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INFLeXions No. 5 – Milieus, Techniques, Aesthetics (Mar. 2012)

Simondon, Bioart, and the Milieus of Biotechnology by Robert Mitchell (Duke University, United States of America)
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After a half–century of neglect in the English–speaking world, Gilbert Simondon’s philosophy of technology seems finally poised to make its way across the Atlantic. Spurred in part by Gilles Deleuze’s, Félix Guattari’s, and Bernard Stiegler’s engagement with Simondon’s oeuvre, and in part by translations of Simondon’s work that have recently become available (albeit largely still only on the internet), a growing number of contemporary scholars have found themselves attracted by Simondon’s distinctive approach to technology, which joins a minute attention to technical detail to a philosophical approach that draws its language and concepts from sources as varied as Gestalt psychology, cybernetics, neo–Bergsonian vitalism, and modern physics. Though the technical objects that Simondon himself analyzed and theorized were largely industrial–era objects, such as turbines, automobile motors, cathode–ray tubes, and electronic components, his work has been of particular interest to scholars interested in communication media and the social logic of networks, and his concept of “individuation” has emerged as a way of theorizing more carefully and fully those social and technical transformations that otherwise are often lumped under the wooly rubric of “emergence.” [1]

Yet as Albert Toscano has noted, many of the economic and social developments that have occurred in the fifty or so years since Simondon published Du mode d’existence des objets techniques (On the Mode of Existence of Technical Objects, 1958) potentially challenge some of the fundamental categories of Simondon’s philosophy of technology. [2] It is not clear how, if at all, practices of “immaterial labor” would fit within Gilbert Simondon’s accounts of individuation and technology (Toscano 2007). The development of the field of biotechnology also troubles Simondon’s approach to technology, for he drew a sharp distinction between machines and living beings, and restricted his philosophy solely to the former. These two difficulties are arguably related to one another, for Simondon formulated the key elements of his philosophy prior to the emergence of both our contemporary information society and our age of biotechnology. Simondon tended to focus his understanding of the connections between information and life through the schema of cybernetics, and no doubt as a consequence, his few remarks on biotechnology are generally lacking in that scrupulous attention to the material details of objects that characterize his engagements with other forms of technology (e.g., bricks, turbines, motors, diodes, etc.). Simondon suggests in Du mode, for example, that the use of living matter as a technology, as in the case of greenhouse flowers and fruits, inevitably ends up rendering living beings more artificial — that is, more “abstract”; more dependent upon constant human intervention — and he buttresses this claim with the assertion that greenhouse flowers will eventually be unable to reproduce on their own (Simondon 2001: 47). Whether or not that was true when Simondon wrote, it certainly does not seem to be the case for bioengineered life in our present moment, which in turn makes one wonder to what extent his philosophy is able to theorize contemporary transformations of living matter into technology.

The premise of this essay, however, is that, despite these difficulties, Simondon’s philosophy does indeed help us to understand contemporary biotechnology, both in its industrial and its artistic variations. In order to make this argument, I focus on Simondon’s concept of “associated milieu,” which can help us to understand how life can become technological. I begin by contextualizing historically Simondon’s use of the term milieu, and I suggest that Simondon’s concept of “associated milieu” merges a Lamarckian approach (which positions milieu as condition of possibility of innovation) with a Bernardian approach (which understands milieu in terms of constancy and stability). I then consider how Simondon employed the concept of associated milieu in both his writings on individuation and in Du mode, and I argue that these discussions indeed open up the possibility of understanding contemporary biotechnology as a technology, in the Simondonian sense of the term. I then consider biotechnology from the perspective of one of Simondon’s other great concerns — namely, the ways in which humans relate affectively to technical objects — and use Simondon’s concept of the associated milieu to discuss two recent bioartworks. By employing living matter as a technical object within the frame of art, bioart seeks to focus attention on the mediations — in both the communicational and biological senses of the term — that attend all technical individuation, but are particularly pronounced in biotechnology. In doing so, bioart helps us to establish “corporeal schemas” that allow us to engage biotechnology beyond the dichotomy of mastery/slavery, and thus forms part of what Jean–Hughes Barthémély describes as a new genetic encyclopedism (Barthélémy 2008). Reading bioart and biotechnology through Simondon’s philosophy of technological objects and Simondon’s philosophy of technological objects through the history of the concept of milieu emphasizes that if both the history of technology and the philosophy of technology move forward, they do so not in linear fashion, but rather as a consequence of perpetually eccentric movements able to forge new connections with apparently past forms of individuation and thought.

I. A Brief History of the Concept of “Milieu”

As George Canguilhem and others have noted, eighteenth– and nineteenth–century conceptions of milieu had their origins in natural philosophy (what we would now call physics), for the French term “milieu” was used to translate the English term “medium,” which had emerged as a key concept in seventeenth century mechanics, the science of the movement of matter in general (Canguilhem 2001). [3] Seventeenth– and eighteenth–century natural philosophers used the term medium to denote the material space that enabled the transmission of forces or particles between distant points: Newton, for example, discussed the effects of rarer and denser “media” on the refraction of light (Newton 1728: 5ff.). The early nineteenth–century zoologist Jean–Baptiste Lamarck took up this sense of milieu as element of transmission, but “vitalized” the term in an important way. Though Lamarack used milieu to denote elements such as water and gases, he was less interested in the ways in which milieu transmit something — for example, sound or light — than in the effects of milieu on living beings. Noting that the milieu within which living beings exist slowly change over time — the salinity of a sea, for example, may increase or decrease over time — Lamarck argued that animals seek to “stick” to their milieu even as they (the milieu) alter, and this effort to remain within changing milieu engendered new habits and needs on the part of the animal. These new habits and needs in turn altered the body of the animal, and these organic changes were passed on to progeny. The result, over long periods of time, was the emergence of new “species.” [4] For Lamarck, milieus were not simply a medium of transmission for physical phenomena but, in addition, the condition of possibility of organic innovation; it is because milieus perpetually change that there is constant organic variation amongst the living. A milieu is thus not simply that which sustains life but also that which makes possible (and in fact inevitable) perpetual organic change — what Simondon would call “individuation” — amongst the living.

Nineteenth–century physician and experimentalist Claude Bernard deepened the connection between milieu and living beings by expanding the “sites” of milieu. Rather than restricting milieu to the outside of the animal, Bernard argued that warm–blooded animals also create internal milieu within their own bodies in the form of flows of blood and other bodily fluids. Internal milieu protect the living body by remaining relatively constant in temperature, humidity, and pressure, thus isolating the fragile organs inside the organism from the harsh and variable “cosmic milieu” within which organisms collectively exist (Bernard 1957: 97, translation modified). Where Lamarck used the term milieu to denote flows of gases and fluids common to many animals, Bernard’s internal milieu are specific to each species and arguably even to each animal. And where milieu for Lamarck functioned as the condition of possibility for organic innovation — for the emergence of new forms of life — for Bernard, the interior milieu maintains life as it currently exists.

Yet Bernard’s emphasis on the ways in which milieu promote stability and constancy also led him to compare living beings and technical objects in a way that set the stage for Simondon’s approach to the concept of milieu. Bernard suggested that his distinction between internal and cosmic milieu was implicit in the construction of modern machinery, for he argued that it was only by means of something like an interior milieu that a modern machine could be prevented from malfunctioning. A steam engine for example, depended upon an interior space relatively free of influence from the exterior milieu in which the machine was situated: “climactic changes [must] have no influence at all on the action of a steam engine, though everyone knows that exact conditions of temperature, pressure and humidity inside the machine govern all its movements.” Bernard also located in the internal milieu a criterion for distinguishing better from worse machines: “the perfection of the machine consists in being more and more free and independent, so as to be less and less subject to the influence of the outer milieu” (1957: 98, translation modified).

II. Simondon’s “Associated Milieu”

One of the key terms in Simondon’s writings on technology is “associated milieu,” and what makes this concept especially interesting is that it merges the Lamarckian concept of milieu (which positions milieu as condition of possibility of innovation) with the Bernardian concept of milieu (which understands milieu in terms of constancy and stability). Insofar as Simondon discusses technology in terms of milieu, he draws on the parallel that Bernard had established between living beings and machines. However, Simondon’s concept of associated milieu in fact goes beyond the basic homeostatic framework of Bernard’s approach by taking up explicitly, as had Lamarck, the question of the ways in which milieu can lead to transformation and becoming. Moreover, as we will see, Simondon’s notion of associated milieu allows us to move beyond some of the specific limitations that Simondon himself placed on the concept of technical objects, and in this way helps us to understand the possibility of a biotechnology.

