Volume 9, Number 1 (January 2012)
Simondon and Baudrillard: Apoptosis in the High Tech Era
Arne De Boever
(Director, M.A. Program in Aesthetics and Politics, California Institute of the Arts, Valencia, USA).
I. A Strange Relation
The relation between Gilbert Simondon and Jean Baudrillard is usually limited to that between Simondon’s Du mode d’existence des objets techniques (MEOT) and Baudrillard’s The System of Objects ( 1996). The latter, which appeared in 1968 – ten years after the publication of MEOT, and in the same year when Gilles Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition, which briefly discusses Simondon (1968:246), was published – refers to Simondon early on in its introduction. Stating that he is interested in the “processes whereby people relate to [technical objects]” and “the systems of human behavior and relationships that result therefrom” (Baudrillard  1995:2), Baudrillard goes on to say that nevertheless, such a study “always presupposes a plane distinct from this ‘spoken’ system, a more strictly structured plane, a structured plane transcending even the functional account of objects” Ibid.:2-3). “This plane”, he continues, “is the technological one” (Ibid.:3). In order to “under[stand] what happens to objects by virtue of their being produced and consumed, possessed and personalized”, one must “get a clear picture from the outset of the rationality of the object – a clear picture, that is, of the objective technological structure involved” (Ibid.). It is at this point that he turns to Simondon’s account of the petrol engine.
Indeed, whereas Simondon in MEOT speaks of engines, Baudrillard’s book opens with a discussion of a “typical bourgeois interior” (Ibid,:13); whereas Baudrillard is “[l]eafing through such glossy magazines as Maison Française or Mobilier et Décoration” (Ibid.:17), MEOT includes plates featuring the internal organs of telephones, motorcycles, windmills, and the like; Baudrillard speaks of “interior design”, “atmosphere”, “color, “antiques” and so forth; Simondon of pistons, turbines, cathodes. Although the two books are clearly related, they also could not be more different. Baudrillard’s book, like many others (with the exception, perhaps, of Deleuze’s text already mentioned), mentions Simondon in passing, but there is no real affinity between Baudrillard’s project and Simondon’s.
I would like to expand here on the relation between Simondon and Baudrillard by considering Baudrillard’s The Vital Illusion (2001), through the lens of Simondon’s work – not his writings on technical objects, initially, but those on individuation. It is only at a later stage, when discussing the place of technical objects in The Vital Illusion, that I will return to Simondon’s work on technical objects for which Baudrillard shows some enthusiasm in System of Objects, in order to ask, first, how much of that enthusiasm remains in Baudrillard’s The Vital Illusion; and, second, whether Simondon’s theory of technical objects still resonates today.
II. On the Forgetting of Apoptosis
Baudrillard’s Vital Illusion is a text about “apoptosis” (2001:4), or cellular suicide. More precisely, it is a text about cells forgetting to die. The text opens with a discussion of cloning and its relation to immortality. Referencing the case of Walt Disney – that “most notorious example of cryogenic suspension” (2001:3) that he had already discussed in Simulacra and Simulation ( 1994) – the text moves into a discussion of cells, and of the fact that under normal circumstances, “a cell is destined to divide a certain number of times and then to die” (2001:4). However, if there is “an alteration in the gene that prevents tumors or in the mechanisms governing cellular apoptosis [i.e. cellular suicide] the cell becomes cancerous” (Ibid.:4-5). In this case, the cell “forgets to die; it forgets how to die” (Ibid.:5). Baudrillard then moves on to the case of Henrietta Lacks, whose “tumor cells sampled from her body were cultured in a laboratory and will continue to proliferate endlessly” – the so-called HeLA cells (Ibid.; see also Rebecca Skloot, 2010).
But this is only the illusion of life. Indeed, Baudrillard goes on to argue that the forgetting of death that he has just described must be resisted in the name of life:
we must struggle against the possibility that we will not die. At the slightest hesitation in the fight for death [which he describes as a “fight for division”: the division of the individual who must die in order for the individuation of life to continue] living beings become once again indivisible, identical to one another – and immortal (Ibid.:5-6).
It is at this point that Baudrillard lays out the dialectical schema that structures his entire text: “Contrary to everything that seems obvious and ‘natural’”, the story begins, “nature’s first creatures were immortal”:
It was only by obtaining the power to die, by dint of constant struggle, that we became the living beings we are today. Blindly we dream of overcoming death through immortality, when all the time immortality is the most horrific of possible fates. Encoded in the earliest life of our cells, this fate is now reappearing on our horizons, so to speak, with the advent of cloning (Ibid.).
Thus, we risk to be returned to a pre-human stage (cast in the text as the end of man):
We are in the process of reactivating his pathological immortality, the immortality of the cancer cell, both at the individual level and at the level of the species as a whole. This is the revenge taken on mortal and sexed beings by immortal and undifferentiated life forms. This is what could be called the final solution (Ibid.:8).
