Gilbert Simondon, ‘Technical Materiality’ (previously unpublished essay), pp.1–15, in:
De Boever, A., Simondon, G. (Eds.), 2013. Gilbert Simondon: being and technology. Edinburgh Univ. Press, Edinburgh.
Leaving Antiquity aside, technology has already yielded in at least two ways, schemas of intelligibility that are endowed with a latent power of universality: namely in the form of the Cartesian mechanism and of cybernetic theory.
In the Cartesian mechanism, the fundamental question of the simple machine is analogous to the functioning of logical thought capable of being rigorous and productive.
A simple machine is the transfer system that, in the particular case in which the movement is presumed to be reversible, in the state of equilibrium, establishes the identity of a work that puts into motion and a work that resists.
What is carried out in both the rational study of machines and in the conduct of thought is the transfer without losses: science and philosophy are possible because the transfer without losses is presumed to be possible.
Consequently, the only domains that are accessible to philosophical reflection are those with a continuous structure. It will therefore be clear why Descartes has wanted to consider living beings as machines: if they were not machines ontologically, they would have to be so at least analogically in order to be objects of science.
Cybernetics, which was born from the mathematisation of the automatic regulation apparatuses [dispositifs] – particularly useful for the construction of guidance technologies of airplanes in flight – introduces into this the recurrence of information on a relay apparatus as the basic schema that allows for an active adaptation to a spontaneous finality.
This technical realisation of a finalised conduct has served as a model of intelligibility for the study of a large number of regulations – or of regulation failures – in the living, both human and non-human, and of phenomena subject to becoming, such as the species equilibrium between predators and prey, or of geographical and meteorological phenomena: variations of the levels of lakes, climatic regimes.
In this sense, technology manifests in successive waves a power of analogical interpretation that is sui generis; indeed, it is not hemmed in by the limits of repartition of essences or of domains of reality. It does not have recourse to categories, leaves aside generic relations, special relations and specific differences.
This transcategorical knowledge, which supposes a theory of knowledge that would be the close kin of a truly realist idealism, is particularly fit to grasp the universality of a mode of activity, of a regime of operation; it leaves aside the problem of the atemporal nature of beings and of the modes of the real; it applies to their functionings; it tends towards a phenomenology of regimes of activity, without an ontological presupposition that is relative to the nature of that which enters into activity.
The application of such schemas of intelligibility requires two main conditions, which can be presented as postulates of the ‘technical mentality’:
1. The subsets are relatively detachable from the whole of which they are a part. What technical activity produces is not an absolutely indivisible organism that is metaphysically one and undissolvable.
The technical object can be repaired; it can be completed; a simple analogy between the technical object and the living is fallacious, in the sense that, at the moment of its very construction, the technical object is conceived as something that may need control, repair and maintenance, through testing and modification, or, if necessary, a complete change of one or several of the subsets that compose it.
This is what one calls anticipated ‘maintenance’, to use the Anglo-Saxon term.
This postulate is extremely important when one questions the way in which one can engage with a living being, a human being or an institution.
A truly technical attitude would be more refined than the easy fundamentalism of a moral judgement and of justice. The distinction of the subsets and of the modes of their relative solidarity would thus be the first mental work that is taught by the cognitive content of the technical mentality.
2. The second postulate is that of the levels and the regimes: if one wants to understand a being completely, one must study it by considering it in its entelechy, and not in its inactivity or its static state.
The majority of technical realities are subject to the existence of a threshold to start up and maintain their own functioning; above this threshold, they are absurd, self-destructive; below it they are self-stable.
Very often, the invention consists in supposing the conditions of their functioning realized – in supposing the threshold problem resolved.
This is why the majority of inventions proceed by condensation and concretization, by reducing the number of primitive elements to a minimum, which is at the same time an optimum.
[Explains the example of Leduc]
From these few observations, we can conclude that the technical mentality already offers coherent and usable schemas for a cognitive interpretation. With the Cartesian mechanism and cybernetics, it has already yielded two movements of thought; but in the case when there is an awareness of the systematic use of the two postulates presented above, it also appears capable of contributing to the formation of larger schemas.
The picture is less clear, however, as soon as one tries to analyse affective contents. In this case, one encounters an antagonism between the artisanal and the industrial modalities, an antagonism that is paired to an impossibility of completely separating these two aspects.