Simondon employed the term associated milieu in his 1958 dissertation, part of which was later published as L’individuation à la lumière des notions de forme et d’information (Individuation in the Light of the Notion of Form and Information) (1964), using it there as a way of describing the kind of individuation specific to living beings. [5] In L’individuation, Simondon stressed that a “milieu” should not be understood as something already given, but rather as that complement of the individual that is brought into being by processes of individuation: “individuation brings into being not only the individual, but the couple individual–milieu” (Simondon 1964: 4; my translation). For Simondon, a milieu does not pre–exist the individual to which it is the complement; rather, a milieu is “a synthetic grouping of two or more levels of reality that lack communication before [the event of] individuation” (Simondon 1964: 13, n. 1; my translation). Simondon sometimes seems to use the term associated milieu to distinguish between those milieu that emerge as the complements of non–living individuals (e.g., a crystal) and those milieu that emerge as the complement of living individuals (e.g., a plant). In the latter case, the system that enabled the emergence of an individual persists in the living individual itself:

    the principle of individuation, in the strict sense of the term, is the complete system in which the genesis of the individual occurs (…) moreover, this system itself survives within the living individual in the form of an associated milieu, in which individuation continues to occur (Simondon 1964: 70; my translation).

The associated milieu of a living being is often made up in part of other living beings, for living beings “require, as an associated milieu, strata of more finished and stable individuals. In order to live, living beings need physico–chemical individuals; animals need plants, which are, for them, Nature in the strict sense of the word, as chemical compounds are for plants” (Simondon 1964: 133; my translation).

When Simondon takes up the relation between associated milieu and living beings in Du mode — published in 1958, the same year that he completed the dissertation that would eventually be published as L’individuation — the term initially seems to be a synonym for what Bernard had called “internal milieu.” Simondon claims, for example, that:

    An individual is not only composed of a collection of organs interconnected to form a system. [The living organism] is also composed of that which is neither organ nor structure of living matter inasmuch as it constitutes an associated milieu for the organs. Living matter is the ground for the organs. It is what links them together to make them an organism. It is what maintains the basic thermal and chemical equilibrium with which the organs produce sudden but limited variations (Simondon 2001: 60 [Mellamphy 60]; Brouwer and Mulder 2007: 3–4).

The emphasis here, as in Bernard’s concept of “internal milieu,” seems to be on the limitation of variation; that is, the associated milieu enables “homeostasis” by means of what Simondon calls “recurrent causality” (which we might read as “feedback”) and thus prevents change.

A similar emphasis on stability also seems to be at work in Simondon’s use of the term “associated milieu” to describe the “individualization” of technical objects. [6] Simondon describes the individualization of a technical object — for example, an engine — as a process of becoming more or more “concrete,” which means, in essence, that its component parts become more and more multi–functional (or, as Simondon puts, “plurifunctional”) (Simondon 2001: 54 [Mellamphy 57]). Thus, Simondon contends that an air–cooled engine is more concrete than a water–cooled engine, because in the latter, water performs only one function (that of cooling), while in the air–cooled engine, the air performs multiple functions (for example, both cooling and producing the compression necessary to generate thrust). This individualization of the technical object is only possible, Simondon claims, when the technical object can establish a

    recurrent causality in a milieu that the technical being creates around itself and which conditions the technical being as it is also conditioned by the milieu. This milieu, which is both technical and natural, can be called the “associated milieu.” The associated milieu (…) is not manufactured, or at least not altogether manufactured. It consists, rather, of a particular regime of natural elements surrounding the technical being which is connected to another regime of elements that constitute the technical being. The associated milieu mediates the relation between the manufactured technical elements and the natural elements at the heart of which the technical being functions (Simondon 2001: 57 [Mellamphy 60–1, translation altered]). [7]

We see Simondon here again drawing on Bernard’s notion of the singularity of milieu: just as for Bernard each living being establishes its own internal milieu in order to protect itself from the cosmic milieu, for Simondon some technical objects also have their own associated milieu which draw selectively from the natural elements around them.

For Simondon, the virtue of the concept of the associated milieu for the study of technology is that it enables a distinction between two quite different kinds of technical objects. A technical individual is a technical object that has “an associated milieu as a sine qua non condition of its functioning”; a technical ensemble, by contrast, has at least “two distinct parts that cannot be self–stabilized by the same associated milieu” (Simondon 2001: 61, 62 [Mellamphy 68, 71]). At stake in this distinction is the question of whether the separate elements of a technical object must be largely sealed off from another in order prevent unexpected changes in one element from impeding the function of other elements, or whether — as in the example of the air–cooled engine above — fluctuations in one element actually promote the functioning of another element. In the case of technical ensembles, each element of the technical object in a sense functions as part of the external milieu of the other elements; though the elements of necessity interact with one another, the ensemble is able to function only by “preventing the chance creation of associated milieu” (Simondon 2001: 64 [Mellamphy 72]). By contrast, “[s]tructures connected with one single associated milieu should operate synergetically” (Simondon 2001: 62 [Mellamphy 70, 72]). A technical individual is not “better” than a technical ensemble — and in fact the elements of a technical ensemble are often technical individuals — but the distinction nevertheless allows for a precise analysis of the sites and functions of self–regulation and recurrent causality in technical objects.

Yet despite his emphasis on self–regulation and recurrent causality, Simondon’s concept of “associated milieu” is not simply a repetition of Bernard’s extension of the “internal milieu” to non–living objects, for the associated milieu also functions as the ground for change and innovation. For Simondon, a milieu is not simply a set of flows that preexists an individual, but rather a “synthetic grouping of two or more levels of reality that lack communication before [the event of] individuation.” The associated milieu of a technical individual enables a movement back and forth between a synthetic grouping of two or more levels of reality that lack communication and a synthetic grouping of two or more levels of reality that communicate. To take up one of Simondon’s examples, when a Guimbal turbine is turned off, the water and oil in the machine do nothing more than facilitate slow heat transfers between the inside and outside of the technology. When the turbine is turned on, though, both water and oil become “plurifunctional,” enabling communication between different micro– and macrolevels of the device. When the turbine is again turned off, the water and oil return to their neutral state, and this cycling between a neutral state and a state in which water and oil become plurifunctional can continue until the machine parts wear out.

Moreover, it is precisely by facilitating the emergence of associated milieu of technical objects — that is, by making technical objects more concrete — that humans are able to discover new modes of compatibility between individuals and the pre–individual, and to create new technical objects. Though technical objects are created by humans on the basis of schematics and plans, these objects nevertheless often end up revealing, through their functioning and especially their malfunctionings, unexpected modes of compatibility between individuals and the pre–individual. These technical objects are so much like natural objects, in fact, that we study them as though they were not produced by humans, but by nature:

    Because the mode of existence of the concrete technical object is analogous to that of a spontaneously produced natural object, we can legitimately consider them as natural objects; this means that we can submit them to inductive study. They are no longer merely applications of certain anterior scientific principles (Simondon 2001: 48 [Mellamphy 46]).

Technical objects reveal modes of compatibility between different dimension of natural forces and materials that were either not known before the emergence of the technical object or were believed to be incompatible. As a consequence, Simondon notes,

    The study of the systems of functioning in concrete technical objects is valuable scientifically because these objects are not derived from a single principle. They are the evidence of a certain mode of functioning and of compatibility that exists in fact and that was constructed before being foreseen. The compatibility in question was not contained in each of the distant scientific principles which played their part in the construction of the object; it was empirically discovered (Simondon 2001: 48 [Mellamphy 46]).

III. Milieu, Life, and Artificiality

Though Simondon draws his term milieu from biological and physiological discourses, he also consistently argues that we should not simply equate technical objects and living organisms, emphasizing that though a concrete technical object is like a natural object, there is in fact little to be gained by taking this parallel too seriously. He is emphatic, in fact, that we should not think of concrete technical objects as fundamentally the same as “living beings,” and he raps cybernetics on the knuckles for going too far in this direction (Simondon 2001: 70–1 [Mellamphy 82–3]). He argues, for example, that machines do not pose themselves “problems,” and as a consequence, there is no action of the future on the present in the case of the machine (Simondon 2001: 144–45 [Rebolledo et al. 144–45]).