Baudrillard himself succumbed to cancer in 2007.
The argument that Baudrillard is making against cloning and immortality, and against cancer and the forgetting of apoptosis, is clear: life without death is not life; death is a constitutive part of life. To take away apoptosis means to block the individuation of life. To remove the death of the individual marks the end of the individual (which Baudrillard associates – paradoxically, given the word’s etymology – with division and death) as well: it marks the entry into a world of indivisible, identical immortals.2 Although Simondon is mentioned nowhere in this late text, this is an insight that can also be found in Simondon, and one that is backed up by biology.
In his article “‘Du mort qui saisit le vif’: Simondonian ontology today”, Jean-Hugues Barthélémy addresses precisely this topic. Barthélémy begins by pointing out that in Simondon’s work, there are “three types of non-life that condition life as evolution” (2010:28). These three types of non-life are: chemical non-living (inert naturalness); the artifact; and apoptosis. Here is the hypothesis in which Barthélémy brings these three types of non-life together:
humanity is that form of psycho-social life which, by means of the non-living artifacts that support it and found its historicity, extends bio-psychic animal life of which the non-living condition is not yet the artifact but simple apoptosis (cellular suicide), and whose origin is a third form of non-life: the chemical non-living (Ibid.:28-29).
To describe each of these three types as forms of “non-life” is problematic, given that humanity as a form of psycho-social life exists through them (in the case of chemical non-living and apoptosis) and in them (in the case of artifacts). As Barthélémy points, Simondon was in fact breaking down the classical opposition between life and death through his interest in artifacts, apoptosis, and chemical non-living. This is why, in the final section of his article, Barthélémy speaks of “apoptosis” as a “vital death” (Ibid.:32).
Quoting from Simondon’s L’individu et sa genèse physico-biologique, Barthélémy points out that Simondon distinguishes between two kinds of death: “adverse death” (Simondon in Ibid.), on the one hand – a death that works against humanity. And a vital death, on the other: a death that is necessary for individuation to continue – a death that functions as “a deposit for vital individuation” (Ibid.:32). This is the vital death of apoptosis, which, as biologist Jean-Claude Ameisen has argued (in Ibid.:32-33), is “at the very heart of life” (Ibid.:32). For this reason, “the life of the organism once formed” can without much exaggeration be described as “only an inhibited death [mort empêchée]” (Ibid.:33).
The distinction that Barthélémy through his discussion of Ameisen and Simondon rehearses, namely between adverse death and the vital death of apoptosis, can be said to structure Baudrillard’s argument in The Vital Illusion as well. Indeed, Baudrillard appears to be speaking of two kinds of death: the death of apoptosis, which can be called a vital death, since he considers it the condition for the continuation of human life; and adverse death, which is associated in his text with cloning and immortality – with a return to a pre-human era in which nature’s earliest creatures did not yet die.
However, given Simondon’s division between three types of non-life, Baudrillard’s argument – developed 40 years after the publication of MEOT – draws out an interesting scenario about the relation between the artifact, apoptosis, and chemical non-living. What if the first type of non-life, i.e. the artifact, were to develop to such an extent that it would make the second type of non-life, i.e. apoptosis, impossible? What would be the consequences? If life is conditioned by these three types of non-life, as Simondon argues – indeed, if human life exists through and in these three types of non-life – then what happens if one of them is removed? That is what it would mean to update Simondon into the biotechnological present.
For Baudrillard, it seems that in this case, the life-conditioning non-life of the artifact would collapse into that other kind of death, adverse death, that would make life impossible. This is what Baudrillard considers to be happening today, in the era of cryogenics, genetic manipulation, and cloning. The progress of science has “turn[ed] back toward total involution” (Baudrillard, 2001:9). What we think of as a “step forward” (Ibid.) is in fact a return to a pre-human age of indivisibility and non-individuation. In such an age, sex and death have been reduced to mere epiphenomena of a life no longer worth the name. Disentangled from reproduction (“liberated”, as Baudrillard dismissively writes), sex has been “redesigned, redesignated as [a] leisure [activity]” (Ibid.:11); death is in the process of being turned into a merely “virtual reality” (Ibid.): “In future modes of civilization, from which death will have been eliminated, clones of the future may well pay for the luxury of dying and become mortal once again in simulation: cyberdeath” (Ibid.:12).
