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Between Science and LiteratureAN INTRODUCTION TO AUTOPOETICS
By IRA LIVINGSTON
UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESSCopyright © 2005 Ira Livingston
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Livingthinglikeness of Language
This book is an introduction to a constellation of ideas about self-reference and performativity. What these ideas have in common, to start with, is that they develop alternatives to the narrowly realist view of referential language. The focus on this common feature makes the book an introduction to the most important axis of literary and cultural theory throughout the past century. Along the way the reader will find various definitions of terms, examples and vignettes, images and catchphrases, exercises, and thought experiments that are intended to manufacture new intuitions about words as things.
But the axis of literary and cultural theory of the past century is turning, so this book also faces the future: as Allen Ginsberg said, "I'm putting my queer shoulder to the wheel." The work of this book is best described as the groundwork of creating and expanding the interzone between, on one hand, self-reference and performativity in literary and cultural theory and, on the other, related notions of autopoiesis and self-organizing systems in biology and other sciences and social sciences. What has made such an interzone possible is nothing less than an ongoing sea change in the relations among ways of knowing and engaging the world, in the discursive ecology. This book is a synthesis, an attempt to assess the basic conceptual and historical cruxes of this interzone and to push and pull them a little further. My general term for the interzone is autopoetics, that is, the study of "self-making" systems. The more specific term autopoiesis was first coined in 1972 by Chilean biologist Humberto Maturana to describe the biological "self-making" of living creatures (see chapter 13 )and most famously adapted since then by German sociologist Niklas Luhmann, who describes the same process in social systems. My focus is on related processes in the realm of meaning, language, and culture. I have removed the i from autopoiesis in order to vernacularize the word but also to mark what I would like to remove from the concept (its reliance on specific, ideologically bound notions of the self, the I)and, by referencing poetics more pointedly, to mark the realms of culture and meaning I would like to include.
When I say that the work of this book is groundwork, what I mean is just about the opposite of laying down a stable foundation and a lot more like Wittgenstein's saying that "the whole of language must be thoroughly ploughed up" (277) and that it is philosophy's job to do so. This kind of groundwork goes through the workings of language, minutely turning and overturning as it goes, creating a more fertile ground in which new kinds of things can grow. "My propositions are elucidatory in this way," wrote Wittgenstein (shifting the metaphor): "he who understands me finally recognises them as senseless, when he has climbed out through them, on them, over them. (He must so to speak throw away the ladder, after he has climbed up on it.)" ((31).
Theoretical biologist Stuart Kauffman once explained to an interviewer that his own early shift from philosophy into biology had been catalyzed by his realization that "if I had to choose, I would rather be Einstein than Wittgenstein" (cited in Waldrop 105). In other words, he preferred to make discoveries about the real things of hard science rather than the mere words and ideas of philosophy. But the title of Kauffman's subsequent book, Investigations-"blatantly borrowed," as he puts it (50), from Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations-signals another shift. Wittgenstein became exemplary for Kauffman in having followed his own advice and "thrown away the ladder" of his own more narrow early view of language ("logical atomism") in favor of a more dynamic engagement with the livingthinglikeness of language, the forms of language constituting something like "forms of life." Kauffman replays this shift in his own Wittgensteinization, or, rather, he got to a point where he no longer had to choose between Einstein and Wittgenstein and could split the difference, though it should also be noted that Einsteinian things and Wittgensteinian words were already moving into more of the same neighborhood anyway. The shift that keeps happening here is not Wittgenstein's or Kauffman's but part of the long-term sea change in ways of knowing the world, little waves on the surface of a big wave passing through all that we know.
The form of this book is part of its argument. It is made up of a series of linked essays, meaning that the chapters and subchapters echo and build on each other in such a way that they can be either read in sequence or browsed individually. In other words, they are semiautonomous, linked together not like a chain but more like chain mail-or, better yet, like a school of fish or a flock of birds. The multiple pieces operate according to a kind of holographic principle: each contains images of the others and of some partial version of the whole. So if you are reading this for the first time and you already understand it, you can stop reading now, since everything in the book has already been squashed into this preface, this paragraph. However, for example, those who have come to this paragraph having read other parts of the book (chapter 20 in particular) will have caught other resonances cleverly concealed here.
