Everything Is Just Dandy!

Thinking the unconscious beyond the psychoanalytic subject: Simondon, Murakami, and the transductive forces of the transindividual

Phenomenology and Existentialism
Andrew Lapworth


The last decade has seen a resurgence of interest across the social sciences and humanities in the unconscious as a key terrain for thinking contemporary life. Social and cultural geographers have long been at the forefront of this transdisciplinary area of debate, especially through the important theoretical, methodological, and empirical interventions arising from the now well-established subfield of psychoanalytic geographies (Kingsbury & Pile, 2014). Engaging with several psychoanalytic concepts and approaches (predominantly drawn from Freud and Lacan), this ever-growing body of work seeks to develop spatially sensitive accounts of the role that unconscious processes and relations play in the construction of self and world. At the same time, an increasing number of geographers are producing theorisations of the unconscious that commence from a more radical critique of the human subject as the locus of thought and action in the world. Recent work in geography addressing, for example, affect (Williams, 2021), micropolitics (Jellis & Gerlach, 2017), desire (Dewsbury, 2012), and habit (Bissell, 2015) instead attempt to get in touch with a wider range of material and non-representational forces that exceed the confines of a subject-centred understanding. At stake here is thus a very different conception of the unconscious to that to which we are accustomed in geography, where it continues to be largely understood as an individuated substance indexed to a discrete and already-constituted subject. Moving beyond the subject-predicate tendencies of much psychoanalytic thinking, this work instead offers up a different conceptual terrain through which we might generate a more open and transformative understanding of what the unconscious can become.

This paper seeks to extend this latter body of work through an engagement with the innovative conception of the unconscious encountered in the work of the French philosopher, Gilbert Simondon. Simondon, of course, never developed a comprehensive theory of the unconscious to the extent of some of his philosophical contemporaries. Nonetheless, I argue that what we find in his work is an intimate concern with several urgent problems that psychoanalytic thought (both within and beyond geography) continues to grapple, as well as a series of innovative concepts that might help us rethink and reformulate these problems anew. Specifically, this paper spotlights three key contributions of Simondon’s thought to contemporary geographical engagements with the concept of the unconscious. The first of these relates to the problem of how to think the unconscious beyond the form and terms of the human subject. While geographers have recently sought to reconsider the more ontological stakes of psychoanalytic theories (see, Pile, 2014; Pohl, 2020), Simondon’s philosophy of ontogenesis pushes further to theorise a more resolutely preindividual and nonhuman conceptualisation of the unconscious. In the next section I highlight how Simondon ascribes primacy not to already-given psychic individuals, but rather to processes of psychic individuation that modulate the emergence and transformative becoming of subjects. Importantly, the concept of individuation enables Simondon to shift beyond the repressive model of the unconscious in (specifically Freudian) psychoanalysis and its mechanistic reproduction of the same, to instead grasp what he calls the transductive character of unconscious forces (especially affect) bound up in the production of new possibilities of life.

The second contribution relates to Simondon’s unique intervention into the problem of how to think the relation of the psychic and the collective. One of the central themes of psychoanalytic geographies since its emergence in the early 1990s has been the idea that the unconscious is something ‘located outside the subject’ (Kingsbury, 2007, p. 246). Geographers have recently engaged with a variety of psychoanalytically-derived concepts – such as ‘extimacy’ (Kingsbury, 2007), ‘psycho-topology’ (Blum & Secor, 2011), and ‘contagion’ (Coddington, 2017) – to develop theorisations of the unconscious that trouble any clear or stable demarcation between ‘internal and external worlds’, or the subjective and the social (Kingsbury & Pile, 2014, p. 6). While this more ‘topological’ sense of the unconscious is something we also encounter in Simondon, what is his different is his more emergent and transformative understanding of the nature of the relations that hold between the psychic and the collective. In section three, I highlight how psychoanalytic discussions of a ‘distributed’ or ‘collective’ unconscious (Pile, 2014) remain on the level of what Simondon (2017) terms the ‘interindividual’ (p. 253), which reduce social relations to the terrain of known identities and dominant representations. In contrast, I explore how Simondon’s thinking opens a different way of articulating the relationship between the psychic and the collective based not on a relation of constituted individualities but instead a relation of individuations that he calls the transindividual. Through the concept of the transindividual, Simondon thus forces us to think the psychic and collective as emergent processes bound together in a reciprocal relationship of becoming.

Third, this transindividual relation of the psychic and the collective is also at the heart of Simondon’s unique theorisation of psychopathologies like anxiety, which he defines as the individuation ‘of the I without the We’ (Barthèlèmy, 2012, p. 206). In contrast to Freudian and Lacanian approaches, Simondon’s innovation is to argue that psychic pathologies are not located ‘within’ the individuated subject, nor in the ‘interindividual’ relations [rapports] between subjects (and subjects and objects), but rather arises as the level of the transindividual as the subject becomes cut off from the immanent conditions and potentials of its emergence through the collective. However, it is important to emphasise that when Simondon talks about the transindividual it is not to invoke some supposedly ‘more real’ or ‘fundamental’ layer of psychic life that previous thinkers have somehow overlooked. Instead, and in a more constructivist sense, it is better grasped as a tool for sharpening our attention to those relations and processes immanent to situations that open creative experiments with how the unconscious constructed differently in the future. To give this argument some empirical flesh, section four turns to the subterranean landscape of unconscious forces and desires encountered in the novels of the Japanese author, Haruki Murakami. Shifting beyond the psychoanalytical approaches that have tended to frame academic interpretations of his work, I instead explore how Murakami’s writing (especially his novel The Wind-up Bird Chronicle) opens a creative space for thinking the transductive forces of the transindividual unconscious.

