The Child’s Technicity: Simondon’s Hybrid Technical Knowledge

Boy With Machine, Richard Lindner (1954) and famously included in Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus.

The first paragraph of Gilbert Simondon’s Du mode d’existence des objets techniques (1958) effects a provocative transvaluation of Western thought.[1] Culture has be constituted in opposition to technics, as a form of protection of the human body from contamination by technology.  “The trained opposition between culture and technics, between the human and the machine,” Simondon rebuffs, however, “is false and without foundation; it involves only ignorance and ressentiment” (9).[2]

Simondon diagnoses the contradictory normative valuation of technology and machines in Western thought: on the one hand, machines are dismissed as inert assemblages of matter, without interiority or a capacity for signification, and hence usable only as tools; yet, on the other hand, we fantasize a dangerous agency in technology and machines that could displace the human or usurp its fragile position, making us into their servants (10-11). Leaving behind the undecidable, fearful remainders built into the opposition of culture and technics, Simondon proposes in Du mode d’existence that technics occupy what Bruno Latour might term a hybrid ontological zone of production. “The technical object,” he clarifies, “is the meeting point of two milieu,” the external environment and the open technical system (52).[3] In the circumstance of a human engaged with technology, the technical object is likewise a threshold or interface between two dynamic systems, an interval or hybrid middle that need not, as Latour contends the moderns have attempted to do, be purified into separable human and technological components, but can be rather affirmed. In this ontogenetic account of technics, the technical “object” is defined by its becoming. Its consistency is adaptive, affective and attentive to the world, governed, in the hybrid language of cybernetic information theory and creative evolution that Simondon employs, by “a principle of internal resonance” (20).[4]  “The machine, therefore, is a vehicle of action and information,” he concludes, “in a relation to three terms: human, machine, [and] world, the machine being between the human and the world. In this case, the human conserves a certain technicity” (79, emphasis added).[5] (This means, as Simondon is careful to point out, that technical objects are not the same thing as natural objects; even if we could say both are alive in the ontological sense of evincing an active material affectivity, the technical object is never fully “concrete” in Simondon’s terms, it can tend towards liveliness but is always caught in tension with its “abstract” countertendency towards preprogramming. A fully living being, on the other hand, is born fully concrete. This is why it makes sense, as I put it in an earlier post, to think of technics as life touching itself.)

The affirmation, rather than negation or purification, of the technical object as hybrid is the project of a technical knowledge, the knowledge of technicity (a knowledge emergent from technics and not isomorphic or reducible to either scientific or cultural knowledge). This is the politico-philosophical project of pedagogy that Du mode d’existence advocates across its 250-some-odd pages. Given that Simondon does not oppose ontology and epistemology, his sketching of technical knowledge produces a rich interface of ontogenetic emergence and theory of practical learning. And this is where the question of the child’s technicity becomes central.

In a section entitled Nécessité d’une synthèse au niveau de l’éducation entre le mode majeur et le mode mineur d’accès aux techniques (Necessity of a synthesis in education of the major and minor modes of access to technics), Simondon reviews the normative economy of knowledge and pedagogy separating adulthood and childhood after the European Enlightenment. Childhood has become associated with a devalued form of intuitive knowledge, a relatively practical attunement to the seemingly magical capacities of the world through socialization in technical skills without much abstraction (89-90). The adult subject, in contrast, has become associated with a rationalist, scientific form of objective “encyclopedism”: a compendium of technical knowledge organized by categories of theory and application (93). I write about this unbridgeable gap of knowledge and subjectivity through Luce Irigaray in a forthcoming essay as the originary aporia between the generations, that which maintains the final unknowability of children to adults, and vice versa. What Simondon specifies here are the technical dimensions of this aporia, bound up as they are in the relegation of children to being incapable of complexity or creativity and requiring the suppression of their magical relation to the world in favor of what he terms a “rigid” form of rationality in their education (90).