The craftsman’s nostalgia traverses not only the industrial life of production, but also the different daily regimes of the consumption of goods coming from the industrial world.
It is difficult to return a bundle of perfectly coherent and unified traits to the opposition between artisanal and the industrial modality when one want to account for the genesis of affective modalities.
However, we propose a criterion that, after several attempts, seemed to be the least problematic: in the case of the craftsman, all conditions depend on the human being, the source of energy is the same as that of information. The two sources are both in the human operator.
There, energy is like the availability of the gesture, the exercise of muscular force; information simultaneously resides in the human operator as something learned, drawn from the individual past enriched by education, and as the actual exercise of the sensorial equipment that controls and regulates the application of the learned gestures to the concrete materiality of the workable materiality of the workable material and to the particular characteristics of the aim [of the work].
The manipulation is carried out according to continuous schemas on realities that are of the same scale as the operator.
Correlatively, the distance between the act of working and the conditions of use of the product is weak. The shoemaker has directly taken the measurements, the saddler knows for which horse he is working. Recurrence is possible; the speed with which the object wears off, the types of deformation of the product during usage are known to the craftsman, who not only constructs but repairs,
In the artisanal modality, work is artifice; it orders and makes act differently workable materials that are almost primary materials, but that remain close to the natural state, like leather or wood.
The industrial modality appears when the source of information and the source of energy separate: namely, when the Human Being is merely the source of information, and Nature is required to furnish the energy.
The machine is different to the tool in that it is a relay; it has two different entry points, that of energy and that of information.
When he borrows energy from a natural source, the human being discovers an infinite reserve, and comes to possess a considerable power. For it is possible to set up a series of relays, which means that a weak energy can lead to the usage of considerable energies.
Unfortunately, the entry of information that comes into the work is no longer unique in the way it is with the artisanal gesture; it happens through several moments and at several levels.
It takes places a first time with the invention of the machine – an invention that sometimes implies the bringing into play of considerable zones of knowledge and the gathering of a large number of human beings. It happens a second time with the construction of the machine and the regulation of the machine, which are modes of activity which are different from the machine’s usage.
Finally it happens a third and fourth time, first in learning to work with the machine, and then in the machine’s usage.
Whereas the machine constitutes a complete technical schema, as the relation of nature and the human being, as the encounter of information and energy operating on material, none of the four moments of information contribution is organically linked to and balanced out by the others.
The act of information contribution becomes dissociated; it is exploded into separate moments taken on by separate individuals or groups.
In order for the craftsman to recognise his equivalent in the industrial modality, the same human being must be inventor, constructor and operator.
However, the effect of this amplification and complication of the industrial world is to spread out the different roles from each other: not only the source of information from the source of energy and the primary material, but even the different tasks of information contribution.
It is thus a weaker part of the total capacities of the human being that is engaged in the industrial act, both when s/he is operator and in the other roles of information contribution. The iterative and fragmentary regime of the task of the operator in industrial production is an ‘anatomy of work’ that provokes different effects of industrial fatigue.
But it is also exhausting to have only invention as a task, without also participating in construction and operation.
To put itself at the dimension of the machine’s energy entry, the information complicates itself, becomes divided and specialized, with the result that the human being is isolated not only from nature, but also from himself, and enclosed in piecemeal tasks, even as inventor. He thus encounters the discontinuous through work.
However, trying to return to directly artisanal modes of production is an illusion. The needs of contemporary societies require not only large quantities of products and manufactured objects, but also states that cannot be obtained by means of the human body and the tool.
This is because the temperatures, the pressures, the required physical reactions, the scale of the conditions do not match those of human life. The workplace, on the other hand, is a human environment.
[Towards a study of industrial production and human information contribution, ref. Taylorism]
The technocratic attitude cannot be universalized because it consists of reinventing the world like a neutral field for the penetration of machines; constructing a metal tower or an immense bridge undoubtably means making a pioneer work and showing how industrial power can leave the factory in order to gain in nature, but there is something of the isolation of the inventor that subsists in this activity in so far as the tower or the bridge does not become part of a network covering the Earth i its mazes, in accordance with the geographical structures
[regarding the construction of the Eiffel tower]
It is the standardization of all the subsets, the industrial possibility of the production of separate pieces that are all alike, that allows for the creation of networks.