Thinking the unconscious after Simondon: psychic individuations and transductive affects

Recently, the philosophy of Simondon has attracted interest from a growing number of geographers who find in his work a non-anthropocentric mode of thought that deepens and extends the insights of the ‘ontological’ and ‘more-than-human’ turns currently leaving their mark on the discipline (Lapworth, 2020). Geographers have explored the innovative contributions of his ideas to contemporary debates around, for example, human-technology relations (Ash, 2015; Kinsley, 2014), material and nonhuman agency (Dekeyser, 2018; Roberts, 2018), and art and aesthetics (Lapworth, 2016; Woodward et al., 2015). A focus of much of this work has been in the implications of the famous ontological inversion his philosophy enacts, shifting from an emphasis on constituted individuals to the processes of individuation that produce and differentiate (physical, vital, technical) individuals. More recently, a few geographers have explored the stakes of his philosophy for contemporary debates around subjectivity. Some scholars have expressed concern about this shift in analytical focus from individuals to individuations, seeing in it the resurgence of a universal sense of the subject inattentive to the lived realities of social difference (Conradson, 2021). Attentive to these critiques, other geographers have demonstrated how Simondon shifts a thought of difference beyond the fixed values and logics of identity, offering an immanent understanding of the human subject as something constituted by and through wider material and nonhuman ecologies (see, Brice, 2020; Keating, 2019).

This paper contributes to this rich body of work through an explicit focus on the stakes of Simondon’s philosophy for contemporary theorisations of the unconscious, a topic that has received limited attention in the Anglophone literature (although see the landmark work of Venn (2020) and Scott (2014) and their positive reassessment of Simondon’s contribution to this space). In part, this reflects the unorthodox publication history of his principal thesis (Individuation in Light of the Notions of Form and Information (hereafter ILFI)) where the bulk of his engagement with the problem of psychic and collective individuation appears, and which was split into two separate texts published 25 years apart (in 1964 and 1989). Indeed, and on the few occasions where the relationship between Simondon and a thought of the unconscious has been directly broached – most notably in the philosophy of Bernard Stiegler – the idea that he would have anything interesting to contribute has been dismissed. In a 2012 interview Stiegler put it bluntly:

In my opinion Simondon understands nothing about psychoanalysis because what he writes about it is so poor and even hostile. I believe it is because he started out with Jung toward individuation that he understands nothing Freud says. (Stiegler, 2012, p. 167)

Stiegler believes that it is only when Simondon’s concepts are refracted through a strongly Freudian lens of libidinal economy that the value of his philosophy for a political thinking of the unconscious can be realised. However, and as Scott (2014) argues, Stiegler’s post-Freudian interpretation blunts the full ontogenetic force of his concepts by filtering them through the psychoanalytic terrain that Simondon himself found to be inadequate. Simondon’s theory of psychic individuation was explicitly anti-Freudian and designed to challenge the representational topography and individualist metaphysics that has accompanied conceptualisations of the subject in psychoanalytic theory more broadly. As he writes:

[The thesis we are representing here would diverge from the doctrine called psychoanalysis. Psychoanalysis correctly remarked than an unconscious exists, but it considered it as a complete psychism, according to the model of the unified individual. (Simondon, 2020a, p. 273)

Simondon’s most explicit engagement with (specifically Freudian) psychoanalysis1 appears in the second part of ILFI (entitled ‘The Individuation of Living Beings’), in which he highlights the two key errors that he detects in Freud’s discussion of the unconscious. Firstly, and as highlighted in the quote above, he argues that Freud continues the ontological privileging of the already-constituted individual as the starting point for thought, as opposed to the operation of individuation itself. Simondon specifically targets the hylomorphism that structures Freud’s account of the psychic subject. Hylomorphism – a philosophical doctrine that extends back at least to Aristotle – explains the genesis of the individual in terms of the encounter of a matter (hyle) and a form (morphe) that are already individuated. Simondon argues that we can detect the hylomorphic setup in Freud’s account of the ‘topographical’ structure of the psyche. In Freud’s schema, the psyche is structured by the encounter between the ego and its reality principle that imposes form and order on the chaotic material forces of the ‘id’. Simondon argues that Freud’s theory presupposes a sense of the subject as already given to itself and founded on itself as a unity, thus remaining caught within a metaphysical tradition that ‘can only think being on the model of the one’ (Combes, 2013, p. 1). What we lose as a result is any sense of psychic individuation’s transformative and energetic dynamism. In Freud’s model, as Scott (2014) highlights, ‘the matter of individuation is already prefigured in the form of the constituted individual and so we are left without a real sense of its process, which, from Simondon’s perspective, must maintain some margin of indetermination’ (p. 16).