Simondon briefly considers human uses of non–human living beings that might seem to treat the latter as technologies, but he contends that even in such cases, a fundamental distinction between living beings and technical objects remains. He contends that “technological” human intervention in the reproductive processes of living beings undermines the pre–existing unity of these latter, resulting in living beings that have been rendered “artificial.” As an example of this process of the production of artificiality, Simondon discusses plants that have been bred for specific conditions, such as the greenhouse or laboratory. His claim is worth citing in full:

    Artificiality is something that is within the artificializing action of man, regardless of whether this action affects a natural object or an entirely fabricated object. A greenhouse developed blossom that yields petals (a double flower) but does not engender fruit is the product of a plant that has been made artificial. Man has deflected the plant’s functions from coherent performance to the extent that the plant can’t reproduce itself except by procedures such as grafting which require human intervention. Making a natural object artificial gives results that differ from those effected by technical concretization. A plant that has been made artificial can only exist in that plant laboratory, the greenhouse, with its complex system of thermic and hydraulic regulations. The initially coherent system of biological functions has been opened up to functions that are independent of each other and that are related to one another only by the gardener’s care. Flowering becomes pure flowering, something detached and anomic; the plant blooms until it is worn out and it produces no seeds. It loses its original abilities to resist cold, drought and solar heat. The artificial regulations of the greenhouse replace what originally were the object’s natural regulations. Artificialization is a process of abstraction in the object which is rendered artificial (Simondon 2001: 47 [Mellamphy 47]).

In this complicated passage, Simondon makes at least three distinct claims. First, he contends that at least in some cases, human engagements with living beings have produced plants (and presumably one could also extend this argument to animals) that are unable to reproduce without the help of humans. Second, and closely related to this first claim, he contends that at least in some cases, human engagements with living beings have produced plants (and again, presumably, animals) that are unable to reproduce outside a milieu that has been created by humans, such as greenhouses or laboratories. Third — and this is in fact Simondon’s main point, or conclusion, of the paragraph that I have cited — these engagements with non–human living beings tend to produce processes of “devolution” that have a directionality more or less precisely the opposite of that which we observe in technical evolution. Thus, in place of that movement from an initially incoherent system of functions toward a coherent system of functions that characterizes technical evolution, we instead find that an “initially coherent system of biological functions” becomes broken into “functions that are independent of each other and that are related to one another only by the gardener’s care.” [8]

Since Simondon provides no references or further examples for his first two claims, it is difficult to assess their veracity, but taken together, these three claims help to clarify Simondon’s conception of the living organism, at least as it emerges in Du mode. For Simondon, a living being is a coherent system of (biological) functions that has some degree of consonance with its “natural” associated milieu — that is, the milieu that complements the living individual, but which not been constructed by humans — and which is able to propagate on its own. Yet however clear this image of the organism might be, it nevertheless begs a number of important questions. First, what does it mean for an organism to be able to propagate on its own? This question is especially pressing in the case of plants, many of which rely on the assistance of other organisms, such as bees, in order to propagate. Simondon implies that modes of reproductive assistance that involve humans (e.g., grafting) are in some way qualitatively different than those that rely on non–human living beings, but he provides no justification for such a distinction. Second, and related to this first question, what does it mean for one living being to be “part” of the associated milieu of another? As I noted above, Simondon explicitly claimed in L’individuation that other living organisms often formed part of the associated milieu of a given organism. However, in Du Mode he suggests that human intervention can sometimes shift from being simply a “part” of an associated milieu to be becoming the whole of the associated milieu, insofar as the organism can no longer reproduce without human intervention. Yet if dependency is what is at stake, in what ways does the dependency produced by human intervention differ from the dependency of many plants on birds or foraging animals (including humans), which spread seeds from one geographical location to another? [9]

Simondon’s second claim, that plants bred for “artificial” milieu such as laboratories or greenhouses will become so enervated that they cannot exist outside these artificial milieu, is equally problematic, for it suggests an implicit assumption about “harmony” between living beings and milieu that is not only factually dubious but also in tension with Simondon’s claims in L’individuation and claims he makes elsewhere in Du mode. Even at the time that Simondon was writing, it was clear to many botanists that a given plant genotype could in fact survive in a number of different milieu, though the phenotype would differ in each case, and that as a consequence it was difficult to identify either a “best” genotype or a “best” milieu for a given species. This fact has been popularized in the last several decades by molecular biologists such as Richard Lewontin in texts such as The Triple Helix (2000) (which includes Fig. 1), but as Lewontin notes, this fact had been known to botanists since in the late 1940s (Lewontin 200: 20–21).

Your browser may not support display of this image.

    Figure 1. The image at the bottom represents seven individual instances of the herb Achillea, each growing at the same low altitude and each with a different genotype. Two cuttings were taken from each plant. One cutting was planted at a medium altitude, and the other at a high altitude. Though the three plants in each of the seven “ columns” are clones of one another, each has grown quite differently, depending on the altitude. Moreover, there is no one genotype that grows “ best” at all altitudes. Source: Jens Clausen, David D. Keck, and William H. Hiesey, Experimental Studies on the Nature of Species, vol. 3, Environmental Responses of Climatic Races of Achillea (Washington, DC: Carnegie Institution of Washington, 1948), 80. Image in public domain.

Thus, even if we were to accept Simondon’s claim that a plant variety bred to greenhouse conditions could not longer survive in the geographic locale from which it was originally taken, this does not mean that this plant genome is unable to survive outside the greenhouse; rather, it might simply mean that its range of possible milieu has shifted or altered. Moreover, though Simondon sees the cultivation of a plant species within a greenhouse or laboratory as a restriction of the capacities of a given line of plants, it would be equally possible to see cultivation within greenhouses or laboratories as an enlargement of the geographic spread of the species. That is, insofar as instances of the species still flourish in the original geographic locale from which they were taken, the fact that other instances now grow in protected conditions (i.e., in greenhouses or laboratories) in parts of the world in which the plant would otherwise be unable to grow represents a geographic expansion of the species itself. Significantly, both of these points — that living beings can survive in multiple milieu, and that cultivation can be understood as an enlargement of vital geography—are consistent with Simondon’s emphasis in L’Individuation on the links that a living being necessarily retains with the pre–individual, which means that an organism is always in excess of itself, and thus always retains the capacity for new forms of linkage with its milieu. [10] Yet in Du mode, Simondon’s desire to distinguish between biological and technical evolution seems to have trumped his earlier claims about the fundamental openness of living organisms.

The dubious nature of Simondon’s first two claims (about the loss of reproductive capacity and the enervating effects of artificial milieu) does not necessarily invalidate the conclusion that he appears to draw from these claims, namely, that certain modes of human intervention in the reproductive processes of non–human living beings produce results that are the opposite of theose which we can observe in technical evolution. However, this “conclusion” does not so much follow from the first two claims that Simondon makes in the paragraph, but rather draws attention to what appears to be an unstated premise that guides the entire passage: namely, the premise that biological and technical systems differ absolutely in terms of complexity. Simondon implies that the “coherent system of biological functions” that makes up a living being is so complex, at least by human standards, which human interventions in reproductive processes tend to break this coherence, rather than producing an even more coherent system. He sees technical objects, by contrast, as sufficiently simple that modifications in their structure can produce “evolution” (that is, greater coherence). However, it is not clear from this passage whether Simondon was pointing to what he saw as a tendency — that is, human interventions in biological processes of reproduction tend to produce incoherent systems, whereas modification of technical objects tends to produce greater coherence — or whether he was pointing to what he saw as an impossibility in the case of living beings (i.e., human interventions in biological processes of reproduction can never produce systems of equal or greater coherence than obtained prior to these processes of human intervention). This is an important difference, and one that gets to the heart of whether or not a Simondonian philosophy of technology would acknowledge such a thing as a biotechnology.

IV. Biotechnology and Milieu

Despite the problems with Simondon’s particular factual claims that I have noted above, what likely motivated this passage was his sense that engineers approached technical objects from a quite different perspective than that which guided horticulturalists, at least at the time that he wrote. [11] Where engineers understood a technical object as an assemblage of functions that ought to be coordinated with one another, horticulturalists understood plants as unified organisms that could nevertheless be made to produce certain outputs (e.g., double–petaled flowers). This latter approach, which was oriented not by the implicit goal of producing greater coherence but rather that of producing specific products, could only (or was at least more likely) to achieve its ends by destroying existing systems of coherence (e.g., one could produce double–petaled flowers only at the cost of destroying the plant’s quasi–autonomous reproductive capacities). Yet if such was indeed the premise that motivated Simondon’s claims, it leaves unthought the possibility that a living being itself might be approached as an assemblage of functions that can be coordinated with one another not simply in the ways in which “nature” has coordinated them, but also in accordance with human desires.

At the time that Simondon wrote Du mode, such an approach to living beings in terms of functions was barely thinkable, and had almost no purchase on actual horticultural or livestock practices, which were at that time still grounded largely in multi–generational breeding programs or very imprecise methods of chemical or x–ray mutations of germplasm (see, e.g., Kloppenburg 2004). Multigenerational breeding programs depend on the identification of one (or at most a very small number) of desirable traits, and breeding for those traits not only takes many generations, but also makes it difficult to predict how the intensification of a given trait will affect other traits. In similar fashion, though chemical or x–ray mutations produce changes more swiftly (and in some cases, more predictably), they are also coarse means of changing heredity, for they produce changes that are difficult to restrict to the trait of interest.

