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Informational Ontology: the Meaning of Gilbert Simondon’s Concept of Individuation

Iliadis, Andrew. “Informational Ontology: the Meaning of Gilbert Simondon’s Concept of Individuation.” communication +1 (2013): 1–21. Volume 2: Communication and New Materialism. Print.

p.2: The French philosopher Gilbert Simondon (1924-1989) was the first true philosopher of information, yet he remains relatively unknown outside of his native France. This situation is curious, given the warm reception his work has received from a small group of internationally renowned thinkers. Simondon’s lifelong project was to expound the appearance of what I call an “informational ontology,” a subject that deserves to be addresses at length. This article limits itself by focusing on three aspects of Simondon’s philosophy of information. First, it situates Simondon within the French intellectual scene in post-World War II Europe to get sense of his cultural milieu. Second, it positions Simondon’s work in the context of the American cybernetic tradition from which it emerged. Finally, it offers an exegesis of Simondon’s informational ontology, a radically new materialism that stands to change contemporary debates surrounding issues related to information, communication, and technology. -- Highlighted may 4, 2014

p.3: Almost half a century ago now, Gilles Deleuze (1925–1995) discovered what we are beginning to know today. Simondon is responsible for articulating “an entirely new philosophy.” What Deleuze did not point out, and what many English readers of Simondon have heretofore failed to pick up on, is that in articulating this new philosophy Simondon was simultaneously engaged in conversation with some of the most technically advanced scientists, engineers, and mathematicians of the twentieth century. Any real understanding of Simondon’s approach to individuation – most central of all Simondonian concepts – must acknowledge the privileged position that Simondon gave to notions from within engineering, physics, and especially cybernetics in his original ontology which, as this paper will show, remains a deeply informational one. -- Highlighted may 4, 2014

p.4: Simondon was incredibly well-versed in fields that lay beyond the ken of most practicing philosophers. In a brief interview he conducted with the French magazine Esprit late in his life, he spoke about his philosophical approach, yet the interview is peppered with references to a diverse array of scientists, engineers, and inventors, including Albert Ducrocq, James Clerk Maxwell, Allen B. DuMont, Robert Stephenson, Michael Faraday, and others. -- Highlighted may 4, 2014

p.4: A reading of Simondon must take into account his engagement with these fields, and appreciating his unique conception of the notion of information is essential for any understanding of individuation and the new branch of ontology that he helped to introduce. Indeed, Simondon’s name fits just as comfortably among names like Claude Shannon (1916–2001), Warren Weaver (1894–1978), and Norbert Wiener (1894–1964), just as it does Deleuze, Lyotard, and Latour. -- Highlighted may 4, 2014

p.7: The mathematical theory of communication (MTC) continues to undergird all other forms of communication, including Simondon’s notion of information. -- Highlighted may 4, 2014

p.7: The idea that MTC undergirds other modes of information and communication techniques makes sense given the utility of its wartime origins. Developed in the Bell Labs in New York City during the Second World War, its inventor, Claude Shannon (1916–2001), was a brilliant young thinker who spent the better part of his academic life at MIT. His Master’s thesis on Boolean algebra and what he called a “logic machine” would lay the foundations for the design of computer circuits. One of Shannon’s often quoted passages is the following taken from his landmark paper, “The Mathematical Theory of Communication,” published in 1948 in the Bell System Technical Journal:

The fundamental problem of communication is that of reproducing at one point either exactly or approximately a message selected at another point. Frequently the messages have meaning; that is they refer to or are correlated according to some system with certain physical or conceptual entities. These semantic aspects of communication are irrelevant to the engineering problem. The significant aspect is that the actual message is one selected from a set of possible messages. The system must be designed to operate for each possible selection, not just the one which will actually be chosen since this is unknown at the time of design.

-- Highlighted may 4, 2014

p.8: This distinction between what we can call “data” and “semantic information” would be explicated by other cyberneticists and related thinkers, including Weaver, Wiener, Charles E. Osgood (1916–1991), and Wilbur Schramm (1907– 1987), each of whom believed that communication is, first and foremost, the flow of information. -- Highlighted may 4, 2014

p.9: To put it in terms of a helpful distinction made by Floridi, information can exist in three ways: information “as” reality, information “for” reality, and information “about” reality. Where the cyberneticists thought the interoperability and indeterminacy of information “about” and “for” reality, Simondon thought these concepts in terms of information “as” reality. -- Highlighted may 4, 2014

p.10: The most interesting figure among the group (for reasons that I will not go into here), Wiener – who Bertrand Russell had once taught and described as thinking “himself God Almighty,” complaining that “there is a perpetual contest between him and me as to which is to do the teaching” – admitted that The desire to apply Cybernetics of semantics, as a discipline to control the loss of meaning from language, has already resulted in certain problems. It seems necessary to make some sort of distinction between information taken brutally and bluntly, and that sort of information on which we as human beings can act effectively or, mutatis mutandis, on which the machine can act effectively. In my opinion, the central distinction and difficulty here arises from the fact that it is not the quantity of information sent that is important for action, but rather the quantity of information which can penetrate into a communication and storage apparatus sufficiently to serve as the trigger for action. -- Highlighted may 4, 2014

p.11: Deleuze quizzically ignored many of the technical terms that Simondon inherited from the American cybernetic tradition – one would be hard-pressed to find any sustained engagement with concepts like “information” and “communication” in his work, save for in one of his last texts, the deceivingly short, brilliant “Postscript on the Societies of Control” – opting instead to retain only those terms in Simondon that imbue a decidedly more philosophical feel, for example, as in such terms as the “preindividual,” “ensemble,” and “dispartion.” -- Highlighted may 4, 2014

p.13: There is no “unity and identity of information, because information is not an end; it requires a system.” The amount of foresight that Simondon shows in this formulation borders on that of a clairvoyant. Before Marshal McLuhan, Simondon acknowledged the fact that information itself, as “data” or “message,” was not the whole story, and that the most important thing is the system where the information is constituted. Yet one must be clear here; Simondon acknowledged information’s multimodal character. -- Highlighted may 4, 2014

p.14: Contemporary communication practices in “multimodality” and theories on object-oriented ontology speak to something of this concept, and are beginning to prove decisive in furthering our understanding of communicative processes. At bottom it is about a technique which expresses the many different ways it is possible to interface with an informational system. It is about a plurality of individuation, and not a subjective or singular one. Had he lived long enough to witness the flood of new approaches to information along with their attendant technological advances – big data, computational ontology, cloud storage – Simondon would have found solace in the fact that much of what he had to say on the interoperability and indeterminacy of information’s ontological significance came true. -- Highlighted may 4, 2014

p.15: Transduction means that knowledge of the information inherent to interoperable elements of an open structure can produce real ontological effects. This example is admittedly more technological, but the priority of information even in biology should become clear upon closer inspection. For now, it suffices to say that transduction signifies domains of potentiality, these being the connection of information inherent to different systems, in a way that interfaces with other domains, unlocking and reconfiguring one another, once again calling to attention the notion of the multimodality of communicative information. For a more popular example, one merely has to think of apps and the way they reconfigure information to produce new ontological realities, for instance, as when GPS or other systems reproduce quantified aspects of reality in ways that elicit new affective experiences on the part of the user. -- Highlighted may 4, 2014

p.18: Informational ontology, then, sees all things as real, yet it acknowledges along with Simondon that information is the methodological skeleton key that allows us to inquire into the “objects” and “materiality” in the first place. -- Highlighted may 4, 2014