Simondon’s first major intervention in psychoanalytic theories of the unconscious is thus his attempt to think processes of psychic individuation beyond the framework and limits of the constituted individual. For him, unconscious processes do not simply disclose the private psychosexual drama of a unified self. Instead, he argues that it is through these individuating processes that we participate in a dimension of being that is ‘always more-than-unity and more-than-identity’ (Simondon, 2020a, p. 5).

The second aspect that Simondon rejects is Freud’s mechanistic and repressive model of the unconscious. Simondon specifically targets Freud’s (1961, p. 3) discussion of the ‘pleasure principle’ which he describes as the psychic mechanism that ‘endeavours to keep the quantity of excitation present in it as low as possible or at least to keep it constant’. In Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud (1961, p. 30) extends this argument to argue that the pleasure principle is a tendency in the service of ‘the universal striving of all things to return to the peace of the inorganic world’, which he famously terms the ‘death drive’. Founded on the pleasure principle, then, Freud’s model of the psyche ‘reflects a kind of automatic ideal, structurally static, always seeking homeostasis, that is, tending towards zero equilibrium’ (Scott, 2014, p. 165). Its homeostatic nature determines the quality and intensity of forces it can incorporate, while repressing those tensions that threaten the integrity and order of its predetermined structure (Kingsbury & Pile, 2014). Simondon argues that Freud’s homeostatic understanding of the unconscious reflects the classical thermodynamics of his time which only knew the opposition of entropic stability or chaotic instability. Simondon instead has recourse to the notion of metastability, which describes states that are charged with incompatible potentials and forces, and whose resolutions requires the invention of new operations and structures. Through its metastability, Simondon (2020b) notes that the psychic individual always comprises ‘a margin between the current structure and acquired information, which being heterogeneous in relation to the structure, necessitates the successive recasting of that being, and the power to put itself into question’ (p. 421). At stake here is therefore a different concept of the unconscious, no longer understood as a static or self-contained entity following laws of adaptation, but instead a space of invention, one constantly becoming through new structurations of the problematic forces and relations it encounters. As metastable process, then, and in contrast to Freud, psychic individuation for Simondon is ‘dynamically unlimited’ (Simondon, 2020b, p. 422): we don’t yet know what the unconscious can become.

Despite decades of critique (Callard, 2003), as well as attempts to highlight the ‘more-than-repressed’ dimensions of Freudian theory (see, Pile, 2014, p. 135), this image of the unconscious as a space governed by homeostatic and repressive processes continues to exert a strong grip over much contemporary geography. What Simondon offers is a thinking of the unconscious not fixated on the past and the reproduction of the same, but instead one that is more attuned to the future potentials of what might yet come into being. Instead of repression, Simondon argues that the individuation of the psychic subject is driven by the dynamic operation of what he calls ‘transduction’. If being has a unity, Simondon (2020a, p. 12) argues, it ‘‘is not a unity of identity, which is that of the stable state in which no transformation is possible’. Instead, being possesses a ‘transductive unity’, defined as its capacity to ‘fall out of phase with itself’ by incorporating preindividual forces that are other than itself (Simondon, 2020a, p. 4). Transduction replaces the traditional emphasis of social science thought on the end-products of individuation (subjects, objects, things) to instead express a more explicit sense of individuation’s process. In relation to the unconscious, the concept of transduction allows Simondon to foreground the problem of psychic operations rather than the conventional question of a (human) psychic substance: it enables him, in other words, to theorise a kind of ‘psychism without a psyche’ (Scott, 2014, p. 68), and therefore to think of psychic processes (thought, symbolisation, emotion) as vital operations not confined to the human (Simondon, 2011).

In ILFI, Simondon (2020a, p. 272) highlights ‘affectivity’ as the ‘transductive form of the psyche par excellence’. Unlike their conceptualisation in psychoanalysis, affects in Simondon are resolutely preindividual (Keating, 2019): less the personal feelings or states of an individuated subject, they are instead impersonal forces defined by intensive gradients and tensions. The emergence of the psychic subject takes place through the transductive structuration of these affects as their preindividual tensions give way to conscious and individualised emotions. Simondon therefore takes us beyond some conventional approaches to affect in contemporary geography that conceive it as a kind of ‘transpersonal’ force of relation that binds together already-individuated subjects and bodies (Anderson, 2009). For Simondon (2020a, p. 287), affect is instead ‘transductive more than relational’ in the sense that its material process gives rise to bodies and their potential orientations. What Simondon helps foreground is how theories of affect in geography, in remaining tied to the phenomenological frames of individualised feelings and intersubjective encounters, are not transductive enough to grasp its participation in the ontogenetic becoming of subjects and worlds.

