Let us continue to think of the concept of life for Gilbert Simondon after Spinoza. In my knowledge, Spinoza never gives a clear definition of life in his Ethics. What we can draw from his philosophy to define life would be related to an intensity of movement of the substance concentrated within a body. Spinoza never seem to think in term of history of the world, and it would be an anachronism to attribute to him a first sketch of the evolution as thought by Charles Darwin two centuries after him; however, his ethics allows to think Darwin’s interpretation of the world since Spinoza thinks of the infinite substance that is the world as continuously in movement and transforming the bodies formed in it. Both of these narratives respect the antic principle according to which “natura non facit saltus” (nature does not make jump); in other words, life emerges gradually and not in thresholds. Simondon who is a thinker of the 20th-century, uses the scientific knowledge of his time in biophysics, electronics and thermodynamic to think of a new definition of life.
Simondon gives the example of supercooling to illustrate how sometimes “natural facit saltus” (nature does make jump), and how life can emerge from these conditions. We are often being told that water boils at 100 degree Celsius and freezes at 0 degree Celsius. This sounds like an invariable law of physics since the very system of temperature is indexed on this truth. However, the phenomena of supercooling consists for water to be still gaseous or liquid in conditions below 0 degree Celsius (as low as -48 degree Celsius). This phenomena is only possible if the molecular composition of the concerned water is pure and free of “nucleation site.” This state is now in thermodynamics as metastability, that is (in my imperfect understanding) a state of equilibrium that can be drastically disturbed in the intervention of an exterior energy. In the case of supercooling, the contact between this liquid/gaseous water under 0 degree Celsius with the smallest crystal component will immediately crystallize the totality of the water: water becomes ice.
This immediate material transformation is comparable to a quantum leap, or a transduction, term that Simondon chooses to define the transformation of a pre-individual to an individual (and also from an individual to a transindividual but that will be for another article) that forms the main concept of his work: individuation. Following this interpretation, life no longer emerges through a strict evolutionary scheme, but rather through a succession of thresholds that correspond to “problem to solve to which the individual becomes a solution through successive assemblage of structure and function” (L’individu et sa genèse physico-biologique, my translation). Commenting on this quote, Muriel Combes — who I will continue to quote in the coming articles — insists on the importance of the succession of thresholds: there is never a ‘finished’ individual but rather always individuals in becoming (my translation):
We have to remember that in the perspective developed by Simondon, the living is not only an individual. The individual, to which biological individuation give birth, does not consist in itself. It does not exhaust at once the potential of the preindividual field from where it emerges at the same time than what then becomes its milieu. A living can be considered as a system that always simultaneously implies individualized [individuée] reality and non-individualized [non-individuée] reality. (Muriel Combes, La vie inséparée: Vie et sujet au temps de la biopolitique, Paris: Dittmar, 2011, 163.)
How is this definition of life (or rather, of the “living”) useful to us? First, it allows us to think of a difference between all living entities in terms of degrees and not in terms of essence. In this regard, Simondon wrote two classes about humans and animal in which he does not renounce to these two terms, but affirms that one could not include in them the absolute specificity of an essence. This invitation to think in terms of degrees rather than essences that is not only valid to living entities but, more globally, to the totality of the world’s components is however in continuity of Spinoza’s philosophy and Darwin’s treatise. Where Simondon uses the two latter works to go beyond them is in the concomitance of the emergence of an individual and its milieu. This is why he always add the term associated to the one of milieu. An individual cannot be defined as such if it is not for its association to its milieu and vice versa. This is easy to understand after what we established yesterday that the conditions of living were topological, without clear Euclidean distinction between the interior (in this case, the individual) and the exterior (the milieu). The consequences of this definition are therefore important in terms of sociology, politics, anthropology and biology as we will explore in the coming articles.