The development of recombinant DNA techniques in the 1970s changed the landscape significantly, however, for it became not only possible to think, but also technically possible to manipulate, living beings as assemblages of functions that could be coordinated with one another in ways that were new and non–natural, yet not necessarily “artificial” in Simondon’s sense of the term. By “cutting and pasting” at the level of genetic code, molecular biologists were able in principle to isolate a particular phenotypic trait in one living being — for example, the capacity to produce bioluminescence or resistance to a specific herbicide — and move it into another living being. [12] This represented a fundamental shift in the way in which humans solicited desirable traits from plants and animals: rather than simply amplifying traits already existent in a given species of plant or animal or altering developmental processes in the hope of producing useful mutations, humans were now able to treat traits as technical functions that in principle could be moved from one species (whether plant or animal) to another.

Not surprisingly, concrete applications of these techniques in fact have proven far more limited than some early promoters of the biotechnology suggested. This is partly due to overly deterministic understandings of the relationships between genes and traits which until recently guided attempts to “engineer” biology. Bioengineers have also struggled in their efforts to alter extraordinarily complex systems of self–regulation, for the addition of a desired trait to an existing organism often has unanticipated, undesirable effects on other traits (e.g., changing a gene in order to slow the speed at which tomatoes become soft may also render those plants less tasty) (Kloppenburg 2004: 296, 301). [13] In addition, the specific traits upon which corporations involved in plant genetic engineering have focused are generally those that align well with the sale of other products, such as herbicides, since this coordination of products allows the same company to sell both seed and the complementary herbicide that kills all plant life except the herbicide–resistant crop. Though corporate research and development may depend upon this economic framing of research, there is no a priori reason to think that such a framework is likely to encourage researchers to develop the logic(s) of biotechnology to their fullest extent. Despite all these difficulties, though, recombinant DNA techniques nevertheless make it possible, at least in principle, to approach living beings as existing coherent systems of biological functions that can be altered to produce new, and potentially even more coherent, systems of biological functions — and from this perspective, it is at least plausible to treat living beings as technical objects, in Simondon’s sense of that term, and to consider how and when biotechnologies depended upon associated milieu.

The status of associated milieu in biotechnology is arguably more complicated than in the case of non–living technical objects, for once a particular biotechnology is “assembled,” further instances of that same biotechnology do not themselves have to assembled, but rather can be grown from that first instance. So, for example, in order to develop its Roundup Ready soy beans — a variety of soy bean genetically modified to withstand heavy doses of Roundup herbicide — the Monsanto Company originally had to insert bacterial DNA into soy bean germplasm. However, in principle this process of assembly only needs to occur once, for future generations of Roundup Ready soy beans can be grown from the first generation. As this example suggests, the associated milieu of biotechnology can appear at three different “sites”: (i) in the process of assembly (a process in which the cellular and chemical processes of an existing variety of living being are exploited to introduce new material into this same living being); (ii) during the growth process of this new variety of living being (for example, spraying fields with heavy does of Roundup herbicide will kill all plants except those containing Roundup–resistant DNA, allowing these latter to thrive); (iii) over the course of multiple generations of a bioengineered technical object (for example, interactions between multiple generations of the bioengineered technical object and its associated milieu may produce new forms of recurrent causality which depend upon this bioengineered technical object, and upon which this bioengineered technical object comes to depend). As this list suggests, bioengineering is often a matter of exploiting existing developmental processes that are largely allowed to proceed according to their own immanent logic — a fact that may seem to render biotechnical objects less “inventive” than those turbines, motors, and electronic components with which Simondon exemplified his concept of associated milieu. Yet the reliance of bioengineers on existing patterns of recurrent causality does not prevent bioengineering from facilitating the emergence of new and unexpected patterns of recurrent causality, both within the organism and between the organism and the common miliex, and this in turn enables precisely those discoveries of new modes of compatibility between different dimensions of natural forces and materials that Simondon stressed in his account of non–biological technical objects.

These three “sites” of biotechnological associated milieu also collectively emphasize the temporal dimension of associated milieu. That associated milieu have their own temporalities is implicit in Simondon’s descriptions, all of which stress the ways in which associated milieu coordinate multiple rates of change. In the Guimbal turbine, for example,“[t]he faster the turbine turns, the more the generator expels heat,” but at the same time, “the more the oil in the rotor and water around the housing increase in turbulence,” the more this “activate[s] heat exchanges between rotor and water effect and magnetic loss” (Simondon 2001: 57 [Mellamphy 61]). However, as the example of biotechnological objects highlights, the temporality of associated milieu are not necessarily restricted to the relatively short time frames — minutes or hours — stressed by Simondon’s examples, but can also unfold across much longer time frames, such as days, months, or years. These longer rhythms of associated milieu are not necessarily specific to biotechnological objects, and recent attempts to develop “green” and “sustainable” technologies are arguably motivated by the attempt to see the long–term relationship between a non–living technological object and the preindividual in terms of associated milieu. However, the developmental processes of many biotechnological objects emphasize this latter dimension in ways that non–living biotechnological objects often do not.

While corporate bioengineers have largely focused their attention on the first two sites of associated milieu noted above — processes of assembly and growth processes — activists opposed to many forms of bioengineering have emphasized the ways in which associated milieu can emerge over the course of multiple generations. Guiding this critique is the recognition that the primary danger posed by genetic modification is not that of enervation, but rather that of excessive vitality. Consider again the example of Monsanto’s Roundup Ready soy bean. Simondon would likely have been more comfortable in describing as a concrete technical object the air–cooled engine of the tractor that harvests this crop rather than the plants themselves. Yet even as the Roundup Ready soy plant depends, like all plants, upon the associated milieu of the farmland, the potential of Roundup Ready soy plants emerges only by means of the introduction of a new element into the associated milieu, namely, Roundup herbicide, which — when sprayed on the fields — kills other plants but does not affect the soy. This crop does not suffer from the problem of enervation that Simondon linked to greenhouse and laboratory alterations of plant life, for Monsanto crops can keep reproducing on their own, and this is a “problem” both from Monsanto’s point of view and for a public suspicious of genetically–modified organisms. For Monsanto, the problem is that Roundup Ready crops produce viable seed that can be stored by farmers, whereas Monsanto would prefer that farmers buy seed from the company every year. Monsanto has thus had to make recourse to the law to ensure that its “intellectual property” is not “pirated” by farmers in the form of seed storage (or, to put this another way, Monsanto has had to ensure that these plants are understood as technical objects before the law). [14] For critics of genetically–modified organisms, though, the problem with Monsanto crops is that the company seeks to encourage a monoculture — that is, it seeks to have all farmers buy genetically–identical seed from Monsanto. The danger of monoculture is not that the vitality of the crop will wither away from within, but rather that monocultures encourage crop pests, such as insects, viruses, and molds, to mutate, while at the same time preventing the crops themselves from mutating. Considered from the time scale of multiple generations, monoculture makes it far more likely that an entire crop can be killed all at once by a newly mutated pest.

V. Bioart, Milieu, and Concrete Life

Not only does the concept of associated milieu help us — despite Simondon’s own reservations — to think biotechnology, but it also can serve as a critical resource in differentiating between good and bad forms of biotechnology. One can imagine, for example, a critique of product–driven approaches to genetic engineering that proceeds from a Simondonian (rather than solely “ecological”) point of view. In Du mode, for example, Simondon bemoans the capture of certain technical objects, such as automobiles, by the forces of fashion and commerce. These latter add “decorative features and extra accessories” to the technical object in order to sell more products. However, because these features are decorative or accessory to the technical object, they “wor[k] against the essence of the technical being,” which is oriented toward greater coherence of functions (Simondon 2001: 24 [Mellamphy 18]). Drawing on this line of thought, one could critique strategies of genetic modification that, in similar fashion, produce those “false renovations which commerce requires in order to pretend that a recent object is an improvement on the less recent” (Simondon 2001: 40 [Mellamphy 37]). Though this critique would indeed involve the charge that such genetic modifications make a specific plant or animal artificial (in Simondon’s sense of that term), it would not — pace Simondon’s explicit claims about plants — imply that plants or animals cannot in principle be treated as technical objects.

Hindering the development of a Simondon perspective on bioengineering, however, is the consumerist framework within which questions of biotechnology have largely been framed and understood. While mass media reports on the “ethics” of, for example, cloned sheep and human ear–bearing mice invariably titillate readers, concentrated and widespread public interest in the implications of bioengineering seems almost invariably to occur around questions of commodities: should genetically modified (GM) vegetables be labeled as such, and are they as safe as non–GM vegetables? Can I discourage genetic engineering by buying local, “green” produce? Will my insurance pay for this reproductive testing or selection service, or will this biotechnology be restricted to those who are well–off? [15] Yet even as it emphasizes the world–changing potential of bioengineering, this consumerist frame restricts agency to a very narrow bandwidth — the binary choice “buy/not–buy” — which in turn encourages an oscillation between feelings of mastery (“I can change the world through my consumer choices!”) and feelings of powerlessness (“my consumer choices ultimately make no difference”), on the other.

