Simondon and Techno-Aesthetics

“If Léger managed to get the roar of the factory, the squeal of a drill press, and the screech of the unoiled gear, into his paintings, it was an achievement I, at least, do not much appreciate.” Review of Léger exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (O’Connor 1998)

In the latest issue of Parrhesia is a translation of a 1982 letter from Gilbert Simondon to Jacques Derrida where Simondon discusses what he calls “techno-aesthetics”. There has always been a tension, if not a latent snobbery, running between the high aesthetics of the art world — that practicing artists and other professionals approach with a keen sense of technique — and the high technics of the machinic phylum — that practicing engineers, scientists and others approach with a keen sense of aesthetics. The publication of this translation is timely for my own work (currently in the process of being reviewed for publication) that has tried to think about the character of technê using concepts of ‘experience’ and the ‘event’ from contemporary philosophy work on aesthetics (Massumi, Manning, etc.).

Simondon begins by reflecting on the character of visibility in techno-aesthetics, what he calls phanero-technics. (Phaneros, visible; from phainein, to cause to appear.) He has two examples, that of the Eiffel Tower and the architectural practice of Le Corbusier. He emphasises slightly different points in his two examples. In the case of Le Corbusier it is a case of rendering visible what is normally hidden. This exposure is a kind of consecration or valorisation of the technics of function and the technics of design. The frame, such as embodied in the magazine front cover, is a valorising-machine designed to function as an apparatus of capture on the newsagency stand. The frame of exposed-technics is abductive, rather than premised on a shared reading-technics of emphasis, and it dissolves in the solution of experience. Le Corbusier’s “phanero-technical attitude” may render visible the pipes and cables conventionally hidden but the non-normative frame of the exposed-technical relies on the repetition of aesthetic experience and contraction of memory to appreciate the difference of exposure and therefore of the valorisation.

Simondon suggests that the Eiffel Tower didn’t have a function, beyond that being “merely an elevated vista point”, but it became the “best emission antenna in France”. If we agree with Jonathan Crary’s point that the spectacle (as in Debord’s Marxist critique of the image-commodity) is more an architecture for fixing spectators in a certain relational point in space than a semiosis for the communication and indoctrination of an ideological meaning, then the elevated vista point of the Eiffel Tower gains a different resonance. The Eiffel Tower contributes to the technics of what John Urry has called the “tourist gaze”.

The “tourist gaze” is a concept Urry develops from a certain reading of Foucault’s work on the clinic and the “medical gaze”. Urry maps a quasi-genealogical account of contemporary tourism in terms of the way there is an economy of image-perspectives that tourists are encouraged to inhabit. Although not necessarily the sole reason for travelling tourists come to occupy specific “vista points” and the layering of tourist-subjectivities is captured in the work of Swiss-French artist Corinne Vionnet and her project Photo Opportunities. What is interesting about the Eiffel Tower is that the Tower itself becomes the site/sight captured by tourists rather than being the location from which vista-points are constituted; Simondon argues that phanero-technics “is itself already aesthetic: the Eiffel Tower (the tower of the World’s Fair) and the Garabit viaduct on the Truyère river have an undeniable aesthetic power”. Noting the same connection between Vionnet’s work and Urry’s in a brief note on the art project, Madeline Yale suggests that “its distorted visual referent functions as a device for memory transport by funneling many experiences into one familiar locale”.

Photo Opportunities (2005-2012) — Corinne Vionnet

Vionnet’s work is interesting in the context of what has been described as the “New Aesthetic” in the sense that David Berry describes NA as a “form of abduction aesthetic linked to the emergence of computationality as an ontotheology”. The ‘fuzziness’ of the Eiffel Tower above, not unlike the blurred edges of the pirated video-camera filmed of a 3D film at the cinema, is in part the layering of tourist vista-points captured by a camera, but it is also the outcome of Vionnet’s online activity to use everyday Internet search engines to find appropriate images and the design-work of image processing software. The images map an interplay between two series of events: the collective experience of implication in the discursive-architecture of the tourist spectacle and the ‘historical discontinuity’ of shifting from the photo album (or slideshow sceening) to the Internet and social network-enabled sharing of photos — vernacular mnemotechnics and practices of photography from ‘Kodak moment’ to ‘Facebook moment’.

