There are several convergences and complementarities between the enactive approach and Simondon’s philosophy of individuation, which, to an extent, facilitate the passage from ontology to a theory of human bodies as concrete becomings. A full discussion of these links is beyond the scope of this article, but a few points may be mentioned.
Simondon’s ontology seeks to unify different spheres under an assumption of continuity. What enactivists describe as the continuity between life and mind using the idea of autonomy (Varela 1997; Di Paolo and Thompson 2014), takes on in Simondon the shape of the principle of individuation (explicitly extending the reach of continuity to the physical domain). Although both approaches are nondualistic and reject the idea of the machine as a model of organic and psychic individuation, there are several important aspects of Simondon’s work that are currently missing in enaction. We could mention the insistence on individuation of all kinds entailing the meeting between different orders of magnitude, the energetic conditions that make individuation possible, the events and conditions that actualize it, the thematizing of preindividuality, and a more explicit account of how domains of interiority and temporality emerge in organic individuation.
An apparently significant difference that I see as not difficult to reconcile is that the enactive conception of life and mind makes reference to negative aspects of materiality (notably the concept of precariousness) and Simondon often avoids speaking of lacks or privations, possibly as a result of his distancing from Aristotelian and Hegelian traditions. Instead, the world is a source of “positivity” in that from the preindividual new possibilities are constantly set in motion. Simondon does not spend too much time discussing negativity (there are some passages on the corrosion of crystals and the anxiety of unresolvable tensions). This difference could be interpreted as a significant metaphysical break but I see no contradiction in speaking of the positivity of active matter and acknowledging that an “excess” of unexpected change can induce the destabilization of processes that an organism must rely on to survive, making these processes effectively precarious from the organism’s perspective and in need of ongoing regulation and regeneration. Precariousness entails that the conditions for a living body to operate are unwarranted and must be constantly produced and regulated. This is another way of saying we should expect things to be subject to change; whether positive or negative can only make sense according to vital norms (Merleau-Ponty 1942; Thompson 2007). In other words, the negativity of precariousness in organic processes and the positivity of the preindividual cannot be directly contrasted; they are in fact compatible ideas.Footnote 10
What is also novel for the enactive approach is Simondon’s scheme of interpretation linking progressively complex forms of individuation with the idea of neotenization. This scheme can be useful in interpreting the dimensions of embodiment in terms of increasingly open modes of becoming. With this we can give a more explicit shape to the enactive answer to our initial question about what counts as a body while keeping the constraints we have set ourselves in sight: a naturalistic life-mind continuity perspective, on the one hand, and the possibility of accounting for concrete human becoming, on the other.
Three dimensions of embodiment have been the focus of work in the enactive approach: organic, sensorimotor, intersubjective (Thompson and Varela 2001). The overlap with Simondon’s organic, psychic, and collective forms of individuation is not exact, but the ideas are compatible.
Organic individuation occurs in autopoietic systems, which require the joint conditions of self-production and self-distinction (Maturana and Varela 1980, 79). A network of physicochemical processes is self-producing if, through their operation, these processes regenerate the same network of enabling relations. It is self-distinguishing if it actively sustains a topological arrangement that keeps the network distinct from its environment. In the classical theory of autopoiesis not much is said about the relation of these two conditions. As a consequence, processes and events that occur at the level of the organism-environment relation (self-distinction) have been rendered conceptually distinct from processes of metabolic constitution (self-production). Such a situation has kept life processes and cognitive/affective phenomena forever separate. Starting with the late work of Varela (1997; Weber and Varela 2002), enactivists have questioned this separation postulating that there is an internal relation between autopoiesis and sense-making, that is, the way a whole organism engages the environment in terms of norms, valences, and meaning. It is precisely because of the conditions of autopoiesis that an encounter with the environment acquires a positive or negative valence, insofar as it contributes or not to self-individuation. This is more firmly established by demonstrating that autopoietic systems can also show adaptivity, an operational property that allows an organism to regulate its coupling with the environment according to its own conditions of viability (Di Paolo 2005).