Simondon was acutely attuned to this kind of schizophrenic emotional relationship with technology, and his philosophy of technical objects was in part an attempt to move beyond simplistic master/slave schemata for understanding technology (“will we master our machines, or will they master us?”). Simondon argued that the industrialization of technology in the nineteenth century had meant the loss, for most people, of “corporeal schemas” able to provide a knowing (rather than simply reactionary) relationship to technology. He contended, for example, that though many of the tools introduced in the eighteenth century had encouraged a sense of optimism and freedom precisely because these tools expanded the possibilities of existing bodily schemata for acting, there were fewer felt links between habitual bodily schemata and the industrial technologies of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. [16] As a consequence, these latter technologies often felt like hindrances to individual freedom, which in turn encouraged people to understand such technologies in terms of master/slave dynamics. Simondon hoped, by means of his philosophy of technology, to encourage the development of new schemas adequate to the technologies of the twentieth century. A similar loss — or, perhaps more accurately, lack of development — of corporeal schemas also describes our contemporary relationship to biotechnology, and this lack is exacerbated by the consumerist frame that guides discussion of this new mode of technology.

However, bioart — a relatively new mode of artistic practice that integrates bioengineered living organisms or tissue into the artwork itself — shows considerable promise as a means for thinking and instantiating a Simondonian–inspired “bioethics” of biotechnological objects. Bioart, I suggest, ought to be understood as an attempt to facilitate the development of “good” biotechnology — that is, biotechnology oriented toward the telos of establishing greater coherence of functions — in a context in which corporate research on biotechnology is largely oriented toward artificial modifications of living beings (with “artificial” taken in Simondon’s sense of the term). Bioart seeks, moreover, to create among its publics those corporeal schemas that will make this telos of greater coherence visible, and in this way lessen the hold of the master/slave schema that dominates current discussions of biotechnology. [17]

“Bioart” is, admittedly, a contested term, with some critics using it to refer to works of art that engage the theme of biotechnology, while others restrict it to those works of art that employ bioengineered tissue or organisms as the medium of the artwork. In the interests of space, I consider here only artworks that situate living beings or tissues — for example, microorganisms such as E. coli or tissue cultures drawn from larger organisms — in the space of the art gallery. [18] Examples of such works include Marta da Menezes’s Nature, which presents in the art gallery butterflies that she technologically altered at the embryo stage; Eduardo Kac’s Genesis project, which creates in the art gallery an asscociated milieu for genetically–altered E. coli; and Disembodied Cuisine, in which the Tissue Culture and Art Project drew on techniques of biological tissue culture in order to grow frog muscle cells around a template in the form of a steak, creating what the group describes as a “semi–living” object, which was then flambéed and eaten in a collective meal at the end of the gallery exhibition (figs. 2 and 3).

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    Figure 2. The Tissue Culture and Art Project, “ Tissue Engineered Steak No. 1” 2000, a study for Disembodied Cuisine (2000–2003). “Pure natal sheep skeletal muscle cells cultured onto/into a degradable polymer (PGA) scaffold to create the semi living steak.” Produced as part of Oron Catts’s and Ionat Zurr’s Research Fellowship in Tissue Engineering and Organ Fabrication, Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Medical School. Image courtesy of The Tissue Culture and Art Project. Photo: Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr.

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    Figure 3. The Tissue Culture and Art Project, Disembodied Cuisine (2000–2003), installation for L’art biotech exhibition, 14 March 2003, Le Lieu Unique, Nantes, France. At right is the room in which the frog steak was grown; at left is the “ dining room” in which the frog steak was consumed. Image courtesy of The Tissue Culture and Art Project. Photo: Axel Heise.

i. Becoming-Medium: Transgenic Bacteria Release Machine

Like much contemporary installation or multimedia art, bioart frequently emphasizes the body of gallery–goers, encouraging people to walk around the work of art and perhaps even engage the work through some sort of interface or device, such as an internet screen, button, or portal (e.g., the door to the dining space in Disembodied Cuisine). However, bioart almost invariably encourages this embodied engagement with the work of art in order to produce a sense of “becoming–medium” on the part of a gallery–goer — that is, a sense that one’s own body can become an associated milieu for other forms of life. This aim of bioart is exemplified in especially clear fashion by Beatriz da Costa’s and Critical Art Ensemble’s provocatively entitled Transgenic Bacteria Release Machine (2001—3). Exhibited in 2003 at the Museum of Natural History in London, Transgenic Bacteria Release Machine is an installation–style bioartwork that allowed gallery–goers to press a button, which in turn caused a robotic arm randomly to select and open one of ten petri dish covers (see fig. 4).

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    Figure 4. Beatriz da Costa and Critical Art Ensemble, Transgenic Bacteria Release Machine (2001–3). The hand of artist da Costa is positioned over the interactive component of this installation: a red button, which, when pressed, will trigger the robotic arm to open one of the petri dish covers at random. Image courtesy of Beatriz da Costa; photograph by Heidi Kumao.

One of the petri dishes contained transgenic E. coli, and thus, by pressing the button, a gallery–goer was engaging in a sort of biological Russian roulette, leaving it up to chance whether or not he or she — and the rest of the gallery — was exposed to the transgenic bacteria. In fact, this is less risky than it may sound, since the E. coli cannot escape from the petri dishes, and the gallery environment itself was far more dangerous for the E. coli than the E. coli was for spectators. Nevertheless, it is not hard to imagine that even the bravest of gallery–goers hesitated for a moment before pressing the red button, overcoming a bit of internal resistance before deciding to take a chance on “releasing” bacteria into the gallery space.

In daring gallery–goers to press the red button, Transgenic Bacteria Release Machine is drawing upon both the active bodily capacities of the gallery–goer as well as the ability of the human body to serve as a medium, in the biological sense of the term. Rather than asking us to adopt a silent, distant gaze in front of the work, as one might take before, say, a painting that depicts transgenic monstrosities, installation art such as Transgenic Bacteria Release Machine encourages gallery–goers to walk around the work and physically engage it (in this case by pressing — or not pressing — a button). From this perspective, Transgenic Bacteria Release Machine initially appears to the spectator as a relatively mundane part of that associated milieu that the spectator, as a living individual, is perpetually co–producing through his or her actions. Yet Transgenic Bacteria Release Machine solicits these intentional bodily actions in order to bring the existence of associated milieu into at least partial awareness, for the project exploits the gallery–goer’s sense of the possibility of being infected by the “release” of bacteria in order to emphasize the biological dependency of the body on the spaces in which it moves. By focusing the gallery–goer’s active bodily capacities on the red button, Transgenic Bacteria Release Machine positions the air in the gallery space as a biological vector — that is, as something that may link the E. coli in the petri dish to the inside of my body — while at the same time positioning the gallery–goer’s body as biological medium for the E. coli. By “biologizing” the air, Transgenic Bacteria Release Machine produces an experience of being within a more general medium that connects the biology of my body with the biology of other forms of life. [19]

However, because Transgenic Bacteria Release Machine does not in fact infect gallery–goers, it allows these latter to discover experientially, so to speak, the different modes of media employed in biological research and biotechnological development. In contemporary laboratory practice, the term “media” generally denotes either a solid such as agar, which provides nutrients for prokaryotic organisms such as E. coli, or fluids such as dmem or rpmi, which researchers employ to provide nutrients for eukaryotic cells (i.e., cells from multicellular organisms). Biologists use media for a number of different purposes: nutritive media, for example, simply grow and sustain microorganisms or cells; selective media contain elements (e.g., specific antibiotics) that allow only particular microorganisms or cells to grow; and differential media facilitate the growth of multiple kinds of microorganisms but contain colored elements that allow different kinds of microorganisms to be visually distinguished from one another. Pressing the red button of Transgenic Bacteria Release Machine is predicated on an implicit emergent awareness of these media differences — a recognition, for example, that though the interior of the human body could indeed serve as a nutritive medium for the E. coli, the air that connects the petri dish with the spectator functions as a selective medium which allows the spectator to live while killing the E. coli, and thus prevents the human body from performing the role of nutritive medium for these specific instances of E. coli. Though Transgenic Bacteria Release Machine begins as simply a part of a spectator’s associated milieu, the experience of becoming–medium that it encourages enables the project to become a means of extending the gallery goer’s associated milieu by focusing affective attention on the ways in which multiple associated milieu become either linked to or distinguished from one another.

