Individuation (Latin: principium individuationis) is a concept which appears in numerous fields and may be encountered in work by Gilbert Simondon, Bernard Stiegler, Gilles Deleuze, Henri Bergson, David Bohm, and Manuel De Landa. In very general terms, it is the name given to processes whereby the undifferentiated tends to become individual, or to those processes through which differentiated components tend toward becoming a more indivisible whole. Friedrich Nietzsche, for example, offers an extensive discussion of the tension between impartial, chaotic fluidity and individuated subjectivity in The Birth of Tragedy (1872), whereby Dionysian dismemberment and Apollonian individuation respectively embody these dichotomous qualities. Nietzsche claims that the perpetual, unresolvable tension between these two opposing aspects of nature fosters the conditions necessary for their uneasy synthesis in the creation of tragic art.

In economics, individuation parallels specialization and increases the efficiency of the division of labor. It serves as a means for individuals to find comparative advantage in the marketplace.

Gilbert Simondon on individuation

In L'individuation psychique et collective, Gilbert Simondon developed a theory of individual and collective individuation, in which the individual subject is considered as an effect of individuation, rather than a cause. Thus the individual atom is replaced by the neverending ontological process of individuation. Simondon also conceived of "pre-individual fields" as the funds making individuation itself possible. Individuation is an always incomplete process, always leaving a "pre-individual" left-over, itself making possible future individuations. Furthermore, individuation always creates both an individual and a collective subject, which individuate themselves together.

Bernard Stiegler on individuation

The philosophy of Bernard Stiegler draws upon and modifies the work of Gilbert Simondon on individuation, as well as similar ideas in Friedrich Nietzsche and Sigmund Freud. During a talk given at the Tate Modern in 2004, Stiegler summarized his understanding of individuation. The essential points are the following:

  • The I, as a psychic individual, can only be thought in relationship to a we, which is a collective individual: the I is constituted in adopting a collective tradition, which it inherits, and in which a plurality of Is acknowledge each other’s existence.
  • This inheritance is an adoption in that I can very well, as the French grandson of a German immigrant, recognize myself in a past that was not the past of my ancestors, but that I can make my own; this process of adoption is thus structurally factical.
  • An I is essentially a process, and not a state, and this process is an in-dividuation (it is a process of psychic individuation) as the tendency to become-one, that is, to become indivisible.
  • This tendency never accomplishes itself because it runs into a counter-tendency with which it forms a metastable equilibrium (it must be pointed out how close this conception of the dynamic of individuation is to the Freudian theory of drives, but also to the thinking of Empedocles and of Nietzsche).
  • A we is also such a process (the process of collective individuation); the individuation of the I is always inscribed in that of the we, whereas conversely, the individuation of the we takes place only through those individuations, polemical in nature, of the Is making it up.
  • That which links the individuations of the I and the we is a pre-individual milieu possessing positive conditions of effectiveness, belonging to what Stiegler calls retentional apparatuses. These retentional apparatuses arise from a technical milieu which is the condition of the encounter of the I and the we: the individuation of the I and the we is in this respect also the individuation of the technical system.
  • The technical system is an apparatus which has a specific role (wherein all objects are inserted: a technical object exists only insofar as it is disposed within such an apparatus with other technical objects: this is what Gilbert Simondon calls the technical group): the rifle, for example, and more generally the technical becoming with which it forms a system, are thus the possibility of the emergence of a disciplinary society, according to Michel Foucault.
  • The technical system is also that which founds the possibility of the constitution of retentional apparatuses, springing from the processes of grammatization growing out of the process of individuation of the technical system, and these retentional apparatuses are the basis for the dispositions between the individuation of the I and the individuation of the we in a single process of psychic, collective and technical individuation (where grammatization is a subset of technics) composed of three branches, each branching out into processual groups.
  • This process of triple individuation is itself inscribed in a vital individuation which must be apprehended by a general organology as the vital individuation of natural organs, the technological individuation of artificial organs, and the psycho-social individuation of organizations linking them together.
  • In the process of individuation constitutive of general organology wherein knowledge as such emerges, there are individuations of mnemo-technological sub-systems which over-determine, qua specific organizations of what Stiegler calls tertiary retentions, the organization, the transmission and the elaboration of knowledge stemming from the experience of the sensible.

Stiegler is also concerned with the destructive consequences for psychic and collective individuation which may result from consumerism and consumer capitalism (see, for example, Stiegler, The Disaffected Individual).

Media Industry use of Individuation

The term Individuation has begun to be used within the media industries to denote new printing and online technologies that permit the mass customization of the contents of a newspaper, a magazine, a broadcast program, or a Web site so that the contents match each individual user's own unique mix of interests, unlike the Mass Media practice of producing the same contents for each and every reader, viewer, listener, or online user.


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