My gig as a fellow on the Rutgers Institue for Research on Women (IRW) seminar this year has given me a provocative interdisciplinary milieu in which to confront my own capacity to articulate some of my scholarly orientations to colleagues, not the least of which is posthumanism. I have been trying to refine, among other things, my explanations for why I feel taking as axiomatic the human, the individual, or subject-formation as the starting point of work in the (post)humanities is a problematic question for all scholars and not just a choice I make in my work. Revisiting Gilbert Simondon’s work on individuation this week has been particularly invigorating in finding some ground to stand on.
In his still never fully translated L’individuation psychique et collective, Simondon offers a line of flight from the impasse of the relation of the individual to the collective or whole, of Being to being, by re-conceiving of ontology as ontogenesis. While Western thought has taken the individual as a priori and so only ever establishes individuation after the fact of its completion, Simondon offers a dynamic account in which the individual emerges from a “metastable system” such that the pre-individual and individual are always a unity, though the individual constantly shifts out of phase [se déphaser] from itself in its becoming. Living matter, here, is a matter of ontogenesis, of the perpetual becoming of successive individuations in relation to the pre-individual being with which it forms the whole of its being. (Simondon’s importance to Deleuze, who reads him alongside Bergson, follows quite intuitively from this account of ontogenesis).
What drew me to Simondon this week, though, was his insistence on different levels of individuation and their transductive relations. Though individuation is a concept that can be elaborated in relation to inorganic matter (he gives the example of crystallization), it also extends to all levels of life in their complexity, from bacteria to the human. The different levels of individuation Simondon names–physical, biological, psychic, and collective– all share transductive relations with the pre-individual of the human from which individual humans individuate.
What this signals, in considering my posthumanist explanatory conundrum, or a return to ontology in the humanities, is the question of how many levels of individuation we attend to in our work, regardless of its subject matter. Even if humans are the object of analysis at hand, if we only attend to some levels of individuation at the expense of others, we are missing part of the ontogenesis of the human. The humanities, particularly Cultural Studies, has tended to privilege psychic and collective individuation (subject formation) at the expense of the physical and biological. This accounts for the difference between “gender theory” like that of Judith Butler (a theory of psychic and collective individuation only), versus the account of “volatile bodies” of Elizabeth Grosz (which also includes the physical and biological). In fact, much of Cultural Studies, including queer theory, seems to have replicated the conceptual error Simondon’s work aims to address– the presumption of the individual unit of ontology. Even if queer theory, for example, gives an account of the discursive formation of subjects along axes of sexuality, gender, or race, it can only accomplish this analysis retroactively in its isolation of identity from the other levels of individuation. As Simondon writes:
The principles of the excluded middle and of identity are inapplicable at the level of being [considered as ontogenesis] since at this point individuation has not yet occurred; they only apply to the being after individuation has taken place, and they refer to a rather diminished being due to its having been separated out into milieu and individual. They do not refer to the whole of the being, which is to say, to the totality that will be formed later by the individual with the milieu, but rather only to that which became the individual, derived from the preindividual being (312).
These levels, I would contend, have incredible ramifications for any humanities work in so far as Simondon reminds us that knowledge and thought belong to the world in which they emerge as part of the being of living creatures, including us humans. This suggests that posthumanist perspectives are not simply of relevance to all scholars, but further make a(n ethical) demand on us to be attentive to the nonopposition of epistemology and ontology, of knowing and being.
Now, if only I can find a way to explain that in three sentences.