By producing within the gallery–goer an embodied sense of some of the different functions that media perform in biological research and biotechnological development, Transgenic Bacteria Release Machine also provides the gallery–goer with resources for understanding — and potentially altering — his or her relationship to the problematic of biotechnology. Rather than simply encouraging abstract reflection on that problematic as though it were happening “elsewhere,” Transgenic Bacteria Release Machine allows for an experience of being an element within the problematic of biotechnology. To be situated within the problematic of biotechnology is indeed, as some commentators critical of bioart have recognized, to be a medium for (rather than simply a reflection on) biotechnology. [20] Yet as Transgenic Bacteria Release Machine emphasizes, a medium always involves both a capacity for–being–affected and a capacity–for–affecting, and there are thus many ways of being a medium. The mediality of the gallery–goer is produced through a linkage of situated thoughts (“Is E. coli dangerous?”) and embodied decisions (“I’ll press the button”), as well as dimensions of embodiment that are not under the control of the gallery–goer (e.g., one’s corporeal “openness” to microbial forms of life and one’s dependency on the decisions of others to press or not press the button). Thus, though the gallery–goer may indeed become a medium for biotechnology, this is likely not to be simply a “nutritive” medium for biotechnology in the abstract, but rather a selective or differential medium that identifies and selects for some kinds of biotechnology over others. Transgenic Bacteria Release Machine, in short, helps gallery–goers to develop a form of engagement with biotechnology that is not simply a reaction to a state of affairs that is understood as occurring elsewhere, but is rather a form of affective intensity predicated on being an element of, and a medium for, a state of affairs. [21]

ii. Life and Functions: Disembodied Cuisine

Where Transgenic Bacteria Release Machine allowed gallery–goers to coordinate active bodily capacities with a sense of being a (biological) medium for other forms of life, Disembodied Cuisine links this experience with a biotechnological approach to animal life that understands the latter in terms of functions. Part of the work of Disembodied Cuisine is analytic, for it subtly distinguishes between “meat” and “organisms.” Though we are generally inclined to understand meat and organism as linked by a violent zero–sum logic — the more meat we produce, the more organisms we must kill — Disembodied Cuisine produces edible flesh that stems from, but nevertheless does not grow at the expense of, an organism (at least not in the usual sense of the term). The artists responsible for Disembodied Cuisine are careful to clarify that such “victimless” meat still has some connection with animal suffering, but they stress that this latter is akin to a minor wound: “[a]s the cells from the biopsy proliferate the ‘steak’ in vitro continues to grow and expand, while the source, the animal from which the cells were taken, is healing.” The artists contend that this analytic approach to animal functions could lead to a future in which the procurement of meat becomes largely distinct from killing:

    Potentially this work presents a future in which there will be meat (or protein rich food) for vegetarians and the killing and suffering of animals destined for food consumption will be reduced. Furthermore, ecological and economical problems associated with the food industry (hence, growing grains to feed the animals and keeping them in basic conditions) can be reduced dramatically. [22]

As the first parentheses in the quote above hints, we might in fact need to locate another term than “meat” for flesh derived from, but not coming at the expense of, the actual organism from which the flesh is derived, for meat does not so much name a body part as a complicated relationship between animals and human eating rituals. [23]

This analytic impulse of Disembodied Cuisine initially may seem to move in an anti–Simondonian direction, since the project separates a corporeal function (the production of muscle cells) from an already coherent assemblage of corporeal functions (the frog). Yet though this analytic effort does not result in a more coherent assemblage of corporeal functions, this is a consequence of the fact that the project is focused less on an organic assemblage than on something more like a non–organic ecological assemblage. As its title suggests, Disembodied Cuisine emphasizes assemblages that integrate flesh derived from animal bodies into habitual human rituals of consumption. From this perspective, Disembodied Cuisine participates in a larger social movement that seeks to alter patterns of human consumption in order to produce more coherent ecological systems: that is, systems in which elements are plurifunctional, rather than systems in which the effects of one element have to be shielded from the effects of another element. By focusing on meat–production and meat–eating, Disembodied Cuisine thus emphasizes not only the question of animal suffering, but also those linked systems of meat production and distribution that enable individuals in highly–industrialized societies to eat meat frequently, but at the cost of enormous (and generally government–subsidized) outlays of energy, land, and uses of long–distance transportation networks. Rather than simply taking as givens the existing elements of this assemblage — for example, traditional organisms such as cows; plots of land zoned as agricultural; distribution patterns focused on roads, waterways, and air travel; and “consumers” — Disembodied Cuisine seeks to locate the functions that relate to one another in this assemblage, and it does so in order to make these functions relate to one another more efficiently; that is, it seeks to facilitate the emergence of biotechnological associated milieu in place of what are at present largely ensembles, each element of which has to treat other elements simply as “externalities.” The analytic approach of Disembodied Cuisine — its ability to draw a distinction between organisms and the function of providing meat — is thus possible only because the project is first and foremost synthetic, in the sense that it employs a specific set of biotechnologies (biopolymer scaffolds and tissue culture) as a frame on which to allow gallery–goers to begin to map more efficient realignments of the functions that are inherent in contemporary assemblages linking agricultural production, distribution, and consumption. Whether or not it will be possible to “evolve” these assemblages in ways analogous to the evolutions of technical objects that Simondon outlined is of course an open question. However, by tracing a continuous, articulated line from the inside of a biology lab to social rituals of food consumption, Disembodied Cuisine encourages the development of schemas that explore this potential.

VI. Art and Medium

Both Transgenic Bacteria Release Machine and Disembodied Cuisine emphasize the extent to which bioart is premised on an understanding of art guided neither by the classical goal of presenting instances of beauty, nor by the more recent goal of the avant–garde, that of engendering critical reflection. This is not to suggest that bioart provides no occasion for judgments of beauty or that it hinders critical reflection: many of the works that I cited above, in fact, aim at encouraging both judgments of beauty and critical reflection. Nevertheless, such judgments and reflections emerge as secondary consequences of the experience of bioart, which more fundamentally seeks to enable in gallery–goers an experience of simultaneous activity and passivity — a becoming–medium — which itself encourages an embodied sense of becoming (perhaps unwilling) participants of larger, dynamic systems, of which neither we nor the artists are fully in control. This insistence of bioart on the importance of the experience of becoming–medium in turn requires us to rethink both the function of “media” in art and the nature of art itself as a medium.

Simondon provides some of the tools for such a rethinking, for in Du mode, he argues that art should understood first and foremost as mediation. Simondon’s reflections on the relationship between art and technology, relatively unknown in the English–speaking world, share some characteristics with those of Martin Heidegger and Walter Benjamin: like the former, Simondon understands art as both something like a “clearing” and a mode of mutual imbrication between “earth” and “world,” and like the latter, he emphasizes the peculiar mode of presence attached to older works of art (Heidegger 1971 and Benjamin 1968). Yet Simondon was far more knowledgeable about technical objects than either Heidegger or Benjamin, and the result is a philosophy of art arguably better able to deal with both the “gathering–together” and the “aura” of the work of art.

Simondon’s account of art is genetic, in the sense that he seeks to locate the essence of art by accounting for its emergence in the history of relationships between humans and the natural world. He contends that the original relationship of humans to the natural world took the form of what he calls a “magical” modality. In this magical relationship to the natural world, humans experienced the world as a milieu (rather than, for example, as an external “nature”). In this mode, humans did not perceive the world as a collection of objects, nor did they understand themselves as subjects, but they rather experienced the world as a network of “key points” which allowed interchanges between humans and the natural world. Thus, Simondon writes,

    the magical universe is already structured, but according to a mode anterior to the segregation of the object and the subject; this primitive mode of structuration is that which distinguishes figure and foundation by marking key points in the universe (…) preceding the segregation of unities, there is instituted a reticulation of space and time which highlights privileged spaces and moments, as if all of man’s power of acting and all of the capacity of the world to influence man was concentrated in these spots and these moments. These places and moments hold, concentrate, and express the forces contained in the foundation of reality that they support. These points and these moments are not separated realities, but they localize and focalize the attitude of the living vis–à–vis his milieu (Simondon 2001: 164; my translation).

These key points, which include (though are not limited to) geographical features such as the peak of a mountain or the heart of a forest, “command the relation human–world in a reversible fashion, because the world influences man as man influences the world” (Simondon 2001: 165; my translation).