Given the connections between Baudrillard and Simondon, it is worthwhile noting that this narrative is presented along the way as a story of individuation. As Baudrillard sees it, human beings associate “resentment and remorse” (Ibid.:14) with the division of individuation: they would much rather be indivisible – individuation comes with a separation that we find difficult to accept. “Do we not, after all, deeply regret our individuation?” (Ibid.), he asks. “Not only do we repent of the emancipation of the individual from the species but, more profoundly still, we repent of having become sexed forms of life, of our evolution from the inorganic to the living world” (Ibid.:14). And then, reclaiming the word “liberty” from the notion of “sexual liberation” that he criticized earlier: “Liberty is hard to take. Life itself, finally, may be hard to take, as a rupturing of the inorganic chain of matter. In a way, it is a revenge of the species, the revenge of the immortal forms of life that we thought we had overcome” (Ibid.). The end of apoptosis thus seems to mark the end of individuation itself, an end that is in part desired because individuation is “une épreuve”, as Simondon puts it throughout L’individuation psychique et collective.
Ultimately, this leads into a posthuman vision of the end of man. “From this moment on,” Baudrillard writes, “it is possible to ask if we are still dealing with human beings” (Ibid.:16). Today,
the human does not give way to the superhuman, as Nietzsche had dreamed, with his transvaluation of values. Rather, it gives way to the subhuman, to something not beyond but underneath the human, to an erasure of those symbolic marks that make up the species (Ibid.:21).
As Baudrillard points out, this has political consequences: if the human, today, “is no longer defined in terms of transcendence and liberty” but “genetically”, and if, as geneticists have shown, “[w]e share 98 percent of our genes with apes and fully 90 percent of them with mice”, what is the definition of human rights to which we might still adhere?
Clearly, Baudrillard’s story is an apocalyptic one. But – like others of its kind – it comes with somewhat of a hopeful (and perhaps hopefully naïve?) ending.
“[T]his game is not yet over”, the final dialectical reversal of the essay goes. “We can count on fierce resistance from the mortal creatures that we are, a resistance that springs out of the depths of the species, its vital exigency, its refusal of any final solution” (Ibid.:29-30). The “immorality of forms” – “the species, or life itself” – must be opposed to “immortality”; that is the transvaluation of values that is needed: a leap into immorality, rather than into “a morality of values and differences” (Ibid.:29).
Or, as he puts it elsewhere: “Now you must fight against everything that wants to help you” (Baudrillard  2010:88) ... including Baudrillard?
III. High Tech Mentality
This last quote is taken from a text Baudrillard wrote in 2005, titled “Where Good Grows”; it covers some of the same material that can be found in “The Vital Illusion”. In this late text, Baudrillard takes on an issue that returns us to MEOT. “The current revolution is different than previous historical revolutions”, he begins. “[I]t is a truly anthropological revolution: a revolution in the automatic perfection of technical devices and in the definitive disqualification of human beings, of whom they are not even aware” (2010:79). “Human beings have been made unemployed in a way that goes far beyond work: it is a mental and existential unemployment, replaced by dominant machines” (Ibid.:80). Thus “the obsolescence of humans” that Simondon already discussed in MEOT “has reached its terminal phase” (Ibid.): we are confronted with the “[d]isqualification of humans in favor of automatism, a massive transfer of decision-making to computerized devices”1 Baudrillard’s text, in short, pairs what he calls “our Promethean excesses” (Ibid.:83) to the ontological questions about life and death that inform the essay “The Vital Illusion".
This is the crossroads where Simondon is also situated. However, Simondon develops a different vision in 1958. Although he recognizes some of the problems that Baudrillard, so many years later, also mentions – in a section of MEOT on “current problems” with the relation between the human being and the world of technical objects, Simondon discusses “the frustration of the human being … with the machine that replaces her/him” and mentions the riots during which workers would smash machines ( 1989:115) – the insight leads Simondon in another direction. Noting that the workers and the capitalists are both alienated by the world of technical objects – i.e. that the problem of alienation in the world of technical objects concerns workers and capitalists alike – he develops plea for a “technical culture” ( 1989:82) in which there would not be a relation of privilege between human beings and technical objects but in which, on the far side of G.W.F. Hegel’s master/slave-dialectic, they would exist on “equal terms” (Ibid.:87).
Indeed, to rethink the relation between the human being and the technical object means, first of all, to resist the conception of the technical object as a slave, and thus to move away from any kind of language about master and slave that philosophy has borrowed from Antiquity, and modern philosophy in particular from Hegel (more precisely Alexandre Kojève’s Hegel). As Simondon sees it, humanism thus takes on a new function in the twentieth century: he understands it as “the will to bring to a statute of liberty the human being that has been alienated” (Ibid.:101) in the technical world. Importantly, such a liberation will not come about by reaffirming the human being’s sovereignty over its technological slaves, but through a technical culture in which the human being can move away from her or his conflict with technical objects.