Another key aspect of Simondon’s theory of affectivity is the idea that affects always overflow their individualised capture in emotions. As Combes (2013) highlights, affectivity for Simondon grasped from the standpoint of a ‘relation to the self’ constitutes ‘a relation to what, in the self, is not of the order of the individual’ (p. 31): namely, the share of preindividual potential that a being carries with it. Simondon (2020a) writes that when its affective constitution is shaken up (in moments of disorientation or encounter), the psychic subject experiences an incompatibility between this preindividual charge and its individuated reality, which signals to it that its being is not reducible to its already-constituted identity, and that it ”contains the energy for a further individuation” (p. 354). What Simondon (2020a) calls ‘the subject’ in his philosophy is simply the name for this affective tension or problematic: ‘the subject is an individual and more-than-individual; it is incompatible with itself’ (p. 280). And because this problematic is more-than-individual its resolution must also be more-than-individual. It is therefore only through a simultaneous individuation of the collective – drawing on the preindividual forces of other bodies (human, nonhuman, technical) – that psychic individuation can be continued. One of the most original aspects of Simondon’s philosophy is his argument that the psychic individual and the collective are not separate and readymade substances, but rather two concomitant processes of individuation that are inextricably interlaced. Hence Simondon’s preference for the compound term psychosocial individuation to describe this co-emergent and mutually transformative process.

The transindividual unconscious

It is on this question of the relation between the psychic and the collective that we encounter one of the most significant differences between Simondon and psychoanalysis. It could be argued, and authors such as Etienne Balibar (1998) have, that Simondon’s notion of psychosocial individuation is an intuition already present in Freud’s work. In the opening lines of Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, for example, Freud (1990, pp. 1–2) writes ‘in the individual’s mental life someone else is invariably involved as model or object […] and so from the very first, individual psychology is at the same time social psychology’’. But the difference is that, for Freud and those that follow him, the relation between the individual and the collective always requires a transcendent mediating condition, especially here the Oedipal architecture of the family (Read, 2018). Simondon argues that Freudian psychoanalysis is patently unable to think the reality of the collective, because while it might talk about ‘transpersonal’ drives or ‘collective’ desires, it always submits these to a transcendent form of organisation (the family, the state, the economy, language) that dictates the course of individuation. In seeking to theorise the unconscious beyond the borders of the atomistic subject, some commentators have highlighted the influence of Carl Jung’s analytic psychology upon Simondon’s thinking (see, Chabot, 2013, pp. 109–126). Jung famously broke with Freud in arguing that conditions like schizophrenia reveal a ‘deeper level of the mind than could be explained in terms of personal repression and the vicissitudes of childhood’ (Storr, 1973, p. 15). Jung calls this dimension the collective unconscious, which constitutes a kind of universal, ‘mythopoietic substratum’ of the human psyche, populated by various ‘archetypes’ (latent memories, symbolic images, transcultural mythologies) that guide psychological development (Storr, 1973, p. 42). As Jung writes:

The collective unconscious is like the air, which is the same everywhere, is breathed by everybody, and yet belongs to no one. Its contents (called archetypes) are the prior conditions or patterns of psychic formation in general […] Hence there is only one collective unconscious from which everything psychic takes shape before it is personalised, modified, assimilated, and so forth by external influences.. (Jung, 1973, p. 408)

Jung’s account of psychological development hinges around this idea of an ongoing confrontation between the subject’s ego and the collective unconscious, the reconciliation of which constitutes what he terms the process of ‘individuation’. While Simondon draws on a wide range of Jungian themes and terminology (e.g., individuation, expiation, collective unconscious) we should be careful not to overstate his influence as there are some significant differences in the way Simondon employs these terms. Simondon’s notion of individuation is obviously much more ontologically expansive than Jung’s, who defines it narrowly as a developmental phenomenon (usually occurring in the second half of a person’s life) through which a human subject integrates the different (personal and collective) components of their psyche, thereby becoming a complete and unique psychological individual. For Simondon (2020a), individuation instead names the material processes that produce and differentiate individuals across all domains of being, whether physical, organic, technological, or human. In addition, the ‘collective unconscious’ for Jung is imagined as a kind of transcendent and universal foundation of subjectivity; a reservoir of archetypal forms and contents that conditions the emergence of the psyche at crucial moments in human development. For Simondon, however, the collective is not a ready-made substratum, but is instead the outcome of a process of invention, emerging through the creation of new relations between the nonindividuated potentials of many individuals. So, whereas the collective for Jung is imagined as a kind of static and pre-given foundation for the individual, in Simondon it is instead theorised as metastable field of potential that is constantly carrying the subject towards new individuations.

The main problem for Simondon (2017, p. 253) is that in theorising the collective, psychoanalysis (in both its Freudian and Jungian guises) remains stuck on the terrain of what he calls the ‘interindividual’. The interindividual is defined as a form of social relationality in which ‘individuals relate to one another via the representations they have of one another as if they are fully constituted individuals’ (Mills, 2016, p. 84). These interindividual relations do not lead to the invention of new psychosocial structures but are instead based on the iteration of established norms, dominant representations, and known identities. In other words, they define the more utilitarian character of our everyday social relations. The representational and utilitarian logics of the interindividual can obscure and act as a blockage to the emergence of a different and more transformative modality of relation that he calls the transindividual.

