TOPOLOGICAL LIFE / Berfrois (2014)
“Topological Life: The Politics of Exchange Between Membranes/Bodies,” on Berfrois (February 28, 2014)
Image above: Alexandros Tsamis, Surrogate House, MIT 2010.
This article is a revised and deepen version of a text written for The Funambulist in November 2013 in the context of what I called the “Simondon week” (the fourth of this series after Deleuze, Foucault and Spinoza). In it, I examine the geometrical notion of topology, a term I heard many times when I was a student in architecture, but too often without being questioned for what it tells us about the world around us, and more immediately about our body itself. The work of French philosopher Gilbert Simondon (1924-1989), which seems to currently come back in the spotlights of academia, is particularly helpful to explore this notion that we can then interpret in a social-political manner. Let’s dive into it, shall we?
The first occurrence of Simondon’s use of the term topology in my reading was found in the 1964 book The Individual and its Physical-Biological Genesis (L’individu et sa genèse physico-biologique) in a context that needs to be explained first: in the first part of his book, Simondon undertakes to show the limits of the Aristotelian scheme of hylomorphy to describes the world. Hylomorphy thinks of all objects as a combination of matter and form, which is problematic to Simondon both at the physical-chemical level and at the social level. He describes at length the molding of a brick as a paradigmatic example of how the matter already contains the notion of form within itself – what he calls the “colloidal characteristics of the matter” – and how the form needs to materialize first in the object of the mold in order to realize itself. The principle of energy is also forgotten in the hylomorphic scheme and that is how Simondon argues for a new paradigm to think of objects and bodies: the allagmatic (change) scheme. As I mentioned above, the hylomorphic scheme is also problematic at a social level as it creates two categories that can be read as social classes: those who think of the form (“the masters”), and those who act upon the matter (“the slaves”). There is therefore something highly societal in Simondon’s manifesto for the allagmatic scheme. The form should not be thought abstractly but rather, in a deep understanding of the intrinsic characteristics of the matter.
In order to illustrate his thesis, he chooses the example of a wooden beam. In a detailed description of the techniques used to form this beam, he contrasts those that involve an accurate knowledge of the matter itself, that is the understanding of what its implicit forms might be, from those that might facilitate the task, or even sometimes allow a form to be more conform to the idealized abstract idea of the form – the idea that a beam must be parallelepiped – yet ignore the essence of the matter. In this regard, Simondon repeatedly uses the term haecceity (eccéité) to describe the particularity, the individuality, of each material assemblage considered (my translation):
…the existence of implicit forms manifests when the craftsman elaborates the raw matter: a second degree of haecceity emerges. A trunk chopped with a circular saw or with a band saw gives two beams more regular, but it would be less solid than those that the same tree gives when chopped thanks to wood wedges. The four masses of wood produced here are more or less equal whichever technique was used, but the difference consists in the fact that the mechanical saw abstractly cut the wood, according to a geometrical plan without respecting the slow undulations of the fibers not their helical torsion: the saw cut the fibers whereas the wedge only separate them into two half trunks. […]True implicit forms are not geometrical, they are topological. The technical gesture has to respect these topological forms that constitute a parceled haecceity, a possible information that does not fail at any point. (Gilbert Simondon, L’individu et sa genèse physico-biologique, Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1964, 52.)
The word topology has now been pronounced and it is probably a good time to explain what it stands for at a geometrical level. Topology is opposed to the Euclidean geometrical representation of space. To use an architectural terminology, when an Euclidean wall is combined to other flat surfaces (other walls, ceiling, floors), it is simple to define an inside and an outside, since such terms found their definitions based on such an organization of space. On the other hand, topological surfaces like the well-known Möbius strip and the Klein Bottle, complexifies this strict definition of inside and outside since the inflection of these surfaces does no longer allow them to contain space, but rather to constitute an interface between two milieus.
The previous quote is useful for us to understand why a topological interpretation of the world is more faithful to the complex structure of reality’s materiality. However, it does not address yet the specific topological formation of the body as announced in this article’s subtitle. For that, we need to go further into the book, where Simondon attempts to define what life is:
In a multicellular organism, the existence of the interior milieu [milieu intérieur] complicates the topology, in the sense that there are several levels [étages] of interiority and exteriority; thus an internal secretion gland pours the products of its activity into the blood or another organic liquid: in relation to this gland, the interior milieu of the general organism is in fact a milieu of exteriority. By the same token, the intestinal cavity is an exterior milieu for the assimilating cells which assure selective absorption along the length of the intestinal tract. According to the topology of the living organism, the interior of the intestine is in fact exterior to the organism, even though it accomplishes in this space a certain number of transformations conditioned and controlled by organic functions; this space is an annexed exteriority; thus if the contents of the stomach or intestine is noxious for the organism, the coordinated movements that direct the expulsion finish by emptying these cavities and rejecting into the completely (independently) exterior space the noxious substances which were previously in the exterior space annexed to the interiority. (Gilbert Simondon, L’individu et sa genèse physico-biologique, trans. John Protevi, Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1964, 223.)
