Deleuze’s short essay ‘Postscript on Societies of Control’ has become one of the most widely discussed individual essays in continental philosophy in recent years. Deleuze’s update of Foucault’s ‘disciplinary society’ has been lauded for its prophetic nature in relation to contemporary culture and its wide-ranging applications for the analysis of digital capitalism. However, despite the fact that this piece is often discussed in depth in relation to Foucault, one aspect that is not often discussed is the influence of Gilbert Simondon. Simondon played an important role in the development of certain aspects of Deleuze’s philosophy and now, with the English translation of his Individuation in Light of Notions of Form and Information (2020) finally having been published we can start to trace these connections in more detail. It will therefore be necessary to re-examine Deleuze’s ‘Postscript’ in light of Simondon’s notion of modulation that he develops as replacement for hylomorphism.
In the ‘Postscript’ Deleuze builds on Foucault’s notion of disciplinary societies, which he saw as emblematic of the general function of power within nineteenth and early twentieth century societies, to conceptualise the way power has functioned in the latter twentieth century (and, we might say, early twenty-first). This new form of power has created a new kind of society: the society of control. Deleuze claims that control societies no longer function through constraint and enclosure, as disciplinary societies do, but allow for apparently free open spaces in which individuals can engage and interact with one another, yet are still under the control of a less rigid, more dynamic and fluid system of power. Where Deleuze once again brings in his Simondonian influences is through the operation of these systems of control. He claims that: “Enclosures are molds, distinct castings, but controls are a modulation, like a self-deforming cast that will continuously change from one moment to the other” (PSC, 3). This distinction between mould and modulation is used directly by Simondon to emphasise his critique of the hylomorphic schema.
Here Simondon uses the creation of a brick as a typical example of the mistakes of hylomorphism (Simondon, 2020, 21-37). Whereas hylomorphism looks at this process as the imposition of form on inert matter, Simondon claims that the form of the brick is dependent on the particular qualities and potentialities within the clay itself which give it a mouldable structure. The potential for deformations within the clay is a positive property that allows for its transformation, and the mould which determines its shape is merely an adaptable limit imposed upon these potentialities. Taking into account Simondon’s theory of individuation we might say that the preindividual potentialities within the clay undergo a particular individuation, the limits of which are determined by the mould. The hylomorphic interpretation of this process as combination of form and matter is wrong to view such an individuation as moulding; it is, in fact, a form of modulation. This distinction is important since moulding refers to a static closed system, whereas modulation is a continuous dynamic process. As Simondon states: “a modulator is a continuous temporal mold. … To mold is to modulate in a definitive way; to modulate is to mold in a continuously and perpetually variable way” (Simondon, 2020, 31). This conception of modulation is therefore an analogical example of the perpetual process of individuation in general. Deleuze refers directly to this process, and to Simondon’s critique of hylomorphism in general, on a number of occasions throughout his works, from Difference and Repetition to A Thousand Plateaus. As he and Guattari reiterate “what Simondon criticizes the hylomorphic model for is taking form and matter to be two terms defined separately … like a simple relation of molding behind which there is a perpetually variable continuous modulation that is no longer possible to grasp” (Deleuze and Guattari, 2013, 409). Yet, of course, the notion of modulation is not limited to the transformation of inanimate matter, it can be applied directly to the political and social world as Deleuze makes evident in the ‘Postscript.’
Deleuze looks at the power of modulation as one which adapts and deforms itself in order to create a never-ending system of control. Simondon’s utilisation of the term emphasises the nature of the preindividual potentialities in the continuous process of individuation, but Deleuze argues that the societies of control have managed to adapt this process in such a way that limits these potentials. He gives us a number of concrete technical examples of how modulation functions in control societies that are not explicit in his previous works:
In the disciplinary societies one was always starting again (from school to the barracks, from the barracks to the factory), while in the societies of control one is never finished with anything – the corporation, the educational system, the armed services being metastable states coexisting in one and the same modulation, like a universal system of deformation (PSC, 5).