Now, psychoanalytic thinking has obviously developed much in the last sixty years beyond the Freudian and Jungian approaches that Simondon discusses. Recently, geographers have dedicated efforts to unpacking the implications of Lacan’s argument that the psyche isn’t ‘topographical’ (as in Freud’s early description of the unconscious as defined by fixed spatial boundaries) but instead defined by ‘topological’ relations (Kingsbury, 2007). This topological understanding of the unconscious, as Blum and Secor (2011) highlight, complicates traditional binaries of the inside/outside (and the psychic/material), seeing the subject as the emergent product of its shifting ’extimate’ relations with other subjects and objects. While Simondon (2020a) draws on topological concepts to think the process of individuation, he makes it clear that the transindividual is a different kind of relation to the topological since what it relates are not terms, but rather two relations. This is also why Simondon is wary of allied concepts derived from phenomenology – like the ‘intersubjective’ (Ash & Simpson, 2014) or the ‘transpersonal’ (Anderson, 2009) – given what he sees as their assumption of the anteriority of the constituted subject in relation to the collective (Scott, 2014).

The transindividual is therefore best understood as a relation of relations, ‘encompassing the individual’s relation to itself, the process of its psychic individuation, as well as the relation amongst individuals, and the relation between different collectivities’ (Read, 2016, p. 113). As Simondon himself (Simondon, 2017) puts it:

[The transindividual] can be understood as a relationship that does not relate individuals by means of their constituted individuality separating them from one another, nor by means of what is identical in every human subject, for instance, the a priori forms of sensibility, but by means of this charge of pre-individual reality, this charge of nature that is preserved with the individual being, and which contains potentials and virtualities. (p. 253)

The transindividual, as Simondon makes clear, is thus not a relation between constituted subjects or individuals, but rather a ‘relation between the constitutive conditions of subjects’ (i.e. their preindividual potential; Read, 2016, p. 113). The emergence of the transindividual enables these preindividual potentials and forces to be deposited in the collective, thereby generating new possibilities for psychosocial becoming.

Critical engagements with Simondon’s concept of the transindividual have sometimes interpreted it as a kind of pre-existing ontological ground for collective life (see, Balibar, 1998; Read, 2016). However, what this misunderstands is how, for Simondon, the transindividual does not exist readymade simply awaiting our discovery but can only begin the process of its emergence following an event or encounter that suspends constituted identities and interindividual relations. Simondon calls this event by which the precedent structure of the individual is unravelled in preparation for the emergence of new relations an event of disindividuation. Now, in his texts Simondon offers very few examples of such events of disindividuation. One of the few he does give is a scene from the prologue of Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophical novel, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, in which Zarathustra encounters the tightrope walker who lies broken on the ground having fallen from a great height (Simondon, 2020a, pp. 313–316). No longer able to perform his social function of entertaining, the crowd abandons the tightrope walker to his fate. What draws Simondon’s attention to this passage from Nietzsche is how the encounter with the fallen tightrope walker constitutes for Zarathustra an ‘exceptional event’ that ‘reveals interindividual relations for what they are: social functions and norms imposed on the subject, concealing its more-than-individuality’ (Scott, 2014, p. 116). In suspending interindividual logics of identity and relation, and releasing unforeseen potentials, disindividuation is understood as the provisional and preparatory condition for ‘the subject’s participation in the broader individuation’ of the transindividual (Simondon, 2020a, p. 180).

Anxious disindividuations and transindividual becomings: the wind-up bird chronicle [Nejimakidori Kuronikuru]

It is little coincidence that Simondon turns to an example for literature to think the transindividual relation of the psychic and the collective. Within and beyond human geography, literature has long been recognised as a crucial space through which the unconscious might be imagined and constructed differently (Kingsbury, 2021). In this final part of the paper, I turn to the Japanese author, Haruki Murakami, whose writings (and especially his magnum opus, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle) opens a space for creatively reimagining the unconscious beyond the terms and limits of the atomistic subject. In a 2011 interview in The New Yorker, Murakami noted that an ongoing theme of his work has been the exploration of ‘the deliberate blurring of the boundary line between the individual and the collective, the conscious and the unconscious’.2 One of the ways in which Murakami’s writing figures this intimate co-constitutive relation between the psychic and the collective is through the recurring trope of the ‘other realm (achiragawa)’ (Strecher, 2014, p. 71) – composed of forces, ideas, memories – that bubbles imperceptibly under the surface of the everyday, constantly seeping in through pores and cracks to transform life in sometimes subtle, sometimes dramatic, ways. Music, dreams (especially of a sexual nature), and confrontations with animals (usually cats, often talking) are privileged moments through which Murakami’s characters encounter this mysterious realm. While Murakami hesitates to define or even name this other realm in his writings, several scholars have theorised it as a clear representation of the unconscious, arguing his body of novels offer up a tapestry of psychoanalytic themes for interpretation. There is now a rich body of scholarship on the concepts of the unconscious in Murakami, especially work taking a Lacanian (M. Fisch, 2004; Flutsch, 2006) or Jungian (Dil, 2010; Strecher, 2014) psychoanalytic approach to explore how his fiction expresses the structure of the human psyche and the role of unconscious forces in shaping conscious life.