We note that to ask of a concrete material system that it be simultaneously self-producing and self-distinguishing induces a dialectical situation (Di Paolo 2018). A tendency towards improving the conditions for self-production is also a tendency towards opening the system up to a wider set of environmental flows to take advantage of so as to continue to self-produce in as many environmental conditions as possible (“everything is food”). A tendency towards improving self-distinction moves in the opposite direction, reducing the chance that environmental flows will threaten the individuality of the organic system, which ideally ends in isolating the system entirely (“everything is a threat”). In neither case, maximal self-production or maximal self-distinction, do we have a living system. The dialectical resolution of this tension is the regulated deferral of openings and closings to environmental influences that keep the system viable. Such regulation with respect to viability conditions is what we have called sense-making. Unlike classical autopoiesis, which remains hylomorphic, (DiFrisco 2014), in the enactive conception to be a concrete material living body is to be a sense-maker or an agent.
There is a parallel between Simondon’s organic and psychic individuation and this enactive conception of life, in that organic individuation creates a space of problems that psychic individuation deals with. Concrete autopoiesis in materially and thermodynamically realistic conditions, likewise, entails adaptivity and sense-making due to the inherent tension the living condition creates. Moreover, an explicit temporality (absent in classical autopoiesis) is implied in that sense-making, like organic individuation in Simondon, operates at the thick limit between incipient future and not-yet past (Di Paolo 2005). The enactive conception of life is an organic mode of becoming because it operates via unceasing adaptive regulations of the organic body in the face of external uncertainty and as a result of its own primordial tension.
Psychic individuation also covers the sensorimotor dimension of embodiment, the cycles of regulation of action/perception/emotion in loops of sensorimotor and neuro-hormonal-musculoskeletal activity. Autonomy, sense-making, and agency help us make sense of the sensorimotor dimension. In turn, these ideas are transformed by the set of problems we must face there, problems about the roles of brain, body, and world in how perceptual experience is constituted, how action and perceptual skills are mastered, and so on. Di Paolo et al. (2017) address some of these questions in terms of sensorimotor mastery (via an operationalization of Piaget’s theory of equilibration). In a nutshell, repertoires of sensorimotor schemes (normatively organized patterns of coordinated body-world couplings) undergoing processes of plastic equilibration assemble themselves during development into networks that link schemes functionally and structurally to each other. These networks form clusters, some of which are self-sustaining: habits. Habits both predispose and demand repeated enactments according to their own norms (which can be in tension with the norms of organic self-individuation; as anyone who tried to overcome an addiction knows). If and when the organization of the whole repertoire becomes itself autonomous (i.e., integrated parts of the whole repertoire become self-sustaining), then a new form of agency, a sensorimotor mode of becoming or sensorimotor body, emerges.
The enactment of a sensorimotor scheme, in these conditions, is a reaffirmation or a challenge to a self-sustaining set of relations in the whole repertoire. In addition to any biological relevance, the sensorimotor organization is reasserted by every successful act and challenged by breakdowns, through spreading processes of mutual equilibration between schemes. In this way, particular sensorimotor styles reflect a history of engagements with the world, but at the same time constitute the motives, dispositions, and skills that mobilize a sensorimotor body.
Notice how the idea of sensorimotor becoming changes our conception of bodies. We are not only speaking here of organic bodies, but also about their relational and self-individuating modes of operation in the world. Sensorimotor bodies are assembled by processes of networked relations between precariously equilibrated sensorimotor schemes, they are literally made by organized potential and actual enactments.Footnote 11
In a precise sense (operational closure of relations between schemes in a repertoire), sensorimotor bodies are enacted into existence. They bring forth a world of significance by acts that simultaneously change bodies and environment. This mode of becoming is a sensorimotor unfinishedness, not merely an opening to changing demands and circumstances but a constructive activity by which sensorimotor bodies and their co-defined environments change historically at behavioral, developmental, and evolutionary scales. In the human case, developing sensorimotor bodies are open-ended and path-dependent or non-ergodic (Di Paolo et al. 2017, pp. 101–106).
Sensorimotor bodies, moreover, are enacted together. While the kind of phenomena that occur during collective individuation in Simondon’s account remain relatively general, enactivists have proposed to apply the idea of autonomy to the dynamic patterns of social encounters, introducing the concept of participatory sense-making (De Jaegher and Di Paolo 2007) to describe the general condition of mutual affectivity between bodies in interaction. There are in social encounters situations where the sense-making of a participant is literally modulated or enabled by the activity of others, and in some cases, sense-making is constituted jointly in co-authored social acts (De Jaegher et al. 2010). Insofar as this can only happen while individuals do not fully lose their condition as autonomous agents, social participation requires a regulated openness towards the influence of others, and acceptance (that I can still withdraw) for others to intervene in my own acts, perceptions, and emotions, changing them, finding new meanings in them, making them part of a flow that I do not fully control in ways I have not initially intended. In the sense that I am not the sole determinant of sense-making during social interactions that bring into contact different orders of magnitude, from the biochemical to the societal, participatory sense-making is the enactive correlate of transindividuality.