Simondon then shifts to a discussion of the contemplation and handling tools. Using the example of a double-ended wrench specifically designed for cyclists. The two heads of the wrench have four diameters and having a head on each end makes the tool easy to grip in a fist. This tool “answers very well to what it is required to do” and “gives aesthetic pleasure when one contemplates it”. It reminds me of a trivial event from my teenage years. Discussing cars with a father of one of my friends (the father had just bought a Corvette), I was consuming a mint. The father exclaimed to the simplicity of the design of the mint’s container that would release a single mint when squeezed. On investigation the container did not have any moving parts, rather the flexing of the plastic ejected a mint by modulating a series of three chambers. One to extract a mint from the holding chamber, and then a third to release the mint from the extraction chamber. It was an elegant design and a I remember my friend’s father being very excited by this.

This is still contemplation, however, and Simondon goes on to note that “contemplation is not techno-aesthetics’ primary category. It’s in usage, in action, that it becomes something orgasmic, a tactile means and motor of stimulation”. This is a “very particular pleasure of sensation”. Between the ‘consumer’ of the work of art and the sensations of the artist can also be thought of in terms of the pleasures of sensation. One of the more important insights in the brief letter is that Simondon argues there is a “continuous spectrum that connects aesthetics o technics”. Simondon’s example here has a direct connection to my previous research (on enthusiasm in car culture). He discusses the interplay of technics and aesthetics in the context of the Jaguar EV 12 from the perspective of functionality. The body of the Jaguar is designed to be aerodynamic, however the undercarriage is less so. In a later passage Simondon returns to discussing the Jaguar’s engine in a rough comparison to that of the Citreon 2CV. The engine fo the 2CV is “that of car at degree zero”, which for Simondon means that the technical elements have been arranged for function, ease of access and so on. The engine of the Jaguar, on the other hand, has been designed to be an exaggerated technical object that has been araanged for the purposes of a techno-aesthetics incorporating the long hood of the engine and the positioning of the radiator. The exaggerated ‘spoilers’ of modified-car culture are a more extreme example of the point Simondon is making here. Modified cars fitted with ‘body kits’ use a technical aesthetics in subcultural ways. This is a material semiotics of force and function noted by Gene Balsey in the very first critical work on modified car culture “The Hot Rod Culture” (1950); what he called the “competition aesthetic” of post-war hot rodders drawing on the aesthetics of the slat-lake racers.

Similarly, aesthetic objects lend themselves to technical analysis, with Simondon referencing the reception of the Mona Lisa’s technical analysis. This entire paragraph of Simondon’s is remarkable. He is contemplating the Mona Lisa’s smile-event (in Deleuze’s sense of the event, pun intended;), here is the relevant section:

On the very same canvas, one encounters the beginning and the end of a smile–but not the exhaustion of a smile, the entelechy of the smile. […] The smile that begins, and the smile that ends so as to return to the face’s mask of seriousness, are the extreme terms of this temporal thickness: the smile will unfold itself, and at the same time it will also already be disappearing. The only thing that exists and is materialized are the outer limits of the moment of exhaustion, of full realization. But the entelechy is not figured as part of the painting. Are there not in this unique image two superimposed techniques, as is the case with palimpsests? Aren’t there two messages to decode, in order to infer the source-message (the master-message), which is lacking? It’s the original reality that remains mute, non-present, but past and to come in a quasi-immediate but nevertheless mysterious way. What is of central importance is the mystery itself of what is not-figured.

‘Entelechy’ comes from Aristotlean philosophy and refers to when an object is completely actual and fully present. The smile-event exists between two movements — a ‘becoming’ — one where it is exhausted and the face returns to seriousness and the other when the smile is fully realised. These ends in the double-movement of the smile are fully real but virtual. In the same way Vionnet’s work captures this double-movement, but is complicated by a transversal movement across the two (double) series of the vista-point of the tourist gaze and the algorithmic return of a keyword search of photos proffered for ‘sharing’ and their doubles in the mnemotechnical iterations of these two series across generational differences (both of human collective memory and technics).

In the realm of consumption techno-aesthetics intervenes in what Simondon describes as the  “conditioning (in the commercial sense of the word)” of commodities.  Simondon describes an example of food and the way it is received across cultural differences vary in reception in a given region. Perhaps most interesting of all for those into Object-Oriented Ontology is Simondon’s example of electricity: “Industrial aesthetics can be, first of all, the aesthetic of produced objects. But not everything is an object. Electricity is not an object. It can only be detected and manipulated through objects and possibly also through natural environments: lightning passes through and structures itself through corridors of air that have already been ionized.” Simondon’s example is from nature but his point is that techno-aesthetics deals with action, or ‘function’, not objects.

