Identity and Individuation: Some Feminist Reflections

Elizabeth Grosz, ‘Identity and Individuation: Some Feminist Reflections’, pp.37-56, in:

De Boever, A., Simondon, G. (Eds.), 2013. Gilbert Simondon: being and technology. Edinburgh Univ. Press, Edinburgh.


There are, for Gilbert Simondon, many kinds of individualities, many kinds of subject, many kinds of object, but all share the processes of individuation, which may serve equally to explain the coming into being and the existence of beings of all kinds, material, organic, human, cosmic.

In providing models for understanding how things, including living things, are brought into existence as cohesive individuals, Simondon opens up new ways of understanding identity, transformation and creation – all central ingredients in a radical reconceptualization of thought.


The question of how to think the coming into existence of individuals without presupposing the identity on which such individuality is based is one of a number of preoccupations that dominate Simondon’s work.

Pre-individual forces pre-exist and make possible the emergence of individuality, those forces which are actualized in the individual.

The individual is always more than itself, for it is an individual with ongoing potential to undergo further changes after it is constituted as such.

Being is at once pre-individual, individuating and individuated; it becomes something, something emerges or erupts, but it leaves in its context or milieu a residue or excess that is the condition for future becomings.


Becoming is the mode of being of beings that are not self-contained, tat function through a kind of disconnection of syncopation, that function as out of phase; it is the creation of a process of disparity that resolves itself and uses up some of the pre-individual resources in the constitution of an individual (whether an individual object, an individual technological object or a biological individual).

[…] the pre-individual is not static or inert but fundamentally dynamic. It generates forces which act upon each other , which generate tensions, points of excess, the development of a tipping point or form of emergence, forms of becoming which coexist uneasily.

These points of instability are the sites around which individuality may emerge. These sites are understood as problems, questions, which do not seek a solution so much as address an emergent force.

The individual is a mode of management of instability or excess, rather than its overcoming. Individuality is thus not one type of being, but one phase of being, a period, a movement, neither an origin or an end.


Such a being must be considered, not as a stable phenomenon, one at rest or equilibrium, where all a system’s virtualities have been actualized. Simondon insists that the pre-individual is metastable, form-taking, oriented to certain types of organization, and that it generates provisional resolutions that maintain the ongoing genesis of ever-new and commonly unactualized virtualities.

Both material and ideal, the pre-individual cannot adequately distinguish between terms that only apply to what has identity; it is supersaturated, always rife with potential.

Its virtualities engender many actuals – individuals, processes, actions and events – but these virtualities are incapable of exhaustion; they always renew and transform themselves through the actualisation they engender and the energetic potentials they produce.

Individuations doubles the pre-individual; it is this doubling, the duplication of the forces of the real within the emergent individual at a different level or order, that both produces new levels and orders within the real and enables the individual produced to intervene in and transform the pre-individual as its milieu.

Like the doubling of the image that constitutes stereoscopic vision, each image is the image of the other; but each is slightly different, askew, and it is their non-coincidence that produces the possibility of three dimensional vision, of depth.

It is only when two series, two events, two processes or images double each other with a slight difference that the possibility for the eruption of a new level, the production of a new order of metastability, opens up.


Thus the concept and matter, space and time, individual and collective are each expressions of what is individuated and not what is individuating. The disparity between the processes of individuation and the individual they generate is the condition for an ongoing becoming of the being. This disparity generates the being of becoming.

This disparity, the differential between principles organising various forms and levels of the real, requires a mediation. Individuation is that process of mediation which requires both the existence of a tension or duality of terms, levels or orders of magnitude, and an ‘initial absence of interactive communication’ between these two.

The virtual forces of the pre-individual, in not being entirely used up by processes of actualisation, remain an ongoing source of transformation, the generation of new virtualities and new paths of actualization. These constitute a kind of ‘memory’, an inherence of the past in the present and of the virtual in the actual, an inherence within the individual of the pre-individual resources whose disparity brought it into existence and which remain to regulate its ongoing individualisations.

Individuality is thus the establishment of a mode of resonance among disparate forces that otherwise coexist only with tension. It is the constitution of an internal resonance  that brings together its elements, as well as being part of a larger order within which the individual is itself a fragment within other individuations.

The system formed, whether the unity or identity of a tool or a machine, of a material object or process, or of a living thing, draws on these disparities, forms itself through them and is marked by their particular forces, and thus preserves many of their qualities while transforming them into a cohesive individual […]


The being is more than a unity, more than an identity, for it is also the possibility for the transformation and even the undoing of unity and identity, as well as the milieu within and against which any unity or identity establishes itself.

This movement of individuation, the ontogenesis of the individual, is generated by a movement that Simondon calls ‘transduction’.

Transduction is a process by which an activity generates itself, elaborating and structuring a region in its vicinity as its domain. It is a movement through different forces that transforms them through the elaboration of dimensions, magnitudes, vectors, by enabling a being to exist amidst their contrary and competing forces.