The effects of participatory sense-making on sensorimotor bodies is even manifested in non-interactive conditions (Di Paolo and De Jaegher 2012). Fuchs and De Jaegher (2009) interpret Merleau-Ponty’s (1945/2012) conception of prereflective intercorporeality as mutual incorporation, the phenomenological counterpart of a readiness to interact which develops through social micro-practices. This radically changes sensorimotor becoming: powers and sensitivities develop in interaction with the powers and sensitivities of others within concrete sociomaterial situations. This is obviously the case in early human development where caregiver-infant interactions can guide sensorimotor development by inducing disequilibrium in the infant so as to prompt her at different stages either to diversify or consolidate her sensorimotor powers and sensitivities (Di Paolo et al. 2017, pp. 239–246). But it remains the case throughout the whole lifetime. Participatory or intersubjective becoming is again different from sensorimotor becoming in that developing sensorimotor bodies must retain (or regain) enough preindividual potentiality in order to engage, through socially induced individuations, with the norms, customs, and history of a community. Organic and sensorimotor norms are put in contact with sociomaterial patterns, powers, and constraints. Socially developing bodies must navigate the uncertain terrain of making sense of these different normative orders.
All of the foregoing applies to human becoming, but much of it applies to other forms of life too. Specifically human patterns of becoming have been explored in the enactive approach in broad terms that consider the cultural embeddedness of human bodies (e.g., Thompson 2007). But there is a gap between the concepts of sensorimotor schemes, repertoires, powers, etc., and the vocabularies used to describe human sociality and language making the connection of these two areas of embodied cognition research not impossible, as work in cognitive linguistic has shown, but still open to skepticism.
Recent work proposes new categories for social agency to bridge the conceptual gap between sensorimotor agency and language. I can only give here a brusque summary of the model of embodied linguistic agency proposed in (Di Paolo et al. 2018), which in essence follows the dialectical model presented by Cuffari et al. (2015). Situations of participatory sense-making engender a basic tension, an ever-present risk of disharmony between the individual participants and the dynamics of the social situation. The management of this tension with increasingly complex forms of social agency is the thread that guides the engendering of novel categories moving from sensorimotor to linguistic bodies.
A first way of coping with disharmonies between interactive and sensorimotor norms is by co-regulated social acts, that is, acts that can only be enacted together, such as shaking hands, or giving/receiving an object. These acts sediment in the repertoires of frequently interacting bodies in the form of partial schemes (giving—receiving) and so in a group of frequent interactors sensorimotor bodies become, to an extent, co-defined with other bodies. Partial acts can also be used recursively to help participants resolve the problem of coordinating schemes with each other (think of an offering gesture accompanied by a nod to encourage a hesitant receiving gesture in another person). These regulatory partial acts introduce potential asymmetries in the interaction, which require some kind of time-management in order for the interaction not fall under the orchestration of a single agent (a condition that would break interactive autonomy). Eventually the use of strongly normative or regulatory partial moves in the interaction is acceptable by other participants if in principle all participants can at some point occupy this role. Interactions of this kind again demand an opening to others, a form of letting be (see De Jaegher 2019). There is a deferral in time that organizes interactions into turns of regulatory interventions on the part of one participant, and acceptance on the part of the others, provided roles switch at some point. This is the beginning of a dialogical organization.
What is interesting about dialogues is that interventions in them (we can call them utterances, but they include all kinds of gestures, demonstrations, etc., used in a particular way, and not only spoken or signed acts) have properties beyond the pragmatic force of sensorimotor schemes. They are also interventions that 1) are sustained and enabled in part by an audience, 2) demarcate certain interpersonal relations (e.g., speaker/audience), 3) serve to identify the producer as a person (e.g., through addressivity), and 4) for this last reason, their expressive aspects become expressions of the body that produces it. Utterances, thus, have person-constituting powers and dialogues permit the possibility of mutual interpersonal recognition.