Another of Murakami’s trademarks is the distinctive unconscious geography that punctuates his novels. In his earlier fiction, this ‘other world’ is usually imagined as a separate and bounded space that communicates with the ‘real world’ in an obscure way (e.g., the dense forest that surrounds the town in Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World). However, following The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1994–95), we see a more topological understanding of this relation, with the ‘other realm’ becoming refigured as an immanent part of the world’s processual fabric, constantly exchanging elements and forces with the world by means of a network of what Simondon (2017, p. 178) would term ‘key-points’ in the urban landscape. The urban settings of Murakami’s novels thus often contain seemingly mundane features and places – like wells (Killing Commendatore), motorway escape ladders (1Q84), and hotel rooms (Dance, Dance, Dance) – that serve as vital conduits for characters to pass back-and-forth between worlds.

This links to one of the key themes often highlighted in the psychoanalytic engagement with Murakami’s writing, which is the idea of a shift in his conceptualisation of the psyche between his early and later fiction. Strecher (2014, p. 75) theorises this in terms of a shift from a broadly Freudian (individual) model to a Jungian (collective) model of the unconscious. In early novels, like those that comprise ‘The Rat Trilogy’ (Hear the Wind Sing [1979], Pinball 1973 [1980]; and A Wild Sheep Chase [1982]), Strecher (2014) notes that the main character (Boku’s) psyche ‘exists autonomously, disconnected from other minds except in the conscious realm’ (p. 75). The unconscious here is thus a personal and individualised space that only the character can access, constituting a private refuge for their intimate desires and memories. However, with the publication in 1995 of what is widely considered to be his magnum opus – The Wind-up Bird Chronicle [WuBC] – Murakami experiments with a new understanding of the unconscious no longer confined to the form and limits of the individual. In an interview, Murakami himself invoked the famous Freudian metaphor of the mind as a two-storey house (conscious, preconscious) with a basement (unconscious). But Murakami adds to this topographic image another mysterious level

My thought is that underneath that basement room is yet another basement room […] normally you can’t get in there – some people never get in at all … You go in, wander about in the darkness and experience things you wouldn’t see in the normal parts of the house […] but then you come back. If you stay there too long you can never get back to reality. My sense is that a novelist is someone who can consciously do that sort of thing. (Murakami, 2002 in Strecher, 2014, p. 21)

Murakami conceives this ‘other level’ of the unconscious as a kind of collective ‘shared space’ in which multiple characters and elements (including those from the past, present, and future) ‘meet one another, interact, and return (or fail to return) to “their side”’ (Strecher, 2014, p. 88). Much of the plot WuBC concerns this dimension of the collective unconscious, with the main story line involving the attempt of the protagonist (Tōru Okada) to rescue his wife (Kumiko) from this ‘other’ (unconscious) realm where she has been imprisoned by his archenemy, Noboru Wataya. Both Strecher (2014) and Dil (2010) detect in Murakami’s WuBC one of the central themes of Jungian psychology; namely, the problem of how to harmoniously integrate the ego and the collective unconscious, and the potentially disastrous consequences of their becoming disconnected. This blockage of the relation between the psychic and collective is often figured in Murakami’s novels through the imagery of cut-off conduits, such as the blocked well opening in WuBC. While such Jungian interpretations are tempting and not entirely ungrounded, I argue that they also place significant limitations on our sense of what is at stake in Murakami’s writing. Here, then, I’m in agreement with Rick Dolphijn (2011, n.p.) when he writes that the crucial difference is that ‘whereas psychoanalysis, and Jung’s ideas in particular, work with historicisms, Murakami’s philosophy seems much more speculative, much more in search of what is to come’.

I argue that Simondon’s theory of the transindividual offers a mode of thought more attuned to this future-oriented, ontogenetic sense of the unconscious that we encounter in Murakami’s fiction. In ILFI, Simondon offers a thought of the psychic subject as always ‘more-than-unity’ (Simondon, 2020a, p. 5), because, as Scott (2014, p. 96) puts it, ‘resonating within it is this relation to other singularities, other fields’. This sense of the individual as ‘more-than-unity’ (Simondon, 2020a, p. 5) is also a central idea in Murakami’s novels, in which characters are often struggling to restore communication between what Simondon terms the ‘empirical’ plane of their known identities and relations, and a ‘transcendental’ plane of collective individuation from which they’ve become disconnected. Take, for example, this passage from the start of WuBC where Tōru and his wife, Kumiko, have their obligatory monthly ‘consultation’ with the elderly fortune teller, Mr. Honda (ordered by Kumiko’s father as condition for accepting their marriage). These meetings usually involved Mr. Honda retelling the same story to the couple of his time in Manchuria with the Japanese Imperial Army. But on this specific occasion he offers cryptic advice, discouraging Tōru from pursuing a legal career:

‘The law presides over things of this world, finally. The world where shadow is shadow and light is light […] But you don’t belong to that world, son. The world you belong to is above that or below that.’

‘Which is better?’ I asked, out of simple curiosity. ‘Above or below?’