Here, the technical mentality successfully completes itself and rejoins nature by turning itself into a thought network, into the material and conceptual synthesis of particularity and concentration, individuality and collectivity – because the entire force of the network is available in each of these points, and its mazes are woven together with those of the world, in the concrete and the particular
The factory rediscovers something of the workplace when it is transformed into a laboratory. It is no longer for the individual user, as in the artisanal modality, but for the simultaneously collective and individual user – nature itself – that the laboratory anticipates a made-to-measure assemblage. Such lines of pylons, such a chain of relays constitute the harness of nature.
At the same time, the distance between the inventor, the constructor and the operator is reduced; the three types converge towards the image of the technician, this time both intellectual and handy, who knows at the same time how to calculate and how to install cabling.
[discussion of energy distribution and communication and transportation networks / difference between the car and other motor vehicles]
The reason for the inessential character of technical objects, which is at the same time the cause of this inflation of obsolescence that has hit the population of produced objects, is the absence of an industrial deepening of production.
A car becomes obsolete very fast because it is not one and the same act of invention, construction and production that simultaneously makes the road network and the cars appear.
Between the network – this functional harness of the geographical world – and the cars that traverse this network, the human being inserts himself as a virtual buyer; a car only comes to function if it is bought, if it is chosen, after it has been produced.
One could also compare this alienated condition of the produced object in the situation of venality to that of a slave on the market in Antiquity, or to that of a women in a situation of social inferiority; the introduction to active existences appears through mean that are inadequate to the real functions.
It takes place against entelechy and thus creates a duality, a prevalence of the inessential, a distortion of true nature; choice is made under the dubious influence of charm, prestige, flattery, of all the social myths or of personal faiths.
In the inessential situation of the buyer – who is neither a constructor nor a user in act, the human being who chooses, introduces into his choice a bundle of non-technical norms.
The distance between the act of production and the act of usage, this lack of real information, allows for the introduction of the inessential, which creates obsolescence.
Because it is judged once and for all, accepted or rejected in full in the decision or the refusal to buy, the object of industrial production is a closed object, a false organism that is seized by a holistic thought that was psycho-socially produced; it allows for neither the exercise nor the development of the technical mentality at the level of voluntary decisions and norms of action.
[…] the post-industrial technical object is the unity of two layers of reality – a layer that is as stable and permanent as possible, which adheres to the user and is made to last, and a layer that can be perpetually replaced, changed, renewed, because it is made up of elements that are all similar, impersonal, mass-produced by industry and distributed by all the networks of exchange.
It is through participation in this network that the technical object always remains contemporary to its use, always new. However this conservation in a state of full actuality is precisely made possible through the structure that the cognitive schemas provide; the object needs to heave thresholds of functioning that are known, measured, normalised in order for it to be able to be divided into permanent parts and the parts subject to replacement.
The object is not only structure but also regime. And the normalisation of thresholds of functioning expresses itself in the difference between relatively separate subsets (of the whole); the degree of solidarity is precisely the measure (in the Greek sense or ‘metrion’) of the relation between the permanent parts and the parts subject to replacement.
In conclusion, one can say that the technical mentality is developing, but that this formation has a relation of causality that recurs with the very appearance of postindustrial technical realities; it makes explicit the nature of these relaities and tends to furnish them with norms to ensure their development.
Such a mentality can only develop if the affective autonomy of the opposition between the artisanal modality and the industrial one is replaced by the firm orientation of a voluntary push towards the development of technical networks., which are post-industrial and thus recover a continuous level (of operation).
If one seeks the sign of the perfection of the technical mentality, one can unite in a single criterion the manifestation of cognitive schemas, affective modalities and norms of action: that of the opening. Technical reality lends itself remarkably well to being continued, completed, perfected, extended.
In this sense, an extension of the technical mentality is possible, and begins to manifest itself in the domain of the fine arts in particular.
To construct a building according to the norms of the technical mentality means to conceive of it as being able to be enlarged, continued, amplified without disfiguration or erasure.
[regarding the ‘Le Corbusier monastery’]
The non-dissimulation of means, this politeness of architecture towards its materials which translates itself by a constant technophany, amounts to a refusal of obsolescence and to the discover among sensible species of the permanent availability of the industrial material as the foundation for the productive continuity of the work.