Utterances, like other partial acts, can also be recurrent and resolve particular tensions that emerge in dialogues (such as when participation genres are ambiguous, e.g., is it a friendly conversation between boss and employee, a request, or an order?). They do so by the power of reporting or reflecting other utterances, and in general resonating with some of their properties. Most live conversations are constructed together by resonances, repetitions, transpositions, etc. of previous utterances (Du Bois 2014; Goodwin 2018). This make utterances have the property of braiding together, ultimately linking to absent voices, texts, jokes, songs, etc.; in other words, interweaving with language as a living historical stream.
Dialogical agency is not simply a new skill added on top of others, but a wholly transformative development of participatory becoming, a way human history takes root in human bodies.
“The single adequate form for verbally expressing authentic human life is the open-ended dialogue. Life by its very nature is dialogic. To live means to participate in dialogue: to ask questions, to heed, to respond, to agree, and so forth. In this dialogue a person participates wholly and throughout his whole life: with his eyes, lips, hands, soul, spirit, with his whole body and deeds” (Bakhtin 1984, p. 293).
We cannot conceive of language as a reified abstract system in this view, something wholly external to our bodies. Language is not separate from the stream of concrete language use; it is that stream. It is not tossed like a ball from generation to generation. “Language cannot properly be said to be handed down—it endures, but it endures as a continuous process of becoming. Individuals do not receive a ready-made language at all, rather, they enter upon the stream of verbal communication; indeed, only in this stream does their consciousness first begin to operate” (Voloshinov 1929, p. 81, emphasis added).
But this is a point where a tension without a resolution is reached. This is a tension that defines linguistic agency and makes human becoming a perpetual task. It consists in the fact that by incorporating the skills for participating in linguistic communities a body must make existing patterns of gesturing and speech her own. There is an incorporation of the powers given by the use of utterances, by accents, vocabularies, idioms, expressive styles, etc. which makes use of and partially transforms linguistic materials that exist in the stream of language. This is the way a linguistic body is constituted, in analogous manner as a sensorimotor body is constituted by acts. But utterances are no ordinary acts, they are person-constituting and therefore they carry the traces of other agencies, the self-distinctions of voices of those who uttered them before, a family member, a friend, a character in a novel, a popular song, a slogan, a cliché, etc. Each act that reaffirms our linguistic agency is an act that summons other linguistic agencies, an act of incarnation. This is why language is so effective for self-control. We can treat ourselves as an other, displacing our center, because we incarnate voices of authority, appeals to calm in the face of turmoil, or calls to action to mobilize ourselves.
This is the paradox of linguistic becoming, which because of the constitutive powers of language, is also the paradox of human becoming: to always navigate the uncertain waters between incorporation and incarnation of linguistic acts. In resonance with Freire, the becoming or unfinishedness of linguistic bodies is what permits human becoming to be dominated by powers that constrain free development and it is at the same time the condition of possibility of rebellion and struggle for new meanings.
A linguistic body continuously assembles herself using the acts of other linguistic bodies (including, of course, her own). For this reason, she learns to see herself as some body through the language of concrete or abstract others. This creates the possibility of oppression through the incarnation of agencies and the incorporation of discourses that manipulate a linguist body’s common sense, alienate her powers and sensitivities, deskill them, and suppress spontaneity. But it simultaneously creates the possibility of emancipatory struggle through reflectively aware action by incarnating accents of liberation that transduce ideas, affects, motivations, and skills to from one body to another, and by incorporating critical discourses that foster the building of communities of care, powers, and vulnerabilities.Footnote 12 Freire’s critical pedagogy can be interpreted as the project of raising awareness about these constraints and these possibilities. We can submit to obstacles by reifying them as unavoidable parts of the natural order, or plot paths for change in ourselves, the world, and others in trying to overcome them in praxis (regardless of whether we succeed or not). This is at the root of self-driven human becoming of the style Pico and Allport celebrate. But it is a fundamentally social power, even when a single person wields it. In fact, it is a power most often enacted by groups of people. The self-reflectively aware unfinishedness that Freire sees in the human condition is rooted in the inherent tension in the condition of being linguistic bodies.
The enactive approach offers conceptions of bodily becoming in resonance with Simondon’s ontology and fitting the existential structures indicated earlier. From an enactive perspective, to be a body is to be an entanglement of different modes of becoming (organic, sensorimotor, participatory, linguistic), i.e., a stream of processes of navigation of the changing relations between body and non-body. These modes of becoming can be described operationally, making this approach one that not only acknowledges the crucial role of bodies, but also articulates the concept of bodies itself, thus positively addressing the opening question of this article.