‘It’s not a question of better or worse. The point is, not to resist the flow. When there’s no flow, stay still. If you resist the flow, everything dries up. If everything dries up, the world is darkness. I am he and/He is me/Spring nightfall. Abandon the self, and there you are.’ (Murakami, 2010, p. 51)

Murakami’s novels are littered with characters for whom this ‘flow’ between planes (empirical and transcendental; psychic and collective; ‘light’ and ‘shadow’) has become blocked. They have become, in Simondon’s terms, anxious subjects who are engulfed by preindividual forces, but who nonetheless remain isolated individuals cut off from the dimension of the collective through which they could address this affective tension and invent new ways of living. In contrast to traditional, negative understandings of anxiety as a mere psychopathology, Simondon (2020a) instead draws out its more generative dimensions, conceiving it as ‘the highest achievement that being on its own can attain as a subject’ (p. 284). Although he doesn’t reference him, Simondon’s notion of anxiety as an ontological event, rather than just a psychological state or experience of the individuated subject, bears some affinity with the conception of anxiety found in Lacanian psychoanalysis (for discussion in geography, see, Hansson & Jansson, 2021; Moore et al., 2018). In Seminar X, Lacan (2014) famously describes anxiety as effecting a ‘cut through the symbolic structure of subjectivity’ (Moore et al., 2018, p. 1084). Rejecting Freud’s notion that anxiety is ‘object-less’ (in contrast to fear), Lacan claims that anxiety is instead triggered by a special kind of object – the objet petit a – a fragment of the Real that is unlocatable within the existing signifying order. Through the encounter with this object of the Real, as Pohl (2020, p. 74) notes, ‘the subject loses its orientation’. Simondon also perceives anxiety as a profoundly disorienting event, understanding it as the process that commences the disindividuation of the already-existing structures and relations of the subject, constituting a vital first step towards the emergence of the transindividual. Where Simondon and Lacan differ, however, is in their understanding of how to address and transform anxiety. Lacan mentions a whole series of subjective strategies (projection, disavowal, symbolisation) to manage and reduce anxiety (see, Hansson & Jansson, 2021, p. 347). In contrast, Simondon argues that problems arise when rather than resolving its preindividual affective tensions by way of the collective, the individual is instead ‘constrained to resolve it in an intrasubjective way’, an attempt that is doomed to failure (Combes, 2013, p. 32). In this circumstance, anxiety instead serves as a blockage to the emergence of the transindividual, resulting in the dissolution of the self but without opening the potential for a new process of individuation through the collective.

While Simondon certainly recognises this disindividuation of anxiety as a possibility, he does not see it as an inevitability. This is where he differs from Stiegler, who although inspired by Simondon is closer to Freud in seeing disindividuation as principally a type of psychopathology, akin to a kind of dissociative disorder. Disindividuation, for Stiegler, comes to describe subjects that have lost the ability to further individuate, creating intensities ‘that no longer resonate in the collective but instead tend towards their own negation’ (Hui & Morelle, 2017, p. 513). Stiegler (2012) sees this ‘short-circuiting of transindividuation’ as something accelerated by our contemporary digital and communicational ecologies, which he argues primarily create a society of disaffected and dissociated individuals (p. 167). For Stiegler, ours is a society of disindividuated subjects whose lives are increasingly defined by a loss of control and, at the extreme, ‘an acceleration towards death’ (Hui & Morelle, 2017, p. 513). The problem here is that Stiegler psychologies and pathologises what, for Simondon, is first and foremost an ontogenetic process. In his reading, Stiegler foregrounds a psychoanalytically inspired vocabulary of the negative (of privation, loss, lack) which, as Krtolica (2009) has argued, ‘reveals only one aspect of Simondon’s thought, which is so foreign to the negative’ (p. 70). The sense of disindividuation described by Stiegler is just one potential mode of disindividuation. For Simondon argues that there is also the potential for a ‘transindividual disindividuation’ that is the basis for new processes of psychic and collective individuation.

One of the intriguing aspects of Simondon’s discussion of this more generative mode of disindividuation is his seemingly paradoxical claim that the subject can only encounter the transindividual through an ‘ordeal of solitude’ (Simondon, 2020a, p. 284) that triggers a suspension of the interindividual relations and roles that govern social life. As Krtolica (2009) puts it: ‘beyond the interindividual, solitude; beyond solitude, the collective’ (p. 75). This is something that Toru discovers amongst the elements at the bottom of the well:

A round slice of light floats high above me: the evening sky. Looking up at it, I think about the October evening world, where “people” must be going about their lives. Beneath that pale autumn light, they must be walking down streets, going to the store for things, preparing dinner, boarding trains for home. And they think – if they think at all – that these things are too obvious to think about, just as I used to do (or not do)[…] But as I dig at the soft earth in the bottom of the well with the rubber sole of my tennis shoe, scenes from the surface of the earth grow ever more distant […] Down here, the well is warm and silent, and the softness of the inner earth caresses my skin. The pain inside me fades like ripples on water. The place accepts me, and I accept the place. I tighten my grip on the bat. I close my eyes, then open them again to cast my gaze upward. (Murakami, 2010, pp. 391-392)

The sense of solitude described by Toru as he journeys into the dry well evokes something quite different to our conventional understanding of the term, where it is defined as synonymous with an individual’s isolation and withdrawal from relations. This more negative rendering of solitude for Simondon is that which characterises the disindividuation of anxiety, one which consists in the catastrophic confrontation of the subject with the preindividual where its structures are swallowed up. In Murakami’s writing, however, we often encounter a power of solitude that is not just a power of the negative. Here, solitude comes to serve a more active and generative function as the preparatory event that opens subjects to more-than-individual forces and processes that remain imperceptible from the standpoint of ordinary collective existence (the habitual interactions and exchanges of ‘the people’ in the quote above). Deleuze and Guattari (1986) invoke something similar in their discussion of the ‘solitude’ of Kafka, which far from cutting him off socially ‘opens him up to everything going on in history today’ (p. 18). If solitude is ‘non-relational’ (Harrison, 2007), then it is only from the perspective of the ‘empirically constituted and codified relations’ that comprise interindividual relationality (Bouaniche, 2012, p. 27). For solitude is ‘densely populated with relations’ of an entirely different nature – ‘the transindividual’ – that escapes containment in already-existing individuals and collectives and carries the potential to transformatively reconfigure both (Combes, 2013, p. 37).


