as this text will attempt to do, but also in a less anthropocentric manner as I tried to do in a past article entitled “The Body Is not One, It Is Legion.” The idea behind this biblical reference was to insist on the composite characteristics of a body (human/animal or not) that is itself the continuous result of successive operations of transindividuation.

I recently referred to Muriel Combes‘s dissertation volume, La vie inséparée: Vie et sujet au temps de la biopolitique. She is also the author of another book about Simondon’s work dedicated to the question of the transindividual. This book has been recently translated by Thomas LaMarre and published by the MIT Press (2012): Simondon and the Philosophy of the Transindividual (in original version, Simondon, Individu et collectivité: Pour une philosophie du transindividuel, Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1999). In this volume, she quotes Simondon’s book to establish what the concept of transindividual in the social context:

Basically, what both psychologism and sociologism misunderstand is that the social results from individuation. That which individuates is always a group. In effect, a group for Simondon is not a simple assemblage of individuals, but the very movement of self-constitution of the collective; in particular, inside group is not for him an entity defined by a sociological belonging, but what “comes into existence when the forces of the future harbored within a number of living individual lead to a collective structuration” (IPC, 184; IL, 298). (Muriel Combes, Simondon and the Philosophy of the Transindividual, trans. Thomas LaMarre, Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2012, 43.)

The notion of “movement of self-constitution” leads us to another French thinker (also too poorly known) of social groups that preceded Simondon and, according to Combes, influenced him: Gabriel Tarde (1843-1903). Tarde was retrospectively put in the shadow of Emile Durkheim in the emergence of sociology, but his work can be at times fascinating in its modernity. In this regard, I cannot help but to refer to the English translation that has been made by Theo Lorenc of Tarde’s audacious Monadology and Sociology, using Leibniz’s philosophy, that Australian publisher re-press had the good idea to publish in open access. The two books that are retroactively relevant to the Simondonian concept of transindividual are Laws of Imitation (1903) and L’opinion et la foule (Opinion and the Crowd, 1901), both quoted by Combes:

In his attempt to think constitution of the collective at a molecular level, which is both infraindividual and infrasocial, Simondon moves closer to Tarde, who, for his part, desubstantializes the approach to social phenomena by describing them as processes of imitation. According to Tarde, we never imitate individuals; we imitate flows that traverse individuals, which are always flows of belief and of desire. (Muriel Combes, Simondon and the Philosophy of the Transindividual, trans. Thomas LaMarre, Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2012, 52.)

Tarde uses the term of contagion to talk about crowds. He defines the latter as “an aggregate of psychic contagions essentially produced by physical contact” (L’opinion et la foule, my translation). Just like Spinoza was both fascinated and defiant to “the multitude” after he witnessed the lynching of the de Witt brothers in 1672, Tarde, who experienced the Dreyfus affair at the end of the 19th-century, regards the crowd with cautiousness and distrust. However, beyond the reason that ties a crowd together that he studies as a sociologist, he recognizes that the contagion he evokes is inherently neutral morally speaking. The “flows of desire” he evokes as the thing that traverses a crowd also reconciles the two moralistic antitheses according to which a crowd always ‘sings right’ and, oppositely, a crowd always end up as a violent mob. Flows of desire are immanent emotions that indeed drives a crowd to trigger a revolution, to collectively rape a young woman, or be in communion around a football team or a rock band.

What does Simondon has to do with Tarde’s theory on crowds? In order to answer this question we need to go back to the individuation process as we saw it in the example of supercooling. Just like liquid pure water freezes instantly when put in contact with the smallest crystal formation in conditions below 0 degree Celsius, a crowd constitutes the milieu of an emotion that can propagate (or contaminate to use Tarde’s terminology) immediately within its extents when put in contact with a germ of ‘event.’ This propagation is what makes a group of individuals form a transindividual according to Simondon’s definition of his concept. On the contrary of Tarde’s crowd however, Simondon’s transindividual seems to carry ethical properties since it acquired a more complex and active status than before being subjected to this operation. Does that mean that Simondon’s ethics would justify the violent actions of a mob? We can doubt it since violence always involves deconstructing (in a non-Derridean sense) and deactivating processes that go against the very principles of his ethical construction. Just like for Spinoza, the flows of desire that Simondon values are those that develop a constructivist relation to their environment. Such a relation constitutes the ethical essence of the transindividual.