I’m currently about half way finished writing an article about the garage as an assemblage that has certain gendered and affective affordances for the passage of action. One of the critical remarks I want to make about Simondon’s brief note is ‘functionality’ is always already present in the forms of action either in practice or designed ‘into’ a technical system. I’ve been thinking about how enthusiasm is often a constituent element in vernacular epistemologies of a techno-aesthetic disposition. What is at stake for these amateur tinkerers and what not is that they do not appreciate ‘function’ in the same way as an expert or professional. ‘Functionality’ is backformed from the experience of engaging with “what works” not “the way it works”.

Although Simondon acknowledges that assumes that we engage with technologies according to “the way it works” but technologies do not work the same for everyone even though they may be designed as such. The enthusiast’s knowledge is born of experience and involves an intimate appreciation of ‘function’  immanent and congruent to practice. Without this immanent sense of function and correlative co-determination of the subject and object arrayed by the function, a techno-aesthetics can easily lapse into a neo-Modernist technologism (or critical appreciation of the dialectical opposite, ala Ellul’s technique). Function is a consequence of design for Simondon, while I am suggesting it is immanent to ‘work’. In other words, I am arguing for a techno-aesthetics belonging primarily to technê and not episteme (and ‘truth’); or a techno-aesthetics on the technê end of the spectrum on knowledge and experience.

Like the smile discussed above, functionality is an event, a double-movement between what works and what doesn’t. Something that is malfunctioning is still functioning albeit poorly from the perspective of Simondon’s assumed entelechial functionality. Enhusiasts are often suspended, in action, between two relative compositions of a technical assemblage characterised by different states of functionality. There is a terrific moment in Hugh Howey’s novel Wool (spoiler-free introduction on Geek Dad blog) that captures this movement. The novel is set in a ‘silo’ and its inhabitants are survivors of some kind of apocalyptic event. I want to talk about an event where a character, Juliette, repairs a generator, but I won’t give too much away because it is a very good book.

The generator is a huge industrial machine that generates electricity for the whole silo, which is enough for hundreds of people to live. For as long as Juliette has been alive, the generator has been an incredibly loud machine the vibrations of which can be felt throughout the lower levels of the silo. Juliette convinces the administrative superiors in the silo that preventative maintenance is necessary to ward off catastrophic failure. Juliette carries out the repairs and when the generator is started she needs to be signalled by another person close to the generator that it is operating and that the first character needs to stop pressing the ‘starter’ button.  The generator’s rotating assembly is now so finely balanced there is no vibration and very little noise. The repairs carried out might as well have been improvements because the repair/design of the generator was born of experience and involves an intimate appreciation of its working functionality.  Juliette is operating in a context where there is a constant struggle between all the parts of a machine working together in functional harmony and the constant pressure of entropic decline (used as a metonym in the novel for the functioning of the silo).

7 thoughts on “Simondon and Techno-Aesthetics”

  1. I’m not sure that it’s fair to say Simondon sees function only as a consequence of design (depending on what you call ‘design’).

    In Du Mode he makes the distinction between creation of techno-objects as either ‘primitive’ or ‘industrial’. When humans make techno-objects in the primitive way they are being “intuitive, without an insight into the explanation of the functioning, and focused on working with the artifacts in practice”. I’d consider this at the techne end of the spectrum.

    I think you can see that distinction in this letter. Firstly in the half-wood houses. They’re built in a very primitive (medieval) craftsman like way. Their techno-asthetic is due to the repetitive combination of materials into a geometric set not necessarily planned (or perceived) by the builder.

    Secondly, the case of the Eiffel tower where the antennas have been added after construction. This is something done in a ‘primitive’ way, by adding a new function onto an existing object. While this impacts the other functions of the tower (tourist attraction / beauty spot) it remains separate (abstract rather than concrete – not condensed into a dual function).

    I also think Simondon refers explicitly to ‘function’ without design by using the example of biological evolution:

    “Mutants have their own techno-aesthetic. Some of their organs are hypertelic; others are hypertelic and atrophied. They are typically marginalized by their group of origin, and their being will help found a separate group that’s distinct from the group of origin as well as from other neighboring groups.”

    It’s within this description that I can see modified car culture. Unique techno-aesthetic values (drifting / street racing / cruising) but a self-consistent set of understandings with the group.

    In fact, I think his view of techno-aesthetics is probably compatible with your own as he says:

    “The techno-aesthetic feeling seems to be a category that is more primitive than the aesthetic feeling alone, or than the technical aspect considered from the angle of functionality alone (which is an impoverishing perspective).”

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