Individuation, Relationality, Affect: Rethinking the Human in Relation to the Living

Venn, Couze. 2010. “Individuation, Relationality, Affect: Rethinking the Human in Relation to the Living.” Body & Society 16 (1) (March 1): 129–161. doi:10.1177/1357034X09354770. Venn delves into Simondon's ontogenetic philosophy to consider the implications of ongoing metastable individuation for humans, individually and collectively. Venn sums up three interrelated areas within Simondon's oeuvre: an ontology of individual-collective affective relations; an imbrication of the human within "nested networks" of all living beings; and a politics formed through overlapping "technical and psychic" structures. Together, these three strands reveal the need for a "rethinking of ontology and ethics, thus politics" (154).

Venn describes affect as a relational force through which the individual relates to the collective, or transindividual, within Simondon's philosophy. It is multidirectional force, that is both individual and transindividual emerge through affects, but at different scales. Similarly, Venn argues that Simondon's philosophy leads to an expanded view of the collective, where humans maintain relations to all living entities—paralleling Haraway's "naturecultures" (157). Such entities comprise human milieus and are fundamental in the formation of new metastabilities to which individuals must respond. Finally, Venn claims that Simondon's adhesion to material and historical facets align with Foucault's dispositif, or "power, knowledges, strategies, assemblages" that bring specific forces, tensions and energies together. The importance here is an attention to the specificity of relations that create super-saturated areas of potential.

Venn's essay brings to light the ethics produced by Simondon's commitment to concrete elements of relation. However, he does not discuss Simondon's technics, the ways in which technologies affect the transindividual and mediate between humans and nature—which relates to his three areas of concern listed above. In fact, Venn critiques Simondon for "neglecting…the effects of technics or a technical apparatus inscribed in a material world…in the co-contitution of specific individuals and the group" (149). This is an uncharitable reading of Simondon, and avoids Simondon's urgent demand that technics be considered as part of culture and to develop a form of technical mentality based on the function of technology rather than its use. However, even with this oversight, the essay offers a number of viable links to my own research, most especially his discussion of affective relations between individual and collective and the link to nonhuman living beings.


A term that I continually come across in my readings recently is topographic. Specifically, it is used by Simondon and the authors writing about his ideas, most notably individuation and relation. Simondon's writings focus on ontogenesis and the relation between an individual and its milieu (environment). Simondon is interested in how the individual is formed in relation to its surroundings. It's quite fascinating, and will make up several posts in the future, but as I've been reading his work and works about him I've noticed the use of the term topographic. It is used as a way to describe relations...they are topographic. Now I understand that on the one hand, this is to say that relations have specific shape and form, yet I feel that there is more beneath the surface here (excuse the pun). The word beckons to be understood, and I am only just beginning to get my head around it, yet it seems key.

Intensities, flows and affects are also key terms in Simondon's writing. Flows and topography. Luckily, my wife is a landscape designer, and she's helped me see the idea of a ground plane that shapes the flow of water - this is the problem with covering the city with asphalt and concrete, by flattening out the plane the water flows faster, it isn't absorbed by the earth and plants, and delivers toxins directly to wherever it is routed by municipalities.

This is a good example to see the way that the topography of a relation can be used to trace its flows, and as we build cities we can find ways to shape them in ways to enhance the kinds of flows we want/need - permeable concrete and grasscrete, for instance, can allow water to be absorbed before sending it immediately to the sewer.

This much, I get, and it sounds easy enough, when put into terms of ground plane and water. Yet, what is the topography of the Internet? What shapes the flows between my ipad and my fingers? What is the topography of human-bacteria relations? Is it truly a concept that we can abstract usefully? It comes back to one of the questions I have about posthuman relations: how is the relation felt, how is it experienced, how can we locate it if the topography is microscopic or beneath our affective threshold?

This is related, to me at least, to the question of where and how does one locate relations. How can they be traced, followed and measured? Intensity, flow, affect seem to be the answer, but these too have abstract difficulties attached...