Let’s pause for a moment and imagine indeed the topology of the multicellular organism that is the human body since Simondon invites us to do so: on the contrary of the way we commonly imagine it, the body is not a sort of epidermic sack containing a bunch of organs in a more or less successful way (this would be the Euclidean reading of it). The skin is admittedly the easy starting point of the body’s topological surface. There is however no discontinuity between it and the surface of our throat that ‘dives’ inside our body. Inside our body? What about what is inside our throat? Isn’t it “inside our body” too? Here we can start to fathom the impossibility to think in terms of inside and outside as far as the body is concerned. Our throat is only the top part of a long ‘tube’ that eventually reaches our anus. If we simplify to the extreme, the body is a sort of Klein Bottle from which it is impossible to distinguish the exterior milieu from the interior one.
The body is a continuous surface folded many times and that interacts with an exterior milieu whose limits cannot be established because of the impossibility to establish an interiority of the body. Wanting to unfold this topological surface to analyze it would bring us back to Euclidean problems since it would require to section this surface to do so, and thus to rationalize it in the separation of ‘face A’ from ‘face B.’ What then becomes fundamental to understand the topology of the body is what Simondon calls “membrane,” that is this folded surface that separates two milieus (neither exterior, nor interior) from one another. This membrane constitutes the interface of exchanges between these two milieus and Simondon sees in these exchanges the essence of life: “all the content of the interior space is topologically in contact with the content of the exterior space on the limits of the living being; there is no distance in topology.”
Only exception to my “no-metaphor” rule: the dresses designed by Yiqing Yin allow to visualize the body’s topology through the multitude of folds that compose them. (for more see my article “The Infinite Worlds Folded in the Dresses of Yiqing Yin” on The Funambulist)
Now that we understand the body as a continuous membrane that separates several milieus, we can start a sort of sociology of the interactions that occur between these milieus through the interface of the membrane/body. When the little particles of pollen depose themselves on the surface of my throat in the spring, my environment becomes a part of my body and vice versa. When we add to this observation the fact that 98% of the materiality of our body would have been renewed in the time laps of a year, we can begin to fathom how the body is not as much an independent assemblage from its environment as we usually consider it. It is in perpetual interaction with it and the only thing that prevents it from dissolving within its environment is life itself. Life would be thus defined in a Spinozist way – something Simondon would probably not mind – as the “effort to persevere in its being,” that is the energy that coalesces matter in a consistency of the membrane we call body.
We only observe this sociology of exchanges at a biological level so far, but the same thing can be done at a political level too. I do not mean this in a metaphorical or symbolical level. Politics consists in the practice of these exchanges between bodies. Interpreting the body through this topological reading allows us to understand that each body is simultaneously the emitter and the receptacle of a quasi-infinity of material movement that modifies its very composition. It is therefore understandable that our bodies have “at heart” the political question since it affects them in the most elementary composition. The fear of contamination constitutes the source of all social ostracisms. It corresponds to the thought “I fear that your matter will deteriorate the membrane that is my body.” Such a thought brings us to the principle of abjection as anthropologist Mary Douglas defines it as “matter out of place.” As I have been describing in a 2012 text entitled “Abject Matter: The Barricade and the Tunnel,” this reading explains how the use of hygienist arguments to justify the eviction of the various occupations of public space in the United States in 2011, was not merely hypocrisy from mayors, but something deeper that corresponds to the fear of contamination in its most immediate meaning.
The topological interpretation of the body helps us to understand this politics of hygienist fear; however it can also help us creating a politics that embraces the interaction and co-dependency of the membranes/bodies. Acknowledging that our bodies are literally made – once again, I am not speaking metaphorically here – with the materiality exchanged with our environment and other bodies, can create a political manifesto celebrating this exchange, rather than fearing it. This is what topological life is about.
 Gilbert Simondon, L’individu et sa genèse physico-biologique, trans. John Protevi, Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1964.
 Baruch Spinoza, Ethics, part 3, prop. 6, New York: Penguin Classics, 2005.
 Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concept of Pollution and Taboo, London: Routledge, 2009.
 Léopold Lambert, “Abject Matter: The Barricade and the Tunnel,” in LOG 25 Reclaim Resi[lience]stance, ed. Cynthia Davidson and François Roche, New York: Anyone Corporation, 2012.