According to Simondon, the magical relation to the world became at some point “dephased,” with the result that this primitive unity split into two new modes of relation, that of technology and that of religion. [24] Technology emerged from an objectification and abstraction of those “key points” that previously focused interactions between humans and the world:

    It is precisely this reticulated structure [i.e., the network of privileged points of the magical mode] which dephases itself when one passes from the original magical unity to technology [techniques] and religion: figure and foundation separate and detach themselves from the universe to which they adhere; the key points become objective, conserving only their functional character of mediation, becoming instrumental, mobile, capable of efficacy not just in a particular place and not just in a particular moment: as figure, the key points, detached from the foundation of which the were the key, become technical objects, transportable and abstracted from the milieu. At the same time, the key points lose their mutual reticulation and their power of remote influence on the reality around them; they have, as technical objects, only an action by contact, point by point, instant by instant (Simondon 2001: 167–68; my translation).

Where technology abstracts from and individualizes what were “key points” in the magical mode, religion, by contrast, universalizes the “foundation” of reality, creating a sense of foundation that is not specific to certain sites and time (as in the magical relation to the world), but is rather always in excess of any particular point or time (Simondon 2001: 172–3).

Yet Simondon claims that at the same time as technology and religion split the unity of the human/milieu relationship that obtained in the magical mode, art also emerged as a way of partially recreating the totality of the reticulated network of the magical mode. Aesthetic thought, Simondon contends, “is that which maintains the function of totality” that would otherwise be lost in the split between technology and religion (2001: 179; my translation). More specifically, aesthetic thought maintains the function of totality by “reconstituting in the interior of each mode of thought a reticulation which coincides with the reticulation of other modes of thought: the aesthetic tendency is the ecumenicism of thought” (Simondon 2001: 181, my translation). [25] Art objects accomplish this re–reticulation by creating something like those privileged “key points” of the magical mode: that is, specific times and places at which a mutual interchange between humans and the world becomes possible. In this sense, the art object “is not properly speaking an object, but an extension of the natural world or the human world which remains inserted in the reality which it bears; it is a remarkable point of the universe” (Simondon 2001: 187; my translation). The art object benefits from technology, but unlike a technical object, the art object has a certain “thisness” that cannot be transferred just anywhere; it “represents the world and focalizes its forces, the qualities of the foundation, like a religious mediator” (Simondon 2001: 187; my translation). From this perspective, art should not be understood as a mimesis, or copying of the world, but rather as a mode by means of which the world is “prolonged” and inserted into the human, and the means by which the human is inserted into the world (Simondon 2001: 184; my translation).

In articulating his philosophy of art, Simondon drew primarily on traditional examples of art objects, such as temples, sculpture, and paintings, and he was critical of more recent art that aimed to provide representations of new technologies. [26] However, his approach to artworks as fundamentally forms of mediation — that is, not so much objects as “key points” at which the world is inserted into the human and the human into the world — provides a compelling way of understanding the affective power of bioart (and this is true whether or not one accepts his genetic account of the historical origin of art). It helps us to explain, for example, the sense of “thisness” that is so distinctive to bioart — the sense, that is, that in being situated alongside biotechnologically–altered organisms or tissue, one is present at something that is happening right now, in this place. [27] At the same time, Simondon’s philosophy of art also helps to explain the sense of mutual imbrication of world and human that is equally distinctive of bioart. By employing the gallery air as both a biological and artistic medium, for example, works such as Disembodied Cuisine and Transgenic Bacteria Release Machine emphasize those areas of the body — for example, orifices such as the nose and mouth — at which milieu literally insert themselves into human beings, while at the same time the biotechnological aspects of the works (e.g., tissue scaffolding and genetic manipulation) emphasize those “sites” at which human activity can grab hold of elements of our milieu. By exploiting vague worries about infection, these two bioartworks also make us aware of the various networks of interpersonal relations, transportation, and communication that link spectators to one another and to the wider world.

Finally, bioart emphasizes in particularly explicit fashion Simondon’s claim that art is fundamentally a mode of mediation between different forms of thought and practice (or, as Simondon puts it, art is “the ecumenicism of thought”). Bioart depends upon artists’ ability to move biotechnological processes, such as cloning, the introduction of genetic material from one organism to another, and tissue scaffolding, from the biological laboratory into the art gallery, and to attach these processes to a–scientific considerations (for example, questions of identity; the ethics of “cuisine”; etc.). As I have noted above, this activity of mediation is not principally a form of reflection on the problematic of biotechnology, but rather a means for transforming the problematic of biotechnology from within. Rather than simply producing an ambient sense of worry about the infectious character of life, for example, bioart instead engenders corporeal schemata that link specific biotechnologies, such as tissue scaffolding and genetic manipulation, with more global, “ecological” patterns of change. Thus, rather than forcing us to decide “for” or “against” biotechnology — a decision that is ultimately a form of hygienic abstraction rather than engagement — bioartworks seek to produce new forms of linkage within the problematic of biotechnology. Yet bioart can produce such changes only when it maintains its status as mediator between science and non–scientific nodes of thought and practice (rather than, for example, seeking to become directly “ethical”).

Conclusion: Simondon beyond Simondon

As I have noted at the start of this essay, biotechnology poses a fundamental challenge for Simondon’s philosophy for technology, for Simondon drew a sharp distinction between technical objects and living beings, and restricted his philosophy of technology to the former. In principle, this prevents his philosophy from recognizing even the possibility of a bio–technology. Yet as I have also noted, this restriction of technical objects to constellations of non–living matter is not inherent in Simondon’s approach, but is rather the consequence of an unstated premise — a premise, moreover, that seems vaguely theological in nature — about the “perfection” of existing living beings. If we question this premise, Simondon’s philosophy of technology, and especially his concept of associated milieu, offers resources both for understanding the emergence and evolution of different biotechnical objects, and for assessing the social and environmental consequences of these new forms of technology.

At the same time, biotechnology itself provides an opportunity for deepening some of the key concepts of Simondon’s philosophy of technology. The different ways in which biotechnologies integrate and employ associated milieu, for example, suggests that we need better descriptions of the various topological and temporal structures that associated milieu may take. As Simondon himself notes, the associated milieu is both “inside” and “outside” the technical object: it is “a definite system of natural elements surrounding the technical object and it is linked to a definite system of elements which constitute the technical object” (2001: 57 [Mellamphy 61]). Yet the specific folds by means of which an associated milieu relates inside to outside can differ significantly from technical object to technical object and from one “species” of technical object to another, and this in turn requires different languages of description. Where the associated milieu that Simondon himself studied, for example, could be described topologically through concepts drawn from physics (thermal exchanges; electrical thresholds; etc.), the associated milieu of biotechnology require another language, that of molecular biology, which draws on a different set of topological concepts (e.g., (biological) vectors, gene expression, gene switches, etc.). Biotechnologies emphasize, moreover, the temporality of associated milieu—and, by extension, the issue of “sustainability” — in a way that is either absent or at most implicit in Simondon’s accounts of turbines, dams, and automobiles.

Biotechnologies can serve, finally, as a way of amplifying and expanding the connections that Simondon establishes between technical objects and art. This potential is most pronounced in bioart, for even as it provides a particularly literal instance of Simondon’s claim that art in general produces a sense of a reticulated milieu by mediating between different modes of thought, bioart can itself serve as a vector for expanding Simondon’s account of the relationship between art and technology. The importance of “strong sensations” for bioart, for example, suggests that Simondon’s exclusive emphasis on judgments of beauty in his discussion of art is unnecessarily restrictive. Simondon seems to have understood the experience of art primarily, and perhaps exclusively, as one of beauty: “[t]here is a beauty of things and of beings,” Simondon contended, “and aesthetic activity begins by sensing and organizing this when it is naturally produced” (2001: 183; my translation). Yet this Enlightenment–style restriction of the effect of art to pacific, equanimious judgments of beauty does not seem entirely consonant with Simondon’s account of the way in which art recalls the magical relation to the world by recreating a reticulated world of key–points. Bioart thus emphasizes what Simondon’s account of art implies, but does not make entirely clear: namely, that the experience of this re–reticulated world is not best described in terms of judgments (of, for example, beauty), but rather in terms of affective connections forged between areas of thought and practice that would otherwise remain separated.


[1] See, for example, Mackenzie 2002 and Fuller 2005.

[2] Simondon 2001. Subsequent citations to this text are indicated parenthetically as Du mode, followed by page number. Whenever possible, I have cited Ninian Mellamphy’s unpublished translation of the first part of this book as well as Felix Rebolledo’s, Charles Gagnon’s, and Patrick Harrop’s partial unpublished translation of second and third parts of the book; page numbers to these translations are indicated in brackets as “Mellamphy” or “Rebolledo et. al.,” followed by page number. I have also in certain cases indicated page numbers for the translation of the two small parts of Simondon’s Du mode included in Joke Brouwer, Arjen Mulder, Brian Massumi, Detlef Mertins, Lars Spuybroek, Moortje Marres and Christian Hubler, Interact or Die: There Is Drama in the Networks (Rotterdam: NAi Publishers, 2007). In cases where no existing translation is available, translations are my own, and noted as such.