The process of transduction not only generate the coming together of heterogenous forces into a provisional unity, but they also explain the structuring of that which surrounds the being or entity, its milieu, thus producing a mode of territorialization or spatialization, a mode of production of a field or terrain that surrounds and enables the being snd its transformations.


Transduction must take into account the form-producing qualities of various types of matter, the tendency within material systems for emergent order and the cascading effects of new modes of emergence.

Simon don has articulated the mode of coming into being of all kinds of objects, not simply through human who invent them (though he does address this too), but what it is that human inventors must capitalize on in order to invent – natural forces, laws, principles, materials, and their potential modes of mutation and transformation.

But it must also take into account the mind-forming activities in which matter is implicated, they ways in which the coagulating and transforming relations of matter generate problems to which the creation of mind, mentality, conceptuality is a kind of solution or mode of address.


It is thus not a knowledge of individuation that Simondon seeks but a knowledge as individuation, a knowledge that is itself the transductive effect of processes preceding and exceeding knowledge.


Transductive or transforming forces transmit energy even as they transform it from one type to another; and they inform matter, make matter meaningful, capable of new energies and resources that move them into another movement or order.

The biological individual requires, in order for it to exist, physical individuals; and mental individuals, concepts, ideas thoughts, images require that biological individuals pre-exist them, just as social individuals – neighbourhoods, factories, workshops, cities, nations, and collectives of all kinds, whether human or animal – require a certain conceptual and perception cohesiveness of biological and conceptual individuals.

Individuality is an ongoing and changing consequence of the ever more intense and close integration and transformation of ‘elements’ of the pre-individual into the inner operations of the constituted individual. This provides something like an open-ended entelechy for the being, a direction or orientation, not toward an end, but toward the maximisation of the forces and processes which gave rise to the being.

Beings are under an imperative to evolve, to harness and to put to work ever more efficiently resources that are not resources until they find a way of being channelled. This is their becoming – to include what is outside and before into what is inside and becomes with the being.

What Simondon describes as individuation is a process of materialisation that is not exclusively material.


Matter has a positive property immanent in any of its particular characteristics – it is capable of being modelled, formed. Matter has what Simondon understands as plasticity, the capacity to become something other than what is is now, as its positivity, its openness, its orientation to transformation.

The pre-individual is material only in this sense – thats its resources, its contents, have not yet distinguished between terms that, when they become terms or entities, will be opposed. It is, in short, metastable.

It is marked by singularities, specificities, particular forces, specific locations, singular potentialities. It is the order of pure difference, of difference without distinction, of disparity, a ‘mobile overlapping of incompatible wholes, almost similar, and yet disparate.’

This pre-individual is the real, the world, the universe in its unordered givenness. What is given are singularities, specificities, tendencies, forces, but not yet modes of ordering and organising them into systems, levels, dimensions, or orders. Chaos.

Such matter is precisely not formless, pure unformed matter waiting for the Idea to take on form. Rather matter is multiform, for it has the potential and virtuality, the capacity, to take on a number of forms, not an unlimited capacity, but a capacity by virtue of, and limited to, its singularities.

[Discussion of Simondon’s rejection of Aristotelian hylomorphism]

Matter is the capacity to be organised in various limited but not contained forms. It is an openness to reordering, to transformation in its relations with other forces and forms in its vicinity.


Individuation has two complementary effects: it generates an internal resonance between forces, the condition under which an individual as such might emerge, and it generates information, a relation of communication or exchange between two disparate orders, in which one brings in the forces of the outside, while the other provides from within itself a form.

Individuation thus materialises new orders of informations, where matter and information cannot be understood as separable (unlike in cybernetic models), but where each order marks the other and is in turn enhanced by it.

Individuation takes place between matter and form in this new sense. Matter is not in-formed. Rather its forms evolve, change, and contest the boundaries of its potential though its encounters with what resists, what itself forms and is formed.

Life is not a special kind of substance, a vital force that must be definitively distinguished from matter. Rather, for Simondon as for Bergson, life is a deviation of matter, one of the forms that matter generates.  In other word, life too, as much as matter, is a consequence of the same forces of individuation.


What is so fascinating and relevant about Simondon’s work for us now is his insistence that the modes of organization that characterise life are not all the different to the modes of organization that characterise physical systems.


Life is not a difference in kind from matter (as Bergson suggests) but a difference in degree; the living never attain the cohesion and unity of the material individual that ‘crystallises’ all it needs of its pre-individual forces at once.

In life, the processes of individuation never cease; they coexist with the duration of the living organism itself – the organism never fully coincides with itself, or attains an identity in which it is what it is. The living organism is more a singularity than an individual; and ironically, it is material individuals that attain the self-identity for which we assume a subject strives.

For Simondon, life is differentiated from the non-living by three principle differences.

First, the living being’s individuality is coextensive with a permanent process of individuation, whereas in the case of a physical object individuation may be effected through a single encounter, and through the reiteration of an initial encounter between two incompatible forces or orders of energy.