In this paper I have outlined how the philosophy of Simondon offers an important intervention in contemporary geographical understandings of the unconscious in three main ways. The first is his critique of the ‘personological’ focus of much psychoanalytic theory that conceives the unconscious as a discrete substance indexed to an already-individuated subject. Against this ontological privileging of the individual, Simondon instead shifts our focus towards processes of psychic individuation through which the subject participates in a vaster (preindividual) problematic that ‘surpasses the limits of the individuated being’ (Simondon, 2020a, p. 9). Furthermore, Simondon allows us to push beyond the homeostatic and repressive image of the unconscious that has tended to frame interpretations of the unconscious in geography. Instead, Simondon’s definition of the subject as a ‘transductive unity’ entails a radical understanding of the unconscious as a space of invention following lines of becoming that are not reducible to what we already know. This conception, however, does not aim to be a ‘truer’ account of the reality of the unconscious, a notion that would depend on a static and substantialist ontology that Simondon’s theory of transduction rejects. Despite its foreclosure in some strands of psychoanalysis, the question of what the unconscious can become must remain an open one. What Simondon forces us to confront then, is how the individualised unconscious of psychoanalysis is just one of many possible ways of constructing the unconscious, and given its fixation on archaic representations and identities might be neither the most generative nor relevant modelisations for us today.

Second, I highlighted how Simondon’s philosophy targets not only the traditional metaphysics of ‘the individual’, but also offers a new theorisation of the social, reconstructing our sense of the processes that connect us. In theorising the collective, and as Combes (2013, p. 43), Simondon strove to avoid the twin errors of ‘psychologism’ (which thinks the collective as a collection of preformed individuals, missing the affective forces and processes that compose its emergent fabric) and ‘sociologism’ (that conversely thinks the collective as a homogeneous and already-given structure). For Simondon, the psychic and the collective are instead two concomitant processes of individuation, brought together in a relation he calls ‘the transindividual’, comprising impersonal forces that are the catalyst for potentially new becomings. One of Simondon’s crucial points is that for the subject to encounter the transindividual requires it to renounce a certain sense of individualised self-containment within a world of uncontrollable events. By fixating on an image of the subject as an insular reality that could discover internal resolutions to its psychic problems, psychoanalysis enacts a blockage of the transindividual, thus helping to produce the very psychopathologies that it supposedly wants to cure.

Following this, and third, it is on the question of psychopathology that we see how the gulf separating Simondon and psychoanalysis isn’t just a matter of conceptual disagreement, but also carries important political and ethical implications. Rejecting Freud, Simondon (2020a) argues that psychopathologies are not located ‘within’ the individual, but instead exist ‘on the level of the transindividual’ (p. 347), appearing:

when the charge of nature that is in the subject […] cannot encounter other charges of nature in other subjects with which it would form a transindividual mode of significations; the pathological mode of relation to others is one that lacks significations and dissolves into the neutrality of things, thus leaving life without polarity; the individual then feels itself becoming an insular reality. (Simondon, 2020a, p. 347)

Again, Murakami’s writing is instructive here for how it casts a new light on the forms of psychopathology that are seen to define contemporary urban life in advanced industrial societies. Japanese commentators have frequently drawn parallels between the loner protagonists of Murakami’s novels and the rise of the hikikomori (‘shut-ins’), a term used to describe the growing number of people in Japan (and increasingly elsewhere) who refuse social interaction and rarely leave their rooms. The usual neoliberal refrain in media discussions of hikikomori has been to personalise the problem, conceiving it as a symptom of an individual’s supposed failure in their moral responsibility and obligation to ‘connect’ to others. Firmly resisting this pathologized interpretation, Berardi (2015, p. 105) has recently argued that ‘hikikomori behaviour is a healthy reaction’ to the mass-mediated, ‘hyperconnectivity’ created by late capitalism which valorises only ‘useful’ and ‘productive’ forms of social exchange. It is the product of, in Simondon’s terms, a society of interindividual connectivity without transindividual relationality (Michael Fisch, 2018). Following Simondon, it is therefore not enough to demand that these disaffected individuals ‘return’ or ‘reconnect’ to society, because this disaffection often stems from the intense feeling that society does not have room for their individuation. A new transindividual reconfiguration of the social is needed, one that generates alternate possibilities for psychosocial individuation. What we encounter in Murakami’s novels are not simply passive subjects caught in a paralysing spiral of non-relation. Whether chasing sheep, cats, or strange sounds in the night, they are on the search of a different type of relation, one that contains within it the potential for a new world.