[3] I expand on the history of the relationship between the English term “medium” and the French term “milieu” in (Mitchell 2010a: 93–113).

[4] Lamarck was uncomfortable with the term “species,” for his primary point was that the organic transformation encouraged by milieu was perpetual, and thus, any apparent stabilization of this process of transformation in the form of species was simply a consequence of the fact that human observations collectively “only extend back a few thousand years; which is a time infinitely great with reference to himself, but very small with reference to the time occupied by the great changes occurring on the surface of the globe” (Lamarck 1984: 43).

[5] Simondon 1964. This text is hereafter abbreviated as L’individuation.

[6] It is worth stressing that “individualization” and “individuation” are different concepts for Simondon. The latter generally refers to large–scale transformations of an entire system which result in new kind of being (that is, new from the perspective of the system), while “individualization” refers to a more limited processes of “evolution” of a specific kind of technical being. However, as Simondon’s opening discussion of the construction of bricks in L’individuation emphasizes, it is indeed possible to speak of “individuation” in the case of technical objects, provided that the focus is on the transformations of the system that makes a technical object possible — in the case of the brick, the system of clay and mold — rather than on the evolution of forms of the technical object (Simondon 1964 : 28–39).

[7] See also the translation in (Brouwer and Mulder, eds. 2007: 57). Simondon goes so far as to say that “[o]nly those technical objects that require an associated milieu in order to function may properly be called inventions” (Simondon 2001: 59 [Mellamphy 60]). I have altered the translation above slightly, because both Mellamphy and the translator of the piece in Interact or Die introduce the term “environment,” which does not appear in the French and arguably confuses the matter. For a discussion of the importance of the distinction between “milieu” and “environment” in early twentieth–century biological and social philosophy, see Pollmann forthcoming.

[8] I make use of the qualifiers “at least in some cases” and “in the case of some kinds” in order to acknowledge that Simondon is not critical of what we might call traditional agricultural practices (Simondon 2001: 89ff). What seems to distinguish these latter from greenhouse and laboratory practices for Simondon is that in the case of traditional practices, humans accommodate their activities to the associated milieu within which plants (and animals) have traditionally grown, rather than creating new milieu.

[9] These questions also point to the relations of “seduction” that exist between species and which create changes in both the species themselves and in the non–living elements of the milieu within which they live. These processes of reciprocal self–fashioning are explored in a popular fashion by Michael Pollan in Pollan 2001, but are engaged in a much more theoretical vein by Richard Doyle in Doyle 2011. I also engage this question of seduction in Mitchell 2010b.

[10] Simondon also makes this point in (2001: 155).

[11] Simondon’s interest in the directionality of change among related technical objects distinguishes his reflections on associated milieu in L’individuation and in Du mode from Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari brilliant use of Simondon’s concept in Deleuze and Guattari 1987. While Deleuze and Guattari also apply the concept of associated milieu to both living beings and machines, they do not do so in a way that facilitates Simondon’s interest in using this concept to help account for the evolution of technical objects.

[12] For accessible overviews of this emergence of biotechnological capacities, see (Kloppenburg 2004: 191–241 and 91–354).

[13] Moreover, because of the extraordinary complexity of living beings, it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, simply to treat living beings as technical ensembles in which unpredictable variations in one element could be prevented from interfering with the operation of other elements.

[14] For a discussion of Monsanto’s aggressive legal strategies, see Schubert 2005.

[15] “Ethical” debates about “the future of the human” in the face of such changes are arguably simply an abstract reflex of this consumerist frame; that is, a reflex premised on the belief that we are currently virtuously human, despite whatever inequities capitalism might engender, and we thus simply need protect ourselves, via informed debate, from those consumerist choices that would lead us away from being properly human. For an account of human cloning and reproductive engineering that emphasizes the links with consumerist discourse, see Silver 1998.

[16] Simondon writes, for example, that “[w]hen a man changes his old tool for a new tool that works the same way, and is still able to reap the benefits of his apprenticeship, he has the impression that his movements are more precise, more agile, and quicker: the body’s schema as a whole forces limits to retreat, to be swept back, to free up; feelings of awkwardness are reduced” (2001: 114 [Rebolledo et. al 114]). See, more generally, the second section of Du mode, “Man and the Technical Object,” (Simondon 2001: 85–152).

[17] I also make this argument in Mitchell 2010a, though my reflections here expand on several points developed in less detail there. See as well Lewis 2006. Though Lewis takes a more Deleuzian/Guattarian than Simondonian perspective on bioart, he also deals briefly with the relationship of Simondon to biotechnology (Lewis 2006: 290–91).

[18] In Mitchell 2010a, I make a distinction between “prophylactic” and “vitalist” bioart, with the latter largely (but not solely) made up of works employ bioengineered tissue or organisms as the medium of the artwork see (Mitchell 2010a: 16–34).

[19] It is worth stressing that the power of bioart depends not simply on its deployment of biotechnological equipment and living tissue, but also on its hybridization of these elements with two artistic traditions, that of the readymade and that of performance art. The former tradition establishes for gallery–goers the plausibility that we are indeed in the presence of real biological equipment originally intended for, and used within, a biological laboratory (but then subsequently appropriated by the artist for use within the space of the gallery), while the latter tradition enables a confusion about the precise borders of the work of art and encourages in us a sense that both the origin and future of this work of art remain indeterminate and open. For a more extended analysis of these two traditions in the context of bioart, see (Mitchell 2010a: 77ff).

[20] Jeremy Rifkin, for example, contends that though bioartists may “hope that their work (…) will provoke an emotional response from the audience and force people to think about the many implications of the new science,” in fact this art simply “legitimizes” biotechnology (Rifkin 2003).

[21] As I note in Mitchell 2010a, this capacity can be explained more theoretically by means of Gilles Deleuze’s and Félix Guattari’s concept of affect, developed in Deleuze and Guattari 1987 as well as Brian Massumi’s amplification of that concept in (Massumi 2002: 75ff).

[22] Both quotes from the artists’ website: Accessed 10–8–2010.

[23] It is worth remembering, though, that the biological media used to grow the frog muscle cells is also likely derived from animals, so this “protein rich food” may still require the death of some animals, even if not necessarily those from which the muscle cells are derived. (My thanks to one of my anonymous readers for emphasizing this point.)

[24] Simondon is insistent that “dephasing” not be understood as a form of (Hegelian) dialectics. Thus, in defining “phase,” he contends that this term does not imply any necessary succession from one phase to the next, nor does it rely on the “intervention of negativity as motor of progress” (Simondon 2001: 159; my translation).

[25] These other “modes of thought” were initially religion and technology, but Simondon also intended his claim to hold true for subsequent modes of thought, such as ethical and scientific thought.

[26] À propos art that simply represents new technologies, Simondon wrote that “all the well–known color photographs of sparks and coronas, all recordings of noise, sounds, images, generally remain an exploitation of technical reality and not a revelation of this reality. Technical reality must be thought; it must even be known by participation in its action–schemata” (Simondon 2001: 229; my translation).

[27] The fact that the living components of bioart projects generally do not survive more than one exhibition — or at most, a few exhibitions — emphasizes as well the “thisness” of this mode of art. However, the fragility of bioart also makes the sale of bioartworks especially tricky, since it is often not clear what, precisely, a collector would be purchasing after the end of the exhibition. (As Marta de Menezes noted to me in the course of a videotaped interview, she solved this difficulty in the case of Nature? by selling to a gallery the biological protocol for recreating the butterflies in her bioartwork.)


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  INFLeXions No. 5 (Mar. 2012)
Milieus, Techniques, Aesthetics

edited by M.–P. Boucher, P. Harrop

Milieus, Techniques, Aesthetics
Marie–Pier Boucher and Patrick Harrop i–iii

What is Relational Thinking?
Didier Debaise 1–11

38Hz., 7.5 Minutes
Ted Krueger 12–29

Humans and Machines
Thomas Lamarre 30–68

Simondon, Bioart, and the Milieus of Biotechnology
Rob Mitchell 69–111

Just Noticeable Difference:
Ontogenesis, Performativity and the Perceptual Gap
Chris Salter 112–130

Machine Cinematography
Henning Schmidgen 131–148

Alien Media: Interview with Rafael Lozano–Hemmer
Marie–Pier Boucher and Patrick Harrop 149–160

edited by T. Rhoades

Le temps de l’oeuvre, le temps de l’acte: Entretien avec Bernard Aspe
Interview by Erik Bordeleau 161–184

Gobs and Gobs of Metaphor: Larry Bissonette’s Typed Massage
Ralph James Savarese 185–224

Messy Time, Refined
Ronald T Simon 3D Animation