Here we see an application of Simondon’s technical concepts to the systems of power in the political world. Modulation can be seen as regulating the potential of particular intensities such as desire. In this case, the deterritorialisation of desire through capitalism has led to a reterritorialisation as ‘control’ which no longer outwardly constrains the individual, but keeps them in a perpetual state of ‘metastable anxiety’ through which their potential for control is never exhausted. Deleuze claims that the rise of the corporation as a dominant economic model, one which arose out of the deterritorialising tendencies of capitalism, has utilised modulation to take control of the education system in order to serve its own ends: “The modulating principle of ‘salary according to merit’ has not failed to tempt national education itself. Indeed, just as the corporation replaces the factory, perpetual training tends to replace the school, and continuous control to replace the examination” (ibid.). This perpetual nature of modulating function is therefore in line with the processes of individuation, but it has been inverted and deformed to act as a negative force which stifles individuation rather than encouraging it: “We no longer find ourselves dealing with the mass/individual pair. Individuals have become ‘dividuals,’ and masses, samples, data, markets, or ‘banks’” (ibid.). This idea has never been more evident than it is today with the widespread use of data-mining among the world’s biggest technology companies which treats the online actions of individuals as a source of income revenue. Individuals and groups thus become indistinguishable from their actions (clicks, views etc.) which are constantly under surveillance in order to provide data to advertising companies.
Thus, for perhaps the first time in Deleuze’s oeuvre, the political and the ontological have been joined with the technological in such a way as to make the differences between them indistinguishable. The capitalism of the control societies is inherently connected to its technological products, and these products “have turned the desiring-machines into a science-fiction worthy nightmare of ‘universal modulation’” (Hui and Morelle, 2017, 507). However, in another article, Yuk Hui argues we should bear in mind that the metaphysical modulation, as seen in the functioning of the processes of individuation, cannot be exhausted by modulation as a system of control: “metaphysical thinking offers more opportunities to develop new types of modulations that may in fact facilitate rather than inhibit processes of individuation, of democratic group-formation, or of collective engagement” (Hui, 2015, 86). That is to say, to overcome the form of modulation utilised by the control societies we cannot refer back to hylomorphism and a system of rigid structures, we must instead find ways to replace existing forms of control with new forms of modulation that are not susceptible to them. In other words, we must look at Simondon’s psychic and collective individuation understood in dialogue with Deleuze and Guattari’s deterritorialisation provide us with a way out. (I will perhaps do a write up on Simondon’s psychic and collective individuation later).
If we look at the deterritorialising nature of capitalism and its tendency to reterritorialise desire in such a way which eventually leads to control societies, we are seeing a disindividuation and a proletarianisation in the Stieglerian sense. The ‘nightmare of universal modulation,’ as Hui and Morelle put it, can only be overcome through a new oneiric projection of the future that is reliant on the concepts of psychic and collective individuation. Here, Stiegler’s idea of projecting a phantasmagorical future is certainly in line with Srnicek and William’s ‘idea of inventing the future,’ but Stiegler emphasises the importance of developing knowledge of both the technical and political processes (savoir-faire and savoir-vivre) that we are subject to. Despite their potential for universal control, the internet and other modern digital networks are capable of constantly reaffirming and rebuilding our individual and collective understanding, and perhaps more importantly, creating new potentials for group organisations and collectivisations that can be inherently productive. As Stiegler states: “These technologies reconfigure what Simondon called the process of psychic and collective individuation, and transform into technologies of the spirit what have hitherto functioned essentially as technologies of control” (Stiegler, 2013, 95). In other words, the reliance of the control societies on utilising technical means to capture and redirect the flows of desire actually allows for the development of what Simondon would call new internal resonances which serve as the productive source of new processes of individuation.
In summary, if we take the metaphysical process of individuation as the fundamental, immanent, operative nature of reality, we know that change, difference, and becoming are the only fundamental realities. Hylomorphism, from Aristotle to Kant (and the rigid structures that are informed by it) is no longer suitable for our ever-changing adaptable world in the twenty-first century. Political structures as they exist now, even in their ever more malleable forms, as denoted by the societies of control, are never absolute and all-encompassing. For us to imagine a politics outside of control, and to imagine a life within this politics, requires a new formulation of politics that accepts the fundamental metastability within us; that incorporates the notion of desire as an intensity; and that, most importantly, sees life as a dynamic process of individuation.
Deleuze, G. (1992). ‘Postscript on Societies of Control’. October 59, 3-7.
Deleuze, G. And Guattari, F. (2013) A Thousand Plateaus. London: Bloomsbury.
Hui, Y. (2015). ‘Modulation After Control’. New Formations 84/85, 74-91.
Hui Y. And Morelle, L. (2017) ‘A Politics of Intensity’. Deleuze Studies 11(4), 498-517.
Simondon, G. (2020). Individuation in Light of Notions Form and Information. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Stiegler, B. (2013). What Makes Life Worth Living?. Cambridge: Polity.
 Andrew Culp’s Dark Deleuze (2016) expands on this argument to provide an anti-vitalist Deleuze stripped of his Spinozist and Nietzschean life affirming principles.