ASIDE A Reader's Guide to Autopoiesis. The early chapters of this book spin literary and discursive theory in an autopoetic direction, but the autopoiesis concept is not engaged as such until chapter 13, so those who want more of a sense of autopoiesis up front are invited to read chapter 13 first. To begin exploring further (after you have read this book, of course), I recommend starting with Luhmann's great nutshell version of autopoiesis as social theory, "The Autopoiesis of Social Systems" (Essays 1-20). Bruce Clarke's essay "Strong Constructivism" and Cary Wolfe's 1998 Critical Environments (especially pages 52-84) are both great introductions to Luhmannian autopoietic theory in action and in broader theoretical context (and, dear reader, please notice that these three recommendations add up to only sixty pages-but William Rasch's book Niklas Luhmann's Modernity would make a good addition). For an introduction to autopoiesis as a way of thinking about literary texts, David Roberts's essay "Self-Reference in Literature" (Baecker 27-45)and Joseph Tabbi's Cognitive Fictions (especially the introduction and first chapter) are good places to start. For a historicization of the notion of system that informs the development of the autopoiesis concept, I suggest Cliff Siskin 's article "The Year of the System" or his book Blaming the System, and for situating systems theory generally in its recent discursive history and technological investments, N. Katherine Hayles's How We Became Posthuman. For an introduction to autopoietic biology, Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela's 1973 essay "Autopoiesis: The Organization of the Living" ((59-138) still works well.
Chapter TwoWords and Things
This book takes off from a simple proposition: that language is kin to the world it inhabits; language bears withness to the world. Since I was trained as a literary theorist, I consider this mostly as a proposition and less as a truth, but the proposition itself suggests (in this case anyway) that there may be less difference between these two than you might think, so you can suit yourself.
What the proposition means, for a start, is that language cannot be understood as a God-given gift or a free human creation or a tool to be bent to human will, but only as an emergent and semiautonomous phenomenon, something more like galaxies, ecosystems, and bacteria. Language is shorthand here for a whole sprawling and heterogeneous network that can include everything from language considered in the abstract to individual utterances, functions and figures and patterns of speech (rhetoric), generic formations such as poems and science fiction, discourses and disciplines articulated with large-scale institutional structures (such as religion, literature, biology, and so on), and all that even more sprawling and ill-defined tangle called culture.
To start to get an idea of the kinship of nature and culture in this case, one could try to imagine what it would mean to have a physics or an ecology of culture. These are metaphors, since physics and ecology were developed with reference to different kinds of phenomena, but it is important to keep in mind that such differences among phenomena may be themselves neither natural nor eternal; they have been very selectively elaborated in modern language, discourse, and culture-and they are subject to ongoing rearrangement. Increasingly, in fact, there seem to be a number of concepts that move with relative ease-that fly under the radar-within and between the nature/culture divide otherwise so definitive for modern knowledge, concepts and paradigms such as system, information, emergence, evolution, diversity, relativity, chaos, ecology, complexity; these concepts perform transcoding operations among various realms of the knowledge network.
Although the traffic between the knowledge realms of nature and culture is as old as the realms themselves, modernity consigns much of the traffic to a black market. To take some easy examples, science fiction not only is illegitimate science but has also mostly been illegitimate literature as well; the use of metaphor, supposed to make good poetry, has mostly been thought to produce bad science. Though the traffic is changing (and that's what this book is about), it might be grandiose-at least at this time-to think that any constellation of transcoding concepts could be made to coalesce into a science or metascience of its own that could fully straddle the nature/culture divide. Likewise, the recent rise of science studies-a set of related fields that investigate the sciences as social and cultural phenomena-certainly does not mean that science studies has achieved the status of a science, much less that of a transcendent metascience, any more than Marxism was able to deliver a "nonideological study of ideology." Indeed, there is some question as to whether science studies is a stable discipline at all, especially since it has not achieved much of an institutional foothold. If no pretender to the throne of metascience is on the verge of being elevated, then perhaps science itself is being dragged down, back down into the mud-wrestling ring with other vulgar and popular knowledges? This seems to be what some scientists fear. Although disciplinary privilege may be in the process of being redistributed, I am much more interested in how the kinds of knowledge are changing than where they fit into an imaginary hierarchy, especially since the idea of a single hierarchy of knowledges seems as misguided as a hierarchy of living creatures. One might as well try to ascertain whether humans, plants, or viruses have been more successful.