The project of technical knowledge, as a mode of affirmative hybridity, offers both a line of becoming for human and machine that would entail a rapprochement of the child and the adult, as well as the collapse of the opposition between logic and magic, nature and culture, knowledge and practice.  Rather than a project of pure knowledge (savoir), Simondon proposes technicity as a form of know-how (savoir-faire) that overcomes the exclusions of the two normative regimes of subjectification and pedagogy that underwrite the division of the world into separate spheres of child and adult. Instead of the “dualist system” of child-adult, Simondon proposes “the end of the opposition between theoretical knowledge and practical knowledge.”[6] More strikingly, he continues:

once this level has been achieved, in effect, there will no longer be a hiatus or antagonism between childhood and adulthood…In a certain way, the evolution of societies, suspended until now by a determinism governing childhood through maturity and aging, with its corresponding political and social regimes, will no longer be fatal if the diffusion of technics is deep enough to introduce a system of reference and values independent of its implied biologism.
Indeed, the opposition between the child and the adult summarizes all these other antagonisms [between nature and culture, human and technology, etc]; the child is a successive being, made of virtualities, changing itself over time and with a consciousness about such changes. The adult, who presents the child with life, integrates himself into society according to an order of simultaneity [resemblance and normativity].

une fois ce niveau atteint, en effet, il n’y a plus de hiatus ou d’antagonisme entre le temps de l’éducation et l’âge adulte…Dans une certaine mesure même, l’évolution des sociétés, suspendue jusqu’ici à un déterminisme de la jeunesse, puis de la maturité et enfin de la vieillesse, avec des régimes politiques et sociaux correspondants, ne peut plus être conçue comme fatale si la pénétration des techniques est assez profonde pour introduire un système de références et de valeurs indépendant de ce biologisme implicite
Enfin, l’opposition entre l’enfant et l’adulte résume ces antagonismes; l’enfant est l’être successif, fait de virtualités, se modifiant dans le temps et ayant conscience de cette modification et de ce changement. L’adulte, qui lui présente la vie, s’intègre dans la société selon l’ordre de la simultanéité.

The implications of Simondon’s project of hybrid technical knowledge are multitude. As I noted, technical knowledge materializes Latour’s call for a “nonmodern constitution” in We Have Never Been Modern (141). Through Simondon’s focus on the aporia between the adult and child, it also offers a mode of technical becoming that could work to resolve what I have written about as the “adultomorphism” underwriting Western subjectivity: that the child exists only insofar is it is on its way to becoming an adult. Finally, I think technical knowledge offers a “critical, creative and compositional” (I’m thinking here about Jamie Skye Bianco’s multimodal work) approach to knowledge production as savoir-faire (leaving aside for the moment the paleonymy of that term), including in the humanities, which find themselves exhausted by the exhaustion of rationality after poststructuralism and impotent in the face of the neoliberal restructuring of the university to eliminate forms of thought that refuse to keep up with dominant commodified technologies, particularly the digital.

As Simondon explains in the introduction to Du mode d’existence, though–and this is where he critically departs from Marx–technology is not fundamentally or originally alienating because of the economy, which is another way of saying that technology carries within it capacities (Simondon writes of the puissances immanent to technical objects) for creativity that capitalism cannot fully preempt or control. “The most powerful cause of alienation in the contemporary world,” he writes in a book that came out in 1958 but in words that read well today, “resides in the misrecognition of the machine, which is not an alienation caused by the machine, but by the non-understanding of its nature” (9-10).[7] To work towards a technical know-how, then, is to learn how to invent. To create and to compose, to affirm the previously excluded middle, and to become with and as technical beings that carry with them the affective vectors held as virtual since the reverie and magic of childhood, forced to be forgotten until now as the price of becoming an adult–the boy forever without his machine.

[1] It hasn’t officially been translated into English yet but is forthcoming, I believe, from either Minnesota or Semiotext(e); I have therefore done my own translations in this post.

[2] L’opposition dressée entre la culture et la technique, entre l’homme et la machine, est fausse et sans fondement; elle ne recouvre qu’ignorance et ressentiment.

[3] L’objet technique est au point de rencontre de deux milieux.

[4] un principe de résonance interne.

[5] la machine est alors le véhicule d’action et d’information, dans une relation à trois termes: homme, machine, monde, la machine étant entre l’homme et le monde. Dans ce cas, l’homme conserve certains traits de technicité

[6] la fin de l’opposition entre le savoir théorique et le savoir pratique.

[7] La plus forte cause d’aliénation dans le monde contemporain réside dans cette méconaissance de la machine, qui n’est pas une aliénation causée par la machine, mais par la non-conaissance de sa nature et de son essence.


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