Second, the living being produces individuations from an internal resonance, and not simply through the disparity between internal and external forces, a disparity between its internal qualities and its external milieu – it thus grows not only at its extremities, the points of surface contact with its outside, but from within, through an internal organization. Unlike the crystal which elaborates itself at its surface, the border between it and its milieu, the living being elaborates itself from within, through the forces of its internal resonances […]

And third, the living individual engenders continuous individuations from within itself. It directs itself to problems, provocations not only through adaptation, but also through the potential to reconsider its own internal organization, through it’s own individuating interiority, the condition for the eruption of conceptuality itself […]

Life modifies itself, where the physical individual is modified by its milieu.

Life resonates, as it translates information. It exchanges energy and information, in the same manner as matter but at a different level or dimension, and directed at different problems.

The living being elaborates the conditions for the emergence of a psychical individual.


Such an individual is only possible when the living being can think itself as a unity and can represent its activities to itself.


The living being elaborates both perception and affect entwined, not as separate dimensions, but now brought together in a new dimension.

It is the generation of another order of problems, again a residue of unspent or unactualized forces from the pre-individual, that also constitutes the possibility of collective individuation, the coming into being of an entity that is larger than but inclusive of the individual – the possibility of ensembles, groups, collectives, the eruption of transindividual relations.

Transindividual collectives address problems that psychic individuals are unable to – they create a mode of higher-order resolution and utilization of the tensions that remain unresolved from the pre-individual.

Collective relations are largely mediated by technical objects which elaborate and contribute to psychical cohesion.

The transindividual, whether in the form of thought itself, or in the form of supraindividual collectives, both exceeds and extends the individual.

This is, for Simondon, a kind of ethics of actualisation, an ethics of the transformation of information and materiality.


Such an ethics reverses the movement of the dialectic; instead of superseding and leaving behind that which it cannot incorporate or resolve, it aims eventually, through the opening up of the future, to aspire to the maximisation of actualisation, the maximum incorporation of pre-individual potentials, disparations, into the individuals and supraindividuals that emerge.


[Simondon] has become something of a visionary figure within the philosophy of technology and in the philosophy of science, but his relevance  for social and political thought, for theories of subjectivity, identity, sexuality and sociality, has been less clear.


Poststructuralist feminism has emphasized the power of images and representations constructing the real, in producing nature as the retroactive condition of culture, created only by culture, and in establishing the lived body as a cultural rather than biological body.

While these claims were perhaps a necessary corrective to the assumption of a masculine or feminine nature or essence, they rendered impossible the notion of a pre- or non-representational real, seeing in biology only fixation and resistance to change, and regarding what is creative as what is consciously created by human intentionality.

In affirming many of these broad principles, feminist, anti-racist and postcolonial discourses became more remote from and disinterested in conceptualising the real, in understanding forces that run below or beneath consciousness, before or beyond culture.

Feminism’s commitment to structuralist and poststructuralist accounts of the integral relation between language and human culture, and the constitutive relation that language in the constitution of subjectivity has meant that many other questions about materiality and ideality, about the ways in which language and culture develop in the prehuman and from the precultural, about the reality of the body and its various processes, about natural and material forces, are all pre-empted.

Simondon’s work may serve as a corrective to this corrective!

Perhaps feminist theory, instead of orienting itself so thoroughly to the elaboration of these models of representation, could now elaborate itself in different terms that may capitalize on Simondon’s insights regarding the processes of individuation.


What Simondon offers feminist and other forms of radical thought is a new way of understanding a world that is not ultimately controlled or ordered through a central apparatus or system, that has no inherent or necessary hierarchies, that does not require animation or coordination by culture but instead enables and makes culture itself possible.

Subjectivity is not the centre of political life, not the conditions under which political struggles are waged, but the condition under which social and collective life is possible.

Subjective identity is not the stale and abiding identity that founds a politics, whether it be a politics of recognition or an egalitarian politics of formal similarity.


The division of humanity into genders, races, classes, ethnicities and so on, the primary concern of many forms of social activism, can be explained in quite open and surprising ways, if we understand that these categories are neither structures nor forms, neither intersected nor singular and self-identical.

They are social collectivities, transindividual groups, that cohere not only because they share a common milieu (the environment of various forms of oppression) but also because they share some kind of internal resonance, some form of informational coding that brings together their members, in varying degrees of adhesion, to social / political collectives.

Cultural ‘gender’ is the transcription, at another level, of the tensions and sources of upheaval posed by sexual selection at the level of animal or vital existence. In this sense, it functions in different terms  from all other forms of social collectives; it is a problem, an irresolvable tension of animal life that is animated and transformed, negotiated, in socially variable ways.


Simondon provokes us to rethink the most basic assumptions about what it is to be a subject in a world of pregiven objects, and in doing so, he stimulates us to think in new term about unresolved problems, problems about the real, about forces, about forms of power, and to open up these problems to new modes of address.