The ecology of disciplines is changing as all of the webs of language, people, money, and technology get woven more tightly and widely. The coevolution and interdependence of disciplines are becoming more obvious, and all these changes in the web contribute in turn to changing the overall knowledge climate, shifting discursive niches and allowing for the emergence of new discursive creatures. Sometimes I would like to believe that these more mobile creatures-scurrying around the feet of the giant, sluggish disciplines-will inherit the earth, but I also know that they are not always as warm and fuzzy as the story would have it.
In many ways, too, the kinship of language and the world is an old and even an obsolete idea, part of a way of understanding that got left high and dry three centuries ago and has been repeatedly displaced since then. The story of how "the profound kinship of language with the world was ... dissolved" is recounted in Foucault's Order of Things (43; as retitled from the French Les mots et les choses, literally Words and Things). But in another sense such a kinship is also new, even premature, part of a current reconfiguration of ways of knowing the world or, rather, a rewiring of our brains along with our worlds.
In this sense the paradigm seems mostly to serve ideologies of globalization and capitalist triumphalism that accompany an emerging world order that Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri call simply Empire (that is, Empire with a capital E, not modern imperialism but an altogether new global order of sovereignty). The idea of the kinship of language and the world in their mutual reconfigurations lends itself to a vaguely mystical New Age sense of connection and participation, to a kind of mock-Buddhist picture of a world of ongoing kaleidoscopic reconfigurations. This is most often (as I will discuss later)an aestheticizing and anesthetizing image of transnational capital in its swirling flows, its saturations and ongoing restructurings of all relations, but the critical potential of the paradigm has also begun to be tapped into.
So how does one go about separating the proposition from an ideology that seems to be so much in its grain, or is this even possible? Lenin faced such a problem as he considered how Marxists might make use of knowledge generated by mainstream economics, even though, "as a whole, the professors of economics are nothing but scientific salesman of the capitalist class." Acknowledging, nonetheless, that "you'll not make the slightest progress in the investigation of new economic phenomena unless you have recourse to the works of these 'salesman,'" Lenin challenged Marxists "to be able to master and adapt the achievements of these 'salesmen' ... and to be able to lop off their reactionary tendency" (83; emphasis added). This challenge could well serve as a motto for this project, though history doesn't allow us to be so sanguine that reactionary tendencies can simply be "lopped off."
Even so, it may be that in another sense the idea of the kinship of words and things is too radical to be fully embraced either by scientists or by scholars of language and culture, at least insofar as it would require too much rethinking of their most fundamental working hypotheses. By the same token, though, it offers a way through the impasse between the sciences and their humanist critics in science studies. This impasse, sometimes known as the "science wars," got a whole lot uglier in 1996 when New York University physicist Alan Sokal managed to get a phony science studies article published in the humanities journal Social Text. Sokal claimed that the publication of his bogus article, which was full of extreme claims and bad science, showed that science studies was itself a bogus field with no real standards; the editors said they'd included his article in spite of its overstatements and theoretical naivete (and in spite of Sokal's refusal to make revisions they'd requested) in their eagerness to encourage practicing scientists to join the discussion (especially, of course, if they seemed to be defectors to the humanist side). In any case, he wheeled in his gift and they accepted it, hollow and wooden as it was.
It is easy enough for each side to caricature the other. The cultural theorists in the humanities, one might say, like to show how science mistakes language for the world. In this account, scientific realism is like a kind of disavowed narcissism: having unwittingly fallen in love with its own reflection on the surface of things, science naively mistakes the thinly veiled projection of its own ideologies for universal and unmediated truth. This is what Marx meant (for example) when he said that Darwin had found "among beasts and plants his English society with its division of labor, competition ... and the Malthusian struggle for existence" (157). More recent developments of this kind of critique of science are often lumped together under the term constructionism, which refers to the way scientific theory and practice are actively shaped and colored-constructed-by their social, ideological, and cultural contexts.
Excerpted from Between Science and Literature by IRA LIVINGSTON Copyright © 2005 by Ira Livingston.
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