Who is right: Baudrillard or Simondon? Who is hopelessly naïve? The pessimistic Baudrillard? Or the optimistic Simondon? The biocatastrophist or the technoprophet, to borrow the terms from Dominique Lecourt's book Humain, Posthumain? (see Lecourt, 2003). On the one hand, one could say that Baudrillard is right, for the same reasons that Simondon was right in 1958, namely because the technical culture that Simondon is calling for has not yet arrived. On the other, one could say that Baudrillard is right, but because technology expanded beyond what Simondon was able to foresee, and has in the meantime encroached upon humanity to such an extent that we have started to enter the posthuman era that Baudrillard in The Vital Illusion so powerfully evokes.
Or it might also be that Baudrillard is simply wrong, and that the technical culture that Simondon is describing has finally arrived, albeit in a high tech form: technical objects have continued their mode of existence, have gone through various concretizations, and have entered into an era of near-natural perfection (for Simondon, the perfected technical object exists in close alignment with nature). More so than ever, technical objects have become artifacts that make life possible, to such an extent that we experience our desktops, laptops, I-pads, I-pods, I-phones, blackberries, and so on as extensions of our bodies and minds – as parts of ourselves without which we are unable to live. These artifacts have truly become the life-conditioning type of non-life that Simondon already talked about (see Clark, 2003).
Rather than choosing between Baudrillard and Simondon (or between the caricature of Baudrillard and Simondon that I have set up here – both contain a measure of optimism and pessimism), I would like to turn in closing towards a term that has seen somewhat of a revival in recent French theory, namely the “pharmakon”.
In 1968, Jacques Derrida commented on Plato’s use of this term in the Phaedrus, noting that it signifies “drug”, i.e. “medicine and/or poison” (Derrida,  1981:70). In his commentary, he goes on to draw out the importance of this double meaning for Plato’s theory of the technè of writing, as expounded in the Phaedrus, which is usually read in a negative way, with writing leading away from living memory and being associated with death; it is a thus a “pharmakon”, a poison. Given that “pharmakon” also means medicine, however, one cannot but draw out in this context the potentially curative aspects of the technè of writing, of the letters on the writing tablet that Plato is writing about.
Bernard Stiegler, one of Derrida’s students, has accomplished the leap from the writing tablet to the I-pad: updating Derrida’s grammatology into the virtual age of high tech apparatuses, he has considered, in all of his works but especially in the recent Taking Care of Youth and the Generations (2010a) and the Generations and Ce qui fait que la vie vaut la peine d’être vécue: De la pharmacologie (Stiegler, 2010b) the pharmacology of technology today – the therapeutics or practices of care that the development of Simondon’s technical objects into the high tech era demands. It is the term pharmacology, which can also be found in the recent work of Isabelle Stengers for example (Stengers, 2009:29-31), that enables Stengers and Stiegler to have it both ways: to adopt some of Baudrillard’s apocalyptic tone, and some of Simondon’s vision for a technical culture.
Given that we must, of course, go on until the point of apoptosis, when all of us as individuals will be overcome in the process of another individuation (what else is there?), that is, no doubt, the most desirable path: towards a technical culture, through a vital death, on the far side of any naiveté.
Jean Hugues Barthélémy (2010). “‘Du mort qui saisit le vif’: Simondonian ontology today”. Translated by Justin Clemens. Parrhesia 7:28: http://www.parrhesiajournal.org/parrhesia07/parrhesia07_barthelemy.pdf.
Jean Baudrillard ( 2005). The System of Objects. New York: Verso.
Jean Baudrillard. ( 1994.) Simulacra and Simulation. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Jean Baudrillard (2001). The Vital Illusion. New York: Columbia University Press.
Jean Baudrillard (2010). The Agony of Power. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e).
Andy Clarke (2003). Natural-Born Cyborgs: Minds, Technology, and the Future of Human Intelligence. Oxford University Press.
Jacques Derrida ( 1981). Dissemination. University of Chicago Press.
Gilles Deleuze (1968). Difference and Repetition. Trans. Paul Patton. New York: Columbia University Press.
Dominique Lecourt (2003). Humain, posthumain: La technique et la vie. Paris: PUF.
Gilbert Simondon ( 1989). Du mode d’existence des objets techniques. Paris: Aubier.
Bernard Stiegler (2010a). Taking Care of Youth and the Generations. Stanford University Press.
Bernard Stiegler (2010b). Ce qui fait que la vie vaut la peine d’être vécue: De la pharmacologie. Paris: Flammarion.
Rebecca Skloot (2010). The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. New York: Crown Publishing.
Isabelle Stengers (2009). Au temps des catastrophes: Résister à la barbarie qui vient. Paris: La découverte.
1. Baudrillard refers here to Günther Anders, who discusses a moment during the Korean War when MacArthur, who “wanted to use the atomic bomb”, was overruled by politicians, who followed a computer’s advice not to do so – the computer’s advice was based on an objective cost-benefit analysis. (Ibid.:81).
2. “Individuum” was Cicero’s Latin translation for the word the Greek word “atomos”, which means “indivisible”